Falangism and Fascism
July 10, 2003
About a dozen times or so every week I hear the term "fascism" used to describe the state of affairs towards which we are drifting. It's a difficult impulse to resist—in moments of exasperation and shame—calling our leaders by that most ignominious of insults. But it leads to confusion. Defenders of the current administration invariably insist that he is trying to restore freedoms lost to regulators, lost to "educrats" and lost to foreign treaties. For decades there has been a segment of public opinion that argued that the UN was a world government bent on stripping away US sovereignty; the same people, now savoring political victory, are arguing that the US government itself should be a global regulator. But whereas the UN was a would-be nanny state (they argue), the US would merely enforce due diligence against anti-western ideologues.
So we are stuck with what appear to be radically different notions of what constitutes a fascistic tendency.
I'm accustomed to hearing political liberals accused of being "fascist wannabes," and I also had a coworker with an endearing habit of referring to any conservative idea as "fascist." The term gets flung about with such abandon it seems at risk of becoming entirely useless. But today I want to try to redeem this word from uselessness by spelling out where I think it can be applied, and here it cannot.
While fascism is certainly horrible government, it is not the only kind of horrible government out there. It's not even an especially common genus of bad government. Moreover, while fascism once represented a vision of society among many, by 1946 George Orwell complained "The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" ("Politics & the English Language"). "Fascism" is necessarily pejorative. There will probably never again be a party characterizing itself as "fascist." It's like "satanic." So it's probably desirable to refrain from insisting on using the words "right" or ""left" to describe fascism as a political phenomenon, and it's also best to remember that fascism is a very rare phenomenon.1
Fascism is rare because it requires an extreme degree of panic by the elites; and it requires a well-developed machinery of command and control. There are a very small number of fascist regimes that existed in the Third world; I'd include the Duvalier regime in Haiti, Saddam's Iraq, Habyarimana's Rwanda (MRND, 1975-1994), Ethiopia under the Dergue (1974-1992) and Burma (Myanmar; especially since 1990). Fascist states today reject this designation. They insist they are nationalist, defending the embattled country from some enemy without (usually associated with whomever characterizes it as fascist) and a fifth column within. The rulers of a fascist state pride themselves on their own vindictiveness; no one is safe from their fury.
Fascist states are grandiose, campy and animated by spectacular public paranoia. They originate with a single movement (which has to rub out all competitors, including those with similar views). They come to power farcically and leave power in a bloodbath. In contrast, another form of repressive state—far more common—is the falangist regime.
La Partida Falangista was founded by José Antonio, son of the Spanish dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1932. Rivera's regime had imploded because of the economic collapse of Spain during the Great Depression; but there remained large classes of people, such as the landlords, the clergy, and small business owners, who bitterly regretted the establishment of the Republic. The Falangist Party of Spain had some eccentric ambitions, such as the reconquest of the Americas, but mostly it was opposed to socialist ideologies and labor unions; it was adopted by Gen. Francisco Franco and was, once in power, an entirely ordinary, pro-business, technocratic party which simply exercised the power to squelch opposing voices.
Falangist regimes usually have grandiose rhetoric, but unlike fascist states their main enemy is their own breathtaking mediocrity. They come to power with a coup d'etat or a civil war, and they are hasty coalitions of the willing. Falangist movements repress opposition ferociously, of course, but the opposition is usually animated by the failure of the state to deliver on its promises. Hitler, by contrast, did deliver on his promises of a strong, affluent Germany; the Nazis required violence to regiment society so it could be used for eternal warfare. Fascism is ambitious, and its ambition savors violence as the ultimate challenge; falangism is pathetic and resorts to violence to evade demands.
During the 1930's, falangist-style movements took power in several Latin American countries; falangists occasionally resorted to populist ideology (see the link to PdR's speech above) but were thoroughly conventional in espousing reactionary ideology. There was always an extremely important difference between falangism and fascist regimes in Europe or NE Asia: the elites, under falangism, remained out from under the thumb of repression. From Wikipedia comes this extract of a letter by Adolf Hitler to Herman Rauschning, :
Of what importance is all that, if I range men firmly within a discipline they cannot escape? Let them own land or factories as much as they please. The decisive factor is that the State, through the Party, is supreme over them regardless of whether they are owners or workers. All that is unessential; our socialism goes far deeper. It establishes a relationship of the individual to the State, the national community. Why need we trouble to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings.In contrast, the repression of falangist regimes, for all their populist pretensions, was directed narrowly at labor movements, people who challenged religious orthodoxy, and ordinary citizens reduced to desperation by the ferocious neoliberal policies falangists usually favor.
Both "fascism" and "falangism" take their names from warfare, in ways that are intended to represent conformity or unity of purpose. The falangists, when in power, tended to sympathize with fascist regimes because of the tremendously effective social regimentation they brought about; but usually it was agreed that the industrial enterprise of Latin American or Middle Eastern countries would not sustain the type of aggressive regulation favored by thorough-going fascism. But under fascism, state power was directed against everyone; the elites who owned banks or industries were regimented and vulnerable, and their children usually were compelled to serve in the armed forces to ensure conformity. Under falangism, the elites have their own gangs who actually find the state repression convenient, but inadequate; the death squad is a familiar fixture of falangist states. Death squads act outside of the framework of the falangist state; the elites exploit the state, but are not under it. In the fascist state, the panic of the elites allows them to submit to totalitarian rule.
The final point is that people using the term "fascism" to describe the sort of monstrosities going on in America under George W. Bush are exposed to an embarrassing objection: the crack zealots that would out-bush Bush are usually advocates of states rights and deregulation. The notion they cleave to is that only the state can repress. Only the behavior of the state could ever be distorting or unnatural, and only then when it resists traditional impulses. If it upholds "traditional impulses" like xenophobia or religious intolerance, then it is regarded as democratic populism. Large firms such as DynCorp are assumed to be incapable of repression, or at least subject to accountability. This ignores the enormously important distinction between fascism and falangism. A fascist state would respond to the likes of DynCorp by executing the perpetrators and possibly several managers. Enslaving and raping women in a situation where it could damage state power is something no fascist state would brook. But a falangist state, in praxis, is likely to be extra-indulgent to such an essential elite. Another crucial distinction, which shall receive more attention in later entries, is the fact that falangist regimes not only permit, but utilize, coalitions of wildly dissimilar supporters... ranging from the likes of Jerry Falwell to Christopher Hitchens.
In my next entry I shall address the crucial differences between how fascist and falangist regimes come to power. After that, I shall explain how they die. however, here is a critical not on which I want to conclude: falangist states are frequently eager to invoke free market principles, sometimes as their very source of legitimacy.
NOTE: 1 A special thanks to Wikipedia for its entry on fascism. The Cambridge Dictionary of the English Language endorses the use of "fascist" to describe people of far right politics; the Oxford Paperback also characterizes the Fascist Movement that ruled Italy 1922-1943 as right-wing; most of the other dictionaries avoid this, perhaps on the grounds that the European political spectrum doesn't apply in North America.