Tag Archives: Fascism

So 1930.

Brexit was fueled by xenofobia and a desire to dominate others in society, new paper reports

The majority of Brexit voters think the UK is exceptional, underrecognized in the world, and entitled to privileged treatment — so they shot themselves in the foot to prove it. A new study looks at how base emotions such as xenophobia and perceived British supremacy led the UK out of the EU. Pride in the one’s British roots, however, wasn’t linked with higher support for the exit, the authors note. But something else was.

So 1930.

Protesters outside the American Embassy in London rallying to demand that prime minister Theresa May repudiate Donald Trump’s entry ban on Syrian, Iraqi, Somali, Yemeni, Iranian, Sudanese and Libyan nationals for the next 90 days as well as the indefinite ban on all Syrian refugees.
Image credits Alisdare Hickson.

Last year, some 52% of UK citizens voted that their country should exit the EU — a decision since christened “Brexit”. A new study found that the single strongest link between those who voted yes, regardless of age, gender, and education, was xenophobia — the fear of everything perceived as “foreign”.

The paper further identifies collective narcissism as a predictor of the results. Collective narcissists are people that believe a certain group they belong to (such as a country) is amazing, special, and overall great, a state of affairs which is not sufficiently recognized by those exterior to the group (other countries).

“[Collective narcissism] differs from feeling proud to be British or thinking of oneself as British,” said Agnieszka Golec de Zavala of Goldsmiths, University of London, lead author of the study.

“We know only that collective narcissism predicts xenophobia. We wanted to see whether there was a link between collective narcissism and voting motivated by xenophobia.”

The team reports that xenophobia was the best predictor of the Brexit vote for all citizens, regardless of age, gender, or education. Brits who believe that immigrants erode their values and way of life, or that they take jobs away from UK nationals, were more likely to vote for Brexit. These citizens, the team reports, fall into three categories. First are those who feel threatened by others because they fear change. The second is represented by people “high in social dominance orientation”, who find it desirable and perhaps just that the group they belong to dominates all other groups in society. Finally were the British collective narcissists.

By contrast, the researchers found that “people who just thought it is great to be British” or who held their British identity in high regard weren’t any more likely to reject immigrants or vote for Brexit than others.

Some xenophobia with your tea, sir?

To tease out these connections, the team drew on two batches of studies that asked participants to what extent they agree that immigrants in the UK “threaten the UK’s way of life; threaten the British citizens’ jobs and economic opportunities, personal possessions, their personal rights, and freedoms; physical health” or that they “violate reciprocity of social relations by choice, violate the British citizens’ trust, or hold values inconsistent with those of the British citizens”. Study 1 looked at the role of collective narcissism in comparison to national identification and Study 2 compared collective narcissism and national attachment. Both studies compared the two factors as predictors of the perceived threat of immigrants, the referendum vote, and support for the referendum’s outcome. Study 1 was conducted in July 2016 just after the EU referendum in the UK Study 2 was conducted just after the UK government’s support for the “hard” Brexit option was announced in September 2016.

Pro-EU London protest.

Pro-EU march from Hyde Park to Westminster in London on March 25, 2017.
Image via Wikimedia.

The results of Study 1 revealed that collective narcissism (i.e. “My national group deserves special treatment”), right-wing authoritarianism (“Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn”), national identification (“Being from my national group is an important reflection of what I am”), a domineering social orientation (“We should not push for group equality”), and a perceived threat posed by immigrants were both linked to higher support for Brexit and voting “yes”.

Study 2 confirmed the links in study 1 and further showed that effect of national attachment (“I am glad to be a member of my national group, I think that members of my national group have a lot to be proud of”) on the Brexit vote “was not significant” — i.e. while the other independent variables could be used to predict each participant’s vote on and support for Brexit, national attachment couldn’t.

Asked whether she believes that voters held these attitudes before the “Leave campaign” or that they were brought out by it, de Zavala said that “the fact that individual difference variables predicted xenophobia suggest that they did exist previously.”

“However, we cannot exclude the possibility that the Leave campaign strengthened them. In fact, findings in social psychology suggest it is very likely it did. I believe this campaign, in particular, allowed people to spell out, and reinforced, a collective narcissistic definition of their national identity. Leave campaign made some believe that it is OK and patriotic to fight for “purity” of British identity. It provided a language to voice prejudice without feeling that you abuse the norm of political correctness.”

She says that politicians’ discourse can help encourage or discourage such views. Ultimately, if we want to nip xenophobia in the bud, we should take it and intolerance out of what it means to be British — though, that’s golden advice no matter where you hail from.

The study brings an uglier side of politics and human psyche to light, one which we’d rather not look at. At the same time, it’s one whose destructive outcomes we can’t bear to ignore any longer — as many disillusioned Brits, and their counterparts in other countries, are realizing.

“National collective narcissism stood behind the Brexit vote but also behind the Trump vote in the US,” de Zavala explains.

“It is linked to support for the nationalist, ultraconservative, Eurosceptic government in Poland and in Hungary. It is linked to support for dictatorial rule of Vladimir Putin in Russia. The concept of collective narcissism was first introduced to describe the sentiments stirred by the Nazis in Germany.”

The team’s research shows that collective narcissism “systematically” predicts prejudice, aggression, and causes ambiguous, even innocent behaviors of others to be perceived as a provocation to the national group.

“If we care about diverse societies and harmonious intergroup relations, a collective narcissistic definition of our national identity is not what we should strive for or spread. We should vet our leaders more carefully with respect to the vision of our national identity they promote, because leaders have the power to make such a vison normative in groups that follow them,” de Zavala adds.

The paper “The Relationship between the Brexit Vote and Individual Predictors of Prejudice: Collective Narcissism, Right Wing Authoritarianism, Social Dominance Orientation” has been published in the journal Frontiers Psychology.


Democracy is failing in the West, scientists warn

The democratic West is crumbling, researchers from Harvard and the University of Melbourne warn. There’s less and less love for democracy to go around, a trend that seems to be sharpest among younger demographics.

Dictatorial democracy sign.

“Dictatorial democracy is were you have the freedom of speech but the administration doesn’t listen.”
Anti-Bush protest written on a voting booth in 2003.
Image credits The Prophet / Flickr.

For a long time now, liberal democracy was generally agreed upon to be not only the best form of government — but the only acceptable form of government. With the memory of illiberal, totalitarian governments such as fascism and communism (along with the horrors they often wrought) still fresh in the public conscience, it’s not hard to understand why.

That view, however, is changing. A paper published by Roberto Stefan Foa, Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Melbourne and Yascha Mounk, Lecturer on Political Theory at Harvard University’s Government Department, reports that over the past 25 years, people have progressively lost faith in democracies, instead turning to “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections.” Throughout Europe and the US, this political re-alignment is quite considerable, they note, and is seen disproportionately among younger demographics — which makes things even more worrying. They christened the process “deconsolidation,” a tip of the hat to the traditional view that once a democracy takes roots and ‘consolidates,’ it’s there to stay.

Tyranny birthed from democracy

The duo based their work mainly on data from the World Values Survey, based in Sweden, that polls people across 100 countries to study “changing values and their impact on social and political life.”

In 1995, some 16% of American respondents aged 16 to 24 said democracy isn’t the best way to run the country. By 2011, 24% said the same, the team reports. People are also less convinced, overall, that democracies are the way to go — as you can see in the chart below, fewer people in recent cohorts think it “essential” to live in a democracy compared to those before them. At the same time, younger generations are much more likely to deem democracies a bad or very bad way to “run this country,” both in Europe and the US.


Image credits Foa & Mouck, 2017.

Break down that first chart on a per-country basis, and you get this:

Demo-essential per country.

Percentage of age cohorts that believe it’s “essential” to live in a democracy.
Image credits Foa and Mounk, 2017. Artwork Sarah Fisher.

As you can see, the overall trend since about 1950 or so is anti-democratic, with the 80s cohorts (representing people born in the 80s) clocking in at an all-time low across the board. So while some 72% of Americans born in the 30s thought that democracy was fundamental to the modern state, only around 30% believed the same thing three decades ago, a whopping drop.

No trust, no turnout


Image credits – HOGRE – / Flickr.

Finding out why this happened, as most things regarding politics, isn’t easy. But one explanation, one I’ve previously touched upon when discussing fascism, is that people disillusioned with current politics look to alternative systems of governing themselves. They feel powerless despite their vote, so they look to leaders who will bypass it altogether and do something.

“Over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as parliaments or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe. So has voter turnout,” says Dr Foa.

This loss of confidence is glaringly, frighteningly apparent in the team’s findings. They write than among older generations of Americans, 43% of respondents thought it’s wrong for the military to take over the government when the latter is incompetent or fails to do its job. Among younger people, however, only 19% said such a coup was wrong. Similarly, support for an outright military rule is also increasing: in 1995, 1-in-16 Americans (6.25%) would pick military rule over democracy, but 1-in-6 (16.6%) would do the same in 2011.

Younger generations also show much more political apathy than previous generations. While it’s normal that generational discrepancies arise, since people usually get more interested in politics as they get older, the team says they’re seeing something that goes beyond the usual differences.

Figure 3.

Image credits Foa and Mounk, 2017

People are still getting involved in politics as they age, but younger cohorts are starting from a much lower baseline than those before them. The political apathy gap between old and young Americans went from 10% (in 1990) to 26% (in 2010). Among European respondents, it has more than tripled between 1990 and 2010, from 4% to 14%.

“I think there is a process that has been taking place for 20-30 years now where people have disengaged from formal types of politics such as joining political parties and even turning out to vote. Over the period of a generation the political elites have become very detached from the people. We now have career politicians and we have lobbyists and special interest groups having privileged access to our representatives,” Dr Foa adds.

“So people are justified in feeling frustrated, and in a real sense justified in feeling that Western democracies are less democratic than they use to be.”

Of the people, by the few, for just one

A rising anti-democratic sentiment doesn’t mean that established democratic institutions and practices “are no longer there,” the team writes, but it does point at trouble down the road. Waning public support is one of the first symptoms of a brittle democracy, one which can fall prey to populist demagoguery despite traditional indicators showing robust civil freedoms and democratic practices in a country.


Graffiti by UK-based artist and political activist Banksy in central London. It can be seen as a critique of the slow slide towards illiberalism and totalitarianism.
Image credits: ogglog / Flickr.

The team compared their results with more traditional measures of the health of democracy in the countries, such as the Freedom House score and the Centre for Systemic Peace’s — which measure the strength of their civil liberties and democratic institutions. They found that deconsolidation can predict a later decay of democracy in some countries — for example, the same kind of public dissatisfaction with democracy seen in these surveys was mirrored in public surveys in places such as Venezuela, Poland, Hungary, or Greece a few years before these countries faced sustained assaults to established democratic systems.

In the 80s, Venezuela was considered to be a democratic success story. It followed a two-party system, scored high on the Freedom House ladder. By 1995, however, the Latinobarometer survey found that 46 % of Venezuelans believed democracy wasn’t delivering on their needs, and 81% wanted a strong leader. In 1998, the country would elect left-wing populist Hugo Chavez, and since then democracy has seen continual erosion in Venezuela. Poland has followed a similar path, with Lech Kaczynski’s right-wing populist Law and Justice Party clamping down on media freedom and the courts after their re-election in 2015. Hungary’s ruling national conservative, right-wing populist Fidesz party is putting them at odds with the EU, and Greece is also dabbling further into non-democratic governments — this time towards the left, with their coalition of left-wing and radical left-wing groups, Syriza.

“This suggests that close attention to the signs of deconsolidation can indeed function as an early warning system, alerting careful observers to the kind of deep-seated discontent with democratic institutions that is liable to prove deeply destabilising before long,” the researchers write.

The authors worryingly found signs of deconsolidation throughout the rest of the still liberal, still democratic West. They acknowledge that institutions are more resilient in countries with a long tradition of liberal democracy, but they ultimately receive their mandate from the people — in the face of growing public dissatisfaction, these too will eventually submit.

The paper “The Danger of Deconsolidation” has been published in the Journal of Democracy.

Angel of Fascism.

Bound around the axe: what is fascism and why do societies turn to it

Heavily stigmatized in the aftermath of World War 2, “Fascism” is a term you don’t hear that much anymore — except thrown around in heated political debates as an ultimate insult. But what is fascism as a political system, and are the concerns that it may be making a comeback valid? Let’s find out.

Angel of Fascism.

Angel carrying the fasces in Piazza Augusto Imperatore, Rome, a vestige of Mussolini’s rule.
Image credits Anthony Majanlahti / Flickr.

Throughout history, people have envisioned and established a myriad of ways to order our societies and define social roles in the grand scheme of things. The shape these systems took, the power they held over various aspects of life, and their relationship to other political systems all evolved in accordance to several factors: a society’s leaning towards secularism or religiousness, traditionalism or liberalism, its overall level of education and ability to exchange ideas, and of course, technological capability.

The basics

Fascism actually emerged (in a coherent form) in Italy, not Nazi Germany. Its roots start to form in 1915 from a people marked by the death, horror, and the (soon to be) vittoria mutilata of the Great War, and it grew on the unprecedented technological and industrial progress of the 20th century. Since then, as Godwin’s tongue-in-cheek law perfectly exemplifies, “fascist” has become an almost derogatory term evoking rigidity and extremism of thought, allegiance to an oppressive single party, violence against anyone not aligned with the ideology, xenophobia, and an exclusion of the one it’s aimed at from any meaningful discussion in politics.

But beyond a few characteristics that define all fascist movements, they draw heavily from a people’s culture and can be very different from one another. So let’s take a look at what this political system stands for, what circumstances led to its creation, and what place it has in the world today.

First things first: political analysts usually classify ideologies as wings on a “left-right” spectrum. At their best, the left wing deals in change, progressive ideas, believes the state has the responsibility to care for its citizens (things like basic income, state-owned health, emergency, education systems are at home on the left), are generally idealist and value equality. The right deals in conservative ideas, believes in free markets as well as minimal state interference and regulation (ultra-free markets, private health, emergency, and education systems thrive under right-wing rule). The right emphasizes equity over equality.

I’ll also take a cue from the guys at PoliticalCompass and factor in a social spectrum to get a better understanding of fascism. So in addition to the left-right poles, we’ll also put in an authoritarian-libertarian scale which shows how different governments go about their business: by pooling power within the ruling body and/or a central figure (authoritarian), or by allowing people greater freedoms, thereby giving away their power (libertarian). Now that we have our bearings, let’s talk fascism.

What is fascism?


The two spectra — left/right and authoritarian/liberal — can be superimposed to give you an idea of where your allegiance lies on the political spectrum — these are my results. If you’re curious about where you fall, go take the test on The Political Compass.
Image credits The Political Compass.

It’s pretty hard to determine the exact boundaries of fascism. In broad lines, however, it’s considered to fall on the heavily authoritarian right as it maintains social order and opposes equality — here it’s in the top bits of the blue area. In other words, fascism relies on a mix of government or single leader with virtually absolute power in society and strong private property that only remains free while it serves the party’s interests.

It also has deep, super-nationalistic and racist, even xenophobic undertones, creating a sense of ‘us vs them’, blaming the perceived other for the country’s hardships, eventually encouraging segregation and violence against this ‘other’ as the way forward.

From a socio-economic standpoint, fascism is highly polarizing: exceedingly rich and powerful industrialists and politicians rule at the top, followed by upper, middle, then lower classes, with one or more groups of non-citizens at the bottom. But none of these truly define fascism (in fact, we can see many of its influences in today’s politics, even though we don’t live under fascism).

What fascism usually does is reject liberal, socialist, and conservative thoughts and replaces them with a complex net of cultural and ideological tenants. This cultural element is why it’s so hard to tell exactly where fascism begins and ends. Fascist rulers attain the people’s mandate by pointing at the glories of yore and their subsequent decadence, instilling a sense of superiority over other peoples (the corruption of the Ubermensch symbol), and insisting that only a strong country united under a strong leader can retake their place on the world stage (“Make America great again“) all of which takes the shape of unique cultural levels in every society.

Fascism America Sticker.

It has a unique flavor wherever it pops up.
Image credits Robert F. W. Whitlock / Wikimedia.

The final traits of fascism are heavy propaganda, a rejection of globalization and attainment of autarky, a mixture of philosophies and ideas from the left and right into its ideology and, perhaps it’s most extreme far-right trait, the aim to have a group of superior people dominate society and purge inferior humans.

Tying it all together, the very name of “fascism” is probably what symbolizes this ideology the best. The word is rooted in the Latin word fasces, which were bundles of rods usually tied around an axe with the blade sticking out. Fasces were issued to Roman magistrates and symbolized power. And in a way, that’s what fascism is: a people inescapably tied to a single cause, vesting absolute power and the decision of life and death in a leader’s personal agenda — whether willingly or by force.

One interesting observation you can make from the four quadrants in the above compass is that it’s not communism which is ideologically opposite fascism — the two are actually pretty similar apart from the fact that communism rejects traditional elites while fascists work them into the new social order. The ideological opposite of fascism is liberal socialism. That’s some food for thought.

How does fascism emerge?

The first truly fascist party emerged in Italy in the 1920s. To give you some context, at the conclusion of the World War I Italy lost an estimated 400,000 soldiers, and almost four million of the country’s men were wounded, captured, or suffered disease and disability after the conflict in the army alone — in a country of 37 million people at the time. That’s over 10% of the whole population. It’s a huge ratio.

For all their hardship and loss, the Italians also felt they were cheated out of the war promises the Entente (basically the allies in WWI) made. Initially allying with Germany and Austro-Hungary to defend against French expansion in Tunisia, one of their African colonies, the Italians secretly agreed to join the Entente in the London Pact — on the condition that they are given back north-eastern Italy from the Austrians. After the treaty was signed, however, UK diplomats figured that they didn’t actually have any beef with the Austrians. Long story short, Italy didn’t get what it was promised when the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, was signed.

Rethondes Wagon de l'Armistice.

A treaty signed in this very railway car.
Image credits Nicklaarakkers / Wikimedia.

This could be seen as the first spark to ignite fascism in Italy at the time. Public confidence and approval of the then-Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando tanked as people regarded him too weak to serve Italian interests. Poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, the one who coined the term “vittoria mutilata,” started to vocally criticize Orlando’s weakness and the treachery of foreign powers. He gathered a small force of armed Italians and actually attacked and conquered the city of Fiume in September 1919, then part of Austria — a 90% ethnic Italian town that the country was promised but didn’t receive as war reparations. The town subsequently issued what amounted to a fascist charter and enjoyed autonomy for a while.

And it may well be this charter that took fascism, in the public’s opinion, from one of many possibilities to a solution. As always, there was still internal resistance, but for many people disillusioned with Italy’s current government, angry about what they perceived as unfairness by external powers, and willing to see Italy’s sacrifices properly repaid, this new political idea actually delivered — it managed, with 2,000 or so armed men, to capture a city that the previous government couldn’t bring back with a whole war.

Germany also had to pay huge war reparations and suffer international shame (it was a thing back then) following the end of WWI, and unlike Italy, they also had to contend with the fact that they actually lost. The reparations ruined Germany’s economy, and I mean actually ruined — inflation was so high in post-war Germany that you needed a literal wheelbarrow of cash to buy a loaf of bread. People would even burn money in stoves to heat their homes during the winter since it was less expensive than buying coal or firewood.

In these conditions, it’s not that hard to understand how desperate people would look to a strong government to solve their problems.

While it’s easy to judge past generations on their actions, we have the benefit of hindsight on our side. Even so, the threat of fascism still looms over us, and will likely haunt our elections and governments for a while still.

Fascism today

Invaders against Fascism.

Image credits Lauren Manning / Flickr.

Fascism was made possible by the breathtaking speed of technological advance in the 20th century, one which overcame society’s ability to adapt. People wanted safety and more bountiful lives following the horrors of the Great War, and autocrats scrambling for ever-more power, with massive industrial and infrastructure complexes behind them, could provide that.

Technology such as radios let the government speak directly to the people, and nobody knew not to trust their government yet so they did the unthinkable things their leaders said would bring about a better world — and are we really the ones to judge them? We are living in an increasingly illiberal world, where our hate and fear push more autocratic leaders into the spotlight. We fear our way of life is under attack by terrorists, more and more people are struggling with poverty, and most people haven’t yet learned not to trust that Facebook post from a random site claiming “immigrants are taking our jobs” and “causing crime” (both are false) — so we do the unthinkable things our leaders ask of us to bring about a better world.

Just as in those early days of economic and political uncertainty, we’re putting our faith in strong leaders who look willing to fight for our interests. A leader who comes with promises of a wealth, safety, a sense of purpose for all — and that’s perfectly understandable. But the people who promise you can have all that if you just kick out x minority, or if you reclaim your borders, the people who hate and discriminate — they won’t solve our problems. They won’t do anything except breed more hate and discrimination, more misery and hardship for those in need, more power and wealth for those who further their goals. Talking about the issue of fascism for The New York Times, Henry Scott Wallace wrote:

“They invariably put ‘money and power ahead of human beings.’ […] ‘They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest, […] claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution’.”

“They bloviate about putting America first, but it’s just a cover. ‘They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism.’ They need scapegoats and harbor ‘an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations’,” he concludes.

Today we do have the benefit of hindsight. We know what lies down the path of fascism, be it in America, in Russia, the UK, or any other country — if it takes root, this time it’s on us.