I have kept a blog about sci-fi interfaces for six years as of this posting. When I began it felt like the world was chugging along fairly well, with occasional needs for pit stops and course corrections, and there was time and space for looking at minutiae.
Nowadays, when democratic institutions are under assault, xenophobia and white supremacy feel emboldened; where a deeply corrupt family that did not win the popular vote is using their positions–gotten and ill-gotten–for personal enrichment, sacrificing democratic institutions to the oligarchy, fueling constitutional crises, cuddling up to the dictator who interfered with our elections while alienating our staunchest allies, fomenting violence, spreading F.U.D., ripping families apart for political expediency…(the list extends, daily, so future readers, forgive how small and quaint this list must seem)…nowadays, writing posts to analyze imaginary machines can feel not just trivial, but like an irresponsible misuse of time.
I understand that life entails many things simultaneously, but we’re heading in the U.S.A. towards very important midterm elections, so for a while, I’m going to use this platform that I have to do my part and to combine these concerns, investigating fascism through examples in sci-fi interfaces. Yes, I’ll spill some phosphorus on interfaces along the way but in full disclosure, while there could be, there aren’t any. I’ll discuss why later. Right now I have to SMASH SOME BUGS!
To what end
Things that are good to do are often good for multiple reasons. This series of posts is no exception.
- Part of my goals will be to sensitize readers to fascism via this lens: What is fascist versus what merely dresses up in its costumes.
- Part will be to understand what it means for technology and interfaces to embody and enforce political ideas, because they can and do.
- Part of my goals are, as always, to sharpen critical thinking and design skills in myself and the reader.
- Part of my tactics are to assure you, now, that the show with the most fascism is not one you would expect. This is a good thing, because fascism merits vigilance and your ability to see through both its disguises and its bad faith (or as H.G. Frankfurt uses the term, its bullshit).
- Part of my hope is to encourage you, too, to use whatever platform you have available to do you part to shine a light on and resist it.
It will entail discussing the ethics of design and of using platforms to the best of one’s abilities to do what’s right. I’m almost certainly in over my head. Hopefully I’ll get help from some smart people. I will try and keep a global perspective, but my main focus will be on the rise of Trumpism where I live in the U.S. of A.
If you are a reasonable person who has concerns and disagreements about this content, let’s discuss. If you’re one of the fascists, know that you are not welcome here.
Let’s start with a clarification—no—a discussion of terms. Today “fascist” can be thrown as an insult at actual fascists, at things that look very much like fascists, or mere bullies. So when I’m talking about it of course I need to clarify what I mean.
In its least formal use, when “fascist” is lobbed as an insult, I think it’s usually to describe a person using violence for political ends. Could be citizen, could be police. Could be an established political group or a fringe one. Insult fascism is what you’re likely to hear shouted at a contentious rally, and isn’t very clarifying. It’s missing nuance that distinguishes fascism from mere bullies, or any of the other *isms that can use violence. Capitalism, Communism, Despotism, Tyranny, etc. etc. So we need to look for some more precise meaning.
Academics who study such things would link Fascism to its source, so let’s call this “source” Fascism.
The seminal document, “La dottrina del fascismo” is written in a florid and self-aggrandizing style, so not clarifying. Mussolini named his movement after the Etruscan fasces, a bundle of (weak) rods which are bound together to become strong, supporting an axe handle and blade. Metaphorically, the bundle of sticks are citizenry who bind themselves together and become a tool of violence and thereby authority for a leader. (Note that the metaphor literally asserts that its members are tools.) In this document, Mussolini does lay out a philosophy that can be used as a definition.
When we speak of source fascism, it’s a historical thing, defined by Mussolini and enacted by him and Hitler in WWII. It’s quite specific. In this academic sense, the current administration does not perfectly fit. Trump is personally an individualist. Trump probably doesn’t see violence as key to a health regimen. I doubt he is aware of “La dottrina del fascismo,” much less read it, much less base his twitter palsies on it. He’s not a source fascist. I don’t know that there are any of those anymore. Even if they’re straight up Nazis, they’re of the Neo- variety.
But outside of academic hairsplitting, the term has been genericized. Rather than referring to a specific historical ideology, people use it today more generally to describe a dark pattern that appears in modern politics. So let me talk about what it means more generically.
Generecized, or strong fascism
Trying to move from metaphor to a more formal definition is difficult. Since Mussolini, attempts to define it succinctly have been made by well-known intellectuals and it always comes off as slippery and a bit poetic. See the Wikipedia article for Definitions of Fascism and you’ll see a list of 22 different and earnest attempts by public figures including Umberto Eco, Leon Trotsky, Franklin Roosevelt, and George Orwell.
I’m far from being a political scholar, but it seems to me that the trouble is that fascism is neither derived through reason nor followed by reasonable people, and so it resists anything as reasoned as a observastional definition or consistent ideology. Fascism is a dark thing that rises from limbic, reactionary places and, once roused, squeezes into and out of whatever shapes it can, until reason and the long arc of history exorcises it. Its adherents think they’re mad about one thing but their arguments don’t stand up to examination or evidence. That doesn’t matter to them because they don’t care about arguments. They don’t care about facts. Fascism is a primeval reaction. Like a nation-sized, violent bout of the hangries. (That sounds like I’m being flippant, but I’m earnest about it as a metaphor. Crap. There we are back to metaphors again.)
Fortunately, the diligent editors at Wikipedia have brought all those different definitions into more focus at their Fascism portal. Combining that with the Definitions of Fascism and published interviews with scholars, I’ve compiled a description of five key aspects shared by most of those sources.
- Violent: Force is seen as a virtue in and of itself
- Over-the-top fetishism of military, pageantry, machismo
- A desire for violent suppression of the enemies within
- Terrorism against the scapegoat class (see Palingenetic below)
- Parliamentarianism (anyone who insists on following protocol)
- Dissenters of any stripe
- A desire for war and imperialism against the enemies without
- Authoritarian: It presumes a strong central government power
- Government is a Strict Father (Because I said so, by Great Leader, is good enough.)
- A vague and shifting-as-needed executive power
- Laws and enforcement should be harsh
- Hostile to diversity, individualism, unconventionality
- Pressure to conform to in-group norms in appearance, social role, gender role
- Subsumed personal and political freedoms
- Ultranationalist: It asserts that everything is subordinate to the exceptional state
- Industry, commerce, business exists at the whim of Great Leader
- A militarized citizenry: Our followers (true followers, anyway) are heroes who must be willing to die for this cause.
- A belief in national exceptionalism: Our country is special, and better, than other countries around the world
- Dictatorial: It is headed by a charismatic Great Leader
- His (so far always a dude) legitimacy is derived from appeals to emotion
- Seen as having few limits to his power, if any
- He peddles an epic rebirth narrative (see Palingenetic, below)
- Palingenetic: It invokes a mythic return to past greatness
- We must purge the impurities in our society (or the world) to return ourselves to purity and abundance.A desire to abandon or replace the current political order for a new one
- They name a specific class of people as a scapegoat and use lies and propaganda to dehumanize and attack them. (This often camps on racism.)
So when I say “strong” fascism or even just fascism, I mean a combination of those five things. So while Trump isn’t a source fascist, with this list in hand it’s easy to see that in modern usage of the term, Trump, his Trumpettes, and the GoP supporting him are all jack-booted fascists in this generalized sense.
- Violent: Knock the crap out of him, will you?
- Palingenetic ultranationalism: Make America Great Again.
- Dictatorial and authoritarian: Take your pick
He wanted to have a multimillion military fucking parade, people. Where have we seen that kind of thing before?
We also have to note that the salient examples of fascism are actual things we have pictures of and stories about: Mussolini’s Italy and Hilter’s Germany. (See above.) These are the recognizable instances or examples of fascism that audiences and makers may have in mind when we talk on these subjects, and those associations are part of what get us in trouble when we try to suss out where it might be hiding: Eagles, high contrast red black and white graphics on banners and flags, uniformed citizens groups, flared helmets, giant military parades.
Let’s take these different senses of fascism (weak, strong, source, style) and these historical examples as our starting point in the next post, to draft a list of the movies and TV shows that we might use in a mini-survey. Because it almost (almost) shows up a lot.