There is a wise old maxim that says, “The first step on the road to wisdom is to call things by their right names.” (h/t to Russell Bentley)
In order to do that we have to look at what goes into the process of properly defining a word. There are two things that need to be taken into consideration; the historical, linguistic roots (the etymology of the word) and contemporary usage. The Oxford English Dictionary is usually helpful with the former but not in this case, as it too (following the OED rule that looks at the first instance in print) refers only to the recent manifestations in Italy and Germany. In order to determine usage we need to pay close attention to how and when people nowadays commonly employ the terms “fascist” and “fascism.”
The word “fascism” has as its root the Latin term “fascis.” Here Wikipedia is helpful: “[Fasces:] from the Latin word fascis, meaning “bundle,” symbolize summary power and jurisdiction…The traditional Roman fasces consisted of a bundle of white birch rods, tied together with a red leather ribbon into a cylinder, and often including a bronze axe (or sometimes two) amongst the rods, with the blade(s) on the side, projecting from the bundle. It was used as a symbol of the Roman Republic in many circumstances, including being carried in processions, much the way a flag might be carried today…Believed to date from Etruscan times, the symbolism of the fasces at one level suggested strength through unity. The bundle of rods bound together symbolizes the strength which a single rod lacks. The axe symbolized the state’s power and authority.” Another word with the same root is “fascia,” which Wikipedia defines as follows: “(from Latin: a band) is the soft tissue component of the connective tissue system that permeates the human body…It is responsible for maintaining structural integrity…” Again there is a sense of the binding factor, suggestive of the social glue or cultural bond that defines and holds a community together and gives it strength and endurance.
The Etruscan origin is probably correct and some have theorized that the original symbol depicted a bound sheaf of wheat. Whether factual or not, this hypothesis is very suggestive and goes to the heart of the matter. The bound sheaf of wheat, or bundle of sticks tied together, are clearly symbolic of the basic family, clan or tribal group that lives and works the land together cooperatively. That is what most of the names of indigenous tribes or peoples all over the world mean in their own language, “us,” “the people,” bound together by blood, language and place.
In its primary and positive sense the fasces symbolizes how we are bound to the earth and how, by working harmoniously with it, we sustain ourselves. It evokes primal feelings of oneness with nature and with one another and is suggestive of nurturing and fertility. It invokes the feminine, or mother principle, and it is no wonder that the early agricultural communities worshiped an earth goddess. Its not so benign meaning emerges with the addition of the axe blades, symbolizing the masculine principles of power, authority and the monopoly of force wielded by those who sit atop the hierarchy that naturally develops in human groups. In that sense, the original holders of the fasces were the mother and father of the primitive family and through the evolution of culture has become invested at the highest level in the leaders of nation-states and those who represent them.
In the simplest and most basic sense we are talking about group ego. The term “ego” is generally understood as the sense of self, all of the disparate physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual elements that we think of as an “I,” an ongoing, solid and independent actor. All wisdom traditions point out the danger of solidifying this concept. They teach us that we are inextricably connected, existing only in relation to one another and to everything else. Whether perceived as pacific and cooperative or aggressive and warlike, all group identities court the same danger, the reification of the concept of “Us.” Fascism is neither masculine nor feminine, neither rightist or leftist, but a combination of both. Nor does it have anything to do with a particular political or economic setup. Let’s take a look at what the Italian fascisti, the ones who coined the term, had in mind. The following is in Wikipedia’s translation of the Fascist Manifesto:
The Manifesto (published in “Il Popolo d’Italia” on June 6, 1919) is divided into four sections, describing Fascist objectives in political, social, military and financial fields. Politically, the Manifesto calls for:
Universal suffrage polled on a regional basis, with proportional representation and voting and electoral office eligibility for women;
Proportional representation on a regional basis;
Voting for women (which was opposed by most other European nations);
Representation at government level of newly created National Councils by economic sector;
The abolition of the Italian Senate (at the time, the Senate, as the upper house of parliament, was by process elected by the wealthier citizens, but were in reality direct appointments by the King. It has been described as a sort of extended council of the Crown);
The formation of a National Council of experts for labor, for industry, for transportation, for the public health, for communications, etc. Selections to be made of professionals or of tradesmen with legislative powers, and elected directly to a General Commission with ministerial powers (this concept was rooted in corporatist ideology and derived in part from Catholic social doctrine).
In labour and social policy, the Manifesto calls for:
The quick enactment of a law of the State that sanctions an eight-hour workday for all workers;
A minimum wage;
The participation of workers’ representatives in the functions of industry commissions;
To show the same confidence in the labor unions (that prove to be technically and morally worthy) as is given to industry executives or public servants;
Reorganisation of the railways and the transport sector;
Revision of the draft law on invalidity insurance;
Reduction of the retirement age from 65 to 55.
In military affairs, the Manifesto advocates:
Creation of a short-service national militia with specifically defensive responsibilities;
Armaments factories are to be nationalised;
A peaceful but competitive foreign policy.
In finance, the Manifesto advocates:
A strong progressive tax on capital (envisaging a “partial expropriation” of concentrated wealth);
The seizure of all the possessions of the religious congregations and the abolition of all the bishoprics, which constitute an enormous liability on the Nation and on the privileges of the poor;
Revision of all contracts for military provisions;
The revision of all military contracts and the seizure of 85 percent of the profits therein.
The Manifesto thus combined elements of contemporary democratic and progressive thought (franchise reform, labour reform, limited nationalisation, taxes on wealth and war profits) with corporatist emphasis on class collaboration (the idea of social classes existing side by side and collaborating for the sake of national interests; the opposite of the Marxist notion of class struggle).
This sounds remarkably like a program that most liberals and progressives could salute, doesn’t it? Of course, fascismo changed markedly after Mussolini assumed control and turned it into a right-wing dictatorship, but what we’re concerned with here is the evolution of the term fascism from its linguistic origins in pre-Roman Italy to the present. However, we must guard against the notion that there is anything particularly Italian (or German for that matter) about fascism. The symbolism of the fasces is widely used and displayed in government sponsored designs in the U.S., France and a number of other Western democracies. Similar symbols are native to most cultures; it is well nigh universal.In order for fascism to come to dominate an identity group, it must have a compelling narrative. Whether group identity is based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, class, caste, gender or whatever, there is sure to be a story that glorifies the “tribe” and sets it above all others. Typically, it reaches far back into history and has elements both of exaltation and humiliation, triumph over its adversaries and victimization. And it will come replete with slogans and symbols, and nowadays, more than likely, bumper stickers.
To sum up, the linguistic root of the term fascism and its visual representation clearly refer to identification with a particular group of people, originally based on family, clan and tribe, including place and language, evolving eventually into what we would nowadays call nationalism, or internationalism when it is based on a politico-economic ideology like capitalism or communism. As will be discussed further, the essential principle applies to any kind of identity politics that distinguishes between “Us” and a “Them” and asserts “Our” interests as primary.
It must be stressed that there is nothing inherently wrong with group identification. On the contrary, without it we would be alienated and lost. Indeed, there appears to be a biological basis to this familiar phenomenon – see The Dark Side of Oxytocin, the Hormone of Love – Ethnocentrism – NYT. The turning point is when a healthy sense of group pride turns into belligerent arrogance and racism; when patriotism becomes an excuse for hating foreigners, when we start dehumanizing and vilifying others, when we go along with a party line that gives us the right to oppress and dispossess those outside the group boundary.
Many observers have remarked that people use the words “fascist” or “fascism” in a context that has only the vaguest reference, if any, to historical events that occurred in the previous century. However, there is a remarkable consistency to the usage that is commonly overlooked. First of all, it is always negative, something to be rejected and actively opposed. Second, it is always used to refer to something characteristic of a particular group of people unlike us, people with whom “we” don’t identify, all of whom have in common this “fascistic” quality. And it always contains some explicit or implicit accusation of injustice, abuse of power and arbitrary use of force.
At this point it should be becoming clear that fascism is a word that may have been coined in the context of 20th century European politics, but which has been adopted in popular speech to refer to something far more basic, universal and timeless, for which no handier term existed. I suspect that the peculiar potency of the word derives from the enormously successful wartime propaganda of the Allies that strove to identify “our enemies” du jour with evil incarnate, and kept alive through a myriad of films, books and the approved version of history taught to young people. It is no accident that fascists are always the “other,” while “we” are always both the victims and the heroic warriors keeping “them” at bay.
Let’s look at some circumstances in which a person or some group of people are typically labeled fascist. Children sometimes accuse their parents, or caretakers, of being fascists. What they mean is that their liberty to do as they please is being unfairly circumscribed. No, you can’t stay up late playing video games. You can’t sleep over with your friends, or whatever. They are fascists because they have used the authority vested in their position to control your behavior and activities. You must comply, because they have a monopoly on the use of force, the ability to withhold whatever you want or feel you need and are entitled to, and in the last resort, to inflict physical punishment if you do not obey.
A wonderful example of the notion of fascism as it is popularly understood is the character of Nurse Ratchett in Ken Kesey’s classic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” She represents the absolute and arbitrary power of established authority to control others’ lives. One might accuse one’s boss of being a fascist for exactly such reasons. They have the authority and the power and, as you see it, they abuse it.
In terms of politics, the term is generally employed in reference to parties whose ideology asserts a prerogative to rule based on ethnocentric supremacy. However, it has been applied to a variety of political views based on group identity if that identity is used as a rationale for domination over others. “We” could just as easily be “the working class” as are self-proclaimed representatives of national or religious identity. It is useful to remember that both the Italian Fascist party and the Nazis considered themselves to be socialist, while the Spanish and Japanese parties openly appealed to conservative, traditionalist sentiments. In terms of a useful definition of fascism, these distinctions are meaningless.
Let’s try a thought experiment to test our own fascist propensities. Create a mental list of those characteristics that constitute your identify. I will provide an example by doing this for myself. I am male, Caucasian, an American, a Jew by birth and a Buddhist by inclination, a senior citizen and retiree, a veteran, a writer, a revolutionary, left-handed and blue-eyed with dark hair. And that’s just a partial survey. To what extent do I identify with each of the groups just enumerated? The answer is all of them, to a greater or lesser extent. By identify I mean that there is some emotional attachment, some sense of tribal belonging, however vague and ill-defined that might be.
But is that really who I am? Note that all of the above are accidents of birth, except for being a Buddhist and a writer, which are the result of choices that I made (I enlisted in the Army when I was young, confused and looking for a place to hang my hat, and almost immediately regretted it), Also note that, with the exceptions mentioned, all of these identity groups have a story associated with them, ranging from some simple positive affirmation to a long and complicated narrative. Let’s look at them one by one in terms of fascist potential.
Male – Just ask a feminist (or vice-versa)
White – Just ask anyone who isn’t
American – The Free (to dominate, monopolize, control and bomb) and the Brave (when backed up by overwhelming firepower)
Jewish – When I was young I thought Chosen People meant chosen to suffer. But things morph and change, and now it appears to mean to make others suffer (see the Old Testament).
Buddhist – Yes, there are Buddhists who claim exclusive possession of the Truth
Senior/Retiree – Ah, the Gray Panthers and AARP
Veteran – Ever been to a VFW gathering?
Writer – Those who really know about stuff, the intellectual elite
Revolutionary – the Vanguard of the People (the new ruling class in waiting)
Left-handedness – Well, you know, we are more intuitive and creative
And so on and so forth…
American fascism, by definition, became possible once the inhabitants of the Colonies began to see themselves as other than ordinary Englishmen who happened to reside on the other side of the Atlantic. That self-perception solidified, at least among the disaffected, as soon as friction arose between the two populations, culminating in the War for Independence. Victory arrived with all of the fascist accoutrements, tribal symbols, a self-glorifying national narrative and, of course, a flag. However, those who had the responsibility of fashioning the new nation were an unusual assembly of highly educated, sophisticated people (mostly lawyers) who were well aware of the dangers the fledgling republic was facing – not external dangers, but internal ones.
1. It is the only nation that has ever been deliberately created with the express purpose of occupying foreign territory through the ethnic cleansing of its inhabitants.2. It is the only nation that required the invention of a “people” to carry out such a settler/colonialist project (1).3. It is the only nation to have invented a religion (the Holycause) to complement its secular political ideology (Zionism).4. It is the only nation that is wholly parasitical, dependent on extorting the economic means to survive from other societies that it (or its agents in other countries) has effectively subverted.
Fascism as we have been describing it is a social pathology and it can legitimately be considered humanity’s most urgent public health problem. If enough people come to understand what the disease is and how to diagnose it, perhaps there will emerge a means to inoculate ourselves.
In the short term, it is imperative to dissolve the Jewish state of Israel. Such a state, which has no basis other than a fascistic narrative constructed out of paranoia and mythology, has no legitimacy in our world. It embodies all of the characteristics that humanity has resoundingly rejected in the last century – settler colonialism, racism, ethnic cleansing, apartheid and genocide. The dehumanization and destruction of a people, along with the dispossession of their land and property, is utterly intolerable. The only feasible alternative is its replacement by a pluralistic, democratic state that includes the Palestinians as equals. There is no other viable solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, a conflict that threatens to engulf the entire planet in nuclear devastation. In the long term, we must overcome the tendency to adopt belief systems that are based on blind faith, whether they take the form of political or religious dogmas. Only then can we grow up and have the opportunity to create a truly sane world.
Zionism (a political ideology based on Jewish identity), like Nazism, is a perfect example of fascism. So too, is the nationalist ideology of the Jewish State of Israel, which grew out of Zionism. Ironically, it was based on the intention to remove the stigma and consequences of being Jewish through creation of a new kind of Jew, rooted not in ethnicity, religion or culture, but in a common land, a nation like other nations, consisting of people like other people. Instead, the resulting toxic mixture of ideologies (ethnic, religious, cultural, nationalist) resulted in what could be called Super Fascism, as it mixes all of the principle types. It is, as a result, an historical anomaly and a implacable threat to the rest of the world.
1. American fascism: by political definition the US is now fascist, not a constitutional republic, by Carl Herman
“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.” – ‘The True Believer’ by Eric Hoffer
Publisher, One Democratic State