2/28/2005

The fascination with fascism

Excerpts from a great essay on the Orcinus blog:

Fascism does not come with brownshirts, stormtroopers and grandiloquent displays of power. Those are what happens when it's too late.
It comes with a job and a home in the suburbs. It disguises itself in a surface reasonableness that's easily scratched to find the festering hatred and fear boiling beneath. I was struck, in fact, by how much the white supremacists I met and interviewed and dealt with were like people I grew up around: proud, hard-working, but not very succesful; a little ignorant, a little gullible, but sincere in believing they were doing the right thing. Primed, in other words, for an appeal based in the politics of resentment.
Faced with this reality, it became a point of interest to me to understand fascism itself and its underlying psychology. It is not a typical "ism" in that its ideology is indistinct at best; it is, as I've often discussed, better understood as a cultural and political pathology, which like psychological pathologies comprises not a single core principle but a constellation of traits, beliefs, and behaviors. Fascism happens first on a personal level. Followers are not "brainwashed" -- they join avidly, of their own accord.
Fascists have always been with us in America, at least since the days of the old Klan. But they have only briefly ever threatened to take political control of the nation. Mostly they have been relegated to the fringes. The danger comes when conditions create enough people susceptible to their appeal. Those conditions are in turn created by the behavior of both political leaders and the mass media in promulgating in the mainstream ideas, motifs, and symbols that originated with fascist extremists.
Seeing the "normal" face of fascism, and studying its historical antecedents, made me realize how easily it can insinuate itself in a democratic society, especially one facing a crisis. This was driven home for me, incidentally, by a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, which was as emotional an experience as I've ever had at a museum. A portion of the displays emphasized the roles of ordinary people, everyday Germans, in making mass genocide possible. Comparing these Germans to my everyday Idaho fascists, I realized how few steps are involved, in fact, in making these little monsters, in shifting from resentful conservatism to eliminationist fascism.
This is largely a product of the everyday nature of so many of the traits that form stars in the constellation of fascist pathology -- that, and the fact that fascism always clothes itself in the colors and iconography of the "true" national identity it claims to genuinely represent. Fascism always looks normal on the surface, even though its essentially totalitarian stench can never be disguised.
I've been arguing that as the conservative movement morphed into a discrete force consumed with the acquisition of power by any means necessary, it has, almost by virtue of the very forces into which it has begun tapping, taken on increasingly fascist traits. The result has been a movement that replicates the appearance of fascism but lacks its black core of violence -- a simulacrum, if you will, of fascism.
... Paul Craig Roberts, it's worth noting, does not conclude that Bush or the neoconservatives are fascist; a careful reading reveals that he only observes the familial likenesses inherent in the landscape -- that is, among the rank and file, the ordinary "movement conservatives" whose adulation is being stoked by those at the top. Instead, that conclusion was voiced by Lew Rockwell in his piece, "The Reality of Red-State Fascism," which offers the following take:

I'm actually not surprised at this. It has been building for some time. If you follow hate-filled sites such as Free Republic, you know that the populist right in this country has been advocating nuclear holocaust and mass bloodshed for more than a year now. The militarism and nationalism dwarfs anything I saw at any point during the Cold War. It celebrates the shedding of blood, and exhibits a maniacal love of the state. The new ideology of the red-state bourgeoisie seems to actually believe that the US is God marching on earth – not just godlike, but really serving as a proxy for God himself ... In short, what we have alive in the US is an updated and Americanized fascism. Why fascist? Because it is not leftist in the sense of egalitarian or redistributionist. It has no real beef with business. It doesn't sympathize with the downtrodden, labor, or the poor. It is for all the core institutions of bourgeois life in America: family, faith, and flag. But it sees the state as the central organizing principle of society, views public institutions as the most essential means by which all these institutions are protected and advanced, and adores the head of state as a godlike figure who knows better than anyone else what the country and world's needs, and has a special connection to the Creator that permits him to discern the best means to bring it about.

The American right today has managed to be solidly anti-leftist while adopting an ideology – even without knowing it or being entirely conscious of the change – that is also frighteningly anti-liberty. This reality turns out to be very difficult for libertarians to understand or accept. For a long time, we've tended to see the primary threat to liberty as coming from the left, from the socialists who sought to control the economy from the center. But we must also remember that the sweep of history shows that there are two main dangers to liberty, one that comes from the left and the other that comes from the right. Europe and Latin America have long faced the latter threat, but its reality is only now hitting us fully.
Rockwell's argument is compelling, if for no other reason than that he limns the aspects of the modern conservative movement that most strikingly resemble classic fascism. However, he fails to take into account the differences between classic fascists and today's conservatives, and for the time being they are substantial enough to at least seriously undermine the argument. There are, as I explained in "The Rise of Pseudo Fascism," many such differences, but the most obvious of these is the lack of the dark heart of fascism: an overt aesthetic of violence, as well as the widespread use of violence and intimidation as a political tactic.
...When USA Today founder Al Neuharth wrote a column suggesting that American troops be brought home sooner rather than later, he was blown away by letters comparing him to Tokyo Rose and demanding that he be tried as a traitor. That mood, Rockwell notes, dwarfs anything that existed during the Cold War. "It celebrates the shedding of blood, and exhibits a maniacal love of the state. The new ideology of the red-state bourgeoisie seems to actually believe that the US is God marching on earth—not just godlike, but really serving as a proxy for God himself."
...(What is most important) is the role of movement leaders -- particularly Bush, Cheney, Karl Rove, and the neocons -- in encouraging these proto-fascist traits. There is no evidence that they're doing so because they themselves are actually proto-fascists; rather, I think it remains clear that these people are pro-corporate crony capitalists, and the evidence strongly suggests that they're indulging this style of politics for the sake of shoring up their numbers and securing their political base. The strongest evidence for this is the ongoing minuet the Bush administration dances with the neo-Confederate faction that now rules the South. In other words, "movement conservatives" are being molded into a mindset that increasingly resembles classic fascism, but it's being done by leaders who mostly find this mindset convenient and readily manipulable. Unfortunately, the history of fascism is such that the arrogant corporatist belief that they contain these forces is not well grounded.
What's important to understand is the real dynamic: A growing populist "movement" is being encouraged increasingly to adopt attitudes that, taken together, become increasingly fascist. Greater numbers of individuals are being conditioned to think alike, and more importantly, to accept an increasingly vicious response to dissent. This does not mean that genuine fascism has arrived as a real political force in America; but it does mean the groundwork is being created for just such a nightmare, by irresponsible politicians tapping into terrible forces beyond their ability to control.
If even "paleo-conservatives" can see this, there's hope of stopping it. But I think we need to begin with a clear understanding of who, what, and why the fascists are. The latent fascists who are the biggest problem right now are not Republican leaders. It is their oxyconned, Foxcized, Freeped-out, fanatic army of followers, comprising ordinary people, who pose the long-term problem. Drawing them back from the abyss is the real challenge that confronts us.

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