Mussolini's Ghost


May 25, 2003

This commentary originally 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 and Japan.

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 civil society.

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.

David Ronfeldt, a senior political scientist at RAND, is co-author of "Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy" (2001, RAND).

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