The word, “fascism,” had been roiling my brain for a few days before reading Perry Anderson’s essay, since I’d been thinking that, although I’ll be turning 60 next year, it’s only recently, living in Greece, that I’ve realized—by which I mean, felt in my bones—that fascism is not so much political disorder as existential regress and, so, psychological flight. Wilhelm Reich was right about one thing: fascism is more self-repression than political oppression—or, rather, the former leads to the latter. Which explains why, as Robert Paxton wrote several years ago in The Anatomy of Fascism, it exists at a primary level “within all democratic counties—not excluding the United States” (as in the Kulturkampfen of the last several decades fought with delirious abandon by the Christian right).
Still, by all appearances, political fascism is much less of a threat to the world in this first decade of the twenty-first century than what used to be called—way back when, in the Sixties—the fascism of everyday life, which, while as notoriously difficult to define as its broader, sociopolitical namesake, is very like obscenity: we know it when we see it. Television “news,” for example (whether Fox or MSNBC, the method of intellectual coercion is the same, designed to obliterate any notion of independent judgment): where’s Howard Beale now that we really need him? Or cell phones: has a more Orwellian technology of existential servitude ever been invented? Or, just to open it up a bit, what is now called “social networking” (to distinguish it, I suppose, from what was once social exchange and intercourse): texting, Twittering (linguistic vivisection) YouTubing (self-celebrity as social purpose), and, of course, Facebooking. An article in the New York Times recently (March 7), appropriately titled “When Everyone’s A Friend, Is Anything Private?,” reported that the average number of “friends” for Facebook’s 175 million members is today 120 (up from 100 a mere three months earlier). One hundred and twenty friends?
Even given Facebook’s gross misdefinition of the word, how can one even conceptualize the notion of 120 friends? I have a hard time coming up with a dozen, assuming the word has any meaning or coherence whatsoever. Actually, if I apply strict rules (not to mention my own sense of reality and myself), I get down to a handful—including my wife. The primary definition of “friend” in the American Heritage Dictionary is “A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts [my emphasis].” The fourth edition adds a “word history”: “A friend is a lover, literally. The relationship between Latin amîcus ‘friend’ and amô ‘I love’ is clear, as is the relationship between Greek philos ‘friend’ and phileô ‘I love.’ In English, though, we have to go back a millennium before we see the verb related to friend. At that time, frêond, the Old English word for ‘friend,’ was simply the present participle of the verb frêon, ‘to love.’ The Germanic root behind this verb is frî-, which meant ‘to like, love, be friendly to….’” I would only add that the modern Greek φιλώ, to kiss, comes from the same root—φιλέω—as φίλος, or friend.
Modernity is clearly redefining the concept of human intimacy and, what amounts to the same thing, exchange. Of course, every age does the same, reconsidering and altering the relation(ship)s between individual and collective. The problem with today’s descent into Facebookery is that human relations are no longer seen as a balance of obligations and reciprocities between individual and collective, but as a consolidation of private and public. Indeed, what is happening to us—another consequence of the degradation of social life by the Friedmanite depredations of Thatcher and Reagan and their acolytes, Blair and Clinton—is the privatization of public life.
My wife has been in New York for two months now. On the subway one day, she heard the following explanation of the world delivered by a mother to a child, who was laying down and thus taking up more than one seat. The child had to limit itself to its own place, the mother said, because “We have to share our space.”
Putting aside the sheer touchy-feely-ness of this abdication of parental nous (and authority), the notion that a subway could ever possibly be construed as an object of magnanimous “sharing” (and, therefore, of prior appropriation) is, of course, a triumph of ego over society (not to mention reality). My parents, my wife’s parents, the parents of anyone over a certain age would have told us “to sit straight” (before we’d ever managed to stretch out in the first place) as we were in a public conveyance. “You’re not at home,” is what most parents would have added in definitive clarification as to why this kind of behavior was not only boorish, but—this is the real point—subversive of the very notion of human coexistence. There would have been no (parentally complicitous) “we”, certainly no “our,” and the idea of “sharing”—that is, effectively seizing—something that did not (actually, could not) belong to you, at least not until you’d become a taxpaying citizen with civic purchase on the administration of public property, would have been either incomprehensible or, quite literally, fascist.
It’s one thing, however, when children impulsively violate the rules of social comity—they’re children, after all, and can only be socialized by elders. The problem is when the elders themselves smash the rules and grind underfoot the very meaning of community and collective existence. In that sense, New York is child’s play compared to Athens.
(To be continued)