By Lambert Strether of Corrente
The word “fascism” has been much in the news of late. Here is a chart of the year 2019 from Google Trends:
Interestingly, usage is more or less flat until the first spike, when President Trump put tanks on the National Mall for July 4, and then a second, larger spike, when he gave his Greenville, NC speech, and the crowd chanted, of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, “send them back.” Omar reacted as follows:
Rep. Ilhan Omar called President Trump "fascist" and said she fears for people who share her identity, after a crowd at his rally led a "Send her back!" chant about the Somali-American congresswoman https://t.co/zpsZ02qtbS pic.twitter.com/06iZXDT7mY
— CBS News (@CBSNews) July 18, 2019
Omar is a serious person and that’s a serious charge, so it’s worth looking at. Certainly my left/liberal corner of the Twittersphere was consumed by the word “fascism,” to the extent that RussiaRussiaRussia was drowned out. Notably, however, the two spikes, and the resulting moral panic, were caused by symbols: Tanks on the mall, and a speech. (Interestingly, words about the border, like “concentration camps,” and “fascism” do not spike simultaneously, even though one might expect them to. We’ll see more about symbols in the Appendix.) However, although fascist deliverables often have excellent symbolism — graphic treatments especially — fascism is about more than symbols, although you might not know it from the ruminations of our symbol-manipulating poltical class.
So I thought it would be worthwhile to take a deeper look at the work of Columbia historian Robert O. Paxton, who is a scholar of fascism. Basically, this post will be the notes for the class I wish I had taken with him; Paxton writes as lucidly as another great scholar of fascism, Richard J. Evans, author of The Coming of the Third Reich and two wonderful successor volumes. I’m going to quote great slabs mostly from Paxton’s article “The Five Stages of Fascism” (The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, No. 1. Mar., 1998, pp. 1-23), but also from his later book, The Anatomy of Fascism (2004). “Five Stages” is only 24 pages, and easy, so do consider reading it in full, because I’m not really doing it justice; I’m leaving out all the historiography, for example.
And so to Paxton. I’m selecting passages partly when they contain useful ideas I just don’t see in today’s discourse, but mostly to give us tools to assess the current “conjuncture,” as we say.
Fascism and Democracy
From the Five Stages of Fascism, page 3:
The fascist phenomenon was poorly understood at the beginning in part because it was unexpected. Until the end of the nineteenth century, most political thinkers believed that widening the vote would inevitably benefit democracy and socialism. Friedrich Engels, noting the rapid rise of the socialist vote in Germany and France, was sure that time and numbers were on his side. Writing the preface for a new edition in 1895 of Karl Marx’s Class Struggles in France, he declared that “if it continues in this fashion, we will conquer the major part of the middle classes and the peasantry and will become the decisive power.” It took two generations before the Left understood that fascism is, after all, an authentic mass popular enthusiasm and not merely  a clever manipulation of populist emotions by the reactionary Right or  by capitalism in crisis.
I think most “hot take” analysis by liberals would fall into the bucket labeled ; by the left, label . I think the idea that democracy is, as it were, the host body for fascism deserves some thought. Certainly there was no fascism as such until democracy was well advanced.
Fascism: Made in America?
From the Five Stages of Fascism, page 12:
But it is further back in American history that one comes upon the earliest phenomenon that seems functionally related to fascism: the Ku Klux Klan. Just after the Civil War, some former Confederate officers, fearing the vote given to African Americans by the Radical Reconstructionists in 1867, set up a militia to restore an overturned social order. The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in its founders’ eyes, no longer defended their community’s legitimate interests. In its adoption of a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as its techniques of intimidation and its conviction that violence was justified in the cause of the group’s destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe. It is arguable, at least, that fascism (understood functionally) was born in the late 1860s in the American South.
(As an aside: It’s probably coincidence, but Civil War tactics, especially by the time of the Overland Campaign, were also a “remarkable preview” of World War I. Intuitively, I feel that fascism does not take hold of the body politic without a lot of organic damage, whether in the entrenchments of the Civil War, the trenches of World War I, or — just possibly — the opioid crisis, deaths of despair, and falling life expectancy.) Hitler’s American Model shows that Nazi jurists and lawyers came to America to research Jim Crow, and thought very highly of the legislation; they saw Jim Crow as an example of modernity — how advanced the United States was. Of course, by their lights, Jim Crow was misdirected.
Mutability of Fascism
From the Five Stages of Fascism, page 4:
[Individual cases of fascism] differ in space because each national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy, as we shall see, not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity. Religion, for example, would certainly play a much greater role in an authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms, which were pagan for contingent historical reasons. They differ in time because of the transformations and accommodations demanded of those movements that seek power.
And page 5:
Fascists deny any legitimacy to universal principles to such a point that they even neglect proselytism. Authentic fascism is not for export. Particular national variants of fascism differ far more profoundly one from another in themes and symbols than do the national variants of the true “isms.” The most conspicuous of these variations, one that leads some to deny the validity of the very concept of generic fascism, concerns the nature of the indispensable enemy: within Mediterranean fascisms, socialists and colonized peoples are more salient enemies than is the Jewry. Drawing their slogans and their symbols from the patriotic repertory of one particular community, fascisms are radically unique in their speech and insignia. They fit badly into any system of universal intellectual principles.
One result of the “Lost Cause” propaganda and the historiography of the Dunning School — William Dunning, ironically enough, professed at Columbia as well — is that the notion that there might already have been an American Fascism (see above) is not available to us. Hence, we often see Nazis (and generally Nazis, not even Mussolini) as the quintessential fascists. The argument can be made that globalization has, in fact, created fascism of export — some in my Twitterverse had no problem believing that Trump was simultaneously a Russian puppet and a fascist — but I just don’t see how that helps fascism to root itself (see below) in any given country, which is a requirement for it to grow.
The Stages of Fascism
From the Five Stages of Fascism, page 11:
But one must compare what is comparable. A regime where fascism exercises power is hardly comparable to a sect of dissident intellectuals. We must distinguish the different stages of fascism in time. It has long been standard to point to the difference between movements and regimes. I believe we can usefully distinguish more stages than that, if we look clearly at the very different sociopolitical processes involved in each stage. I propose to isolate five of them: .
And stage 2, the importance of parties, pages 12-13:
The second stage—rooting, in which a fascist movement becomes a party capable of acting decisively on the political scene—happens relatively rarely. At this stage, comparison becomes rewarding: one can contrast successes with failures. . Some fascist leaders, in their turn, are willing to reposition their movements in alliances with these frightened conservatives, a step that pays handsomely in political power, at the cost of disaffection among some of the early antibourgeois militants.
That underlined portion does seem familar, doesn’t it? However, it’s worth noting that there’s no “seem” to American decline; how is a nation with dropping life expectancy not in decline? It’s also worth noting that “frightened conservatives” doesn’t necessarily equal Republicans; it was not, after all, the Republican Party that painted the anti-semitism target on Ilhan Omar’s back. It’s worth asking, then, whether centrist Democrats would seek a bipartisan alliance against the left.
Here is Paxton’s first definition of fascism, from the Five Stages of Fascism pages 22-23:
Where is the “fascism minimum” in all this? Has generic fascism evaporated in this analysis? It is by a functional definition of fascism that we can escape from these quandaries. . Its complex tensions (political revolution versus social restoration, order versus aggressive expansionism, mass enthusiasm versus civic submission) are hard to understand solely by reading its propaganda. One must observe it in daily operation….
And his second, from The Anatomy of Fascism, page 218:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim- hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Speaking as an amateur, I think the two definitions map to each other, and both to the present day (“liberal democracy stands accused” v. “abandons democratic liberties,” but I like the second one much better, because the language is crisper, and is testable. For example, “redemptive violence”: During Reconstruction, the states that came under control of the former Slave Power, a process achieved by great violence, were referred to as “redeemed.”
More from the Five Stages of Fascism, page 23:
Can fascism still exist today, in spite of the humiliating defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, the declining availability of the war option in a nuclear age, the seemingly irreversible globalization of the economy, and the triumph of in- dividualistic consumerism? After ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the rise of exclusionary nationalisms in postcommunist Eastern Europe, the “skinhead” phenomenon in Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy, and the election of `
Mirko Tremaglia, a veteran of the Republic of Salo, as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian Parliament during the Berlusconi government, it would be hard to answer “no” to that question.
The most interesting cases today, however, are not those that imitate the exotic colored-shirt movements of an earlier generation. New functional equivalents of fascism would probably work best, as George Orwell reminded us, clad in the mainstream patriotic dress of their own place and time. An authentically popular fascism in the United States would be pious and anti-Black; in Western Europe, secular and antisemitic, or more probably, these days, anti-Islamic; in Russia and Eastern Europe, religious, antisemitic, and slavophile.
Rather prescient for 1998, I must say. (And much as I loathe black bloc, it may be that they have their place in making these “functional equivalents” less easy to form.) Nevertheless, we do not have a “mass-based party of committed nationalist ,” Yet. Paxton goes on:
The right questions to ask of today’s neo- or protofascisms are those appropriate for the second and third stages of the fascist cycle. Are they becoming rooted as parties that represent major interests and feelings and wield major influence on the political scene? [TBD] Is the economic or constitutional system in a state of blockage apparently insoluble by existing authorities? [Yes] Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge? [TBD]
And from Anatomy, page 218:
Fascism exists at the level of Stage One within all democratic countries—not excluding the United States. “Giving up free institutions,” especially the freedoms of unpopular groups, is recurrently attractive to citizens of Western democracies, including some Americans. We know from tracing its path that fascism does not require a spectacular “march” on some capital to take root; seemingly anodyne decisions to tolerate lawless treatment of national “enemies” is enough. Something very close to classical fascism has reached Stage Two in a few deeply troubled societies. Its further progress is not inevitable, however. Further fascist advances toward power depend in part upon the severity of a crisis, but also very largely upon human choices, especially the choices of those holding economic, social, and political power.
Our immune system kills off little cancers all the time; a metastatizing tumor takes a lot of effort to create. Stage One fascisms are little cancers, killed off by a healthy body politic. Stage Two fascisms, without treatment, will metastatize.
I think we’re somewhere in Stage Two: Rooting — or, to be optimistic, Uprooting. I invite the views of readers!
APPENDIX I: “Cosmopolitan”
Stoller tweeted, of a speech by possible Trump 2.0 Josh Hawley:
Liberals are freaking out about these comments, but Hawley is correct. Does anyone doubt Wall Street/Silicon Valley and their weird globalization fetish has harmed the middle class? Beating Hawley is going to require better policy, not better tantrums. https://t.co/yyfbSgBMuK
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) July 18, 2019
Then ensued the most moralizing and banal Twitter discussion I’ve seen in some time, and that’s saying something. Hawley used the word “cosmopolitican” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry here), which Stoller’s detractors felt proved Hawley was sending an anti-semitic dog whistle, and hence Stoller, in defending him, was an anti-semite too. (Paxton: “not by checking the color of the shirts or seeking traces of the rhetoric….”). To show how useless the entire episode was, I’ll quote The Nation’s Jeet Heer:
All politics is based on a division between friend & foe. A left-wing populist-nationalist can make big business the foe. The right-wing nationalist can't because they accept capitalism & are often financed by wealthy, so their foe is the (cough, cough) cosmopolitan
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) July 20, 2019
Of course, the view that “all politics is based on a division between friend and foe” could be traced right back to Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, whose doctrine that was, and so Heer could be said to be sending an anti-semitic dog whistle. Of course that’s absurd, because context matters. Our symbol manipulating professional friends in the political class would do far better to look at function instead of checking their Index Expurgatorius of words suitable for censure and calling out. Liberals, and the left, have been calling out “dog whistles” for twenty years, at least. It hasn’t gotten them anywhere. Yet still they do it!
“Certainly there was no fascism as such until democracy was well advanced.”
Coming back to this article later.
This stopped me dead in my tracks: “democracy was well advanced.”
Isn’t that ultimately how fascism works?
Pointing the finger at what passes for “democracy?”
The populist leader to complete the road to fascism generally has to come out of a democratic process. They get voted into power by a disgruntled populace and by the time the populace realizes they have made a pact with the devil, power has been consolidated and there is no going back.
The Tea Party was a warning shot across the bow where the Republican Party itself was helpless to prevent establishment candidates from being primaried. Gerrymandering and polarization means that quite a few people on the right and left get into Congress and State legislatures simply by winning a primary. So blockades in Congress started with small groups of people who could control if a majority vote was possible. Since their positions are on the extreme end, no compromise is possible and the system seizes up.
That leaves the door open for a Trump to come in announcing he will cut the Gordian knot with the sword of his personality “I am the only one who can …..”
Can a Trump do an end run on a paralyzed Congress to take over? Hitler did it in 1933. Is our Constitution and the defenders of it engaged and strong enough to prevent it? Can Congress with Mitch McConnell in the Senate do it? Can the Supreme Court with John Roberts as Chief Justice do it?
Would Trump even have the will to do it?
If he had the Will, would it be a Triumph?
> Can a Trump do an end run on a paralyzed Congress to take over? Hitler did it in 1933.
I don’t think this Trump can. The issue is what comes next. (Remember also that the Nazis came to power through formally* constitutional means; they did not stage a coup. Hence all the liberal Democrat yammering about coups, and not accepting election results, in addition to being a ginormous example of projection, is off point. Our own political system is perfectly capable of passing enabling legislation without resort to such crudity.)
NOTE * Wikipedia:
I hate to disturb the intellectual debate here, but for me this is personal.
which stage are we?
“Certainly there was no fascism as such until democracy was well advanced.”
What????? “Until 1922, Italy was a constitutional monarchy with a parliament; in 1913, the first universal male suffrage election was held. The so-called Statuto Albertino, which Carlo Alberto conceded in 1848 remained unchanged, even if the kings usually abstained from abusing their extremely large powers (for example, senators were not elected but chosen by the king).” (wikipedia)
Thus from 1870 to 1922 Italy was a not a democracy.
Under the Monarchical Constitution the King of Italy had exclusive power over foreign policy, which he repeatedly used to engage in misguided and stupid colonial adventures in Africa. An huge insurrection in the south was violently put down by the Piedmontese military, who also routinely shot strikers.
From 1922, when Italy became a republic, until 1923, when Mussolini took over, doesn’t seem like a “well-advanced democracy” to me.
As for Germany, you had the Freikorps running around assassinating prominent political figures like Rathenau — not to mention their earlier murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919 instigated by the future Social Democratic President Friedrich Ebert himself. Strikers and demonstrators were also routinely put down with bullets.
As the first elected president of Germany (1919-1925), Ebert presided over a bloody civil war and “used the presidency’s emergency powers a total of 134 times. ” (wikipedia) Seven years later Hitler was elected to head a coalition government with substantial financial assistance from Germany’s wealthiest citizens and industrialists and also the from Catholic church. And as everyone knows one of H.’s first acts was to suspend parliament. You could hardly call Germany an example of well-advanced democracy either.
Moving boxed-up stuff around here, literally. I found my Kathe Kolowitz book of sketches from the 1890s through the 1930s. She did an horrific sketch of the death of Karl Leibknecht and his mourners. The Germans (socialists) fought long and hard against fascism. Let’s just say they were “underfunded”. When democracy finally came to Germany after WW2 they took to it like ducks to water. Just one generalization in point here: Fascism is fomented by usually-rich people with a vested interest. In the case of Germany from the 1920s to the early 40s, c. 1940-41, we funded Germany hand over fist to defeat the “Bolsheviks”. Then we shifted and funded the Russians for reasons still not analyzed in the history books. And now, accurate language always lags behind reality and we are stuck blurting out words we no longer understand. It’s like a joke that used to make you double up laughing, when you hear it 10 years later it isn’t even funny. So much so that now “fascism” has almost no meaning left. Fascism is a human instinct basically. Now we are confronted with other clear, immediate, critical and far more interesting realities. I’d be willing to say that a century ago people were far more willing to immiserate others than now. Maybe their world was just too boring. But I’m forever optimistic ;-)
+++ Yes. Fascism is supported by the wealthy people with vested interests, who fear democracy.
> Fascism is fomented by usually-rich people with a vested interest
Ultimately, yes, the “industrial model” of Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Jie will drive fascism exactly as it drives democracy.
I think we should model the 1%, both collectively and individually, as maintaining a portfolio of political options, among them fascism. (I mean this quite literally, as in invest in persons and institutions to make a return.)
I wish they would send out formal notices indicating when to change one’s identification from constituent to subject to serf to whatever they want next. It is hard to follow based on the conventional information sources.
People will need to come up with their own indices to track the trends. Freedom down 2 points today while healthcare popped 1 per cent due to the XYZ drug trial success and transportation was unchanging.
> Certainly there was no fascism as such until democracy was well advanced
I was unclear. At the world historical level, the invention of fascism comes after the invention of mass democracy, and not before. I’m not talking about institutional detail in particular nations.
democracy is, as it were, the host body for fascism deserves some thought.
Democracy, without carefully designed constraints (no citizen’s united, money out of politics, publicly funded campaigns…), will inevitably end up with the most powerful seeking and gaining hegemony. Look no further than the “democrat” party or what Amazon has done. Assuming this is true (finds its basis in the 4th Law of Thermodynamics, i.e. Law of Maximum Entropy Production), early stage democracy might be more resilient than late stage.
Interviews immediately following WWII (notes home from my father who remained in Germany after the war to interview people with the idea of determining if another Hitler could easily take power) document ordinary people saying that when Hitler was in power at least there were jobs and food on the table.
I think it’s industrialized democracy, or maybe republicanism. The level of technology matters because it sets the price of exploitation.
I like the Post Reconstruction South as the harbinger of fascism to come: the technology of repression was advanced enough that the fascists could stave off a slave rebellion as had happened in Haiti two generations earlier when the technical means at Napoleons disposal were not adequate to overcome the solidarity of the Maroons.
So the South at that point was republican in the sense that the franchise was limited and the purpose of the proto-fascists was to limit it further, back to just themselves as had been the case pre-war. In addition the ideology of the proto-fascists was one of racial hierarchy with themselves at the apex and other races in tiered subordinate roles down to that of disposable tools, mere property that if it won’t work it is dispatched.
A number of Harold’s comments don’t add up with regard to Italy.
First, Italy didn’t become a Republic till the referendum of 1946 on the fate of the monarchy. The current constitution is from 1948, and it structures the republic.
Under the monarchy, and the race for empire, parliament had considerable power over foreign policy: Wikipedia >
So the prime ministers were signing treaties and ordering troop movements. Doesn’t sound exclusive to the king.
After 1860, the Italian army was Italian, that is, national. The idea that the Piedmontese were going around the country as Piedmontese enforcers is, errrr, rich.
The irony is that from the promulgation of the Statuto Albertino, which was a fair-minded and “liberal” document (although it only applied to the Kingdom of Piedmont), with freedom of religion, among other provisions, Italy went through some 70 years of expanding and advanced democracy. Ironically, Mussolini, who started out as socialist and a colleague of Gramsci, ended it.
Also, I will point out that Mussolini was a master manipulator of “redemptive violence,” of which the March on Rome may be the classic expression.
Excuse me, but I found this post really hard to follow. And I tried.
I think there is a definite growth in a certain very conservative strain of nationalism and a rejection of free trade across the world but I don’t see a connection to the points laid out by Paxton. What we’ve got is something totally new that seems like a reaction to globalization (and neoliberalism) to people on the left, but maybe isn’t that at all.
Well, they’re class notes on a difficult topic. If you agree on the definition of fascism (I like the second), and you agree there are stages of fascism, the question becomes what phase are we in? I say phase two. (It also makes denial harder, but recognition easier, if one concedes that the Reconstruction South was fascist, indeed the first case.)
I’m of two minds on this. I get what you’re saying, that fascism is a gradient, and not simply binary. So Trump could be seen as a step along the road to eventual full on fascism. But that seems to just be another way of saying he, and the current right wing movements, aren’t actually fascist.
Fascism is nationalist, but not all nationalism is fascism. Nor does it have to inevitably evolve into fascism. Economic protectionism also has a long history, and very little of that is fascist. I think that what we’re seeing is just a bog-standard right-wing nationalist reaction to the demonstrable damage of globalization, enabled by the complete dereliction of duty by the left. Liberal cynics and ignorant useful idiots can cry ‘fascism’ all they want, but their whining isn’t going to just magically make these nationalist movements genuinely fascist.
The right-wing is perfectly capable of being racist and ugly (in fact right-wing politics is incapable of *not* being ugly) while still not being fascist.
Graveyard, meet the whistler.
What’s the graveyard supposed to be here? The coming specter of fascism in America? Oooooh, scary! See you in two or six years, when Trump leaves the presidency and the country hasn’t descended into Amerikana Reich.
> aren’t actually fascist
I don’t know what “actually” means. This seems to me to be an essentialist perspective, not a functional one, and hence not useful.
> I think that what we’re seeing is just a bog-standard right-wing nationalist reaction to the demonstrable damage of globalization, enabled by the complete dereliction of duty by the left.
If fascism does not root itself in a party, that is what will have happened, I agree. I think liberals, above all centrists, are guilty of “complete dereliction of duty.” When AOC’s spokesperson said “The greatest threat to mankind is the cowardice of the Democratic Party,” they were right. The left is not, if you put the Sanders campaign on the left (I do). DSA and the “lefter left” have yet to meet a real test of strength. If they continue to allow idpol to make inroads, I think there will be real problems; they’ll be loud enough to be scapegoats, but not strong enough to take power.
Lambert: intentionally or not, you are reviving (to the good) an older conception of functional that is different from the way most “social scientists” (AFAICT) use it. The idea of functional that pervades “social science” now involves a general view that functional = pluralistic = deterministic, modern, administrative, etc. and sees functionalism as a hopelessly outdated concept. But there was an older idea of functional – more aligned with the thinking reflected in this post – that related the idea to the complexity of modern life and the need for specialized (functional) institutions to manage it, because naively relying on individuals as individuals or, more often, as members of organic social groupings to do so would yield to various pathologies. The key distinction is the need/demand in complex, modern societies for functional institutions, not the later view of their inevitable coming-into-existence and awesomeness. (Polanyi, unsurprisingly, is particularly good on this.)
I have come around to your position, that we are in a proto-fascist period. I still stand by the notion that Trump is, unlike what I understand of Hitler or Mussolini, primarily a bull sh1tter and grifter and not one with a serious political agenda. But one can see Trumpism as opening the door to other, worse things.
I’d jus submit that the instinct for fascism morphs and evolves too. It can easily become a form of constructive cooperation. imo. Not that I like screaming skinheads and red-faced angry people blaming each other for various nonsense. I really hate that.
If fascism is a form of politics there isn’t an instinct for it.* Fascism may make use of instincts, but surely is not itself instinctual.
NOTE * Unless you believe that politics is driven by, well, blood and soil. Then it is instincual. It’s amazing how fascist ideas morph and infiltrate; see the Appendix.
I’ll always believe that cooperation is instinctual. So yes, I agree. It can be exploited in perverse ways. Good point.
Empowerment is a heady cocktail for those who are deemed as useless & I recall the feeling of having to resist the urge to get lost within the huge but leaderless chanting mob of thousands during 1970’s soccer matches. Then it was only once a week & except for the hardcore National Front just allegiance to a local team – but the individual appeared to become at one with the mob which as Aldous Huxley wrote in his novel ” Point Counter Point ” which featured a thinly disguised Mosley has the intelligence of it’s lowest common denominator.
That was in the days of full employment & people on the whole in comparison to now had community & I believe were relatively content with their lot. These days, add a charismatic leader who knows how to play the crowd by making each individual feel that they matter & have some purpose who of course wouldn’t gas anyone then it could get horribly interesting. Tommy Robinson is apparently very popular with army soldiers, but I don’t think he is the man, or perhaps I just hope he isn’t.
Read Paxton’s paper, or better yet download The Anatomy of Fascism (2004). (It’s free if you Google around). It is not a challenging read, and as you progress the deja vu gets increasingly unnerving.
The one element that Paxton mentions time and again is the role played by the state’s economy. Fascism in France, for example, did not take hold because their middle class were happy campers. Of course, after Hitler invaded, the French fascists ascended to power anyway and became the Vichy government. Because today’s .01% have not shared their wealth with the middle class, it might not take much to tip the balance.
I mean Hawley literally identifies JC as a Jewish rabbi. Or is that a dog whistle too?
After reading this, I’d say the issue is a lacking consensus about what “democracy” is that starts the problems.
That lack has been manipulated. That would be key to it being a potent foe against fascism.
For instance, I don’t see anything approaching “democracy” where the even concept of “royalty” still exists…but, hey, maybe that’s just me.
Fascism is the combination of government and industry. We have had this world wide since the 19th century industrial revolution. The Union in the Civil War was fascist. It didn’t start in Italy. Socialism is also fascist, in so far as you have both government and industry working together. The extreme fascism is communism, where industry and the government are one, because of nationalization.
I don’t see how it helps to demonize political opponents. That in itself is fascist.
No, that is not correct. Mussolini-style corporatism was a fascist version of that. The KKK was not “a combination of government and industry.” The Japanese zaibatsu were a combination of government and industry. The US total mobilization for war in WWII was a combination of government and industry. You are telling me the latter two were fascist? This is sloppy and inaccurate.
Such as using drones to execute people?
Does that read like a definition of the CIA? Or the Current “Deep State”?
No. Drones are not necessarily “redemptive violence.”
No. Were the deep state to exist, it would not be a party.
It’s nice that there’s a historical precedent that lends itself to academic analysis and distillation: that there are trends and history repeats itself. But, it’s all just part of the human condition, and a widespread and inclusive Democracy is a historical aberration, and hardly something with any history of enduring.
Putting all this stuff to one side, isn’t America today just experiencing a moment as the wheel of history turns? With progress, or just the natural passage of time, people and power always stratify, and there will be those left behind; those seeking power will mobilize those left behind by blaming their blight on some “other,” (preferably recognizable at a glance). It is, after all, in the fundamental nature of man to seek (ever more) power.
Mobilized society around the State as a quasi-religious deity works, and as long as it can be sustained as long as a flow of enemies endures. What else is a soccer club after all? Below the surface, such a consolidation of power would be driven by an oligarchy, eventually yielding a Czar-like creature, but whomever will need to justify their excesses. This is what it seems the Romanov family was before their demise, as the wheel turned yet again, when they got just TOO greedy in terms of the local gini coefficient and even WW I couldn’t keep the masses sufficiently distracted.
Just a thought. As implied by Paxton, I don’t think these times are exceptional any more than America is.
Arguably fascism was an outgrowth of WW1 and the extreme nationalism and imperialism that preceded it. It’s hard to see anything like that now. Americans claim to be patriotic and hang flags in front of their houses but you don’t see them lining up to join the military. It seems to me that what happened in the 20th century was so very much of its time. Inverted totalitarianism is what we have now and Trump is just a bit player as are we all. When it finally breaks down we are more likely to have chaos than goose stepping regiments. Start hoarding those canned goods.
That the times are not exceptional is hardly reassuring. The times seem to validate that those who are ignorant of their history are often doomed to repeat it. The signs of rising fascism can be seen in US militia groups and the political influence of their NRA, the rise of violent White Supremacy groups bringing together skinheads and sweet little college boys as we saw in Charlottesville. We have seen the growing political left-right chasm urged on by Gingrich. Polls show public support for police malfeasance and a report that 70% of Americans oppose holding US troops accountable for war crimes. The caging of refugees – something being called out as concentration camps (which by definition they are in that the concentrate all the immigrants in one spot) is already a fact of daily life. Members of the growing “locker her up” police state are posting racists and sexist things on Facebook which violate their oath of office. Yep! Nothing exceptional there.
Like pre WWI, the immoral, sex-trafficking US aristocracy is being led by a president who seems incapable of leading and governing, but he excels at staffing his government with billionaire crooks and scoundrels. The billionaire class has kept us in wars profitable to them, at the expense of the middle class just like the Kaisers and Tsars that created 2 World wars. Then we have the monthly Trump rallies which mirror those of Mussolini and Hitler. Just substitute red MAGA hats for brownshirts.
Yep, nothing exceptional, however until this week, the US press could not bring itself to use the “F” word.
I would highlight, on the list of symptoms, the classic stereotypical element: fetishization of the military. (With budgets to match).
And add to the list of causes/development-mechanisms (stages 2-3): circumstances of foreign relations that make that fetishization logical.
To me this was the story of post-2001 USA, and perhaps with a politically-inverted reprise post-2016. It is also where the role of mass media kindof stands out – pushing this dangerous process forward with an enthusiasm I find disturbing.
Also these parts of the foundation for a fascist movement were built not just in the Bush era, but non stop ever since, and they span party lines. Perhaps I would call it a nationalist revival, rather than outright fascism. In this sense I am thinking it is in fact at stage 2, except the rooting isn’t in a specific party, but the institutional governing networks that are common to both parties. That there is disagreement between the 2 parties about whom to “otherize” is perhaps fortunate, but one particular danger is that future developments may resolve this disagreement, in which case only a major setback on the foreign policy arena would remain on the checklist before the full pattern is liable to repeat itself.
> the rooting isn’t in a specific party, but the institutional governing networks that are common to both parties.
I’ve been groping toward a formulation like that — it’s clear, for example, that the institutional machinery for rooted fascism has been developed on a bipartisan basis since at least 9/11, as the camps controversy shows — but now I’m dubious about it. I don’t see how militants would work for something as mushy as the Beltway network. You need a party, something to belong to. The KKK wasn’t a professional association, after all.
> You need a party, something to belong to. The KKK wasn’t a professional association, after all.
Yes, that certainly shouldn’t be overlooked, trying to understand political power of fascism via populist appeal.
The flip side, maybe, has to do with asking whether broadcast media (and social media) do answer to a Beltway network? This includes the think tanks (their less academic side) connecting media, govt, politics, and business… the post 9/11 hyper patriotic sentiment was guided by neocon policy advocacy network plugging into cable TV media. The effect on business did happen to align with the nationalist interests (unlike the debate over NAFTA, as a counterexample)…..
Democratic liberals are not fascists (in the meaning of this post). I would describe them as true believers in a make-believe world (a world view that not coincidentally has generally served them well) – ironically the opposite of their own self-image as pragmatic and “center-left.” They are and will continue to be no match for the (right-wing) opposition but/and will continue to direct a not inconsiderable about of fire at the left because they find the left’s pointing out of the make-believe-ness of their world view at least as threatening as any direct threat to their socio/politico/economic existence from the right.
Unlike the Dems, fascism requires some accommodation of/to populist interests by capitalist firms and the capitalist state, which I see the cosmopolitan Dems as unable to do. That said, tax cuts aside, one doesn’t see much accommodation of capitalist firms to populist interests on the right either at this point – the spectacular failure of any large manufacturing corporations or industries to embrace re-shoring or new U.S. investment just the most obvious example.
Perhaps there are sub-stages of development within each of the 5 stages of development. As you said earlier, “Nevertheless, we do not have a “mass-based party of committed nationalist militants,” Yet.” The something to belong to and therefore fight for. I would say in the US we have the “something” which started as the Tea Party, and has now morphed into Trumpism, which includes more radical right groups. It is not yet militant, but judging from crowd behavior at Trump rallies, it has the potential to become so. It’s not yet “mass,” either, but certainly it hasn’t gone away. So the rooting is still in process and in flux. Whether it sticks may depend on whether it can develop a focus that appeals to more people. Trump instinctively understands this, I think, but lacks the sophistication to provide a better scapegoat than racism for the sake of racism. While this is certainly not new in our country (and is abhorrent), it doesn’t provide a plausible enough explanation for what people are really angry about: economic repression. As a member of the elite himself, Trump lacks an understanding of his supporters, and is imposing a “solution” based on what he himself sees as “the problem.” Hence, his brand of fascism may be one the failed attempts the author mentions.
Fascism is just rich people hiring thugs. The richer they are, the more thugs they can hire.
That could be feudalism as well, as I’m sure Gramsci would be the first to admit. Do you actually want to move to Stage Three?
Done and done. They have been in that alliance for decades now.
Yes, I am not ignorant of that fact. I wrote:
In context, I’m talking about centrists making an alliance with fascists, should a fascist party take root, not the usual sort of log-rolling/you scratch my back-type of bipartisanship.
“And much as I loathe black bloc, it may be that they have their place in making these “functional equivalents” less easy to form.”
They don’t. Because these functional equivalents aren’t forming to begin with. Maybe they could in the future; we certainly have plenty of broken veterans on the streets (though they seem to mostly just be killing themselves, over a hundred thousand suicides in the last twenty years. I’m curious why American versions of the Stahlhelms haven’t formed. Maybe Americans just not doing collective action extends even to former ‘Brothers in Arms’). But as of right now there are no Weimar paramilitaries engaging each other in bloody street warfare. US Nazis can’t manage anything more than comically small gatherings that inevitably attract far larger counter protests that shout them down.
And should that change, it isn’t going to be the combination of overzealous edgelords and undercover cops of black bloc smashing windows that challenges it.
Excellent points. Remind me never to be charitable to black bloc again; I can’t think what came over me.
Also worth noting is that we have a baseline for these “functional equivalents.” As you point out, “no Weimar paramilitaries engaging each other in bloody street warfare”; and we have KKK night riders as well. We are nowhere near those baselines.
Of course, the view that “all politics is based on a division between friend and foe” could be traced right back to Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt.
Well, the Nazis and (I imagine) Sumer.
Did you recently observe in another post the importance of seeing “Jim Crow as an example of modernity” – or am I having a deju vu as I read this one? In any case, Jim Crow did indeed emerge and develop inside American modernity. It never challenged modernity, but rather was designed by modernity’s boldest proponents to safeguard and advance it. The education policy of the Wallace administrations in Alabama – which were unabashedly progressive – offer a notable case in point. But plenty of other cases are reviewed in the remarkable book, Deluxe Jim Crow, by Karen Kruse Thomas. The 19th-century KKK was also part and parcel of a modern America (at least, as the New South understood it), and by no means a rejection of it. It was during the Progressive era, and not some period of reaction, that the link between the 19th- and 20th-century incarnations of the KKK were forged by the politics of the Lost Cause, largely through interventions in art-culture. There is a remarkable passage in Milton W. Brown’s classic book, American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression (1955), pp. 85-87, in which he parallels the early 20th-century art theories of sculptor-critic F. W Ruckstull (born Ruckstuhl) with the cultural program pursued some decades later by Nazi Germany. Ruckstull’s oeuvre included monuments memorializing both the northern and southern versions of the ‘Civil War’, though arguably with more sympathy for the latter than for the former. Brown’s assessment of Ruckstull’s work as “directly foreshadow[ing] the Nazi artistic credo” is as persuasive as it is disturbing. I can only fault him for neglecting to connect that work to the ideology of Lost Cause into which it plunged some of its deepest roots to find nourishment in the myths of “‘native instincts'” and “‘racial purity'” (p. 87). The issue of both Jim Crow and his brother, the ‘modern’ KKK, from the Lost Cause requires no demonstration. That fascist Germany produced not only an art almost indistinguishable from that of the Lost Cause, but also carried out social and financial policies directly inspired by the Jim Crow models of segregation and convict-leasing, cannot be doubted. But this line of descent is by no means extinct. I will close by mentioning that rehabilitation of the reputation of Albert Speer, the notorious architect to the Nazi government and hence a powerful influencer of its cultural as well as military policies, was one of the by-products of Postmodernism; which is to say, of the decades of neoliberal hegemony and the ‘new’ identity politics that so far seems to have been quite successful at underpinning it.
> Deluxe Jim Crow, by Karen Kruse Thomas
> Milton W. Brown’s classic book, American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression
Dammit, more books to read. That art history book sounds really interesting. Honestly, pushing all this fascist stuff off onto the Germans is starting to look more and more like projection and othering.
I linked to my usage of Jim Crow and modernity in the post; it was in 2018.
Just reread Nicos Poulantzas’ “On the Popular Impact of Fascism” in anticipation of your post on Paxton. Poulantzas was a Marxist political theorist with some connection to the Althusserians. Like Paxton, he wrote a book on fascism: Fascism and Dictatorship. I took several things away from Poulantzas’ essay on popular impact. First, the impact of fascism wasn’t uniform as far as “the people” are concerned. Fascists infiltrated, took over, or created organizations of which some people, not others, were members, especially political parties. Fascism, according to Poulanztas, never had much appeal among either the German or Italian working class. It mainly appealed to members of the petty bourgeoisie (artisans, small-scale tradesmen, relatively well-compensated employees, and state employees). Based on the above synopsis of Paxton’s views, he seems to have entirely overlooked this point. Poulantzas stresses, though, that the appeal of fascism fluctuated wildly, gaining support until it revealed itself as an anti-popular movement, subsequently losing popular support, and then gaining again owing to international affairs (the Anschluss, the war with Libya). I doubt such fluctuation is reflected by Paxton’s stages. Finally, Poulantzas notes a number of reasons why a variety of different segments of the populace found fascism appealing: it offered a startlingly effective solution to terrible levels of unemployment, it tapped into justifiable (if not justified) beliefs to the effect that the nation was being treated as a second-class citizen in the international community, and it offered solutions to problems attending delayed formation of a nation-state in both Germany and Italy. Perhaps most importantly, Poulantzas closes his essay by noting that fascism had whatever popular appeal it had during the time of its initial ascendance owing in part to failure of the left. The problem, as Poulantzas saw it, was not that traditional right and left parties just couldn’t get along, reached a stalemate, and were unable govern (which seems to be Paxton’s view). The problem was that the left in Germany and Italy were unable to effectively organize working class people so as to bring about the fundamental changes in society that would have benefited this class. A sort of power vacuum came about, which fascists were able to exploit. In any case, those failures of the left also appear to go without mention in Paxton’s account, which is understandable given that his politics are likely quite different from those of Poulantzas.
I suppose an upshot of this brief comparison of accounts of fascism is that I remain a fascism skeptic. I doubt the term currently applies to the situation in the US, even if it is qualified as ‘stage two fascism.’ I doubt too that stage two or any higher stage was ever reached at any point in American history or within any region of the US, including the post Civil War South. To the best of my knowledge, KKK activities were about restoring the position of what amounted to a landed aristocracy by way of race-based terrorism. Horrible? Yes. Unprecedented? Doubtful. A harbinger of 20th century fascism? Almost certainly not. For one thing (among many), I doubt that the Italian fascists were really about restoration. The German fascists certainly were not. They were radical revolutionaries, in their own way.
Thanks. This is a chain of logic that I can get down with.
There’s something about the Paxton framework that just seems like, if one wanted to, you could drop it on almost any contemporary society with an authoritarian bent. China if you stretched it. From there, Russia or the Philippines follow easily enough. Then maybe Brazil, and why not all of Central America minus Costa Rica. Etc.
In fairness, Paxton, in his “ Anatomy of Fascism”, does in fact discuss Fascism as practiced by Italy and Germany in the 30s-early 40s in relation to authoritarian and totalitarian governments (Franco’s Spain, the USSR and Stalinism, Mao’s China, etc.), and does indeed make sharp distinctions. My reading of “Anatomy” points to Hitler’s Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy as being quite sui generis, each arising from “special” circumstances that share certain Eurocentric features, and that the concatenation of events that solidified Fascism in each country then are so entirely different from the peculiarities of today’s advanced capitalist “democracies”, that compare-and-contrast exercises, or ticking one or more of five boxes or stages is a fool’s errand. All organized societies will produce rabble-rousers and an eager rabble to be aroused, and within those societies there classically have been a marginalized “other” to serve as a rallying point for alleged causative agency in “national decline” or loss of status for a majority. Don’t want to minimize Trump’s crude race-baiting and all, but let’s remember Godwin’s Law in our attempt to fit Trump’s foot into a fascist shoe.
But Paxton has gone to great lengths to ensure that this is not the case. In fact his stated aim for his attempt to define fascism was to stop people bandying about the term willy-nilly. How readily it can be applied to other states depends on who is doing the analysis. Paxton’s own is pretty rigorous.
Exactly. Defining our terms through an examination of history seems the very furthest thing from Godwin’s Law, all too often broken, especially by liberals but often on the left.
China is absolutely a fascist country, or nearly so.
Care to back that up?
– Sense of grievance based on historical injuries
– Highly nationalist
– Calling back to a glorious past
– Restoration of former glory and dominance is key argument of ruling party
– Rulers ally with military and police over the people
– Violent repression of dissent – Every country does this, I know, but the Chinese are enthusiasts.
– Demonization of outgroups to justify rule – Last item still in its infancy, but not if you ask the Uyghurs. As soon as the economy tanks expect this to spike hard. But rulers only do this when they need to.
Whenever the government wants to lock in popular support they drum up a few anti-Japanese riots. Currently the citizens are busy boycotting American goods due to a sense of grievance at Trump’s tariffs. Who knows maybe they’ll “other” Hong Kong protesters next.
Thank you for this excellent comment, which is exactly the sort of comment I was hoping to elicit.
I cannot claim that I summarized Paxton’s views on class one way or the other, so I don’t know whether he overlooked it or not. That wasn’t my focus.
I agree with this formulation, which resonates with our own day. That said, “unable to govern” and “the left was unable to effectively organize working class people” seem very much like two sides of the same coin to me. (“The old is dying and the new is struggling to be born.”)
I disagree, First, if you accept Paxton’s definition(s) of fascism, the state and civil society in the Reconstruction South was organized along fascist lines, and this had great national impact ideologically and politically in the Progressive Era, as in the penetration of the Wilson administration. Second, operationally Reconstruction (for which the KKK was the militant wing) was about restoration of class power by structuring the labor market (sharecropping), land seizure, and Jim Crow legislation (emulated by the Nazis). So I don’t see the revolution/restoration distinction as being especially useful. Third, Paxton argues that ideology takes different forms in the different stages (“In power, what seems to count is less the faithful application of the party’s initial ideology than the integrating function that espousing one official ideology performs, to the exclusion of any ideas deemed alien or divisive”). So I don’t accept a static distinction between revolution and restoration as a litmus test for what is fascist and what it not.
Did the author actually swiped Orlov’s idea of “The Five Stages of Collapse”? I’m not sure how relevant a seven month graph would be when talking about fascism. Now if you have a twenty year one that might be more impressive but Google Trends is just one narrow slice of society after all. If you want to talk about fascism, I would be more impressed if he talked about Obama getting rid of habeas corpus in the US – something that goes back a thousand years in legal theory and practice. And why talk so much about the bogey men of American liberals – the KKK – when you actually had an actual American Nazi party called the German American Bund and which drew an audience of 20,000 at Madison Square Gardens back in 1939. To get a full picture, you cannot limit US fascism to American shores either but must consider them in context of America’s foreign empire as the practices of what happens in the empire come back home sooner or later. The torture employed overseas has made its way back home and if you want to a direct influence, look at the militarization of US police as they receive military gear used overseas. Without mentioning the empire’s yin of a fascist yang, you will never get a real comprehensive understanding of this subject in my opinion.
“Did the author actually swiped Orlov’s idea of ‘The Five Stages of Collapse’?”
I would guess no, given that the paper in question was published in March of 1998.
It is possible that both were plays on the “five stages of grief”, which predates them both.
And there may have been some, or many other “five stages” preceding them — it’s “five stages” all the way down…
The KKK example by Paxton is perhaps a bit of a stretch, because following the failure of Reconstruction and eradication of the Republicans, the resulting Democratic Party in fact neatly incorporated and served white supremacy and concomitant black suppression; the Klan was – as it were – an extraparlimentarian enforcement tool, sharing membership with local and state officials and community white citizens, and in fact was subsumed within the Party over time. Democrats served the interests of powerful white elites, and pitted poor whites against black people for generations in order to maintain its political hegemony, and to resist any kind of economic reform and betterment.
Why is that a “stretch”? Seems to prove my point, once you add in the “Lost Cause” for the “redemptive” aspect of the violence.
I mean, “an extraparlimentarian enforcement tool, sharing membership with local and state officials and community white citizens” — there’s your militant wing right there.
> And why talk so much about the bogey men of American liberals – the KKK – when you actually had an actual American Nazi party called the German American Bund
Um, because the regime constructed in the Reconstruction South attained real political power, maintained it for many decades, and directly influenced the Nazi legal system? Measured on that scale, the Bund is one of those metaphorical little cancers I wrote about.
Do you seriously think I’m driven by fear of “the bogey men of American liberals”? gtfo
Because there is always the tendency to point fascism as a failure of “democracy” – instead of failure of the establishment or the failure of fascists! – it shows there is no working consensus for what a “democracy” is.
Democracy is three wolves and two sheep deciding what’s for dinner.
Which leaves the door wide open…for whatever…
Wide open … if you’re a wolf.
liberal democracy sales pitch: “yes, but one of those wolves is really on the sheeps’ side, so everything is okay”
Libertarian non-sense — the metaphor doesn’t work.
What we have is 9 sheep and one wolf sitting down for dinner.
Liberal democracy is the wolf setting up electoral rules that lead the wolf to have the same vote+1 as the 9 sheep, then they vote on dinner.
In communism, the sheep kill the wolf since he’ll never be a safe partner under any conditions, and then they devolve into killing each other.
In fascism, some of the sheep feed other sheep to the wolf in the hope that he won’t eat them (spoiler! he eats them too).
In libertarianism, everyone is free to decide for themselves who they will eat, whether they be wolves or sheep!
I’ve always felt the “sheep & wolf” thing could be turned on its head more or less exactly like this – that democracy’s purpose was definitely more along the lines that the sheep outnumber the wolves.
At least the people shoveling that one around have stopped attributing it to Ben Franklin, but the fact that they tried to doesn’t say much for their honesty.
Whether or not you think Hawley was using a dog whistle by pointing to a “cosmopolitan” elite, it strikes me as absurd that he is actually combatting the real powers that be. Here’s a longer quote from the speech:
In case your curious, Hawley has raised over $1.6 million from the finance, insurance, and real estate sector for the 2020 cycle alone. He may not have been using an anti-Semitic dog whistle, but it’s clear that to him lefty adjuncts below the poverty line are part of this elite while the FIRE sector, which could not be more in line with this “cosmopolitan consensus” that he’s inveighing against, are not. The other top contributors according to OpenSecrets, in order:
-Other (?) – $1,606,786
-ideological/single issue – $1,516,586
-Misc business – $988,954
-Lawyers and lobbyists – $601,553
-Agribusiness – $464,414
for a grand total of $6,786,139.
That’s just for 2020! Hard to see an industry that hasn’t made off well in this cosmopolitan consensus.
This is relevant to the overall topic of fascism because gestures towards anti-capitalism were key to fascist success in winning some popular support but once in power they put all their focus on breaking trade unions, rounding up communists, and then cementing corporatist control over key industries.
His speech marks a notable shift among non-Trump people on the right, but reading the entire speech it’s clear that his real priority is acknowledging the damage done to gain votes from a primarily white base while taking money from the people who did it. I don’t know for sure but I’d bet he’d be more apt to include adjunct professors below the poverty line in the cosmopolitan elite than companies like Cargill.
So about Hawley and his supposed anti-Semitic words, that narrative becomes a bit hard to sustain when you note his speech also contained this:
I kept the last sentence because it’s a fascinating look into a conservative mind. Jesus invented individualism, apparently. lol.
Hawley directly points out that Jesus was a Jew.
The Twitter liberals are just outright lying now. How much of it is to themselves, I can’t say.
> The Twitter liberals are just outright lying now. How much of it is to themselves, I can’t say.
I don’t know about twitter — but I don’t see any essential contradiction between “Jesus was a Jew” and anti-semitism, anymore than being a supporter of Israel implies that you are semitophilic.
As an old German gentleman in South American once muttered to me, “Well, there are good Jews and there are bad Jews” (imagine comical yet threatening accent, which is even more ridiculous in Spanish).
How did this guy get elected in Missouri? He looks like a Lindsey Graham clone…..
> His speech marks a notable shift among non-Trump people on the right, but reading the entire speech it’s clear that his real priority is acknowledging the damage done to gain votes from a primarily white base while taking money from the people who did it. I don’t know for sure but I’d bet he’d be more apt to include adjunct professors below the poverty line in the cosmopolitan elite than companies like Cargill.
Yes, that is why I wrote “possible Trump 2.0 Josh Hawley.”
Liberal Democrats, however, fail to acknowledge the damage at all. In fact, they may think of it as culling, rather than damage. (I did publish that horrific David Atkins quote, did I not? I’ll have to look.) One might even argue that the whole anti-semitism schtick is a distraction from that; they can’t really say why they think Hawley is bad, bad, bad.
Thanks for your response Lambert. Cold light of morning shows that my comment was longer than it needed to be so I appreciate you slogging through. I was following the same twitter arguments you were and only pushed back because I think the idea that he’s a sincere critic of concentrated corporate power is as laughable as the idea that what he said was coded anti-Semitism.
You are certainly right that liberal Dems are not going to become critics of concentrated corporate power either, hence the reliance on word games and dog whistling instead of a genuine alternative.
Not a bad synopsis. I would have squeezed in:
“… some even doubt that the term fascism has any meaning other than as a smear word. The epithet has been so loosely used that practically everyone who holds or shakes authority has been someone’s fascist. Perhaps, the doubters suggest, it would be better to just scrap the term.” p.8
Then in footnote he writes the most credible support for this view:
Gilbert Allardyce “What Fascism is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept” American Historical Review April 1979
I just read Paxton’s The Five Stages of Fascism and my initial take away is that his description of Fascism is that it is a technique, like terrorism is a technique, or a tactic. Paxton says that Fascism is a practice, not like other “isms” and is functional.
“Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline.”
This seems like pretty weak tea to me. Are we there yet? It seems we (many aspects of US society and politics) have been that for a while.
I don’t get making the label so very important, then arguing about what it means so we can apply it to our enemies. Well, actually, I do. But it does not seem useful.
We don’t need to argue about whether Individual X or Group Y is fascist, or not, if we can agree that what they are doing is “bad.”
> This seems like pretty weak tea to me
That’s why I like the second definition, which I gave, from Anatomy of Fascism, much better. See in the post for my comparison.
Thanks for this post. I want to also link for everyone this podcast by matt christman (of chapo trap house) on the subject that has been helpful to me for understanding fascism. My main take aways:
1) no universal doctrines, no sacred text
2) casualness with ideas (not with feelings)
3) a “turn”, where some “ideas” (and true believers) are abandoned as power is seized, or rather taken from a conservative establishment that fears the left
4) a preoccupation with creating a “new man” – this takes the place of any kind of class dialectic
This was a hard read, but a good one.
p.s. by hard read i mean scholarly paxton, not you lambert :)
My takeaways include:
– Arises in the countryside. Rural areas
– Aims to restore patriarchy
– Initially makes economic appeals which are later abandoned
– Allies with conservatives, military, and police to maintain power
– Once in power, reinforces existing hierarchy, rather than overturning it
– Only rises to power if conservative ruling groups are unable to maintain power themselves
– Breaks customs and norms usually agreed to by conservative ruling groups (I know Lambert hates hysterical invocation of “norms” — I do too — but this really is key.)
To me, this indicates that actual fascism isn’t likely to arise in America soon. Because our conservative ruling groups don’t have any trouble maintaining control. The Left has been successfully neutered. That would change with a Sanders presidency. But how likely is that.
It initially seemed like Trump might take over the Republican party (stage 2), but the reverse seems to have taken place. He’s certainly enthusiastic about pounding immigrants (reinforcing existing hierarchy) but he’s already in power so he doesn’t need to go to further extremes. And for whatever reason his supporters don’t want more war, which rules out stage 5.
” Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge?”
I would say this is where we are now, or actually were when” occupy” was succeeding… I think the tough helpers did them in
Yes. We would do well to remember that liberal Democrats under Obama organized the 17-city paramilitarized crackdown on Occupy, and used the National Guard to suppress Black Lives Matter as well.
Thanks for this thought-provoking undertaking, Lambert. Paxton provides a good framework for evaluating what’s happening today in the light of the historical precedents.
Two things struck me particularly in those Paxton quotes. First:
Those people who identify especially strongly with their nation or religion would seem to constitute the tinder when their idolized institution suffers a fall in their eyes. Those who have lost faith in themselves are the ones susceptible to deaths of despair; those who have last faith in the country or religion with which they’ve identified are prone to fascism. One way to head off both tendencies would be to offer the disillusioned some alternative form of grounding.
In the material you quote from Paxton, he refers repeatedly to the powerful using a fascist cadre as a last-ditch weapon to hold on to power against the Left. With that in mind, it might be wise to evaluate our talk and actions with the understanding that frightening the 1% too much may only lead to an unhappy result. Now that might be difficult to avoid considering that the mere thought of Bernie in the White House causes a lot of these billionaires to have anxiety attacks, but talk of guillotines and lamp posts might not be the best idea, nor would any kind of action aimed at challenging the personal safety of these people and their families.
Some video/radio shows with Paxton that i had a look at when I came across him in Water Cooler the other day:
https://youtu.be/eB07s3PGG5I – radio interview (trump discussed)
https://youtu.be/LWvVKTxTCAA – Democracy Now interview (pre-2016 election, Trump discussed)
https://youtu.be/eqyzq39b6fA – Book tour for The Anatomy of Fascism with Q&A, from 2004
(there’s some other interesting stuff from him but it’s off topic)
I mentioned this in the Water Cooler comments but in each of those instances, he’s goaded by his interlocutors into declaring whomever (Trump, Bush) to be fascist. He (very diplomatically) points out that while there’s much to be concerned about in the cited examples, it doesn’t quite fit his definition.
Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the woolly public definition of “fascist”, which roughly seems to be “the apotheosis of political evil” which, obviously, we can and must do better than. Grave political wrongdoing comes in many forms; that does not automatically make them fascist.
His definition has given me much food for thought. thanks to Lambert for bringing his work to my attention.
I will have to listen to these. Perhaps they will be material for a future post.
FWIW, IIRC, and without reading all the comments
Franz Von Neumann was part of the Frankfurt School, and a legal theorist. His 1940s book, Behemoth, is very much worth reading if you can find it. The title is a reference to Hobbes with the point that fascism was the opposite of the controlling sovereign of Leviathan. Von Neumann defines fascism very simply and radically, with no universals or principles:
1) Autonomous street violence
2) Cronyism, crony capitalism, “who you know” (Goehring was on countless boards)
Taking 1), pure fascism disappeared with Mussolini’s consolidation and disciplining of the squadristis. and Hitler’s elimination of the Brown Shirts, and turned into authoritarian capitalist (welfare?) states, although a lot of the original practice remained all the way to War’s end.
This formulation shows fascism’s foundation in anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism rather than socialism. The point was precisely in the extreme and continuous mobilization of empowering street thugs to attack whom they will (but dependent on post-facto permission of superiors), shows the abandonment of central control that Arendt discusses (the hurricane/tornado and it’s empty eye), and gives hints as to fascism links with liberalism and individual empowerment.
That is all, book recommended.
Behemoth online. It’s also in print.
During the recent flutter over whether the US detention camps should be called concentration camps, there was some commentary* by Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps. Paraphrasing very generally: It doesn’t start or necessarily end as Auschwitiz, but conditions in the camps, government policy, and substantial public support of those policies lead to worsening conditions and a decreasing possibility of the institutions of government being able to undo the problem.
A definition of an end state of fascism and mapping current actions as steps toward that state is a difficult read for me as well, so thanks for the analysis from those more suited to the task. Maybe there’s also value in examining component parts of a possible road to fascism in the way she does for the camps, such as how particular policies or tactics are bad, what factors contribute to a worsening spiral, and what’s happening to cut off possible paths for reversal.
As far as whether a party is a necessary vehicle to reach an end state of fascism, if there’s already a party and its followers overtly committed to a collection of these bad and worsening components, and another party historically and currently at best a less overtly crude facilitator, the need for a party probably isn’t a stumbling block.
*Links if anyone is interested in this perspective on this particular issue.
One of the advantages of studying Fascism is that it actually existed. There were only a handful of fascist regimes, and only two that lasted any length of time, but we have a very clear picture of what they did and why. If you look at Paxton’s work (which I greatly admire, especially the books on Vichy France) and books by people like Evans on the Third Reich and Bosworth on Mussolini, the pattern which emerges is pretty clear.
Fascism is a movement from the age of mass political parties and is inconceivable in our current fractured political climate. It began as a radical right-wing response to the mass left-wing parties of the early 20th century, notably the Communists who were their bitterest enemies. It differed from traditional parties of the Right, which were conservative and elitist.
Fascism was self consciously modern, not only in its embrace of science and technology, and its attachment to modern ‘racial science’´ but in its rejection of existing political and economic models. It was prepared to cooperate with traditional power structures but only warily and there was never much trust between them. It regarded democracy as weak and old fashioned to be replaced by a virile political culture based on struggle – start-up politics if you like.
Fascist parties seldom came to power and never through elections, which they despised . They only really succeeded in times of complete political breakdown. But some of their ideas and their actions could, if you were not paying attention, resemble those of other types of right-wing authoritarian regimes. Vichy France, Franco’s Spain and Pinochet’s Chile were not fascist states: indeed they were the opposite. George Orwell famously remarked in 1936 that the word ‘Fascism ‘ had lost any meaning and the situation has only got worse since then.
What you can say perhaps is that the fascist mindset – action before thought, disdain for democracy, use of violence and intimidation to silence opponents, struggles for power and expulsion of dissidents – is found pretty much everywhere. It’s pretty coherent with Paxton’s second definition, and describes, amongst others, a number of our current grievance entrepreneurs. Whilst it would be meaningless to call those people fascists, ’ because the term genuinely does have no useful meaning and is just a term of abuse, it does remind us that there are mindsets which never entirely disappear and pop up in the most unexpected places.
Thanks for this David – it reflects pretty much why I’m always reluctant to use the F-word in a modern context. Fascism overlaps many other political movements – it has plenty of shadows not just in Europe, but in South America (where you could easily go back to the early 19th Century to see potential models and in Asia, where European fascism was widely admired, and not just in Japan. I don’t see Fascism as being really all that different from the sort of highly patriarchal right wing dictatorship popular throughout the catholic world in the 20th Century, or the variety of mystical nationalist movements all over eastern Europe. There was undoubtedly an overlap in ideology, but each was different in its own way.
And the US obviously has its own quite distinct history of right wing nativist racist populism that pre-dates European fascism.
Its certainly very interesting to discuss and compare, and its obviously vital to ensure we learn from the mistakes of history. But I do think that the current crop of right wing populists around the world, from Trump and Bolsonaro and so on are all phenomena rooted in our time, and the peculiarities of those countries histories and political cultures. Trying to find historical analogies is less useful than examining who they are and what they represent. And most of all, how to stop them.
Thanks for the comment. I’d say that you are quite right that there are elements of fascism in US society–the CIA comes to mind–but the claim that it “can happen here” is extremely far fetched. Fascism was indeed a reaction to the Russian revolution but there’s no longer a communist regime there for the right to parody (they are trying even so). Our globalized world is completely different.
Ironically fascism’s greatest success was in the way it lives on in pop culture propaganda and how many current countries refuse to embrace peace for fear of the 1930s or “Auschwitz borders” and the like. We may have a thousand year Reich of bad thinking long after Hitler turned to ashes outside his bunker.
My mental model:
Liberalism (incl. the US two-parties) and Social Democracy exist on an enlightenment continuum where power is justified by “argument”, scientific, philosophical and parliamentary — reason is the central place of ideological construction for power and the practice of ideology, even if at the margins you see colonies and other naked power practices. Liberalism is the minimal practice, where power does the least possible to stay in line with reason, and social democracy is maximalist, doing as much as is possible to follow reason without publicly reaching beyond “argument” as the central element.
The hard left has been those frustrated with the maximalist approach — that the status quo strays to far from reason when it sticks to reason as the tactic as well as the goal. Thus, they abandon reason as a necessary tactic, openly espousing revolution and romanticism as means to an arguably reasonable end.
The hard right, however, is made of those threatened by reason crumbling power — that even the minimalist concessions by liberalism go too far. Thus they abandon “Reason” itself, not just reason’s implementation as a tactic, argumentation. (Note their abuse of capitals — reason’s abstractions become Mystical Principles and Substances. The concept of freedom becomes Freedom and our nation is Our Nation.)
Thus the ideological mess on the hard right — the real goal is power for power’s sake, and argument is just war by other means. This is what Trump has revealed among the evangelicals, that as a community, their religion has been a fake, a fraud: merely a move in a power game, and now when they face failure, they go on to more radical means rather than compromise. They are, as a community, insincere in their beliefs, the pharisees who pray loudly in the streets.
This is not to say that they are precisely fascists. Fascists grew from a popular intellectualism that was and is part of the European culture and not American. There’s no stage-1 syndicalists consolidating left wing anarchist arguments with right wing social organizations. But they are parallel developments and may converge in the future.
As the coders say, it’s got a smell.
Recommending Matt Christman’s The Monster Fash episode of his Inebriated Past series as part of Chapo Trap House, which appears to still be behind a paywall, and his follow up (not paywalled) linked to here.
Fascism was a drastically desperate attempt to save capitalism in the aftermath of the worldwide depression. And it did it by marrying the interest of big business (capitalist class) to a big violent political machinery (government) that further strengthened their interest.
Walter Benjamin elucidated the true purpose of Fascism in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and let me quote:
The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.
Whether we’ve ever had anything like “democracy” to serve as that host body. . . What we do have is corporatism, a useful way of thinking about how the state and production are entwined. . . under capitalism. Unless you’re going to argue that what happened under Mao and Stalin was fascism, then you cannot proceed with your “democracy as host body” thesis long, IMO. I don’t think that what happened under Mao and Stalin was fascism (more related diseases of power in outsized national bodies) although the question of whether Soviet Communism was in fact a kind of state capitalism is worth entertaining, too.
Industrialization and accompanying militarization have to be factored because it’s the modern nation-state, its boundaries and ambitions seeking form that shapes what happens with Hitler and Mussolini, many of these ambitions corporate. And just how heavily gendered all of these exercises are cannot be separated from the equation, finally, either. (Impressed by this fact daily as I look at what Trump is doing. . . or think about what Epstein may imply. Women. . . medium of exchange.)
Clearly, as we look at the political programs of groups like the Farmer Labor Democrats in Minnesota in the 1930s we can see clearly that many of our ideas of linear progress are illusory.
Just spend a large part of the day reading Paxton’s paper (and only a few of the comments. So apologies if I am repeating). Quite an interesting read.
Starting from his idea that one should look at processes and movements, I am tempted to say that the Democrats were quite happy in stage 4. What Paxton called the ‘four-way struggle for dominance’ (the leader, the party, regular state functionaries and traditional elites) is rather known as ‘revolving door’. What happened to Occupy shows how they execute power (not talking about foreign wars and killing colored people for no reason).
But it seems that ‘authoritarian military dictatorships protects against fascism’ (Payne, as mentioned by Paxton). And one could make a point that that is what Trump is representing (and whence the call to #Resist).
On the other hand, I can’t get rid of the idea I am missing something. Paxton starts from movements against established government, which I haven’t seen in the US that then grow (‘rooting’). I don’t see such movements. Tea-partiers, Occupy, BLM are movements against the state (not pretending they are in any way fascists), but none of them cut across large sections of the population. And while I did mention Democrats, they are not really a movement against the government.
So I’d rather say US has an aristocracy, rather than fascism.
And I always recall what Machiavel told his Prince: people don’t care about their leader, because they know he will screw them. So as long as he doesn’t touch their land and their women, they’ll accept anyone.
I’m not sure if I missed it above but it seems like there’s two nascent facist movements in the US. One on the right and the other on the left. Both view themselves as good and just and their enemies as being near sub-human and violence is justified in routing them. Also both camps are already very close to, if not already, making claims of justified redemptive violence.
– On the right we have a combo of the proud boys, outright far-right skinheads/facists, and elements of the jacked up black pickup with matching blue line punisher death skulls decal police members. Think of the guy ramming the protestors with his car along with The candle light fascist marchers taking place around the same time/place. The calls for purity are along racial/nationalist lines, espouses some conservative values and some elements of established religion, and matches more on first inspection with the classic fascists in popular imagination. They have various elements of media, rich, or popular enablers. (think Bannon, fox news, Roger Stone, etc.)
– On the left we have Antifa with its call to punch all Nazis and righteous violence, with nazi being defined as anyone who disagrees with them, up to and including members of the press trying to report on them. Likewise calls for national purity but the litmus test here is based on wokeness and virtue signaling on a variety of issues that are perceived as being more liberal and on left leaning issues. Likewise they have their own enablers, rich, and popular supporters, etc.
Unfortunately behind both of these left and right-wing fascist elements we have the deep state which increasingly is a direct marriage of private/public interest and the building of monopolies and near monopolies in various sectors. Disney is getting close to owning entertainment compared to any single firm 30 years ago. Amazon has tentacles in everything and wants to be the one ring of retailers. Google/Facebook are in a death match for social media and internet dominance. Etc, etc. Likewise the marriage of silicon valley with the 3 letter agencies to design the perfect voluntary panopticon of population surveillance.
So we have two nascent fascist movements who may or may not ever come to power, but with the infrastructure and civil surveillance/control apparatus being built that either could/would use to implement a nightmarish modern version of the primitive former fascist governments. Unfortunately the middle is inhabited by the various Tom Friedman’esque centrists who want to continue the Weimar status quo of all the things that everyone hates and keeps making things actively worse, so no solutions there.
So I fear for my country and what comes next, I think the best course is to muddle through somehow. I’ve been both a Republican and a Democrat, and a precint captain for the democratic party. My observation is ALL of my votes for either party over the course of my entire life has only made things worse. I’m going to trust in the Lord from here on out and instead work at the local level to help people in a direct and immediate way.
Portland, Oregon is in the news routinely about the actions their own version of masked squadritisti and proud boys. Both groups seem pathetic in ways and in need of some mature adult counsel.
That city also featured in the television show Portlandia and will feature again in a Cobey Smulders show Stumptown. There must be something in the water.
Thanks for wrapping up this informative discussion with a cogent summary I could see myself sharing!
Sheldon Wolin, an American political philosopher, believed the US is in fact a Inverted Totalitarianism, in other words Fascism.
During this video interview in 1997, Sheldon Wolin said, “Every one of this country’s [USA] primary institutions is anti-democratic, anti-democratic in sipirt, design and operation.”
For me fascism is extension of the monopoly on violence to informal extra anonymous actors.
You lose in violent contests when you are caught unawares. You have to sleep sometimes. The fascist South has been with us now for at least two centuries. The fascist South is more poor than the North.
War has economic consequences.
Every modern political system has been learned from what the anarchy of America produced. Both major states take their monopolies seriously and have the most laws.
Bad laws make a bad society.
Stage two, when “rooting” occurs (or not), would seem to be very important right now. Will a more and more authoritarian Trump party take root, thereby gaining the necessary power to pump society with racist and hierarchical ideas? To the exclusion of every other political organization?
Mussolini wrote in the 1920s that fascism is the full-throated, intoxicating use of violence to destroy the legacy of 1789. Liberalism held (and holds) that reasonable discussion can solve political conflicts (in part because markets spread material goodies to everyone). Socialists understood so well the violence of the workplace and of the social life of workers in the service of capital accumulation, while inheriting the Liberal belief in rational planning as a way out. Fascists, however, make it clear as day that rational direction of social development is a chimera, not just because of the violence experienced by workers (syndicalists had already gone down that path along with social democrats and revolutionaries), but because of the nature and experience of modern war.
Liberal hopes die on the shop floor and Wall Street (as well know too well!), but socialists (And Bernie) believe the violence Liberals refuse to take seriously can be eliminated. Hope and the sanctity of individual life were bedrock beliefs of both traditions. I
It was the fascists who said all of that is so much nonsense, and proceeded to explain what they meant, not through discourse, but through political and other violence. Reason is weak. Violence is life.
Okay, we see this profound, but very grim, view of modern life for what it is. But will we allow such a reactionary movement to “root” in democratic societies, significantly via the capture of political parties? Trump is a baboon to the Liberal Mind; he is the leader who degrades Reason in the service of Violence in the creation of a supreme racial hierarchy. The jury is about to come in on whether the Republican Party is now a fascist party. And, even if it is, does society have the institutional strength and mobilizing leadership to defeat it? Few sane people would bet on Pelosi, Schumer at all, and I think Bernie doesn’t have what it takes to confront fascist violence with righteous violence, in response.
Someone said we can be a slave society or a free society; we cannot be both. Here we are, again.
Thank you for this thought-provoking post.
Four decades ago, I was fascinated by Shirer’s Collapse of the Third Republic, the rise of Vichy, the Libération, Poujadisme, Indochine, Algerie française, the Fifth Republic, and ‘68.
I still have Paxton’s first book, and it’s terrific to revisit his thinking. The Klan was indeed the first fascist mass-movement and Jim Crow it’s codification in law. Most liberal historians are trapped in a Cult of Personality around Mussolini and Hitler. Understanding l’Etat Français and pre-War popular fascist mass-movements in France puts MAGA into chilling perspective.
However, so-called centrist Democrats are the true standard-bearers of Sheldon Wolin’s Inverted Totalitarianism, not the orange-haired caudillo. We are far from out of the woods, especially if climate change continues to drive the mass-migration of “others” into our midst.
One phrase that Paxton used to get a handle on what really fires up Fascists is “motivating passions”. European Settler Colonialism (as opposed to Imperialism or “Franchise Colonialism”) has a “logic of elimination” built into it and if the natives resist being wiped out then the motivating passions will come out into the open. The late Patrick Wolfe (someone with a personal link to ethnic cleansing ranging from Germany to Ireland to Australia) is your man if you want to see how Settler Colonialism makes up the sharp tip of the spear of Fascism:
(France was almost brought to it knees ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mp0yPa0zcKw ) by the action of the settlers in Algeria (colons) allied with the Army and is still suffering 60 years after it’s last close brush with the Far Right from the Le Pen toxin. Israel has been carrying out slow motion ethnic cleansing, but under the “right” circumstances full-on genocide is very much on the cards among it’s brainwashed population led by ex-Military hard men: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFoxL3sOAio )
I’m thinking National Living Treasure status for you, Lambert.
This one piece handily demonstrates your encyclopaedic knowledge and literacy in so many areas. I so appreciate the very useful synthesis.
Thank you so much for this gift!