Off and on, one now encounters the word “fascism” but those who use the term don’t pause to define or to make clear what they mean by it. Hoping to be of use, I resurrect in what follows parts of something I wrote a while back. An earlier meaning of the word “nice” was “precise”, and so it is we try to make, for example, nice distinctions between ‘democracy’ in form and true democracy, that is, in spirit : the former may prove to be merely majoritarianism. So too, there’s a conflating of “religion” (as actually believed in and expressed in public and private life) and “doctrine” with its adjurations and lofty, noble ideals.
Etymologically, “fascism” is derived from fasces, the bundle of rods with a projecting axe blade carried in ancient Roman times as a symbol of a magistrate’s power. Around the time of World War 11, there were people and parties proud to proclaim they were fascist. Today, largely as a result of the crimes against humanity then perpetrated, the term is pejorative. It has become a Schimpfwort, a term of abuse, used with little understanding, applied loosely to a person or persons thought to be ultra-nationalistic, authoritarian and intolerant: the last an inevitable concomitant of the first three. I endeavour to describe a few of the characteristics of fascism and point to some of the factors which lead to its rise.
All fascist states are dictatorships, but not all dictatorships are fascist. Fascism is an extreme right-wing ideology that celebrates the nation or the state above all other loyalties: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State” (Mussolini, 28 October 1925). Fascism, preaching “the cult of the nation, contempt for rationalism and universalism, and hatred for democracy, liberalism and Marxism” constantly maintains an “atmosphere of feverish excitement”: The New York Review of Books, 12 May 2005, page 52. However, where “nation” is concerned fascism, rejecting multi-ethnicity and inclusiveness (attitudes and treatment urged by expatriate Sri Lankans of their new homes and hosts) claims that one group, and only those composing that one group, represent the “true” nation: “racial”, linguistic or religious nationalism. Fascism harbours and propagates notions of group “purity” and exclusiveness. It excludes those outside the privileged group – even though they may have lived in the country for generations. An exclusive and excluding belief in one’s own group leads to notions of superiority: every single member of the group, irrespective of character and conduct in private or public life, irrespective of qualification or contribution, is superior to any and all of the “other”. If this prejudice allows exceptions, it’s on the argument that “exceptions prove the rule”. So all “white” people are better (in intelligence as in morality) than all people of colour; all men are superior to all women; all those belonging to religion X are superior to all those who belong to other religions. Unfortunately, exceptions encountered by the prejudiced, rather than provoking thought or undermining their existing assumptions and prejudices, serve only to confirm to them the general validity of their beliefs. It is not easy to dismantle group-prejudice formed and hardened over the years. Besides, new paths of thought threaten an entire edifice of assumptions whose continued existence depends on its foundations not being scrutinised and tested.
In the service of the state and of the privileged group, fascism celebrates “masculinity”, force, and the regenerative power of violence. Until they come to power, fascist groups rely on “volunteers” to incite the public, and to violently disrupt oppositional meetings. Those of the privileged group who advocate discussion and peaceful means are dismissed as foolish or as weak and timid; those who urge, “Treat others as you yourself would like to be treated,” looked down upon with contempt. Such individuals are seen as aberrations; going further, as traitors who deserve to be intimidated, if not attacked, even eliminated.
Superficially, fascism is a popular or mass movement, but with its emphasis on the state, with its demand for military discipline and unquestioning obedience, real power rests not with the people but in an individual, a supreme leader, embodying the will of the people and the state, and in the small group that surrounds him. Fascism, generally, has been a masculine movement, and though women of the privileged group were seen as cooperating and helping in the total effort, their role was largely in the domestic sphere, particularly in the bringing up of children who had the “correct” values and attitudes. In that sense, fascism, while claiming to be radical and forward-looking, is also traditional. Indeed, it claims to be inspired by, and to seek the re-establishment of, a past that was great and glorious, wholesome and pure: the ideology is secular and spiritual, martial and romantic, violent and idealistic, revolutionary and conservative.
History shows that often a corollary of righteousness is cruelty: the ready and unquestioning willingness to be cruel to those who are different or who differ. To hate and to be violent become badges of virtue and patriotism: the greater the hate; the greater the willingness to be intolerant and violent, ipso facto, the greater the patriotism: Descartes’ Cogito. Ergo sum (I think. Therefore, I am) becomes, “I hate. Therefore, I’m patriotic”. “But I hate them more than you. Therefore, I am more patriotic,” and so the competition goes.
Fascism may mobilise the masses in the struggle for power but is against socialism because the latter sees the “nation” on the basis of the horizontal lines of class, rather than on the vertical lines of “race” or religion. Socialism forms links, makes common cause, with workers from other groups, both within and outside the country. This, in turn, is seen by fascists as leading to, if not divided loyalties and sympathies, then to a dilution of total commitment to the state, its leader and his immediate supporters. Fascist leaders may make use of a religion, its priests or monks, and of its fervent adherents: those who hold other religious beliefs are wrong; and being wrong, they are inferior; being inferior, they are undeserving of equal rights and humane treatment. If fascism is a political religion, this particular (religious) expression of it may be termed spiritual fascism. However, once in power, those who represent religion must either fully join the state or be content with serving and supporting it. An exception is when priests, mullahs or monks come to power and declare themselves to be the representatives of the true state: sometimes, the greed for power masquerades as religion, righteousness, and a religion-based (as opposed to a secular) morality. Fascism may achieve power through legitimate means, but its true and awful nature is revealed only once it’s securely in power – in other words, when it’s too late.
As for the factors that lead to the rise of fascism, perhaps the most important element is economic: economic distress and desperation; unemployment and inflation, leading to social unrest, sporadic acts of violence and lawlessness. Fascism thrives in an atmosphere of anger and frustration, of confusion and hopelessness, with democracy adrift and failing to deliver. The present sorry state of affairs is contrasted with a constructed past (that is, more imaginary than real) when the nation stood at a height of achievement, prosperity and greatness. The contrast between this past and the present is extreme and, therefore, also extremely mortifying. Into this state of affairs, onto this stage, steps a messiah, a saviour, the leader of a party who promises a simple and quick way to economic and social, cultural and moral, salvation. He offers not only prosperity but piety and purity, a return to the old (noble and heroic) ways of life. The nation is partly reproached: it has forgotten its true or earlier self, the ancestors and the past; it has strayed from the old ways and become decadent. But primarily (when not entirely), the responsibility for the present unhappy state of affairs is placed on the other group or groups. For example, British fascists attribute what they see as the decline of “great” Britain to the coming of people of colour, confusing coincidence with cause. The word “scapegoat” derives from the old Jewish tradition of symbolically placing all the sins of the community onto a goat, then chasing the unfortunate creature out into the wilderness, and so cleansing society: fascism fashions its own scapegoat, and tries to exterminate or to drive it away into the political, economic and social wilderness. At the very least, fascism will attempt to bring that (scapegoat) group under total control, and subordination.
The above is a generalised comment on fascism. Whether any of it is relevant to Sri Lanka, I leave for readers to decide.