What is Fascism? (…from the realm of psychology)
It’s hard to define fascist political opinion or fascist ideology because it was, and is, such an un-ideological, anti-rational movement. That’s because, at heart, fascism is an emotional movement. If you look at the famous fascist manifestos, they’re not full of policy prescriptions: they’re an airing of grievances.
Dr. Robert Altemeyer has surveyed huge numbers of people, and other researchers have followed up on his work by cross-checking his surveys against neuro-psychology, and they’ve concluded that right-wing authoritarianism, or fascism, is a psychological phenomenon, driven by three things:
- Fear of filth and impurity
- Fear of change from “ancient tradition”
- Obsession with unambiguously knowing one’s place in any hierarchy
Neurophysiologists who’ve studied the brains of people who self-identify as far-right or fascist have argued that you can simplify the first two points: a fascist is someone who has an exaggerated emotional reaction of disgust when confronted with the possibility of anything “clean” coming in contact with anything “unclean.” Hence the fascist obsession with the word “purity:” ethnic purity, religious purity, artistic purity, national purity, sexual purity, cultural purity, etc.
There’s an old saying: “If you put one drop of water in 5000 gallons of sewage, you have 5000 gallons of sewage. If you put one drop of sewage in 5000 gallons of water, you have 5000 gallons of sewage.” It’s not actually literally true, not universally, anyway; that reaction to “even one drop” of impurity is one of the two impulses that drives some people into fascism.
The other one is hierarchy. A fascist is someone who believes that no two people anywhere ever are equal, let alone any more people than that, and that anybody who says otherwise is sneakily trying to trick you so they can get power over you. A fascist is someone who wants to know who are the (many) people who have to obey them and who are the (few) people they have to obey, and they want that as unambiguous as possible.
And implicit in that second point is militarist imperialism. First of all, there’s an obsessive love of military life and military rank, because the military teaches people to live in and trust an unambiguous hierarchy. The military is also the instrument that settles, among nations, which nations have to obey which other nations.
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