Fascism: Ancient & Modern, Foreign & Domestic

I am currently reading Australian academic R.J.B. Bosworth’s MUSSOLINI’S ITALY: LIFE UNDER THE FASCIST DICTATORSHIP, 1915-1945. It’s a big thick book, lots of footnotes, and I’m about halfway through, a little less maybe.

The book is a bit of a mess, and could have used much tighter editing. I am guessing it works best as a companion piece to Bosworth’s biography of Mussolini (which I have not read), but he unfortunately assumes the average reader knows a fair amount of late 19th and early 20th century Italian history — a terrible thing to assume of your typical American reader. Had I not read John T. Flynn’s AS WE GO MARCHING (a comparison of Italian and German politics from the 1870s to the rise of the dictatorships in the 1920s and 1930s), I would have had no context for any of the history Bosworth outlines in the first two decades of the 20th century. As it is, Bosworth simply plops the reader down in about 1910 without a map or guide and then lets us grope for the summit on our own. He leaves a lot out, and it shows.

The goal of the book is to describe the Italy that gave victory to the Fascists and the Italy the Fascists then created. Bosworth both gives too much and too little detail. It’s not as bad as a diplomatic history, burying the reader in the nonsense of what the negotiators at Munich ate for dinner, but Bosworth seems unfocused, and the reader (well, me, anyway) has to shovel and pick through too much coal to find the diamonds. Forgive me, I may have dozed through the part of the discussion of squadronism, the rise of the Fascist party gangs who, prior to the March on Rome and Mussolini’s elevation as prime minister in late 1922, beat up on socialists and others were not acceptably nationalistic enough, but I don’t recall that Bosworth explained their origin well enough. He may have, and I may have snoozed by that passage. I have tried reading too much of this book while being distracted (why did so many designers choose that strange shade of yellow-green as the color of Italian units in strategic war games?) or tired.

But it also got me thinking — what is Fascism? And is the current direction of the US politics and the exercise of government a drift toward fascism?

We can start with the Italian regimes own words about what it was. Mussolini said Fascism is a system in which “all is for the state, nothing is outside the state, nothing and no one are against the state.” Justice Minister (from 1925) Alfredo Rocco said “The Fascist state has its own morality, its own religion, its own political mission in the world, its own form of social justice, in sum its own economic arrangement.” Rocco also described the relationship of the individual to the state when he said “Only through the state could a Fascist citizen find his well-being and fortune.”

Bosworth also notes that we should thank the Italian Fascists for the word “totalitarianism,” because it was the word they used to describe themselves and regimes they liked, admired or flirted with — Franco in Spain, Dollfus in Austria, Metaxas in Greece (before invading the place in 1940), and sometimes Stalin. The Nazis, he states, never considered themselves totalitarians.

So, we have a state that seeks to be the center of the national community, a nation-state based on ethnicity/language and its supposed superiority (especially in regards to some non-nationals; Naziism and Fascism especially had it in for Slavs). The nation has a special destiny, and has been denied that destiny by both lesser people and socialists. The nation is also an organic whole, and the individual has an identity only through being a member of the whole, and become a full person only by fully submitting to the whole and joining the whole. Only through the leader can any of these things be achieved, and all — party, state, people — must submit to the leader, who (like Christ in John’s Gospel) abides mystically in all and all in him.

Fascism is also an economic system distinguished largely by state management and supervision of an economy BUT NOT state ownership. Some would say this is the major feature of fascism, the thing that distinguishes it between the various forms of socialism that ran rampant in the 20th century. But there is more to fascism than mere economics; it is also a social system that is heavily dependent on organized but unofficial violence to seize and maintain power (however, once power is achieved, the SA and the Squadrons were quickly subdued to the state) as well as war.

Does any of this describe us — Americans, I mean? Flynn thought so. Writing in the late 1930s, Flynn thought he saw a lot of incipient Fascism in the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt — deficit spending, increased executive power, the drift to war. In the case of Italy, war and the deficits they created from 1870 onward eroded parliamentary power and increased the need for the prime minister to accrue “special powers.”

But while the FDR presidency expanded executive power, and was a very important series of precedents on our long, slow but very likely inevitable march to tyranny in the United States, I don’t think it could hardly be called fascist. Or even fascist lite.

Is Bush a fascist? Is Bush’s Republican Party a Fascist Party? Again, there are some significant similarities — and not just with the GOP or George W. Bush. War we got. In abundance, in fact. The United States of America has been at war almost consistently since 1940 (when Congress passed the “peacetime” draft and FDR started moving to involve the United States in the Second World War), with a few breaks here and there in the mid-1940s and the late 1980s. We have been at war almost consistently since August 1990, in one place or another, wars mostly endorsed but not constitutionally declared by congress, wars entered into largely at the whim of the executive, wars against opponents that posed little or no risk to us at home or even on the field of battle. War has been so present in modern American life that I suspect most Americans would not know what to do without it, would assume they could not live without fear or threat, without knowing there were weak people somewhere they could beat to death or bomb from high altitude with nearly absolute impunity.

There are many elements of fascism to modern American politics. The sense of american national destiny, the belief that somehow the world needs American leadership and guidance, that there are lesser people — Muslims, Asians, Communists — who stand in our way and must be dealt with. There is the state-centered economy, which under Bush is attempting to reward friends and punish enemies by ensuring that everyone who is good and loyal gets a government contract — easy money no one really has to work for. And let us not forget the endless contracts for weapons and services. And the ocean of debt being flooded to fund all of this.

But the resemblance is only superficial. Bush is not a fascist, Clinton was not a fascist, and the Democrats and Republicans are not yet Fascist Parties because there are two critical elements missing — mass participation and domestic violence.

Totalitarianism in Italy meant mobilizing the entire society. There would be no spectators in the Fascist State. Bush’s GOP may have thought they were going to create a Republican majority with all their handouts and the endless wars, but that appears to have failed, and they have fallen back to getting a plurality or bare majority and assuming “the Mandate of Heaven” — the right to rule. There may be a leadership cult around Bush (and it’s pretty disgusting), but it is for true believers, and is not marketed to any masses that I can see. There has been no draft, no discipline, no syndicates of producers and workers, no revolution from above. Instead, the Bush regime has acted more or less as an imperial regime, expanding executive power where it can and as it can regardless of whatever opposition it finds.

And that opposition has not been muzzled. There are no equivalent of the squadrons, save on talk radio or out in Blogistan, and they just talk. Democrats have not been beaten up, murdered, rounded up, reporters are still free (relatively speaking), papers and magazines are still published, and regime opponents still walk the street. There has been no effort that I can see to organize unofficial violence to compel regime opponents to flee the country or shut up.

The violence that will emerge will likely emerge from the state, not outside it, and will be broad enough to frighten most of the population without actually having to do so. I don’t even think many regime opponents will be officially silenced or even roughed up. Why bother when the regime can do whatever it wants regardless?

The one thing I am concerned about is the role of soldiers returning from Iraq. What has the occupation of that country taught them about the legitimate role of an army versus a civilian population? It is important to remember that unlike Germany, the Italian army of 1918-1919 was “victorious.” That still did not matter to many returned soldiers, who saw that victory as tenuous, not enough and constantly threatened. And we have seen the effect of the pernicious “stabbed in the back” story that emerged in Germany after the collapse of the Imperial government and the war effort in November, 1918 — a similar myth rose up around the Vietnam War regarding the media and Democrats, and I expect similar “myths” as the result of the Iraq war, though they will be less partisan because Republicans have been the authors of that disaster. That may mean a more politically independent role for members of the armed forces in the future. That’s not a good thing.

So, no fascism in the United States today. This doesn’t mean that tyranny of some kind won’t come — I think tyranny is more likely than not. It just won’t be fascist. Most importantly, it will not likely be a mass-based or “popular” tyranny, and will look more like the regimes of the generals and colonels in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s (Augusto Pinochet, anyone?) than it will European Fascism of the 1920s and 1930s. Which means it will not last long (I do not know how long “not long” is — a few years, maybe), or will at least eventually come crashing down upon itself.

What to do? I don’t believe anything can be done. Politics is broken beyond repair in the United States. Both parties place far too much faith in both the state and the president, both parties believe too much in war and find it too easy to wage, elites in both parties still see government resources and wisdom and unlimited and believe that God or History has empowered them to rule the world. Both parties have substituted ideology for truth and both are so committed to winning and ruling that one day, leaders of one of those parties will face a loss and refuse to concede. That’s when things will get extra-constitutional, when squadrons will be organized, when opponents will be beaten up, when soldiers will walk the streets and “maintain order.” That, rather than some public health emergency or even terrorist attack, is the likely catalyst for the coming tyranny.

I hope I am wrong and that none of this comes. But I fear it will.