"Fascism is capitalism plus murder": On Jason Stanley's "How Fascism Works"

"Fascism is capitalism plus murder": On Jason Stanley's "How Fascism Works"

Jason Stanley | How Fascism Works | Random House | September 4, 2018 | 240 Pages


Cleveland plays a significant, but unspoken, historical role in Jason Stanley's How Fascism Works. In the summer of 2016, Cleveland was the site for the Republican National Convention. The "Rust Belt" was a major crucible of resentment for the "white working class" that took a hit from the 2008 financial crisis. When Trump gave his acceptance speech in Cleveland, it focused, in part, on a potential scapegoat, namely illegal immigrants with alleged criminal records. "One such border-crosser was released and made his way to Nebraska. There, he ended the life of an innocent young girl named Sarah Root. She was 21 years old and was killed the day after graduating from college with a 4.0 grade point average. Her killer was then released a second time, and he is now a fugitive from the law. I've met Sarah's beautiful family. But to this Administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn't worth protecting. One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders." It seemed unusual at the time that a candidate would use scapegoating language so blatantly, without trying to hide the real intentions. Weren't we at the end of history? Hadn't we overcome fascism and sealed it away for good?

Understandably, Jason Stanley pins much of the blame for our 21st century fascist predicament on Trump. But his distaste for the current President reveals one of the book's main weaknesses: no socio-economic-political situation can be understood in good faith through attributing its causes to one person. Tim Mason, a historian of fascism, calls this move "individualism." He notes, "Methodologically, individualism cannot work as a way of giving a coherent account of social, economic and political change." It's folly to attribute the mess to the current President in the same way that Hitler is not the answer to the question: "What caused National Socialism in Germany?" Mason writes, "Hitler cannot be a full or adequate explanation, not even of himself."

How Fascism Works is comprised of ten chapters, each corresponding to one of fascism's essential elements. It is to fascism as Ikea instructions for assembling its Dombås are to understanding capitalism. Most would welcome instructions for understanding how the parts  constitute the whole but putting all the pieces together according to the instructions does not necessitate understanding how the Dombås works. In philosophers' language, it's the territory that separates knowing how from knowing that.

You won't learn from the Ikea instructions that Ikea's founder, Ingvar Kamprad, was a member of the Swedish Nazi Party, and that he was the progeny of a Hitler-loving family. However, you might see a clue in the Ikea example: fascism and capitalism are bound together. In fact, some scholars view fascism as capitalism in desperation. Capitalist conditions produce untenable socio-political situations that are especially ripe for fascism to take hold. To some, how fascism works is how capitalism works.

The proposition that fascism is symptomatic of capitalism is uncomfortable for almost anyone in Stanley's audience. Aren't our politicians apt to tell us endlessly that improved capitalism is the penicillin for almost any ill, including the infection called fascism?  The ideological forces preventing us from thinking of the proposition that fascism works as capitalism does mean that I did not expect that proposition to make an appearance in Stanley's book, and it doesn't. Telling the story of that proposition in a persuasive way would be a feat, but not a story capable of being persuasive quickly, say, with a checklist of key terms in boldface nor one that would be as fun as riding the see-saw of "us" (good citizens of a democracy) versus "them" (evil fascists), which unfortunately is the path Stanley chose for his book. He takes fascism's divisory use of "us" versus "them" rhetoric and morphs that into a story of good people vs. evil people.

The "us" versus "them" analytic framework that is also the book's subtitle functions in Stanley's presentation as the two ball bearings do for Lieutenant Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny ‒ rolling the bearings around in his hand during nervous and dull moments ‒ a tick. Yet, Stanley fails to mention what any graduate student would discover in researching the topic:  that his point belongs to Carl Schmitt, the infamous German jurist who joined the Nazi party in 1933. Schmitt championed a theory of law and politics that effectively legitimized the Nazi program. In Schmitt's The Concept of the Political, he claims that the category of politics is grounded on the friend-enemy distinction. As Schmitt wrote, "The political entity presupposes the real existence of an enemy." Failing to acknowledge or engage with Schmitt in his analysis makes one wonder whether Stanley did his homework.

When you choose fascism as the topic of your work, there's quite a bit of homework. Fascism is a vexed subject, and the scholarship is vast and frequently contested. Fascism doesn't lend itself to a David-Letterman-like-Top-Ten treatment. Lists of ten are a junk culture trend. The ten characteristics Stanley assembles, one per chapter, do not add up to a definition of fascism, nor to a fulfillment of the book's title.

To his credit, Stanley does note that, at times, he is playing fast and loose with some of the pertinent material. He wants to take a large step, in one case, merging six nations under the category of "overtaken by a certain kind of far-right nationalism." Anticipating that some members of his audience would balk at such a sweeping claim, Stanley states that "Such generalization is necessary in the current moment." Like one of Carl Schmitt's sovereigns, Stanley excuses himself for making bad generalizations.

Returning to the see-saw image, I imagine Stanley has fun oscillating between professor from the Ivy League and pop-authority on fascism. What qualifies Jason Stanley to address the subject of fascism? It looks for all the world as if Stanley "woke" up to the subject somewhere around 2016. Prior to that date, he has not a single publication that looks to be about fascism or anything close. His academic career has been as an analytic philosopher of language producing articles with titles like "On Quantifier Domain Restriction." Prior to a couple of years ago, no one scrutinizing Stanley's CV would say he was as an historian of National Socialism, fascism, Hitler, Mussolini, or political science.

"Author" and "authority" come together in the book not based on Stanley's academic training or previous publications, but on personal grounds. "I was raised with stories of the heroic nation that helped defeat Hitler's armies." Stanley's parents fled Europe as refugees. His family history underwrites the book. Isn't that motivation rather than qualification? How does Stanley's family background square with Stanley's statement, "When education, expertise, and linguistic distinctions are undermined, there remains only power and tribal identity"? Is he not cynically capitalizing on his own identity to authorize his book? Does it need such authorization?

Stanley tells his readers he is well-intentioned: "I have written this book in the hope of providing citizens with the critical tools to recognize the difference between legitimate tactics in liberal democratic politics on the one hand, and invidious tactics in fascist politics on the other." How are we to read this intention as something other than an instance of Stanley's own "us" vs. "them" tick? It's difficult to say whether a simplistic good people-bad people opposition is undone in the final pages of the book:

"We must never forget that the chief target of fascist politics is its intended audience, those it seeks to ensnare in its illusory grip, to enroll in a state where everyone deemed 'worthy' of human status is increasingly subjugated by mass delusion. Those not included in that audience and status wait in the camps of the world, straw men and women ready to be cast into the roles of rapists, murderers, terrorists. By refusing to be bewitched by fascist myths, we remain free to engage one another, all of us flawed, all of us partial in our thinking, experience, and understanding, but none of us demons."

How does Stanley reconcile that seemingly catholic sentiment ("none of us demons") with a recent episode that landed him some unexpected publicity? Stanley cursed at a colleague at a conference, and after the episode is reported to have issued a statement that he regretted not using "much harsher language" against professor Richard Swinburne. All of us may be flawed, but it looks as if some people's flaws make them unpardonable demons. Maybe I have misunderstood that the "we" in "we remain free to engage one another" did not include Richard Swinburne, and perhaps unnamed others.

No flashes of anger or curses appear in the book, though Stanley rails against the way fascists cling to hierarchies. Yet, seemingly unconsciously, he drops into his arguments wording that could be construed as introducing unnecessary hierarchies: "the Stony Brook sociologist," "the Harvard sociologist," "the Yale philosopher," each phrase followed by a person's name. Would Stanley's audience have been cheated somehow, had he written "the sociologist Devah Pager" without adding Pager's institutional affiliation? Rangordnung ("order of rank") was extremely important for  Nazism. German National Socialism capitalized on the Basel philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's programmatic interest in Rangordnung, such as the notion of Übermenschen. It's no secret that Nietzsche promoted slavery. Stanley's book includes a tension between the theoretical point tethering fascism to hierarchies and Stanley's practice in How Fascism Works of categorizing people, placing them in ranks, leaving open the issue of what it means that Stanley has decided "we" are non-demons. I, for one, am not relinquishing my Demon Club ID card.

As a card-carrying member of the philosophical profession, Stanley might have taken the opportunity to address philosophy's lengthy role not only in downplaying the blatant fascist characteristics in a figure like Martin Heidegger but also its failures to face up to philosophy's history of esotericism, meaning the evidence that "most philosophers of the past routinely hid some of their most important ideas beneath a surface of conventional opinions," as Arthur Melzer puts it in his recent book, Philosophy Between the Lines.

But Heidegger is merely the tip of the Trachten hat. In the second chapter on propaganda, Stanley dips into this issue in a discussion about the ways in which politicians (not philosophers) seek to conceal their intentions. For example, Stanley quotes from H.R. Haldeman's diaries from 1969. According to Haldeman, Nixon wanted to say that the whole problem with the "war on crime" was Black people. "The key," Haldeman reports Nixon saying, "is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to." Coded language to cover real political intentions is now called Dog-whistle politics. It's at least as old as Plato's Seventh Letter, where Plato tells Dion, a tyrant in Sicily: "When one sees a written composition, whether it be on law by a legislator or on any other subject, one can be sure, if the writer is a serious man, that his book does not represent his most serious thoughts". It was too dangerous to express important ideas out in the open (exoterically). Plato suggests to Dion that he practice esoteric politics. Unfortunately, Stanley maintains silence about philosophy's role in setting the stage for fascism, particularly in Mussolini's rise in Italy. Mussolini was well acquainted with the fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile. The German historian Ernst Nolte said: "His [Mussolini's] command of contemporary philosophy and political literature was at least as great as that of any other contemporary European political leader."  

Unlike Stanley, Michiko Kakutani in the recently published The Death of Truth names names in her narrative of who laid the groundwork for the current problems in the public sphere when it comes to "alternative facts," denial of scientific evidence, and relativism: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida. She could have tossed in the anti-foundationalist Richard Rorty. Rorty asserts that when we say that P is true, all we are doing is concurring with P, "giving it a little rhetorical pat on the back," or a "compliment." Rorty was after something akin to communal justification, while acknowledging that one community might agree that P is P, another might have a justification for asserting that P is X. It was okay for P to equal P, and simultaneously fine for P to equal X. Some people who support Rorty's position have no problem endorsing that view over, say, the lessons of Orwell's 1984, in which some characters recognize that something is amiss with declaring that war is peace.

Philosophy departments in North America do not seem to be going through a period of reflection and reassessment considering philosophy's contributions to the undermining of truth-telling outlined by Kakutani. Naturally, philosophy departments have not been alone in establishing the conditions for the present miasma. I taught in humanities departments at several universities in North America, and decades went by when you could roll a bowling ball down a hallway of a humanities building and not expect to hit a person who believed in truth with a capital T. Those were also the days when plenty of academics were teaching Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, and urging their students to question all forms of mass media as potential sources of state propaganda. The phrase "fake news" was not in fashion, but it would not have been out of context had it been used. Since the election in 2016, the new concern for truth among academics hasn't stopped things like "creative nonfiction" courses. A leading advocate for "creative nonfiction" courses, John D'Agata, works at the University of Iowa. D'Agata's name went viral for writing about the 2002 suicide of Levi Presley. In an exchange with a publication's fact-checker, D'Agata was questioned, among numerous things, for reporting that Presley was the only death by falling in Las Vegas that day. D'Agata transformed the other suicide-by-fall that happened the same day into a suicide-by-hanging "because I wanted Levi's death to be the only one by falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique." D'Agata's arguments that his fabrications demonstrate a misunderstood commitment to truth with a capital T are now part of a Broadway play entitled The Lifespan of a Fact, starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. The Kellyanne Conway musical cannot be far behind.

How Fascism Works is unlikely to be turned into a Broadway play. It will likely make a publishing splash despite the problems mentioned above. Readers might do well to supplement their reading with Against the Fascist Creep or Theodor Adorno's The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas' Radio Addresses or Julia Boyd's Travelers in the Third Reich or Sebastian Haffner's Defying Hitler. Fascism continues to be an overdetermined word, thanks to people like Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who made up a Winston Churchill quotation to accuse some people opposed to fascism of being fascists. Fascism can "work" that way too.    

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