By Valerie Deacon
No matter which way you spin it, Stephen Harper’s government is not fascist and making comparisons between the current Canadian government and fascism in the 1930s is both disingenuous and dangerous. This Huffington Post article about the government’s decision to close major scientific and environmental libraries and destroy much of the data contained therein was weakened by the rather ludicrous claim that the Harper government might be akin to the fascist regimes of the 1930s. The article noted that:
“Many scientists have compared the war on environmental science to the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Hutchings muses, “you look at the rise of certain political parties in the 1930s and have to ask how could that happen and how did they adopt such extreme ideologies so quickly, and how could that happen in a democracy today?”
These questions are still very important to ask, because fascism most certainly is still a danger. And the decisions that Harper’s government are making – particularly with regard to science and the environment – are also dangerous. But the dangers are not the same. As I have written elsewhere on Active History, the overuse of the term “fascist” to identify our political enemies actually has the unintended effect of blinding us to the true dangers they represent. In our current political climate, the real danger comes when movements or political parties of the extreme right legitimize their ideology to the point where it seems anodyne to a large section of the population. This leads to electoral victories and then to the manipulation of civil society that has the potential to be irreparable. But perhaps that is a post for another day. Today I want to dig a little deeper into why the Canadian Conservatives are not fascists, as much as we might disagree with their ideology, actions, or governance.
Fascism, as an ideology and a political expression, has been notoriously difficult to define. Decades of scholarship has attempted to find a way to outline the boundaries of fascism, while allowing for its different manifestations, in different places, at different times. Robert Paxton’s book The Anatomy of Fascism remains one of the most accessible and rational explorations of fascism and his most important contribution to the general discussion was to highlight the fact that the face of fascism changes over time. As an intellectual exercise (in other words, a purely theoretical expression), fascism looks one way. Once fascists recognize the need to mobilize (say, in a political party), their fascism changes appearance. Once a fascist group is in power or becoming entrenched in power, they might be unrecognizable from their earlier, ideological selves. So, Paxton argued, an investigation into fascism should never take fascists out of context.
Harper’s government does not resemble fascism at any of its stages. Why not, you might ask? Well, because fascism – or so most scholars agree – seeks to mobilize passions of the masses. Harper’s conservatives do not want a mobilized nation, but a complacent one. Fascism is violent, both in ideology and in practice. It seeks to create a mass, militarized party, led by a charismatic leader. While Harper’s conservatives have certainly emphasized Canada’s military history and have tried to animate a distinctly more militarized nation, this is not a literal militarization. Fascism’s development involves pseudo-armies – the creation of large groups of armed young people, modeled after traditional army hierarchies, but vowing loyalty, not to the nation, but to the leader. We see these developments most clearly in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, with the development of groups like the SA, the original paramilitary organisation of the Nazi Party. Fascists sing the virtues of violence and see it as a redemptive, purifying force. Science in Canada is certainly being muzzled, but scientists are not being beaten and murdered. And by no stretch of the imagination is Stephen Harper a charismatic leader in the vein of a Mussolini or a Hitler.
Stephen Harper is a traditional conservative with authoritarian leanings and it is worth remembering that all fascists are authoritarian, but not all authoritarians are fascist.
Fascism attempts to create a state that controls all elements of life. In this state, traditional authorities – like the army, the church, traditional elites – are eradicated, subsumed, or otherwise tightly controlled. Harper’s government is made up of traditional authorities and relies on them to govern. The danger? Now, as in the 1930s, is when traditional conservatives make fascists their political bedfellows, thinking that they can be controlled. It won’t be Stephen Harper leading a fascist regime, but some currently obscure person. Watch out for anybody obsessively harping on themes of collective humiliation, community decline, and regeneration through violent action – there you might find your fascists.
Dr Valerie Deacon is the Elihu Rose Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow at New York University. She researches the participation of the extreme-right in the French Resistance during the Second World War and teaches European and Military history.