What is fascism?

Most of our concepts are “family resemblance” concepts – in other words, they do not have a single criterion of application but instead apply to things that resemble each other in a variety of ways, none of which need be essential or definitive. Thus two items can belong to the same kind or “family” despite sharing none of the features used to determine membership of the family in question.

One such concept might be that of “fascism”. Fascism was unquestionably one of the greatest evils of the twentieth century, and arguably still exists as a minority political movement in most countries of the world. It is understandable if the word ‘fascism’ is over-used, as to most sane, decent people it still stands for the embodiment of political evil. There is much disagreement over what to count as examples of fascism, beyond the paradigm cases of Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain. Yet despite this disagreement, there is surprisingly little discussion of what should be counted a feature of fascism. What are the “family resemblances” that determine membership of the fascist kind?

Here is my own tentative list, in very rough order of centrality. Many will see an inappropriate frivolity where there should be solemnity. Many will see bias on my part for including deontological ethics and excluding right-wing economic policies. I’d defend the first by appealing to the occasionally constructive aspects of ridicule.  I’d defend the second by saying an appearance of bias would be impossible to avoid in anyone’s list of this kind. My list is not intended to be definitive – it’s just meant as a starting contribution to discussion of a surprisingly neglected subject. Here it is:

  1. Anti-individualism
  2. Nationalism
  3. Militarism
  4. Opposition to freedom of thought and expression, intolerance of non-orthodox opinion, hostility to difference in general
  5. Enforcement of (4) above by a spying and/or policing network, often literally of secret police
  6. Belief that there is a “way things were meant to be”, a quasi-divine “order of things” or design that it is our duty or “destiny” to re-establish
  7. Belief in historical entitlements and inherited culpabilities
  8. Demonization of a group whose ethnicity is uniquely “tainted” by history
  9. Fixation with symbols and symbolic gestures
  10. Assumption that morality is constituted by rules, so that very severe consequences of action can be overlooked as irrelevant because “the rules were followed to the letter”
  11. Dressing up in kinky clothes, especially leather gear

A train of thought goes off the rails

There’s a train of thought that starts off like this: “causing physical injury is very bad, and it should be illegal”. It then proceeds to the thought that “causing severe mental anguish is quasi-injurious, so it too should be illegal”.

The idea is that it is pretty much the same thing to inflict “mental wounds” as physical wounds. Mental wounds are thought to “hurt” in much the same way as physical wounds. They involve unpleasant experiences such as terror, bereavement, and if an insult is sufficiently insulting, the anguish of being offended.

This train of thought is going off the rails. What’s sending it off the rails is hedonism: the ancient Epicurean doctrine that pleasure (which includes relief from pain) is the only good. With hedonism, the focus of any deliberation over action is conscious experience. The crucial moment of derailment occurs with the idea that what’s wrong with physical injury is “it hurts” – and therefore what’s wrong with mental injury is “it hurts too”. If what’s wrong with someone breaking your leg is that having a broken leg is really painful, then what’s wrong with someone threatening you is it’s really frightening to feel threatened. It all boils down to the quality of experience.

“We already have laws that prohibit the inflicting of physical wounds”, the train of thought continues, “so we need laws that prohibit a similar infliction of mental wounds”. This can end up in a sort of semantic meltdown: “we have a word for the first sort of abuse – namely ‘violence’ – so we need a word for the second sort of abuse. We must enlarge the extension of the word ‘violence’ so that it applies to these cases of mental abuse as well.”

Here, a bad idea in philosophy of mind leads to legal, semantic and political disaster. No good can come from the Orwellian lunacy of declaring non-violence to be violence.

The bad idea in philosophy of mind is the assumption – associated with Descartes more than any other philosopher, although it is very widespread – that we are centres of consciousness. So when bad things happen to us, what’s wrong with them is they affect our experiences in an unwelcome way.

It’s easy to see why this idea is mistaken: all sorts of bad things that can happen to us that cause no pain at all, and conversely, some good things can happen that are quite painful. For example, murder is no less wicked if the murderer kills his victims painlessly in their sleep. Or again, it doesn’t detract at all from the evil of betrayal if it’s done in secret and so is not experienced as painful by its victim. Conversely, the discovery of betrayal is better than its non-discovery, and that usually is painful. A painful truth should still be welcomed as truth.

There is an alternative to the crude hedonism of understanding good and bad in terms of pain and pleasure. Instead of seeing ourselves through Descartes’ eyes as centres of consciousness, suppose instead we see ourselves as reflective agents, so that when bad things happen to us, what’s wrong with them is that they affect our agency in an unwelcome way. They thwart our preferences.

Looked at that way, the harm of physical injury primarily consists of the way it interferes with human agency. When a cook cuts a finger, the usual procedures of cooking have to be curtailed. Losing a leg is a lot worse, even if it hurts less.

Looked at that way, the very idea of a “mental wound” is rather odd. Of course we can suffer brain injuries and so on, but unpleasant experiences are often to be welcomed as an accompaniment to the achievement of more accurate understanding. We are frightened by danger, so to avoid it we have to feel fright, unpleasant though it may feel. Please note that as long as we know the danger isn’t real, the feeling on its own is often actively sought after: that’s why people go to horror movies, or enjoy reading novels about cruelty.

JS Mill argued – convincingly, in my opinion – that we should only legislate against the causing of harm to others, and even then, only when the harm is quite severe. So we might legislate against the thwarting of strong preferences, but we should not legislate against mere mental discomfort. Sometimes mental discomfort is a by-product of a welcome adjustment to the rest of an agent’s belief-system. Sometimes an external show of mental discomfort is accompanied by internal mental satisfaction, and if the truth be told is actually welcomed as an opportunity to express moral disapproval and social solidarity against a common enemy. No good can come from rewarding the “putting on of a show” of being really, really mentally anguished or offended. That is for people who are mentally ill, or children, or “chancers” (as we call them in Ireland).

Mendacity and biology

Various sorts of morally reprehensible behaviour exist in humans because they confer biological advantages on the agents. Similar sorts of behaviour exist in animals.

For example, male lions tend to kill cubs that they did not sire. In doing so, they “make room” for their own cubs – “room” that consists of scarce resources such as the mother’s care, and shared food and protection of the rest of the pride. By killing the offspring of others, they give life to their own offspring – which carry genes for infanticidal behaviour and thus ensure that it continues.

Or again, mallard ducks are notorious rapists. This behaviour continues from one generation to the next, again for obvious evolutionary reasons.

Like male ducks, men are potential rapists, and for the same evolutionary reasons. Rapists who are accused of rape generally do not admit to rape – so they’re liars as well as rapists. And again, they’re liars for evolutionary reasons. Rapists who don’t admit to rape are more likely to rape again and pass their genes on so that the raping and lying continues from one generation to the next. Their behaviour is morally reprehensible, but its biological causes are well-understood.

Women’s behaviour can also be morally reprehensible, as well as being well-understood biologically. For example, women sometimes commit infanticide – not just by killing other women’s children to make more room for their own children, as men do, but also by sometimes killing their own children. The second sort of behaviour makes more room for later children of their own at a more opportune time, such as when they can hope for better provisioning.

Like men, women are prone to mendacity in circumstances where it is biologically advantageous to tell lies. These circumstances need not be as dramatic as rape, although lack of consent of one party or another (such as a cuckolded husband) is always involved. “Ordinary” extra-marital “cheating” can be biologically advantageous to those who can get away with it by lying successfully. Although the respective advantages can differ slightly, cheating can enable both sexes to produce a larger number of offspring and/or offspring with a wider variety. But secrecy is essential – mendacity evolved with the cheating behaviour. Through cuckoldry, both men and women can raise offspring provisioned by victims of mendacity – those who have been duped into thinking they are provisioning their own offspring. This is common among monogamous animals, and humans are no exception.

Intelligent and just law-making must take account of the biological roots of these sorts of mendacity. For example, if a woman accuses a man of rape, no decent, just law would simply “take the man’s word for it” if he denies it. (Nor would it simply take the word of the woman who asserts it.) Similarly, if a woman claims a man is the father of her child, we shouldn’t simply take her word for it, as it might be an attempt to dupe him into provisioning someone else’s offspring. To overlook this possibility is to court injustice.

In principle I welcome the suggestion that a child’s birth certificate should carry the names of both mother and father. But the law must ensure that the name of the father is decided by more than the mother’s say-so.

Something from nothing

When I was a young engineering student, I was very impressed by techniques that seemed to deliver something from nothing – or from surprisingly little. For example, one of Kepler’s insights was that orbiting planets “sweep out equal areas in equal times”. Newton later proved that this follows from nothing more than gravity acting along the line joining the centres of planet and Sun. The force’s magnitude needn’t be that of an “inverse square” law; it might even be repulsive instead of attractive – all that matters is that it act radially.

As another example, consider “dimensional analysis”. We might suppose that the period of a simple pendulum depends on variables such as its length, its mass, or acceleration due to gravity. But by simply noting that the period must be measured in units of time (rather than of mass or length, say), we can show that it must be proportional to the square root of the pendulum’s length divided by acceleration (i.e. the constant g). And it cannot depend on the mass of the bob. Here again, a modest assumption about a constraint yields a surprisingly powerful result.

Something rather like this can also happen in philosophy. Take the modest assumption that science posits entities that cannot be observed directly – such as electrons, viruses, force fields and dinosaurs. This constrains scientific methods in surprisingly powerful ways. For a start, it immediately puts the two traditional patterns of reasoning into the back seat. Scientific method cannot be much like mathematics, whose methods of proof are exclusively deductive. Nor can it be much like Francis Bacon imagined it to be in the late sixteenth century, as the rigorous application of induction.

Deduction cannot deliver nontrivial conclusions of valid arguments containing terms that do not appear in the premises. So any entity purportedly denoted in such a conclusion must already be denoted in the premises. Where do these premises come from? – Ultimately, they themselves cannot be the product of deduction alone.

Induction too can only deliver more general, extended versions of claims already made. So where do these original, less general claims come from? – Typically they are about things that can be observed directly. Those claims don’t even purport to describe things that can’t be observed directly. The few inductions that start off by purporting to describe such things cannot themselves be the deliverances of induction.

The problem with both deduction and induction is essentially the same: each starts off with some claims that are already accepted, but which describe nothing beyond what can be observed directly. Each then makes a sort of “jump” to a “new” claim, but nothing “new” enough to contain anything of the sort we’re interested in in science, namely a description of something that cannot be observed directly. Genuinely scientific “jumps” to what cannot be observed directly must be of a different sort from anything made in deduction or induction.

So science must – I repeat, must – be a matter of guesswork. Of course it must also be more than guesswork if it is to produce anything worth believing. That essential extra bit is testing.

There is a variety of takes on guesswork, each with its own fancy name. Some call it the “method of hypothesis”. Others call it “abduction”. Some like the sound of “inference to the best explanation”. And there are other words like these. But most of them are vague, and all are misleading inasmuch as they suggest that step-by-step reasoning is involved (analogous to traditional deduction and induction) instead of honest, common-or-garden, risky guesswork.

Most of those fancy words are inspired by discomfort or even hatred – hatred of uncertainty, of risk, of depending on luck, of gambling, of being unable to do anything remotely like accountancy. So people who hate those things tend to resist or even to cover up the fact that science is essentially guesswork.

One “radical” attempt to disguise the fact that science starts off with guesswork is to pretend that science does not in fact posit entities that cannot be observed directly. So they say instead that all our talk of electrons, viruses, force fields and dinosaurs is a mere instrument to “organize experience”. Scientific theories are neither true nor false, they say, but consists of mere “models” which we use to predict how the world as we experience it will unfold.

It’s a long, old debate – over the issue of scientific realism – and I’d be happy to join it with anyone who’s willing to take me on. In the meantime, please note that if we understand science in an instrumental way, it cannot challenge our religious or philosophical beliefs, or even earlier scientific beliefs. In fact it is powerless to do anything interesting at all.

There is a sort of trade-off in these opposed attitudes to science. The scientific realist accepts that scientific knowledge is very risky in that it cannot avoid guesswork, yet it presents a real challenge to other beliefs because it purports to be literally true. The scientific instrumentalist, on the other hand, sees scientific knowledge as more like accountancy – it is secure, but buys its security at the cost of being very shallow. It cannot present any real challenge to other beliefs because it can’t contradict them.