The notion of identity has become so hugely important in contemporary political discourse that no conversation on social issues would be complete without it.
Profligate use, in currently heated political discourse, of the words “fascist” and “fascism” threatens to render them uninformative. One hears accusations of “fascism” applied to such a diversity of political types that being called one seems little more distinctive than wearing blue jeans. Neo-Nazis—appropriately—have been called fascists. But clusters of people on the opposite end of the political spectrum also get so labeled: for example, this piece uses “fascist” to refer to students at Yale demanding a safe space. And we’ve even seen, ironically, the word “fascist” applied to members of the leftist group Antifa, who are supposed to be anti-fascist. Any word that gets thrown around this widely risks becoming an empty or mostly empty label.
Profligate use, furthermore, is endemic to negatively charged political terms. “Terrorist” is the obvious example: anyone who attends to usage can tell that English speakers often label as “terrorist” anyone of a different political stripe who does something violent. Cynically, we might think “x is a terrorist” just means x is violent and not part of my in-group. Similarly self-centered usage arises with words like “socialism.” “Socialism” gets applied almost indexically: “socialism” is using government money to pay for things that don’t benefit me.
Such observations are not new. George Orwell, famously, noted something similar about “fascist” in 1944: “ . . . almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”
If the word has been this diffuse for this long, should we just give up on it? Is it no longer a useful word (except as an insult)? Should we just jettison it?
I don’t think we should accept those conclusions. Two reasons leap out.
First of all, the argument proves too much: if profligate use were reason enough to jettison a political term, we pretty much wouldn’t have political terms. So a better conclusion would be that it’s just inevitable that political terms will always need semantic maintenance by the conscientious (hence the attempt I’m making in this blog).
Second, there are groups of people in history who have called themselves “Fascists” (or some variant involving that term) as part of an official name. Benito Mussolini’s political party, for example, called itself Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party). It would be a mistake to stop using the word to refer to such groups, even if (grant for the sake of argument) the term’s applicability to present groups is murky.
In addition, I actually think that even today “fascism” has a firmer meaning than its unprincipled usage would suggest (NB: Orwell’s view that the word has been “abused” subtly implies something similar, since in order for a term to be abused, it must have a meaning in the first place). My view is that, in addition to “Fascist” being a name for certain historical groups that explicitly adopted that label, “fascist” can also function as a description for other groups that share key characteristics with the groups so named.
The origin of the word—and the reason it was originally chosen—helps us understand what it means. “Fascism” is derived from the Italian word “fascio,” which itself derives from the Latin word “fasces,” which refers to a bundle of rods that is bound together so as to be stronger than the rods would be when separate. The view of the early Italian Fascists was that, if people of a certain kind bind themselves together, they will be stronger as a group and that such strength through binding together is a good thing.
So the ideas implied by the fascio—elements of a kind, binding together, and strength—give us guidance to how we should understand the political movements to which “fascist” genuinely applies. Such groups emphasize that people of a certain kind (Italian, white, Aryan, or whatever) should bind themselves together as a group and thereby obtain strength. Correspondingly, people who are not of that certain kind are deprioritized, pushed aside, or worse . . . exterminated. And that is also supposed to be for the good of the group.
Since it’s the strength of the fascio that matters in the eyes of fascists, two perversions of the idea of justice consequently arise. The first is the one just implied: people of the “wrong” kind don’t get justice at all. The second is a bit less obvious but still palpable: since it’s the strength of the group that matters, there’s little room for justice for individuals who aren’t making the group stronger. All of this means that fascists essentially don’t believe in impartial justice at all, despite what they might say. Accordingly, application of law has been invariably loose in fascist regimes.
That raises the following question: if fascists don’t generally endorse impartial justice, how does their group governance even work? This is where the strong leader comes in: one thing to look for in discerning whether a certain group truly deserves to be called “fascist” is the way they relate to the leader of the group. Since impartial laws of justice have little to no place, fascists come to have quasi-religious devotion to a “great” leader—a Mussolini, a Hitler, a Franco, or . . .
Finally, the emphasis on the strength of “our” group, combined with the demotion of justice, leads naturally to the glorification of violence as a means of expanding group strength. And this feature—not just use of, but glorification of violence—has been a characteristic, even though it’s often disguised, of all fascists.
In sum, this cluster of features, as well as the strange logic that binds them together, is implied by the word “fascism”: in-groupism, suspicion of outsiders, quasi-religious devotion to the group leader, demotion of impartial law and justice, and glorification of violent means. When all this, furthermore, is combined in a group that traces an historical lineage to the original “Fascists,” then the word “fascist” clearly applies. Conversely, other uses of that term shade off into mere insult. It is up to us, then, to use the word accurately, not lazily. And if we do that, it is a useful word—especially lately.