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[This is kluge.]Where some ideas are stranger than others...

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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


So much rested on the Berlin Wall, that emblem of the so-called cold war constructed by East Germany to cordon off Berlin in 1961. In my high school social studies classes, my classmates and I were taught to see it as part of Churchill's iron curtain, the supposed barrier falling down between the Soviets, their allies, and 'the West.' Yet the Berlin Wall had a strange dual aspect: It represented both the 'threat of communism' and the defense against it in 'the West.' It also served as a talisman against totalitarianism, be it stalinism or renewed nazism. If 'the West' didn't have a similar wall, then 'the West' had successfully resisted totalitarianism — at least until the Germans pulled it down and the cold war declared over and won by 'the good guys' at last. Yet somehow, the cold war hasn't ended so much as changed. New enemies quickly rose on the ashes of the old and terrorism officially came to the United States. According to 'western' military and political leaders, we need more, not less, security than ever before, and that of the most intrusive kind. Today we have pervasive closed circuit video cameras, racial profiling, arbitrary arrest, and charges with the accused debarred from seeing or testing the evidence against them. More and more of us are asking: is this what the beginning of fascism looks like?

There is a great deal of skepticism about whether this question is even valid. However, most of the examples used to illustrate this skepticism seem to derive not from the earliest stages of the establishment of nazi power, but from later when nazi power was firmly established. And make no mistake, the fascism the question refers to is typically the nazi version. That said, it still may be appropriate to dismiss the question, it's just that the usual reasons given to do so seem a bit weak.

A key observer and writer on the early stages of totalitarianism, of which nazism is an expression, is the German philosopher Hannah Arendt. She witnessed the rise of the nazi party, and was forced to flee Germany by the nazi regime's anti-semitic and anti-intellectual policies. Later, Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, which lays out her understanding of what social and political circumstances can favour the development of totalitarianism in a society. Since she actually witnessed these things, Arendt seems quite a reasonable place to start if we want to find a means to see if a given country is in the early stages of fascism and therefore if asking the question 'is it fascism yet?' is genuinely reasonable.1

According to Arendt, there are at least four major factors that support the development of totalitarianism: loss of faith in democratic political leadership, the development of the masses and the mob, the availability of a widely agreed on scapegoat, and the encouragement of extreme nationalism.2 These factors interact synergistically to fuel the creation of a totalitarian society.

The first factor arises when men3 react to the discovery that their democratic leaders have behaved in a manner they consider hypocritical. Their response is not to hold these leaders to account. Instead, they respond with nihilism and a declaration that there are no rules but 'might makes right.' This suggests that such men see their relationship with their leaders as a paternalistic one. The chosen leaders are expected to act as dependable fathers. The men do not expect to have to take an active role in holding the leaders accountable as such, and may even believe that it is not possible for them to do so. All told, this suggests that this factor is better described as loss of faith in democratic leadership under conditions where paternalistic leadership is expected. Such conditions are more likely in extremely hierarchical societies.

The second factor develops in 'highly civilized' societies with established class systems. 'Classes' consist of people who perceive themselves as having a common economic and political interest. By contrast, the masses are made up of isolated men, men who have no normal social relationships, and are politically neutral if not indifferent. Arendt states that men of this kind can't be integrated into organizations founded on common interests, although they can be drawn together by extreme nationalism. The masses are still part of their societies, which appear to be considered 'highly civilized' by Arendt if they have economies based on private or state capitalism.

Arendt repeatedly refers to 'the mob' as the 'residue,' the 'refuse' of the classes. Such men are outcasts from society, a society they despise. These men are part of the criminal underworld or at least intensely sympathetic to it. They call for a 'strong leader' for them to follow and to lead society into a better state. Such men are not merely dissatisfied and outcast, they are desperate, economically marginal at best. According to Arendt, totalitarianism can come about whenever the masses defined above 'gain an appetite for political organization.' Totalitarian movements draw their real momentum however, from the mob. Mob leaders can use the strength of the mob to drive an atmosphere of political crisis and power vacuum into which the strong leader the mob calls for can step.

The next two factors are similar in that they provide unifying concepts where others do not exist. Ordinarily economic or political shared interests would serve in this role, but cannot in the context of the masses or the mob. They also tap into the power of fear as expressed through xenophobia.

The importance of a widely agreed on scapegoat to the development and imposition of totalitarianism is so great that Arendt started her book with a history of anti-semitism. As Arendt shows, the definition of a scapegoat group is not a simple or overnight process. It depends on defining some group as outcast from not just one community, but all communities. That outcast group's status is then manipulated for the economic and social gain of the group (or groups) doing the defining. Such benefits are hard to give up, especially once they have become givens that people rarely question. Over time, a whole system of rationalizing stories are developed to help maintain the scapegoats in their assigned place. These stories typically appeal to the worst human sentiments, especially greed and xenophobia. Most importantly, the stories and social restrictions on the scapegoated group encourage fear, fear of being tainted in some way by the scapegoat's status. Fear is a well-known thought-killer, and people have been known to accept appalling acts and conditions based on the claim that those acts and conditions will neutralize the source of their fears. A key aspect of fear of scapegoats however, is that by definition they are not the real source of any threat.

The encouraging of extreme nationalism is often a highly visible feature of societies that are or are in the process of becoming totalitarian. It is freely publicized as an expression of its less loaded synonym 'patriotism,' which in turn is often considered appropriate and laudable for people to display in any society. It's all good, clean fun until it becomes 'extreme.' Yet the definition of 'extreme' used by the media and in the history books is quite slippery. Behaviour considered 'extreme' for one group is acceptable in another, generally for no other reason than one group is an ally and the other is not. In this essay, 'extreme' means violent behaviour that is justified by the claim that it is for the defence of the nation from outside threats by its citizens. The violence can be literal (beatings, lynchings) or legalistic (trumped up charges, imprisonment without trial, marking by identification cards or badges).

Ironically, 'nations' are themselves recent, ill-defined inventions. Before the second world war, a nation could be referred to as a group of racially homogeneous people associated with a specific area and bound together by a central government as well as 'blood ties.'4 Since the second world war the 'racially homogeneous' and 'blood tie' aspects have become a bit embarrassing, and efforts have been made to cover them over by euphemisms like 'shared religion' or 'shared way of life.' In any case, 'nations' remain fluidly defined, altered in definition to fit specific political and military uses and depending on the beliefs of the writer.

Extreme nationalism feeds and supports the creation of widely agreed on scapegoats, and since it is another evocation of xenophobia, it has all the irrational power of fear behind it. It is also possible to manipulate apparent facts in a way that makes opposing claims that a 'nation' is under threat difficult to oppose on their face. Social Darwinism is one sort of manipulation; deliberately obfuscating the realities of colonialism is another. In each case a claim is made that 'nations' are under threat by the very nature of human society. But who does the encouraging? In the cases Arendt considers, the encouragement comes from many sources, most prominently extremist political groups, the central government, and the military. Organized religious organizations which are usually structured in hierarchies parallelling the military, may also play a role depending on the case.

Having laid out the four factors Arendt identified as key supporters of the development of totalitarianism, it is a bit easier to try to answer the question 'is it fascism yet?' for specific cases. It won't be an absolute answer by any means, but a definite improvement over hand waving, not least because the factors also point to practical means of effective opposition to the establishment of totalitarianism. If nothing even remotely like these factors appears in a given case, then clearly the question itself is inapplicable.

So let's take the bull by the horns, and consider one of the most controversial potential cases, that of the United States. The U.S. has been passing through an especially difficult period economically and socially over the past twenty years a that is unusual in that it has been especially long with no real prospects of a recovery in sight. Considering each factor then:

  1. Men have lost faith in democratic political leadership.

    In light of the election debacles of 2001 and 2005 in the U.S., it would not be surprising if general confidence in the democratic process had lessened there. That isn't the same as losing faith in the whole idea of democratic political leadership, however. The intense growth of fundamentalist religion, together with the growing 'Tea Party' movement suggests a deeper malaise however, one that does express pessimism about democratic processes to varying degrees. That these could be considered fringe movements is not something that can cancel out this factor, as the nazi example shows particularly well.

  2. Development of 'the masses' and 'the mob.'

    Are there isolated men, men who can't be integrated into organizations based on common interests in the United States? Or men so utterly cast out of American society that they could be considered a mob in Arendtian terms? The embedded racism in American society and 'Western societies' in general can deceive us into promptly pointing to young black males or young males of any 'non-white' colour. We are encouraged to consider such men a violent crime waiting to happen, however ridiculous such an idea may be. In fact, the men Arendt is discussing when she defines the mob and the masses are not men who consider themselves outsiders in an essential way, nor are they defined as outsiders by mainstream society. They are not people who are expected to be inherently incapable of being full members of 'society.' In fact they are people who inherently capable of membership, who have fallen away from society. Mainstream culture in the United States does have two predisposing cultural memes for those prone to form Arendtian mobs or masses. One is the cult of the individual, the other the intense valuation of competition over cooperation.

    Candidates for the masses and the mob could easily come from the ranks of so-called 'white trash' (an almost exact synonym for Arendt's own terms). They are among the groups preferentially swept up by military recruiters, as they have few means to escape their poor socio-economic conditions.

  3. Widespread agreement on the existence and definition of a scapegoat group.

    As long as racism is at large, it is difficult to prevent the designation of a particular social group as a scapegoat, and more difficult still to discourage wider buy-in to the designation. Declaring a specific scapegoat definition verboten does not quell the impulse or equip people to resist it. Since the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers in New York, there has been a distinct shift in both Canada and the U.S. towards defining muslims as a scapegoat group. Simply being muslim is being openly used as grounds to consider that person already if not inevitably a criminal ready to destroy Canadian or American society. Resistance to this process is still evident and widespread in both countries as well.

  4. Encouragement of extreme nationalism.

    Citizens of the U.S. have been popularly stereotyped as extremely 'patriotic' to the point of chauvinism outside of the U.S. since at least as far back as Frances Trollope. Although there is a grain of truth to the stereotype, that certainly doesn't indicate that extreme nationalism is encouraged or cultivated in the U.S. in itself. On the other hand, there is the additional question of the mass media in the U.S. Mass media portrayals of 'terrorists' as well as of Iraq and Afghanistan prior to the military attacks on them encouraged extreme nationalism expressed through important changes in law (i.e. the Patriot Act) and military action overseas. These media campaigns were not univocal or totally unchallenged, and they were campaigns, short to medium term exercises. Yet a longer term xenophobic narrative expressed as a desire for 'security' has persisted to the point that critics are openly discussing whether they are witnessing a new McCarthyism.

All together, this suggests that for the United States, the answer to the question 'is it fascism yet?' is no, and the question is reasonable to ask after all. It's understandable that people both inside and outside the U.S. are feeling uncomfortable, because whether or not they are familiar with Arendt's ideas and analysis, they recognize the danger residing in developments of the kind she identified wherever they may occur. It seems reasonable to expect that if we constructively oppose these four types of social change, it would indeed be at the least far more difficult for a society to slip into totalitarianism.

  1. The book lays out a great deal else, including aspects of Arendt's politics that I find appalling. However, this essay is not intended to be a critique of the book or Arendt's politics as such.
  2. She does not opt for a linear exposition of this type, however.
  3. Throughout her text Arendt refers only to 'men.' This does not appear to be a pseudo-generic and is never presented as a hypothesis that she is advancing. Arendt seems to simply assume that only men are political agents, at least in the context of actualizing totalitarianism.
  4. Whether there is any place and people that actually fit this definition is another question.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2016
Last Modified: Friday, August 30, 2013 00:27:15 MDT