Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fascism

American Fascism...

There is still considerable linguistic uncertainty as to what it is precisely that constitutes fascism. The term has certainly undergone significant devaluation over the last half-century. Strictly speaking the term denotes specifically the Italian model of authoritarian government espoused by Mussolini - the use of the word to cover essentially all non-communist totalitarian regimes is itself the product of lazy thinking during the Spanish Civil War.

However, to insist on this terminological straitjacket is to be absurdly restrictive: if it is impossible to describe Hitler's Nazi party as fascist, then the term is of no use whatsoever. So then, what characterises fascism, and does it persist in modern political ideologies? Specifically is the phrase Islamo-fascism useful, misleading or nonsensical?

The first point to make is that it is important not to allow the word to mean, as Orwell famously said, something that the speaker personally dislikes. It is not fascist to allow army recruiting stalls in universities; it is not fascist to restrict abortion; it is not fascist to cut taxes; it is not fascist to raise taxes. All these things may or may not be objectionable, but none of them is fascist per se. This rule alone probably invalidates 90% of contemporary accusations of fascism.

But what is fascism? It is classically defined in terms of its features: glorification of a god-like leader; supreme positioning of the army; racial 'pride' amounting to virulent xenophobia and racism; the overwhelming dominance of the state within the economy. The problem with this, as can be imagined, is that there is little here to distinguish fascism from communism. Avowed Communists will protest and add two further characteristics: that the birth of fascism derives from a minority coup, and that it is, almost primarily, an anti-communist ideology. Another distinction would be that Communism is internationalist in its aims: seeking global revolution, where as fascism is strictly nationalistic: National Socialism.

So, on this debate as to whether Saddam Hussein was a fascist, the answer is clearly that Baathism was a form of Arabic fascism. Even though I would argue that a genocidal persecution of minorities is not a necessary condition for fascism (it never really happened in Spain for example, and Salazar's Portugal was relatively tolerant even in its colonies), the parallels between Hitler's treatment of the Slavs and Hussein's of the Marsh Arabs and Kurds are striking (I leave aside the holocaust here only because it is not an event that lends itself happily to analogy). In all other respects, from the Saddam murals to Saddam international airport to the Leader's continual appearances in uniform, to the total state economic control, Iraqi Baathism was a fascist state.

The counter argument is that fascism is a period-specific term - useful only for describing European totalitarianism of the '30s. There is some truth in this, but of a kind that makes cross-genre analysis impossible. It is also, in the mouths of those who cite it, usually special pleading: check with the next person who says that you can't use fascism to describe Iraqi Baathism owing to its ahistoricity whether it's acceptable then to use apartheid about Israel and the Arabs. The strict adherence to linguistic precision often seems to disintegrate.

So, Saddam was a fascist. Whoop-de-do. Labelling monsters is always so helpful. What might be helpful is deciding whether Islamofascism itself is a useful term. I'm not convinced that it is. Many of the principles of fascism revolve around the centrality of the state. While it is possible to declare that, for example, the Taliban in government displayed many of the characteristics of fascism, I don't believe that it's useful to describe the current Taliban fighters as 'fascists'. They're terrorists for sure, but I don't think they can be fascists. The caliphate-seeking mindset of Al Qaeda and similar groups is autocratic, technophobic (another interesting difference from fascism - which worshipped in 'the dark light of perverted science' as Churchill put it), intensely medieval in outlook. Autocratic religious atavism might be a better term - though I appreciate it lacks elegance.
Islamofascism is a catchy term; Saddam Hussein was clearly a fascist; the links between Arab nationalism more generally and fascism are well established, from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to the pro-German revolt in Iraq in 1940, but still, trotting out fascism as a catch-all word to mean something you dislike is no more effective when used by the President of the United States than it is when used by a sulky thirteen year old protesting his bedtime.

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