The Anatomy of Fascism

By Robert O. Paxton

Robert Paxton begins this authoritative account of fascism by calling it “the major political innovation of the twentieth century.” There’d been nothing like it before, and some would argue we haven’t seen anything like it since 1945.

Grounding fascism’s origins in the conditions specific to post-First World War European society may limit it somewhat, but I think fairly so. In his penultimate chapter on fascism as it has appeared in “Other Times, Other Places,” what Paxton shows is how the movement’s twin ur-types (Italian Fascism and German Nazism) now only provide a toolkit for contemporary authoritarians. But to the question of “Can it happen here?” (meaning the West, and more specifically America) he provides a monitory send-off (and remember, this is 2004):

The well-known warning signals – extreme nationalist propaganda and hate crimes – are important but insufficient. Knowing what we do about the fascist cycle, we can find more ominous warning signals in situations of political deadlock in the face of crisis, threatened conservatives looking for tougher allies, ready to give up due process and the rule of law, seeking mass support by nationalist and racialist demagoguery. Fascists are close to power when conservatives begin to borrow their techniques, appeal to their “mobilizing passions,” and try to co-opt the fascist following.

There is nothing unique to fascism in this. The great political –isms have all gone the same way, evolving into new forms. Communist China has little to do with anything anyone in the nineteenth, or even much of the twentieth century would recognize as communist. Populism has had its meaning hijacked by its enemies, a process recently described by Thomas Frank in his book The People, No. It’s almost impossible to say where liberalism lines up today, whether it be something progressive or neoliberal or libertarian.

I use the word evolve to describe this transformation, as the great –isms have adapted to a changing political environment while converging in their development into a new species of political power: a global caste of tech-enabled kleptocrats without any political ideology beyond self-enrichment. In this they may be seen as representing what will turn out to be the major political innovation of the twenty-first century.

But the new authoritarians aren’t entirely new. As Ronald Syme put it in his classic work on the end of the Roman Republic: “In all ages, whatever the form and nature of government, be it monarchy, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the façade.” Today’s ruling elites constitute a more cynical and, perhaps paradoxically, less politically engaged class than previous historical examples, but they are no less dangerous (even if less militaristic) or efficient in their capture of state resources. They have learned to take advantage of new opportunities and public anxieties, from immigration and economic disruption to increasing inequality, political polarization, and the baneful effects of social media. Fascism, in brief, is no longer the threat it was but only because it has mutated into something that authoritarians have found works better for them.

Review first published online April 18, 2022.

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