The greatest industrial revolution the world has witnessed so far was followed by the rise of fascism. Between the 1860s and 1914 technology changed like never seen before, yet this period was followed by revolution, war and fascism. Might history repeat itself?
And it was followed by World War I, a Great Depression and World War II. Fascism emerged between the two world wars.
The question I am considering here is what effect technology had and whether technology is, or could have, a similar effect today?
But first, what is fascism and what do I mean by people's fascism?
Fascism defined— what is fascism!
If you were brought up during a period when the horrors of the Second World War were still fresh in the minds of most adults, then you probably considered fascism to be something evil. To call someone a fascism was a great insult, and most people had an intuitive understanding of what fascism was. It was also a word that was bandied around rather a lot. Teenagers who felt their parents were unreasonable called them fascists, behind their backs teachers were called fascist by their students. It became a word to describe people who disagreed with you and assertively promoted their view — even if these people were parents insisting you didn't stay out late on school nights, or teachers insisting you stayed quiet during class.
Today, fascism's definition has become blurred further. It would be handy if there was a one-sentence definition which everyone agreed upon, but there isn't. So describing what fascism is, takes several paragraphs.
A fascist" said the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright "is someone who claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use violence and whatever other means are necessary to achieve the goals he or she might have."
Or as Robert Paxton, who is very much the guru on all things fascism says it is "a form of political practice...that arouses popular enthusiasm by sophisticated propaganda techniques for an anti-liberal, anti-socialist, violently exclusionary, expansionist nationalist agenda."
According to Jason Stanley, a professor from a Yale, fascism has three essential features:
• It refers to a mythical past • It sows division• And attacks the truth.
Let's add some more characteristics to that list to help us define what fascism is.
• Fascism is often linked to authoritarian government
• It applies violence to enforce its ideology
• And it is often linked with the idea that a particular group of people are either superior to others or indeed inferior.
• It often looks for scapegoats.
• Often believes in a hierarchical form of organisation.
• Fascism often seems to be associated with words like hate — it does not seek compromise; instead, it seeks to paint certain individuals and their ideology as worthy of its hatred.
• Of course, some might argue that some of these characteristics apply to the extreme left. It often feels as if the extreme left and extreme right are quite similar — as if the political spectrum is a circle.
• One of the trade-marks of fascism is to use the terminology of anti-fascism against critics, for example to accuse others of distorting truth or indeed of being fascists.
It's important to understand that evoking any one of those ideas doesn't make you a fascist. Believing a group of people are inferior could make you racist or perhaps sexist, but if you also make scapegoats of those people and persecute them, perhaps violently then that probably makes you a fascist.
Hating someone or something does not make you a fascist. Indeed it is possible to hate fascism, but in combination with other beliefs, it might.
If you distort the truth, that doesn't make you a fascist but distorting the truth to persecute a group of people probably would.
This idea of distorting the truth ties in with the Orwellian concept of doublespeak defined as "language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words." https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublespeak
Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda in Germany between 1933 and 1945, said: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State."
It is common to blame the emergence of fascism on one individual — a strong man, (it always seems to be a man, maybe in the era of greater sexual equality, that will change) using a combination of distortions of the truth and violence to advance his agenda, often at the expense of certain groups of peoples such as migrants from a specific country.
But this is where we diverge from the more accepted definitions. People's fascism is a term invented by Techopia to refer to a form of fascism in-which its prominent supporter is the crowd. And the crowd behaving like a fascist is not a new concept, although the internet and echo chambers seem to have become a breeding ground for fascist ideology.
But take Ancient Greece, democratic Athens, ruled by the people applying the purest form of democracy that has ever existed, behaved like a fascist tyrant towards its vassal states. People cast the blame at a handful of individuals who persecuted Jews in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, but truth is an anti-Jewish sentiment was already there in Germany which the Third Reich turned to its advantage.
It is also important to understand that fascism was a global ideology in the 1930s. It famously took hold in Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Japan, but there were popular fascist movements in the UK, https://speakola.com/political/oswald-mosley-albert-hall-blackshirts-1935 France and US.
See this video from Peaky Blinders featuring the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley.
If fascism developed in different countries with different proponents simultaneously, how can fascism be the deliberate manipulation of one man? More likely, populists whose views either chime with the prevailing view or who learn to change their opinions in a way that has political expediency, are supported and may be propelled to power by a fascist mood, rather than the other way around. It is not that fascist leaders don't play a role — they do. Imagine a hall of mirrors, each reflecting — but some of those mirrors are bigger and fashioned from magnifying glass. Substitute a hall for an echo chambers and mirrors for points were echoes reverberate, and you can see how individuals, often charismatic individuals are important, but they reflect or echo a sense that was already there.
This idea of people's fascism is the opposite of fascist logic, emphasising hierarchy, of alpha males calling the shots. The real cause of fascism are more complicated — no one person creates the conditions that make the emergence of fascism possible.
Technology fascism and revolution
The causes of fascism in the 1930s were many — among them the legacy of World War I, particularly the Treaty of Versailles and a desire to punish Germany and economic hardship. The gold standard may have been a factor in some countries such as the UK and US, because by fixing currency valuations and tying the money supply to gold, growth was sucked out of the economy. But of course, in other countries it was the opposite— rapidly expanding money supply, created in part to deal with the austere conditions created by the legacy of World War 1, led to hyperinflation. To quash hyperinflation, some governments enacted policies that sowed social discontent. In fact, German hyperinflation ended in 1923, Germany didn't adopt a fascist leader for another ten-years.
But one undoubtedly helped lead to the other, just because there was a time interval of ten years, it doesn't mean there was no relationship, tt just means the problem was complex.
Hyperinflation did not directly lead to fascism, but the maybe policy maker's reaction to hyperinflation did.
But there is an odd curiosity about all of this. Thanks to the amazing innovations of a few decades before, the developed economies should have been booming, wages should have been surging, poverty should have been falling at a pace for which there was no precedent.
Instead, in the US, for example, we saw inequality rise in the 1920s and 1930s.
The economy moved out of balance perhaps helping to lead to the 1929 crash.
One of the lessons from industrial revolutions in the past is that they are often followed by inequality. For example, we know from British army records, that during the early decades of the 19th Century, a time when Britain should have been basking in the opportunity created by the First Industrial Revolution, average height — a proxy for diet during childhood — fell.
Rapid technology change creates wealth for most people, eventually, but there are often long time-lags. And during those time-lags, resentment can grow, and people look back to an age before, but they might give that previous age a kind of mythical status — like they look back from rose-tinted glasses.
And during this period of resentment, scapegoats are sought, others are blamed. In the 1920s and 1930s the world turned in on itself — in 1930, the US responded with the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act, slapping tariffs on 20,000 imported goods. It exacerbated the problems and helped create conditions which led to the growing popularity of fascism in the United States.
Technology played another role. If you think the real cause of 1930s economic misery was the First World War, remember that it was because of technology that this was was so terrible. Weapons created deaths on a massive scale; communication technologies turned local conflict into a global one.
But some types of technology can play another role. And to understand why that is so, we need to go back much further into the past.
The printing press and revolutions
For a few paragraphs, we will diverge away from fascism and focus instead on political change and revolution. Of course, sometimes the result of a revolution is positive, although the process itself can be painful.
Technology can create unrest leading to revolution or civil war. The link with fascism isn't always there: but the conditions in which fascism ideology might emerge, is.
Around 1440 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. It is very difficult to overstate the importance of the development of this technology. The printing press supported a flow of ideas the like of which had never been seen before — and this flow of ideas created conditions which eventually resulted in industrial revolutions and almost certainty led to bloody revolutions. A cynic might respond by saying that there was a 300 year plus time lag between Gutenberg's invention and both the English industrial revolution and the actual French revolution, but that does not nullify the argument. It just took time.
One of the consequences of the invention of the printing press is that roughly 80 years later, in 1517, a priest named Martin Luther nailed ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. The theses contained radical stuff; one asked, for example, "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?"
The ideas of Martin Luther spawned alternative Christian ideals to the Catholic religion. Thanks to the ideas of Martin Luther, the course of European history changed.
Henry VIII and six hapless wives, the English Revolution which pitted parliament against Catholic King, the radical ideas percolating in France before the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution that at least in part was inspired by the French Revolution, none of these things might have happened if it was not for Martin Luther.
But Luther himself had an ally, without which his ideas may never have spread, and that ally was the printing press.
Just 17 days after Luther's ninety-five Theses were nailed to the door, copies were being printed in London
Luther himself said: "Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one."
Technology and the English Civil War
If you are one of those who fear the possibility of another civil war in the US, the lessons of the English Civil war may be pertinent.
The English Civil War, 1642 to 1651, had multiple causes, but two of the critical causes were religious disagreement and agriculture change.
All students of English history understand that the clash between Protestant parliamentarians and the English Catholic King, Charles I was a significant factor behind the civil war — and that, as we argued above was made possible by the printing press spreading the ideas of Martin Luther.
But another technology also helped create conditions that made England ripe for civil war. That technology was a new way of organising agriculture — the enclosures. Enclosures totally upended the English way of life, peasants who had farmed the same land for generations were uprooted, usually for negligible compensation. The enclosures created winners and losers. You can probably date the beginning of a capitalist/entrepreneurship class in England to enclosures — and many well-paid jobs working in cities resulted. For others, the result of enclosures was the loss of a way of life and poverty.
The English Civil War was not just about a religious divide. Charles I sided with those who had lost out from enclosures, the parliament forces largely consisted of men who had benefited.
See the parallel with today — the political divide, whether it is Brexit/Trump or similar issues across the world often sees a divide between those who specialise in new technologies and those who want a more traditional way of doing things.
There is one other interesting aspect of the English Civil War. In the maelstrom it created, England very nearly adopted a political ideology that was quite different from the one we see today.
War can often sow the seeds of rebellion. In the case of the English Civil War, it seems that the New Model Army created an environment that proved a breeding ground for new ideas. In 1647, when the Civil War seemed over and the English King, Charles I was under arrest, saw what has become known as the Putney Debates. In these debates, a democratic and egalitarian England was almost created. Soldiers from Cromwell's Army debated with their generals in an attempt to redefine the English constitution. It was in these debates that a group of people called the Levellers gained prominence.
The Levellers believed in democracy. "All men (women don't seem to have featured so strongly in their idealism) are created equal," they said. They wanted the vote for all, annual parliamentary terms, with equal votes per parliamentary seat, religious tolerance, and land redistribution to the common people. They also wanted to elect army officers.
The Levellers won the debate, and for a brief period, England seemed to be on course for something quite radical. Then Charles I escaped sparking of renewed hostilities, and Cromwell quietly dropped the ideas promoted by the Levellers.
The Civil War doesn't appear to be linked to fascism, but it did go very close to creating a political system quite socialist in its form and a method of democracy that conferred far more control by the people than the system we have today.
For better or worse, technology has created conditions that led to new ideologies — from the ideas advanced by Levellers, to the ideas of intellectuals percolating in France before the French Revolution and then the Russian revolution, which was partly inspired by the French Revolution drew upon the ideas of Karl Marx, distributed with the aid of the printing press. Technology has sowed the seeds of change.
You can argue that the result of the Russian Revolution was communism, the opposite of fascism. But in many ways, The Soviet Union's system of control was similar to fascism.
And today we see new technologies creating winners and losers. In the US, we see the creation of 607 billionaires, we see the creation of millions of well-paid jobs working with technology, and we see the erosion of traditional well-paid jobs in manufacturing.
Is it any wonder that many of the Silicon Valley elite support universal basic income? Remember, revolution rarely benefits those who were doing well before the revolution?
And while both international trade and immigration can support the development of industries based on new technologies, for those who see their traditional lifestyle torn apart, it is difficult to see the benefits.
Just as happened with enclosures in England in the 17th Century, we broadly see a divide between well educated highly skilled workers focused on new technologies and those whose skillsets are more traditional and have been victims of disruptive technology.
And just as the printing press once helped spread radical new ideas leading to revolutions, today the internet has a similar effect.
This time the internet adds another layer — echo chambers and now, increasingly inaccurate reporting, often grossly distorting facts, even presenting untruths as if they are fact. At the same time, deepfakes mean we can't even be sure that a video showing someone we trust promoting an idea is genuine.
Add to the mix the 2008 crash and then the Covid-19 crisis. Both the 2008 crash and the Covid crisis saw central banks adopt policies known as quantitative easing. These policies, rightly or wrongly, are seen as supporting the elites. After 2008, banks were bailed out, apparently supporting the elite, austerity-hit ordinary people. You may think this narrative is wrong or over-simplistic, but that is not the point. The narrative about QE and austerity and Covid-19 supporting the rich may or may not be right, but what is undeniable is that it is believed by many. Austerity was probably the main cause of this negative sentiment. If you want to draw a line between political decision making and today's unrest, that line must include austerity.
There is another point, if political and social unrest is related to growing inequality, then growing inequality of wealth appears to be a bigger issue across much the developed world than inequality of income. And ultra-low interests rates and quantitative easing certainly help increase the wealth gap.
The conditions are there for fascism
And so the conditions that help define what fascism is are in place: the scapegoat, the reference to a mythical past, the distortion of truth and lies, and sheer level of resentment, combine to create conditions ripe for the use of violence.
But in the age of the internet, we have crowdsourced authoritarianism, in a way going full circle. Just as was the case in Ancient Athens, the crowd becomes the voice that will brook no dissenting views, even if those views are supported by scientific evidence, or by experts who have spent a lifetime understanding the issues that the crowd finds so unpalatable.
In this way, technology has supported the emergence of people's fascism. And it poses a threat to humanity.
It can only be quashed by creating opportunities for those who feel like victims from new technologies. It needs education that teaches people how to adapt.
Yes, it needs education that teaches critical thinking too, but no matter how balanced and objective we like to think we are, the ideology we espouse is one that tends to be to our benefit, and we tend to ignore evidence that contradicts our ideology. It matters not if you are an Einstein or Stephen Hawking, if the facts go against your deep-held beliefs, you tend to assume the facts are wrong — for example, Einstein's cynicism regarding quantum mechanics.
Critical thinking is important, but creating conditions in which our critical thinking skills are more likely to make us tolerant of others, opposed to violence, optimistic about the future and less rooted in the idea that the past was better, will be the best way we can combat people's fascism.
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