Democracy Lab

Dropping the Political F-Bomb

Nowadays, it seems, everyone's a fascist. Here's a handy guide to identifying the real thing.

Words are weapons. And when you're taking aim at a political enemy, the word "fascist" is the equivalent of a howitzer. In the post-Auschwitz era, accusing someone of "fascism" is just about the most devastating charge you can make.

Yet rarely has the word experienced a comeback on the scale we're seeing today. Godwin's Law -- which says that every exchange on the Internet will end up with someone comparing someone else to Hitler -- clearly needs a bit of tweak. The biggest accelerant these days, of course, is the crisis in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin and Russia's state-controlled media love describing the revolutionaries in Kiev as "fascist" (a term strongly rejected by defenders of the mass protest movement that brought down President Viktor Yanukovych). Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro uses "fascist" for the opposition protesters who have been taking to the streets to demand his overthrow. (Madonna, of all people, has responded by applying the same word to Maduro.) Left-wing Turks rallying against the Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan bemoan his "fascism," too.

In Asia, meanwhile, comparing countries to Nazi Germany has become something of a parlor game. The North Koreans have dubbed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe an "Asian Hitler." The Chinese are content to charge Abe with the sin of "veneration of eastern Nazis" for his visits to a controversial World War II shrine. (While we're on the subject of World War II, by the way, Hillary Clinton didn't actually apply the f-word to Vladimir Putin, even though she did draw an analogy between his move on Crimea and Hitler's grab for the Sudetenland.)

When people are throwing a loaded word around with such abandon, it's probably a good time for a reality check. Even though fascism is a somewhat elastic concept given its many progenitors, there is something of a consensus among historians and political scientists about how to define it. Here are six ways to tell a garden-variety bigot from a diehard Mussolini-lover:

1. It all starts with the chimera of racial purity.

Historically, fascism was born out of the anxieties of the late 19th century, when right-wing radicals in a variety of European countries began to see themselves as part of organic "nations" that faced existential threats from the powerful new ideologies of socialism and capitalism. For these people, late 19th-century racial pseudoscience and abstruse ethnic theories seemed to confirm the idea that "inferior" minorities (Jews or Slavs) were plotting to attack them (or subvert them from within). The collapse of ruling monarchies and traditional value systems in World War I opened up a spiritual vacuum that fascists rushed to fill.

And what about today's world? There are plenty of racialist xenophobes out there. Some even describe themselves as "neo-Nazis." But racism alone doesn't make you a fascist. (The photo above shows a member of Greece's Golden Dawn party at a rally last month.)

2. The state reigns supreme. (Libertarians need not apply.)

"Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." The quote comes from Benito Mussolini, who was one of the first people to speak (approvingly) of "totalitarianism." Proper fascists are firm believers in the state because they see as it the logical manifestation of the nation's drive to assert and defend its collective rights. So trade unions, social clubs, and the press should all be subordinated to government control. Notions like "human rights" mean nothing outside the framework of the "people's community." So fascists have very little in common, say, with some American white supremacists who are often profoundly suspicious of any kind of government. Fascists and anarchists occupy opposite ends of the spectrum.

These days not even nationalist strongmen like Putin or Maduro believe in the state controlling everything. Most modern autocrats prefer to assert their control strategically, not seamlessly.

3. A single strongman gives the orders.

It was fascism that gave us the notion of the charismatic, all-powerful leader -- the duce or the Führer -- who personally embodies the yearnings of the nation. (Communism also had its Great Helmsmen and its Gardeners of Human Happiness, but even these superhuman characters were still supposed to be following the lead of a particular German-Jewish philosopher.) Many post-1945 autocrats -- Argentina's Juan Perón comes to mind -- learned from these models, but usually without achieving the same degree of all-encompassing power.

It's worth noting that none of the protest movements in Ukraine or Venezuela have been fighting to install a particular leader. At the broadest level, indeed, they're demanding democracy -- the opposite of unchecked one-man rule.

4. Fascists place the military above everyone else.

Fascists celebrate the masses -- but only when they're tightly organized around the needs of the state. In this sense, the military offers a perfect image of how fascists see the world. (There's a reason why the words "unity" and "uniforms" have a common root.) Visitors to Nazi Germany often remarked on the plethora of uniforms: for the uninitiated it was hard to tell bus conductors and civil servants from actual members of the armed forces. And aggressive, expansionist foreign policy has been a trademark of many fascist regimes -- though not all of them. (Spain's Franco and Portugal's Salazar are perhaps the best examples of classically fascist regimes that preferred to keep a low profile.)

There's a temptation, especially among leftists, to equate all military dictatorships -- such as those of Suharto or Pinochet -- with fascism. But, strictly speaking, that probably does more to confuse the issue than to clarify it. Just because an autocrat is wearing a Ruritanian fantasy outfit doesn't mean that he believes in theories of racial supremacy or wants to subordinate all of society to his will.

5. Fascists sneer at rationality.

The roots of classical fascism go back to the Romantic period -- a lineage that's apparent in fascism's stress on emotion, will, and organic unity and its rejection of the Enlightenment values of individualism and critical thinking. You can see the link in late-19th century "decadents" like the Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, who celebrated death, violence, and the enthusiastic destruction of "bourgeois values" (and briefly managed to establish what probably qualifies as the first real fascist regime in Fiume in 1919). Fascists always view the "nation" as inherently threatened, and their own seizure of power is characteristically depicted as a national rebirth that will sweep away the decadence and weaknesses of the preceding period.

This sort of thing has gone out of fashion in the 21st century, a period that seems to prize selfies and wealth accumulation more than whipping up the masses. For just that reason, this 2004 video, which shows Ukrainian nationalist Oleg Tyahnybok railing against "Jews and Muscovites," almost seems to hark back to an earlier time.

6. Fascist parties like to see themselves as the "third way."

Hitler and Mussolini both saw their own versions of "national socialism" as the only valid alternative to all other existing political ideologies. They violently rejected socialism and "bourgeois capitalism" while claiming to appropriate the best features of both systems. So, for example, they absorbed Marxist ideas of revolution and all-encompassing social engineering while dumping the divisive ingredient of class warfare. They also tried to preserve the competitive aspects of capitalism (which, to them, ensured the "survival of the fittest") while asserting state control over strategic sectors of the economy. But while it's true that some fascists tried to incorporate the Catholic Church into their ideological systems, Hitler, a zealous anti-clericalist, dreamed of the day when the masses would hang the Pope by his heels in St. Peter's Square.

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"Fascism," in short, denotes a particular twentieth-century totalitarian mass movement that doesn't really have many clear equivalents today. The 21st century is replete with racists, xenophobes, and authoritarian nationalists -- but while some of these belief systems might overlap with certain aspects of fascism, none of them are synonymous with it. Our century's dictators generally don't wear uniforms, proclaim abstruse racial theories, or stand glowering over torch-lit midnight parades. In today's PR-driven political world, autocrats know it's better to pay homage to the language of competitive elections and human rights (even when the things they're actually doing are quite different).

So do Ukrainian Freedom Party members or Venezuelan protesters qualify? Probably not. The former (see Tyahnybok, above) certainly qualify as ultra-rightwingers. The Freedom Party belongs to a European network of far-right organizations that includes France's National Front. This doesn't make them fascist, but it's certainly worrisome (especially now that Freedom holds four posts in the current interim government) -- and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to analyze and discuss such problematic political views without being accused of playing into the hands of Moscow's propagandists. (If Ukraine truly aspires to be a part of the European political family, in fact, we should feel compelled to criticize such views just as we would those of any other European ultra-right parties. In 2012, well before the current crisis in Ukraine, the European Parliament denounced the Freedom Party for its "racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views.")

As for the Venezuelan protesters, suffice it to say that the party of now-imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is not even especially conservative (it defines itself as "centrist"). But that's unlikely to stop the government in Caracas -- or Moscow, for that matter -- from throwing the term around. Russia, by the way, is rife with xenophobic groups, including outright anti-Semites, who never seem to get singled out by the state media for their views.

There is, however, at least one modern-day regime that might actually qualify as fascist (even though it's rarely described in such terms). It remains unapologetically totalitarian in its outlook, and despite its presumed adherence to communist ideology it openly espouses its own people's racial superiority while indulging in an extravagant führerkult that has no parallel elsewhere in the world. If anyone has got the fascist vibe down pat, surely it's the North Koreans. Compared with them, everyone else are just dilettantes.

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Streets Ain't What They Used to Be

Back in the days of the Arab Spring, optimists predicted a bright future for democratic upheavals around the world. But the reality in places like Ukraine, Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand is far messier.

Ukraine isn’t the only country where protesters have been busy battling governments lately. In Venezuela, 18 people have been killed during weeks of big demonstrations against the administration of President Nicolás Maduro. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having survived months of intense popular discontent, is fighting for his political life. And although the leader of the street protests in Thailand recently decided to end his supporters’ blockade of downtown Bangkok, the showdown there (which has taken the lives of at least 16 people) is far from over.

In some ways all of these rebellions look like extensions of the Arab Spring that started three years ago. The same motives that drew protesters into Tahir Square and the streets of Tunis and Tripoli still loom large. Irate citizens are taking aim at corruption, economic mismanagement, and autocratic overreach -- the same factors that also prompted powerful mass protests last year in countries as diverse as Brazil, Cambodia, and Bulgaria (all of which continue to this day in various forms). One might even include the remarkable opposition rallies in big cities around Russia in 2012 -- or perhaps the surprising people power movement that flared up in Bosnia last month. Are we witnessing, perhaps, an oft-predicted “contagion effect” -- the flowering of a new era of demands for democratic accountability?

That’s certainly possible. The mere fact that so many people in so many parts of the world have chosen to put their bodies (and in some cases their lives) on the line certainly suggests that citizens are far less content to unthinkingly accept whatever their leaders dish out. The speed with which information zooms around the world unquestionably plays an inspiring role: when you see big crowds of people on the evening news chanting slogans against their own governments, your first reaction is likely to be, “Why can’t we do that here?

Take a closer look, though, and it soon becomes apparent that there’s a big gulf between today’s would-be revolutions and those that unfolded during the Arab Spring. The main difference involves the nature of the regimes that opposition movements are trying to combat. When people took to the streets in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, they were opposing long-entrenched dictators. But the demonstrators in Turkey, Thailand, and Venezuela are fighting elected leaders who still have the backing of big segments of society. This was true in Ukraine as well.

In Thailand, the so-called “Yellow Shirt” protesters who want to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra cite her alleged corruption as their rationale for attempting to overturn a government that received a comfortable majority of Thais’ votes in the last election. (She’s the sister of the country’s richest man, the now-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, who continues to control a big chunk of Thailand’s economy from afar.)

But there’s also an ill-concealed regional and class dynamic behind the protests: the opposition draws heavily on middle- and upper-class Thais from the urban south who feel threatened by the Shinawatras’ success in using subsidies and cheap health care to court northerners whose livelihoods are tied closely to the rural economy. In just about any electoral scenario, the much more numerous northerners will usually triumph over the smaller southern elites. This helps to explain why members of the opposition, led by the confusingly named People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), actually tried to prevent Thais from voting in the election held in early February. But Shinawatra has managed to hang on nonetheless -- fresh evidence that her own political support among certain segments of the Thai population remains quite strong. Now the PDRC has decided to lift its blockade of downtown Bangkok, vowing instead to pursue corruption charges against the prime minister through the court system.

Corruption is a major ingredient in the continuing political battle in Turkey as well. There, leaked tapes and documents implicating Prime Minister Erdogan in various forms of malfeasance are now inspiring a fresh round of street protests. The prime minister (who of course denies the accusations) is vowing to fight back with every means at his disposal; lately he’s even started talking about banning Facebook and YouTube.

The Turkish protest movement actually began last year. It started when a series of high-handed government decisions prompted many Turks to accuse Erdogan (who, like Shinwatra, has won several consecutive general election victories) of increasingly dictatorial behavior. The biggest practical problem facing the Turkish opposition movement today is that it remains deeply fragmented: no single party or group is capable of offering a unifying focus. In contrast, the prime minister still enjoys the backing of his Islamist AK Party, a well-organized political machine with a strong popular following. It’s small wonder that the most effective challenge to Erdogan’s power now comes not from the protesters but from shadowy rival Islamists within the government.

In Venezuela, meanwhile, demonstrators are confronting a government that narrowly survived a strong challenge from opposition leader Henrique Capriles in last year’s general election. That vote wasn’t fair, given the government’s dominance of the media and its use of "administrative resources," but it was just free enough that the opposition actually had a realistic shot at victory. Yet the spreading discontent over shortages, sky-high crime rates, and soaring inflation doesn’t seem to have dented President Maduro’s core support among his backers in the slums and poor rural communities. Here, as in the other countries, protesters face the unenviable task of dislodging a leader who can claim a certain degree of legitimacy from the ballot box.

But the rising number of casualties among Venezuelan demonstrators should give Maduro pause. The example of Ukraine shows how quickly a popular mandate can evaporate once a leader gives the order to disperse his critics in the streets by force. Ex-President Yanukovych undoubtedly made life much easier for his critics with his blatant corruption and his obvious efforts to accumulate power in his own hands. (It so happens that his greed also alienated many of the oligarchs who still wield the lion’s share of power over Ukraine’s economy -- a factor that may have helped to precipitate his fall in ways we still don’t entirely understand.)

Even so, the way the “democratic revolution” that won out in Kiev still demonstrates the complications that can arise when opposition movements face off against leaders who boast the backing of large segments of society. Most of the key posts in the new interim government, for example, went to the party of ex-opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, whose past political record (and questionable wealth) have made her strikingly unpopular among the grassroots protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square. Such divisions within the opposition could render the government unstable during the crucial months ahead.

Similarly, the rump parliament that convened after many Yanukovych supporters deserted the capital overreached, quickly passing legislation (on language and other issues) that was calculated to alienate Yanukovych’s core voters in the Russian-speaking east. The Russians might well have seized the opportunity to grab Crimea anyway -- but the revolutionaries’ mishandling of the situation unquestionably played into Moscow’s hands. It will certainly prove much harder for Kiev to build bridges to Ukrainians in the east and preserve national unity as a result.

When are street protesters entitled to push for the overthrow a democratically elected government -- and when not? At what point does an elected leader squander -- through corruption, incompetence, or authoritarian excess -- the legitimacy conferred by the ballot box? When do conflicts between classes or political factions exceed the normal bounds of healthy political competition inherent in democracies?

To some extent, the fact that we have to ask these questions mirrors an age in which many societies aren't clearcut dictatorships or obvious liberal democracies, but rather something in between: "illiberal democracies" or "hybrid regimes" that combine the trappings of democracy with various authoritarian mechanisms. In such a world, situations like the one in Thailand -- where self-described "Democrats" end up blockading polling stations to prevent their fellow citizens from voting -- aren't necessarily as unusual as one might think.

It’s natural for people who live in democratic societies to root for those elsewhere who seem to be fighting for the same values. It was relatively easy to take sides during the Arab Spring, which offered a relatively clear disposition of forces: dictators versus demonstrators. Judging by some of these more recent stories, though, we can't expect matters to be so clear. The current wave of revolutionary discontent around the world is anything but black and white.

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