Trying to understand Fascism

From the perspective of local politics, last week was a quiet affair. This was welcome, partly because it provided some respite after the previous few weeks which have been particularly busy, but also because it gave me the opportunity to do some reading and thinking around the discussion subject for this coming Wednesday’s Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group meeting – fascism. So far my reading has been focussed on the emergence of fascism in Italy and the rise to power of Benito Mussolini. From this reading two distinct but separate problems have been dominating my thinking. The first is the distinctly philosophical problem of ‘collective intentionality’ and concerns the question of whether States can have values and whether they are capable of having a will of their own, as distinct from the individuals who comprise them. The second problem concerns our ability to properly understand how a political movement like fascism could come about without being actually immersed in the social climate of its emergence.

The problem of ‘collective intentionality’ often raises its head in my thinking, but in terms of the political thinking of Mussolini it becomes critical. According to his The Doctrine of Fascism, not only is the State “absolute, individuals and groups relative. Individuals and groups [only] admissible in so far as they come from within the State”, but the State “is wide awake and has a will of its own…[it is] a spiritual and ethical entity.” How can this be? How can States have spiritual or ethical values of their own? How can they have a will that is separate from the wills of those actual members of the State who are in power and make the key decisions. Individual minds possess values, make ethical choices, and have the will to bring some action about. If we claim that States can do this in their own right, separate and distinct from any individual or group that is a member of the State, what added ‘something’ does a State have that allows this to happen? I really struggle to see this. I suspect, rather, this is just a way of allowing the individual or individuals who happen to be in power to have a free reign to do what they like.

I’ve called this a philosophical problem because under the critical gaze of a thinking mind many real and troubling questions (like the one above) are raised and not easily answered. However, whilst he may have been a very skilful politician in the mould of Machiavelli (he was a great admirer) I do not think that Mussolini had the inclination to analyse his own thinking in such a critical manner. In fact from a philosophical perspective his thinking is deeply flawed. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in his The Righteous Mind, our minds are first and foremost instinctive, acting from emotional stimuli, and only tend to use reason post hoc to justify the emotionally based opinion we have already reached. And by all accounts Mussolini was very well tuned in to the Italian zeitgeist.

Italy, before, during, but especially immediately after the First World War was a State in turmoil. It was close to economic collapse, there was widespread violence on the streets from extremists of all political perspectives and there was a widespread belief that the liberal mainstream political class were corrupt. There had been a long held view amongst the population that there was an ethical vacuum at the heart of the State, together with a craving for the national pride that was promised, but never delivered, from unification. Out of this caldron emerged Fascism and Mussolini. As Christopher Duggan says in his excellent history of Italy since 1796 (The Force of Destiny), Italy “had since 1860 been morally fractured, militarily week, corrupt, economically backward and culturally undistinguished …Fascism offered for many a new hope and a new dawn.” [p450] The citizens that voted for Mussolini and the Fascists (yes, initially they were actually elected to power) did so far more as an emotional need for renewal and hope than as a rational choice.

The question that has been dominating my thinking, therefore, is: had I been an Italian citizen at the time, how would I have viewed the opportunity to end all those deeply felt ills that plagued my nation? It very easy with hindsight, and from the perspective of post Second War British culture, to condemn Fascism, but if you were actually living in Italy at the time, if you had grown up and adopted the dominant social and cultural narrative, how would you have responded to the emergence of Fascism? I strongly suspect that it would be radically different from how you respond now. And this poses a wider question. Can we truly understand any political, social or cultural phenomena if we are not immersed in it, if we are outside of what I term the ‘narrative of its inception’? Whilst we can take an anthropological approach to existing cultural phenomena by studying them from within, how can we do this with past phenomena?

On red and green politics and the need to think critically

Last Sunday I attended an online symposium, organised by the Philosophy in Pubs national group, that discussed some aspects of the thinking of the left wing polymath Raymond Williams. Being a member of the Green Party, and having been twice a member of the Labour Party, of particular interest to me was the first session, ‘Red and Green, Ecology and Politics’, focussing on a paper Williams wrote in 1984 entitled ‘Ecology and The Labour Movement’. My own take on the relationship between these two political movements has been heavily influenced by a book written by the French philosopher Michel Serres.

In The Natural Contract Serres argues that to date human history has been dominated by some form of a social contract, by our concern with finding the right or correct form of social relations (including economic and political relations), and in so doing we have ignored the damage we have done to the planet, to our environment, our home. He argues that to remedy this we need a natural contract to sit alongside our social one. The Labour movement, in all its variations, along with all the other political movements, have been likewise blind to the essential relationships that exits between human society and its natural environment. They have argued about what they consider to be the correct relationship between humans, but have only seen the planet as a resource to be plundered and polluted. However, for me, when you start to understand our place within nature you are led, quite naturally, to a socialist perspective.

In last Monday’s Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash argued that we need to start fighting back in the war of fake news versus the facts. “To prosper,” he said, “democracy needs a certain kind of public sphere, one in which citizens and their representatives engage in vigorous argument on the basis of shared facts. Restoring that kind of public sphere is now a central task for the renewal of liberal democracy”. I agree, but think that in order to do this we need to start learning how to think critically. Facts don’t just exist waiting to be discovered. They need producing. They need interpreting. And most importantly, they need challenging. And all this requires the ability to think critically. But in all honesty, how many people do you know capable of doing this? How many of us test the robustness of what we are told before accepting it? Most people appear to be able to produce an opinion about everything without actually thinking at all. So one of the best reforms we could make to the education system would be to make critical thinking part of the national curriculum. We also need to find a way of introducing critical thinking into the national conversation. Ideas on how we could do this anyone?

One of the areas in particular need of critical thinking skills is the anti-vax movement. I read a report this morning of a video that has since been banned from most social media sites that has been putting people from vulnerable groups off having the Covid vaccine. The video, entitled Ask the Experts, claimed to show a number of medical professionals explaining the dangers of the vaccine and why we should refuse it. This raises a number of questions. Should be simply ban ideas from being publicly expressed because we regard them as dangerous? Who decides? Should we not have the right to decide for ourselves who is telling ‘the truth’? And, most importantly, have we all got the critical thinking skills to come to our own decisions? I do not find questions such as these easy to answer but would really like to start a public debate – but how?

By way of a final comment for this week, I have nothing but praise for the volunteers and staff at Bridport Medical Centre for their delivery of the Covid vaccine. I received my first jab last week, and despite the huge numbers of people ‘being processed’ is was done incredibly efficiently and in a very welcoming and friendly atmosphere. I for one have no reservations about receiving the vaccine. Nothing we do or take into us is without risk. For me, though, the risks associated with not receiving it far outweigh the risks of receiving it.

Parish councils, planning and philosophy

The big news on Friday concerned Handforth Parish Council, which made the national news for all the wrong reasons. A recording of a Zoom meeting of their Planning and Environment Committee, showing some disgraceful behaviour by a number of councillors, went viral on social media. Whilst initially I found this all very amusing, I quickly became sad – partly because it devalued all the great work parish councillors are doing up and down the country, and partly because many of these councils already struggle to attract local residents to step forward to fill councillor vacancies. So, if you have been thinking of standing for your local town or parish council, but, on seeing this, have been put off, please think again. As a Dorset Councillor I attend the four parish councils that lie within my ward, and can guarantee that the Handforth example is a rarity. Parish councils can, and often do, make a real contribution to their local community. Please support them.

Parish and town councils are statutory consultees on all planning applications for their area. I have been sitting on both Dorset Council’s Western & Southern Area Planning Committee and Bridport Town Council’s Planning Committee since the last local elections. In that time I have become convinced that planning is probably the most important area of a council’s work with regards to the mitigation of climate change. But, as a councillor, I feel my hands are tied by out-of-date national guidelines and overly cautious planning officers who are nervous of legal challenges to their decisions. Very few planning decisions are clear cut. Most require the balancing of competing requirements. Perhaps more pressure from towns and parishes would tip this balance in favour of a future climate that continued to support human life. We need to insist that all new developments are built to the highest energy conservation standards as possible, and we need to resist all development on greenfield sites.

One of the most important documents in terms of planning decisions is the Local Plan. This sets out the main principles and policies for developments in a local authority area for the next 15 years of so. Once approved by a government inspector it becomes one of the main determinants in any decision. Dorset Council is in the process of producing its plan, and a draft version has just gone out for public consultation. Bridport Town Council has formed a working group to put together its response. I am part of this group, and so far we have had six two hour meetings – two in the last week. Yet despite all the work we have put in, we have not been able to go through every detail of the plan, there is simply too much of it. This, however, should not put residents off making their own response. It is important that as many people as possible take part in the consultation. Even if you just read the section that most interests you, please read and respond.

Philosophy has been one of my major interests since my teens. Had you asked me at the time I may not have cited philosophy, but the questions I was asking of life then were definitely philosophical. It was only later in life that I was able to study it formally. And one of my big frustrations at the moment is the lack of time I have to pursue or research ideas that come to me. I really need to do something about this. One of my current desires is to revisit Nietzsche. In part this is as a result of reading The Righteous Mind, and the discovery that one of central points of Jonathon Haidt’s book, that our values and judgements emerge from our intuitions and that we use our faculty of reason post hoc to justify them, was said by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil 127 years previously.

Politically I often think of myself as both Red and Green. I have twice been a member of the Labour Party, but left out of frustration at their lack of a socialist agenda, and have philosophical issues with many in the Green Party, particularly with what I would (probably unfairly) term the tree hugging fringe. I am therefore looking forward to an online symposium being put on tomorrow by the national Philosophy in Pubs organisation. The theme of this symposium is the left wing Welsh cultural critic Raymond Williams, who wrote on a wide range of issues including education, politics, culture, the media, literature, ecology, communication and technology. I am particularly looking forward to the first session entitled Red and Green, Ecology & Politics. Hopefully I will have something positive to say about this next week.