The Characteristics of Pre-Fascism

Photo by Michael Vadon on Wikipedia Commons

The following article is included in my new book, Donald Trump: Deadbeat Tyrant, published 13th January, 2021.

Some critics of Donald Trump have long held that he is a fascist. It is easy to see why. He ran on an openly racist platform. He expresses admiration for strongman-type dictators. He denigrates all critical media as “fake news”. He attacks the judiciary. He seeks to erode the rights of minorities. He appears to hold contempt for democracy. His administration operates camps where immigrants, including children separated from their parents, are detained for long periods.

In recent days, Trump has burnished his fascist credentials. He has threatened (and carried out) violence upon peaceful protestors and has raised the prospect of turning the most powerful military in the world upon its own people. He has declared Antifa, a loose collection of groups and individuals who seek to oppose fascism, to be a terrorist organisation. Even The Washington Post, not exactly a bastion of Antifa, is now questioning whether Donald Trump is indeed a fascist.

With a potential fascist in the White House, are we at a point in history where fascism now threatens to overwhelm democracy in the United States? To answer that question, this article will look at the conditions that led to the rise of this ideology in Italy and Germany and see what comparisons can be made with the United States of the present day.

Before that, let’s briefly look at what fascism is.

Fascism is a notoriously controversial ideology to pin down to one definitive description. It is a label that has been applied to all manner of racists, demagogues, right-wing populists, free market capitalists, authoritarians…the list goes on. Sometimes it seems as though it has been applied to such a broad range of political moments, movements, and leaders as to appear to be a meaningless label.

Nevertheless, fascism was an actual existing system of governance. It rose out of the ashes of The Great War, coming to power first in Italy in the 1920s and then via a related ideology, Nazism, in Germany during the 1930s. That decade also saw the coming to power of regimes (assisted by Italian and German fascism) that could be described as broadly fascistic, in Austria and in the southern European countries of Spain, Portugal, Greece and Yugoslavia. Later, a number of countries had, under German military occupation, collaborationist dictatorships imposed upon them that broadly met many of the characteristics of fascism.

Fascism, as initially conceived, was a form of corporatism — a way of structuring society that seeks to organise bodies of people into different groups based on their common interests. According to corporatist theory, “workers and employers would be organized into industrial and professional bodies serving as organs of political representation and controlling to a large extent the persons and activities within their jurisdiction”. In the fascist conception of corporatism, the interests of these groups would be subordinate to the interest of the people as a whole. Under fascism, “the state created organizations representing workers, farmers, youth, mothers, veterans, professionals, and other groups who represented mediating institutions” between leaders and the masses while at the same time doing away with “elections or the other elements of democracy”. (Kuttner, R. Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism, p. 56). In practice however, fascist corporatism amounted to nothing more than authoritarian rule by a single figure who claimed to embody the will of the people. The whole nation was, then, to exist in a subordinate position to a single individual. The “will of the people” was conceived along virulently nationalist lines that held that the popular will was, by definition, to be found in the expression of national supremacy and the quest for dominance over other nations. As such, fascism was a deeply racist ideology that necessarily designated some races or nations as being fundamentally inferior to others.

Fascism portrayed the societies in which it arose as being in severe decline and as having been humiliated by internal and external enemies. The solution that fascism offered was an ultra-nationalist movement of the masses that claimed to embody “unity, energy, and purity”, and which would “abandon democratic liberties and pursue with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion”. (Paxton, R. The Anatomy of Fascism, p. 218). Fascism, then, is the termination of democracy and its replacement by an extreme nationalist and expansionist form of dictatorship that requires universal conformity and obedience to the leader. Fascist countries were ruled with an iron fist and were militarised police states where all opposition was suppressed violently.

Fascism did not arise in a vacuum; it was a result of specific pre-existing socioeconomic conditions that helped make the ideology appealing to millions of people. One vital prerequisite for the success of fascism was the existence of severe economic hardships. The Nazis first rose to prominence against the backdrop of hyper-inflation in the early 1920s. Once the economy was stabilised, they ceased to exist as a meaningful political force. Years later, as the Great Depression unleashed renewed suffering upon German society, the Nazis once more grew in popularity. Unemployment in Germany at one point reached 44% of the workforce and as a result, “people suffered a gradual loss of self-worth, a shrinking of mental horizons, a diminution of skills and often a collapse of the will to work”. (Burleigh, M. The Third Reich; A New History, p. 125) As liberal democracy seemed incapable of turning things around, people, in their desperation, turned to fascism. A similar pattern occurred in Italy where fascism arose out of the economic chaos that followed the Great War. This was a period of high inflation, food shortages, mass unemployment and an economic depression that was causing intense hardships for millions of people. A decade before Hitler came to power, this economic suffering was the fertile ground upon which grew the world’s first fascist government.

The 1920s and 1930s was an economically tumultuous time for the whole of Europe and fascist movements grew in prominence in every European country. However, the success of such movements varied. In much of Europe, fascism did not take power, at least not until occupation by fascist forces. In the nations where it did take hold organically (as opposed to militarily imposed), a sense of victimhood that went beyond matters of economy and material well-being can be identified. This generally did not exist in the countries where fascism did not gain a foothold. The two examples par excellence of organically emerging fascism had in common a widespread sense of victimhood resulting from their experiences of the Great War. Germany had lost the war but had surrendered before the inevitable outright military defeat and was thus left with a lingering feeling of betrayal. As a result of its defeat it had been saddled with war reparations that were designed to keep it weak and which could never feasibly be repaid in full. This national humiliation was heightened by the Great Depression and became linked to the personal humiliation of unemployment and poverty. Italy experienced something similar in the early 1920s. The country had been on the winning side of The Great War but had emerged not as a victorious, strengthened power but as an economically destroyed country that had gained nothing from the years of fighting. Perceived national humiliation and widespread feelings of victimhood in both countries was a key prerequisite for the growth in movements that promised salvation and retribution in equal measure.

The sense of victimhood was also a necessary foundation for another of the key conditions of a successful fascist movement; the identification of a racially inferior group or groups which could then be dominated as part of the quest for national greatness. What fascism successfully did was to tie pre-existing racism to the perceived victimhood of the majority national group, for example the Nazis propagated a conspiracy that blamed the Jews for their surrender in the war. Fascism offered up as a remedy to the perceived humiliation a chance to transfer victimhood away from one’s own group and onto another hated group. In the case of the Nazis, the humiliation of the German people would be alleviated by their own oppression of the Jews. The diminishment in status of the Jews would then facilitate the rehabilitation to greatness for the German people, who having subjugated the Jews could then proceed to subjugate other races.

Italy’s Benito Mussolini followed a slightly different path but one in which the same dynamics were at play. Instead of targeting a domestic minority, Mussolini pledged to restore greatness to Italy by the conquest of neighbouring peoples whom he deemed inferior to the Italian people. In 1920, he issued a speech;

When dealing with such a race as Slavic — inferior and barbarian — we must not pursue the carrot, but the stick policy … We should not be afraid of new victims … I would say we can easily sacrifice 500,000 barbaric Slavs for 50,000 Italians

In Italy and Germany, fascism offered the nation the chance to play the role of the typical schoolyard bully: oppressed at home, he takes his frustration out on other children, demonstrating to himself through violent actions his own self-worth.

There is a final, essential prerequisite for the coming to power of fascism. Both Italy and Germany had ruling classes that possessed a mortal fear of significant redistribution of wealth, and which responded with a willingness to accept the abandonment of democracy in order to prevent this. In both countries, the threat of a working class that was seeking to stake its claim over the wealth of the elite was very real. Italy in the early 1920s faced a worker’s movement that sought to place the factories under the controls of workers and redistribute land amongst the peasants. The ruling class turned to Mussolini’s rabidly anti-communist fascists who they correctly believed would protect their wealth. Germany in the 1930s faced a similar “threat”. The Great Depression radicalised workers who “began to turn en masse to the communists, who received a ‘sensational boost’ in electoral fortunes”. (ibid. p. 133) Just as in Italy, the German ruling class turned to the Nazis as the bulwark that would prevent the election of communists to positions of power. In the words of one academic, fascism was an “attempt to defend property from democracy”.

It is worth noting that in countries where left wing forces were co-opted by the establishment (a perfect example is the UK and its Labour Party) and as a consequence did not pose an existential threat to a powerful and wealthy ruling class, even relatively strong fascist movements did not gain the acceptance of elites and tended to peter out.

To round off our discussion of the types of conditions that gave rise to fascism, let us summarise by noting that it required a congruence of circumstances. What might be called the pre-fascist stage of the German and Italian political scenes was one characterised by a pervasive sense of national victimhood that was paralleled by the personal victimhood that accompanies economic hardship. These were societies which were highly receptive to racist ideologies of conquest and subjugation and such ideologies were deployed by fascists as a sinister palliative to the acute sense of humiliation and victimhood the people experienced. At the same time, fear of a different type of palliative, one that was less sinister and was rooted in notions of economic justice, meant that powerful segments of the elite gave their support to fascism as a means to “protect property from democracy”.

Turning to the present moment and to the question of whether the US is potentially experiencing its own pre-fascist moment, we can note a number of similarities between Donald Trump’s America and the fascism of the 1920s and 30s. The US is increasingly looking like a police state that is undergoing a severe erosion of democratic norms. The recent protests serve to highlight that police forces regularly murder with impunity and the behaviour of the police during these protests seems to indicate that such impunity is growing. Contrary to the way the protests are being presented by much of the media, it appears to me that what has occurred is a “police-riot” in response to largely peaceful protests that seek to question their impunity. Worryingly, the presence of the media no longer appears to temper the excesses of the security forces in the way it once did. Now, the media are shot at and arrested, and peaceful demonstrators are pepper-sprayed or locked up. It is almost as if the US security forces, whether they be the police or the National Guard, exist in a position that is above the law. Will there be any accountability for these forces for the illegal ways (arbitrary arrests, assaults, the covering up of badges etc etc) with which they have dealt with protests? If not, we must note that the liberal democratic conception of “rule of law” no longer holds true (if it ever did) and the US has moved decisively toward “rule of force”, in other words, a police state. Could this develop into outright fascism?

Certainly, the US shares some of the characteristics of the pre-fascism period in both Italy and Germany. For one, the level of racism that exists in American society easily approximates that found in early twentieth century Europe. Economically speaking, the US is currently undergoing an unemployment crisis that matches in scale that experienced during the Great Depression. Even prior to the current pandemic-induced economic crisis, the US economy, as experienced by the vast majority of people, has stagnated for decades. Good jobs have increasingly been replaced by lower income work. The gig economy proliferates and precarity is increasingly the norm. Hunger and homelessness exist side-by-side with an ever-increasing amount of wealth flowing to the upper echelons of society. Formerly privileged sections of the white working class undoubtedly feel victimised, a sentiment that occasionally finds its expression in the “The Great Replacement Theory” of white supremacist movements. Similar to the pre-fascist period in the early 20th Century, feelings of economic redundancy and victimhood are accompanied by a profound sense of national decline. This feeling is based upon reality; we are currently witnessing an ongoing shift away from “unipolar moment” in which America was the world’s sole superpower, and towards a multipolar world where brute American power is no longer what it once was. Here we have the “national humiliation” that is a crucial aspect for the growth of fascism.

Donald Trump offered a simple yet sinister palliative to all of this. He would “make America great again”, primarily by standing up to the US’s external enemies and by targeting vulnerable minorities including, but in no way limited to, America’s immigrant population. Just as in the pre-fascist moment in Italy or Germany, Trump’s message is one that offers aggrieved segments of the population a chance to transfer their victimhood onto other, more “deserving”, groups. There is a clear echo of the fascist promise of salvation and retribution.

Nearly all the core elements of what might be called pre-fascism exist in the United States. One difference, however, is that it appears to me that the ruling class in the US do not yet face an existential threat to their wealth or their societal positions. The threat of economic redistribution has so far been contained under the political system of liberal democracy in a way which was not possible in Italy or Germany. The best, most realistic hope of such redistribution, the Bernie Sanders campaign, was in the end easily defeated by a Democratic Party machine that rowed in behind Joe Biden, whom nobody truly believes will deliver any sort of shift in power or wealth to the working classes. The corporate elite of America — its ruling class — is, for now, content to let its particular plutocratic form of democracy run its course in the full knowledge that it is safe for them to do so. Whether this brings to power a mumbling centrist who can appeal to the middle ground or returns to office a deranged racist ranting on about “law and order” is of little consequence to them, although sections of the elite are likely embarrassed by their president (many are not). If fascism constitutes the outright suspension of elections and the installation of dictatorship, America is probably safe from fascist rule as it is classically understood (although what better excuse to cancel an election than a second wave of a deadly pandemic that hits right in the middle of flu season!).

I will conclude with two points.

Firstly, as anger grows and societal ills pertaining to racism and inequality are not addressed there will be increased scope for the emergence of credible movements that seek to undo the inequitable status quo of the US. We are arguably witnessing such a movement in the present moment and what begins as a movement for racial equality could easily morph into a wider movement for redistributive economic justice, particularly as issues of race and economic justice are closely intertwined. Would the American elite allow the popular growth of a political movement that seeks to tax away their ill-gotten gains? Or would they turn to the police state and authoritarian demagogues in order to repress such a movement? This is an open question but one to which there is perhaps an obvious answer.

Secondly, that America is perhaps not quite in a pre-fascist moment will be scant consolation for the millions of Black, Latinx, indigenous, and other minorities, whose daily lived experience is that of acute oppression. The systemically racist institutions, the lack of justice, the political leaders issuing sly and not-so-sly dog whistles, the white women calling the police and exploiting the racial biases of those who are meant to serve and protect, the mass incarceration, the abandonment of whole communities, the disenfranchisement, the racial gerrymandering…we could go on.

No wonder they can’t breathe.

The above article is included in my new book, Donald Trump: Deadbeat Tyrant, published 13th January, 2021.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like my recent essay:

Covid-19: Infecting Democracy

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Essayist and procrastinationist with a focus on current affairs, political economy, socio-economics and ketchup reviews. Support my work: ko-fi.com/zackbreslin

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