Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Some More Thoughts on Griffin's Modernism and Fascism

One of the themes that comes across strongly in Griffin's book is the sense of "spiritual" dysfunction in European society at the end of the 19th Century. What becomes apparent is that while there was the triumph of Positivism, which bore fruit in terms of scientific discovery and material power it came at a cost to the "inner life" of European man which was profoundly unsatisfying on a spiritual level. Durkheim called this unease Anomie.

Now Anomie is an interesting thing, some people seem perfectly fine with it, or at least accept it. On the other hand, as Griffin shows, there were many who were horrified by the mechanistic and deterministic universe that Positivism i.e. science, promised. It was these men, who while admiring the technics of Science, wanted to fill the void left by the metaphysics of it. It was these men that took part in the "revolt from Positivism" and laid the foundations of Fascist ideology.

It is Emilio Gentile who, by combining impeccable archival research with sophisticated conceptualization, makes the most authoritative pronouncements on Fascism's 'modernist' credentials, and in so doing explicitly imparts the term connotations that corroborate our primordialist perspective. He asserts that 'Fascist modernism sought to realize a new synthesis between tradition and modernity, without renouncing modernization in order to realize the nation's goals of power'. It was through the `sacralization of politics and the institutionalization of the cult of the fasces' that Fascism attempted to fulfill the key ambition of modernist nationalism, 'the construction of a lay religion for the nation'. Fascism's futural dynamic and civilizing mission emphasized by both Ventrone and Gentile is amply borne out by Pier Giorgio Zunino's comprehensive account of the matrix of Fascist ideology as inferred from the torrent of publications that poured forth from the new regime. He documents the way that for most Fascists the new state's mission to 'lead Italy out of its humiliating condition of marginalization' was linked to a much more ambitious goal, namely to 'spread the seeds of a new civilization in which the main problems inflicting contemporary society had been finally resolved'. Under Mussolini Italians were encouraged to feel they were living on the threshold of 'a new civilization whose essence as yet no-one can know', a 'third time', a 'new epoch', a 'new cycle'. Zunino insists that the countless texts, speeches, events, and rituals mass-produced under Mussolini aimed not to 'manufacture consensus', but to fill his most fervent supporters with a 'longing for tomorrow' and 'thirst for [making] history'." 
 By 1930 convinced Fascists at every level of society were now crowding onto the craggy outcrop of rock where once only Marinetti and a small artistic elite once stood enjoying the heady Nietzschean experience of standing 'on the last promontory of the centuries'. The experience of Aufbruch lauded by Expressionist poets had been democratized, the sense of an ending replaced by the heady sense of a beginning. Emilio Gentile himself draws attention to this factor when he claims that 'the principal impulse of fascism stemmed from its "movementist" and Dionysian feeling for existence, from the myth of the future, and not from a static contemplation of the past'. This futural dynamic is only apparently belied by the cult of Romanness (romanita) that came to assume such importance under the regime, for it too was 'celebrated modernistically as a myth of action for the future'. In the words of Giuseppe Bottai, the most technocratically minded of the Fascist gerarchia, the regime's fascination with Rome sprang not from erudition, not from books, not from so-called "dead history"', but above all from its capacity to inspire action in the present. Fascism meant to carry out 'not a restoration but a renovation, a revolution in the idea of Rome'.

Now there's a lot to unpack here, but the point I'm trying to get across is that they were attempting to "construct a new religion", a palliative to the anomie bought about the Enlightenment* led transformation of Western society. In many ways, the best way to think about fascists is that they were "romantic" socialists, providing a socialism that catered not just for the body but one which catered for the "soul". It needs to be understood that Fascism was more than a government organisation it was a pseudo religion. It gave people a purpose, a sense of belonging and justification for their acts. Perceptive readers will note that there was no mention of a return to Christianity. Italian, and German Fascism both wanted to form a new mythic religion which was specifically Christian lite. So in a sense, from the vantage point of this blog,  whether you think of Fascism as either modernist or reactionary it really doesn't matter, what matters is that it was anti Christian at its core. Hard core Nazi's specifically saw Christianity as a corruption of the "mythic" [Ed: invented by themselves] Aryan ideals and wanted it expunged. It was a competing weltanshauung to theirs. How anyone can square this claim up with European history is beyond me. But hey, intellectual consistency has never been a feature of mass movements.

Griffin extensively illustrates how modernist approaches were used to project this "new religion" onto the community. Furthermore Fascist aesthetic ideals seem to yield more to human nature than Western contemporary art does now. It's rejection of the deformed, the ugly and the repellent shouldn't be seen reactionary, rather Fascism's Dionysian dynamic was complemented by an art which reflected these values rather than challenged them. There was no doubt allowed with regard to the legitimacy of the aesthetic vision. Art was not there to dialogue with the ideal, it was to serve it.
Fascism had no problem with modernist art or technology as long as it was subordinate to these ideals and Griffin shows with numerous examples the embrace of Modernism by the Fascists.

It's a hard going book, and Griffin is sometimes excessively verbose but I think in many ways he brings across the appeal of Fascism in a way that Gregor doesn't. Fascism wasn't just a response to the social crisis of the early 20th Century it was also a response to the anomie bought about by the dechristianisation of Europe.