this is what fascism looks like

It has been one month since Trump became president. We have all been asking ourselves: “what is Donald Trump?” A populist? A fascist? Just what we need to shake things up? We as a society have not settled on what he is, what he really represents. And this might be his greatest strength; that potential of ‘normalisation’ already well under way.

Let’s cut to the chase: this is what fascism looks like. All the “fascism” alarms bells, klaxons, sirens, calendar event reminders and tocsins are going off right now. All of them. Every damn single last one.

Let’s be clear on what fascism is and what it is not. Because a part of the problem is that we have used the word “fascism” for so long as a catchall word meaning “very bad, angry/strict.”

Fascism is revolution in favour of authoritarianism. The strange marriage of angry populism and cynical conservative powers, this is a revolt against the idea of the public good, public reason and messy secular humanism. Fascism always makes use of the emotional appeal of a misunderstood, mythical past, even as it is itself something new and has nothing to do with the actual history of the nation. Fascism simultaneously captures the language of revolt and of change; it thus has a way of outflanking traditional political parties on both the right and the left.

This logically incoherent, internally contradictory appeal is the keynote sign of facscism. It “works” because, remember, fascism is revolt against civil society: it is an explosion of greed and selfishness, the triumph of the id, so to speak. As the saying going: “there is no contradiction in self interest.” Fascism is what happens when corporate greed hollows out a society, its individuals and institutions in the name of profit, and when things come to a breaking point where the path of the political body either points towards a move towards public good at the expense of corporate profit, or the destruction of civil society for the benefit of corporate profit. The resulting destruction of civil society and government based on public reason creates the appearance – in the case of Nazisim at least – of explosive growth and expansion. Because the resources of society are no longer being directed to the well-being of its individuals, it’s being completely directed into military expansion, corporate profit, and the gain of the handful of sychophants at the top. Fascism in this sense is extreme corporate cronyism with an expansive ideological cover.

All of these signs are present in Trump’s nascent regime. It all fits. Let me repeat that: it all fits the pattern. “Populism,” the tortured ideological term conservatives would prefer you to use for Trump, is drafted every time a demagogue sweeps onto the scene to take advantage of people’s anger. Don’t call it mob rule. At it’s best, populism expresses an almost marxist sense of lower class identity. Explain to me how Trump’s cabinet of billionaires is “populist” again?

Fascism is not true populism. Nor is it pure autocracy. It obviously contains huge doses of these things, but fascism is not about common people overthrowing some sort of oppressive regime, nor is fascism particularly strong at the top. It is not so much characterised by extreme centralised authority as competing factions of cronies and sycophants, who compete for the attention of the Leader. Fascism isn’t so much centralised and autocratic as a handful of powerful interests – in Nazi Germany’s case, the army, the bureaucracy, the SS and the major corporations – vying to expand their own power. The German government had ceased to exist in a de facto sense. Remember, Hitler wasn’t brilliant and his cronies and henchmen were even worse. They where crackpots, ranters, fanatics and madmen that political elites thought they could control and mould. Fascism is a wrecking; that turns a vibrant society into a barracks.

Recently, I have been reading the traditional Republican/conservative pushback on Donald Trump being as fascist: here are the best two articles. Barton Swaim’s “Trump’s populism isn’t fascism. So what is it?” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-populism-isnt-fascism-so-what-is-it/2017/02/16/d871df78-f20f-11e6-8d72-263470bf0401_story.html?utm_term=.5db0621deea1&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1 Swaim suggests that America exceptionalism – that our character as a nation renders us immune to fascism – and that if we where going to have gone fascist, it would have been in the ’30s and ’40s. Embracing the idea of American Exceptionalism, Swaim smugly announces that our society intrinsically resists the “centralisation of authority” that would happen under fascism. Further, fascism is “for elites, not mavericks or crackpots” and German society, including their version of liberal professors fell into line behind Hitler because German thought of itself as monolithic and was OK with being ruled by an aristocracy from Berlin. Again curious when your election is made possible by billionaires, the oil and coal industry, and FBI Director Comey. Fascism is when the “elites” and crackpots join forces.

Any complains liberals might have – like Bannon saying that the media should shut up – say more about delicate liberal sensitivities than about Trump’s ideology. Swains suggests that because he is able to disagree with Trump on anything (he airs slight disapproval of the Muslim Ban here) that means Trump is not a fascist. Swain then gets to his main course: Trump is a populist. A return to roots and basics. He’s the Salt of the Earth of American Democracy. Again, Trump lost the popular vote and “did not vote” was the winner of the election. After providing no evidence or explanation, merely a vague quote from Irving Kristol that echoes the Jefferson quote about the Tree of Liberty needing the blood of patriots except in this case populists, Swaim closes by saying the real problem is the conformism and complacency of America’s liberal elites.

Adopting the arm-chair-general superciliousness I’ve come to strongly associate with conservatives delivering an oversimplified, strangely convenient/cherry-picked version of history, Swaim claims that American ‘frontier spirit’ and general resistance to conformity means that authoritarianism of any stripe would be instantly halted before it even began. The funny thing about Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Swaim says, is that it fascism never took place in ’30s America. I cannot tell if Swaim makes his arguments out of cynicism and hypocrisy or naive ignorance, but he clearly has not read It Can’t Happen Here. The entire point of the book is to illustrate how easily it could “happen here” i.e., how easily “American exceptionalism” could be turned into a fascist program. If I was Swaim, I wouldn’t have even mentioned the book at all.

Further, Swaim seems blind that he is on the side of the forces of racial/religious conformism. America was explicitly founded on the idea of public reason and the separation of church and state: the Founding Fathers refused to choose. Swaim implicitly thinks that American means “white and christian.” What this means in the modern age is fascism. Nor does he have any conception of how the ‘frontier spirit’ might work. When does it “kick in?” Swaim is also ignoring the realty of what the decades of the Cold War have done to our democratic society (talk about centralisation of power and conformity); his statement that “Americans have never gone for socialism” seems strange given FDR’s New Deal programs and the fact that American politics is currently heading off a cliff into right wing extremism. It implies Americans are immune to extremist politics just when that is exactly what is happening.

Ultimately for Swaim, nothing Donald Trump could ever do would count as fascist. And that is the real weakness in what he’s saying. Swaim’s rationale here indicates that that, hypothetically, Mike Pence’s “Patriotic Bible Camp for American Greatness” cannot be a  concentration camp because, well, it reflects our frontier spirit, and it chastises bleeding heart liberals (who are also secret totalitarians) and if it was fascist – which it definitely isn’t – Americans wouldn’t have it. “Frontier spirit” is great, but does Swaim realise that there is no frontier anymore?

Swaim’s basic argument rests on myths and  misconceptions about the American past and the actual nut-and-bolts of how are society functions today. Worse, he has no idea what fascism actually is. For him, the sum of the liberal argument is that Trump is a fascist because he is a bully, and Benito Mussolini was also a blustering bully. Swaim dismisses the comparison as facile. Fine. But he misses how Trump’s bullying fits a pattern that is repeating itself  here and now.

The second pattern of response is quite a lot more subtle and complicated. A great example is John McNeill’s “How fascist is Donald Trump? There’s a formula for that.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/10/21/how-fascist-is-donald-trump-theres-actually-a-formula-for-that/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.e23796649cd4.

McNeill, a historian, grades Trump on his similarities with historical fascism in eleven categories, each category getting a possible four “benitos.” This is an interesting and charming read (on the category of ‘fetishisation of masculinity,’ four benitos are awarded) that dismisses Trump as a crude semi-fascist, a baby fascist (Trump scores a total of 22 benitos out of a possible 44). Fine. McNeill is clearly no friend of Trump, but his perspective tends to play down or even dismiss concerns about what is taking place now. Instead of indicating that we are serious danger of history repeating itself, and that our society and democracy are in dire peril, McNeill more or less leaves the impression that, like Swaim, Trump is like commercials during a movie: you don’t like them, but you sit through it anyway. McNeill contributes, in a small way, to the normalisation of Trump.

But what does it mean that a third of Americans slobber a semi-fascist and many more tolerate him? It strikes me that even a baby fascist should still trigger the “frontier spirit.” And even then, I would argue that the basic mechanics of fascism – populist rage allied with corporate and military interests destroying the basic tenets of the public good/civil society – clearly do not require a “high benito scoring” fascist dictator to be fascism. Remember we are talking about destruction here; you don’t have to be competent. 

Obviously Trump isn’t Hitler. Trump obviously isn’t Mussolini. But he does not have to be, and  American fascism – Trumpism – was never going to resemble the historical fascists. Really – just think about it. This is root-and-branch the essential reasoning behind the conservative mind-block on what’s happening to this country. Trump can’t be a fascist – the reasoning goes – because of the dazzling array of superficial differences between Trumpism and Nazism, Germany/Italy and America. For example, McNeill awards zero benitos in the categories of ‘fetishisation of youth’ and ‘hierarchical party structure/purging the disloyal,’ making much of the fact that his followers are not dressed up in ersatz military outfits and some Republicans dislike Trump and are not afraid to say so in public. So Republicans aren’t goose stepping around Washington DC in Davy Crockett outfits. Great. McNeill is blind to how militarised are society has become; requiring that fascism march in the street with matching outfits is laughable. Also, what about those little red hats?

NcNeill’s categories have nothing to do with what fascism actually is and how it actually operates. McNeill is implicitly assuming that Trumpism must fit snuggly into a mould that it simply doesn’t need in order to be fascist. McNeill is like the generals who “prepare for the last war” instead of looking to fight the next one. Again, neither McNeill nor Swaim look below the surface and look at what has happened to this country since WWII and the underlying economics, not to mention the state of our democracy (effectively gone). They are afraid to check underneath the hood: Trump doesn’t represent “frontier spirit” nor does Trumpism need to fit a blueprint of 1930’s European fascism for Trumpism to be fascism.

How long will these ostensibly reasonable, hard headed Republicans – fond of Winston Churchill and Edmund Burke – keep up their sham debate? How bad will it have to get? Look at their words and actions. Bannon’s statements about the media culminate to a calculated attempt to subvert democracy; Trump is moving full bore destroy any sort of function public system.

What exactly do you need to be more clear?

 

 

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The City and the Castle

2500 years ago, at the birth of western civilisation as we know it, there where two political nodes from which the ancient Greek world organised itself. One one side you had The City: a vibrant, messy republic.  And on the other, the Castle: an austere militaristic society. I am referring to the classical match up of Athens and Sparta. Ultimately, the idea of the City and the Castle refer to bedrock notions of what the idea political body should be: one based on civil duty, and the other, righteous hierarchy.

These rivals created the bedrock of western political thinking; I would argue that each society has, since ancient times, wrestled with a political spectrum with Athens at one end  and Sparta on the other. This political spectrum is both more realistic and even more practical than the clunky, outdated and ideologically motivated American conception of the political spectrum, i.e., Communism on the far left and extreme libertarianism/ anarchy and or fascism on the right (depending on who you ask), with American society perfectly balanced distinctly on the right in the realm of laissez-faire capitalism.

The political spectrum of the City and the Castle is also more complex and nuanced then a clunky authoritarianism vs freedom sense of the political spectrum. This means that the Castle does not mean “authoritarianism” and the City does not mean “freedom,” though these concepts are definitely integral to both respectively.

Athens and Sparta represent the two poles, or ideals of the western political landscape. Every society and government primarily appeals to one or the other; and while every society will have both impulses, a given government or ruler will appeal to one ideal or the other. For example, I would like the 20th century totalitarianisms of Stalinism and Nazisim with a radical shift towards the Castle. While the French Revolution could be seen as a bringing-into-line of the French political system with a socio-economic system which had already shifted along the lines of the City.

The Castle – the fundamental sense that there is a righteous, received hierarchy and order to society – is best seen in Sparta, but other examples might be feudal Europe and various authoritarian units throughout western history, ranging from the likes of Oliver Cromwell to Pinochet. There are numerous advantages: military strength and high social cohesion between the two big ones. But the idea of the Castle is as much psychological and social as it is political. As Herbert Marcuse said: “people do not want to be free.” The strength of the Castle is it’s clearly delineated social hierarchy closely linked to an ideology with religious overtones, i.e., “One God in Heaven, One King on Earth.” The Castle provides its people with simple, unquestioned answers to life’s vexing questions.

static, oppressive, brittle, ignorant

The City – exemplified originally by Athens – rests on a conception of shared humanity. Thus the human individual is a citizen – with rights and duties – rather than a subject or member of a folk. The City doesn’t equate to democracy, or even a republic necessarily. It’s about the fundamental conception of how the political body should function: how it is envisioned. The City is where the idea of the public good is primary. The strength of the City is it’s vibrancy. By this I mean more than simply “freedom.” The idea of the polis – a rational, human-oriented political unit – assists human individuals with pursuing their own well being. It is this social framework of the public good which enables tremendous social energies to be released.

The drawback with the Castle is its static conception society and life in an ever changing world. The Castle is oppressive: the result a psychological and emotional stunting of it’s people. It is a narrow conception of society and life which some psychological profiles crave, but few thrive in. Strong leaders of the Castle are almost unstoppable, but wise, great men are always in short supply and one wise man is not enough to rule an entire society. Ask any autocrat ever.

The weakness of the City is it’s trouble with social and political cohesion. Implicitly based on ideas of equality and moral relativism, it lacks a sense of divine sanction. It is hard to ask people to sacrifice themselves – either their lives or their sense of profit and gain – for an indistinct and abstract ‘public good.’ The City is more complicated psychologically, intellectually and emotionally. It’s much harder to sustain; it requires much more privileged circumstances to  function properly.  The most successful republics – Athens, Venice, Holland, England, and America are at once the most dynamic societies but also incredibly rare and fragile. The Venetian Republic, for example, was a totally unique production of geographic location (islands in lagoon which both protected the Venetians and inhibited the rise of the feudal system), historical confluence (the Hunnic invasions, the fall of the Roman Empire), and cultural factors (the intellectual and cultural heritage of  Athens and Rome. These factors combined to create a unique sense of civic pride and duty amongst the citizens of Venice.

The Peloponnesian War – the WWII of ancient Greece – was eventually won by Sparta. Plato’s Republic is in many ways inspired by Sparta, and since then the lovers-of-all-things Spartan have only gained ground. Sparta resonates with many people, where as nobody makes movies about Athenians.

But there is a problem. There are no actual Spartan accounts of being Spartan. Everything we know about the ancient Spartans was written by other Greeks: Athenians, Thebans, Corinthians. When we refer to the birth of western civilisation, we are referring to Athens at the height of its glory. Yes, the entire ancient Greek world played its part here, but it is Athens that produced the great philosophers and the artists that created a lasting civilisation. Sparta won the War because it remained defensive; Sparta merely survived. It never conquored. Sparta rode high until they where defeated by the Thebans. And then they where gone. And we are all Athenians now.

America was founded upon the ideas of The City: secular humanism, civic duty an the public good. These values are at the root of what makes America great. These ideas are under attack, to the point of being destroyed. Make no mistake: patriotism and people shouting about loving freedom do not guarantee freedom, nor will it matter when it comes to maintaining a republic in this country. It’s the idea of the public good, linked with secular humanism which is the essence of American democracy, not guns and bibles. Corporate greed – the profit maximisation principle – and the religious right are two principles which seek to destroy the idea of the public good, which both limits profits and stands in implicit contradiction to the fundamentalist mindset.

It’s now or never.

 

Ready Player One

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Ready Player One: the cover has all the makings of an awesome, mind-bending dystopian fiction that makes 1984 look outdated, the Mockingjay series look naive, and Tron not very inventive. Ernest Cline, too, has all the makings of an awesome hey-this-guy-is-our-age-and-speaks-to-our-experience top tier author; with just enough millennial/Gen-X nostalgia to really make it mainstream. This book should have been eerie; a sort of cyber-punk, reality questioning, death-match in layers of computer games.

Ready Player One is none of those things. This might be a solid contribution to the young-adult fiction genre, but does not qualify as serious literature. As much as I might be putting my snobbery on display for all to see here, I think I can justify it. Here’s the scene: it is about 30 years in the future, and the world is dying under global warming, endless wars, famine, disease, etc. Pretty much the future we are hurtling towards right now. In this dark future, a Gen-X reclusive genius computer programer creates OASIS, a totally immersive, massive computer game. It quickly turns into more then the only real outlet of escapism; the creator of OASIS built some basic “public good” devices into the system (like no monthly entry fee or monthly fee to play). OASIS therefore quickly becomes much more than simply a game; it becomes the glue that hold humanity together (it even has a free and functioning public school system. Yes, this really is fiction).

So far so good, right?

And it ends there. Cline seems both unwilling and unable to following up on the potential of this universe. The dystopian landscape described above is more or less a vehicle for Cline’s real interest: 1980’s nostalgia obsession. The music, the style, but especially the early arcade games are painstakingly on display. In some respects, this book is almost a history of early computer games. Beyond that, the plot is conventional – childishly so – the bad guys are profoundly cliche, the hero saves the day, wins the big prize and gets the (very) attractive girl. Liberal use of deus ex machine makes sure of this.

The initial idea for the book must have been the idea of easter eggs in computer games and people’s obsession with finding them. You know: the designers code a complicated, almost invisible puzzle that, if solved, reveals something like the developer’s name, or gives a special power, etc.

So why didn’t Cline go for a story plot along the lines of: in the future, humanity more or less lives inside of an immersive computer simulation that enslaves us all. However, the original coder and developer left the Ultimate Easter Egg: a way out, a glitch, a chance to escape, opt out, or destroy the system. The digital appeal of Tron/video games with the overall plot of George Lucas’ early movie THX-1181. That’s my idea anyway.

Probably a solid entry for young adults.

Byzantium The Apogee

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This is the second book in John Julius Norwich’s majestic Byzantium trilogy. Covering the roughly three centuries between 800AD and 1100AD, this is the Byzantine Empire at it’s height, culturally, civilly, and militarily. Norwich, as one would expect from this history master of the Mediterranean, expertly balances narrative, scrutiny of reported facts, and pace. While not an academic work – Norwich frequently allows himself  moralising judgements a al Edward Gibbon – the strengths of his descriptions and gently criticism allows the reader far more access to this very different time and place.

Norwich draws upon the handful of historical sources from this period, more or less recounts the stories told in these sources, then relies on academic work to fill in the blanks with best-guesses  or conjecture. His real talent is his rich descriptions and sympathetic portrayal of the wide cast of characters one encounters in medevial Byzantium.

There are so many stories to tell about the Byzantines. There is the story of Constantinople, for a thousand years, the greatest metropolis in the world. The story of iconoclasm, the great theological civil war which tore the Empire apart. The story of the long wars with the Arabs, a tale of major, epic campaigns, but also a “wild west” border land of raids and myth. Not to mention the art and architecture. It goes on and on. Fair warning, the Byzantines are my favourite historical entity.

Reading this book about an Empire that reaches its height and then is led into decline and destruction due in no small part to the incompetence and avarice of its emperors, I was struck by some interesting parallels to our situation today. The Byzantines reach their height because they have a run of about eight good-to-great emperors in a row; almost unheard of. But there was ongoing tension between the powerful landed aristocrats and small land holders who formed the backbone of the Byzantine army; the aristocrats had this way of swallowing the small landholders, turning citizens into effective slaves.

Sound familiar?

I couldn’t resist: sometimes the Emperors where on the sides of the aristocrats, and sometimes not. But part of the decline of the Byzantines is the triumph of the plantation/latifunda system over something a bit more equitable.

An awesome book that is the equal of you R.R. Martin/Tolkien thirst.