The word fascism is used a lot, often pejoratively. The image that immediately comes to mind is Mussolini in a steel helmet, hands on hips, head tipped back, jaw thrust out. It is an image that influenced other fascists. Young Hitler was a great admirer.
It is always helpful for any discussion to define the subject carefully, a seemingly obvious principle often ignored. What exactly is fascism? Can fascism coexist to any extent with democratic institutions?
Fascism certainly is not the same thing as communism, although both these systems are represented by strongmen or tyrants and the state apparatus needed to support them. Those who like the nomenclature of the French Revolution might say that the two political extremes, right and left, almost meet somewhere in a bend of political space.
Private enterprise, of course, has been regarded as incompatible with communism, although contemporary China with its New Economic Zone begins to confuse the issue. Things have always been quite different with fascism. Fascist governments are favorable to the interests of enterprise, at least the interests of large-scale enterprises. Great private combines existed and were encouraged under Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini. Fascism represents, if you will, a kind of large-scale, public-private partnership.
Fascism, much like the mental image of Mussolini, tends to be about power, generally a raw display of political and military power. These two things are welded together in a fascist state. Flags, banners, strutting, and marching feature prominently, with political occasions sometimes difficult to distinguish from military ones.
Fascism's strutting-peacock displays serve several purposes. One, with their rise to power, fascist parties brag about getting things done (the reality of entrenched fascism proves another matter altogether), as opposed to the mundane, boring inefficiency of ordinary deliberations. This kind of promise appeals to the frustrations of many people who yearn for decisive change. Their yearnings may concern anything from building public projects to imposing moral rules.
There likely is a built-in component in human beings which finds authority attractive, at least over certain limits. Society mimics the show of power in many institutions from popes to presidents.
The display of power also intimidates enemies. Political opponents are not a common feature of fascist states, which always feature secret police, secret prisons, and heavy domestic spying, although they are sometimes allowed to exist in a neutered form for show or internal political purposes.
Aggression is closely associated with fascism. Partly, the aggression is simply the result of having large standing armies and all the state and corporate apparatus associated with them. Large standing armies simply tend to get used -- historians have offered this as one of the important explanations for the First World War -- and the impulse to use them is undoubtedly increased by the psychology of fascism.
The psychology of fascist states tends to include penis-fixation -- big guns, big flags, and big monuments. Aggression is a direct outgrowth of all the strutting, bragging, and marching.
Aggression also grows out of the fascist tendency to regard the nation as somehow specially blessed or endowed or entitled. There follows an assumed inherit right or even obligation to rule over others or at least to direct their destinies.
When you consider these characteristics, every one of them is an intrinsic part of contemporary American society. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that America is a kind of fascist state, certainly a softer-appearing one than some in the past, but then America excels at marketing, perhaps its one original intellectual gift to the world.
America does cling to ideals of human rights, something which it never fails to remind the world at international gatherings, but the truth is international gatherings are only regarded as useful for just such announcements. Despite clinging to human-rights ideals, at the very same time, America refuses to deal with others on the basis of these rights, and it often fails even to enforce the rights of selected categories of its own citizens.
This ambiguity about human rights is not so odd if you consider the many American Christians who enshrine Jesus' great commandment and the Ten Commandments and yet stand ready at a moment's notice to kill others in meaningless wars.
Genuine respect for human rights is surely more a matter of prevailing day-to-day attitudes in a society than words written on old pieces of paper.
But America is a democracy, isn't it? It certainly has many of the forms of a democracy, but when you closely examine the details, as I've written previously, American democracy resembles a badly worn wood veneer. The ugly structural stuff underneath sticks out the way elbows do in a threadbare coat.
Other Recent Articles by John Chuckman
Bush, All the Time, For the Rest of Your Life