On hearing someone describe the recent proposal for stricter monitoring of private internet use as 'fascist', I couldn't help but wince. Nowadays it seems as though the term 'fascist' is banded around willy-nilly - a loose and lazy pejorative to describe whatever irritating or invasive state sponsored legislation happens to be current. Liberal lefties are, in my opinion, all too quick to cry 'fascism' - much like the boy and his imaginary wolf - until, well... the wolf ceased to be imaginary, that is.
Even if you fervently disagree with a particular proposal - as I do with the idea that some governmental apparatchik should be entitled to peruse my emails - nevertheless by branding it 'fascist' you provoke a violent disequilibrium - a somewhat invasive and unwarranted piece of legislation is automatically thrown into relief by the ghastly spectre of 11 million burning bodies, and your criticism is voided thereupon.
In addition there is a question of definition. Fascism itself resembles Potter Stewart's take on porn - 'I can't define it but I know it when I see it.' It has a nebulous, shifting quality which is difficult to get a handle on, even if all the goose stepping and military parades make it intuitively recognisable. The horrific anti-Semitism which was so integral to the Nazi regime, for instance, was almost entirely unknown in fascist Italy under Mussolini - until 1938 when 'il duce' introduced racist legislation, presumably to curry favour with his counterpart in Berlin. Spanish fascism under Franco sought to preserve much of the power of the church while Hitler, on the other hand, was quick to replace the cross with the swastika, and the Bible with Mien Kampf.
In fact fascism seems to be more of a process rather than a single, uniform product with a coherent set of articulable qualities. What all forms of fascism have in common is the way in which they come to be. Whether under Mussolini in the 20s or Pinochet in Chile of the early 70s, fascist regimes are invariably presaged by a climate of social-economic crisis in which mass mobilisations of the forces of the left become increasingly commonplace.
In Chile, for example, such mobilisations brought the socialist Salvador Allende to power on the crest of a tidal wave, while in Spain, only a few years before the civil war and eventual ascension of Franco, a new republic had been proclaimed which exiled the monarchy, established freedom of speech, nationalised major public services and extended suffrage to women. The fascist regimes were mobilised and supported by big businesses and traditional elites in order to liquidate such gains, to dismantle the new forms of self-determination the mass of the population had so recently won.
From the Arab Spring onwards, as protests proliferated around the world, one of the key ingredients was the ability to co-ordinate via the internet. The internet became an integral feature of these forms of mass self-determination and I suspect that any governmental endeavour to regulate the internet will be more about thwarting the lines of communication which open up and contribute to the efficacy of social protest, rather than the need to frustrate the sinister goals of terrorist bogeymen. It is worth noting just how prickly the forces of the state are with regards to this; two men were recently jailed for four years for attempting to use social networking sites to organise during the riots of last year, even though nothing criminal resulted from their actions.
But the increasingly muscular posturing on the part of the British state wasn't restricted to the virtual world. In late 2010 Alfie Meadows, a twenty year old philosophy student, was struck by a police truncheon in the midst of the student protests against a hike in tuition fees. Meadows required emergency brain surgery, but the lesson which the state power was keen to extrapolate from this incident was that Meadows himself would be put on trial, charged with violent and disorderly conduct, and this, of course, provided an ominous warning to those who consider taking to the streets in order to assert their right to protest. Some months later, and across the pond, a new bill was introduced by the state of Wisconsin which effectively eliminated collective bargaining rights on the part of employees.
I don't for a moment believe either the conservative coalition government of the UK or the state of Wisconsin could legitimately be described as fascist. To describe either in this way would do a disservice to those people who had lived under, and were persecuted by, genuinely fascist regimes. More than that, it would be logically incongruent.
Nevertheless the measures enacted by both governments contain within themselves a particle of fascism, in as much as fascism is the process by which developing forms of mass self-determination are violently physically annulled. In itself curtailing the right to peaceably protest, communicate freely or bargain collectively is politically undesirable, authoritarian even, but not fascist. However when these things are taken together, when they occur more and more frequently against a backdrop in which populations all over the world are creating radical new ways of shaping political life - we receive an early premonition of how terrible it would be to live in a place where such rights have been fully eradicated. And, perhaps more importantly, we have a glimmering that such a place, far from being consigned to a distant and barbaric past, is closer to us than we ever imagined.