The usage of the term ‘fascism’ in today’s political and social sphere is an interesting phenomenon. The word is used by the left to decry elements of America’s decent into a plutocratic police state and by the right to describe what they see as a socially controlling federal government. On both sides it is often used by the dramatically passionate and politically uneducated, by entertainers posing as newscasters and hipsters trying to look cool by tossing out buzzwords. More often than not, the usage of the word is met by hostile reactions. These reactions are regularly not in regards to the context of the discussion, but rather against the associations that the word bears. What is fascism and where did it come from? More importantly, can we afford to assume that its manifestation in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy was nothing more than a historical mishap, and thus unrepeatable?
Fascism grew into a socio-cultural movement in the late-1910’s in Italy. It advocated a strong singular national identity, a glorification of war and chauvinism, a business-dominated class system and a moral imperative based around aggressive self-determination all whilst advocating for the absolute power of the fascist institution. With increased militaristic and anti-communist sentiment in Italy in the early 1920‘s, Italy quickly became enamored with fascism and the flamboyant Benito Mussolini.
Indeed, one of Fascisms main fascinations is with this sort of character. A person who can speak in a long-winded and passionate way and stir the emotions of her or his listeners towards some patriotic tragedy is a common sight in such movements. This stems from fascism’s reliance on the “heroic” figure, a larger-than-life person who is endowed by the imagery of traditional folklore and contemporary nationalist identity. Simply by dramatic gesturing can these figureheads condemn citizens to a patriotic fervor. These people, who can speak about nothing and garner wide support form the populace, are those not to be ignored.
Another main tenet of fascism is its dedication to maintaining and increasing the states coercive ability. This can be achieved through empowering the police force through increased numbers, enacting certain laws and altering the social acceptability of such coercive force. The resulting high prison population is then justified by the notion of maintaining “law and order.” Through fear and the threat of social ostracism it stifles dissent.
Fascism also relies on a strong and self-perpetuating military force that engages itself wherever and whenever possible as to justify its massive budget. The military must have ties to the nation’s industrial sector to tie weapons production to the domestic economy. It also relies heavily on a national sentiment that can be readily detached from any moral concern. The concept of the “heroic figure” is important here. The figure becomes abstracted and enshrined in order to detach the national sentiment from the reality and to provide a barrier against those who would question it, labeling them as unpatriotic.
The foundation for all of this is a strong cultural monolith that combines politics and national identity with entertainment and kitsch propaganda. Certain social notions must be absolute in the eyes of the political institution and the populace must accept it, this being done through fear and socio-cultural manipulation. When the citizen can no longer tell the difference between news and entertainment, the truth and what is said to be the truth, reality and the reality that we want, then the time is ripe for fascism.
A fascist rarely calls oneself a fascist, but I would still deny that any American mainstream political figure wishes this nation to move in that direction. However, it is always important to ask whether perhaps we’ve let ourselves slip in certain areas without fully realizing it. Our massive military presence across the world, our widespread police apparatus and a prison population that dwarfs all other nations are a blaring issue. The continued division in equality between races, classes,and genders is another. The drugging effects of the entertainment sector and the populace’s lack of political action is probably the most important. How can we justify these things in a democracy? Can a nation have fascist concepts at the head of its operating ideology whilst the citizens remain ignorant of its actuality?
While there are many questions and the term fascism itself is often misused and disregarded as nothing but slander, it is a political phenomenon and a human failure that must constantly be studied. We cannot afford to lose hold of its definition and how that definition is mirrored in the actual political sphere. Most importantly, we must know what to do if we find that the definition and the reality begin to look like our situation.