With his announcement that the war on terror is
actually a war against "Islamo-fascism," President
Bush has opened a fruitful debate. As is so common
with Bush, however, his use of the term seeks to
stigmatize more than characterize, to evoke glandular excretions more than intellectual reflections.
But in one sense, the president has performed a useful
service. By re-introducing fascism into legitimate
public discourse - by "rehabilitating" it, as it were
- the president may actually help inform the country
about the real dangers it faces as the war on terror
continues its relentless march.
For the better part of sixty years, fascism was a term
of intense odium, too heavily freighted with moral
opprobrium to even be used in polite conversation.
Even though earlier U.S-allied, right-wing regimes in
Spain, Portugal, Greece, Chile, Argentina, Korea and
other countries could legitimately be termed fascist,
the remembrance of Nazis herding Jews into gas
chambers was almost too painful to bear. Use of the
term against political foes automatically removed its
user from the realm of legitimate discussion.
Yet it is precisely the power of fascism - at least to
those who practice it - that has made it such a
compelling and recurring form of national rule. The
question we must confront with Bush's revival of the
term is, "What exactly does it mean?" How would we
recognize fascism today if, in fact, it was loose
about the globe?
In classic terms, fascism is defined by five
characteristics of governance: nationalist
aggression; fusing of the state with corporate
interests; single party rule; the suppression of civil liberties; and pervasive propaganda. All of these inhered in the Italian, German, and Japanese governments of the 1930s and '40s. All of them would have to be present before the label "fascism" could legitimately be applied to a modern regime.
Nationalist aggression was a hallmark of Hitler's
rule. He occupied Austria, the Sudetenland,
Czechoslovakia, and Poland, in each case declaring
(falsely) that Germany's very existence was threatened
by dark forces in those countries. Mussolini attacked
Ethiopia and reasserted Italian control over Libya.
Japan attacked Korea, Manchuria, China, Formosa
(Taiwan), and much of southeast Asia.
In all three countries, the leaders used nationalist
aggression to whip their people into militaristic
frenzies and to intimidate opposition movements. At
the Nuremberg war trials, Herman Goering,
head of the German
Air Force, gave one of the most lucid
explanations of how this process worked:
"Naturally, the common people don't want war. But,
after all, it is the leaders of the country who
determine the policy and it is always a simple matter
to drag the people along. All you have to do is tell
them they are being attacked and denounce the
peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the
country to danger. It works the same in any country."
The second classic characteristic of fascism is the
fusing of the state with large corporations. It was
the major industrialists who backed Mussolini's
campaign to purge Italy of labor unions and leftists.
In Germany, it was the Prussian aristocrats and
corporate interests who funded Hitler's National
Socialist party on his promise that he would eliminate
liberal opposition. In Japan, it was the Zaibatsus -
the industrial conglomerates - that underwrote the
rise of the militarist state.
As each of these fascist governments ramped up for
war, large corporations reaped fabulous profits as
monopoly suppliers of energy, weapons, construction
services, chemicals, and industrial machinery. In the
German case, they benefited as well from the use of
slave labor in factories, mines, and concentration
camps in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe.
The third classic characteristic of fascism is single
party rule. At its core, fascism is profoundly anti-democratic. In none of the fascist countries were competing parties tolerated. In Italy, the fascists deployed "blackshirts" - bands of thugs - to intimidate and in some cases murder opposition figures. In Japan, militarist fervor allowed only loyalty to the Emperor.
Germany adopted the model of Italy, employing
"brownshirts" to harass and threaten opposition
parties. Almost immediately after Hitler's assumption
of power in 1933, the German parliament building, the Reichstag, was burned in a fire later attributed to the Nazis. Hitler used the event to outlaw all competing parties and consolidate political power in himself.
The fourth classic indicator of fascism is the
suppression of civil liberties. Immediately upon
being appointed Chancellor, Hitler began a systematic
campaign of dismantling protections of the individual
that were part of the Weimar Constitution. Freedom of
speech, press, and assembly were aggressively
Citizens could be arrested without charge, held
without bail, transferred to remote prisons without notification of relatives, and executed on the flimsiest of pretexts. Spying on the people by the government became rampant. By August 1934, Hitler had effectively seized all power, leaving the national legislature as a mere rubber stamp and an echo chamber for his increasingly deranged rantings.
The final characteristic that marks the existence of
fascism is pervasive propaganda. It was in Mein
Kampf, written in 1925, that Hitler first propounded
the Big Lie as a technique for controlling the
thoughts of the masses: lie; lie big; and lie often.
Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" became the
canonical film embodying the practice of pervasive
Germany, Italy, and Japan each used both state organs
and state-influenced private media to saturate their
people with state-approved militarist narratives,
making it all but impossible to question state
authority or state actions. That, of course, was
their intent. All carried out lurid, slavish
hagiography, adulation of the "leader" as resolute,
infallible, even divine, and of the government as the
only source of security, strength, and safety. Those
who questioned the legitimacy or the efficacy of the
fascist state or its leader were denounced as fools
or, worse, traitors.
Nationalist aggression. Fusing of the state with
corporate interests. Single party rule. Suppression
of civil liberties. Pervasive propaganda.
By these criteria, it is doubtful that Muslims
resisting military occupation of their lands, the
massacre of their people, and the theft of their
resources by western invaders can be considered
"fascist." Still, President Bush has provided an
undoubted public service in raising the issue, by rehabilitating the term for legitimate public debate.
Fascism may, indeed, be resurgent today. Certainly
the profound damage it wrought on the world in the
last century is reason to be watchful of it, to be on
guard against it. But it is not among the Islamists
we need fear finding it. If Bush, in fact, wants to
protect the U.S. against the very real dangers of
fascism he so lustily decries, he will need to look
for it elsewhere.
Robert Freeman writes on economics, history and
education. He can be reached at