Friday, July 22, 2005

Hitler zombie snacks

Orac has spent a lot of effort attacking inappropriate comparisons to Hitler. I'm inclined to agree with him overall, but I want to make an addendum to it. While the bite of the Hitler zombie may well cause normally smart people to make hyperbolic and ultimately dilutive references to fascist leaders, there is a less-noticed but equally insidious problem.

Some mechanism seems to cause some people to make arbitrary and random references to their political opponents as "fascist," or even "Nazi."

This is a harder case to argue inappropriateness, since fascism itself is highly mutable. It does have certain distinct characteristics, and we shouldn't toss "Nazi" or "fascist" around as epithets. There are real Nazis and real fascists, and it dilutes the horror of their views to go around calling anyone who is mean a fascist. It also makes it harder to respond when genuine fascism is incipient.

Fascism is a political movement originating from the right wing of politics, which has the following characters (some scholars add others, but these traits are common to most definitions.):

  • nationalistic motivation, policy and rhetoric
  • a cult of personality around a single leader
  • forcible suppression and destruction of opposition by violence, propaganda and censorship
  • severe economic and social regimentation
  • syndicalist corporatism
  • totalitarianism
Some scholars find appeals to religion to be definitional, but others would subsume that into nationalism, with religion acting as another way of binding the nation together. Dave Neiwert has discussed the scholarly debate, beginning somewhere around here. Eco has a slightly different take, but it boils down to the same idea.

Many people treat any totalitarian policy as fascist, but this is wrong. While all fascism is totalitarian, not all totalitarianism is fascist. Consider Stalin as a simple example.

The most common abuse of "fascism" today seems to be in the usage "Islamo-fascism." Osama bin Laden is a bad, bad person, indeed, an evil person, I'm not convinced he's fascist. First, his interest in nationalism is dubious. Perhaps if we imagine Islam as a nation by redefining either Islam or the concept of nation in fascist nationalism it could squeak through.

Second and more critically, bin Laden's interest in regulating society through corporations seems quite limited. Many see corporatism as a fundamental defining characteristic of fascism, with repression and regimentation following necessarily from a totalitarian nationalist corporatist system. If bin Laden has an economic plan, it is not fundamental to his movement as it was for Mussolini, Hitler and Franco.

As the Times article quoted here points out:

"Fascism is nationalistic and Islamicism is hostile to nationalism," said Roxanne Euben, a professor of political science at Wellesley College. "Fundamentalism is a transnational movement that is appealing to believers of all nations and races across national boundaries. There is no idea of racial purity as in Nazism. Islamicists have very little idea of the state. It is a religious movement, while Fascism in Europe was a secular movement. So if it's not what we really think of as nationalism, and if it's not really like what we think of as Fascist, why use these terms?"
The right term for political movements which seek to control every aspect of your life is not fascist, it's totalitarian. If Stalin or Hitler seem like equally good comparisons, your issue is not with the nationalistic, corporatist agenda, but with totalitarianism, and you should talk about totalitarianism.

Islamo-totalitarianism is a fine phrase, and the right-wing should learn it.

Similarly, we on the left should be very careful in who we call fascist. John Ashcroft was authoritarian, but his corporatism was dubious. George Bush abuses nationalism and corporatism, and has a love of totalist policies. He may not be fascist, but in Neiwert is right to sound the alarm about the Rise of Pseudofascism (PDF). This is why I always call the Christian Reconstructionists "religious authoritarians." It may be verbose, but it's precise and doesn't water down the meaning of an important concept.