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That Other F-Word: 10 Techniques All Fascist States Use

If one is astonished over how we even got here, Jason Stanley’s "How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them" is a good place to start.

Towards the end of Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, the author talks about the normalisation of extreme policies and radicalisation, evident throughout the world. These include the normalisation of mass shootings in the US, normalisation of fascism in Hungary and Poland (which until recently were thriving liberal democracies), the normalisation of brutal public treatment of refugees and undocumented workers…

In a slim book that explores fascist politics and techniques, the author who is a professor of philosophy at Yale University, states that fascism transforms the morally extraordinary to the ordinary while enabling us to tolerate what was once intolerable, by making one believe this was the way things have always been. Stanley states:

By contrast the word “Fascist” has acquired a feeling of the extreme, like crying wolf. Normalisation of fascist ideology by definition would make charges of “fascism” seem like an over reaction, even in societies whose norms are transforming along these worrisome lines.

Normalisation means precisely that encroaching ideologically extreme conditions are not recognised as such because they have come to seem normal. The charge of fascism will always seem extreme; normalisation means that the goalposts for the legitimate use of “extreme” terminology continually move.

There are ample books which explore the Nazi years and how fascist politics of the time converted a nation to turn against its citizens. William Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich deciphers how language and propaganda were used to dehumanise and de-sensitise German citizens towards Jews. Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism looks at how totalitarian regimes subverted power structures and controlled narratives and thus people. The question these books seek to answer is what lead a nation to embrace its worst demons, and change its core values against the basic tenets of liberal democracy.

How Fascism Works does not place fascist politics within a historical frame, instead it attempts to decipher it from the lens of political philosophy, using recent examples of fascism from across the world — ranging from the United States, along with Hungary, Myanmar, Rwanda, Russia, Poland, Turkey and India among others. The author connects the patterns and allows the reader to introspect on their uniformity over time and geography. He identifies and devotes a chapter on each technique used by fascist politics, which are briefly summarised below.

The mythic past

Fascist politics invokes a pure mythic past, which has been tragically destroyed. These myths are fantasies of a past uniformity, manipulated by fascists to write a glorious national history in which a chosen nation ruled over others — the result of conquests and civilisation building achievements. The mythic past can be “religiously pure, racially pure, culturally pure, or all of the above.” An extreme version of the patriarchal family is followed, and the “leader of the nation” is analogous to the father in the traditional patriarchal family.

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Propaganda

Propaganda is used to conceal politicians or political movements and mask problematic goals with ideals that are accepted. A destabilising war for power can then become a war whose aim is stability or freedom.

Fascist propaganda also publicises false charges of corruption while engaging in corrupt practices. The author cites The 12-Year Reich by historian Richard Grunberger: “Corruption was in fact the central organising principle of the Third Reich — and yet a great many citizens not only overlooked this fact but actually regarded the men of the new regime as austerely dedicated to moral probity.” The author explains that while the indictments sound like they are against political corruption, in fact, they are against the corruption of purity rather than the law, and intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of traditional order.

While most fascist rulers are elected democratically, the undemocratic intent behind fascist propaganda is significant. The dismantling of the rule of law and replacing it with the dictates of individual rulers or party bosses; criticism against an independent judiciary; pushing freedom of speech to its limits while manipulating it to subvert the speech of others; using “reason” while promoting irrationality and fanatical emotions are all standard moves of fascist propaganda.

Anti-intellectualism

Fascist politics devalues education, expertise, and language to undermine public discourse. The only aspect of a person that remains is power and the tribal identity. Hence, free speech, public debate, universities, and institutions that promote public reason and open discussion are attacked.

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In fascist ideology, the goal of general education in schools and universities is to instil pride in the mythic past; fascist education extols academic disciplines that reinforce hierarchical norms and national tradition.

Unreality

Fascist politics exchanges reality for the pronouncements of a single individual, or political party. This destroys the information space and reality by obvious lying. The author also delves into the contradictions — how does one reconcile with this distortion of truth, in a liberal democracy “a marketplace of ideas” where all possible views — even the fabricated and bizarre — should be allowed?

The author explains that the concept of the free “marketplace of ideas” like the free market, is predicated on a utopian assumption of consumers, that conversation works by the exchange of reason, with one party offering its reasons, which are then countered by the reasons of an opponent until the truth emerges. This is manipulated by fascist politics because, in fascist politics, the conversation is not just used to communicate information but is used to shut out perspectives, raise fears, and heighten prejudice.

If a society is divided, then a demagogic politician can exploit the division by using language to sow fear, accentuate prejudice, and call for revenge against a hated group. There is also an affinity to propagate conspiracy theories. An example is the Russian television network RT, which featured voices from Neo-Nazis to far Leftists. The clatter of multiple opinions was a propaganda technique, not to produce knowledge but to undermine trust in primary democratic institutions, and drowning out objective truth. Russian propagandists realised that with a cacophony of opinions and outlandish possibilities, one could undermine the basic set of presuppositions about the world that allows for productive enquiry.

Hierarchy

Notions of superiority stem from the idea of hierarchy. According to fascists, nature imposes hierarchies of power and dominance, inconsistent with the equality of respect presupposed by liberal democratic theory. Fascist ideology takes advantage of a human tendency to organise society hierarchically, and fascist politicians represent the myths that legitimise their hierarchies as immutable facts. Their principle justification is nature itself. For the fascist, the principle of equality is the denial of natural law, which sets certain traditions, those of the more powerful, over others. The natural law allegedly places men over women and members of the chosen nation of the fascist over other groupings.

Victimhood

Fascist politics exploits feelings of victimisation by dominant groups at the prospect of sharing power and citizenship with minorities. It manipulates the anguish over the loss of dominant status. This sense of loss can be changed into victimhood and exploited to justify the past while continuing new forms of oppression.

Members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a far-right vigilante group in Uttar Pradesh state, India. Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

Nationalism is at the core of fascism, and the author explains the two types of nationalism: The first arises from oppression, is not fascist, but equality-driven nationalist movements — the anti-colonialist struggles under the banner of nationalism. The second is authoritarian nationalism, which is a repudiation of the liberal democratic ideal, in the service of domination, for preserving or gaining a position at the top of a hierarchy of power and status. The difference between both lies in their relationship with equality.

The fascist leader employs collective victimhood to create a group identity (that can be based on skin colour, religion, tradition or ethnic origin) that is opposed to cosmopolitanism and individualism of liberal democracy. But it is always contrasted with a perceived other, against whom the nation needs to be defined. Fascist nationalism creates a dangerous ‘them’ to guard against, at times to battle with, to control, to restore group dignity.

Law and Order

Fascist law and order rhetoric is meant to divide citizens into two: those of the chosen nation, who are lawful by nature, and those who are not, and are inherently lawless. In western fascist politics, “women who do not fit traditional gender roles, homosexuals, immigrants, decadent cosmopolitans, those without a dominant religion, are in their very existence violations of law and order. By describing black Americans as a threat to law and order, demagogues in the US have been able to create a strong sense of white national identity that requires protection from the non-white threat.”

The author explains that if a community has a high crime rate, it is a social problem requiring empathy and understanding along with policies that address the structural causes. The politics of “us versus them” creates a widespread lack of empathy for this group. Fascist propaganda presents certain groups as criminals and also creates a moral panic about them, and how this group is considered a threat to the purity of the nation.

Sexual anxiety

Fascism promotes the fear of race mixing, of corrupting the pure nation with inferior blood. A robust presence of a politics of sexual anxiety is a sign of the erosion of liberal politics. According to Hitler, the Jews were behind a conspiracy to use black soldiers to rape pure Aryan women as a means of destroying the “white race”. The author cites the examples of Myanmar, where fear of Muslim Rohingyas raping Buddhist women was used to fuel hatred against the Rohingya. In India, “love jihad” propagates the fears of Muslim men taking sexual advantage of pure Hindu women, and in the US, Donald Trump began his campaign by denouncing Mexican immigrants to the United States as rapists. The politics of sexual anxiety is a powerful way to present freedom and equality as threats without explicitly appearing to reject them.

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Dislike for cosmopolitanism

Fascist politics loathes cosmopolitanism and concentrates on the heartland, dislikes unions, and venerates hard work and hierarchy. It aims its message outside large cities and is especially resonant during globalisation. It focusses on traditional values of self-sufficiency put at risk by the success of liberal cities culturally and economically. It rejects pluralism, and everyone in the chosen nation should share a religion, a way of life and a set of customs. The diversity with its tolerance of difference in large urban centres is, therefore, a threat to fascist ideology.

ARBEIT MACHT FREI

According to fascists, the state reserves support for members of the chosen nation, for “us” and not “them”. The justification is because “they” are lazy, lack work ethic, and cannot be trusted with state funds and because “they” are criminal and seek only to live off state largess. They can be cured of laziness and thievery by hard labour. This is why the gates of Auschwitz and Buchenwald had emblazoned on them the slogan “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” — Work shall set you free. In Nazi ideology, Jews were considered lazy, corrupt criminals, scheming to take the money of hardworking Aryans, a job that was facilitated by the state.

The valorisation of self-sufficiency is at the core of fascist ideology, along with the hostility towards hated minority groups. Stereotyping people in a particular manner (“shifty, sneaky, dirty and distrustful” — the author cites Franz Fanon to explain how the French labelled the Arabs) justifies the treatment meted out to them.

While this piece has made a conscious attempt to summarise many points of the book above, it does not do any justice to the arguments and contexts raised within each chapter. Like any good book of political philosophy, there is ample for reflection and debate based on the reader’s political and philosophical moorings. The strength of this book is the contextualisation of fascist techniques, to explain how it has seeped into liberal democracies. It succeeds in succinctly presenting the unifying traits seen in contemporary authoritarian politics across the globe.

The deficiencies of the book are not in the content; rather they are in what else could have been looked into. A deeper introspection on how the globalisation of the last two decades impacted political institutions and the very definition of citizenship which feeds into the narratives of “us versus them”. A look at the impact of the 2008 recession on not just economies, but on the disillusionment with liberal politics and the role of governments. It is crucial to understand how fascists systematically manipulate and convince people to believe their agendas and biases. It is equally important to know why citizens respond and buy into fascist politics and ideologies.

That fascism stems from Right-wing politics is obvious. But there is a need to understand the different shades of the political spectrum, and also contextualise fascism within it, to realise when an ideology has reached its extreme, and how it is now different. This is significant because it is this which allows citizens to recognise the dangers and threats which then emerge from different points of views within a democracy. Some ideas on this would only add to the book.

How can Liberal democracies survive the threat of fascism? Though the author pontificates briefly on the role of liberal education and economic inequality, there are no easy answers. The author explains:

The pull of Fascist politics is powerful. It simplifies human existence, gives us an object, a “them” whose supposed laziness highlights our own virtue and discipline, encourages us to identify with a forceful leader who helps us make sense of the world, whose bluntness regarding the “undeserving” people in the world is refreshing. If democracy looks like a successful business, if the CEO is tough talking and cares little for democratic institution, even denigrates them, so much the better.” Contrasting this, the author goes on to say “Democratic citizenship requires a degree of empathy, insight, and kindness that demands a great deal of all of us. There are easier ways to live.

The author begins the book by stating that it is historical conditions which define the regimes that enact and endorse fascist tactics. Fascism in Germany was different from Fascism in Italy. He also says that all fascist politics does lead to an explicitly fascist state. World over fascism is seeping into politics. But for a moment, think fo this in terms of India alone — where over the last five years so much that was considered reprehensible is now normalised. Rewriting of the past with fiction that suits political agendas. State silence towards hate crime and the lynching of minorities in the name of religion or caste. Equivocation towards asinine policy decisions which have visible negative outcomes. The hijacking of narratives and distortion of facts. A blatant “us versus them” story against citizens asserted by leaders of the BJP, all crimes being absolved for public office… the list can go on.

If one is astonished over how we even got here, this book is a good place to start. Over the last half a decade, we have seen the use of each fascist technique identified in this book, by the current ruling political party. But does that make India a textbook fascist state? One can only wonder. But with the elections underway, there is always the hope of changing the politics from what has been seen.

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