Friday, 9 September 2011

On "Fascism"

Subsequent to a comments thread here, and an email I got this morning, I thought I'd comment briefly on the use of the term "fascism".

The term itself is derived from the latin "fasces", which was a symbol of summary political power (a bundle of birch rods bound together with leather featuring an axe) carried by the Roman lictors tasked with guarding the magistrates.

In modern usage, the term "fascism" was used by the Italian Fascists under Mussolini to refer to their concept of enforced class cooperation via the State - which is perhaps why they used the term "fascism" and the symbolism of the "fasces" (example). In using this notion of enforced class cooperation, the Fascists were reacting to the Marxist notion of "class conflict". Indeed, there is a very real reason why the term "Nazi" was merely an abbreviated form of "National Socialist" which is that they were working from partially Marxist premises, but with their absurd "theory" of racially determined characteristics added to the mix.

This notion of "class cooperation" was concevied as having both capital and labour aspects to the market economy incorporated by the State. Both capital and labour were private only in a narrow, nominal sense (e.g. a company could keep its income), but were subject to de facto State control; hence the potency of the fasces symbol - birch rods bound together around an axe: the birch rods could be taken to represent the different strands or "classes" of society, and the axe they are bound together around symbolizes the monopoly of violence possessed by the State.

Today, the terms "fascism" and "fascist" are typically used to refer not to the principles of organization which defined the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis, but merely to the regimes themselves. Thus, the common usage of the term has become synonymous with both totalitarianism and racism.

As I pointed out in my Samizdata comment yesterday, however, there is only a subtle difference between the belief, most obviously associated with both fascism and communism, that all aspects of the market and civil society ought to be incorporated into the State, and the belief that there is no aspect of either one which ought not to be incorporated into the State. The latter belief is one I take to be instantiated in many of today's modern democracies.

To put the same point in another way...
  • In the Italian and German forms of fascism of the 20th Century, the State incorporated almost all aspects of social life.
  • In today's modern democracies, that power is latent, spanning only those aspects of social life left undefended by majoritarian democracy (farmers right to property over their land, for instance).
That difference between the two occurs for two reasons. The first is the inertia of moral approval ascribed to democratic forms of government and their association with freedom after World War Two and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those two events were so enormous that modern reflection on them continues to feed the modern approval of democratic forms of government in contradistinction to totalitarian forms.

However, the second reason why there is a difference merely in the degree to which the State incorporates both market and civil society, is the widesread tacit acceptance of American Pragmatism. The consequences of Pragmatism, with its central implication that the human necessity of selecting values (good or bad) cannot be made in reference to a-priori principles*, directly undermines the foothold of principled opposition to the expansion of the State into hitherto unregulated aspects of social life. Increasingly, therefore, modern democracies will come to resemble the fascist regimes of the 20th century in appearance as well as in principle.

Here is an illustration of the now absurd reach of the power of the State under the world's pre-eminent modern democracy:

Previously, in a letter I wrote to the Taipei Times against Bruno Walther, I accounted for my application of the term "ecofascist" to his views by reference to George Orwell's 1944 essay "What Is Fascism?". The sense of the term "fascist" which Orwell offers is that of the bully - which, given that Walther (and probably a certain journalist or two at the Taipei Times) has contrived to prevent the publication of opinions with which he does not agree (i.e. mine) - was an entirely justified adjective to pin on him.

I never try to silence other people's opinions merely because I don't agree with them. That's because I am liberal in the true, non-corrupted sense of that term.

Yet there is more to it than that. The views typically expressed by Walther and his ilk on the far Left hinge on the imperative of incorporating more and more aspects of both the market and civil society into State enforced regulation in order to conserve ecological diversity and/or to enforce some contrived notion of "social justice". It is critical to distinguish the ends from the means here. I have no principled objection to the end of conserving ecological diversity per se (though "social justice" is another issue), rather, my objection is to the coercive and subliminally violent means he proposes.

Are those means accurately described as "fascist"? I think they are although I should probably include an additional qualifier (e.g. "soft") to recognize the difference in degree and manner of application described above. Yet that difference in the degree to which the State incorporates all other aspects of society is not the defining element of the concept of "fasicsm" - the defining element is the act of incorporation of the market into the State itself.

Not all States are fascist - a State with comparatively minimal functions (defence and courts of law) would not be fascist even though it is coercive. It is not the element of coercion per se that is the defining characteristic of fascism, but the incorporation of society into the State - and that this may vary in degree does not alter the nature of what it is.

What we see in modern democracies is variably calibrated fascism.

Update: I knocked this up duing my lunch hour, but early this evening I made some minor improvements to the last few paragraphs.

*I should explain this. The central point of Pragmatism is the insistence that the truth of a given claim hinges on its' import for human action. So on the one hand, a factual claim about the colour of my deck-chair (blue and white) is true not because it is useful in itself, but because the kind of discrimination among light frequencies available to the human eye is useful given our other physical characteristics. Yet at the same time, a different kind of claim - a claim about value (good or bad) - can only be made in reference to abstract principles to the extent that the use-value of those principles has been validated. But validated in reference to what (i.e. what standard of value) and for whom (i.e. the individual or the collective)? Any answer to that demand would itself be question-begging. The importance of Pragmatism in this context then, is that by its insistence on empirical consequences as the means of validating a given action (rather than consistency with a-priori principles), it has served as an intellectual means for doubting, or even rejecting, the use of a-priori reasoning in ethics. The freedom of the individual as conceived in terms of negative rights was thus usurped in its function as the socially accepted standard of value by which to evaluate political acts; it was replaced with a vague and undefined, yet expanding imperative toward collective cost-benefit analysis, often conceived in terms of positive rights.


  1. Thanks for the Orwell piece. More detailed than I expected after the conversation the other day.

  2. Is that who I think it is? If it is, then bearing in mind that conversation, shouldn't you be calling yourself Mr Blonde or Mr Brown or something?!

  3. It is and I should but I didnt create a new profile just using what it threw out as an easy option. Will have to see if Mr. Black is available.

  4. I'm wondering how this definition differs from simply state corporatism? You hint at this, but any remotely trustworthy definition of fascism already includes the corporatist-state element and considers it, therefore, a necessary but not sufficient characteristic of fascism.

    I tend to believe that fascism is simply a form of "statist corporatism on steroids," if you will, given a catchier name and usually coupled with a particular ideology or group of ideologies (usually nationalist) also incorporated into the state out of necessity from the state's perspective or used opportunistically to further bind the polity to the state's particular set of goals. But I'll leave that open for critique. It probably also means little to determine anything fascist today* if for no other reasons than those already submitted by Mr. Orwell.

    *And note that's not a criticism of what you have here, that's for sure.


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