In 1932, Benito Mussolini contributed an article to the Italian Encyclopedia defining the modern meaning of the term ‘fascism’ in a concise (and rather prophetic) way. Mussolini was what might be considered a ‘pure’ fascist unconcerned with the mongrel ideologies being shaped under Hitler in Germany, and his definition is still rather seductive as a celebration of state unity and power. I was reminded of his work recently while reading Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a 1959 novel that combines military and political critiques in a science fiction package.
Heinlein’s work is controversial because it seems to celebrate the potential of a semi-fascist state springing (in the book’s alternate future) from the catastrophic failure of modern democracy. But hold your condemnation! The questions Heinlein asks, and the answers he provides, aren’t very different from those asked and answered by many of the students I went to university with. The great dilemmas of democracy are not new, nor are they terribly complicated, and many students struggle with them. Heinlein attempts to provide a hybrid solution that allows continued mass participation while also guaranteeing an informed electorate cognizant of its power and responsibility.
Returning to Mussolini, I provide the following from his definition:
“Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation, and it affirms the immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality of mankind, which can never be permanently leveled through the mere operation of a mechanical process such as universal suffrage.”
I’d like to disagree. I’d like to think that the masses are all equal and should be given equal voice, but the reality is that, even in my own short history, I have met numerous people less suited to political matters than myself, and some more suited. Western democracy is a robust institution, but one very different from the ideal institution we often imagine it as. What percentage of eligible citizens actually vote? What percentage of citizens follow politics, or hold their elected officials responsible for decisions? What percentage of elected officials believe in and actively work for the advancement of the system and not their own individual interests?
A complaint that I often hear about the direction of democracy in the west is that we’ve lost the ability to ask what we can do for our country. Instead we find ways to exploit the system, advocating changes that will help our segment of society in the short term at the expense of the larger whole. For example, if I participate in political agitation demanding that all artists (including writers) get paid a minimum salary simply for being registered artists, knowing full well that such a mandate would massively strain government finances, am I being a responsible citizen? Or am I simply a type of political con artist burdening the democracy for my individual profit?
Heinlein explains that the democracies of the ‘XX century’ fell apart under their own weight at the end of the third world war. Their destruction was partially the result of a lack of civil participation in the democracy, and partially the result of a civilization rendered decadent, soft, and ignorant of the ‘cost’ of freedom. After all, those who are not actively pursuing the defense of their freedom are in the process of losing it (a historical and possibly universal truth).
In the world of Starship Troopers suffrage is not a right. Instead it must be earned by enlisting in a two-year term with the “Federal Service,” carrying out menial and often dangerous tasks for public institutions scattered across the galaxy. Many of the Service’s branches require grueling training, but the obvious flagship service is the Mobile Infantry, which train soldiers in the use of powered armor to defend human expansion through space.
Those who don’t enlist in the Federal Service or don’t complete their two-year term are not ‘citizens’ under the law. Additionally, the services exact no penalty if the enlisted individual resigns before the end of their term, although the dropout will never get a second change to obtain citizenship. The point, according to Heinlein, is to create a sort of rite of passage to teach each person to value and understand the power of their vote. Having voluntarily sacrificed two years of their life in the service of the state, each citizen is (hopefully) committed to the survival of said state, as well as aware of their own personal responsibility as citizen. The system works best (Heinlein was a military guy) in the Mobile Infantry where soldiers are daily asked to lay down their lives to defend the state from harm. Obviously, if you don’t care much for the state or your right to vote, you probably won’t survive in the infantry.
Only a segment of the population actually completes a term in the Federal Service, meaning that only a minority of the people actually have a say in the politics of the state. Heinlein defends this unequal system of representation by explaining that not all people are fit to vote, or care enough about the process to be valuable members of it. Everyone in the state has the chance to enlist in the service, but suffrage is given only to those who earn it.
Mussolini called it “the immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality of mankind.” Heinlein may as well have quoted the Duce as he affirmed that democracy works better when only the responsible are given power. The classic criticism of such an argument is the question “Who decides who the responsible are?” but Heinlein has provided his own answer through the mechanism of the Federal Service.
Could such a system exist? Would it indeed – as some of my uni classmates might argue – be better than our current system?
There are also other similarities between the two men’s ideas that are less palatable to a modern audience. Both encourage devotion to the state above any other loyalty, and both believe in military service as the true crucible of the human soul. Consequently, both encourage states to exist in a semi-constant state of war to prevent stagnation.
As Mussolini said, “the growth of empire, that is to say the expansion of the nation, is an essential manifestation of vitality, and its opposite a sign of decadence. Peoples which are rising, or rising again after a period of decadence, are always imperialist; and renunciation is a sign of decay and of death.”
Heinlein suggests a similar perspective after mankind declares war on another species simply known as the “Bugs.” Unable to communicate with the aliens, humanity stumbles into a war of annihilation that expands to fill the galaxy. The war is not justified by any of the usual crock about justice or nobility, but instead is described as simply a matter of evolutionary competition. If a species isn’t growing, isn’t fighting, then it must be dying. To stop expanding is to invite destruction from a race more adept at competition. It’s a dog-eat-dog universe out there, and the Bugs are coming.
Heinlein is apparently engaging in a form of ‘fascism-lite,’ but that doesn’t mean we should immediately condemn him. There are many works of fiction out there that idealize a ‘communism-lite,’ or some other form of socialist utopia. There are reasons why both ends of the political spectrum attract intelligent adherents, and I occasionally find it hard to argue why the Heinleins of the world are wrong.* Just as liberty is not a passive state of existence, citizenship in a stable democracy is not a divine right. Sometimes a price has to be paid before a society will appreciate what it already possesses.
*Although I’m ideologically opposed to aggressive martial expansion.