Fascism is a powerful and dangerous ideology.
It is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism, which demands complete state control and limits to social individualism. Many people have identified fascism to be on the far right of the political spectrum, but others have suggested this assertion is inadequate and that fascism has aspects of both left and right-wing political influences. Fascism, which is commonly known to have strong roots and support in the far right, is sometimes associated with nationalist socialism because of the Nazi regime. Nationalism and socialism are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, so it becomes exceptionally hard to place fascism. While attempting to determine the underlying political orientation of fascism, I will also assess the similarities between fascism and far right parties today in democratic political systems, and the likelihood of the occurrence of fascist regimes in the 21st century.
The basic conceptual ideas of fascism started to emerge in Italy in 1919, when Benito Mussolini founded a new political movement called Fascio Italiani di Combattmento which later developed into his National Fascist Party. The etymology of the word itself gives us insight into the inherent ambiguity of the ideology’s disposition in the political arena. Developed from the Italian word ‘fascio’, which literally means ‘a bundle’ and refers to political groups or leagues of many different perspectives and philosophies. A fasces (a bundle of sticks and an axe with its blade emerging), symbolised strength in unity, and was originally used as the symbol for various fascios in the 19th century. The symbol was then chosen by Mussolini to be the emblem for his National Fascist Party, undoubtedly in an effort to emphasise the need for unity between incompatible parties (Eatwell, 2011).
Fascism came to prominence in 1922 when Mussolini became the Prime Minister of Italy. By 1925, Mussolini successfully acquired himself dictatorial authority and was well on his way to enforcing a totalitarian state (Townley, 2002). In the aftermath of World War 1, many Italians were unhappy and despondent with their government’s performance, their economic situations, and Italy’s perception in the global arena.
Mussolini emerged as a strong, capable leader with an exceptional personality who took charge with the aim of diminishing the threat of socialism and rejuvenating Italy.
The rhetoric of personality, and admiration of Mussolini could be perceived as a propagandistic device to blind citizens of the harsh realities of his dictatorship (Falasca-Zamponi, 2000).
Arguably, the myth of Mussolini as an exceptional personality would have been specifically manufactured so as to strengthen his personal authoritarian position and to simultaneously weaken his party. While Mussolini is the leader we first associate with fascism, the ideology really came into public consciousness through Hitler and his Nazi regime. Similarly, the Nazi regime owes much of its political success to the propaganda used to sway public opinion. Hitler had the support of a Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, who sought to positively manipulate Hitler’s and The Nazi’s public image through the creation of powerful propaganda (O’Shaughnessy, 2004).
Dissatisfied and easily manipulated masses, an onslaught of propaganda, worsening economic situations, and the rise of a strong capable leader are all underlying foundations which historically have allowed fascism to thrive.
After identifying the key social and economic conditions which enabled the occurrence of fascism, we should determine the key features of successful fascist regimes, particularly Hitler and his Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party. Aldolf Hitler was democratically elected as chancellor of Germany in 1933, and by 1934 had become dictator, transforming Germany into a fascist totalitarian state. Most significant underlying aspects of fascist regimes — in particular Hitler’s — were built on rejections of opposing ideologies, in particular, anti-Marxism, anti-liberalism, anti-individualism, anti-positivism, and predominately, anti-democracy. These rejections of prevailing political systems were a response to the apparent demand for action against the destructive consequences of modernisation (Sternhell, 1995). Along with the key foundations such as, elitism, militarism, ultranationalism, racism, a strong leader, and a prevailing intention for totalitarian dictatorship there are further dominant elements to be considered (Laqueur, 1978).
Once we understand the core elements which lead to the rise of fascism, we need to determine whether fascism is in fact placed on the left or the right of the political spectrum. There are many proposed political spectrums which differ in their perspectives evident in their axis descriptions. An interesting and unconventional political spectrum axis to consider is one put forth by political philosopher Charles Blattberg in the essay Political Philosophies and Political Ideologies, 2001,who suggests the axes should demonstrate various ideological responses to conflict (Blattberg, 2001). Parties which identify themselves with the left are more likely to resolve conflicts through conversations, the middle with negotiations, and the right with force. This conception of the political spectrum axis would certainly categorise fascism to be a right-wing ideology.
We should endeavour to consider a more developed political spectrum, a political compass, which along with left and right on the economic axis, also has north and south elements on a social axis — north being authoritarian, and south being libertarian. Using this political compass, fascism would be placed at the highest northern point, being an embodiment of authoritarianism (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: The political compass (http://www.politicalcompass.org)
This is where it gets interesting.
The right-wing are generally in favour of the free market, capitalism, and a Laissez-faire economic environment — an economic doctrine that opposes restrictions or interference in transactions between private parties and has minimal regulations to protect private property. Under the right, this definition has evolved to allow individuals to serve their self interest with almost no control, essentially supporting greed with no benefit to the majority (Stinson, 2006).
Economically, Hitler was not right-wing, in fact his policies were mostly Keynesian — which advocates political intervention in the national economy (Turgeon, 1997). On top of that, fascism, economically, did not adhere to the conventional right-wing structure, which advocates less governmental control in economics and freedom for the invisible hand of the market. Fascism, sticking with its theme, had an authoritarian, protectionist and anti-capitalist outlooks on economics (Röpke, 1935; Linz, 2000), which on an economic political spectrum would appear closer to communism and the left than libertarian and the right. Whilst economic policies were crucial to fascist regimes they seem to be the essential basis for dispute about whether the ideology is inherently left or right winged.
There are plenty of examples of right-wing governments which have stood on the right in both social and economic aspect, essentially being conservative and capitalist. A classic example of this description of right-wing governments is the administration of Ronald Reagan. Reagan attempted to change the course of United States economic policy with his Program for Economic Recovery in 1981 which paid considerable attention to reducing regulation (Niskanen, 1993). Reagan was exceptionally socially conservative and paid particular importance to family, religion, liberty, and nationalism. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher alike had a strong belief in individual economic freedom and private enterprise, and a rejection to social welfare policies (Adonis & Hames, 1994). These are two prime examples of socially and economically right-wing motivated governments.
It is imperative to determine whether this traditional concept of economic freedom as right-wing will undermine our understanding of fascism as a right-wing ideology. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party in France, is a charismatic leader, and an appropriate example of an ideologically far right politician who is economically protectionist and also extremely socially conservative. Her party displays very similar philosophies to fascism, in that it is authoritarian, ultranationalist, and populist (Shields, 2007).
If we consider anarchy to be the extreme left wing — where the government has no control of individuals — fascism, having complete control over individuals and corporations could logically be acknowledged as the extreme right-wing. It is my personal belief that social conservatism is the basis on which right winged parties grow, and the foundation of right-wing ideologies. Conservatives believe that inequality is inherent in human nature and that its inevitability makes justification unnecessary (Özsel, 2011), which sounds remarkably similar to fundamental fascist attitudes. If fascism is indeed an extreme right-wing ideology, we need to determine what aspects of fascism are still relevant and prevailing in far right-wing parties today.
Far right parties can vary in many ways. Certainly there are key indicators that allow these parties to be categorised as ‘right-wing’, ‘far right’, or even ‘extreme right’. In terms of right-wing extremists, we need to consider the distinction between the subcultures which can develop because of reactions towards crisis or social change, the social movements which are an organised product of right-wing subcultures, and political parties which are formed as a result of social movements and gained supporters of the cause (Merkl & Leonard, 2004).
Right-wing and far right political parties are generally consistent in democratic political systems in the 21st century, and are not always a result of crisis or dissatisfaction. That being said, right wing parties which are generally reactionary, much like fascism, can thrive in popularity when there is public economic dissatisfaction (Lifland, 2013). Right-wing ideologies are a popular system of thought which impact and influence politics within numerous institutions, cultures and nations. The most prominent of right-wing ideologies in democratic political systems, and indeed within Australia, is traditional conservatism.
Traditional conservatism is not often categorised as a far right ideology, but it is commonly a leading foundation on which far right parties stand. Traditional conservatives believe that institutions, social values, and practices which are in place are not in need of changing because the ongoing existence of the institution suggests its success, and the uncertainty of change is unappealing. Along with family, the importance of religion as a societal institution is emphasised by many traditional conservatives as a strong, consistent institution that should not be changed.
Conservatives typically believe that there are limits on human knowledge and understanding which can also constrict their tolerance to societal innovations (Farmer, 2006). Although religion is not typically a foundation for fascist parties, it is indeed a key aspect in many far right political parties and is often the explanation when trying to understand the resistance to seemingly necessary and logical societal and political changes. Some of these societal changes could help nations to overcome racism, sexism, and to generally foster equal rights.
Although fascism has ideological characteristics that breed and influence racism, we should endeavour to uphold a clear distinction between fascism and Nazism. Considering totalitarian similarities, racism — although an intrinsic aspect of Nazism — is not a necessary condition for the existence of fascist regimes (Sternhell, 1995). It is, nonetheless, prevalent because of the inherent ultranationalism within fascist regimes.
It is often difficult to determine a difference between ultranationalism and racism, especially in the 21st century when science and logic are widely considered to be important.
Nationalism is a prominent aspect in the fundamental philosophies of far right political parties. Many such parties have strong views on immigration and general contempt, and perhaps even fear, of foreigners. These parties often try to manipulate the perception of their stance by illustrating their nationalist views as a means to help their country and its citizens. It is often more fundamentally a case of racism, and that these parties disagree with immigration legislation because they see foreigners as culturally or racially inferior (Rydgren, 2005).
We have identified many similarities between fascism and far right parties. As well as nationalist, racist, reactionary, and anti-rational aspects of governance, right winged movements are often exacerbated by financial crisis (Johnson, 2012), which is important to consider given the nature of the establishment of fascist regimes. It is a fair assessment to make that economic crises, similar to those that have historically influenced the rise of fascism, are relatively unlikely to recur in the 21st century. Intensifying globalisation and increased international economic cooperation should lead us to be optimistic at the threat of potential fascist regimes (Merkl & Leonard, 2004). However, with the lack of a fascist alternative, far right and right winged parties under the appearance of a strong, charismatic leader, will continue to thrive when dissatisfied masses find themselves under economic pressure.
There are plenty of similarities between fascism and far right parties today, but it is interesting to consider the societal conditions which compel these similarities to flourish. One essential aspect of fascism, which has indeed advanced, is the use and manipulation of propaganda. The media and technology of the current day with the help of globalisation and modernisation make it incredibly easy to be an engaged and politically enthusiastic citizen. For the majority though, the major stories, and their headlines, are all they see. The ability to create a single narrative and the power of persuasion held by the mass media is very prominent in terms of political influence today (Dean, 2013).
Increased public desensitisation and disassociation with politics, and greater means of productions, has forced the media to portray its stories in a brutal, eye-catching manner, so to succeed in the industry — such is the capitalist way. The use of the media to create positive propaganda has significantly increased, along with powerful elites controlling the media, and misleading the public (Nesbitt-Larking, 2007).
If this development in media and propaganda is a reaction to capitalism, perhaps capitalism is our biggest threat to the resurgence of fascism.
It has been argued that the fabric of mass consumer culture, which preys on weak personalities and guides them into being mindlessly manipulated by commercial advertising and propaganda, is conducive to the potential occurrence of fascism (Lee, 1999). With that in mind, any serious scrutiny of capitalism will prevail over the stigma and sheer misery associated historically with fascist regimes. In this sense, the likelihood of the resurgence of fascism appears inconceivable in the 21st century. Perhaps far right political ideologies will become the extreme in democratic political systems.
Assessing contemporary socioeconomic pressures — modernisation, globalisation, human rights legislature, and our increasing acceptance of science and reason — the re-occurrence of fascism and authoritarian regimes appears impossible. The underlying foundations that incubate fascism, such as a massive economic crises, dissatisfaction with government, moral indifference, and irrationality are becoming increasingly unlikely. While particular combinations of factors in pockets of political constituencies may lead the public to flirt with the policies of the far right (such as the rise of Pauline Hanson), such liaisons are generally short lived in the more stable conditions prevalent in the modern political arena. Far right politics is an extension of fascism only to the limits of which our current political, and social systems will allow.
Adonis, A., & Hames, T. (1994). A conservative revolution?: The Thatcher-Reagan decade in perspective. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Blattberg, C. (2001). Political philosophies and political ideologies. Public Affairs Quarterly, 15(3), 193-217. doi: 10.2307/40441294
De Grand, A.J. (2000). Italian fascism: Its origins & development. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
Dean, M. (2013). Democracy under attack: How the media distort policy and politics. Bristol: Policy Press.
Eatwell, R. (2011). Fascism: A history. London: Pimlico.
Falasca-Zamponi, S. (2000). Fascist spectacle: The aesthetics of power in Mussolini’s Italy. California: University of California Press.
Farmer, B.R. (2006). American political ideologies: An introduction to the major systems of thought in the 21st century. North Carolina: McFarland.
Johnson, D. (2012). Right wing resurgence: How a domestic terrorist threat is being ignored. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Laqueur, W. (1978). Fascism, a reader’s guide: Analyses, interpretations, bibliography. California: University of California Press.
Lee, M.A. (1999). The beast reawakens: Fascism’s resurgence from Hitler’s spymasters to today’s neo-nazi groups and right-wing extremists. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Lifland, A. (2013). Right wing rising: Eurozone crisis and nationalism. Harvard International Review, 34(3), 9-10.
Linz, J.J. (2000). Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Merkl, P., & Leonard, W. (2004). Right-wing extremism in the twenty-first century. London: Taylor & Francis.
Nesbitt-Larking, P. (2007). Politics, society, and the media. Toronto: Broadview Press.
Niskanen, W. A. (1993). Reaganomics. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Retrieved April 21, 2014, from http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc1/Reaganomics.html
O’Shaughnessy, N.J. (2004). Politics and propaganda: Weapons of mass seduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Özsel, D. (2011). Reflections on conservatism. London: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Röpke, W. (1935). Fascist economics. Economica, 2(5), 85-100. doi: 10.2307/2549110
Rydgren, J. (2005). Movements of exclusion: Radical right-wing populism in the western world. New York: Nova Science Publishers.
Shields, J. (2007). The extreme right in France: From Pétain to Le Pen. London: Taylor & Francis.
Sternhell, Z. (1995). The birth of fascist ideology: From cultural rebellion to political revolution. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Stinson, J. (2006). The rise of the right wing 1964-2006. Nebraska: iUniverse.
Townley, E. (2002). Mussolini and Italy. London: Heinemann Educational.
Turgeon, L. (1997). Bastard keynesianism: The evolution of economic thinking and policy-making since World War II. Connecticut: Praeger.