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Fascism. It's an overused political swear word. But it's also a real political phenomenon -- a structure of feeling, an ideology, a regressive social movement, and ultimately a type of government.
Alarmingly, it seems once again to be rearing its ugly head in Europe -- in elections, violence against immigrants, and other ways.
Is fascism also relevant to Canadian political realities? Indeed, is Stephen Harper's government nudging Canada in that direction? That idea, though advanced by astute and independent-minded journalists like Nick Fillmore, may initially seem over the top. Where is the sheer bloody repression of regimes like Mussolini's, Franco's and Hitler's?
Moreover, Harper's own ideology could most accurately be described as "neoliberal" -- the doctrine of privatization, deregulation, and the subordination of social life to the logic of commodification and profit, regardless of the social costs. In his book Harperism, Donald Gutstein explains that Harper was schooled in corporate-funded think tanks like the Fraser Institute -- neoliberal ideology factories that wield significant but largely unacknowledged policy influence.
But when neoliberalism is taken to extremes, it becomes closer to fascism than orthodox pundits usually admit. The attacks on unions, the growth of inequality, the elimination of public resources or their exploitation for private profit, all in the name of "economic freedom," require enforcement through state coercion against popular resistance based in community or class. A clear example was the Chilean military junta under Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. Pinochet combined the political features of fascism -- torture and killing of opponents, repression of workers' rights, militaristic nationalism -- with free market policies inspired by the Chicago School of economists.
Is fascism an alien imposition of a demented political logic against capitalism, or to the contrary, is it an escape hatch for capitalism in a moment of crisis? Academic specialists disagree on that question, but there would be more agreement on five key elements of fascism.
Most obviously, fascist regimes are dictatorships, which however have a base of mass support. Canada fortunately still has strong democratic traditions. But Harper has eroded fundamental aspects of democratic governance, and restricted Canadians' civil and political rights. He has muzzled federal scientists, particularly those working on politically inconvenient topics like glacial melting. The Orwellian-titled Fair Elections Act makes it more difficult for the poor, the homeless, and students, to vote. Through the monitoring of citizens, the rhetorical demonization of environmental groups, the onerous and selective auditing of organizations not in tune with Harperism, and the draconian provisions of Bill C-51, dissent is being marginalized, silenced and even criminalized.
Second, fascism promotes an aggressive form of nationalism, one that glorifies military power and casts dissent as tantamount to treason or crime. Again, let's not exaggerate. But the Harper government has attempted to re-brand Canada not as a peacekeeper, but as a "warrior nation", with the military -- not Medicare, multiculturalism, or its spectacular environment -- as defining the country's very nationhood. That's evident in the government's publicly-subsidized symbolism, from TV ads to citizenship guides. Fiscally, under Harper, military spending has escalated to 18 percent more than the Cold War peak, while social spending has been cut, according to researcher Bill Robinson. But that doesn't mean that combat veterans get the support they need, once they have played their part in Harper's "muscular" foreign policy.
A third fascist hallmark is to demonize politically useful enemies, disseminating fear and hatred of the "other" amongst citizens. Turning anxiety into fear, and strangers into enemies, is a characteristic ploy of fascism: fear is an easily exploitable resource, especially when it can be focussed on a relatively powerless scapegoat.
Here, the record is mixed. In building their electoral coalition, the Conservatives have reached out to selected immigrant communities. On the other hand, Harper has cynically exploited Islamophobia, and selectively linked the label "radicalization" to "mosques" and "terrorist" to "jihadism" -- but not to anti-authority violence by non-Muslims, like the murder of three RCMP officers in Moncton.
In line with the politics of fear, Harper's government has criminalized asylum seekers, created a "safe countries of origin" list, and eliminated healthcare benefits to refugees – policies with deadly results, according to the Guardian. Since 2006, the number of accepted refugees has dropped by 30 percent, and Canada stands relatively on the sidelines vis-à-vis the Syrian refugee crisis.
The Conservatives' attacks on diversity and democracy are not only about maintaining their own power. Broader interests are in play. Expanding corporate power is a fourth defining characteristic of fascism. While exercising dictatorial power vis-à-vis most of society, the classical fascist states in inter-war Europe supported corporations through state contracts, repression of wages, even the provision of slave labour.
Harper's reduction of corporate taxes to the second lowest in the G7 is hardly on that horrific moral scale. But more worryingly, Harper has brought corporate power closer to decision-making within the state -- loading agencies like the National Energy Board with corporate heavyweights, and reducing public oversight and environmental review of fossil fuel megaprojects. Sometimes the Canadian state, including its intelligence services and overseas embassies, seem like adjuncts of extraction industries. Moreover, the Conservative government has engaged in secretive negotiations for free trade deals like the TransPacific Partnership. Such agreements typically include investor-state dispute settlement clauses that trump domestic laws and allow foreign companies to sue Canada's government if new laws or procedures threaten their profits.
Are we witnessing the incremental building of a national-security and corporatist state, centred on the rapid exploitation and export of natural resources under private and often foreign control?
Fascism's fifth characteristic is the attack on organized labour, the main historical counterweight to corporate power. Harper has restricted the right to strike (labour's most important tool) by expanding the scope of "essential services" and repeatedly enacting back-to-work legislation. Harper has passed other restrictive labour laws, such as Bill C-377, which imposes onerous financial reporting provisions on unions, but not on businesses or other organizations.
The bumper sticker, "We beat fascism once -- why vote for it now?" may be political hyperbole. We're not claiming that Harper is fascist, and other parties (notably the Bloc Quebecois) have also pressed the niqab demonization button. But given that Harper is consciously pushing the goalposts of political debate and policy in Canada ever further to the right, maybe it's time to use the yardstick of fascism to measure just how far he intends to go.
Robert Hackett (Ph.D. Political Studies, Queen's University) is a professor of communication at Simon Fraser University; he has produced seven books on politics and media, and a 100-page literature review of theories of fascism. Kathryne E. Gravestock is a political science student at SFU.
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