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Fascism 101

May 15, 2013

“You, you, fascist!”

There are very few words in our political vocabularies that are more emotionally loaded, while at the same time more saddled with multiple, not-quite-identical meanings. When a Google search on “Bush fascist” yields 5.2 million hits, and a search on “Obama fascist” yields 5.9 million, you have to wonder just what this word is supposed to mean, anyway.

We could start by looking at the symbol from which the word derives. Take an axe, surround it with a bundle of rods and lash the whole thing together as tightly as you can, and there you have what the ancient Romans called the “fasces.” (

It was this symbol of unified power that Benito Mussolini and his Fascist movement latched onto in the early years of the 20th century. (It’s found in many other places, of course, including the iconography of the United States of America.)

To Mussolini and his followers, fascism represented a unification of the power of the state and the power of the market. He is quoted as saying, “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” (It may be worth noting at this point that such a merger can happen in two ways—either by the state expropriating and nationalizing the means of production, or by the market influencing and ultimately corrupting the state.)

In the intervening years, the meaning has broadened. Perhaps the best way to think of fascism is as the enforced unification of all aspects and institutions of a society, not just the market and the state, but also the workforce, the church, the media, the arts, the schools, the family—everything. (It should be obvious, by the way, that this unification might be done in the name of almost any ideology, across the political spectrum, or in the name of almost any religion, or atheism for that matter.)

This notion can become very attractive to everyday people under a variety of unsettling circumstances—in times of external or internal threats, economic uncertainty, social upheaval, or cultural transformation. (Do you begin to see why I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately?)

It can also become very attractive to the folks at the top of a society, when they begin to suspect that the peasantry is getting restless.

In the fascist state, there are no such things as “competing interests”—unlike the messy chaos of democracy, where there are so many competing interests that no one of them can claim dominance. No dissent is tolerated, no discussion is necessary—except perhaps on questions of methodology and efficiency.