Fascism as triage

Ye olde “economic anxiety” versus racism debate is back on, God help us. Here is Jeff Spross and, er, David Brooks making the case that Trumpism / right populism / resurgent fascism have something to do with reaction to legitimate grievances of an economy increasingly stratified into communities of winners and the “left behind”. Here is Zack Beauchamp reprising the great vox.com tradition of pointing out that if you look at fine-grained patterns of who goes rhino, you don’t see that it’s the poor and downtrodden, you find that it’s the fucking racists.

If I have to pick sides, I’m on the side of Spross and, er, Brooks. I’ve written about why the individual characteristics of Trump supporters shouldn’t eclipse the characteristics of the communities from which that support disproportionately derives. I endorse Spross’ position that we should consider the implications of the stories that we choose.

Social affairs are not like natural sciences where usually (not always) one way of modeling the world is plainly “best” and we should work from that story, discarding all the rest. Navigating social affairs requires developing a collection of different, often conflicting, accounts of how things work and making wise decisions about which accounts to use in different contexts and for different purposes. It is not only legitimate, but morally necessary, to consider the implications of different accounts before choosing which one you will let guide your actions. When policymakers accept “hard truths that can’t be denied” (in modern parlance, we might hear “the science can’t be denied”), we face a risk they might persuade themselves to do something awful.

It’s hubris to imagine there is any science so reliable in social affairs, and it is sin to allow any collection of (now) studies or (then) political theories, to justify exclusion, elimination, disenfranchisement, collective punishment or penury in the name of your certainty in some greater good. If you would neither scruple to let your “hard truths” frame some hard action, nor derive any kind of moral and constructive action from your theory, what good to anyone is your “science”? The rational choice is to draw from our portfolio of understandings multiple but actionable truths — the best we can come up with, but subject to a usefulness constraint — and then apply them constructively.

In this old debate, “economic anxiety” versus racism, the mistake is to choose sides at all. As is usually the case in social affairs, the two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. It is an intellectual error, then, to design studies as “horse races” to decide which is the better explanation. Perhaps there is no evidence at all for one hypothesis, in which case, sure, it should be rejected. But there is plenty of evidence, especially at the community level, for the “economic anxiety” hypothesis, and plenty of evidence, especially at the individual-characteristics level, for the “racial resentment” (racist motherfuckers) hypothesis. It is an error to imagine that “drilling down” to a more fine-grained level inherently provides superior or more actionable information. Biology provides insights that chemistry cannot. No one could produce a working pharmaceutical from the very best human understanding of quarks.

When in social affairs we have evidence for multiple, nonexclusive hypotheses, the wise thing to do is not to snipe over which we should reject and which we should accept, but to explore how they might relate to one another, and when it is best to deploy one understanding or the other as a simplification.

For this particular debate, the model I would encourage you to think about is triage. For most of us today, triage is just the name they give to intake at the ER. But in wartime, it refers to the harsher practice of deciding whom to treat and whom to let die. When medical resources are scarce, you make decisions about who won’t make it anyway. You take care not to waste medicine that might save someone else’s life on people you’ve decided will die regardless.

When resources are abundant, we avoid making these kinds of choices. We treat everybody. Some small fraction of the people with long odds become miracles, and we let those be worth the cost. When resources are abundant, health care is a human right. But when resources are scarce, we cull the herd, kill the runts or at least leave them to die.

Fascism is a process of internal exclusion, quite analogous to triage, although more in anger than in sadness. At a material level, a fascist order divides the polity into the worthy volk and “life unworthy of life”. It promises to reward and protect the former while extracting whatever labor can be squozen from the latter in the process of its exclusion or extermination.

This is not how human communities behave when they are secure and prosperous, when generosity, magnanimity, “civilization”, are broadly understood to be affordable public virtues. Polities “triage” the worthy from the unworthy under circumstances of perceived scarcity, of perceived threat. When happily ever after for everybody is a luxury we cannot afford. If some of us are to thrive, others must be sacrificed.

With medical triage it may (or may not) be sufficient for a few professionals to coldly decide, on the basis of medical facts, that these patients are a bad use of resources, while those patients may be helped by treatment. But humans writ large don’t work this way. We require moral heuristics to guide our actions, to motivate and then justify what we do. If at a communal level we are going to starve or enslave or expel or exterminate some group, it will not be enough, for most people, to say what a shame, but it is necessary. Instead we will find reasons why they deserve it. We will discover why they are in fact a danger whose dispossession is not to be lamented, but celebrated.

The identification of insidious internal enemies, deliverance from whom demands that “patriotic”, “real” citizens submit to military-like coordination and obedience, is the core move of fascism. It begins with the perception we can no longer afford. To which political entrepreneurs then append to tolerate these people as the concretization of what we cannot afford. It begins with the communal analog of a "scarcity mindset”.

With this account, we can reconcile the conflicting evidence about economic anxiety and cultural resentment. At the communal level, economic factors predict which places are likely to become susceptible to a fascist dynamic, because the case for dividing and culling begins with a perception of scarcity. Communities don’t triage when resources are widely perceived to be abundant and secure.

But at an individual level, within distressed communities, the people most enthusiastic to participate in the fascist dynamic are not likely to be the weak and dispossessed (who after all, might be susceptible to culling, depending what internal enemy gets identified) but those who feel safe in their own position and have preexisting resentments against candidate enemies. The political dynamic can’t successfully take hold, has no fertile habitat, without the “economic anxiety”. The members of the community who most enthusiastically participate in the thrill of fascism are not primarily the downtrodden, however, but relatively safe people who perceive an opportunity long denied to give effect to resentments they stewed in privately when prosperity and security bred norms of magnanimity and tolerance in their communities.

The good news in this story is that both factions of the “economic anxiety” vs racism debate get to keep their preferred prescriptions for discouraging fascism. If a sense of secure prosperity can be delivered and sustained among the broad public, then fascism will find little soil to plant seeds. If “racial resentment” — or, more generally, the psychological and cultural antecedents to the inimicalization of minorities — can be reduced, then the polity would be more resistant to fascism even during periods of economic stress and anxiety. The debate over what kind of politics to adopt, over the praxis of prophylaxis, becomes a question of which is more plausible and desirable to achieve via political means: building a society in which the bulk of the public perceives itself as prosperous and safe in that prosperity, or reforming the culture so that prejudices and resentments towards subgroups are diminished to insignificance.

My view is that the shape of the material world is more susceptible than culture to political means, and that material reforms to engender a broader and more secure prosperity for most of the public are urgently desirable — to discourage the emergence of fascism, but also on their own terms. So in practice I seem to fall on the “economic anxiety” side of the debate. Antifascists more attached to the economic status quo or more skeptical of economic antecedents prefer a politics that intervenes on the cultural side, focusing on countering fascist organizations, fighting and shaming prominent white supremacists, and trying to develop antiracist culture and education.

I am skeptical of the suitability of politics to address cultural concerns directly. I think that over time, politics affects culture profoundly, but indirectly, by altering the shape of material constraints and incentives under which cultures form and transform. I think when politics too overtly tries to alter culture, it yields backlash, becomes resisted as indoctrination or “reeducation” in conflict with the basic tenets of a free and equal society.

A free and equal society, like all societies, requires that its public think and understand the world in ways conducive to the effective coordination at scale that prosperity and defense require. But a free and equal society does not have the luxury of overtly coercing its public to think as they are told. A free and equal society must persuade its public — with speech that individuals are genuinely free to reject, with carrots for prosocial behavior rather than punishments for dissenters — to develop ways of thinking under which people voluntarily, “naturally”, act in ways and within bounds consistent with the functioning of the polity.

A free and equal society is a harder thing to govern and to keep than a more authoritarian system which can impose ideology, culture, authority, hierarchy by force. But an effective free and equal society is a much better community for a human being to be a part of. I do hope we will find the patience and light-touch cleverness to improve or build or rebuild a free and equal society rather than revert, under fascism or in the name of antifascism, to more mechanistic forms of social control that, as information technology has developed, become more available and so more tempting to leaders under inevitable conditions of crisis.