What is “Fascism”?

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride, 1987

In his 1977 article “The Political Economy of Fascism” (Economic and Political Weekly, June 18, 1977), Dipankar Gupta opens by writing “The concept of fascism has become a handy tool with which to lambast almost any shade of political opinion or policy which does not conform to one’s own.” It appears not much has changed since 1977. As recently as last week, the President of the United States called “the entire philosophy that underpins” the large majority of his political opponents “semi-fascism.”

So, what is Fascism? Having taught Applied Political Economy at the university level, I have asked my students this on multiple occasions. And, like the President, although they use the term, they have no idea what it actually means.

Italian Fascism (also known as Classical Fascism or simply Fascism) was originally developed by Benito Mussolini in 1932. In 1933, the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi (in “The Essence of Fascism“) points out that “the guiding principle of all Fascist schools of thought of whatever description is the idea of anti-individualism.” By definition, Fascism rejects individualism and democracy in favor of corporatism. In fact, Classical Fascism would have a representative government, not of the people, but of corporations, with corporate interests running the government.

The current U.S. Republican party is made up largely of conservatives whose over-arching philosophy is one of individual liberty. The Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank) lists as the first major principle of conservatism “the rights bestowed on individuals under natural law – life, liberty and property” and that governments role is “not only protecting the sanctity of life but defending freedom of speech, religion, the press and assembly, and the right of individuals to be treated equally and justly under the law, and to enjoy the fruits of their labor.” That doesn’t sound much like anti-individualism. In fact, it sounds quite the opposite.

Beyond being anti-individualism, Fascism is also anti-capitalism. Like Socialism, Fascism seeks to control society’s economic processes – not directly through state operation of the means or production, but indirectly by requiring property owners to use their property in the “national interest.” Again, this is antithetical to conservative values. Ironically, it isn’t conservatives that seek to control property owners through limiting the production/consumption of energy; setting minimum wages for low skilled labor; regulating the cost of prescription drugs; and colluding with big-tech to restrict access to ideas all in an effort to support the “national interest.”

So, to be clear, the guiding principles of Fascism, namely anti-individualism and anti-capitalism, are the very antithesis of fundamental conservatism. So, before they paint half the population with a term that represents a political and economic ideology, the President, and others, should first learn and understand what the term actually means.

Once people understand what Fascism actually is, will they quit using the term as a cudgel with which to flog their political enemies?