One might think that fascism and democracy are polar opposites, but this is not entirely true. Fascism and democracy share certain characteristics, which explains why democratic societies can, under certain circumstances, collapse into fascism.
Fascism is a particular kind of tyranny that happens only in modern capitalist societies. One of the attractions of fascism for the capitalist elite is that it provides a way of separating the working class from the socialist left — greatly feared by the middle and upper classes — and attaching workers to a project of aggressive nationalism.
Both fascism and democracy are ways of integrating the masses into the political process. Democracy fosters an ideology of individualism and integrates the masses into politics via voting and a representative legislature. The ideology of fascism emphasizes racial supremacy and the superiority of the racial community over the individual. Fascism integrates the masses via collective worship of a supreme leader and participation in political spectacles. When in power, fascism unites the nation and stimulates the economy through zealous preparation for war.
There are several reasons why capitalist democracies are vulnerable to fascism.
First, capitalism generates deep economic inequality, which is difficult to reduce and typically generates profound resentment. Second, capitalism is inherently unstable and causes repeated economic crises of variable severity. Severe economic crises can destabilize a democratic political system. Third, democracy induces a sense of entitlement making economic losers feel like undeserved victims and cultivating antagonism to the entire political system. Fourth, the rules of democracy make it difficult to restrain violent fascist movements. Fifth, the practice of democracy can nurture the emergence of demagogic and potentially fascist leaders. Sixth, democratic politics are subject to gridlock. This can make it impossible to cope with serious economic, environmental, foreign policy, or environmental problems. Fascist dictatorship promises rapid and effective resolution of such political conundrums.
One of the most insightful books about fascism is by Robert O. Paxton, “The Anatomy of Fascism” (Random House, 2004), which offers a wide-ranging comparative study of fascism in Europe and beyond. Paxton recommends examining fascism in five sequential stages: 1. The creation of fascist movements; 2. The fascist movement takes root in the political system; 3.The fascist movement seizes power; 4. The fascist movement exercises power; and 5. The choice of either radicalization or entropy by the fascist regime.
Paxton claims that almost all capitalist democracies spawned fascist movements, but the great majority of these movements failed and never reached the second stage. Only the German and Italian fascist movements became securely established in Stage 4 (exercising state power), and only the Nazi movement became fully radicalized. Paxton interprets the Japanese empire of 1932-45 as an expansionist military dictatorship rather than a genuine fascist regime.
Paxton identifies a number of “mobilizing passions” which provide the “emotional lava” for fascism. These include:
- A sense of overwhelming crisis that cannot be solved by the usual means
- A belief that ones’ group is a victim, which justifies unlimited attacks upon enemies
- The desire for a strong dictatorial leader
- The beauty of violence that makes ones’ group successful
- The right of a triumphant people to dominate others
These mobilizing passions can easily arise within democratic societies. And fascist movements can do enormous harm even if they do not acquire state power.
Readers may wonder whether capitalist democracy in the United States is vulnerable to fascism. A full-fledged fascist regime seems unlikely in the U.S.A., but an American fascist movement could gain considerable political traction. History suggests that military defeat increases the susceptibility of a capitalist society to fascist movements.
Although the United States is still the world’s dominant military power, in the last half-century it has not emerged victorious in most of its major wars. Indeed, many informed observers consider the U.S.A. to be a declining imperial power. Declining imperial powers are known to be dangerous, and this reality could have implications for the emergence of an American fascism.