Woody Guthrie famously sported a guitar with the words, “this machine kills fascists” scrawled upon it. The American ur-folk hero knew from whence he spoke (below singing Do Re Mi to images from 1941):
But what is Fascism? Why and how should it be opposed?
One response might be: haven’t we settled all this already? After all, the Allied powers defeated the Axis in WWII. After some initial hedging, both America and Canada decided what side they were on, and it was the side of the Anti-Fascist coalition (yes, yes, “antifa”). The Nazis did terrible things, as did the regimes in Japan, Italy, and elsewhere. We won, through overwhelming force (also involving some terrible things), and the Fascists lost.*
Unfortunately, Fascism did not die with the Axis powers. It’s always been around, and today we see it resurgent with the rise of the “Alt-right.” So let’s get back to those questions. What is Fascism?
George Orwell famously answered that by 1944 it already meant far too many things, all conflated together, making it difficult to parse its meaning, except, through its opponents, as: “…roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.”
I prefer a careful definition more along the lines of Umberto Eco, who grew up in Fascist Italy, and delineated in 1995 the many different components (aligned to those sketched by Orwell above) that tended to hold together in Fascism, each constituting unnecessary but partially sufficient components for its formation. You should read Eco. You really should. The echo of Eco is all around us (sorry).
My takeaway is that Fascism is mostly a style. I think a couple of important points follow:
- As a style, Fascism is not a coherent ideology. It can still be a tool to power and guide actions (indeed, it can be quite potent in this regard). But it remains resistant to reason, intellectual attempts at “de-bunking,” and other acts of persuasion. It freely engages in lying and contradiction as weaponized propaganda.
- As a style, Fascism preys upon the weakness of Constitutional Democracy as a system of governance. Constitutional Democracy makes room for discussion of diverse and divergent ideas. Fascism enters discussion disguised in the raiment of its weaponized ideas, under the banner of “free speech,” but with the intent to divide (into those who adhere to style and those who do not) and undermine Democracy itself.
- As a style, the proper response to Fascism is not intellectual engagement, but shunning, marginalization, and exclusion. As a Constitutional Democracy, we can not open a debate about excommunicating those already included without fatally destroying Constitutional Democracy itself.**
Now I have never been accused of any great concern for fashion, but if I’m hit over the head with how absurd a particular style makes me look, undermining every important way I’d like to be seen, then I will drop that style. This is the proper response to Fascism. Shunning, marginalizing, making the adherents of this awful style look weak and ridiculous, undermining their every presentation of self.
There are many strategies for pulling this trick off. This past weekend in Vancouver we demonstrated two: 1) Ridicule them 2) And crowd them out of the public sphere, sending them, quite physically, back to the margins. Here are a few of my pictures:
People were still streaming in to keep the Fascists out by the time I left! It was a good day.
There are other strategies for marginalizing Fascists, of course, up to and including punching a Nazi (at least if it makes him look weak and ineffectual, rather than sympathetic). I won’t advocate for all of these. But I will note that the most successful strategy is likely to vary by circumstance, with the likelihood of non-violent approaches succeeding vastly improved by making sure lots of people show up.
So go on everyone! Get out there and make sure the Fascists feel bad about themselves! Also read some history. It might come in handy.
[UPDATE: meant to note that there are lots of other, smarter takes on this out there too, from people studying this kind of thing longer than me, including several great sociologists cited recently in the New York Times]
*-together with my brother and our friends, we used to regularly re-enact the battles of WWII through the boardgame Axis & Allies.
**-The brilliant and award-winning novelist N. K. Jemison puts this sentiment in its most stark form in her novel The Obelisk Gate, as her earth-shaping protagonist uses the credible threat of violence to shut down what would otherwise appear to be a democratic exercise in voting, uttering the memorable line: “No voting on who gets to be people.” (p. 335)