Fascism, MAGA, and the Organic Community
Now that we’ve hit the one-year anniversary of America’s January 6th attempted self-coup, it feels appropriate that the public consciousness is focused once more on fascism. The topic came up for me recently when I was writing my article on A Secular Path to God, where I explain how emergent properties could lead to a sort of super-consciousness based on networks of human beings.
As I mentioned in response to a comment by Eric Nathaniel Hunt, part of my concern in writing the article was avoiding building a path to fascist viewpoints. Why might I be worried about this? If we go by Umberto Eco’s celebrated 14 points of Ur-Fascism, there isn’t anything within fascism that corresponds to my speculation about emergent consciousness, which if anything ought to have a leftist, universalist flavor.
I have a somewhat different intuition for what fascism is. As Eco points out, fascism is generally incoherent and difficult to pin down. However, I believe this is because of the nature of its true core rather than a lack of one. Its core is non or anti-ideological: a systematic and cohesive set of principles are generally irrelevant to its project. I feel that Eco’s points are less a description of what fascism truly is, and more-so a diagnostic guide that helps us detect fascism when it emerges.
What is the core? I feel that Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political, with its friend-enemy distinction, does perhaps the best job of elaborating on fascism’s central notion. The goal of politics for a fascist is not to implement a specific program or moral system. It’s “the willingness to fight and die for and together with other members of one’s group” and “the willingness to kill others for the simple reason that they are members of a hostile group.”
Of course, the friend-enemy distinction is nothing unique to fascism. Ironically, anti-fascism as a movement is explicitly built on the friend-enemy distinction and practically nothing else. What’s special about fascism is that it elevates the distinction to a borderline religious level. The common subject of worship in Antifa is something like social justice. Opposition to fascism is not a means in itself, but rather a necessary component of defending minority rights and building a new world based on universalist, egalitarian values.
For fascism, the community built by a friend-enemy distinction is the object of worship itself. The new world to be built is anti-universalist. Whether it’s the German Volk or the Italian nation, the collective is given a life and spirit of its own in accordance to the friend-enemy distinction. We can go through Eco’s various points and explain them in this light. The cult of tradition is necessary to preserve the spiritual essence of the collective, the cult of heroism is a function of individuals sacrificing their lives to preserve and glorify the collective, action for action’s sake is an organic expression of the will of the collective, struggle preserves the friend-enemy distinction, and so on. The role of the great leader, whether they be Führer or Duce, is to interpret the spirit of the collective and channel it into effective action.
Now that we’ve started to talk about spirit, I can get into what exactly concerned me when I was writing my article. In order for all this to make sense — sacrificing your life for the sake of the collective’s spirit in itself, and not any specific project like communism — there must be a sort of reality to that spirit. For fascists, the collective is not a mere composition of individuals, but an organism and life all to itself. Individuals can die. In fact, that may be encouraged. The true tragedy would be for the community built on the friend-enemy distinction itself to die.
This is related to one of the implications of my idea that consciousness emerges from networks. If human consciousness merely emerges from a specific arrangement of neurons, it’s possible that a higher, collective conscious would emerge from a specific arrangement of human beings. If such an emergence arose from the friend-enemy distinction, one might imagine that the goal of fascists would be to facilitate and preserve it.
Schmitt believes that groups have a right to self-defense. In a literal sense, Schmitt believes that it is entirely legitimate and moral for people to kill each other in order to maintain their current friend-enemy distinctions. From a secular perspective, this makes no sense. If the concept of a German nation or Nazi party or “white race” ceases to exist, it’s not a tragedy so long as the people involved remain healthy and happy and their cultural traditions remain intact. In fact, you probably considered each of those collectives in terms of their projects and effects, and decided whether they ought to exist based on how they affect individuals. Maybe you think the German nation has a beautiful language, culture, and political system, and it ought to be preserved. Or, maybe you think whiteness is a harmful ideology that hurts minorities and ought to be abolished. There’s no reason to think of these groups as being inherently valid within themselves.
That is, unless they are actually alive and endowed with their own spirit or consciousness. Although it’s not always explicit, I believe that at some level fascists must necessarily believe that their chosen groups exhibit a certain spirit. The great leader must be an embodiment of said spirit as proven by their ability rally together a popular movement based on their passion and understanding of the people’s deep inner sentiments alone. Opportunism is not an insult to these people. It only proves how in tune they are with the spirit of their people and their intuitive understanding of the organic collective. Massive crowds, fanatical followers, and other such measurements of success are the only true barometers for legitimacy.
The history of theology contains assigning will to natural phenomena (including rivers or a forest), but also to human groups. Family gods were followed by neighborhood penates, city gods, national gods, and God of the cosmos (or at least the known world). These ideas tracked along with improvements in bureaucracy that expanded cooperation to the larger human groups. If such emergent consciousness occurs, is it then reasonable to assume that as families, cities, and even nations were subsumed into the broader web of human cooperation that those “gods” merged or dissolved before the mightier God of the larger society? Is it possible that the opening credits of Xena: Warrior Princess was actually accurate in describing “a time of ancient gods,” because millennia ago many emergent consciousnesses actually did exist, only to be destroyed, combined, or subjugated by waves of centralization, globalization, and shifts in loyalties over the next two thousand years? — Eric Nathaniel Hunt
Coming back around to the comment that inspired all of this, I think that a comparison between modern fascism’s worship of the nation-state and the traditional worship of local Gods should reveal some other interesting properties. One practice you may immediately associate with traditional religion is the shrine: a physical embodiment of the spirit of the community and often a literal house for gods and ancestors. Besides Mussolini’s crypt, do we see fascists worshipping any shrines?
For me, this line of thought brings to mind Donald Trump’s executive order to protect monuments, memorials, and statues. Much of the current political turmoil has centered around these physical manifestations of American history and values. The Unite the Right Rally, when Heather Heyer was murdered by a car, was organized in response to a city council vote to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. Trump’s executive order was naturally a response to defacement and destruction of statues and monuments across the country, which he saw as “lawless acts against our Great Country!”
Symbolically, tearing down a statue or monument can be seen as an act of destruction geared towards the spirit of a particular group. This is why the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square is such an enduring image of the Iraq War: it represents the physical death of the Ba’ath Party. Trump’s executive order may be seen as a mere pragmatic response to stem the rise of political instability, but I’m inclined to see it as an effort to preserve the American spirit as he saw it. Taking down statues can only really be so traumatic when it’s felt as a literal attack on the nation.
There are a lot of ways one could problematize my analysis here. In particular, one has to question if it’s necessarily harmful to believe in and prioritize organic community. We tend to assume that fascism is the epitome of evil ideologies, and if I’m going to characterize it as the worship of the friend-enemy distinction, I’m basically implying that that’s evil.
One unfortunate parallel this draws for me is with some of the views expressed in Black Elk Speaks, a sort of collaborative autobiography of a Lakota medicine man who lived through the Sioux Wars. This text was written by John Neihardt based on his interviews with Black Elk, so it’s controversial whether the narrative is truly representative of Black Elk’s beliefs. Notably, it contains quotes bemoaning the death of the Lakota way of life in a manner that somewhat represents what I’ve been saying about fascism.
Here, we see a direct example of an organic community embodied in a physical object. The sacred hoop is worth more to him than the life of individuals in his community, because it embodies the life of his nation as a whole. Black Elk is quoted as saying “if a man or woman or child dies, it does not matter long, for the nation lives on.” Is this not a more explicit version of the accusation that Trump cares more about statues than people?
The Lakota Chief Luther Standing Bear mentions multiple times in his narrative My People the Sioux that his father expected him to die in battle and tells of one time when his father asked him to count coup on an enemy so he’d be the youngest man to ever do so at the age of about nine. When an enemy chief brought the pipe of peace and Luther’s father called off the attack, he reported being disappointed that he “had to go home without having taken a chance of getting killed.” Is this not a cult of heroism?
One especially illuminating story from Black Elk Speaks mentions a young Lakota warrior who is repeatedly humiliated in his attempts to court a girl. Feeling like he is unable to return to his village, he decides to go on the warpath with his best friend. He sneaks up to a random Crow camp, kills the horse guard, and steals about a hundred horses. When he returns to the village, the girl’s father lets him marry the girl, not because he had enough horses to buy her, but because he had proven himself to be “a real man” who was “good for something.” Does this not demonstrate an implicit centrality to the friend-enemy distinction?
There are good reasons not to count the way of life described in these narratives as fascist. For one, worship is not centered around the nation or the spirit of a people as such. Rather, the nation is one element of a much larger spiritual universe which includes human as well as animal life, which are seen as ends in themselves. The religion is highly universalistic, with a sense of unity in all things, which leaves open possibilities like the Ghost Dance movement, which was lead by a Paiute but brought to even greater political significance by the Lakota, culminating in the Wounded Knee Massacre.
The militaristic elements are more blatantly problematic, but not necessarily distinctly fascist. Warfare and acts of heroism are taken for granted, but it’s possible to interpret this in terms of a Nietzschean expression of will to power (competition and struggle allows one to reaching their individual full potential) than an embodiment of the collective will. The collectivist elements also tend to be more wholesome. Leaders are expected to be humble and support the weakest in society first, leadership is pluralistic and built around councils, and freedom is a core value.
If these observations didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t have mentioned them. Fascism is a useful construct because it concentrates so much of what’s awful about human action and politics into a single ideology. It teaches us what to avoid in our own thinking, and what to watch out for in the actions of others. Personally, I advocate for paranoia around fascism and action in general. It’s by being self critical and cautious that we can can avoid pitfalls that turn a benign concept like emergent consciousness into something noxious.