What Is Fascism?

Fascism Explained

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883 - 1945) surveys the new Caselle Airport during a visit to Turin, 16th May 1939

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Fascism is an economic system in which a supreme leader and the government controls private entities that own four factors of production: entrepreneurship, capital goods, natural resources, and labor. A central planning authority directs company leaders to work in the national interest, which actively suppresses those who oppose it.

National interests supersede all other societal needs under fascism. It subsumes private people and businesses into a vision of the good of the state. It's willing to become a "bully" in its quest to do so, according to George Orwell.

Definition and Examples of Fascism

Fascism derives from the Latin word fasces, which means a tied bundle of rods surrounding an ax and the symbol of ancient Rome. It meant that the individuals in a society should subvert their will for the good of the state.

Fascism uses nationalism to override individual self-interest. It subjugates the welfare of the general population to achieve imperative social goals. It works with existing social structures, instead of destroying them. Fascism focuses on "internal cleansing and external expansion," according to Professor Robert Paxton in "The Anatomy of Fascism."

Internal cleansing can justify the use of violence to rid the society of minorities and opponents.

Fascism was a consequence of World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Great Depression. The war created thousands of angry and disenchanted veterans who felt the government had betrayed them by sending them into an unnecessary conflict. The revolution in Russia made everyone afraid of the spread of communism. The depression made people desperate for a better life.

Fascist leaders became successful by appealing to nationalism. They used violence to intimidate others and they convinced the ruling elite to share power in return for beating the communists. Italy and Germany were two prominent examples of this.

Fascism in Italy

Benito Mussolini created the first fascist movement in 1919. The existing government helped him rise to power to fight off the communists. They also wanted to co-opt and use his violent militia.

Italian fascists believed that the preservation of the nation-state ought to be the object of state policy because it was a scientific fact. Italy organized private companies into sectors that had Fascist Party members as senior participants. State agencies had shares in many strategic companies.

Fascism in Germany

The Nazis came to power through the German elections of 1932. Wealthy business owners aided Hitler's ascent. They received government contracts and slave labor in return. Government cartels controlled the finance, manufacturing, and agriculture industries. They allowed owners to get rich from the profits while lowering wages for the workers.

How Fascism Works

Fascism uses Social Darwinism as its base. It legitimizes studies that support the concept of national characteristics and the superiority of a nation's majority, generally along the lines of race or ethnicity. The research must support fascism's vision that a strong nation should be homogeneous to avoid decadence.

Fascist regimes have seven characteristics:

  • Usurpation: The state overtakes and merges with corporate power and sometimes the church.
  • Nationalism: Leaders appeal to a nostalgic wish to return to an earlier golden age. That can include a return to a simple, virtuous pastoral life. 
  • Militarism: Leaders glorify military strength through propaganda.
  • Father figure: A leader assumes the role of the father of the nation. They create a cult status as a "dauntless ruler beholden to no one."
  • Mass appeal: A leader claims that the people, when manifested as the state, can achieve anything. Naysayers, minority groups, and saboteurs are blamed if they don't succeed.
  • Government surveillance: The government takes an active role in suppressing dissent. It rewards people who report on each other.
  • Persecution: The state violently persecutes minority groups and opponents.

Fascist economies are good at wholly transforming societies to conform to a planner's vision. They execute massive projects and create industrial power by suppressing the opposition, often violently.

Fascism either ignores or attacks those who don't aid attainment of the national values. This includes minority groups, the elderly, the developmentally challenged, and their caretakers. It attacks groups it blames for past economic ailments. The others are viewed as extraneous, an unnecessary drag on prosperity. They may be viewed as bad for the genetic pool and sterilized.

Fascism aids only those who align with the national values. They may use their power to rig the system and to create additional barriers to entry. This includes laws, educational attainment, and capital. This can limit diversity and the innovation it creates in the long term.

Fascism vs. Capitalism vs. Socialism vs. Communism

Attribute Fascism Communism Socialism Capitalism
Factors of production are owned by Individuals Everyone Everyone Individuals
Factors of production are valued for Nation Building Usefulness to people Usefulness to people Profit
Allocation decided by Central plan Central plan Central plan Law of supply and demand
From each according to their Value to the Nation Ability Ability Market decides
To each according to their Value to the Nation Need Contribution Income, wealth and borrowing ability

Fascism vs. Capitalism

Fascism and capitalism both allow entrepreneurship, but a fascist society restricts it to those who contribute to the national interest. Entrepreneurs must follow the orders of the central planners. They can become very profitable, but not because they're in touch with the market. 

Many entrepreneurs are independent-minded. They prefer to take orders from customers, not the government.

Fascism can destroy this entrepreneurial spirit, thus limiting the innovation that creates jobs, more tax revenue, and higher stock prices. Fascist nations miss this comparative advantage over other countries. For example, technological innovation is one factor that keeps the United States several steps ahead of most nations. Silicon Valley is America's innovative advantage.

Like capitalism, fascism does not promote equality of opportunity. Those without proper nutrition, support, and education may never make it to the playing field. Society will never benefit from their valuable skills. 

Fascism vs. Socialism

The government rewards companies for their contributions in both fascism and socialism. The difference is that socialist governments own the companies in strategic industries such as oil, gas, and other energy-related resources.

Fascist governments allow private citizens to own them. The state may own some companies, but it's more likely to establish cartels of business within the industries. It hands out contracts, thereby co-opting business owners to serve the state.

Fascism vs. Communism

Fascism gained power in the past in countries where communism had also become a threat. Business owners preferred the fascist leader because they thought they could control them. They were more afraid of a communist revolution where they lost all their wealth and power.

What It Means for the U.S.

Fascism grows if three ingredients are in place. A nation must be in a severe economic crisis. People must believe that existing institutions and government parties can't improve the situation. There's a sense that a country used to be great. People look to a charismatic leader to restore the nation to greatness, and they tolerate the loss of civil liberties if it allows them to regain past glory.

It's unlikely that the United States could succumb to fascism without violating the Constitution or eliminating it altogether. The Constitution protects the rights of minorities from the persecution that fascists thrive on. It has checks and balances. A fascist leader would have to dissolve Congress and the Supreme Court to attain full power. 

The U.S. Constitution also protects the free market, but that is consistent with fascism:

  • Article I, Section 8 establishes the protection of innovation through copyright.
  • Article I, Sections 9 and 10 protect free enterprise and freedom of choice, and they prohibit states from taxing each other's production.
  • Amendment IV prohibits unreasonable government searches and seizures, thereby protecting private property.
  • Amendment V protects the ownership of private property.
  • Amendment XIV prohibits the government from taking property without due process of law.
  • Amendments IX and X limit the government's powers to those specifically outlined in the Constitution. All powers not mentioned are conferred to the people.

Key Takeaways

  • Fascism is an economic system in which the government controls four factors of a country‚Äôs production.
  • Fascism was a direct result of World War I and the Great Depression.
  • Fascist regimes have seven common characteristics: usurpation, nationalism, militarism, a father figure, mass appeal, government surveillance, and prosecution. 
  • The histories of Italy and Germany are two prominent examples of fascism.
  • The Constitution serves to protect the U.S. from becoming a fascist nation.