How Fascism Works
Random House, 2018
Over the last ten years, fascism as a political ideology has seen a resurgence around the globe. Even in countries that assert they are pillars of liberal democracy, fascist politics has begun to take hold. Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works is a diagnostic book meant to provide readers with the language necessary to identify, understand, and oppose such illiberal politics.
Distinguishing between fascism and fascist politics, Stanley asserts the latter “does not necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state but it is dangerous nonetheless” as it fosters and festers division in an attempt to impose a “politics of hierarchy” seeking the “displacement of reality by power.” This is inherently hostile to liberal democracy as it seeks power for the few over the many. Stanley deftly breaks down how fascist politics look to “rewrite the population’s shared understanding of reality by twisting the language of ideals through propaganda and promoting anti-intellectualism, attacking universities and educational systems that might challenge their ideas.” The imposition of an ‘us vs them’ mentality buttressed by hierarchies based on race, religion, and class is normalized by fascist politics transforming “the morally extraordinary into the ordinary” making “us able to tolerate what was once intolerable by making it seem as if this is the way things have always been.”
As we read, we inevitably ask if “The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another,” then what is its end? Stanley would have us understand fascist politics are strategies and tactics employed by those looking to maintain or increase their power to prevent the goals of liberal democracy where “we remain free to engage one another, all of us flawed, all of us partial in our thinking, experience, and understanding, but none of us demons.”
We see how fascist politics expressed through nationalism always posits “a dangerous ‘them’ to guard against, at times to battle with, to control, in order to restore group dignity.” This ‘us vs them’ mentality or Linguistic Intergroup Bias where “we regard as one of ‘us’ quite differently than we describe the actions of those we regard as one of ‘them'” or, to put it more simply, “they are criminals. we make mistakes” sustains inequality creating a constant background of anxiety and hostility. It is against this background fascist politicians are able to consolidate and/or extent their power, a power whose end is simply itself at the express of collective benefit.
Stanley is skilled at showing how “Those who benefit from hierarchy will adopt a myth of their own superiority, which will occlude basic facts about social reality.” When hierarchies are challenged, revealed to be arbitrary, or successfully torn down or appropriately revised, fascist politics will feed off “the sense of aggrieved victimization caused by loss of hierarchal status” singing “aching hymnals to the sense of anguish that accompanies loss of dominant status.” The appeal of fascist politics is its willingness to exploit this in an attempt to dissolve tolerance and pluralism.
Slim, written in clear, simple prose, How Fascism Works is deep and resonant as it tackles a complex and difficult ideology. Articulating how fascist politics expresses itself through the creation of a mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, victimhood, and appeals to law and order among other traits, How Fascism Works provides readers with tool kit to resist its influence, oppose its encroachment, and diagnose its appearance.
About the Author
Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. Before coming to Yale in 2013, he was Distinguished Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers University. Stanley is the author of Know How; Languages in Context; Knowledge and Practical Interests, which won the American Philosophical Association book prize; and How Propaganda Works, which won the PROSE Award for Philosophy from the Association of American Publishers. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Review, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. Stanley lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his family.