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FASCISM: A Warning.

Author: Madeleine Albright

Published by: HarperCollins, New York, 2018, 288pp, US$27.99.

These are rough times for liberal democracy. In the Economist's 2017 Democracy Index no region recorded an improvement in its average score compared to 2016. The United States was demoted to a flawed democracy. This deteriorating state of affairs has given rise to several 'Could it happen here?' considerations. Madeleine Albright worries that there may be a drift into fascism --a worry sharpened by her childhood experience of becoming a refugee from Czechoslovakia as Nazism took hold in Europe from Germany and later learning that some of her Jewish relatives lost their lives in concentration camps. After the Second World War her family had to leave Czechoslovakia again because of Soviet intentions to dominate.

Albright is well aware that the fascist label is often applied indiscriminately or thoughtlessly. Her working definition: 'a Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary--including violence--to achieve his or her goals'.

But this book is not a treatise on definitions: rather it is a distillation of historical instances of fascism and more recent occurrences of authoritarianism and dictatorships, some of which are illuminated by her personal experiences as United States secretary of state or as US permanent representative to the United Nations. The book probably does not add anything to what is already known about Adolf Hider or Benito Mussolini, but she focuses on the character of the fascist regimes they established. She has met many leaders who were or became authoritarian, including Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Kim Jong II (Kim Jong Un's father), Vladimir Putin, Slobodan Milosevic and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But she is a disciplined writer and although there are anecdotes aplenty, she does not lose sight of the elements she fears might cause a drift towards fascism. Despite the number of dictatorships or authoritarian regimes she identifies, she calls only one fascist--that of North Korea. Putin gets spared because, in her view, he has not needed to become fascist.

Dissatisfaction and distress among a lot of people are among the conditions Albright sees as allowing fascism to flourish. Other conditions are a political opposition that is weak, a bully and a gradual movement towards fascism and admiration for those who practise dictatorial rule. She acknowledges that historically fascism has been attractive to some sections of the population because it has seemed to improve their lot.

'Mussolini', she says, 'observed that in seeking to accumulate power, it is wise to do so in the manner of one plucking a chicken --feather by feather--so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as mute as possible.'

It is tempting to think that Albright wrote the book in response to the election of Donald Trump and his behaviour in office, but she explicidy rejects this and was planning the book believing that

Hillary Clinton (for whom she campaigned) would win. Of the winner of the election she writes:
   Trump is the first anti-democratic president in modern U.S.
   history. On too many days beginning in the early hours, he flaunts
   his disdain for democratic institutions, the ideals of equality and
   social justice, civil discourse, civic virtues and America itself.
   If transplanted to a country with fewer democratic safeguards, he
   would audition for dictator, because that is where his instincts

Thus, the United States is simply added to the countries and societies she thinks are in danger--a step that appals her.

Is she right to argue that there could be a drift towards fascism as it occurred in the 1930s? She writes that 'Fascism is not an exception to humanity, but part of it.' She makes her case. She said during the interview she gave to TVNZ's Q&A programme that some people regarded the book as alarmist. She took satisfaction from that. It is, after all, intended as a warning.

The book identifies, but does little to explore, the present resentments felt by many people left behind in globalisation. The ground of disillusionment, dissatisfaction and distress are there. But although history does repeat itself, it does not do so in every detail and circumstance. Could today's extreme nationalism, nativism, populism, authoritarianism and dictatorships give birth to fascism of the past? There probably is not a definitive answer, but Madeleine Albright has laid out some credible omens in a highly readable book.

Stuart McMillan is a senior fellow in the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
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Author:McMillan, Stuart
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2018
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