By Mark Phillips
So, nationalism, fascism, populism and racism – ‘who’ are they and do they share anything in common with each other? Here, I’m going to give a brief but hopefully pertinent overview. Are they Kings or Thieves? Maybe my conclusions will surprise you.
It is important to first understand that a nationalist person is a different entity to a nationalist organisation, a political party, a state institution or even a whole nation state. The difference is one of scale and of kind. A person who is a nationalist will have opinions that link their personal identity very strongly with a ‘national identity’. Nationalists often see themselves as patriots. It doesn’t really matter whether you call yourself a patriot or a nationalist; what matters is what comes from that sentiment of ‘loving your country’, and whether it’s accompanied by any kind of systematic devaluing of other nations or identities.
Public figures aside, nationalistic people who have strong political and cultural views do not necessarily have a lot of power to affect others, outside of their right to vote and their freedom to cajole their family and friends. On an individual level, a nationalist can be someone who, when discussing matters of national identity, is open, warm, culturally informed, friendly, knowledgeable, expansive and easy company, while on the other extreme, they can be cesspits of prejudice directed against people of other nations or people of their own nation.
Political parties, institutions, and various bodies on the other hand have the power to discriminate on a far larger scale, for good or ill; they can promote either tolerance or prejudice; they can highlight or ignore widespread discrimination; they can take action, impose penalties and sanctions, or provide or deny support. While many parties and organisations have sought to actively protect the rights of minorities, some have ignored the issues, have denied the specific needs of particular groups or have even advocated lesser rights for minorities, in the shape of extra requirements or fewer rights compared to normal citizens.
At its best, nationalism is a celebration of identity, tradition and culture. At its worst it can be the systematic exclusion of certain groups and minorities from the ‘family’ and from the nation’s community, thereby fuelling discrimination, violence and misery. Historically, those excluded have at various times been gypsies, Jews, people with disabilities, immigrants, the mentally ill, the religious and the non-religious. Nationalists rather than describing the national character, often fall into the trap of prescribing the national character, which ends in the rather lame attempts of the few telling the many how to be what they already are – members of the nation community; for example, Finns telling other Finns how to be Finns!
At its very worst, nationalism can be the attempted extermination of a minority. So, let’s be aware, let’s be very aware, that this is the power that identity has over us. It can bring out the best or the absolute worst, and for that reason, it is clearly our moral responsibility to acknowledge its special and powerful force in human societies. A King or a Thief? The potential is there for both.
Fascism is understood as a blend of nationalism and radicalism. Fascists believe it is the responsibility of the state to maintain and promote the national identity as well as a national community. The radicalism of fascism entails a change of society’s values towards collectivism (the national community), a redistribution of resources away from corporate elites towards ‘social’ programs and the construction of an authoritarian state (redistribution of power centrally) ; the latter is not seen as negative – the ‘authority’ of the state is envisaged as necessary, as guiding the people, and acting as sovereign guardian to the nation’s values and identity. This protection does require more power than your average state, which is why fascism jumps into bed so quickly with totalitarianism.
The appeal of fascism is that it is committed to a sense of national community. They consider the community as organic, linked by ancestry, culture and blood. Fascism in many ways hankers back to the values of tribalism, where community, ancestory and common interest set the limits to personal freedoms. As with nationalism, fascism has the potential to separate people into camps. Indeed, the national identity is seen to supersede all other categories such as age, gender, or class.
With fascism, the national identity is all too easily mythologized, frozen historically and idealised; it is imagined as being passed on by elders of the community, while in reality, in fascist states it is churned out as indoctrination from government committees sitting on high and charged with maintaining ‘culture’. This is somewhat removed from a real cultural identity, which is by contrast changing, diverse, typically shaped at the grass roots and constantly being challenged from within.
It is for this reason that the political goals of fascists often involve what for ordinary folk might seem rather oddball issues – opposing interbreeding (family policy), controlling art forms (cultural integrity), controlling language (opposition to loan words etc).
A key result of fascism is a society ruled by fear, as the consequences of being different or challenging the state-promoted norms become a whole lot more unpleasant the stronger the state becomes. This is because fascism and violence are never far apart. Fascism has the paranoid habit of declaring (violent) war on everything that is not itself. Promoting political violence has been integral to fascism as a means of renewal and national regeneration and as a means for bringing about revolution. Militarism is actively promoted and elevated, as fostering comradeship, character, discipline, physical fitness and devotion to a national cause. The militarism can also play out in the arena of perceived culture warfare and cultural self-defence.
Clearly the individual freedoms of expression that we enjoy today are inconsistent with a pure fascist vision of ‘national cohesion’, although politicians on all sides can be seen to play to the central themes of fascism: strong community, centralised authority, strong militarism, strong national identity and the interests of the ‘community’ over the interests of the individual. In themselves, they are not inherently evil themes. However, the paramilitary aspects of fascism have invariably been a hotbed for human excesses, dismissed by fascist authorities as the over-exuberant actions of a few! A King or a Thief? Almost certainly a thief, climbing on the back of what it claims is positive nationalism and a sense of community.
Populism as a political ideology is built on the idea that it represents and expresses the needs of ordinary people. Typically, an enemy is created in the form of cultural, economic and political elites. The political ideology, much like fascism, attempts to present itself as above party politics, or distinctions of left and right. A key element of populism is the ‘folksy guy’ who is in touch with ordinary folk, typically a family man, devoted, hard working, with a strong national identity – salt of the earth! Populism has great appeal because it appears to put the everyman in amongst the power-brokers.
Regardless of how populism presents itself, it promotes a top-down political authoritarianism that has much in common with Fascism or other elements of the Far Right, particularly in adopting a ‘cultural agenda’. Populism is similar to fascism in that it builds on real social divisions, this time between the masses and the elites, though it also pits nationals against non-nationals (e.g. lazy Europeans or ‘savage’ nations). Every single Populist Party in Europe takes a very strong anti-immigration and anti-EU stance.
Typically, populist parties attract nationalists and fascists into their ranks, who sympathize with the ‘them and us’ narrative and also see an opportunity to exploit populism to bring about the conditions for revolution – i.e. civil unrest. It is therefore quite normal to see the populist movements infiltrated by more extreme groups. A King or a Thief? Many would see a populist politician as an honourable thief among kings. More often they are thieves hoping to be kings. The greatest casualty of populism is perspective: there’s only one meal allowed on this menu – e.g. mass immigration is bad!
Racism is the belief in the superiority of one racial, ethnic or cultural grouping above all others. Though few people believe this implicitly, racism nevertheless plays out in overt ways such as the reasoning that indigenous people (usually the majority and usually not the first indigenous group) deserve better protection and service from the state. This kind of racism is always blind to its discrimination, instead arguing, like nationalists and fascists, that their rights of entitlement arise simply from ‘belonging to the family’.
In its mildest forms, racism can also be the much promoted sense of superiority that imagines we have the best footballers, athletes, singers, innovators, artists, entrepreneurs etc. In itself, it’s harmless, while competition among nations is a huge source of entertainment and innovation. ‘Best’ typically lasts for a short period of time, as other nations produce their own world-beaters in various fields. People are generally cognizant of the fact that the competition is a game. Some, however, appear not to have been let in on the act.
Racism as an ideological position chooses to ignore competition and diversity within its own nation’s walls and rather argues that one race, culture or ethnicity is somehow intrinsically better than another. As with fascism and nationalism, identity is considered to be fixed, historical, given and inherently good. It seeks to install one national/ethnic grouping into the permanent role of ‘winners’ in relation to all others, not because they succeed through merit or through citizenship rights, but rather, by right of birth into a very specific family grouping. And such a cultural identity is so strong that in countries where institutional racism is rampant it must nevertheless be constantly maintained, through classroom indoctrination, through controlled or self-censored media, and through a vehement opposition to anyone who would dare to question such natural entitlements.
The links between racism, nationalism, fascism and populism should be obvious. They each feed off each other and the common theme of ‘them and us’, with its various degrees of hostility towards the ‘us’, ranging from mild to severe. Nationalism on the whole promotes the idea of a national identity where the implicit assumption is that it is somehow better than the others. This is quite different to recognising that we have a national identity that has much in common with other national identities (e.g. a flag, an anthem, a few personality traits, a few food recipes and a common language/s), or an identity that entails advantages and disadvantages, and both good and not so good characteristics.
Nationalism, at its worst, involves devaluing the national identity of others. Fascism likewise promotes a strong, superior national identity and community while aggressively suppressing dissent. Populism likewise constructs internal and external enemies, in the form of various elites and also non-nationals, though it’s sowing of division is typically more languid and insidious.
With each of these ideologies, it can be said that national identity is characterised as something fixed, unique and superior, leading to strong ingroups and outgroups, and, therefore an increased potential for conflict within mixed or diverse societies. As ideologies and as tendencies, they often mix with each other.
Hence, it can happen that someone buys into the various ideologies so described, such that they perceive their national identity is in need of protection, that they have been betrayed by the ruling classes, that they should adopt military dedication to the cause, while feeling free to express open hatred of those that stand in the way of national cohesion, whether they be an internal or external foe. And in their idealism, they are simply waiting to ‘serve their nation’.
Modern psychiatry seems to identify such a combination as insanity. But it can also be seen as a natural consequence of several negative and militant ideologies coming together. Without doubt it constitutes a form of radicalisation. If problems identified within nationalist, populist and fascist discourses are couched in terms of a war, then we cannot be surprised that some people take the call to arms seriously. These same groups cannot later claim to be advocates of peace. Such hypocrisy smacks of cynicism.
A family of Kings or Thieves? Well, they all would certainly present themselves as Kings, as would-be benevolent and benign rulers in friendly dictatorships. But, I would conclude they are almost certainly thieves, robbing us of cultural, intellectual and political freedoms, sometimes at the point of a gun, sometimes by force of the majority, sometimes by cultural censorship and being told how we are supposed to be. As thieves, they have a shared brotherhood, with some sense of honour, but there is also a fair amount of backstabbing among them. It is the brutal end of politics after all, no question about that.
The hope of any populist is to find the King among them, who will lead them to the promised land. If Timo Soini were indeed appointed King, I wonder what colourful band of thieves would he be taking with him into the Palace?