Why we have to talk about fascism

Richard Parncutt 

2021 April


There. I have attracted your attention by putting the word "fascism" in my title. That's a good start. Now let me explain why I did that.

Fascism is one of the worst things we ever did. It seems to have gone away, at least in many countries. But there is a permanent danger that it will come back. To stop that from happening, we need to understand the causes. When we see the causes happening, we need to act before it's too late.

People don't like to use the word fascism. The very mention of it makes you sound like a radical. Or at least someone who is irrationally angry, and therefore possibly not trustworthy. Perhaps a communist, or someone who actually cares about other people.

For most people, their reputation is the most important thing. Give a group of educated people a theoretical choice between saving a million human lives on the one hand and preserving their reputation on the other, almost everyone will choose the latter. That's why hardly anyone has the courage to use the word "fascism" when referring to things that are happening right now. It can also explain the widespread silence that is currently reigning on many other crucial issues.

The trouble is, the choice is not theoretical. Every year roughly 10 million people die prematurely in connection with poverty created by an unfair global economic system, and a further roughly 10 million future people are killed by carbon emissions. In other words, 10 million future premature deaths are made inevitable by the future climate change that we are causing now.

The idea that people are more interested in their reputations than in the lives of millions of people is more than just a hunch. It the result of a longitudinal empirical study. I have been talking publicly about the mega-fatal consequences of climate change for a decade. That included a series of talks at universities and a high-profile publication. During all of that time, not one person has put her or his neck out and emphatically and repeatedly supported my claim that climate change will cause a billion deaths or that we kill a future person every time we burn 1000 tonnes of carbon. Some agreed, but the moment passed, and the message was forgotten. Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion are making similar claims and being similar ignored by the scientific and political establishment. In future, if there is a future, they will be remembered as two of the few who had the courage to tell the truth.

My academic publication on this topic
, incidentally, although rarely cited so far, is one of the most frequently viewed publications in the journal Frontiers. That is further evidence in favor of my hypothesis. Climate scientists are telling the truth about a lot of things, but they are afraid to tell the truth about the most important thing.

Which brings me back to fascism. Hardly anyone is talking about it, except for two groups: those who use the word  "fascist" as a general insult for anyone they don't like, and those who conduct very astutue academic discussions about fascism. But if the threat of fascism is everywhere, and it is one of the greatest threats to humanity, we should be talking about it in public, in ways that everyone understands. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, I hold this truth to be self-evident.

Let me explain briefly what I mean by fascism. It is more than "far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism", which is how Wikipedia defined it in 2021. To understand fascism, you have to understand where it comes from. The origin of fascism can be broken down into four elements.

Step 1: Superiority-illusion. It's part of our animal nature to think that the group we belong to is superior to other groups. We have a feeling that our "ingroup" is superior to our "outgroups". If I speak English I might think that English speakers are superior, or if I play the piano I might think that piano players are superior. Whatever my "ingroup" happens to be, I can find good reasons why it is superior. But anyone with a head and a heart knows that that cannot be true. The trouble with fascists is that they don't seem to have that head and/or that heart. They mistake their feelings about their own superiority for the truth. Then they get together and reinforce their irrational idea.

Step 2: Purity-illusion. If we think our group is superior to other groups, we naturally want to keep it that way. That means looking after our group by making sure it maintains its identity and doesn't get mixed up with other groups. That's the idea behind ethnic cleansing. Stop out-group people mixing with in-group people and corrupting their pure minds or worse still, mixing their genes with "ours". The trouble is, nothing is ever "pure" in this sense and mixing with other groups is actually usually beneficial.

(Even many academics don't seem to understand this point. Many scientists believe that scientific method is the only path to true knowledge. They therefore reject the approaches of humanities scholars. Those scientists are not very smart. The truth is that methods generally depend on questions. Many psychology departments suppress qualitative methods on the unfounded assumption that quantitative methods are fundamentally superior. The truth, again, is that methods depend on questions. In humanities, the opposite tendency can be observed. Scientists are systematically excluded from institutions in the humanities. They are perceived to upset the epistemological purity of the humanities. Anyone who is explicitly opposed to interdisciplinarity -- and amazingly: those people exist -- is falling into this trap.)

Step 3: Victimhood-illusion. The next step is to feel like a victim, although one is in fact victimizing others. It's called victim blaming. The logic runs like this: My ingroup is inherently superior, but those inferior outgroups are being treated equally. Some are even getting better treatment than my group, from my subjective viewpoint. Therefore, something must be done. As long as I believe that my group is inherently superior, I feel justified in attacking other groups, and I can use my irrational logic to convince myself and others that in fact they are attacking me.

Step 4: Lies and violence. Fascists start out as reasonable people. They are flesh and blood like the rest of us, and they are not suffering from any particular psychological disorder. They try to explain to each other and to their outgroups why they are inherently superior. Surprisingly, their arguments are not accepted. The outgroups come up with plausible counterarguments. What makes fascists special is their failure to listen to or understand those counterarguments. For fascists, their feeling of superiority is more important than any logic, so their response to rational argument becomes increasingly violent. The violence starts out being verbal, often in the form of lies, misleading arguments, or denial. That leads to discrimination or mobbing. It's when the violence becomes physical that things start getting dangerous.

Any group of people that displays all four features has fascist tendencies that should be labeled as such. If we want to stop fascism from re-emerging, we have to nip it in the bud.
This blog may or may not be good for my reputation. I am a bit worried about that, but there is much more at stake. Today's most important issue is the right to life of a billion people whose lives will be shortened by climate change, caused by our carbon emissions. If we don't start talking about that, we're sunk.

This text, therefore, is a plea to my respected politically enlightened colleagues to jump over your shadows and start talking directly about the main issues -- the issues upon which the largest numbers of human lives depend. You don't have to talk about fascism, if you don't like that word, but you could at least start talking about the right to life of a billion people in developing countries who will probably die early (even earlier than otherwise) as a result of climate change caused by our emissions. Almost no-one is talking about that, and if things continue in this way, the result will be the worst catastrophe humanity has ever experienced.

The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at uni-graz dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage