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.
José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) was the preeminent Spanish philosopher of the first half of the Twentieth Century. A complex figure, he was at the same time an elitist, a classical liberal, and a republican. He was born into a wealthy bourgeois family, became the Chair in Metaphysics at Complutense University in Madrid in 1910, and he was the deputy for the province of León until the Spanish Civil War. After the outbreak of the war, he lived in self-imposed exile in Argentina until 1945. Ortega, as a witness to both the First and Second World Wars, was an ardent critic of the modern state. In The Revolt of the Masses (La rebelión de las masas) (1930), he predicted that the forces of statism would inevitably lead to ever-increasing levels of violence. The state, he wrote, was “the gravest danger now threatening European civilization.”
What set Ortega apart from other critics of the modern state was his concise social and psychological analysis of the origins of statism. Rather than frame the evolution of the modern state in simple philosophical, religious, or economic terms, he sought to explain its rise as the logical outcome of a revolt of the common man, or the “masses.” By “masses,” Ortega was referring not to a class of people but a type of person who by his or her nature constitutes a numerical majority. This majority is made up of unexceptional people, people who toiled for thousands of years in relative anonymity. Their sudden awakening was made possible by the unprecedented growth of the bourgeoisie in the late Middle Ages.
The state, such as it existed during the Middle Ages and throughout most of recorded history, was as Ortega put it, “quite a small affair.” By the 1700s, however, society, in the form of a middle class, outgrew those rudimentary structures of government. Where the old Noble class excelled in leadership, “historic responsibility,” and sheer bravado, the new bourgeois class excelled in rationalization and technique. The state, Ortega argued, is not a thing in and of itself, but a technique; a technique that is utilized for public administration and for preserving public order. Therefore the bourgeoisie naturally agitated for an increasingly larger role in state affairs.
Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany by Isabel Hull is a problematic and contradictory book. It is a good example of what happens when a historian begins with a thesis and then shoehorns data to fit that thesis. Hull’s core argument is that the Imperial German military (between the years 1904 and 1918) practiced institutional extremism, which led to the unchecked extermination of civilian populations in Africa and Europe. The unlimited application of violence defined that extremism. This made the German military unique among the militaries of other European powers. She set out to show, “how and why the institution designed to wield controlled violence exceeded the reasonable, effective, or goal-oriented limits of its use.”
According to Hull, there were three reasons the use of violence appeared unchecked: the German military’s separation from civilian institutions, the use of violence through “quasi-automatic mechanisms,” and an institutional gravitation toward total solutions―“the establishment of perfect order and complete obedience by the enemy population” in a permanent form.
To prove her thesis, Hull examined the behavior of the German military in Southwest Africa (present day Namibia), German military culture, and the behavior of the German military during the First World War. She drew from a large number of German sources and personal letters, as well as the philosophy of Hannah Arendt.