Friday, November 23, 2007

What Is Fascism?

fas-cism (fa-shi-zem, also fa-si-zem)


1. often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition

a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control

- Merriam-Webster Online

The 'fasces' was a symbol of authority in Republican Rome. The senior magistrates of Rome, praetors (who served as supervisory over courts dedicated to specific criminal or civil proceedings, and often as provincial governors and army commanders), provincial governors during their term, and Rome's consuls (the elected heads of government) were escoted by lictors (ceremonial bodyguards) who carried the fasces. It was a bundle of sticks bound together, symbolizing that the magistrate had the power to chastise offenders. The primary means of judicial punishment in Rome, at the time, was corporal punishment. The primary implement of this was the switch. Hence the fasces, a bundle of switches symbolizing judicial authority. Outside the city limits of Rome (also in times of war), if the magistrates jurisdiction so extended, the fasces included the head of an axe. This served two distinct purposes. The first was symbolic, it served to show that the magistrate had the judicial power of execution. The second was practical. In dangerous situations, it was best the bodyguards have a real weapon to hand.

Centuries later the fasces (axe included) would be adopted by Mussolini as the symbol of his 'Fascist' Party. Fascist Party ideology was straightforward, and yet slightly more complex than the above dictionary definition. Mussolini's philosophy (though he did not originate the political theory, to be sure) was that the individual by himself was weak and easily broken; a single stick. A society, organized in pursuit of the common good, was unbreakable; a bundle of sticks tied together. Mussolini's fascism meant the corporatization of society; the government, the citizenry, and business would all work together to achieve the goals of the state and all would benefit. The government would have a single leader, because rule by committee never ends well, and his ministers would advise him and carry out his instructions in a strict hierarchy of power. Business would act as an extension of government, advising the leader on economic matters but also carrying out government needs in the economy. The citizenry would provide the military and economic manpower to meet the goals of the state. All would work together and all would benefit from success.

In the wake of World War II, 'fascism' became the word applied to all of the defeated Axis governments. It wasn't strictly accurate in the case of the Japanese government (which was, despite the relatively significant level of power enjoyed by its leaders and the universally acclaimed but ceremonially circumscribed absolute power of the emperor, much more democratic than given credit for being) and Hitler's imprint of racism on the Nazi party was no part of the fascism articulated by Mussolini. Still, the name stuck and the word has been used to describe far right dictatorships ever since.

Today the word is being thrown around a lot, again. Liberals (as well as libertarians and anarchists) throw the word around on blogs describing right wing governments that aren't quite dictatorships yet but appear to some to be heading in that direction. Conservatives speak in strident tones about 'Islamo-fascism' when they cite causes for 'global terrorism.'

The word comes close to being accurate in the case of the current administration. We were called to fight the 'Global War on Terror' as a nation, pulling together to achieve this overriding national goal. Dissent, reluctance, or concern has been denounced as 'Anti-American' and differing opinions have been pushed out of government circles whenever possible, to be replaced by cronyism and the spoils system. Corporations have been brought into the administration and have become de facto extensions of government policy, or perhaps the government has become a de facto extension of corporate policy. It's not always clear. Central authority, the antithesis of conservatism, has become strengthened under neoconservative rule. We are told that the government and its experts know what is best and that if we all stick together and win the GWOT, then things will be great.

In the case of Islamic extremism, the word is less accurate. While religion can be a powerful tool of fascism, it is not integral to fascism nor is it, in itself, a goal of fascism. The goal of fascism is a strong, streamlined, corporate state working like a machine in the name of prosperity and stability. The goal of Islamic extremism is a return to the days when 'the commander of the faithful' directed an Islamic empire from a position of both political and religious supremacy. Islamic extremists are theocrats, not fascists, and their ideal government system is theocracy, not fascism. Iran's government, as an example, could be called an excellent example of working democracy... were it not for the fact that the religious authorities control the military and the police and can arrest government officials at will. During the liberal presidency of Mohammad Khatami (elected by a huge popular margin, especially among young people eager for reform), government ministers were frequently arrested and imprisoned by the military on orders of the religious leadership. Definitely not fascism, though every bit as bad. Worse than anything happening in the United States right now, as serious as our own problems are made by immediacy.

The antidotes for fascism are already inherent in our constitution. Federalism, the system of checks and balances in the American government, is supposed to prevent any one branch from gaining absolute power. Republicanism, the system under which we elect our leaders and have the power to vote them out when their term ends, allows us to exert control over who makes the important decisions for us. Democracy, the universal adult participation in the voting process, is meant to assure that the government serves the needs and wishes of as many people as possible. They are the things that make us free. Without them the freedom that our current administration wishes to spread to Iraq and Afghanistan means nothing. As citizens, we need to remember that. As our elected representatives, our government needs to remember that.

Fascism only succeeds when enough people buy into it to make it work.

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