There’s a growing fascist movement in America that we aren’t prepared to grapple with. People support fascist ideologies while thinking they are opposing fascism by supporting “the All-American Way” (for example, this exchange). Meanwhile, opposition on the left uses the word indiscriminately to bash anything they disagree with, or worse, they lack the knowledge to identify it at all. I used to laugh when my right-wing friends shared images of Obama as a fascist, but that was a mistake. We have to talk about this. This is the first in a series of long reads that is intended to give you—regardless of your shade on the political spectrum—the ability to recognize and discuss fascism.
The Myth of Progress
Fascism Isn’t Synonymous with Tyranny (What Fascism Isn’t)
To many Americans, fascism is just another word for despotism, or any moves away from democracy. But fascism is something more specific, a philosophy defined by a particular powder keg of values. This error is commonplace because American history is always taught in public school as the narrative of the triumph of capitalist American democracy against all forms of tyranny or revolution. Americans against the British Imperialists, Americans against the Nazis, Americans against the Communists, America against the terrorists. Thus it’s is only natural to think of fascism like so:
I’m defining each of these words, so we can be absolutely clear on what is wrong with this chart, and how this way of thinking has aided the slip into fascism. I want to make sure we are all on the same page, because disagreement over basic definitions has made dialogue impossible.
We Often Confuse Economy with Government
First, and I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but FIRST, capitalism and socialism are not systems of governance. They are economic systems. They tend to be associated with certain forms of government, but don’t have to be. People are constantly assuming that a capitalist country is democratic, or that a socialist country must be despotic. This is incorrect.
When the youth of America embraced the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, of course that’s scary to any American who sees socialism as coupled to tyranny. I’m not saying this to advocate for a particular economic system, it’s just a fact that the way the country is governed and how free it is is not determined by its economic model. You can have capitalist communists, like China. You have socialist democracies like Denmark.
What Is Capitalism?
Capitalism is an economic system that embraces competition, with the belief that the most hard-working and clever will naturally rise to the top and reap the most rewards. (Therefore, rules and regulation are unnecessary.)
What Is Socialism?
Socialism is an economic system that favors dividing resources based on need, with the belief that looking out for those at the bottom is more important than ensuring those at the top get what they earned.
Pure socialism and pure capitalism are rare. Most economies combine elements of both. For example, though America is capitalist, popular socialist programs include social security and Medicare.
Why Socialism Is Associated with the Left/Capitalism Associated with the Right
Because socialism must be associated with bigger government, higher taxes and social welfare, it tends to be linked to leftists governance. Likewise, because capitalism favors small government, lower taxes and social Darwinism, it tends to be associated with conservative governance. I think most conservatives would agree with this.
More importantly, socialists view their country, in the words of neocons, as “the mommy state.” Indeed, in Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakeoff’s psychological research shows that people view the world through metaphorical frames. Our first exposure to political moral worldviews is through the governance of our family. Left-leaning people want the country run with maternal values: nurturing, listening, providing—while conservatives prefer a father archetype—punishing, testing, rewarding. Lefties want to take care of the poor, conservatives want to teach them discipline, force them to straighten up and fly right. Lakeoff says,
In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right…When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.
Thus history looks more like this:
Right ←——→ Left
This isn’t a chart of progress. Which direction history should move depends entirely on your values and beliefs about human nature. With me so far?
Revolutionary Movements: Communism, Anarchism and Fascism
The farther left a person is, the larger they are going to want that social safety net. The biggest social safety net would be “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” That’s what communists want: a government that strives to make things equal between various classes, by force if necessary. Socialism is the means by which that equality is enforced. Thus socialism is a critical element of communism, but not all socialist countries are communists.
What Is Communism?
A left-leaning system of government based on Karl Marx’s idea that 1) In in an industrial society, machines will do the jobs of labor, which will create 2) an imbalance of supply and demand with leads to 3) the devaluing and exploitation of the labor force, which will continue and worsen until 4) the workers take over the state.
Essentially, Communists are not only for the overthrow of the government, they see it as part of the inevitable march of history. Industrialization is seen as a lever that will press on the working class until they eventually break (revolt). The end goal of communism is a nation that enforces total equality between its citizens, until the state becomes unnecessary and is done away with.
Now our chart looks like this:
What Is Anarchism?
There is one more radical political philosophy often associated with the left, anarchism. Anarchists don’t want any form of government, they want total direct democracy. The end goal of anarchists is the same as Communists: a withering away of the state, where people live together in harmony, and help each other as needed. However, anarchists are skeptical that communism can succeed, because power always corrupts. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Thus, anarchists aim to destroy hierarchies and make systems more democratic. The government they want is no government, a crazy idea except that humans lived that way for hundreds of years!
I’m not putting them in our chart on systems of government because the government anarchists want is no government! I just thought it worth mentioning because it’s another term people get confused about.
What the Heck is Fascism?
But what if a person is ready to revolt, but they don’t want to enforce equality? What if they believe the whole idea of class is a lie to take from the hard workers and give to lazy roustabouts? What if they believe discipline is more important than nurturing? In short, what does a right-wing revolution look like? Fascism is the answer.
As communism is linked to leftist revolution, fascism is strongly linked to the far-right. This gets back to George Lakeoff’s metaphorical distinction I mentioned previously—leftists tend to see the role of the state as protective and nurturing, a motherland, whether they are true blue democrats or armchair communists. The right sees the role of the state as the fatherland: there to discipline wrong-doers and provide jobs for hardworking Americans, whether they are moderate Republicans or members of the tea party, or fascists.
Cognitive behavioralist George Lakeoff again:
The strict father logic extends further. The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, Our Country above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above non-Christians, Straights above Gays.
Lakeoff will be the first to agree that not all conservatives think men are above women or whites are above nonwhites, but there is a common agreement among conservatives that some people are better and more deserving than others. Fascists take this to the extreme. They believe that might makes right; if terrible things happen to minorities/weirdos/protesters (the mysterious “other”) they are getting what they deserve.
Nationalism is the most important defining characteristic of fascism. Fascists believe that their country and their people are better than any other. Therefore, foreigners are physically and morally inferior. They believe that problems in their society are due to the corruption, laziness and decadence of these supposedly inferior people. Therefore, the only way to succeed is to get rid of these people, either by deportation, separation or murder. Fascists believe a better society comes through purity. Therefore, fascism is inherently discriminatory.
Fascism is nationalism taken to the extreme. In a fascist society, the state is always right, and never to be questioned. Therefore any criticism of the state should be punished (Note: I’m not saying other forms of government don’t oppress detractors, only that fascists are always in favor of doing so). The media and art exist to exalt the state and sing its praises. By criticizing your country, you betray it. “We’re number 1!” say fascists, and any other message is treason. Therefore, fascism always leads to censorship and oppression of dissent.
Fascists put total trust in a leader who is chosen to be the voice of the people. As a revolutionary movement, fascism is suspicious of the establishment and existing political parties, whom they see as untrustworthy elites. Though it is conservative, it is not Republican. The alt-right has hitched its cart to the GOP as a way to gain power, and they have some views in common, but they do not see themselves as of it (just as how many socialists vote Democrat but don’t see themselves as aligned with the Democratic party).
Now we can finish that chart.
Right ←——→ Left
This is why lefties get so pissed off when neocons refer to anyone on the left as fascist. Fascism is a radical-right movement in direct opposition to everything the left stands for. Call Obama a socialist, call him a communist, call him a damned pinko. I won’t agree, he’s barely even a moderate, but calling him a fascist reveals a total ignorance of what the word means. If you want to say someone is an extreme leftist and you call them a fascist, you’ve already lost the argument and you look like an idiot. Granted, in today’s era of fascist propaganda, those with an agenda will be quick to spread such lies (Never forget that “antifa” isn’t an organization, it’s an adjective that means only ANTI-FASCIST! Anyone who tells you anti-fascists are fascists is not to be trusted, any more than the authoritarian government in 1984 claimed that 2+2=5!).
Of course most conservatives aren’t fascists, just as most liberals aren’t communists. Not all conservatives are radical! There will always be extremists in every group, more so as suffering leads people to desperation.
This is just a short description of fascism, I’m going to go into detail on each aspect. But first…
“But What About National Socialism?”
I’ve not at all addressed the opposition to this argument, which goes like this: “But wait, if communists are on the left, and fascists are on the right, why were the Nazis the National Socialist party?” That’s a perfectly good question, which is why in my next post I unpack the history of fascism and why the Nazis called themselves socialists.
Additional Sources and Recommended Reading
*Because this series is focused on American fascism, examples are given in that context. In another context you might say Italian, German, Japanese, etc. fascism.
Karma has a degree in writing and sociology. She’s an Americorps grad and a board member of the California Writers Club. Her first foray into human rights work was with the Westcott 12 activists who launched a 100+ day camp out in protest of sweatshop labor. Since then she’s organized with IndyMedia, Occupy Oakland, and most recently with Solidaridad Con Los Ninos, a group that organizes caravans to visit detainment centers. She loves street art, poetry, and dancing with wild abandon.