Explaining fascism

Kevin Passmore’s short introduction to fascism comes out at a good time (Fascism: A Very Short Introduction). Passmore does a great job of framing the problem. He poses a definitional question — what is fascism — and demonstrates that this apparently semantic issue requires careful historical and theoretical analysis. Arriving at a good definition of fascism is itself an empirical and historical task. Passmore asks a set of causal questions: How do the fascisms of Europe relate to important social forces in the early twentieth century (for example, the role of great social classes in conflict)? And he addresses the issue of saying what is involved in explaining fascism (the role of analysis and theory). Passmore also presents a very sophisticated treatment of the variety and diversity of human institutions — issues raised elsewhere under the topic of “heterogeneity”.

Of special interest for us is the question, Is fascism a particular social system (dictatorship with such-and-so attributes)? Or was it first and foremost a historically distinctive political and social movement with characteristic values and ideology (violence, nationalism, anti-communism)? Is it a historically specific moment, or is it a systemic development stimulated by some structural feature of modern society (deadlocked conflict between workers and the bourgeoisie)? Crudely — is fascism a social formation, an ideological complex, a social movement, or a type of government apparatus? And our efforts of explanation will depend on what sort of answer we give to these ontological questions.

These alternative definitions of fascism would give rise to very different explanatory challenges. And in fact, there is a wide variety of explanatory and causal questions that can be considered: Why did the fascist movements arise? Why did they gain a mass following? How did the social realities of capitalism affect the emergence and form of fascism? How important were the particular qualities and ideas of Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco in the evolution of fascism as a social system? Why did fascist dictatorships take the form they did? Why did official and affiliate group violence take the virulent forms that it did? How did fascist governments maintain power? Did these governments gain “legitimacy” and support in their populations? Is there a characteristic “pattern of development” for fascist regimes, or are their political histories deeply contingent on events and persons? Are Germany, Italy, and Spain variants of one social form, or are they simply independent social systems possessing some family resemblances in ideology, propaganda systems, and propensities for violence?

We might also consider whether explanation needs to occur at a lower level — not “why fascism?” but rather, “why the Iron Guard in Romania”, “why this or that feature of Italian fascism”, “why this particular feature of Spanish state-military relations in Franco’s fascism?”. Here the point might be that there are no general or comprehensive explanations of the emergence and development of fascism in all the places it occurred; no common causes that were always or usually instrumental; but rather that each national history needs to be treated in its own terms. But, as Passmore demonstrates, this would be somewhat too skeptical; there certainly were some large international and national forces that facilitated fascist mobilization and seizure of power in many different countries.

The historical phenomena of fascism are interesting and important, because they represented powerful social forces (movements and governments that had great influence on events in the twentieth century). We would like for historical social science to have something substantive and illuminating to say about the causes and trajectory of fascism. And, of course, we would be well advised to notice the warning signs if there are any!

(Another excellent very short introduction from Oxford that is relevant to this topic is Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction.)

Power: social movements

Social movements usually have to do with change rather than persistence. And they usually emerge from “under-class” groups who lack meaningful access to other official and institutionalized means of power. They are among the “weapons of the weak”, and their effectiveness usually turns on the ability of a sub-population to mobilize in collective action with determination and courage. Examples include the American Civil Rights movement, the use of strikes and boycotts by coal miners in the Ruhr after World War I, and the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 1970s.

The question here is, what are the scope, limits, and mechanisms of social power wielded through social movements? Is it possible for a social movement to cause change in basic structures, policies, and distributions of wealth and power in society? (I am not thinking primarily here of revolutionary movements, but rather more prosaic struggles for improvement of some set of conditions for the under-group.)

The question arises because the terms of the problem essentially raise a social contradiction: a numerous but powerless group, advocating for a change of structure or distribution that harms the interests of the powerful, aligned against the most powerful forces in society. It would seem that this contest is inherently determined by the disproportion of powers held by the social actors. And yet we can provide memorable examples of success. So the question is, how does this work?

The first factor that provides an obvious source of potential power for the under-class group, is the size and functional role of the group in society. Several of the most obvious tactics for a social movement depend on this structural fact — the strike, boycott, and mass demonstration. By mobilizing, the group can interfere with the smooth workings of society, compelling other parties to negotiate. And it can demonstrate its broad, mass-based support.

But the obstacles to these mass-based tactics are severe – classic collective action problems, problems of coordination and communication, and the need for competent organizations and leaders. And the tactics available to the powerful (the state, police, mine owners) are imposing: repression and intimidation, divide and conquer, co-optation, control of media, and a greater ability to wait out the struggle.

Besides mass mobilization, there is the tactic of broadening the movement through alliances. This strategy requires “changing consciousness” in the broader society by the actions of the under-class group. The group (primarily through its organizations and leaders) can strive to broaden the base of its movement through alliances with other like-minded groups and with the general public. And this depends upon successful communication — setting the terms of the struggle in such a way that it aligns with the moral values and material interests of other groups.

Once again, the tactical options and advantages residing with the powerful are substantial. The powerful control the media; they have an advantage in setting the agenda; and they have an extensive ability to co-opt potential allies of the popular movement (side deals, special accommodations, playing off divisions within the mass population). But not all the face cards rest with the powerful.

So here we have several kinds of tactics for the social movement — direct mass mobilization, broadening of alliances, and a deliberate campaign to capture the moral discourse for the public. But let’s push forward and consider what comes next. Suppose there is a social constituency for an important structural change. Suppose this group is fairly strongly mobilized (in terms of the engagement of members), that it has competent organization and leadership, and that its members collectively play a significant role in the economy. Let us further suppose that the group has now engaged in all the tactics above — large peaceful demonstrations in several cities, a few successful boycotts, and a successful communications campaign that has strengthened public support for the movement. Now what, in a constitutional democracy? (The analysis will look different within a dictatorship — for example, the situation of labor unions in pre-war Nazi Germany).

It isn’t implausible to conjecture that this scenario results in legislative action in support of the program. The public visibility and popularity of the struggle seem to lead to the inference that voters care about the issue, and legislators listen. So the social movement has won the day and has secured its objective. It has won the battle. But has it won the war — is the change of policy a genuine and enduring change of structure in favor of the under-class? And here we can speculate again: the long, slow “tectonics” of power and privilege will turn back these gains in the future. The popular coalition cannot sustain its vigilance and mobilization forever; whereas the interests and strategic advantages of the powerful persist like great tectonic plates.

So on this line of thought, we can come to a provisional assessment of the causal powers of social movements in democracies: they have a fighting chance of securing tactical victories, but the prospects for achieving enduring structural change seem more remote. Their ability to change the rules of the game in a sustainable way seems limited in the face of entrenched and enduring interests opposed to such a change.

(Perhaps the Civil Rights movement is the rare exception to this statement. The rules of the game have plainly changed since 1953 with respect to race relations in the US — in spite of the pressing need for further transformation.)

(There is of course a huge literature on social movements. A few interesting sources are Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768-2004, Gary Marx and Douglas McAdam, Collective Behavior And Social Movements: Process and Structure, Peter Ackerman, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, and James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.)

The heterogeneous social: groups

A social whole — the city of Chicago, for example — is a densely various empirical reality. At virtually every level of scale there is variance with respect to social characteristics — income, health status, ethnic or social identity, political adherence and preference, age, race, or occupation. Neighborhoods differ from each other — but equally, we find variance within neighborhoods as well.

Given this fact of radical non-homogeneity of social characteristics, what is involved in arriving at knowledge about such a reality?

It is evident that we are forced to arrive at generalized descriptions, at some level of scale or granularity. It is neither feasible nor explanatory to provide a “fully” detailed description of a population, individual by individual. Instead, our challenge is to arrive at some ways of segmenting the population into groups that will prove felicitous in revealing causal connections among attributes or circumstances. Groups may be defined with unlimited range: geographically, occupationally, racially or ethnically, educationally, politically, … We can then observe and measure the distribution and means of various characteristics across these groups (attitudes towards the Patriot Act, for example) and we can consider whether there are meaningful differences across groups with respect to these characteristics. Finally, we can try to find causal explanations of these differences. Are Arab-Americans more distrustful of national security laws than Asian-Americans? Are poor people more prone to asthma than affluent people? Are doctors more favorable to higher taxes than skilled-trades workers? What factors might causally explain these differences?

The point here is that social knowledge requires recognition of the inherent heterogeneity of social phenomena and a fertile effort to find ways of segmenting this heterogeneous reality that shed light on social causation and patterns of behavior. And, importantly, it is important to recognize that any level of granularity of analysis could be further partitioned and more fully described–sometimes with important insight.

There is no “fundamental” or “optimal” level of analysis and description that captures the whole of Chicago. Instead, anthropology; sociology, and political science can continually pursue the upward and downward research journey of discovering meaningful group-level patterns or regularities, and pressing into a deeper understanding of the diversity of the phenomena under study.

Social knowledge: measurement of properties in diverse groups

When we gain knowledge about silver, DNA, or cholera, we can study virtually any samples of the item and arrive at a description of its properties and causal powers, and this description will correspond accurately to other instances as well. We learn about the type by learning about the individuals, and we don’t have to worry about substantial differences among individuals in the type. Cholera is cholera, whether it occurs in Mexico City or Bangalore. So knowledge we acquire about a few instances can be generalized to other instances. This feature of “type-uniformity” is found in many of the types of entities studied in the natural sciences.

There are exceptions in the natural sciences; there are classes of phenomena that embody substantial variance among individuals in the class. Hurricanes and volcanoes are examples of “type-heterogeneous” concepts in the natural sciences. In these examples, the phenomena are grouped together in terms of a set of crude observable characteristics; it is then a question for research to determine whether there are common structures and causal backgrounds that constitute one or more sub-groups of items within the classification. But more typical types of entities in the natural sciences fall into “natural kinds” with common structural and causal properties.

Consider now what is involved in arriving at knowledge about a complex social reality — the city of Chicago, for example. The social reality of Chicago is constituted by the social behaviors of the individuals who live in Chicago and the institutions that these individuals populate. Consider some of the topics concerning which we might want to gather knowledge:

  • What is the health status of Chicagoans?
  • What is the climate for race relations in Chicago?
  • What is the standard of living in Chicago?
  • What is the rate of economic growth in Chicago?
  • How do people in Chicago feel about higher education?
  • What is the climate for new-business startup in Chicago?
  • How well do the institutions of the mayor’s office and the city council work?
  • How are the Chicago public schools performing?

Notice that almost all these questions invite us to consider the heterogeneity of the population and its organizations. There is an average level of heart disease in the city. But the average is a poor indicator of any particular person’s health, because there are socially significant differences across groups with respect to almost all these questions. So a study of health in Chicago requires that we consider some of the ways in which different groups are affected by a variety of circumstances in ways that systematically affect their health status.

These facts suggest that a statement about a social characteristic of a large population needs to be nuanced, indicating the degree of variation of the characteristic across individuals and groups within the population as well as the most significant sub-populations showing the greatest variance from the group mean behavior. Race, ethnicity, gender, geography, age, income, employment, labor-union membership, and education might be variables that define groups with significantly different measures of the variable of interest. And once we have determined that certain social characteristics (race, income, and union membership, let us say) are associated with the outcome of interest (health status, say), then we are stimulated to ask the causal question: what are the social mechanisms at work that produce the associations that are discovered?

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