Reflections after reading Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism
Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism does a great job of anatomizing fascism, without fully explaining why it is the way it is. He spotlights fascism’s “mobilizing passions” – often too incoherent and anti-rational to be called ideas – as the chief anatomical markers that distinguish it: a sense of overwhelming, unprecedented crisis; group primacy beyond any individual right; perceived victimhood; dread of group contamination and decline; communal purification and reintegration, usually forcible; personal authority of male leaders; veneration of the leader’s instincts above reason; veneration of violence and volition for their own sake; and a Darwinian entitlement to dominate and crush others. He stresses consistently that actual fascism is not an ideology but a phenomenon more like a disease that afflicts ailing democracies. What ideas and ideologies fascism does develop along the way are usually there as attempts to emulate more coherent creeds like Marxism, and are usually ridiculous monuments to fascist anti-intellectualism. But if fascism doesn’t have a coherent ideology, it does have a character, characterized by those symptoms already listed above.
I think there’s a lot to be gained by attempting to deduce what forms fascism’s character. Paxton has done most of the work already on the formative influences, with way more depth than I can claim to, but there are elements, to my mind, that exceed his explanatory models – for instance, the adulation of violence for its own sake, and the sickening brutality of fully realized and radicalized fascism. Plus if we look more closely at the genesis of fascism, we may also be more able to pick it out when it doesn’t exhibit some of the superficial symptoms that we expect from our preconceptions. It’s not always about paramilitary thugs in uniform. (Paxton points out that – contrary to later fascist myth – both Mussolini and Hitler accidentally achieved some of the key moments of their careers in conventional respectable morning wear.) That kind of extrapolation may require a lot of speculation and argument rather than demonstration. The facts aren’t always to hand, especially for the here and now, and I’m going to resort to inference to bridge the gaps. Perhaps that’s too much of a reach for the conscientious historian compelled to back up all conclusions with firm data. All the same, I think it’s a reach worth taking, not least to get a handle on the present fascist phenomena that are busy shaping history right now.
To my mind, one of the most valuable guides to help explain the genesis of fascism is the pathology of paranoia. You can map the pathology of paranoia onto the formative conditions of fascism, point by point. Feelings of powerlessness and victimization, low social status and unstable social environment, a sense of helplessness at the mercy of external forces, persecutory delusions and false beliefs, over-suspicious hypervigilance, conspiracy theories: it’s all there. What’s more, paranoia on the individual level and fascism on the group level arise in the same social and economic conditions and from the same causes. It’s almost enough to characterize paranoia as a sociological rather than a psychological phenomenon. Plus, those prone to fascism in politics are that much more likely to be mentally unstable and manipulable as individuals – again, for the same reasons. For the would-be demagogue, that seems like a great guide for seeking out – or creating – the most extreme fascist support base. Sound like anyone you know?
Social and economic dislocation may go partway towards explaining the genesis of both paranoia and fascism, but they don’t explain everything, least of all the primacy given to the group that is one of the most glaring symptoms of fascism. Why this emphasis on the group, “superior to every right, whether individual or universal,” as Paxton puts it? He gives one purely pragmatic explanation: the justification of crushing any resistance or alternative centre of power facing a mass movement. But in my opinion, there’s more that underlies the emphasis on the group, stemming from the common roots of fascism and paranoia.
Group strength and solidarity is the basis for individual security and identity. At least, that’s how many groups, and many individuals, feel. Outside the abstract customary or rational structures of law and institutions, it’s the Us that supports and protects the vulnerable and often undifferentiated Me. Group strength and group uniformity are practically one and the same, to this way of thinking. The group’s identity is what constitutes and identifies the group in the first place; therefore, the stronger the group is, the more it will project and affirm its identity. (Conversely, some insecure souls may start to identify diversity and divisions within the group as signs of weakness and decay.) Especially insecure and fragile individual identities are going to seek validation and stability by overcompensatory assertion of the group identity. A paranoid group, or a group composed of individuals driven into paranoia, is likely to have exactly the same collective pathology as paranoia on the individual level.
Absent an actual, direct, real external threat to a group, but with a constant stressful sense of threat and debility, how is a group likely to respond? It’ll try to double down on cohesion, unity, and reinforcement of its identifying qualities as a group, however mythical or arbitrary those are. Common identity, cohesion is the only strength the group has. Almost always this is going to be through backward-looking atavism and a reversion to what are seen as earlier communal norms, in the face of the kind of incoherent complexities that appear to threaten and contaminate the group. Male-worship and machismo is one obvious example, often in overreaction to the economic powerlessness and loss of self-respect that fosters individual and collective paranoia. Haunted by fears of social, political and personal impotence, the fascist naturally overcompensates by idealizing machismo. Overcompensatory reinforcement of the primacy and authority of the group also ups the stakes for commitment to the universality and the supremacy of the group and its values. The more the group is exalted as the totem of all strength and security, the more the counter-claims, or even the existence, of any other group is an existential threat to be fought with all the fervour that stems from fear. For any sufficiently insecure group, the mere existence of other groups is a threat, whether it’s domestic minorities or external nationalities. They are an inherent contradiction that a group in its panic atavistic rush back to its mythical founding simplicity cannot abide.
What about the emphasis on violence and the will? I’m mentioning that now because they seem to me to be very much connected with this urge for a simpler, stronger, purer life that signifies the confused, anxious, incoherent paranoid personality casting around for sources of stability and self-reinforcement. Confusion and fear go hand in hand in fostering this mentality. Ignorance and poor education are natural progenitors of paranoia and fascism, because when you genuinely don’t know and/or can’t understand the forces shaping your life, you’re that much more likely to be afraid of them and to feel helpless in the face of them. You’re also that much more likely to seek simple, usually violent solutions when dealing with them. Partly it’s the release of rage and frustration, the urge to smash what thwarts you that you don’t understand. Partly it’s an attempt to redeem and pay back the felt humiliation of past life without pay, job, social security, pride and self-esteem, whatever. For anyone feeling persecuted, helpless and humiliated, violence is the natural response, especially in a situation where rational solutions no longer appear to work. It’s also the most alluring option for those to whom violence comes naturally. Fascist movements may get a boost from action-hungry groups already habituated to violence, hooked on violence and the adrenalin rush, like Hannah Arendt’s post-WWI “Front Generation,” but most unstable social environments are likely to throw these up anyway. This may have a nasty suggestive corollary in praxis, and in Karl Marx’s dictum that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” In any event, once you feel threatened, you react violently. And fascism, like paranoia, depends on the principle that difference, unfamiliarity, contradiction, separateness, are not just threats, but the threat.
Projection and overcompensation come easy to anyone unschooled in reflection, objective thinking and self-analysis. That pretty much fits both the paranoid individual and the fascist group. Umberto Eco and many others have commented on the absolute antipathy of fascism to intellectual analysis: contemptuous anti-intellectualism masking desperate vulnerability to any truth test. It’s also likely to produce the kind of self-destructive death spiral Paxton has identified in terminal-stage fascism in Germany and Italy, where insanity piles on insanity as the reality principle is left ever farther behind. It also explains the kinds of fantastic megalomania cited by Hannah Arendt, where totalitarian leaders apparently acted in deliberate defiance of the facts, just to demonstrate that they could. Fascism is the Big Lie that paranoia’s little lie has grown into. There’s hardly any need to quote Joseph Goebbels on this, but as a tribute to his rare candour: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” Truth is surely the greatest enemy of every populist government currently in office. No wonder they’re so anti-media.
I hope this helps allay a few fears and hesitations about dealing with fascists in the public sphere. Public will? Public insanity. Popular choice? Popular delusion and the madness of crowds. Why should you be at the mercy of behaviour and attitudes in politics that would be instant grounds for incarceration for a private individual? These people are sick – literally. No one defends the right of a delusional paranoiac to act out their paranoid delusions to the harm of others. No one has a right to expect anyone else to abide by their lie. Yet unscrupulous individuals and power groups have the tools to identify and mobilize masses by driving them mad. “Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule,” said Nietzsche. He probably meant more than literal, clinical insanity – but nonetheless, here is the actual clinical thing itself, acting en masse in politics, and being whipped up and into the polls by leaders and manipulators equally mad with the same affliction. You can see why Orwell declared that: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” And why he represented the state creed of Oceania as the same self-delusional solipsism that any paranoid is locked into.
Regardless of how far the rights of the individual or the group to deny reality extend in the political sphere, we know very well what happens in the social or legal sphere. Delusional psychopaths get certified as criminally insane and locked up. Delusional groups like the Heaven’s Gate cult, the People’s Gate cult or the Branch Davidians slaughter themselves, or others, or both, if the legal and medical authorities can’t shut them down first. In the political sphere, we have institutions and constitutions designed to protect us from such outbreaks. Are we to defer to the will of the lunatics if they do take over the asylum? Democracy depends on rational choice; it is premised on the people being rational actors. Any standard of legal autonomy, responsibility and accountability depends on that. It also provides a handy litmus test for the defenders of democracy: the moment you start to spread lies and deny reality, stoke fears and foster insanity, you cease to be a democrat and become a demagogue. And you lose all democratic legitimacy. Trump, Putin, Farage, Johnson, Orban, Salvini – they all qualify. They tick just about every box in Paxton’s list, even the violence box for some. Absolute adherence to the truth may be a high bar for any modern politician to meet, but it’s a minimally sufficient and necessary standard of democratic legitimacy. If you distort reality, you represent, not rational actors, but the insane.
Political norms like the will of the people as a corollary to individual liberty depend on sanity and rationality at the individual level: how come no one sees fit to apply that test at the public level, where insanity and irrationality can do far more harm? We certainly shouldn’t hesitate to act against collective insanity when we do see it, because that’s exactly what fascism is.