When Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra tore into the government in her maiden speech in parliament on June 25, she focused attention back on the uncomfortable “F-word” of politics: fascism. She argued that “all the early signs of fascism are visible in the country today.”
Defining fascism, it has been said, is a bit like trying to come up with an accurate definition of being in love. You know when you’re in it, but you might find yourself somewhat semantically challenged if asked to define it.
While there are those who insist that fascism should only be used while describing the form of government led by Mussolini and his Partito Nazionale Fascista in the early part of the 20th century, there are others who tend to apply the word to almost any form of authoritarian government.
Fascism, however, has a distinct set of characteristics on which there is broad agreement amongst scholars of political history and philosophy, and it is these defining features that citizens in democracy would do well to acquaint themselves with:
In his book, How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale University defines fascism as “ultra-nationalism, be it ethnic, religious, or cultural, with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf.” As far as working definitions go, this is probably one of the best.
One of the defining characteristics of fascism is that it extols national identity above all other identities. Fascism can be described as nationalism taken too far. While nationalism tells us that our nation is unique and we have special obligations towards it, fascism tells us that our nation is supreme and we have exclusive obligations towards it.
A relentless emphasis on nationalism and frequent jingoistic pronouncements by members of the government are sure signs that fascism has arrived.
As author Yuval Noah Harari points out, fascism is what happens when people ignore the complicatedness of life and try to oversimplify it. Fascism sees things in binaries, good and evil, in-group and out-group, and yes, nationals and anti-nationals.
A mythical past
The fascist narrative is always built on a mythical, golden past, an imagined time of racial and cultural purity, which ostensibly came to a tragic end either at the hands of outside invaders, or internal corrupters. Fascist governments invariably come to power on the promise of reviving and resurrecting their glorious societies of yore (which, incidentally, happened to be hierarchical and patriarchal, and ones in which the strong and brave men worked hard and fought battles and the dutiful and obedient women stayed home and raised the next generation.)
In a speech at the Fascist Congress in Naples in 1922, Benito Mussolini made no bones about the fact that the golden past was a concocted one. He said:
“We have created our myth. The myth is a faith, a passion. It is not necessary for it to be a reality….Our myth is the nation, our myth is the greatness of the nation! And to this myth, this greatness, which we want to translate into a total reality, we subordinate everything.”
The function of the mythic past is to harness the emotion and nostalgia needed for the realisation of present fascist ideals. The Nazi ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, similarly wrote in 1924, “The understanding of and the respect for our own mythological past … will form the first condition for more firmly anchoring the coming generation in the soil of Europe’s original homeland.”
The Great Leader
At the heart of every fascist government is The Great Leader, who, not accidentally, is closely cast in the mould of the family patriarch or a figure of male authority. According to Jason Stanley, the reason fascist movements promote patriarchy so strongly is because the leader of the nation is analogous to the father in the traditional patriarchal family.
The Leader, thus, becomes the “father” of the nation. His strength and power become the source of his legal authority, just as the father’s strength and power in a patriarchal family are the sources of his ultimate moral authority over his children and wife. The leader promises to provide for his nation, just like the father in the traditional family, and also promises to keep them from harm.
By representing the nation’s past as one with a patriarchal family structure, fascist governments find it much easier to set up hierarchal, authoritarian and, one might add, non-egalitarian structures of power.
Fascists rise to power by first dividing society into an in-group and an out-group, and then going all-out to demonise the out-group. The Leader is especially skilled at generating fear about the out-group and projecting himself as the only person who can protect the in-group (never mind that the out-group is much, much smaller and poses no real threat to the in-group).
Along with mythologising the past, the fascist state also expends considerable effort and resources redefining current realities. It undermines institutions of democracy simply by undermining trust in them, because once all the mechanisms of credibility are destroyed, who do you trust? You are then left with the only person who defines reality – The Great Leader. The goal of propaganda in the fascist state is to set up the Leader as the only source of reality. It is no coincidence that the more a country falls into the grip of fascism, the more the Leader’s face becomes visible everywhere.
At this point, the Leader can say practically anything and get away with it. Interestingly, this does not necessarily mean that people actually believe him. Vladimir Putin, for example, is known to play fast and loose with the truth and yet has phenomenally high approval ratings amongst the people of Russia. They know when he is not telling them the truth, but they let it go because, in their minds, they feel he is speaking to a ‘deeper truth’ – The ‘truth’ of the ‘glory’ of the Russian people. Whether an authoritarian leader is speaking the truth or not ceases to matter as long as he is speaking to the values the people cherish.
It comes as no surprise that a government that has come to power on the backs of myth and propaganda will single out for attack universities and other institutions that promote critical thinking. Fascist governments work hard to undermine the credibility of institutions that harbour independent and freethinking voices of dissent and replace them with pliant media and institutions that reject those voices.
Turkey’s president, Erdoğan, for example, dismissed and imprisoned more than five thousand academics from Turkish universities for having pro-democratic or pro-leftist views. One of these academics, İsmet Akça, a political science professor said, “These people being purged are not just democratic left-oriented people, they are very good scientists, very good academics. By purging them, the government is also attacking the very idea of higher education, the very idea of the universities in this country.”
Fascism mocks and devalues expertise. In liberal democracies, political leaders are expected to consult not just with the people they represent, but with domain experts and scientists as well. But fascist leaders invariably pride themselves in being “men of action” who have little or no use for consultation or deliberation.
As the French fascist author, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle wrote in a 1942 essay, “(The fascist) is a type of man who rejects culture… It is a man who does not believe in ideas, and hence rejects doctrines. It is a man who only believes in acts and carries out these acts in line with a nebulous myth.”
By the time a fascist government has taken control, we can safely conclude that the elections that brought it to power were fought more on feelings than they were on rationality, because once emotions have been effectively manipulated, then democracy becomes, for all practical purposes, an emotional puppet show.
As Harari points out, fascists don’t hack our emails and phone calls as much as they hack our feelings of fear, hate and vanity. They then use these feelings, which become weapons in their hands to polarise and destroy democracy from within.
Knowing and understanding this is probably the only salvation for a society that has been infected with fascism. If enough people in society come together who value education and critical thinking, and uphold acceptance, inclusion and humility (the diametric opposites of fear, hate and vanity), then there is a chance that the spread of fascism may yet be stopped.
The consequences of not being able to do so are there for all to read in the dark chapters of history.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.