Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fascism and optimism

            Fascism may seem a bit off topic. I do not think so, however. All indicators point to a dangerous Rightward shift in Western societies since the end of the second World War.  

             Following the dictum, "knowledge is power", I recently began an informal study of fascist / reactionary movements, both contemporary movements (the Christian Right) and those of mid-20th century vintage. The preliminary results of this research have turned out rather surprising, to say the least..

             In the first place, I never imagined that studying such an unpleasant aspect of modernity as fascism could possibly lead one to optimism (a "guarded optimism", admittedly, but still real optimism, however small).

             An informative, comparative analysis ("case studies") of three 20th century fascist movements is Roger Bourderon, Le fascisme, idéologie et pratiques, (Éditions sociales,  Paris, 1979). Unfortunately, I find no English translation. For an excellent empirical analysis of the psychology of authoritarianism / fascism see: Bob Altemeyer, The authoritarians (free, non-printable online version):


          In a nutshell, I consider "fascism" - in the most general sense of the term - one of the greatest dangers the world faces. It exacerbates all the other challenges we now face and is itself a source of great evil. I have always, even as a kid, wanted to defeat it and, to this end, seached for understanding (which never came). My "hypothesis" today is that most people - as Carl Jung claimed - are capable of both the highest good and the lowest evil. There are few exceptions: 1- those born saints and those "born evil": psychopaths / sociopaths (Lady MacBeth and Iago, the vilain of "Othello" are classical literary examples, Hitler is the stock historical example..)

           In reading Bourderon's text, I found the following - to me surprising - analysis (although in retrospect I got that delayed head-slap reaction: "Now, why the heck didn't I see that before! All the facts were at my disposal.. :-0) Bourderon, a historian, describes fascist ideologies as "un habit d'harlequin", a harlequin's / clown's costume, stitched together from disparate and often contradictory elements. This, of course, belies the apparent monolithic, absolutist, totalitarian face that fascism presents to the world. In effect, the party platforms of the three movements studied (Italian fascists, Nazis, Spanish phalangists) pitchforked together:

- borrowings from traditional Right and Extreme Right parties: appeals to "traditional values", Authority, nationalism, imperialism, militarism, appeals to church centered "compassionate conservatism"..

- contributions from liberal democracy (center Left / center Right of the political spectrum): defense of private property with special appeals to the small and medium sized business communities, importance of eduction as a means of upward social mobility (and "elite building")

- elements of "reform socialism" (Social Democracy, progressivism): exaltation of work and workers, denunciation of monopolies and profiteers, populist appeals to the "little people", public private partnerships for public services..

          The goal of fascist ideologues and militants alike is to appeal to the largest possible base of potential voters (populism). In this scam, everybody gets to hear something they want to hear! Inherent contradictions between the various positions and groups are papered over or simply ignored. This "patchwork quilt" nature of fascist platforms, in retrospect, fits well with long observed traits of the "authoritarian personality type" already noted by social psychologists in the years following WW II. Authoritarians are typically observed to lack internal psychological - and logical - consistency or integrity, for example in holding contrary views. Thus they are prone to "project" onto hated or vilified groups their own aggressivity and negativity. Antisemites warn us of the "dangers" of associating with the Jews they hate, fear and denigrate. "We gotta git 'im before they gits us"..

             Things get really interesting when you start to dig below the surface of the "harlequin's suit" motley of fascist movement party platforms. What positive program do fascists propose, for example? That is what are they trying to DO, what are their GOALS, what is their AGENDA (real or feigned)?

              Bourderon's convincing but surprising conclusion: nothing! There is at the heart, the core, of fascism and reactionary thinking a deep void, a vacuum, a nullity but this nullity is filled with hate and paranoid fear. (One can't help but be reminded of Neitzsche's puzzling but - apparently! - prophetic insight that the core of modernity was nihilistic "life-slander" combined with a toxic "psychology of resentment". It appears that reactionary / fascist thinking is not directed toward any positive goal but only against something.

              But what? "Marxism" (AKA "socialism", "social democracy", "liberal democracy", "liberalism"..) and "internationalism" (AKA "One-Worldism"). The goal of fascist populism ideology is to find -  or fabricate, if need be - hot button connections between "instinctive" mob behaviors and trigger words indicating targetted ethnic or social groups, political orientations, etc. Logical thought and serious critical analysis are to be avoided to the degree  this is possible. Thus rabid anti-intellectualism is cultivated as a public - if not "patriotic" - virtue: liberal college professors were denounced as "pinkos" (half-Reds) and "pinheads" (intellectually defective) by the extremist John Birch Society in the US during the infamous McCarthyite "anti-communist witchunts" of the 1950s and early 60s.

           Now, it is this very nullity of purpose at the heart of reactionary / fascist thinking that gives me room for a bit of hope.

1- the fact that they can propose nothing positive to the "Left agenda" is itself heartening. (It suggests there might not be any other serious game in town..)

2- the very intensity of their paranoia and vitriolic attacks tends to suggest that, down deep, they too intuitively understand that their horse is dead, that the race is likely over..

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