Free Inquiry readers may pause to read the “Affirmations of
Humanism: A Statement of Principles” on the inside cover of the magazine.
To a secular humanist, these principles seem so logical, so right, so crucial.
Yet, there is one archetypal political philosophy that is anathema to almost
all of these principles. It is fascism. And fascism’s principles
are wafting in the air today, surreptitiously masquerading as something else,
challenging everything we stand for. The cliché that people and nations
learn from history is not only overused, but also overestimated; often we fail
to learn from history, or draw the wrong conclusions. Sadly, historical amnesia
is the norm.
We are two-and-a-half generations removed from the horrors of Nazi Germany,
although constant reminders jog the consciousness. German and Italian fascism
form the historical models that define this twisted political worldview. Although
they no longer exist, this worldview and the characteristics of these models
have been imitated by protofascist regimes at various times in the twentieth
century. Both the original German and Italian models and the later protofascist
regimes show remarkably similar characteristics. Although many scholars question
any direct connection among these regimes, few can dispute their visual similarities.
Beyond the visual, even a cursory study of these fascist and protofascist regimes
reveals the absolutely striking convergence of their modus operandi.
This, of course, is not a revelation to the informed political observer, but
it is sometimes useful in the interests of perspective to restate obvious facts
and in so doing shed needed light on current circumstances.
For the purpose of this perspective, I will consider the following
regimes: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s
Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s
Indonesia. To be sure, they constitute a mixed bag of national identities, cultures,
developmental levels, and history. But they all followed the fascist or protofascist
model in obtaining, expanding, and maintaining power. Further, all these regimes
have been overthrown, so a more or less complete picture of their basic characteristics
and abuses is possible.
Analysis of these seven regimes reveals fourteen common threads that
link them in recognizable patterns of national behavior and abuse of power.
These basic characteristics are more prevalent and intense in some regimes than
in others, but they all share at least some level of similarity.
1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. From
the prominent displays of flags and bunting to the ubiquitous lapel pins, the
fervor to show patriotic nationalism, both on the part of the regime itself
and of citizens caught up in its frenzy, was always obvious. Catchy slogans,
pride in the military, and demands for unity were common themes in expressing
this nationalism. It was usually coupled with a suspicion of things foreign
that often bordered on xenophobia.
2. Disdain for the importance of human rights. The regimes
themselves viewed human rights as of little value and a hindrance to realizing
the objectives of the ruling elite. Through clever use of propaganda, the population
was brought to accept these human rights abuses by marginalizing, even demonizing,
those being targeted. When abuse was egregious, the tactic was to use secrecy,
denial, and disinformation.
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.
The most significant common thread among these regimes was the use of scapegoating
as a means to divert the people’s attention from other problems, to shift
blame for failures, and to channel frustration in controlled directions. The
methods of choice—relentless propaganda and disinformation—were
usually effective. Often the regimes would incite “spontaneous”
acts against the target scapegoats, usually communists, socialists, liberals,
Jews, ethnic and racial minorities, traditional national enemies, members of
other religions, secularists, homosexuals, and “terrorists.” Active
opponents of these regimes were inevitably labeled as terrorists and dealt with
4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism. Ruling elites
always identified closely with the military and the industrial infrastructure
that supported it. A disproportionate share of national resources was allocated
to the military, even when domestic needs were acute. The military was seen
as an expression of nationalism, and was used whenever possible to assert national
goals, intimidate other nations, and increase the power and prestige of the
5. Rampant sexism. Beyond the simple fact that the political
elite and the national culture were male-dominated, these regimes inevitably
viewed women as second-class citizens. They were adamantly anti-abortion and
also homophobic. These attitudes were usually codified in Draconian laws that
enjoyed strong support by the orthodox religion of the country, thus lending
the regime cover for its abuses.
6. A controlled mass media. Under some of the regimes, the
mass media were under strict direct control and could be relied upon never to
stray from the party line. Other regimes exercised more subtle power to ensure
media orthodoxy. Methods included the control of licensing and access to resources,
economic pressure, appeals to patriotism, and implied threats. The leaders of
the mass media were often politically compatible with the power elite. The result
was usually success in keeping the general public unaware of the regimes’
7. Obsession with national security. Inevitably, a national
security apparatus was under direct control of the ruling elite. It was usually
an instrument of oppression, operating in secret and beyond any constraints.
Its actions were justified under the rubric of protecting “national security,”
and questioning its activities was portrayed as unpatriotic or even treasonous.
8. Religion and ruling elite tied together. Unlike communist
regimes, the fascist and protofascist regimes were never proclaimed as godless
by their opponents. In fact, most of the regimes attached themselves to the
predominant religion of the country and chose to portray themselves as militant
defenders of that religion. The fact that the ruling elite’s behavior
was incompatible with the precepts of the religion was generally swept under
the rug. Propaganda kept up the illusion that the ruling elites were defenders
of the faith and opponents of the “godless.” A perception was manufactured
that opposing the power elite was tantamount to an attack on religion.
9. Power of corporations protected. Although the personal
life of ordinary citizens was under strict control, the ability of large corporations
to operate in relative freedom was not compromised. The ruling elite saw the
corporate structure as a way to not only ensure military production (in developed
states), but also as an additional means of social control. Members of the economic
elite were often pampered by the political elite to ensure a continued mutuality
of interests, especially in the repression of “have-not” citizens.
10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated. Since organized
labor was seen as the one power center that could challenge the political hegemony
of the ruling elite and its corporate allies, it was inevitably crushed or made
powerless. The poor formed an underclass, viewed with suspicion or outright
contempt. Under some regimes, being poor was considered akin to a vice.
11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts.
Intellectuals and the inherent freedom of ideas and expression associated with
them were anathema to these regimes. Intellectual and academic freedom were
considered subversive to national security and the patriotic ideal. Universities
were tightly controlled; politically unreliable faculty harassed or eliminated.
Unorthodox ideas or expressions of dissent were strongly attacked, silenced,
or crushed. To these regimes, art and literature should serve the national interest
or they had no right to exist.
12. Obsession with crime and punishment. Most of these regimes
maintained Draconian systems of criminal justice with huge prison populations.
The police were often glorified and had almost unchecked power, leading to rampant
abuse. “Normal” and political crime were often merged into trumped-up
criminal charges and sometimes used against political opponents of the regime.
Fear, and hatred, of criminals or “traitors” was often promoted
among the population as an excuse for more police power.
13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. Those in business circles
and close to the power elite often used their position to enrich themselves.
This corruption worked both ways; the power elite would receive financial gifts
and property from the economic elite, who in turn would gain the benefit of
government favoritism. Members of the power elite were in a position to obtain
vast wealth from other sources as well: for example, by stealing national resources.
With the national security apparatus under control and the media muzzled, this
corruption was largely unconstrained and not well understood by the general
14. Fraudulent elections. Elections in the form of plebiscites
or public opinion polls were usually bogus. When actual elections with candidates
were held, they would usually be perverted by the power elite to get the desired
result. Common methods included maintaining control of the election machinery,
intimidating and disenfranchising opposition voters, destroying or disallowing
legal votes, and, as a last resort, turning to a judiciary beholden to the power
Does any of this ring alarm bells? Of course not. After all, this is
America, officially a democracy with the rule of law, a constitution, a free
press, honest elections, and a well-informed public constantly being put on
guard against evils. Historical comparisons like these are just exercises in
verbal gymnastics. Maybe, maybe not.
1. Defined as a “political movement or regime tending toward
or imitating Fascism”—Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.
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Laurence Britt’s novel, June, 2004, depicts a future America
dominated by right-wing extremists.