Time to rehabilitate a pejorative?

As folks struggle to deal with the populist, anti-market realignment on the right, Godwin’s law has been making itself more relevant. People who make the mistake of equating today’s right-populism with national socialism might be forgiven, even if they go too far, for a more appropriate term has been drained of meaning: fascism.

Anyone who says that politicians today are fascist sounds nuts. The word has been applied indiscriminately to dismiss people and policies so often that it’s devoid of meaning, though it’s broadly associated with an unhinged lust for power, disregard for constitutional law, and eugenic racism. But the original intent of fascism aimed at none of these things. I’ve written on how modest the tenets of fascism sound in today’s political climate. Steve Horwitz has been pressing the applicability of the technical term since last summer. The fact is that, fallen as the word might be, there’s simply not a good substitute.

Sheldon Richman’s entry at the Library of Economics and Liberty is still the best short introduction to the economic-political system called fascism (though I would quibble: the racialism of mid-century European fascists is more properly called nationalism, but it was combined with the more homogenous backgrounds of European nations in the 1920s and 1930s). But Luigi Villari’s article on fascist economics, written when fascism enjoyed broad support on both sides of the ocean, gives insight into the system’s original intentions. Villari’s complaints about fascism’s critics sound oddly contemporary for something written in 1932. He claims the “dual aspect of the fascist movement” was,

“… political and national resistance to the violence of the extremists and internationalists on the one side, and the organization of a labor movement based not on class war but on class collaboration on the other. One of the main objects was to wean the working masses from the antipatriotic activities of Socialism and Communism.

“This dual aspect has provided arguments for two sets of opponents — those who regard Fascism as a form of conservative reaction for the defense of capitalism, and those who see in it nothing more than disguised Bolshevism or at least Socialism. These two criticisms are of course mutually destructive, but they are stressed by persons who see only one facet of the movement, or by those who understand Fascism a little better but, being prejudicially hostile to it, now advance one criticism and now another, according to the public which they are addressing.”

While today ‘fascism’ is associated with state racism, warmongering, the dissolution of impartial courts, and the end of free elections, the fascist system didn’t intend to pursue any of these goals. Yet that’s where it led, and not only in Europe: When FDR tried to adopt near, if not outright, fascist economic policies in the U.S., he began the erosion of the independent judiciary to implement his plans in spite of the U.S. Constitution, and though the war derailed these efforts, by the time he died in his fourth term in office, he had held the position so long that some voting adults had no memory of any other president.

That might all be ancient history, but it is very popular to have a government that can ‘get things done’, rather than being tied up in gridlock, and to direct private activities toward national goals, both on the left and the right (neither of which fascism fits neatly into, as Villari reminds us) today. The fascist system as it was developed, and before it ran into the constitutional limits on power, is really not that radical compared to contemporary politics.

Unless we think we understand very well what separates the unremarkable foundations of fascism from what followed (say, a global depression, aggressive foreign powers, national scapegoating, etc.) then it is worth perking up and paying attention. Whether or not the word can be rehabilitated to restore its original meaning and remove the dismissive insult it carries with it remains to be seen. But it would be a useful thing.

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