August 25, 2006 at 05:55:56
Who is the Fascist Here?
Recent public references to "Islamic fascists," a term used by George W. Bush and repeated often in the print media, suggest that the President and many writers have an inaccurate or at least incomplete understanding of fascism. This is not to suggest that there are no Islamic fascists, rather to point out that the people on whom Bush wishes to hang the term do not fit the description. Perhaps that does not trouble Bush nor some of the op-ed authors who understand that the use of the word "fascist" is effective propaganda. Even if people are not sure what a fascist is, most know that it is not a positive term, and for many in this administration and those who support them this is sufficient justification to use it. Calling one's opponents unpleasant names is known in philosophy as an ad hominem argument, and it is recognized as a logical fallacy. Sound logic requires us to understand that bad people and bad ideas are not synonymous, and in the same way, good people do not always have sound ideas. But, bad logic often makes for good propaganda.
Politicians, as George Orwell pointed out to us, are particularly adept at draining meaning from language and refilling words with emotional rather than cognitive content. Careful writers of all political persuasions, perhaps especially conservatives, protest the debasement of language by our leaders and public figures. The process has become so ubiquitous that many, if not most, people do not notice that the words they hear or read mean something other than what the dictionary informs us. Therefore, President Bush can call members of Islamic terrorist organizations fascists, and neither he nor most of his listeners recognize any irony in his name-calling. Fortunately, President Bush's misuse of language in referring to Islamic fascists has not escaped attention by some in the popular press. See Georgie Ann Geyer's August 16, 2006 column,
"With Twist of Words Bush Gets It Wrong Again." It is a service to the reading public for journalists such as Ms. Geyer to call attention to the debasement of political terms by leaders who should, but who may not, know better.
Perhaps more than most political terms, the word fascist lends itself to imprecise use. This is because -- unlike most modern ideologies such as communism, socialism, or laissez faire capitalism which have a recognizable set of intellectual constructs that define their core beliefs and to some extent direct or predict their economic or political behaviors – fascism at its core substitutes emotional beliefs for intellectual principles. Whereas communism or capitalism have universally applicable principles, such as public ownership of the means of production or a reliance upon the power of private property within a free market economy as the means to a well ordered polity, fascism takes a form that varies according nature and history of the national culture in which it arises. In the 20th Century, nations with widely differing cultures and political structures have been subject to fascist governments. Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Croatia and a few other nations have each had a version of fascist government, but the commonalities that make them fascist are not immediately apparent in a survey of their cultural, economic, or institutional structures under fascist regimes. Reading books by German fascists (Hitler, Rosenberg) or by Italian fascists (Mussolini, Gentile), or reading the speeches of Franco, Salazar, or Peron will not immediately provide one with an understanding of fascism as an ideology, or even suggest that there are enough common elements among these national movements to categorize them together on any basis at all.
A number of scholars have addressed the problems of defining fascism as a political theory and have achieved some success, albeit at a rather abstract level. For instance, Umberto Eco, the prolific Italian jack-of-all-trades intellectual, identified 14 points that mark fascism in a 1995 article entitled, "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt" (New York Review of Books, 22 June 1995). Additionally, in 2002, political scientist Laurence Britt outlined the essentials of fascism in "14 Points of Fascism," for the Project for the Old American Century (http://www.oldamericancentury.org/14pts.htm). Despite the coincidence of finding 14 points of commonality that define fascism, the two articles do not completely catalog the same traits. Nevertheless, taken together they bring a great deal of coherence to the study of fascism as a political movement, if not a coherent ideology.
Eco, writing before the advent of the Bush Administration, may be considered without reference to the Republican administration of George W. Bush, but it still provides a very interesting yardstick against which to measure Islamic militancy as well as recent American activities and policies. Eco's fourteen points may be briefly paraphrased in summary as follows:
1) A cult of tradition marks fascist governments. National history is selectively presented to emphasize traits that support the myth of a nation's superiority or special status in history.
2) Fascist governments reject modernism and rationality, although they embrace the instrumentality of technology. Fascist regimes are marked by irrationality, anti-intellectualism, and emotion.
3) Fascist governments value action for action's sake. Another manifestation of irrationality and emotion over reason, fascist behavior often favors unilateral action (often violent) over diplomacy or consensus.
4) Dissent or disagreement is usually interpreted by fascist governments as treason. The government exploits fear of difference
5) A fear of diversity or difference within the nation is created and exploited by fascist regimes.
6) Fascist governments usually draw on social frustration of groups or classes of citizens that feel themselves to be politically humiliated or threatened by internal social groups above or below their class, or by external forces.
7) Hyper- nationalism marks the fascist state. Often this is reinforced by government propaganda which makes the populace feel beleaguered or the intended victims of international plots.
8) Fascist governments often appear humiliated by the wealth, force, power or prestige of their enemies.
9) Fascists present a world view that individual and national life is a permanent struggle, and that war is the only acceptable means of asserting, establishing, and preserving the superiority of the fascist state.
10) Fascism relies on a form of elitism, which is a hallmark of reactionary societies, that hold the weak in contempt.
11) Fascist regimes celebrate the Hero. Everyone is trained to be a hero, and to lead a heroic life, the culmination of which is a heroic death. Heroic death becomes something of a cult, tied to militarism, nationalism, struggle, and an irrational will to power.
12) The will-to-power which is a hallmark of fascism leads to an exaggerated masculinity or machismo which is marked by a disdain for women, intolerance and condemnation of non-standard sexual habits. Homosexuality, chastity, abortion, promiscuity, sex outside of heterosexual marriage, and so on are suppressed as crimes against the state or as crimes against nature.
13) Fascist governments usually are marked by a selective, quantitative populism. "The people" is conceived as a monolithic entity expressing the common will which is embodied by policies adopted by the elite, or more usually, The Leader.
14) Orwellian Newspeak marks fascist rhetoric. The perversion and misdirection of language is used as a means of social control and a necessary tool of national propaganda.
Islamic extremists, when compared to Eco's list of fascist characteristics, fail the test although there are some that strike fairly close to certain militant Islamic groups. However, hyper-nationalism is a sine qua non for fascism, but is not a characteristic of militant Islam. Perhaps the nearest one can come to finding an Islamic nationalism is the phenomenon of the "Umma," which was the notion of religious unity supported by the caliphate prior to the fall of the Ottoman empire and the secularization of Turkey. The Umma is not a synonym for pan-Arabism, the doctrine that underlay the attempted union of Egypt, Syria, and some other ethnic Arab tribes or quasi-political entities back in the days of Gamel Nasser. Rather, the Umma was more like the philosophical universality of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, from which European nation-states emerged based upon shared language, history, culture, and geography.
If there is such a thing as Islamic nationalism, it would appear to be in approximately the same inchoate state as were the small Germanic principalities of the Holy Roman Empire prior to Bismarck, or the scramble of Italian states prior to the Garibaldi union. Nationalism is an important concept primarily to secularists, currently a small minority in the Middle East. Nationalism in the Islamic states of the Middle East, if present at all, is a very tenuous concept which was unknown before the artificial national boundaries that the former colonial powers imposed following each of the two global wars of the 20th Century. There may be some in the region for whom nationalism in its fully developed form is a deeply felt, psychologically binding force (Iran is a case in point as it has inherited the ancient Persian national identity). However, it seems demonstrable that tribalism (Bedouin, Saudi, Berber, etc.) or denominationalism (Sunni, Shi'a, Wahabi) create a more deeply unifying psychological identity for most of the sub-elites of the region. Perhaps the most telling demonstrations of this assertion is the reversion in Afghanistan to tribal domination following the arranged election of a western surrogate, and the civil war currently rending Iraq into regional fragments dominated by Sunnis, Shi'as or Kurds.
It must be emphasized, however, that external threats or attacks upon these fragile artificial nations can create and intensify a sense of nationalism where historically it has been very weak. The Russian wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, et al, or the unilateral attacks by Israel or the USA against Muslim countries illustrate this point. The issue here is not simply a reaction against western aggression; rather it is the emotional effect upon the populace of a national war. Nationalism in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories have all been stimulated by war, even by wars waged between predominately Muslim countries. So, to the extent that nationalism is growing in places such as those mentioned here, the potential for fascist nationalism is growing as well. One day, perhaps relatively soon, there will be a sufficiently strong nationalism in some countries of the Middle East to support a true fascism. And, if it happens, it will partly be the result of western preemptive aggression. The irony of this is striking, and is apparently unappreciated by those who continue to advocate a Middle East policy of military intimidation backed by a stated policy of preemptive war. Those who are accusing Muslim extremists of Islamic Fascism are to some extent engaging in a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Humiliation of the Arab peoples and a perceived disrespect by the west for their religion certainly is a lingering source of resentment toward the European colonial powers and the USA. And, the notion of the heroic martyr is part of the mind-set of the Islamic fanatics. Indeed, the vision of martyrdom appears to be the inspiration of young Islamic fundamentalists to sacrifice themselves for the destruction of those they consider enemies of their religion. These characteristics by themselves, of course, are insufficient as markers of fascism. The two hallmarks of fascism, in its 20th Century manifestations are nationalism and corporatism, which both appear in virtually every fascist governmental structure in Europe, Latin America, and Japan (for those who classify pre-war Japan as fascist). An examination of every government that has ever considered itself fascist discloses a deep inter-penetration between government and corporate interests. Corporatism, for Mussolini, was a synonym for fascism. The political history of Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and virtually every other fascist regime discloses a close identity between the interests of the state and the corporate interests which financed and supported it.
For those whose sensibilities permit a simpler conception of fascism than either the Eco or the Britt models provide, probably Benito Mussolini himself best defined the distilled essence of fascism. Trained as a journalist, he could be direct and explicit when the occasion required. In the Encyclopedia Italiano, Mussolini wrote that, "Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power." Certainly the same attitude was displayed in Germany under National Socialism; Hitler's financial and political machine was dependent upon the close support of German corporations and business interests. The same was true of Spain, Portugal, and Argentina. If the merger of corporate and governmental power is the primary mark of fascism, then the Bush Republican administration certainly meets the measure. Bush and Republican deregulation of markets, approval of corporate mergers in that come close to creating monopolies in certain industries (banking, communications, oil, pharmaceuticals), massive cuts in corporate taxes, abolition of estate taxes, hugely profitable no-bid contracts for favored companies (Haliburton, Bechtel in Iraq and New Orleans), huge increases in contracts for defense contractors (Boeing, General Electric), along with a plethora of other examples that might be listed, fulfill Mussolini's definition of fascism.
In light of the above, for radical Islam not only is the lack of strong national identification a disqualifier for a fascist label, the lack of political integration with corporate or business interests is even more fatal. The Islam which is in jihad against Bush and America does not have the economic interests of Western nations, nor has it developed the pervasive corporate infrastructure that marks western economies. The notion of corporatism has not yet come to the Middle East, at least in its westernized form. There is no understanding in any of the Muslim regional nations of corporations as "artificial persons" which is central to the functioning of a capitalist economy. It is true that corporations do business in most of the oil rich states, but the governments themselves retain an independence from the corporate entities. For most Middle Eastern governments, the distinction between a multi-national corporation and a foreign government is irrelevant. The elites of these Middle Eastern mineral-rich nations do not concern themselves with the problems of labor, of capital distribution, or domestic regulation required in a functioning capitalist economy. The reason is simple. There are no (or very few) domestic corporations; the issues created by domestic corporations do not present themselves. These governments simply contract with foreign oil extracting companies, pocket the profits, and do not concern themselves further because there is no (or very little) political penetration into the governmental structure by the corporate organizations with which they do business. Therefore, at this stage in their economic development, most of the Middle Eastern countries are incapable of corporatism, which as Mussolini says, is at the heart of fascism.
A caveat: this observation does not hold for Islamic countries of east Asia such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and some other Muslim countries of the far east. Their embrace of capitalism is so thorough as to admit all of the corrupting domestic influences of corporatism, and thus they are fully liable to the development of a national fascist movement.
Using Eco's definition outlined in the fourteen characteristics of fascism, it might be more than the evidence will bear to brand the Republican Administration of George W. Bush as fascist. Without question, however, the Bush Republican administration bears more markers, and more significant ones, than the Islamic extremists. In an insightful essay entitled "The Rise of Pseudo Fascism", (http://www.dneiwert.blogsot.com, February 25, 2005) David Neiwert carefully and convincingly identifies those few elements which are yet lacking to make the Bush Administration fully fascist. He makes clear, however, that it is perhaps only a matter of time and degree before the final markers can be affixed to this administration. Essentially, he says, America is not yet in the hands of a fascist government because, at least thus far, the executive is not a dictator. Given the extravagant claims being made for the nearly unlimited constitutional power of the President as Commander in Chief, this may be only a temporary deficiency. Because most, but not all, of the hallmarks of fascism are evident in Bush's leadership since 9/11/01, Neiwert chooses to characterize the present cast of our government as Pseudo Fascist: not quite the real thing, but close enough to see dramatic parallels fraught with dangerous potential. So far, Bush has not adopted the title of "Leader," although there is much talk of Leadership as the defining quality of the President. For now, Bush seems content to be known more modestly as "the Decider." It is impossible to fit the Islamic terrorists even into the Pseudo Fascist category as Neiwert defines it, although that is a closer descriptor than the one used for them by George W. Bush.
Of the two fourteen point lists, Britt's catalogue must be considered polemical. In his view, there is nothing "pseudo" about the fascism of the Republican administration of George W. Bush. Each of the fourteen points he lists is annotated in the original article with illustrations of how the Bush Administration has behaved to merit the designation of fascist. Supplying instances of Bush Administration actions that certify their tendency toward fascist behavior may suggest that the fourteen points were selected because they fit Bush's observed behavior and attitudes. Nevertheless, in its own terms, Britt's argument should be examined carefully by any who doubt the fascist implications of some of the Administration's actions. Briefly, Brett characterizes fascist regimes as
1) Projecting a powerful and continuing nationalism: Fascism is marked by a tendency to make constant use of patriotic symbols, slogans, mottoes, symbols and songs. Flags are seen everywhere and flag symbols appear on clothing and in public displays.
2) Disdain for human rights: Emphasis on fear of enemies and the need for security leaves people convinced that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of 'need'. The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations without benefit of due process.
3) Identification of enemies or scapegoats as a unifying cause: The people are whipped into a patriotic fervor over the need to eliminate a common threat or foe such as racial, religious, or ethnic minorities or adherents of some threatening political ideology, such as communists, socialists, liberals, etc.
4) Supremacy of the military: Regardless of important domestic problems, fascist governments give the military a disproportionate share of national resources, and the domestic agenda is relegated to a secondary position. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.
5) Rampant Sexism: fascist governments tend to exaggerate masculinity. Traditional gender roles are made more rigid, opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia.
6) Mass media is subject to government control: fear is used as a motivational tool by the government, but in some cases, the media are controlled indirectly by governmental regulation or through media spokespersons who are sympathetic to the government. Censorship, especially in wartime, is common.
7) Obsession with National Security: Fear is used by government to justify government secrecy and obscure governmental actions that might be of questionable legality or constitutionality.
8) Religion and government are intertwined: Governments of fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology are common from government leaders, even when the major tenents of the religion are directly opposed to government policies.
9) Corporate power is protected: The industrial and business leadership of a fascist nation are often the ones who put government leaders into powers, creating a mutually beneficial government/business relationship with the power elite.
10) Organized labor is suppressed: Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, and is often in opposition to corporate domination, labor unions are eliminated, co-opted, or severely repressed.
11) Disdain for intellectuals and the arts: Fascist governments tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, academia and intellectual professions. It is not unusual for professors, journalists, and other intellectuals to be censored or arrested. Free expression in the arts is openly attacked and government often refuses to fund the arts, or reserve government funding to ideologically approved works. Science, when not in agreement with the government's projected myth, is disregarded and belittled.
12) Obsession with crime and punishment: The police are usually given almost limitless power to enforce criminal laws. People are often willing to overlook police abuses and to agree to limit civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with extensive powers, sometimes with special protections from judicial jurisdiction.
13) Rampant cronyism and corruption: Fascist nations are almost always governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use government power to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon for national resources and treasures to be appropriated or stolen by government leaders.
14) Fraudulent elections: Sometimes elections in fascist countries are a complete sham. Often elections are manipulated by smear campaigns involving patent untruths (or even assassinations) of potentially threatening opposition candidates. Legislation is used to control the numbers of voters, or political boundaries are manipulated to the advantage of the ruling party. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to shape or control elections.
Recognizing that Britt was writing with the Bush presidency in mind, it is worth pointing out that radical Islam fails to fall within his definition of fascism, although other national governments of the 20th and 21st centuries qualify. Without resorting to the illustrations provided by Britt in his essay, it is possible for any reasonably well informed observer of the contemporary political scene in America to recall a number of governmental actions fitting under Britt's list which unquestionably fall within the recent history of the Bush administration. The exercise of listing examples of fascist behavior is a good parlor game for objective students of politics as well as partisan critics of Bush and his Republican administration.
The use of pejorative terms to demonize political opponents is too well established as an effective propaganda tool to expect that the President will cease to use it. However, the Islamic extremists he wishes to vilify do not technically merit the appellation of fascist. It is important to use words carefully and accurately if we are to retain the possibility of political discourse. The President and his enablers among journalists and commentators should be called to account for demonstrably inaccurate and inappropriate characterizations. This is particularly true in cases where the pejorative term is demonstrably more applicable to Bush than to the Islamic terrorists, reprehensible as they unquestionably are.
Ph.D. University of Oklahoma 1971. Retired, emeritus status since 2004. Senior administrative positions in academic affairs at State University of New York, University of Evansville, Oklahoma State University, Eastern Illinois University. Held faculty rank and taught political science at SUNY Plattsburgh, University of Evansville, Oklahoma State University, and Eastern Illinois Universitiy. Academic specialization, political theory, public law, American political institutioins.Bush GW, Corporations, Enemies of Democracy, Fascism, Propaganda