This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on May 25, 2003.
In Iraq and elsewhere, the appeal of fascism proves tenacious
Despite comparisons to Josef Stalin's communist government in Russia, Saddam
Hussein's Baathist regime actually had far more in common with the fascist systems
of 20th century Europe. And that is why de-Baathification is proving so difficult.
People like being liberated from dictatorship, but not necessarily from fascism.
What's the difference? Fascism is no mere dictatorship. Yes, it imposes a
centralized and organic—if not totalitarian—structure, enforced
by a single party, secret police and paramilitary thugs. But that is not what
keeps fascism in power and explains its appeal. Fascism is a total system of
existence that willingly engages a broad spectrum, even a majority, of elites
and masses. At its core, fascism has a deeply mythic allure; it proposes a quest
to overcome dystopian times and achieve a utopian rebirth of a nation's supposed
greatness. Thus fascism rules the mind as well as the body—and both mind
and body come to idolize it.
In this quest, fascism is fiercely anti-liberal because it values order far
more than freedom and brooks no boundaries between public and private, or state
and society. Yet fascism is also anti-conservative; it aims to transform the
status quo on behalf of all, not preserve it for the sake of a few.
And although fascism is normally secular in its ends and means, it has a messianic
quality, for it promises national redemption and progress to break through to
an exquisite new millennium. Indeed, fascism vows to create not only a new order
but also a new man—one who has a radiant sense of identity and purpose,
the better to ensure that the rebirth endures.
All this shines in the iconic fascisms of the mid-20th century: Benito Mussolini's
in Italy (the standard for many scholars), Adolf Hitler's in Germany (the racist
and totalitarian extreme) and the Falangist movement in Spain (which flowed
later into the semi-fascist regime of Francisco Franco). Significant, though
eclectic, tendencies also emerged outside Europe, notably in South Africa, Argentina
Where and why does fascism take hold? It cannot happen anywhere; some tendencies,
perhaps, but not fascism as a system. First, it requires a modernizing nation
that has a serious state, a significant private business sector and a complex
The ultranationalism so characteristic of fascism resembles an extreme tribalism,
but societies that turn fascist are too advanced to be considered tribal. Moreover,
though studies of totalitarianism typically view communism and fascism as quite
similar, they have a key difference that often gets overlooked: the role of
a private sector and a market system, however weak. Communism must be rid of
them, but fascism aims to strengthen them, albeit in a suborned way.
Second, fascism requires that this modernizing society be suffering from deep
disturbances and grievances. There should be a widespread sense of disaster,
alarm and disarray stemming, say, from a lost war, a severe economic depression,
pervasive corruption scandals or humiliating foreign interference. It's a point
that applies to the making of terrorists as well as fascists: Whatever the political,
economic or social details, people feel that they and their nation are facing
an "absolute disaster."
Under these conditions, longing can arise for national rebirth, not to mention
a great charismatic leader to show the way. People at large are so fed up, furious,
divided and fearful about the condition of their nation that, if fascism's exponents
manage to seize office through election or force, it is not that hard to make
people succumb to fascism's promises to reunite them, overcome obstacles and
organize a strong system. A leadership cult and grandiose assertions of national
solidarity, sovereignty and independence spread fascism's mythic appeal as its
media, intelligence and coercive apparatuses expand to ensure compliance.
Why be reminded of these basics? Because Americans are not used to thinking
about fascism as a system anymore. And because fascism—unlike communism—is
far from dead or obsolete. The spread of the market system, pro-democracy pressures
and other aspects of globalization are having ambivalent effects around the
world. There are new signs of progress in many societies. But not in all.
Some modernizing nations are having wrenching difficulties adapting to globalization
and other pressures to build ever more open, competitive, complex systems. Some
also face external and internal threats that can be hyped to arouse ultranationalism
and distract citizens from domestic problems. Thus the conditions for fascism,
which were centered in Europe many decades ago, are likely to recur in new places.
Already in this century we have had to wage two wars against fascism: first
against Slobodan Milosevic's regime in Serbia and now in Iraq.
We also keep having to tussle with fascism-inspired regimes that have taken
hold elsewhere—notably the Hindu-nationalist one in India and Oscar Chavez's
in Venezuela. These instances are more harbingers than holdovers from past trends.
It is easier to sound a warning about a new round of fascism in far-off places
than to specify where or in what variety and numbers. But some future possibilities—Russia
or a new Islamic caliphate?—would prove much riskier for the West than
others. It will take more than the superb, innovative military power of the
United States to deter and prepare for this future.
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