What is Fascism?

Many people claim—most often with despair—that we’ve elected a fascist president to the American White House. And a worse offense could not be fathomed by many who thought the time had finally come for a woman president.

Now, I’m not a Trump supporter or a Trump opponent. Though it may seem like a paradox, I take a broader and a more specific view. If you want more thoughts on that, sign up for my email! So, having said that, I don’t have any agenda in this post with encouraging readers to any extent of support or disdain. As with many of my posts, my purpose here is to bring clarity, not to utilize hyperbole to influence opinion. I believe that good opinion must be well-informed.

So, the accusations have been sounded: Trump is a fascist! And yet, I would guess that many who throw this term around do so with a tragic level of ignorance about the genuine meaning of the ideas involved with and behind fascism.

And to be clear (does that sound a bit too Obama-ish?), fascism isn’t a clear-cut set of ideas. Although Germany and Italy both followed fascist ideologies, there were certainly differences. Still, a generally good idea of the commonalities of various fascist regimes can be accurately identified.

So what is fascism? A bit of history helps, as usual.

Benito Mussolini

Fascism as a formal ideology with a political platform was founded by Benito Mussolini in Italy. During World War I, Italy had joined the fight on the side of the Allies in time to benefit, they hoped, from the peace terms. Yet, many in Italy were unsatisfied with the terms that finally emerged from Paris in 1919. Additionally, war debt and economic stagnation plagued the country, like most countries in Europe, and the popularity of socialism and its extreme version of Marxist-communism saw a huge leap in popularity.

Keep in mind that many socialists were actually opposed to communism, a point I’ll clear up in coming posts. But for now, it is suffice to say that a general desire for social and economic control by the government had become increasingly popular since the early 1800s, and the desire to implement this control by revolutionary means and authoritarian regimes saw a surge in the wake of World War I.

A quick point of distinction. Marxist ideas (ie, communism) place the worker as the center and central unit of society. Ultimately, Marxism advocates for the dissolution of political boundaries in favor of a united working class and the elimination of private property in favor of commonly-shared means of production and eventual social, economic and political equality. That this can never actually be realized notwithstanding, it was reaction to this idea that spurred the creation of the Fascist Party.

In Italy, the Fascist Party was started as a distinctly anti-Bolshevik (many communist parties took the name of their Russian counterpart) party. At its heart wasn’t the plight of the working class, but rather the pursuit of national glory. In direct rejection of the dissolution of political boundaries, its adherents sought to glorify the nation-state, epitomized by the government of that nation-state. And more specifically, the glorification of the nation-state being the foundation for political morality and the highest of ends, violence in pursuit of power and glory was not only condoned; it was celebrated. You might call fascism fiercely aggressive nationalism. Fascists and Bolsheviks broke out in fire fights across Italy prior to Mussolini’s rise to power in 1921, and when he was in power, Mussolini had no qualms about banning all other political parties and ensuring the “disappearance” of any potential political rivals. We see similar trends in Germany with the rise of the Nazi Party and their first attempt at sparking revolution in Germany in 1923 (which failed). Clearly, later actions by the Nazis in Germany followed the fascist praise of violence with precision.

On the economic front, fascism is profoundly socialist and admittedly anti-capitalist. (I discuss related terms and ideas here.) Mussolini and fascists in other countries, like the Nazis in Germany, ultimately sought to control and oversee the economy with strict regulation and direct take-over of major industries, setting up government-protected and directed monopolies. Bear in mind that this was the common trend of western society (and had been for a decades) and it was Mussolini’s economic policies that Franklin Roosevelt in the United States admired and sought to emulate (without the direct violence).

Romanesque Fasces

One more point of interest. In pursuit of the glorification of the Italian nation-state (created as a merging of multiple distinct regions in the 1860s), Mussolini adopted the Roman symbol: fasces. Obviously, this is where the name comes from. It is a symbol of national unity, strength, glory and power. The ax included epitomizes its praise of aggression. The fasces, in line with other Romanesque cultural elements adopted by the U.S. government, can be found in our capital, but often without the ax.

Knowing what fascism is and where it comes from helps to debunk the idea that fascism is merely passionate nationalism*. It is its celebration of violence to achieve its ends that distinguishes fascism. And despite and cultural conservatism it brings with it (such as celebrating the cultural traditions of the nation), it is also distinctly anti-capitalist and authoritarian.

If you’re up for a more extensive reading on Fascism, here is a link to a very thorough article over at Mises.org. At that post, author John T. Flynn presents comprehensive research and come to the following list of the components of fascism as implemented through policy. As the author says, fascism “is a form of social organization…

  1. In which the government acknowledges no restraint upon its powers — totalitarianism
  2. In which this unrestrained government is managed by a dictator — the leadership principle
  3. In which the government is organized to operate the capitalist system and enable it to function — under an immense bureaucracy
  4. In which the economic society is organized on the syndicalist model, that is by producing groups formed into craft and professional categories under supervision of the state
  5. In which the government and the syndicalist organizations operate the capitalist society on the planned, autarchical principle
  6. In which the government holds itself responsible to provide the nation with adequate purchasing power by public spending and borrowing
  7. In which militarism is used as a conscious mechanism of government spending, and
  8. In which imperialism is included as a policy inevitably flowing from militarism as well as other elements of fascism.”

(Source: https://mises.org/library/what-fascism)

(A note on coming posts: Back in my post, “The Issue of Standards”, I discussed the ambiguity of the typical left-right paradigm. The terms conservative and liberal carry a complex, confusing and dynamic—changing—history. As I am able, this will be the focus of coming posts. Sign up for my email to know when each one is posted!)

*I’ll have a post in the future expanding on what nationalism is; history always presents a much more complex and interesting picture than the media narrative.

Anarchy, Capitalism, Socialism & Totalitarianism

We are finally going to start to overlap a bit into economics (no…don’t leave!)! Fear not; I will make economics clear for all who approached that class in high school or college with dread. In this particular post, however, we’re just dipping our toes in; we’re not jumping headlong in just yet. Hold out for that.

Here is the liberty vs. totalitarianism continuum again, with one modification:

Tot. v. An-Cap

Of course, you noticed that I replaced the word liberty with anarcho-capitalism. I already introduced you to that term in the previous post, but in this post I am going to specifically add a few more items that need to be fleshed out going forward.

First, a few more comments on anarchy. Having just begun my school year as a teacher, I asked my students in American Government what they thought of anarchy. The usual responses are somewhat predictable: a state of chaos, dog-eat-dog, lawlessness, et cetera.

Arguments about implications aside, that is not what anarchy is. Anarchy, as I said before, is merely a condition of statelessness—the absolute void of a state.

Now, to get into the more economic terms. What are capitalism and socialism? We hear these terms thrown around all the time:  Hillary Clinton wants to save us from the ills of capitalism. Bernie Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist. Venezuela, Sweden and Denmark are all socialist. The U.S. and Hong Kong are capitalist.

The fact of the matter is, Venezuela and Sweden are worlds apart in terms of economic policy. (And we’ll clear up this very specifically in time.) In many respects, so are the U.S. and Hong Kong. So what do these terms really mean?

Let’s go old-school here for a moment (bear with me!) and get a Merriam-Webster definition for each:

Capitalism is “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods…and by prices, production and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.” (*)

Socialism, in contrast, is “any of various and political theories advocating collective or government ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” (*)

I am not 100% satisfied with these definitions and further clarifications are necessary, I think; that will be the attention of the remainder of this and the next several posts. For now, let us revisit the idea of anarcho-capitalism: a state in which the market has absolutely no infringement from any state. Everything—the resources, the means of production, the production process, and the distribution process—is owned by individuals.

As one proceeds from right to left on the continuum, they move steadily closer toward totalitarianism. This progression is a steady increase in socialism—a steady increase in the influence of government in the market economy. Every movement left from a state of absolute anarcho-capitalism is an increase in socialism to some extent, that is (at risk of redundancy), an increase in government control over any or all of each of the following: the resources, the means of production, the production process, and the distribution process.

Therefore, socialism is not a “point” on the continuum, but a range. Still, this bears a bit of pragmatic qualification. Calling Venezuela a socialist country is certainly more true than calling the U.S. a socialist country, even though both have elements of socialism, one much more than the other. To be sure, I will utilize the practical, generalized definition of socialism as a description of nations, but I think understanding the range associated with the term is needed first.

And of course, at the far left we find ourselves in the condition in which the state has absolute control (there is no economic freedom). This was virtually the case of Soviet Russia under Stalin, as much as his secret police could enforce it. (An estimated 4 million Soviet Ukrainians died of starvation from 1932-1934, as it was Soviet policy to grow the food in the fertile Ukraine and transport it to the industrial workers is Russia.)

To conclude, let’s take one more look at the reverse direction. As one moves from left to right, we find an alternative increase in capitalism and incremental freedom.

Increasing Capitalism and Socialism

The whole point here is that socialism and capitalism operate on a range, or along the continuum, between anarcho-capitalism and totalitarianism.

Naturally, the diligent reader will note that this discussion necessarily has an economic focus at the neglect of social, ethical, fiscal or other issues. That’s all coming up.

(* provides the link to the original source)


 

The Issue of Standards

I’m going to start this post with the first of the two continuums that I included in the last post.

Liberal v. Conservative

                       “the left”                                             vs.                                             “the right”

Since it’s been a few days since my previous post, I’ll come back to that now and expand a bit. (Please don’t feel insulted that I would suggest that my readers aren’t smart enough to get it; that is not at all my suggestion! I’d just like to unpack this a bit.)

Regarding the first continuum, whereby the political and economic paradigm, if you will, is framed between liberal and conservative ideology, or what people will often refer to as “left wing” or “right wing,” the first major that needs to be addressed is…

…there is no solidly identifiable standard by which either can be compared. All we have, as I pointed out a few posts ago, is a sort of nebulous “tends to” sort of stereotypes about each side.

Let’s look at the extremes to help make this point. Somehow, Fascists (and Nazis) get thrown in on occasion far on the right and communists and socialists get thrown in far on the left. According to what standard? Are Nazis far on the right because they are extreme nationalists? Then leftists must be anti-nationalists. And that standard falls apart.

Are communists and socialists on the far left because they seek an equality and government redistribution as a means to ensure that equality (and in the case of communism, ultimately eliminate private property)? If that defines the standard, then how do we contend with the idea that most fascist regimes employed the same government control over the economy that socialists do.  (Even the Nazi party, by the way, was the National Socialist German Worker’s Party.) And that standard falls apart.

See how nonsensical this is? The attempt at establishing a standard baseline for understanding “left” vs. “right” becomes even more precarious as you move from these extremes. The whole “each side tends to” approach is hardly canon across the board.

(A brief anticipation: I expect that my more traditional conservative readers will find among them the protest that moral issues, such as abortion, drug use, or marriage-related issues play a key defining feature. They are not altogether incorrect, but it still does not get beyond a “tends to”–even if strongly–argument. It is still too narrow a focus and doesn’t account for other important issues, such as fiscal matters. Don’t worry; these issues are important to me, and I will tackle them in time!)

Now to return to my preferred continuum for our context:

Liberty v. Tyranny

In this paradigm, the standards are concretely defined. Any framework of understanding must have fully definable standards in order to truly understand the range between.

On the far right is liberty. The state of utter and complete liberty in political, social and economic life is called Anarcho-Capitalism. (Incidentally, the slang for those who believe that this is ultimately the ideal state calls themselves “an-caps”.) Anarcho, of course, is drawn from anarchy, defined as a state-free society, and capitalism ties in the economic aspect that the market is likewise 100% free of any involvement from any authority.

On the far left is totalitarianism, which is absolute control by the state. Merriam-Webster defies totalitarianism as “the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority” (Merriam-Webster).

Both of these extremes are absolute, and because they are absolute and definable, they create a standard by which we can measure and understand state control to varying degrees from one end to the other.

And this will help us understand much more of the specifics of those varying degrees as we proceed.


 

Human Nature is Like Water

water-rocks-stream-leaves-large

People are like water. At least, in one way critical to understanding why I would even bother creating this entire blog.

As a Christian, I believe that human nature is inherently bent toward sin. Many libertarians and liberty-minded people disagree with me. Well, frankly, I think most people disagree with me.

But whether or not you agree with that premise, I think I can win my case about water.

Water always takes the path of least resistance. It will not climb a hill when it could run down a ravine. It will readily spray from the faucet where a hose has been poorly connected while leaving the plants at the other end just as parched as before. But it is an obvious enough idea that it really doesn’t merit further examples.

Still, allow me to make the connection to human nature. With exceptions that are more rare than normal, most people, without a great enough commitment beyond their own desires, will pursue their needs and wants in the easiest way possible. This is not always necessarily bad. For example, it drives people to industry and efficiency. Why would I learn to write html code to design this blog when I could simply use the wonderfully simple tool of WordPress?

And yet, this pursuit of self-interest along the path that creates the least friction in that pursuit often is wrong, both subtly and not so subtly. The untrained human nature will tend to try to cheat on a test if there is no possibility it could be found out and it will guarantee them an A. But it is not always so obvious and most often is more about a balancing act between integrity—doing right—and lack thereof. Can I get a good grade in this class by only skimming the book? What is the minimum number of sales I must make to earn a bonus at work? Sometimes it’s not necessarily a moral or ethical question. Will I be willing to commit a larger portion of my salary for a longer period of time in order to get that bigger house now?

See where I am going with this? Now, before those who do not believe in an external or transcendent standard of morality that would inherently condemn my suggestions that there is a fundamental right and wrong, follow me to my more practical conclusion…in my next couple of posts.