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Fascism: It’s a confusing bunch of sticks… and stones which can break your bones

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Mike Wills is a journalist and talk show host.

Anybody and everybody can be called a fascist these days. So much so that the word has lost any real meaning. We need to go back into the thickets of some nasty history to find out what it really means to be fascist.

It’s the epithet du jour. Woke warriors engaging in cancel culture potentially are fascists according to The Economist nogal. Those same woke warriors will merrily spray the word around in the direction of Donald Trump, Texas Governor Greg Abbott who has effectively banned abortion in his state, the Ku Klux Klan, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus or Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Those on the right still call Fidel Castro a fascist. And any government micromanaging civil liberties in the battle against coronavirus (yes, I am talking about you Jacinda Ardern) has copped the label as well.

Heck, I even described the EFF as fascist on the radio last week.

Clearly, fascism has got conflated with populism, dictatorial tendencies, totalitarianism, suppression of freedom of speech and a bunch of other stuff to the point where it has no real meaning. Professor Richard Griffiths of the University of Wales, quoted in the excellent Wikipedia entry on the subject, says “fascism is the most misused, and overused word, of our times”.

But fascism is such an important concept in political debate that it’s time to reclaim an accurate identity for it. Not such an easy task given that as the renowned historian and biographer of Hitler, Ian Kershaw says, “trying to define ‘fascism’ is like trying to nail jelly to the wall”.

Let’s take the Wikipedia effort as a starting point: “Fascism is a form of far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterised by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy, which came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe.”

If we accept that definition literally, it clearly rules out almost anything contemporary and renders a vital notion arcane. So, we need to explore what is called — and apologies for the unavoidable jargon — neo-fascism. This means post-World War 2 variations on the theme.  

But before we do that, it’s critical to go back to where it began. And that’s with a talented socialist journalist, Benito Mussolini, in Italy in 1919, who abandoned his left-wing roots and founded an amorphous right-wing movement and named it Fasces after an Italian word for a bundle of sticks which symbolised guilds. There’s a breathtaking new book on him, M — The Son of the Century by Antonio Scurati (4th Estate), which employs a variation of Hilary Mantel’s style of history — rich research and original documents meshed with superb interpretative fiction — to create an amazing portrait of the wannabe Caesar.

I could quote reams of it, but will start with this:

“Who are the fascists? What are they? Mussolini, their creator, considers it an idle question. Yes, of course… they are something new… something unheard of… an anti-party. They engage in anti-politics. But then the pursuit of identity must stop there. The important thing is to be something that allows them to avoid the encumbrances of consistency, the dead weight of principles. As for dogmas, and the consequent paralysis, Mussolini gladly leaves those to the socialists.”

And then add this:

“The fasci have no idea about the future, they don’t know where they’re headed. But… this inadequacy will be their salvation, not their condemnation. The fascists don’t want to rewrite the book of reality, they just want their place in the world. And they will have it. It’s all about fomenting factional animosities, exacerbating grievances.”

And then this:

“Their real program is entirely contained in the word ‘combat’, Therefore they can and must afford themselves the luxury of being reactionary or revolutionary, depending on the circumstances. They promise nothing and will keep their promise.”

Mussolini’s remarkable template of violent anti-politics was emulated by Hitler in Germany and implemented with significant variations, but the Italian model remains the one to study.

Using Scurati’s book and a far less impressive one, How Fascism Works (Random House) by Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley, and Wikipedia (let’s not deny it), it is possible to put together a relevant contemporary checklist for fascism:

  • Fascist movements are based on loyalty to one individual. Beyond him (and it always seems to be a him) there is nothing;
  • In the same vein, there is no real ideology nor party history nor structure to attach to. Their existence is a blank slate written entirely on the whim of The Leader. This distinguishes fascism from, say, communism;
  • There is, however, a desire to control everything. True fascists are not believers in free enterprise;
  • There is no consistency or principle or consequence. What is said or done has the sole purpose of creating a mythology and gaining traction in the moment with a vulnerable section of society;
  • Violence (or the threat of it) is an essential tool to be deployed ruthlessly;
  • Fascists use or, more accurately, skilfully abuse democracy and democratic institutions to gain power, but have no respect for either. They want unchecked authority and will undermine genuine democracy and any constitutional restraints once in power;
  • They portray themselves as determinedly anti-elite. Stanley writes that fascists “undermine public discourse by attacking and devaluing education, expertise and language”;
  • The constant theme is “us” v “them”. There must be a threat to be dealt with, violently if necessary. The existing state is often the enemy; and
  • Freedom of speech is anathema to fascists.

So, genuine neo-fascism is a combination of all of these traits. Each on their own is not necessarily fascist. As a simplistic example, communist governments resist freedom of speech every bit as enthusiastically as fascists. As another, xenophobia fits fascism like a glove but it is not its sole domain. However, to insist on all points being checked off before calling out fascism is naïve. The kind of populism which is alarmingly prevalent in political discourse across the globe lays neatly over much of this list. Before penning this piece, I would have dismissed out of hand suggestions that Donald Trump was a fascist, but he does tick an alarming number of these boxes. As, definitely, does the EFF.

The important lesson of history is that fascists begin as outrageous outliers, dismissed by the elite, and judged damningly within the conventional power framework of the day. But they rapidly normalise and become both acceptable and seemingly unworthy of outrage.

Another lesson is that fascism flourishes in inequality, something we have in South Africa in depressing abundance.

And a final lesson is that it doesn’t take much talent for fascism to succeed. A charismatic and unscrupulous leader is all that is needed. As Scurati describes the original bunch of fascists: “For the most part they are mediocre, greedy, petty men raised to their rank by the updraught stirred up in the sky by the Mussolini cyclone.” DM

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  • Juju and his cronies for sure. But given recent events, large pockets of the ANC are fascist in inclination and at a local government level – where inclination becomes practice – downright totalitarian-ly fascist. So the mayor drive to his well-serviced (electric/ water/ sanitation) home has no potholes, while not a stone’s throw away the electorate pay to live in disgusting squalor.