It seems that accusing some of being a “fascist” has experienced an impressive revival in 2014. When taking aim at a political enemy, the fascist label is about the most heavy calibre moniker available. The crisis in Ukraine was a considerable accelerant, with Russa’s state-controlled media describing the revolutionaries in Keiv as fascist. Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro used the fascist label for the protesters who have taken to the streets to demand his overthrow. Left-wing Turks who rallied against Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were also deemed fascists. In Asia, comparing states to Nazi Germany has become something of a parlour game. North Korea has dubbed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an “Asian Hitler” and the Chinese have levelled Abe with the charge of committing the sin of “veneration of Eastern Nazis” for his visit to a controversial World War II shrine.
When such a powerful label is thrown around with such abandon, it’s helpful to understand what the actual roots of the word are. While the term is somewhat elastic, there are six tenants that have generally been agreed upon by historians and political scientists that help define it.
1) It begins with the delusion of racial purity
Fascism was originally conceived from late 19th century anxieties felt by right-wing radicals who instituted this self-perception of constituting an “organic” nation, threatened from these new ideologies of socialism and capitalism. This idea that “inferior” minorities were consistently plotting to attack or subvert them took hold and was only reinforced by late-1800s pseudoscience and cryptic ethnic theories. The advent of World War I consequentially forebode the crumbling of ruling monarchs and multiple traditional value systems, precipitating a “spiritual vacuum” that fascists hastily proceeded to occupy.
2) The state reigns supreme
“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” These words were spoken by Benito Mussolini, one of the leading speakers to pronounce approvingly of totalitarianism. Fascists are vigorous proponents of the state as they see it as the “logical manifestation” of the nation’s spur to proclaim and secure it’s collective rights. Notions like human rights have little consequence, removed from the foundation of the “peoples community”. So fascists actually have very little in common with say, American white supremacists who, are compulsively skeptical about any form of government activity. The press, trade unions and even social clubs would all be subordinated to government control. Even contemporary nationalist strongmen like Putin or Maduro don’t believe in the state controlling everything. Most autocratic leaders would prefer to assert their control strategically.
3) A lone ruler provides the orders
The beguiling, all-powerful leader was born of fascism, the duce or the Führer, who personifies the desires of the nation. It is worthy of mention that the protests seen throughout Ukraine and Venezuela have not been calling to implement any one distinct person. They have at most levels, been demanding democracy, the opposite of the almighty ruler.
4) The military comes first
The masses are revered when they are organised around the state. The military presents itself therefore, as a the quintessential ideal of how fascists perceive the world. Nazi Germany tenders an illustrious case where civil servants such as bus drivers donned uniforms that confused their membership with either the civilian state or the armed forces. Fascist regimes have also historically displayed and asserted a more aggressive foreign policy, although not exclusively as with the cases of Spain’s Franco and Portugal’s Salazar. Drawn from this factor is the inclination to associate all military dictatorships, such as Suharto or Pinochet, with fascist regimes. These associations are imprecise and fail to account for the elements outlined above.
5) Rationality is held in disdain
The origins of classical fascism date back to the Romantic period, a lineage that’s apparent in fascism’s stress on emotion, will, and organic unity and its rejection of the Enlightenment values of individualism and critical thinking. Fascists have an ornate perception of the nation, inherently besieged; and the seizure of power by the fascists is portrayed as a national “rebirth”, a removal of past decadence and weakness.
6) Fascist parties often promote themselves as the “Third Way”
Both Hitler and Mussolini both saw their own versions of “national socialism” as the only valid alternative to the existing ideologies of the time. The violent rejection of socialism and “bourgeois capitalism” led to the creation of an alternate system, one that featured the best of both previous ideologies. While they absorbed the Marxist ideas of revolution and all-encompassing social engineering, they removed the divisive ingredient of class warfare. They attempted to retain the competitive aspects of capitalism, while asserting state control over strategic sectors of the economy.
Fascism today is generally without a contemporary equivalent – a totalitarian mass movement that appears particular to the twentieth-century. Our current century is rife with racist, xenophobes, authoritarian nationalists, and far more, and while some of these belief systems may overlap with certain elements of fascism, they are not synonymous with it. Current dictators don’t tend to wear uniforms, proclaim abstruse racial theories, or stand glowering over torch-lit midnight parades. Today’s interconnected world forces autocrats to pay homage to the language of competitive elections and human rights, even when affairs are actually conducted very differently. Stephen Rapp, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for War Crimes and director of the Office of Global Criminal Justice, talking about the current situation in Syria, has claimed that there is “solid evidence of the kind of machinery of cruel death that we haven’t seen frankly since the Nazis”. And Bashar al-Assad just recently secured an election.
There is however one current regime that seems to qualify for the term fascist. It remains unapologetically totalitarian, boasts the world’s highest military participation rate, beating number two (Singapore) by almost a factor of three, intrudes more heavily than any other state into the everyday lives of its citizens, and despite its presumed adherence to communist ideology, it openly espouses its own people’s racial superiority while indulging in an extravagant führekult (cult leader) that has no parallel elsewhere in the world. Surely if anyone lives under a fascist regime, its the North Koreans.