In his highly acclaimed book, How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, informs readers how fascism works in modern societies. Stanley’s in-depth research indicates that several nations have embraced extreme forms of nationalism, which are often founded on many of the mechanisms of fascist politics. Nations where we see forces of fascism at play are Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Myanmar, and Philippines, to name a few.
Stanley argues that the dark forces of fascism are at work in India as well, where the BJP , with the support of RSS, has sought to create a strong Hindu nationalist identity by engaging in the politics of division on the basis of ethnic and religious differences. In this article, I will share several important characteristics of fascist politics, which Stanley presents in his book. According to Stanley, the first major characteristic of fascist politics is rewriting history, which is based on a mythical past.
The mythical past serves to unify people of a nation by glorifying that past. In the fascist version of history, a nation was religiously pure, or racially pure, or culturally pure in the past until the members of minority communities came into the country and made it impure. The past was also a glorious period where wars were fought by brave sons of the soil who were always victorious. However, such days of glory have been lost due to such values as secularism, liberal cosmopolitanism, and multiculturalism. Fascist politics argues that these values have weakened the nation politically, economically and culturally.
Fascist politics seeks to make a nation strong again by reconstructing history based on fantasies of non-existent uniformity across linguistic, ethnic and religious lines and by creating a mythical past, which is characterized by pride and glory. Stanley points out that by creating a mythical past, fascist politics seeks to establish a link between nostalgia and the realization of fascist ideals. The second important characteristic of fascist politics is that it is heavily patriarchal in nature, where the leader of the nation is often treated as the father of the nation. Akin to a traditional patriarchal family where the father has moral authority over his wife and children, in fascist politics the leader acts as the protector of the nation. The fascist father’s authority derives from his power and strength as the nation’s leader.
By representing the nation’s past as one with a powerful father figure, fascist politics connects nostalgia to a central hierarchical authoritarian structure. The third characteristic of fascist politics is that propaganda plays a critical role to disseminate information and it often does so by publicizing false charges of corruption by launching anti-corruption campaigns against individuals who are perceived as a threat to fascism, labeling them as the “enemies of the state.”
The campaign against such individuals can be so fierce and relentless that it often ends up in violence and tragic deaths of individuals who are deemed to be against the nation. This kind of systemic propaganda in fascist politics serves as an opiate for the masses, rendering them irrational and fanatical. They become blind to senses of truth and justice. Fascist politics thrives in an environment of antiintellectualism, where irrationality is elevated over the rational and fanatical emotion takes precedence over intellectual reasoning.
All kinds of stratagems are employed to undermine legitimate public discourse and debates, which often include attacking and devaluing intellectuals who oppose fascist politics. Resorting to techniques of intimidation, verbal and physical aggression is quite common to stifle free exchange of ideas, which ultimately brings about the demise of free speech in the public sphere. In fascist politics, education, which promotes liberal democratic ideals, also comes under threat.
Academic institutions that are not considered pillars of support for fascism are frequently labeled as “leftist” or “Marxist” institutions, the classic bogeyman of fascist politics. Books that threaten the legitimacy of the fascist regime are banned or sections of textbooks that do not glorify the dominant nation and the mythic past are expunged. In such a climate of anti-intellectualism, academics who oppose and resist fascism may be fired, stop receiving funding for research, jailed, or they may even face the threat of physical violence.
Professionals in the creative arts who challenge fascism also face similar threats under fascist politics. Fascist politics resorts to lies and obfuscation and there is no consequence for such unethical action. With regular and repeated lying it makes it almost impossible to assess what the real truth is anymore. Fascist leaders obtain total allegiance of the populace by propagating lies and by using powerful persuasive techniques to deny truths. In this kind of strategy, a fact is often transformed into just another opinion in a world of “alternative facts.”
The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for the truth is that the very categories of truth versus falsehood, facts versus lies are obliterated. One of the consequences of propagating lies and misinformation in fascist politics is the undermining of trust in the press. By spreading lies and misinformation against the news media the fascist regime destroys the respect and trust the citizens had with the media, leaving them with a high degree of mistrust of these organizations. In fascist politics, feelings of victimization as experienced by people from the dominant group are emphasized.
There is growing literature that indicates that the dominant group members feel that increased representation in the public sphere by members of the minority communities is a major threat. The dominant group believes that laws like equal opportunity and affirmative action have benefited the members of the minority groups at the expense of the dominant group. There is also a growing fear among many that members of the minority groups will take over the nation and members of the dominant group will lose control of the nation.
There is also a lot of angst and frustration experienced by members of the dominant group who feel that their economic power and privilege in the nation is declining while members of the minority groups are becoming successful. Those who employ fascist political tactics deliberately take advantage of this raw emotion, manufacturing a sense of aggrieved victimization among the majority population, and directing it at minority groups that are not really responsible for the malaise facing the nation.
A sense of collective victimhood helps to create a strong group identity based on religion, or colour, or ethnic origin. These perceived differences across race, religion or ethnic lines create a dangerous schism between us (majority) and them (minority) in which “they” are to be guarded against or to battle with in order to reclaim the lost pride and glory of the nation. Finally, fascism promotes fear of the threat to patriarchal manhood and family values by targeting members of the minority groups as rapists and sexually deviant people. That way the targeted group becomes the “outsider,” making them members of the inferior community, which, by its very existence, threatens the health of the society and the nation at large.
When there is a perceived threat to masculinity, it is often reflected in sexual insecurity by the dominant group that feels its manhood is under attack. Consequently, there is a need to project this sexual insecurity on another group. The growth in the population of the minority group is also a common theme in fascist politics. Furthermore, in fascist politics, women tend to play a significant role in which the woman’s body acts as a symbolic representation of the motherland.
Thus, if members of the minority group threaten a woman’s safety and security, fascist politics exhorts the dominant majority to reassert themselves by punishing the enemy and in the process stop the pollution of the woman’s body, which is the equivalent of the nation. I have listed here several important characteristics of fascist politics as enumerated by Stanley. While we may have debates and discussions to argue whether some of these characteristics or all of them apply to India, we simply cannot ignore the dangers of fascist politics from the systemic ways it dehumanizes certain segments of the population.
We cannot ignore the fact that by marginalizing these groups, it limits our capacity to show empathy for those who are marginalized, which often ends up justifying inhumane treatment, ranging from infringement of freedom and mass internment and, in some cases, mass extermination. Finally, we must remember that the most telling sign of fascist politics lies in creating division. It separates the population of a nation into an “us” and a “them” on the basis of ethnic, religious, and racial distinctions in order to propagate fascist ideology and ultimately formulate policy.
(The writer is professor of communication studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)