Blind Man with a Pistol

Burying Fascism

Over at Reason Magazine (‘free minds and free markets’), Michael C. Moynihan laments the shoddy semiotic integrity of the word ‘Fascism’ in ‘Crying Wolf: Are We All Fascists Now?’ Moynihan sits as a visiting fellow for Stockholm think-tank Timbro, who are ‘devoted to innovating economic and social policies founded on free-market principles’ alone in the brave fight against a ‘Swedish political topography…dominated by groups espousing socialization, collectivist economic planning and heavy taxation’. With that grain of salt, here is a sample of how Moynihan stands up for semantic autonomy:

In a May 2008 essay for The Times of London, playwright Tom Stoppard, the British son of Czech émigrés, explained his long-held contempt for his more hyperbolic comrades in the theater. “I felt myself out of patience with people who, from 1968 onwards, would denigrate this country that adopted me, this country that I’d adopted, as some kind of fascist police state. It just seemed so embarrassing that those countries that truly could be described as such were very, very different from Britain.” In Stoppard’s acclaimed 2006 play Rock ’n’ Roll, a meditation on Czech resistance to Soviet occupation, one character upbraids his daughter for her lazy use of the term, grumbling that many in her generation “think a fascist is a mounted policeman at a demo in Grosvenor Square.”

To anyone that has attended a political demonstration, trawled a blog, or attended a Western university in the past half century, the scattershot use of “fascist” will ring familiar. And almost as clichéd as accusing an ideological opponent of fascist sympathies is the accurate observation that such charges often demonstrate an utter lack of understanding of just what qualifies as fascist, other than “someone I vehemently disagree with.” As an indicator of a particular set of political beliefs, “fascism” has become a perfectly meaningless pejorative, a political cudgel that is obtuse and imprecise by design.

This argument should sound familiar to anyone who has attended a first-year lecture in political science, literature or philosophy. This argument, right down to the syntax, is an uncredited lift of George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’:

In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like ROMANTIC, PLASTIC, VALUES, HUMAN, DEAD, SENTIMENTAL, NATURAL, VITALITY, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion If words like BLACK and WHITE were involved, instead of the jargon words DEAD and LIVING, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word FASCISM has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” [my emphasis]

Moynihan’s argument is thus based on a truism most literary types have absorbed as a matter of course. By borrowing, uncredited, this well-known argument of Orwell, Moynihan steals unannounced into our psyche, installing his argument there before he makes it. ‘Yes’, we agree, ‘we must protect the value of words, “fascism” most of all’. Surely, then, Moynihan will follow with a proper definition of “fascism” to set those trigger-happy leftists dead to rights?

It never happens. Moynihan offers no valid definition of his own. Instead, the real, insidious thesis of the article comes clear, retroactively revealing what the title of his article was meant to denote: not Peter’s wolf, but Naomi’s:

few noticed the runaway success of another, much more shoddily researched fascist-themed tract, this one from the feminist writer Naomi Wolf. According to Wolf’s The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, America is barreling down the road toward a fascist future, following a path well-trodden by Mussolini and Hitler. The Bush administration’s spotty record on civil liberties and the growth of executive power aren’t temporary phenomena, Wolf argues, but portend a greater “fascist shift.” America, she writes, is in the late stages of our own Weimar Republic —it’s a partially free society nearing collapse, “on the verge of a violent police state.”


Even when not flubbing or oversimplifying the broad details of fascist ideology, The End of America commits the fatal sin of contorting every sinister moment of the 20th century to ensure that it lines up with some aspect of the “war on terror.” It is clearly with Al-Qaeda in mind that Wolf wrote this stunningly ignorant passage on the construction of phantom enemies: “What matters to a fascist leader is not to get rid of the enemy but rather to maintain an enemy,” a piece of analysis that would certainly surprise the families of untermensch liquidated during the Second World War.

It’s a clever trick: he manages to discredit Naomi Wolf’s argument before she makes it, simply because she has the temerity to use the word ‘fascism’. Aside from the fact that Moynihan seems incapable of differentiating between a ‘fascist shift‘ and full-fledged Nazism, by using this strategy Moynihan can deride the comparisons Wolf draws without attacking her philosophical foundation. How can he?—he doesn’t offer a correct definition with which to challenge Wolf’s. Now, Moynihan pretends even handedness by also critiquing Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism which makes the laughable claim that fascism descends from leftist values, but he reserves his lengthiest and most applied criticism to Wolf. In fact, Moynihan for the most part approves of Goldberg’s project, he simply chides the book for its occasionally excessive zeal.

It soon becomes clear that Moynihan is less interested in buttressing the semiotic integrity of the word “fascism” against the onslaught of lazy illiterates than he is in apologizing for free-market liberal capitalism and shoring its borders against principled leftist critique—all under the veil of linguistic pedantry. It comes as no surprise then, that Moynihan concludes not that we should consolidate, solidify and uphold a just and specific definition of fascism, but that we should cease talking about it altogether:

When both sides see creeping fascism lurking around every bit of political rhetoric and action they disagree with, then the term doesn’t need to be reappropriated or redefined, it needs to be buried.

Language must be based on experience, not pedantry. If we bury a word as potent and important as “Fascism”, we bury the concomitant essential and unforgettable experience. This is the point Orwell was trying to make, not that such words have outlived their value. It is ironic that Moynihan would use free-market principles to isolate and defend “fascism” from those who would secure its services in the name of social democracy; it is capitalism itself that diluted such political words in the first place. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer write in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944):

The general repetition of names for measures to be taken by the authorities makes them, so to speak, familiar, just as the brand name on everybody’s lips increased sales in the era of the free market. The blind and rapidly spreading repetition of words with special designations links advertising with the totalitarian watchword. The layer of experience which created the words for their speakers has been removed; in this swift appropriation language acquires the coldness which until now it had only on billboards and in the advertisement columns of newspapers. Innumerable people use words and expressions which they have either ceased to understand or employ only because they trigger off conditioned reflexes; in this sense, words are trade-marks which are finally all the more firmly linked to the things they denote, the less their linguistic sense is grasped.

Wolf is attempting to ground such terms in political experience, because otherwise, they disappear under a shadow of reactionary reflex. Moynihan, eager to defend his free-market mantra, is attempting precisely the opposite: he is attempting to relegate fascist ideology to the past, to sever it from social memory and experience, and to ensure that the trajectory of capitalism—from liberalism to barbarism—proceeds apace.

5 Comments so far
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Came back to read this again I thought it was so good the first time.
It reminded me of something Milan Kundera once said, which I now have to paraphrase not having the original quote in front of me : that any conquering political regime wishing to displace the population’s memory of the previous regime need only change the names of the streets. By changing the publicly shared signs where people remember particular events occurred, as time goes by it becomes more difficult to pinpoint those events or to ground them in history.
I’m not a scholar on this, not even well read on it, but I think we could all probably agree that fascism is merely an extreme reaction on the part of the state to any attack on capitalism, culminating in the rights of the state trumping those of the individual. Perhaps its time to push for an agreed-upon definition of fascism for general discourse before they change the street signs again.

Comment by Alison

I think that definition is a great starting point, Alison. It seems to me like the street signs are already being changed, maybe for the third time since. I would agree with you that Fascism seems like the last-gasp effort of the state (or corporate elite) to protect the capitalist system at its moment of collapse. I don’t know much about it either, but I got so incensed reading this article that I wanted to respond.

It’s an interesting point about street signs as well. I noticed recently that most Canadian universities that have been around for a while have buildings named after great scientists, parliamentarians, etc. Now, however, when you build a new structure, you name it after the key corporate donor. If not explicitly Microsoft or Pfizer, then some rich engineer or whatever. Now our visible social memory is based directly on corporatism.


Comment by Blind Man

“Now, however, when you build a new structure, you name it after the key corporate donor”

Power architecture. In the Middle Ages the tallest buildings were churches, by the 19th century the tallest were the seats of governments, in the 20th – corporations.

Comment by Alison

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“but I think we could all probably agree that fascism is merely an extreme reaction on the part of the state to any attack on capitalism,”

Not at all actually, but you are forgiven for thinking so since this theme was a popular concept among Marxist class-based definitions of fascism. However, even Marxists had to concede that their definitions were shallow and focused on mere economics. Fascism is not an economic system nor has it any relation to economics. The reason Marxists thought so was because Mussolini sided with the church, the aristocracy, the capitalists, and other ‘reactionary’ factions in order to gain support. However, this was merely pragmatic and these institutions ceased to have any real power of function upon the fascists coming to power. Indeed, Hitler himself had alienated and silenced most portions of the conservative right upon gaining control of Germany. Thus characterizing fascism as aristocratic/clerical nostalgia or reactionary capitalism is fuzzy logic. Instead, Roger Griffin, the world expert on fascism defined the term as follows:

“Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.” -Griffin,Fascism (Oxford Readers).

In english: Fascism is concerned with creating a new national identity rooted in a mythical past. It is not a ‘right’ wing ideology any more than it is ‘left’. It is not liberal, it is not conservative, and its connection to religion is dubious (so-called Islamofascism or Christofascism, stupid terms). Capitalism would be merely a means to an end and has no necessary relation to fascism. This notion is furthered by the fact that the Fascist and National Socialist regimes often nationalized industries while privatizing others, not to mention the corporatism of Italy (no relation to “corporations” as we know them)- the economic goal was meaningful only in so far as it served the state.

Therefore, all the Naomis and Umberto Ecos of the world can take their definitions and shove them. They add nothing to critical discussion and serve as sensationalistic nonsense.

Comment by Meow Mix

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