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Is Fascism Returning to Western Civilization? Is Fascism Returning to Western Civilization?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-08-10 09:15:21
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“Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline. A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restrains goal of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

-Robert Paxton (the preeminent scholar on the subject of how countries turn fascist.

From The Journal of Modern History, 1998)

In the wake of the recent horrific massacre in Norway, many have asked if the perpetrator was a madman or a “fundamentalist Christian Zionist,” or perhaps a fascist of sort. I have already written an article disputing the label Christian Zionist. Breivik’s defending lawyer has taken the approach of declaring him a madman to be locked in an insane asylum. The label of fascist is rejected in his manifesto by the same Breivik who prefers to see himself as a knight Templar, a “cultural Christian” out to save Western civilization from the menace of Islam. I have also disputed the correctness of the metaphor of the Knights Templar who were not terrorists. So, most have settled on the label terrorist, and left at that. But it is more complex than that. Few have asked the more crucial question: granted that there are now in the West thousands with the same mind-set as Breivik disseminating their ideology via the blogosphere, are we witnessing the return of fascism?

To answer that question one has to first define exactly what is meant by Fascism and then look at the steps required to get there. I can think of no better scholar for that purpose than Robert Paxton, an emeritus professor of history and political science who has devoted his life to the study of how countries turn fascist. In 1998, in The Journal of Modern History he offered the above quoted definition of fascism. Most scholars agree with that definition. He then went on to delineate five stages by which mature democracies turn fascist. Let’s look at them.

In the first stage, a rural movement emerges to effect some kind of nationalist renewal; a sort of rebirth from the ashes. They come together to restore a broken social order, always drawing on themes of unity, order, and purity. Reason is rejected in favor of passionate emotion. The way the organizing story is told varies from country to country; but it's always rooted in the promise of restoring lost national pride by resurrecting the culture's traditional myths and values, and purging society of the toxic influence of the outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery. This xenophobia goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks who called outsiders barbarians and at times saw philosophers and assorted intellectuals as trouble makers.

What is intriguing in this analysis of the first stage is the insistence by Paxton that fascism only grows in the disturbed soil of a mature democracy in crisis and then suggests that almost every major country in Europe sprouted a proto-fascist movement in the wretched years following WWI. These movements are blatantly racist, sexist, exclusionary, and invariably addicted to the politics of fear and rage with not a moment's shame about it.
 
In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power. Interestingly, in every case Paxton cites, the political base came from the rural, less-educated parts of the country; and almost all of them came to power very specifically by offering themselves as informal goon squads organized to intimidate farm-workers on behalf of the large landowners. The Italian Squadristi and the German Brown-shirts made it their task to break up farmers' strikes. And these days in the US, GOP-sanctioned anti-immigrant groups make life hell for Hispanic agricultural workers.

The Tea Party pretends to be a populist party but that is misleading, for in reality it was created with a few thousand “true believers” financed by the rich and powerful within the Republican party. This is exactly what happened in Germany in the 30s. They are now repaying their financiers by making sure that they do not share in the national sacrifice required by a sagging economy, so that they continue benefiting from tax cuts established by the preceding administration. They call them “job creators” and “over-achievers” deserving of all those tax cuts  but the only jobs they have created is abroad where labor is cheap and the profits are enormous. They are now sitting on two trillion dollars worth of profits. The budget, as far as the Tea Party is concerned, is to be balanced on the back of the poor and the middle class by gutting the social programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That being the case, perhaps a better description for these privileged overachieving  people is “filthy rich” or “exploiters.” 

Paxton writes that succeeding at the second stage "depends on certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of a liberal state, whose inadequacies condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a growing Left as a legitimate governing partner." He further notes that Hitler and Mussolini both took power under these same circumstances: "deadlock of constitutional government (produced in part by the polarization that the fascists abetted); conservative leaders who felt threatened by the loss of their capacity to keep the population under control at a moment of massive popular mobilization; an advancing Left; and conservative leaders who refused to work with that Left and who felt unable to continue to govern against the Left without further reinforcement." More ominously: "The most important variables...are the conservative elites' willingness to work with the fascists (along with a reciprocal flexibility on the part of the fascist leaders) and the depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate."

One has to be blind not to see in that description the anti-multiculturalism crowd of today’s EU or, for that matter, the Tea party within the US Congressional Republicans. Though the GOP has been humiliated, rejected, and reduced to rump status by a series of epic national catastrophes mostly of its own making, its leadership can't even imagine governing cooperatively with the newly mobilized and ascendant Democrats. Lacking legitimate routes back to power, their last hope is to invest the hardcore remainder of their base with an undeserved legitimacy, recruit them as shock troops, so to speak. When that unholy alliance is made, then the third stage -- the transition to full-fledged government fascism -- begins.

In the third stage this alliance becomes visible. The Tea Party was created by groups like Dick Armey's Freedom-Works and Tim Phillips' Americans for Prosperity, with massive media help from FOX News. We see the Birther fracas -- the kind of urban myth-making that should have never made it out of the pages of the National Enquirer – being openly accepted and ratified by Congressional Republicans. That is quite ominous, for it means that America's conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country's legions of discontented far right thugs. They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their enforcement arm on America's streets, sanctioning the physical harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals, and public officials who won't do their political or economic bidding. On the other side of the Atlantic we see political leaders declaring multi-culturalism a failure and the virulent growth of neo-Nazism among the young and those who have nostalgia for the “law and order” of a Mussolini or a Hitler. This is the catalyzing moment at which fascism begins. The disturbing question at this point is: can it still be stopped?

According to Paxton, the forging of this third-stage alliance is the make-or-break moment -- and the worst part of it is that by the time you've arrived at that point, it may be too late to stop it. From here, it escalates, as minor thuggery now discernible, turns into beatings, killings, and systematic tagging of certain groups for elimination, all directed by people at the very top of the power structure. After Labor Day, when Democratic senators and representatives go back to Washington, the mobs now being created to harass them will remain to run the same tactics -- escalated and perfected with each new use -- against anyone in town whose color, religion, or politics they don't like. The case of the gunned down Representative Gabrielle Giffords is a case in point. So, where is the danger line? Paxton offers three quick questions that point to it:

Are neo-fascists becoming rooted as parties that represent major interests and feelings and wield major influence on the political scene?

Is the economic or constitutional system in a state of blockage apparently insoluble by existing authorities?
Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge?

I’ll let the reader answer those three questions and assess for themselves where we are presently. But no matter how those three questions are answered, one thing is for sure, according to Paxton: history tells us that once this alliance catalyzes and makes a successful bid for power, there's no way to avoid the inevitable rise of fascism. And so we come to stage four which may be what is ahead of us in the West on both sides of the Atlantic, unless we manage to fashion  a viable solution based on historical facts and not ideological fanaticism.

In stage four, as the duo assumes full control of the country, power struggles emerge between the brownshirt-bred party faithful and the institutions of the conservative elites – be it church, military, professions, and business. The character of the regime is determined by who gets the upper hand. If the party members (who gained power through street thuggery) win, an authoritarian police state may follow. If the conservatives can get them back under control, a more traditional theocracy, corporatocracy, or military regime can re-emerge over time. But in neither case will the results resemble the democracy that this alliance overthrew. Paxton characterizes stage five as "radicalization." Radicalization is likely if the new regime scores a big military victory, which consolidates its power and whets its appetite for expansion and large-scale social engineering, Germany in the30s is exemplary here. In the absence of a radicalizing event, entropy may set in, as the state gets lost in its own purposes and degenerates into incoherence, Mussolini’s Italy is exemplary.
 
Some still discount this scenario as improbable and absurd. They dismiss it as just political theater; but this outright dismissal, I would suggest, overlooks the present danger. By Paxton’s analysis it is not difficult to discern that we may be now on the exact spot where full-blown fascism is ready to be born. Every day that the conservatives in Congress, the right-wing talking heads on both sides of the Atlantic, and their noisy anti-culturalist minions are allowed to hold up our ability to govern and a functioning democracy, is another step across the final line beyond which, as per the same Paxton, no country has ever been able to return. Let those who have ears, let them hear.



    
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Emanuel Paparella2011-08-10 14:58:54
P. S. There are two typos to be corrected in the above article: rich, and exploiters.


Thanos2011-08-10 22:21:06
I'm afraid Emanuel that the near future will have some more "dark" surprises for all of us and I don't think that it has only to do with underestimating the problem but with the real size of the problem that we can only just sense at the moment. Sometimes I feel that we are back in late 1920s when people while looking for "the good old times" created a nightmare.

P.S. typos corrected


Emanuel Paparella2011-08-11 06:46:14
Let us hope you and I and Paxton are wrong on this, Thanos, but let us continue to be vigilant since as Jefferson best put "eternal vigilance is the price of freedom." Thanks for fixiing the typos which were my mistakes.


-Linda Lane2011-08-12 22:58:20
its a great article Emanuel.
"The Tea Party pretends to be a populist party but that is misleading, for in reality it was created with a few thousand “true believers” financed by the rich and powerful within the Republican party. This is exactly what happened in Germany in the 30s. They are now repaying their financiers by making sure that they do not share in the national sacrifice required by a sagging economy, so that they continue benefiting from tax cuts established by the preceding administration. They call them “job creators” and “over-achievers” deserving of all those tax cuts but the only jobs they have created is abroad where labor is cheap and the profits are enormous. They are now sitting on two trillion dollars worth of profits. The budget, as far as the Tea Party is concerned, is to be balanced on the back of the poor and the middle class by gutting the social programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That being the case, perhaps a better description for these privileged overachieving people is “filthy rich” or “exploiters.” "


- Linda Lane2011-08-12 23:11:27
http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/6035865223/

For you Emanuel


Sara2011-08-14 00:52:09
Where is the rest of this article?


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