Macro causes of European fascism

Michael Mann’s book Fascists makes use of causal claims at a range of levels, from the macro to the micro, to explain the emergence of European fascism.  Here is a passage that highlights four macro-level causes of fascism:

The interwar period in Europe was the setting that threw up most of the self-avowed fascists and saw them at their high tide. My definition is intended firstly as “European-epochal,” to use Eatwell’s (2001) term (cf. Kallis 2000: 96), applying primarily to that period and place – though perhaps with some resonance elsewhere. The period and the continent contained four major crises: the consequences of a devastating “world,” but in fact largely European, war between mass citizen armies, severe class conflict exacerbated by the Great Depression, a political crisis arising from an attempted rapid transition by many countries toward a democratic nation-state, and a cultural sense of civilizational contradiction and decay. Fascism itself recognized the importance of all four sources of social power by explicitly claiming to offer solutions to all four crises. And all four played a more specific role in weakening the capacity of elites to continue ruling in old ways. (23)

So what are the causal ideas expressed here? 

The factors Mann singles out here are decidedly macro-level:

  • war
  • class conflict and economic depression
  • rapid transition to democratic nation-states
  • cultural impressions of decay

These are high-level social conditions involving military power, economic power, political power, and cultural realities. Perhaps not surprisingly, these factors correspond to the main legs of Mann’s own theory of social power: “My earlier work identified four primary ‘sources of social power’ in human societies: ideological, economic, military, and political” (5). 

So the causal factors identified here are clearly at the macro level.  The outcome Mann identifies is equally macro-level: the advent of fascist movements and governments in a handful of major European states.  So the basic claim here is a macro-macro causal claim. 

The causal claims expressed in the paragraph can be summarized in this way:

  • Factors F1, F2, F3, F4 each played a causal role in the rise of fascism
  • Factors F1, F2, F3, F4 each weakened (caused) the capacity of elites to continue to rule

What is the meaning of the idea that “F1 played a causal role in the rise of fascism”? Most simply, it is the notion that the factor occupies a position in the full causal diagram or causal narrative of the rise of fascism, beginning at some point in time.  The action of hops in the process of brewing beer plays a causal role: many events and processes must occur in a timed sequence, but the activity of the hops is one necessary part of the overall process. 

And how would an investigator piece together the causal narrative of a complex happening?  It would appear that the method of “process tracing” is the most direct way of piecing together a causal narrative.  This requires going through one or more empirical cases and probing the events that occurred to attempt to assess whether and how they played a causal role in the production of the outcome. This is exactly the form that Mann’s investigation of the various fascisms of Europe takes; he examines the histories and tries to discern the causal sequences that are contained in them. (George Alexander and Andrew Bennett consider some of the challenges of this methodology in Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences.)

To say that a condition is a cause of a given outcome expresses as well the idea that the condition is either necessary or sufficient for the outcome; the presence or absence of the condition makes a difference for the occurrence of the outcome. The appearance of the cuckoo is neither necessary nor sufficient for the chiming of the clock; so the cuckoo is not a cause of the chiming. It would appear, then, that Mann is also committed to claims like this:

  • If war and depression had not occurred then fascism would not have prevailed in Italy 
  • If Spain’s democracy had been more solid and well established, then fascism would not have prevailed in Spain

Other causal ideas are suggested by the paragraph, even if not explicit:

  • War has the causal power to stimulate powerful social movements in combatant countries.
  • Widespread economic depression has the causal power to stimulate class antagonism.
  • Ideologies have the causal power to stimulate mobilization of adherents.
  • Ideologies of cultural decay have the power to weaken the capacity of elites to govern.

How do these ideas about causal powers flesh out in detail?  How does “war” possess a causal power? War encompasses a complex set of circumstances and interlocking organizations: mobilization and demobilization of mass armies, disruption of civilian production, massive damage to people and property, unusual stresses on governments, etc. And each of these circumstances in turn has consequences which ultimately influence the circumstances in which the mass home population finds itself.  Those home circumstances in turn play into the factors that are known to stimulate and amplify social movements — popular grievances about government, economic deprivation, a general environment of uncertainty, and the availability of entrepreneurial leaders and organizations prepared to take advantage of these conditions. So war has a causal power that is embodied by the social, economic, demographic, and political circumstances that accompany it; and that power is expressed through influence on the home population.

One way of encapsulating this kind of story about the causal powers of a structural circumstance is to say that the circumstance conditions and motivates actions by many individuals in ways that lead to a certain class of outcomes.  So the causal power story is also a Coleman’s Boat kind of story; it is a specification of the microfoundations of the causal power in question.  However, once we have satisfied ourselves about the microfoundations, we are not compelled to retrace our steps through the individual level in order to move the argument from Italy to Spain. We can rely on the idea that war has a given set of causal powers on macro outcomes in the next case in which we observe war and disorder.


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