Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fascism is Alive - in Russia

In a thoughtful article on the state of contemporary Russia (which is, inevitably, written to flag up a forthcoming book and tv series) Jonathan Dimbleby ponders the best way to sum up that society. He concludes, in the passage copied below, that it bears many similarities to fascist societies. Dimbleby's article, which is pessimistic in tone, reminds me that there was a party in Russia during the Yeltsin years which was viewed with alarm by western observers. It was aggressively nationalistic, led by an unstable, hysterical leader called Vladimir Zhirinovsky, wanted to wage war to return former provinces to the motherland, and was immensely hostile to the West. Called, ironically, the Liberal Party, there was a rush to liken it to the Nazis, and compare the chaotic Russian situation in which it emerged to that of Germany's Weimar period. Huge sighs all round, then, when Zhirinovsky went to electoral oblivion in the wake of a Yeltsin victory. Perhaps, though, the relief was premature, and Zhirinovsky's clowning was simply a red herring. Dimbleby certainly thinks so - his article can be read in full here. As for the Russian Liberals and their leader, they are still represented in the Duma, and are firmly in the pro-Putin camp.

Dimbleby wrote:

On my way through Russia I was increasingly tempted to use the word “fascist” to describe the essence of Putinism. I held back partly because the term is much overused as gratuitous abuse and partly because I knew how offensive it would sound to those whose parents and grandpar-ents had died in their millions to save the world from fascism in what Russians call “the great patriotic war”.

Many political scientists have wrestled with the concept of fascism, trying to clarify its distinguishing features. Authoritarianism is, of course, a defining characteristic; so, too, the elevation of nationalism to the status of a paramount virtue; the manipulation of the electoral system to preserve the outward forms of democracy while strangling its meaning; an intolerance of serious opposition and, crucially, the emergence of a strong leader supported by a powerful vanguard drawn from the business elite or the leaders of “corporate capitalism” or, in Eisen-hower’s phrase, “the military-indus-trial complex”. Putinism has all those characteristics and more.

5 comments:

consultant said...

The political situation in modern Russia is certainly troubling, both for its own people who find themselves faced with yet more oppression and poverty after a century and longer of the same, and for the international community which finds itself faced with an increasingly belligerent nuclear power quite willing to flex its muscles to pressure its neighbours and others, if only economically for the time being.

However, I am uncertain how helpful it is to try to shoe-horn the situation into the constructed category “fascism”. To give something such a powerful label is to instantly load it with a whole range of characteristics, inherent criticisms, and historical references. Dimbleby recognises the emotive sensitivity of the term in the first paragraph, but I think the dangers associated with using it go beyond this. In applying this label, we synonymously apply other categories which we associate with fascism, but which it is not necessarily useful to associate with Russia at the current time; “fascist” as a label implies “enemy”, “immoral”, “evil”. This automatically prejudices our attitudes and thus our actions.

But wait – I hear you cry – Dimbleby goes on to give a whole list of characteristics we would associate with fascism and identifies them in the Russian situation. Surely this is evidence that Russia is fascist?

Dimbleby starts with authoritarianism. Authoritarianism could include the passing of legislation to dramatically curtail the civil liberties of the people in the supposed interests of national security, granting extraordinary powers to shady government agencies – a secret police almost. Rather like the Homeland Security Act 2002.

Nationalism as a paramount virtue – another sure sign we are dealing with fascists. Each day children saying a pledge of allegiance; almost perverse respect for one’s national flag; the fierce criticism of people deemed not to be sufficiently nationalistic; national pride as a dominant feature in general elections. A series of key indicators of an unhealthy nationalist tendency.

The manipulation of the electoral system – of course. Florida.

A strong leader (okay, maybe I’m going to have trouble on this exact point) supported by a powerful vanguard of the business elite and corporate capitalism. Like Halliburton. It’s no coincidence that that Eisenhower was talking about the US when he warned of the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex.

So am I arguing that America is a fascist country? Of course not – America displays in varying degrees a number of characteristics that might be associated with fascism. As does Russia. America displays some (massive military aggression and the invasion of sovereign nation states) which Russia currently does not, and vice versa. So is the label useful, other than to identify a country as our enemy? No – it is counterproductive, a shorthand method intended to demonise; a very lazy analysis indeed.

D Carnell said...

Very well put, Consultant. An A-Level Politics teacher would be very proud.

The other thing to note about Russia is that demographically, economically and militarily it is still, pretty much, a basket case.

The media get all hysterical when a TU-95 long-range strategic bomber penetrates our airspace every now and then. What they don't report is that this rust-bucket is a 50 year old airframe I could probably shoot down with a GP Cadet rifle from my back porch. Despite the promised investment of billions into the defence industry the Russian military are poorly trained (outside of the Spetznaz) and poorly equipped.

Secondly, although they now have endless oligarchs whose billions appear limitless the vast swathes of the Russian economy is still reeling from Soviet times. Increased oil and gas production is helping but for the short-term it remains an economic light-weight.

Finally, it has one of the world's most rapidly aging populations. Men are dying in their 40s and 50s outside of Moscow and St Petersburg and the birth rate is plummeting. Stalin used to pay women to have more babies - if Putin wants a prosperous Russia in 50 years time, he might think about doing the same.

Oh, and good to have you back Giles. Some good posts over the weekend.

GM said...

I'm getting misty-eyed about previous students! I think that, on balance, consultant is right in describing the use of the term 'fascist' as simply a bit of lazy demonising, and we should probably not use it in any intellectual sense with anything other than historical specificity. Nonetheless, its strongly anti-democratic character has more resonance in Putin's Russia than Bush's America, whatever you may think of George W., and it would be foolish to place those two states on a par.

Thanks, David, for your last comment, and while you may be right about Russia's 'basket case' status, it still wields huge economic muscle over its neighbours - who are in thrall to its provision of natural gas for instance - and has considerable growth potential, ironically via western investment!

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Anonymous said...

This is the most ridiculous blog i've ever read.

Are you positive you're not talking about Israel?

1) aggressively nationalistic
2) led by an unstable, hysterical leader (Netanyahu)
3) wants to wage war to return former provinces to the motherland (Greater Israel)
4) immensely hostile (has slandered just about every nation on earth.. including Turkey now)
5) Government sponsored assassinations, Bombings, Proxy Wars (PPK, FARC, Georgia)Corporate Blackmail, Economic Terrorism, invasion.
6) Accused of warcrimes by UN
7) Grants asylum to international criminals, drug dealers, human traffickers.
8) Censors all Media out of its control.

OY VEY!