General Observations on “Democracy and Fascism: Class, Civil Society, and Rational Choice in Italy”

Independent Study, Summer 2022

The artificial divisions of class, civil society and rational choice theory are irritating. They detract from a holistic view of events, causes, actors and results. All three theories make some valid and useful observations. Discounting any one of them because their principal thesis may not fully apply is unhelpful. It would make more sense to take an a la carte view and highlight aspects of each theory that contribute to overall understanding.

I also find the phrase “rational fascist” troubling and a poor choice of terms. “Vulnerable and malleable population” is more accurate, as the paper notes…

“When individuals are disillusioned, the newcomer gains the advantage. Fascism was just such a newcomer, joining the political fray unfettered by a past and opportunistic about the future. While its support no doubt shifted over time, Italian Fascism initially found its popular base among the disillusioned and impoverished rural laborers in the Po Valley.”

This is the take-home message from the study. A harshly hierarchical society with a large, struggling labor force means those at the bottom are susceptible to manipulation. The author clearly conveys his understanding of this by quoting Machiavelli:

“Here we have to note two things; first, that the people often, deceived by an illusive good, desire their own ruin, and, unless they are made sensible of the evil of the one and the benefit of the other by some one in whom they have confidence, they will expose the republic to infinite peril and damage”

The Italian Fascists excelled at telling people what they wanted to hear. They created a narrative and campaign of slogans that painted existing and potential allies as patriots, the opposition as oppressive, and used this to build an expanding social wedge between them, a classic us vs. them story.

The paper also declares:

“In rational choice theory, trust is strategic, conditional, and dependent on reciprocity. Civic and political associations foster trust through repeated reciprocity. The endurance of trust also differs. In civil society theory, trust is more deeply held, durable, and stable; in rational choice theory, trust is more conditional and subject to erosion when reciprocity fails.”

This presents each theory as an either/or proposition, when it could be more accurate to say that civil society forges deeper trust, stability and customary reciprocity when it is not being actively destabilized by outside influences. Civil society gives us programs like social security, libraries, universal K-12 education, universities, consumer protection agencies and other regulatory institutions that foster widespread, repeated and constructive reciprocity.

It can be argued there is an inversely proportional relationship between the strength of civil society and the degree of mutual trust within it. The weaker civil society becomes, the more strategic and conditional individual trust becomes, because people grow less confident in institutional support of trust and reciprocity.

Fascism is a direct attack on civil society that aims to replace existing hierarchies with a new one that – of course! – places fascists at the top.

The relevance of the Italian experience to the USA today is completely clear.

“Ideologically, fascism relied on extreme nationalism, secular idealism, and vitalism. It propagated a myth of national rejuvenation and rejected rationalism, materialism, and egalitarianism. Tactically, fascism emphasized the use of violence and rejected parliamentary democracy.”

The segment on inequality in land ownership could be lifted right out of a Bernie Sanders campaign speech.

“Italy was 90% agricultural, most workers were economic peons. The biggest landowners – 0.4% of the whole – literally owned half the land.”

This segment is puzzling:

“Because Fascist electoral support came disproportionately from landless wage laborers, the class interpretation of fascism is not supported. Although contract and day laborers made up 30% of the electorate, they constituted 46% of the total Fascist vote. An estimated 56% of all day laborers and 70% of contract laborers voted Fascist….”

This is exactly what would be expected from a class division. This paragraph states that the lower classes disproportionately supported Fascists, and that’s entirely predictable behavior among people who feel they’re getting a raw deal. Fascists present an aggressive posture, which is appealing to a class that wants change and is impatient to achieve it. It seems strange to dismiss a class interpretation when the evidence makes it clear class is very much a factor.

“Covert intimidation by definition remains unobservable, however, two plausible indirect, observable measures for the municipal units (N = 49) are reports of intimidation leading up to the May 1921 election and spread of Fascist nuclei across the province’s municipalities from December 1920 to May-June 1921”

Change this statement to read “MAGA nuclei” and we have a portrait of modern Republican meddling in local election boards around the country. Old-school fascism is being reborn under the direction of the Mango Mussolini.

Democracy and Fascism: Class, Civil Society, and Rational Choice in Italy