The terms fascist and fascism get thrown around a lot, but rarely with accuracy. The science fiction novel Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein, and the 1997 movie of the same name, are alternatively accused of promoting or lampooning fascism. Starship Troopers isn’t my favorite film, but I think it’s entertaining and original enough to rewatch every now and then. I just watched it last week, when to my surprise, RedLetterMedia featured it over the weekend in an episode of “re:View.” Watch the full episode here.
In their review, Mike and Jay take the position that Starship Troopers is a satire of fascism, and that audiences largely missed the point when the movie was released in 1997. There’s some evidence for this. The director, Paul Verhoeven, definitely interpreted Heinlein’s novel in this way. At one point, characters are wearing uniforms obviously inspired by the Nazi Gestapo. Violence is shown as the only solution, and militarism and war are at the center of this futuristic society. Characters consider the alien arachnids to be ugly, mindless, and inferior to humans. They are confined to a “Quarantine Zone,” like the Nazi ghettos.
Mike and Jay argue Starship Troopers inverts a common character arch in which a character living in an oppressive society comes to rebel against that society. Instead, in Starship Troopers, characters who originally question the social order, or who are at least indifferent to it, end up embracing it. Characters become less human as the film progresses, until, at the end, they cheer when it’s revealed a captured arachnid feels fear, an emotion that typically elicits sympathy.
Verhoeven himself said his movie adaptation is “playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society… of course, the movie is about ‘Let’s all go to war and let’s all die.'” He copied some propaganda scenes directly from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935).
But is the Terran Federation depicted in Starship Troopers a fascist society? Despite the fascist ascetic in the film, it just doesn’t measure up. Benito Mussolini defined fascism as a merger of corporations and the state. Fascism is more generally characterized by a cult of personality, extreme nationalism, veneration of past glory, militarism, racial superiority, and authoritarianism.
Well, Starship Troopers certainly portrays a militaristic society, but that is where the comparison ends.
In “Nietzsche and the State” and “Ortega and the State,” I examined critiques of statism by two prominent modern European philosophers. Because Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) witnessed the rise of the modern state in central Europe, and José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) experienced statism’s maturity and destructive potential, these two philosophers offer an excellent juxtaposition with which to critique contemporary statism. Although they did not agree on every point, their perspectives shed light on the leviathan.
Both Friedrich Nietzsche and José Ortega y Gasset were alarmed by the development of the modern state, which matured to ascendancy in the late Eighteenth Century. In the 1860s and ‘70s, Nietzsche witnessed Otto von Bismarck forge his native Germany from a collection of dozens of independent political entities into a German Empire with a strong central government, mass conscription, national welfare programs, universal manhood suffrage, and an urban mass media.
Nietzsche died before the First World War, but José Ortega y Gasset lived to see the nation-states of Europe engulfed in that conflagration along with the chaos that followed. He saw the revolutions of Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler, and that of his own country, Spain, which degenerated into civil war shortly after he published La rebelión de las masas.
The events of their lifetime undoubtedly had a profound impact on the philosophies of both men, and both departed from their philosophical analysis to point out contemporary events to illustrate their critiques. They knew these events could not be escaped, although both Nietzsche (who fled to Switzerland and northern Italy) and Ortega (who fled to Argentina) tried. While Nietzsche loathed politics, however, Ortega took an active role in attempting to guide the events of his day in his own country. Ortega believed that a liberal republic in Spain could moderate and control the violent excesses of the social transition from pre-modern to modern. History proved him wrong.
In the mind of Nineteenth Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the growth of the state (Staat) was one of the most alarming developments of the modern world. Where others saw the promise of a new democratic age in which “the people” ruled, Nietzsche saw a “cold monster” that was destructive of creative and independent forces. He described the state as a “clamp-iron” pressed upon society, shaping and harnessing it.
The modern state was particularly problematic because it potentially recognized no limits in its efforts to satisfy the wants and desires of the common man. To fully understand Nietzsche’s pessimistic understanding of the modern state, however, it is important to understand his beliefs about the origin of that state. Why is the modern state so different from what came before?
Prior to 4,000 BC, most if not all of humankind was organized into tribes and extended families that engaged in herding, hunting and gathering, trading, and subsistence farming. Some lived in cities like Çatal Höyük in modern day Turkey. According to archeologists, Çatal Höyük (7,500 – 5,700 BC) was absent of any public buildings. There are no signs of rulers, social stratification, or classes.
Then, around 4,000 BC, city-states began to emerge in Mesopotamia, and with them, hereditary dynasties. With some exceptions, the basic nature of these dynastic kingdoms, or states, did not change very much for the next several thousand years. In modern times, however, there has been a fundamental revolution in the nature of the state. Nietzsche’s perspective on this revolution, and why it occurred, is as challenging as it is insightful.