Paul StJohn Mackintosh

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Fascism and cowardice

There are many reasons to despise fascism, but for me, one of the most telling is its cowardice. I could be wrong, but I don’t ever remember anyone describing Marxism, Maoism, or any other Left totalitarianism as creeds of fear. Senseless cruelty and brutality to others has been practised often in the name of the highest motives, however warped, but nothing invalidates and damns a creed from the roots like craven, despicable cowardice – above all, when that creed claims to embody the exact opposite. Fascism may be one way that cowards learn to live with themselves, but denial of the truth of your situation, to compensate and cover for your own weakness and fear, screams intellectual cowardice to accompany the general cowardice infecting every aspect of fascism.

Fascist fear begins in a weak or threatened identity. Identities are like assholes – everybody’s got one. And yet, everybody seems proud of their identity, to identify with it, far more than their asshole. They ground themselves on their identity when they would never ground themselves on their asshole, even though they sit on it all the time. They pride themselves on how distinct and unique their identity is, when fundamentally all identities are the same, just as all assholes are the same. They’re round. They shit. The same with identities.

One very fundamental reason, though, that humans attach such significance to identities is fear. The common identity is all the identity that many individuals have, their inheritance from the group. Truth be told, it’s all that we all have, only some of us inherit from a wider compass and more electively than others. Identity is the refuge from existential terror and doubt for most of us. Shared identity and the continuity of the group is the only escape for many from the horrible realization that one day you as an individual will die, and the equally horrible realization that you have no grounding in reality, no given order to follow, no certainty of what to do and how to be. And of course, the group as a whole suffers from the same terror and doubt, but seeks safety in numbers. Follow the traditional cycles of birth and death, marriages, confinements, and above all, funerals, and you have a communal shelter, a huddling place, to seek refuge from the naked fear of standing alone and self-aware against death and meaninglessness. Plus, practically, the group, the family, the community, is all that many of us have to support us and shield us from the day-to-day problems and perils of life. Exile, ostracism, was long seen in many cultures as the worst of punishments, equivalent to a death sentence.

Group identity is all about fear. The whole concept is shot through with fear, born out of fear. Fear of others, with a slightly different identity. Fear of the world beyond the huddling place. Fear of reality. Fear of solitude. Fear of responsibility, fear of autonomy, fear of freedom. Most people, perhaps all, derive their actual position towards freedom, responsibility, authority, etc. not from something like Hobbes’s state of nature, unless that’s one of their society’s prejudices, but in fact from basic tribal instincts little changed since prehistory. To the tribe, individual judgment, individual identity, individual achievement, count for nothing. The collective judgment of the tribe dictates values and social reality. The development of social institutions and specializations may have ramified and diversified this pattern, but they have not changed it at all. Social classes, codes of law, rulers and ruled, are all still the taboos and traditions of the tribe. Fear of change is prevalent among tribal communities. The tribe’s true educators and motors of development are not scepticism and dissent, but trade and war. Isolated tribes preserve their original traditions because they have been least exposed to these. As soon as you see any other people doing things differently, and have to deal with them, your whole ontology is called into question and the abyss of existential despair opens, because the tribe’s traditions and cult almost always have provided the ground of all being and all value. Foreign ways remind us of the foreignness of life; the stranger incarnates the strangeness of reality. We are always lost on any map that contains any other country – one great inducement to conquest.

All those fears are especially well developed in the fascist. External threats might terrorize many people into fascism, but the original fascist has far stronger internal fears to contend against – all the anxieties and insecurities and weak identity and self-worth that drive fanaticism and bigotry. The general fears and insecurities that drive the group huddling instinct in people as a whole are far more personal and far more fully developed in the fascist. A history of abuse, sexual inadequacy, hidden emotional scars, confusion over origins, all these and more can contribute to creating the flawed, fearful, inadequate, overcompensating, core personality of the basic fascist. And above all, as with the most stereotyped narcissistic behaviour, the fascist is afraid above all to confront the sources of their own weakness, fear and pain, and flees to totems of strength, integrity and wholeness – sometimes flees all the way to death with eyes wide shut. Hence the shrillness and hysteria of fascism, the characteristic notes of overcompensation and denial. Demagogues are the mirror image of the weak and cowardly, what any coward would like to be. Any tyranny is propped up by desperate overcompensation, not so much by the cowardice of the ruled as by the cowardice of the rulers.

Unfortunately for the fascist, though, group identity has no coherent, rational wholeness. Since no group identity is the product of a rational, articulate, structure, without internal contradictions, the fascist is driven by all the force of fear to embrace irrational, inarticulate, contradictory values to elevate the random accumulation of chance developments and local facts that make up a group identity into the invulnerable totem of strength. In his typology of Ur-Fascism, the very first feature Umberto Eco identifies is the cult of tradition. Features 2, 3, 4, and 5, and to a lesser extent, 10, 13, and 14, are all basically there just to support Feature 1. Rejection of modernism and the embrace of irrationalism; action for action’s sake to avoid thought; rejection of analytical criticism; hatred of the contradiction represented by the outsider; appeal to a savant elite as initiates of Tradition; disdain for parliaments and representative forums; Newspeak simplifications – all ways to sustain the cult of tradition by abandoning or attacking anything that calls it into question. And because tradition is a random mess of arbitrary facts brought together and handed down by history, so fascism is – or has to support – a random mess of arbitrary ideas. Fascism’s aggression, permanent state of tension, and death wish stems partly from the stress of sustaining its internal contradictions.

There’s a special, personal brand of fear that motivates the fascist intellectual. Fascist thinkers of all stripes follow a fairly common trajectory through doubt, disbelief, narcissistic retreat into themselves, and eventual re-emergence into fascism. Nihilistic fascists, those solitary and sensitive individuals who escape from the terrors of solipsism, scepticism, and existential despair by fetishising authority and unreason, worshipping tradition and the nation, are classic manifestations of this: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Emil Cioran, Julius Evola, Knut Hamsun, Lucien Rebatet – and for modern successors overwhelmed by their own subjectivity, Michel Houellebecq and Karl Ove Knausgård. Houellebecq, one representative misanthrope, misogynist, and anti-rationalist, declares:  “Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.”

Fascism is the totalitarianism of tradition: the past, with all its random incoherence, elevated to a totalitarian principle. It’s the squalling tantrum of a child told there is no Santa Clause, unnaturally prolonged into adulthood. It’s the perverse fetishism of an adult baby, Peter Pan pirate games with real swords. Naturally, it’s riddled with contradiction and confusion. Hence the appeal to the irrational, to permit all those inconsistent traditions and taboos to persist alongside each other without their incompatibilities tearing the whole edifice apart – and one major contributory factor to the incoherent aggression of fascism, as tensions and contradictions seek their release.

Fascism is not only irrationalism, it is ultimately anti-reality, the retreat of overburdened or fragile identities in the face of the complexities and responsibilities of modern adult life, the political equivalent of anorexia. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in Heretics, “Nietzsche’s aristocracy has about it all the sacredness that belongs to the weak. When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overpowering omnipresence which belongs to the mob, he will have the sympathy of anybody who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired in a crowded omnibus. Every man has hated mankind when he was less than a man. Every man has had humanity in his eyes like a blinding fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell. But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humour and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.”

And naturally, in such a complex and contradictory writer, Nietzsche said much the same thing himself. “I have found strength where one does not look for it: in simple, mild, and pleasant people, without the least desire to rule – and, conversely, the desire to rule has often appeared to me a sign of inward weakness: they fear their own slave soul and shroud it in a royal cloak (in the end, they still become the slaves of their followers, their fame, etc.) The powerful natures dominate, it is a necessity, they need not lift one finger” (Friedrich Nietzsche. Nachlass, Autumn 1880 6 [206]).

That fits exactly fascism’s historical pedigree, its emergence fully formed alongside aestheticism, Wagnerism, Decadence, and the retreat from industrial civilization – one more symptom of fin-de-siecle neurosis. And, as for fascism’s cult of adventure and pioneering colonialism, “Doubtless men flee from small environments into lands that are very deadly. But this is natural enough; for they are not fleeing from death. They are fleeing from life.” And Chesterton on the genesis of fascism in modern societies: “A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.”

>Fighting fascism becomes much easier when you realize that your opponents are cowards – just like all bullies. And cowardice may often drive people into acts of hysterical courage, or hysterical brutality, but a desperate rearguard action or suicidal sacrifice to avoid confronting truth and reality is not much to admire, when inner pain and inner fear drives the adult child. Never be afraid to take up arms against the greatest, most complete cowards humanity has ever produced.

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