"It's really fascist to say, 'I love you'," says a character in the cult film Barcelona. You can see what she meant. A declaration of love is an attempt to control. It ties bonds of obligation. It snaps emotional snares. It represents a claim to authority over the body of the beloved - the power of the slave-driver and tyrant throughout the ages.
The audience, of course, is meant to laugh the line off as a wobblingly flabby abuse of language, typical of the sloppiness which dilutes political rhetoric. In the lexicon of the left, from the 1920s to the 1980s, "Fascist!" was a graffito sprayed indiscriminately over any opponent. The effect was to make the accusation unconvincing and to let the real fascists off. Now we have gone to the other extreme. We use the word so guardedly and with so many qualifications that almost any potential Duce or Fuhrer can claim exemption, no matter how far to the right, how bloodied with violence or how twisted with hate.
The time for fastidiousness is over. We have to be frank in identifying fascism, wherever it rises to the surface, at the first flash of its fins - because, just as you thought the world was safe for democracy, fascism is flexing its jaws offshore.
Academic experts have reclaimed "fascism" as the name of a syndrome of features common to specific European political movements in the period between the First and Second World Wars. Yet even the movement's defining characteristics were hard to specify. It had an opportunist's adaptability, a quicksilver slipperiness, a politico's unwillingness to be precise. "There are too many programmes," said Mussolini, refusing to commit himself to another. Fascism was an agile insect, never still long enough to swat.
Today's fascisms can be equally elusive. We must be flexible, too, and adjust our aims as the target dodges and flits. By defending it too narrowly, we disarm ourselves against it. The stricter our definition, the less recognisable a new form of fascism becomes, because any peculiar features seem to disqualify it. The shorter the historical period to which it is made to belong, the slighter our scope for recognising its recrudescence.
Today in every continent vicious authoritarian movements are threatening freedom and compassion, justice and humanity. We should not be afraid of comprehending "fascism" broadly enough to fit them. It will help us to recognise them for what they are: threats to a decent society, potentially as destructive as any we have confronted before. Today, copybook conditions for a fascist resurgence exist wherever Communism is recalled with loathing, while democracy is being tried by disillusionment. Elsewhere, in societies rent by growing wealth gaps, besieged by crime or ground down by unfundable expectations, fascism can promise instant Utopia, infused by force.
It comes in many fashions, not all of them strictly anticipated by the "classic fascism" of the inter-war period. In ancient Rome, a fascis was a bundle of sticks with an axe through the middle of it, carried before magistrates as a symbol of their power to scourge or behead aberrant citizens. These images of the bloodstained instruments of law enforcement, which Mussolini adopted as what would now be called "logo" of his party, express the essence of fascism better than any definition you can write down. Fascism is the weal of the rod and the gash of the axe: the smack of a system of values that puts the group before the individual, order before freedom, cohesion before diversity, revenge before reconciliation, retribution before compassion, the supremacy of the strong before the defence of the weak.
It assumes the supreme value of a particular order of society - without necessarily specifying that order in any agreed way - and justifies, even celebrates, its violent enforcement by the obstruction or obliteration of dissenters, …