Book review: How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and ThemHow Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fascism: coming to a country near you!

Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works is an overview of the ten distinct strategies employed by fascists in their thirst for power. Stanley’s family escaped Nazi Germany, so this is clearly a topic he has a personal affinity with.

Each chapter covers one of the strategies:
1. The Mythic Past – the time when things were as they should be for the chosen ones.
2. Propaganda – have to sell the abhorrent.
3. Anti-Intellectualism – can’t have those pesky thinkers pointing out you’re wrong.
4. Unreality – replace reason with fear and anger.
5. Hierarchy – democracy and equality have no place in fascism.
6. Victimhood – that out-group are trying to destroy us!
7. Law and Order – utilise framing to make the out-group look unlawful then actualise that.
8. Sexual Anxiety – this is related to the hierarchy and how women and LGBTQI people undermine this.
9. (Soddom and Gomorrah) Appeals to the Heartland – this is related to the mythic past, hierarchy, and lionising the base of support.
10. (Arbeit Macht Frei) Work Shall Make You Free – dismantling of public welfare and unity as part of attacking the out-group and seizing power.

Have (or create) a major social and/or economic upheaval that allows for inequality to have created a disgruntled and disenfranchised group. Take those in the group who believe in hierarchies, combine with a leader/movement (demagogue) who promises to create the hierarchy that puts that group where they feel they should be, create an out-group to demonise, gaslight and utilise revisionism for a mythic ideal past, and make sure no one challenges your power.*

There were two things that disappointed me about this book. The first was that there was a decidedly American-centric feel despite the inclusion of examples from Europe and Africa. Whilst I understand that Stanley is an American Yale Professor with his eye on the rise of fascism in the USA under Trump, he only makes passing mention of this rise occurring elsewhere. Considering the causes of the current rise are global in nature, I’d have liked to have seen a more global view.

The second point is related to the first. Stanley does a terrific job of identifying and explaining fascism but he doesn’t go into much depth. I suddenly found myself at the end of the book when I was expecting a bit more, like the above mentioned global view.

These are minor points, however, and overall this is a very good introduction to understanding fascism. Sadly, it is a topical book.

Also see my review of Antifa, my review of a book on how we got here in Winners Take All, and and my post on BlacKkKlansman.

* Then watch it all fall to pieces because fascism tends to destroy itself, but only after doing massive amounts of damage.

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Rise of the Sophists


Surprisingly this is not a post about a new Terminator movie. It isn’t even a post about the rise of Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson; but let’s mention them for the bonus clicks. This post is actually a short essay I wrote last year as part of a philosophy course I did on Soren Kierkegaard. As you will see there is quite a bit of relevance to the current political and media climate, although looking back as far as Socrates reveals that not much has changed: sophists have undue influence on our society.

What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates?

Kierkegaard saw parallels between his time and Socrates’ time. Once again there was a rise of Sophists in society, people who knew very little but pretended they did. While it could be argued that the Socratic Method is always relevant in society, Kierkegaard came to see certain aspects of Socrates differently to his peers. He was interested in using the negative as well as drawing people into argument by asking questions from feigned ignorance. These tactics could be used to expose those who were lacking knowledge or understanding.

Kierkegaard expanded upon his interpretation of the Socratic Method and has subsequently influenced many, both in the field of philosophy and thought, as well as wider society. Notably his ideas have influenced things like existentialism and post-modernism, which have influence into such diverse areas as the arts and science. But Kierkegaard was a precursor to modern philosophical movements, as he wasn’t trying to educate or enlighten, but rather stimulate and encourage people to look for the truth.

There is a downside to Kierkegaard’s influence on society. In our modern age we have seen the rise of those who would use Kierkegaard’s negative and questioning as a tool, rather than for helping others find the truth, but for harassment. While the idea behind aporia and maeuetics is to question what we and others know, there is a point at which this stops being about questioning knowledge for understanding and starts being about someone just trying to annoy others.

Obviously this comes down to the intent of the person: are they trying to help others understand, or understand themselves; or are they more interested in having an argument, or annoying someone. But is it subtler? Is it a progression whereby someone has engaged in discussion only to run up against something they disagree with – due to whatever personal bias – and thus use the questioning as an attack or avenue to annoy others? Regardless, those who are trying to annoy are not following the intent of Kierkegaard, nor Socrates, and will miss the essence and benefits of aporia and maeuetics.

Why is this connection between Socrates and Kierkegaard still relevant in the world today?

Much like the parallels Kierkegaard saw between his time and Socrates’ time, there exists a similar parallel today. Once again in the modern age we see the rise of the Sophists. They are our elected officials, they are our media, and through technology they have the ability to reach more people and influence the world.

With more information available more easily than ever, people have come to receive that information in bite sized pieces. Often a headline – which may have been designed more for attracting attention than providing information – will be as much as a person will read about a topic. Our leaders and elected officials are reducing their policy statements to sound bites that can be easily remembered. And while we have this overly simplistic form or information presented to us, we are seeing less critical assessment of the information.

Kierkegaard was correct to look at the rise of Sophists in his time and act to apply Socratic methods to their arguments. By taking the approach of “knowing nothing” and questioning the person presenting information, it can be revealed how little the person actually knows. This is something that our media, and we, are failing to do. By taking the negative position it is possible to force the Sophist to explain themselves.

The most interesting aspect of Kierkegaard’s connection with Socrates is how comedians are applying it today. Irony was something Kierkegaard regarded as an invaluable tool. Today we see comedians such as John Oliver using irony – and other comedic devices – to dissect topics and arguments in the public space. It could be said that the modern Socrates or Kierkegaard comes in the form of the satirist news programs. Their viewers are noted to be better informed about news topics, and this comes from the use of Socratic tools.

A little more on Kierkegaard from The School of Life:

Are liberals more tech-friendly than conservatives?

Tech and science acceptance isn’t really a political thing, it is more about your ideology. Ideology creates idiots out of everyone, no matter their political leanings. For example, if tech were solely the domain of, or even dominated by, liberals, then you wouldn’t have Donald Trump using his smart phone to tweet this on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 5.57.50 AM

It is quite interesting that whilst disagreeing with 97% of experts on climate change Trump has managed to propose a xenophobic conspiracy whilst preaching nationalism and conservative ideology on an iPhone.* He really is a master of manipulative language. Of course, that isn’t the only brain dropping of anti-science nonsense from the Republican Presidential nominee. It is probably easier to list the science Trump and his supporters do believe** than cover all of the topics he has tweeted denial of. I will now list the science Trump has endorsed:

NB: he probably doesn't support plant biology either.
NB: he probably doesn’t support plant biology either.

We’d be mistaken to assume that science and technology denial or rejection are the sole domain of conservatives. On the liberal side the Greens presidential nominee, Jill Stein, has taken several anti-science stances, such as supporting not-medicine, and opposing genetic engineering (e.g. GMOs) and pesticides in agriculture. Often people like to divide science denial into conservatives denying climate change and evolution, whilst liberals deny vaccines and GMOs. But, as with most things, it isn’t quite that cut-and-dried. Take for example the topic of GMOs:

This really highlights that anti-science numpties are across the political spectrum and deny the scientific consensus for very different reasons. Some deny it because they find corporations scary (Greenpeace), some deny it because they are selling something (Joseph Mercola), some deny it because they are arrogant bloviators (Nicholas Taleb).

On the topic of climate change this spectrum also exists. We keep hearing about how liberals are all climate change supporters and how conservatives are all climate change deniers… Except that isn’t true.

You can see that there isn’t 100% agreement or disagreement from either side of US politics. You don’t even got 100% agreement from climate scientists (97% consensus), despite the overwhelming body of evidence. The Pew Research Centre has similar figures for other countries. Politics isn’t the real predictor because it is too simple. At the hard end of conservatism, the above chart suggests you would be wrong half of the time if you were to call a conservative a climate denier. Even if you call fence sitters deniers as well you are still going to be wrong over a third of the time. And that’s with all the misinformation that the conservative media pumps out (USA, Australia).

If we were to look at a proper political compass that didn’t oversimplify into left vs right, or were to take into account some other factors, then politics could be a better predictor. For example, free market ideology can be a good predictor of climate change denial (67% confidence). The ideology of the free market isn’t going to allow people to admit the market’s failure to account for the externality of carbon emissions. Similarly the ideology of anti-corporatism isn’t going to allow people to admit that companies might make life saving vaccines or develop safe biotechnology food.

The only thing political affiliation can really do is give you a general idea of why or how someone will be biased toward/away from certain technologies. It is definitely not the whole story.

A version of this post originally appeared on Quora.
*interestingly Trump may actually be anti-technology despite having embraced social media. Although, his ego probably doesn’t allow him to not use social media, so of course he has a work-around.
**not that science is about belief.