Who gives a Pluck?
A review of Fascism: A Warning, by Madeleine Albright
There is nothing like reading a good book, but I am bad at it. Daily demands, aka a lack of personal discipline, reduces me to an online daily digest of public affairs, contemporary articles and content that might serve well in a trivia quiz. The only way to devour one is to chain me to a chair; I am, therefore, a holiday reader. Last year I chose two classics, Rebeccaby Daphne du Maurier and the wonderful One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The sad reality is that these contributed to the 2017 total of four books.
This year my holiday read was Fascism: A Warning,by Madeleine Albright, former United States Secretary of State(1997 to 2001). Perhaps it wasn’t such an unfamiliar choice – the overwhelming complexity of our public affairs has left many of us searching for ways to make sense of global politics. A holiday is good thinking time and the book didn’t disappoint, despite being found in the fiction section of WH Smith in Manchester airport!
Plucking the chicken
An academic, Albright engages her own students in developing the book’s content. Early on she credits her class with insights that ‘made us think that Fascism should perhaps be viewed less as a political ideology than as a means for seizing and holding power’.As the book develops, this hypothesis gains weight.
The central concept is that Fascist leaders often achieve their position through democratic means. They do not display their full intention – and some start out as legitimate national heroes – before they reach the polls. To achieve electoral success, they capitalise on a void in national leadership and tap into the disillusionment of a proportion of the electorate, by using simple messages and crowd-pleasing soundbites. Once in power they move to dissemble all vestiges of a healthy democracy.
For example, Il Duce, (Benito Mussolini) rose to power in the early 1920s and initially led Italy with a notable emphasis on good government (including a promise to “drenare la palude”or ‘drain the swamp). However, ‘By the end of 1926, Il Duce had abolished all competing political parties, eliminated the freedom of the press, neutered the labor movement, and secured the right to name municipal officials himself … To constrain the monarchy, he claimed the power to approve any successor to the king.’ He might be one of the most infamous of Fascists, but Albright alerts us to this familiar pattern – one which is repeated by leaders of different nations, from both the left and right of politics.
Il Duce’s observation is quoted: ‘in seeking to accumulate power, it is wise to do so in the manner of plucking a chicken – feather by feather – so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as muted as possible’. The metaphor is used to effect throughout the book.
Albright’s class concludes that: ‘Fascism feeds on social and economic grievances, including the belief thatthe people over there are receiving better treatment than they deserve while I’m not getting what I’m owed.’ And that this view can be regardless of income, age, social class. These are the tensions that potential Fascist leaders tap into. It is, then, both the journey we should watch as well as what happens next.
Democracy beyond the ballot box
Albright provides a stern warning on democratic processes in general. She references the work of the NDI (National Democratic Institute – an international organisation, with its head office in the U.S.) which ‘aids indigenous efforts to develop democratic institutions and skills’. She writes:‘NDI is careful to stress that democracy requires far more than choosing a leader via the ballot box … No error is more common than to assume that the winner of an election has license to do whatever he or she may want. In a true democracy, leaders respect the will of the majority but also the rights of the minority – one without the other is not enough.’
Whilst the context is different, this also feels relevant to the current debate on Brexit, given the slim majority of 51.9% leave vs 48.1% remain and as Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain. We now know that people were led to the polls by spurious claims which have since been debunked by respected organisations, such as the UK Statistics Authority and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and dodgy campaign tactics which have marred the referendum process. Calls, like the one being championed by The RSA for ongoing democratic engagement in the process, involving more than just the registered electorate, should be both demanded of and heeded by those we have democratically elected, of all party colours.
As stated, Fascism doesn’t belong to one political party or another and Albright is careful to add some optimistic balance, citing opposing Democrat and Republican Presidents who have both led by and espoused democratic values. And there are examples, too, from other nations that have gone through hell where, to use a clumsy metaphor, the chicken’s feathers are re-growing.
The book concludes of course, with a brief assessment of Trump who she describes as ‘the first anti-democratic president in modern U.S. history’.And whilst she doesn’t prescribe an outcome for the U.S., she lists a series of questions we should ask ourselves of our prospective leaders to understand whether they pose a risk to a nation’s democracy. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions about POTUS.
One of my own teachers, Mr. Davies, drummed into us that we should never use the phrase ‘in this day and age’– a lazy summary to describe a cultural point in time as if it is somehow unique. A more sensationalist author might have deployed this tactic. As an academic, Albright carefully unravels patterns of Fascism stretching back over decades, to help us understand the present and warn us of what to look out for in the future. She builds layers of common behaviours, rather than focusing on what we currently describe as 21stcentury Fascism, or ‘populism’, a contemporary catch-all phrase, which she also disputes.
It is written up to the wire in terms of when the book went to print; the most recent narrative is from 2018 and this of course, means that the book isn’t time sensitive – some of the content is already outdated. But I believe this is intentional. It creates a real-time experience of how we sleep-walk into a Fascist society. This is our warning.
“Every step in the direction of Fascism – every plucked feather – causes damage to individuals and to society; each makes the next step shorter. To hold the line, we must recognize that despots rarely reveal their intentions and that leaders who begin well frequently become more authoritarian the longer they hold power.”
Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that I chose this book as my holiday read. I recently read The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood and, whilst this 1985 novel is a fictitious dystopian view of America, Albright’s book throws down the pebbles that lead us to understand how this could become fact. It is the cautionary tale of what happens when the last feather has been plucked.
She also references the many partnership and leadership projects she has participated in, that result in reports and recommendations, but often with limited readership and, therefore, impact. This book helps corrects this dispiriting fact; it shouts out the warning she wants us to heed in an accessible way and why we should give a Pluck. It is our call to action.