You’re Using the Word “Fascist” Wrong
I spent the past summer participating in regular weekly protests at my local farmers market in Bloomington, Indiana as part of the group No Space for Hate. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. If not, the controversy started when an FBI investigation (confirmed by subsequent in-depth research by activists) revealed two local farmers were members of Identity Evropa (now rebranded as the American Identity Movement). This group, which is tied to a number of violent actions including the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has been trying in recent years to shift its tactics and improve its PR so it can continue to advocate for the creation of a white ethnostate in peace. Thanks to brave protesters in the town where I attended university, though, they haven’t been able to.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why am I talking about some random racists at a farmers market in Indiana? Simple: those random racists are fascists. Real fascists. People who belong to the political ideology called “fascism.” This word, fascist, gets thrown around a lot, especially in our current discourse, and it’s being used so frequently and so loosely now that I’m beginning to fear it’s losing its meaning. And, if we can’t identify fascists (as the Bloomington market proves), we can’t stop them, either.
So, what is a fascist? Merriam Webster tells us that fascism is, most clearly, “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”
Encyclopedia Britannica expands on that by stating that “although fascist parties and movements differed significantly from one another, they had many characteristics in common, including extreme militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, a belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites, and the desire to create a Volksgemeinschaft (German: “people’s community”), in which individual interests would be subordinated to the good of the nation.”
It’s worthwhile now to point out that the word “nation” here is not the colloquial definition of nation that we usually imagine. Most of us, when we hear the word “nation,” think of the US, Mexico, or Canada and call those “nations.” In reality, however, they are “states” or “countries” and a state/country is different from a nation. A state has boundaries, rules, and a government. A nation is the word for a group of people who share a common culture. For example, the Kurdish people are a nation, but they do not have a state. The US is a state which contains within it many nations of people.
The distinction between a “nation” and a “state” is important when we’re talking about fascism because the state is inclusive, whereas the nation is exclusive. When fighting for the good of a state, everyone within its boundaries and under the government’s domain must have their lives improved for the “state” to get better. When fighting for the good of a nation, outsiders can be sacrificed for the sake of the chosen few.
So, when examining the qualities of fascism, we’ve got a phenomenon that is inherently hierarchical and can easily justify violence:
· It exalts the nation, meaning it preaches superiority of one group over another
· It features an autocratic government, meaning leaders have immense power to act out their will
· It enacts economic regimentation looking to create what Hitler (a fascist) called “National Socialism” (a term which we understand to mean “socialism” for the nation, a coopting of the term socialism meaning the “in group” has access to its basic needs and general equality, provided through the exploitation of the “out group”). This is typically done through a process of public-private partnerships and privatization to encourage “industrialization” for later international economic domination.
· It enacts social regimentation, restricting the freedoms and opportunities of the “out group” and segregating them from the “in group.”
· It suppresses opposition. It is well-known, for example, that the first group targeted in the Holocaust was members of the Communist Party.
· It is characterized by militarism, a tool for enforcing autocracy and later enacting economic and physical imperialism.
· It holds contempt for democracy and liberalism, allowing it to justify authoritarian practices and alterations to the rule of law.
· It believes in a natural social hierarchy, further justifying its social regimentation.
· It supports the rule of elites, which does the same.
· And it prioritizes the good of the nation, the “in group,” over the individual, which is yet another justification for suppression of outsiders.
As you can see, fascism as an ideology is much more clearly-defined than the colloquial usage we tend to hear thrown about today. It’s a distinctly capitalist, inherently right-wing form of authoritarianism that uses populist rhetoric to justify the oppression of minority populations at the expense of the majority, the “volk,” the nation.
And the word “volk” brings us back to the Bloomington Farmers Market. See, these farmers were identified by their usernames on a white supremacist discord. The woman, Sarah Dye, called herself “Volkmom,” a reference to the German idea of that “nation” which deserved preferential treatment while everyone who disagreed or didn’t fit into the proper racial category was oppressed and eventually killed to ensure their superiority. And, yet, when we correctly identified them as fascists week after week, we protesters were chastised for “insulting” this “poor family.”
Our idea of what a fascist is, that very specific category which cannot be divorced from Mussolini, Hitler, or Franco (and all their actions), has gotten lost. We hear it so frequently used as a pejorative to deride anyone we think of as authoritarian that it sounds to the average person more like an insult than a political philosophy. And, when we tried to warn members of our community about its growing influence, we were dismissed and the white nationalists continued on.
One particular week, a man who had recently been released from prison on a violent felony conviction posted about his intent to attend the farmers market and his hopes that he would have the opportunity to “smash [our] phones,” “break [our] backs,” and “cannibalize [us].” In response to seeing his public post, the Hoosier Anti-Racist Movement (HARM), a group which practices antifascist actions and tends to be classified as “antifa” by outsiders (calling a group “antifa” doesn’t really make sense, though, since “antifa” is more of a category), attended the market.
Twelve members of HARM arrived wearing black masks and bandannas to cover their faces, as a number of our group’s members had had their pictures taken without their consent and their personal information shared with fascists online. They stood, unarmed, in front of the location where the threat was made, completely silent. When the police asked them to leave at the request of the white nationalists, they did so and split up to guard protesters in other places around the market. For this offense, HARM was called “the real fascists.” The next week, an armed alt-right militia known as the Three Percenters showed up (open-carrying), a protester was arrested for standing up to them, and the farmers market had to be cancelled for the remainder of my time in Bloomington due to the threat to public safety.
We already know that the broad consensus among political scientists is that fascism is a right-wing ideology. We already know that leftists were the first people the Nazis came for. We already know that the types of hierarchy, economic philosophy, and nationalism inherent in fascism are antithetical to left-wing ideology. And, yet, the label of “fascist” is still used as a smear with no meaning so frequently that it is seen as an insult first and an ideology second. This isn’t to say that every form of leftism is good or that you can’t criticize leftists, but rather that, in an age of resurgent fascism, it’s really important for us all to be on the same page about what this term means.
If we want it to mean anything when we say that Trumpism is a form of proto-fascism, we can’t have people thinking “fascist” is just a word for a violent person we don’t like or an authoritarian. If we want to genuinely have a conversation about the link between fascism and the recent Amazon fires, we can’t get bogged down having to explain to people that we are not merely insulting Jair Bolsonaro. And, if we want to talk about socialism in an honest and forthright manner, we can’t keep letting the right-wing falsehood of “the Nazis were socialists” distract us.
Fascism is back: it’s time to understand it so we can call it what it is.