By Dagmar (Slingshot Collective, Class of ’11)
I’m an educator now, and last year I began teaching humanities classes at a college in a supposedly liberal state. Something that shocked me right away: none of my students had the faintest clue how to identify fascism.
Over the year of teaching, I tried different approaches to amend this gap in my students’ knowledge — which seems to be a gap in nearly every American’s knowledge — and honestly, I think this utter lack of education about what fascism actually is explains why we’ve slid so far into fascism in the U.S.
If folks can’t identify even fascism, how can they resist it? So class is in session! Where does fascism come from? How is it made?
Ingredient #1 – Mass Media
Fascism is an authoritarian mode of governance intertwined with mass media.
Mass media is a neutral tool, and isn’t necessarily fascistic by its nature. Mass media is also a very powerful tool. Nothing like it has ever existed before in recorded human history, it’s only been around about a hundred years. We are still getting a handle on it.
Mass media allows a small number of people to control the narratives and imagery that most people encounter in their daily lives.
Mass media is like the force in Star Wars: There’s a light side to it and a dark side. It can be used to humanize others, or it can be used to dehumanize others.
Ingredient #2 – Capitalists deflecting blame
The next key thing to understand about fascism is that it takes hold when capitalists begin trying to deflect blame from themselves for harm caused by business-as-usual capitalism. Capitalism emerges from and leads to massive forms of harm, and it is also wildly unstable, so capitalists often create allies by promising relatively stable lives to some groups of people. Capitalism leads power and money to be centralized into fewer and fewer people’s hands.
This leads to eras of mass impoverishment, in which even the people whom capitalism promised to protect are thrown into poverty. This can lead people to get mad at the capitalists.
Before mass media, it was common for bankers to be executed during times of economic downturn, such as the global recession of the 1890s, when many bankers were hanged. Eras of pervasive impoverishment are especially dangerous for capitalists.
Think back to a moment when you were a child and you knew you did something wrong, but you didn’t want to get blamed for it. What did you do? Did you blame a sibling for breaking the vase that you smashed?
Once in second grade, I totally loudly farted while the teacher was talking in class, and the whole class fell quiet. I immediately blamed the kid next to me, but I don’t think they bought it and the whole class laughed.
Now imagine if, rather than farting, I’d been running a political-economic regime that had led thousands of people to lose their homes, experience food insecurity, or worse. And imagine I’d let things get worse and worse until nearly everyone in society had been impacted by unnecessary forms of economic hardship. What if after years of trying to hide what I was doing, people are starting to figure it out — and they are also hurt, traumatized and angry because of the harm my economic actions have created? What do you think I’m going to do? Own up to my actions? Or blame my fart on someone else? Also, what if I’m so rich that I can hire someone to blame my fart on someone else? That’s more or less what capitalists do in times of rising fascism. They use mass media tools to elevate the voices of those who are pointing fingers and blaming anyone but the capitalists for the problems they have caused.
Ingredient #3 – Dehumanizing Minority Groups
Fascism arises when capitalists begin deflecting blame for the poor social conditions that they caused onto minority groups — usually immigrants, queer folks, ethnic minorities, disabled people, etc. This approach is similar to “union busting,” in which capitalist bosses will hire undercover provocateurs to enter workplaces and try to pit people against each other.
In fascism these same types of “divide and conquer” tactics are deployed against the entire populace. Capitalists would rather see society fall apart than give up their power. Their goal is to pit everyone against each other so we don’t all join together and put an end to the capitalist regime.
Ingredient #4 – Poor Economic Conditions
The economic doom spiral has been getting worse and worse, with escalating rates of poverty, homelessness and addiction. People in the mainstream are beginning to identify capitalism as the culprit…
Ingredient #5 – Magical Thinking
Most Americans think fascists are mean, sinister people because we’ve been inundated with dumbed-down Hollywood storytelling that tends to portray fascists, using standard media tropes to make the audience root for the hero.
The trouble is, fascists can be weirdly charming. In fact, cultivating an “aura” of jolliness and positivity is often part of fascist doctrines. This goes back to Hitler’s favorite philosopher, Nietzsche — Hitler literally wrote an entire book that was a sequel/riff upon Nietzsche’s work. One major thread in Nietzsche’s work is the idea that anyone who doesn’t seem like they are having a good time is fundamentally broken and should be murdered — at least according to Zarathustra, a proto-superhero that Nietzsche invented and claimed was the ultimate human being.
This bizarre line of thinking can be compared to a relatively new form of American pop spirituality called “the Law of Attraction” that was made popular by the bestselling book The Secret, which was published in 2006. While some may take The Secret lightly, it has sold over 35 million copies, and has profoundly influenced American pop culture. According to the Law of Attraction, bad things only happen to people who “manifest” them. So basically, “Think happy thoughts—or else.” If you are a believer in this pop spiritualist movement, you’ve been trained to believe that those who experience forms of systemic harm “brought it on themselves” by not “manifesting” hard enough.
Fascism often emerges from a regime of self-policing in which people are made to feel as if they must constantly be jolly and/or “manifest” positive vibes, otherwise they will become part of an “undesirable other” category, upon which they project all that is negative about themselves. Eventually, as propaganda against “othered” groups ramps up, fascists get worked into a frenzy in which they feel that groups that have been labelled “undesirable others” need to be eliminated, and murdering a member of an othered group becomes a way that the fascist attempts to affirm their own identity.
#6 – Stir in a heavy dose of Malthusianism
Thomas Robert Malthus was a wildly problematic thinker born in the 1700s who advocated for population control. Fun fact: The supervillain Thanos was inspired by him.
Malthusian thinking has unfortunately become interwoven with Eurocentric environmentalism — that human population control is good for the planet.
When a person is led to believe that population control must occur, they quickly get pulled into thinking about *which* populations should be controlled. And then suddenly everyone is fighting over who gets to have kids and who doesn’t, who gets to have stable living conditions, and who doesn’t.
This is something that drives my climate scientist friends crazy. They will be trying to get the conversation going toward ending fossil fuel use — which is what we actually need to focus upon — then some Malthusian asshat will chime in and instead redirects the conversation towards population control.
This is why decolonial, intersectional, and anti-racist frameworks are so important when we do environmental work. There is likewise a lot of deprogramming that needs to happen among environmentalists who have been subjected to Malthusian thinking and who have succumbed to this dark type of illogic.
#7 – Treating “the nation” as a princess to be rescued
Another key feature of fascism is that it’s a fantasy roleplay where you’re supposed to rescue the nation-state you’re part of. The purveyors of fascism want you todefend ”the homeland” at all cost, including against its own denizens who have been labeled as others.
#8 – Nostalgia for some mythical past
Things have never been perfect, but fascists tend to point towards some prior era and claim things were better in that era. Better for whom?
#9 – Worship of the father figure
At its core, fascism is just the latest iteration of an old-ass empire that still lurks among us: colonial patriarchy, a form of organizing power relations around worshipping cis-dudes while firmly enforcing binary gender relations.
#10 –Enforcing binary gender
Fascism organizes power relations by firmly enforcing binary gender relations, while encouraging everyone to treat cis-dudes as if they are mini-kings of whatever patch of land they’ve stolen by virtue of pledging their allegiance to this nonsense.
#11 – Playing the victim
A major part of the illogic of fascism is to play the victim, while also playing the “hero” who is “rescuing” the nation-princess at the same time. Capitalists use mass media to frame anyone fighting back as the bad guys.
Fascism always comes from a place of pain — pain that’s been misdirected against minority groups. The good way to disarm that pain can be to listen. The types of pain that tend to fuel fascism often come from a place of privilege — and it can be hard to listen to someone cry about losing access to some privilege they felt entitled to that your family never had access to to begin with. White middle class folks who have never been evicted, who have never been homeless, who have never been denied medical care all started experiencing these things for the first time in living memory, and they have not developed the coping skills and support networks to deal with these things that the rest of us have. So then their former bosses (or people who play bosses on TV) start telling them, “It wasn’t us capitalists, it was actually Minority Group X that hurt you.” That’s how they get tricked.
But at the core there’s still pain, there’s still actual material things that have happened to these people, and they are scared and ashamed and are trying to make sense of everything amidst grief and pain and guilt. They are watching family members die of poverty, they have pain in their teeth they can’t afford to fix.
I wonder what happens if we take a moment to allow their pain to be real and voiced. Sure, work needs to be done to make sure the more privileged oppressed folks don’t hog all the airtime, but under capitalism we are all fucked. The fascists have pain too — they’ve just been tricked by the capitalists into blaming the wrong people for their pain.
Breaking the spell – Trick #1: Listening to the experts — former fascists who have been rehabilitated.
When it comes to breaking the spell of fascism, hearing about it from a recovered former fascist can help. Often, when students want to better understand the features of fascism, I will point them towards the work of Umberto Eco, a professor of literature and novelist who lived under Mussolini’s fascism in his youth. Eco had to write essays to please the fascists in charge at that time, and he learned about fascism in this really intimate way.
Decades later, he wrote an excellent essay, ‘Ur-Fascism,’ in which he really gets into the psychology of fascism. In this essay he goes into a number of other features of fascism beyond what I’ve described here. Even though he’s describing a fascist regime from nearly a century ago, many of the things he describes ring eerily similar to the behaviors and rhetoric of certain contemporary American politicians.
It’s worthwhile to read Eco’s essay “Ur-Fascism” which can be found online here: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/umberto-eco-ur-fascism
Breaking the Spell of Fascism #2: Rolling out a vision for a better future.
As you fan away the fart fumes of fascism, the trick is to replace the delusionary vision of a non-existent better past with a real, achievable vision of a better future. For me, that vision is constantly shifting, but looks like a blend of Star Trek, Ecotopia, and Braiding Sweetgrass. But also, maybe we can’t even come up with a good vision until we start listening to everybody, until we work to heal the wounds that everyone is feeling. We have a huge task ahead of us if we are going to get to net zero emissions and heal the trauma everyone is feeling right now, including the capitalists. Honestly, I hope we don’t end up having to eat the rich; violent rebellions rarely seem to ever fix anything, but rather just leave us with different brutes in charge. My hope is that the capitalists will throw off their suits and ties and join us. Let’s build a better world, where we stay within ecological budgets and keep our planet habitable. A world that values consent more than property, where we do better at supporting and caring for each other. I know it’s possible.
Readings and materials that can be useful in book groups and classrooms exploring and understanding the basic features of fascism:
- The Last Cuentista (2022) YA novel by Donna Barba Higuera
- Jojo Rabbit (2019) film by Taika Waititi. This really gets into the weirdly jolly, seductive nature of fascist thinking. Probably everyone should watch this before it’s too late
- Umberto Eco’s essay “Ur-Fascism”
- Performing Truth: Works of Radical Memory for Times of Social Amnesia by LM Bogad (2022)
- The Book Thief (2005) novel by Markus Zusak.
- On Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt
- Black Mirror s3:e5, “Men Against Fire”
- “Environmental Malthusianism and Demography” by Emily Kalancher Merchant
- “Open Letter to the Lambda Awards” by Joshua Whitehead
- When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty by Mark Rifkin (2011)
- “The many genders of old India” by Gopi Shankar
– My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem
– “One Book Destroyed Western Civilization. No, It’s Not The Bible” by Jessica Wildfire (OK Doomer)