Dave Neiwert has another gem in a long series of posts about pseudo-fascism and political religion. In the most recent installment, he responds to a question about the connection between pseudo-fascism and “the real article,” i.e. genuine Mussolini-style totalitarian autocracy. His conclusion as I read it is that pseudo-fascism is more appropriately thought of as proto-fascism, and that the sort of pseudo-fascist rhetoric we’re seeing so much of these days isn’t fundamentally distinct from fascism proper, but is rather an “earlier” form of the same impulse. The distinction to be made, then, is between the fascist mindset and fascism itself, the latter being a product of the fascist mindset + certain circumstances and actions:
The correct analogy regarding pseudo-fascism and real fascism, I think, is not to compare them to a king snake and a cobra, but rather to a cobra in different states: before it strikes, as it still slithers into range and raises its cowl; and after it has bitten. In the former, we can keep it at bay and even corral it. In the latter, we’re calling the ambulance.
This is right on the money, I think; the one thing I’d like to add/emphasize is that this sort of thing is a process, one that is relevant long before it reaches its conclusion. We’ve all heard the “first they came for [x], and I didn’t say anything because […]” maxim, but I don’t think most of us have really internalized the reality of how fragile peace and freedom are, and how insidious the forces that seek to undermine them are. The strength of liberal democracy, aside from its respect for principles of individual autonomy, is that it is designed to be self-correcting, i.e. to respond to changes in our understanding of the world. This is the sort of thing that is anathema to neo-fascist groups and to the far right in general (though it’s not difficult to find ideological ties even to less extreme conservative ideologies—this being one reason, perhaps, why rightist hatred has taken such a significant role in modern mainstream “conservatism”), because for these groups, what’s important is a predefined orthodoxy—and there’s no room for challenging that orthodoxy.
What we have to acknowledge, then, is that this pseudo-fascist/fascist mindset is attacking government and society on the most fundamental level, which is, counterintuitively, also the most vulnerable level. Conservative ideology in its most basic form is marked by a certain natural skepticism towards unorthodox ideas, towards anything that deviates in policy or principle from the status quo. The fascist mindset, it seems to me, is a combination of two impulses: an extreme version of this death grip on the status quo, and an irrational and reductive division of the world into “us” and “them.” These two impulses justify and enhance each other, to the point of full-fledged eliminationism. This is dangerous not only in that it has the potential to develop into fascism proper (or at least “isolated” incidents of violence and persecution)—it also threatens the responsiveness of democracy and the fundamental respect for freedom, autonomy, and the intrinsic worth of human beings (regardless of political/philosophical/theological belief). Fascist tendencies and eliminationist rhetoric shouldn’t only worry us because they might result in real violence, though the threat of violence is real. We should also be wary of such mindsets because of the damage they do to the foundations of our society, a society that (like it or not) is designed to function according to a rational morality, not irrational and impenetrable orthodoxy.
Neiwert’s post concludes thusly:
But if we fall down on the job, and the American body politic under the influence of the extremist right gives rise to real fascism, and we do start seeing loyalty oaths and official suppression of free speech, mass arrests and street violence … well, by then, I’m afraid, it will be too late.
He is of course right to suggest that we need to worry about fascist mentalities now, rather than waiting until it’s too late. This is all the more reason for us to think about how such mentalities have been absorbed into mainstream politics, and to come up with ways to keep fascism and eliminationism from playing such a central role in public discourse. For a disturbingly large number of people, hatred and violent invective have taken the place of reasoned debate. This is not something we can afford to wait to deal with; for the sake of our society and everyone in it, we must embrace reason and civil discourse over neo-/proto-/pseudo-fascist impulses, or we can kiss the most wonderful and important principles of our world goodbye.