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?

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