In ancient Rome, a fascis was a bundle of sticks out of which the head of an ax protruded. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, AnonMoos

In the British legal system, to qualify as a barrister it used to be mandatory to have passed “O” Level Latin, a subject that gives a thorough grounding in the structure of language and a familiarity with the roots of words found in Anglo-Germanic and even more so in the Romance languages.

I confess, however, that studying for a Bachelor of Laws, I was not enamored of Roman law, despite the fiercely attractive tutor.

Out of the wealth of useless information about the Roman legal system, certain facts stuck in the mind and continue to have relevance in today’s world.

Chief of these stubborn relics is the fasces that were carried by the lictors.

A fascis was a bundle of sticks out of which the head of an ax protruded. In essence it symbolized the power of life and death that was exercised by the Roman magistrates, whose bodyguards, the lictors, carried the fasces over their shoulders when accompanying these guardians of law and order.

The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini founded the first fascist movement in Italy in 1925.

Fascism is one-party totalitarian rule of a country, usually under the dictatorship of an individual.

There is a danger in applying labels to political movements but characterizing a particular theory or policy based on its defining principles or tenets of belief is essential to a proper understanding.

It is in the nature of fascism to prohibit disagreement with both the form and substance of its governance.

Therein lies a perennial contradiction with human nature.

Unlike lemmings, people are apt to be contrary or, at the very least, questioning of the rules imposed upon them by those who are not answerable for their behavior.

Consequently, human behaviour is inimical to fascist rule.

By one of those curiously ironical twists, history teaches us that fascist societies are far more readily marshaled and the product of its endeavors more easily exploited.

To wit, Mussolini gave cohesion to a wildly disparate Italy that was still struggling to achieve a sense of national identity 50 years after the risorgimento.

Similarly, Adolf Hitler inspired a resurgence of German pride after a humiliating defeat in the 1914-18 war.

In more concrete terms, as an effective dictatorship, Hitler’s fascists built a state-of-the-art infrastructure and mobilized its industries.

Both the Italian and German fascists deployed their power to engineer the devastation of World War II, demonstrating that while absolute control can achieve laudable objectives far more easily than democratic regimes can, fascism is all too readily subject to toxic ends.

Eminent philosophers and thinkers have written heavy tomes on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. Indeed, it has no universally agreed definition.

But if there is one factor that is common to most definitions, that would most probably be that it is a system of governance that is accountable to the people subject to its rules.

On the broad picture, accountability translates into universal suffrage, enabling the electorate, at suitable intervals of time, to choose those into whose hands it will repose trust and remove those found wanting.

On the closest connection, it empowers the individual to challenge the validity of the ruler’s specific acts and omissions by seeking judicial review by a judiciary independent of both executive and administration.

Accountability in this sense is not found in the fascist lexicon.

The biblical story of David and Goliath symbolizes the tension between the overwhelming power of the institution and what we usually term “the little man.”

It is a common human foible to cheer for the underdog unless you happen to belong to an iteration of Goliath Corporation Unlimited.

But as the world falls increasingly under the sway of unaccountable regimes, albeit wearing different labels, I cannot escape the notion that fascism is in the ascendant.

Myanmar’s generals murdering men, women and children indiscriminately in order to seize the reins of power; extremist Israelis bent on evicting Palestinians from their homes; Republican members of the US House of Representatives ousting Liz Cheney from her position because she refused to subscribe to Donald Trump’s lie about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election; Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party planning to restrict the ability of citizens to seek judicial review of its decisions.

There are, unquestionably, countless more exemplars of the exponential encroachment of fascism into our daily lives. Indeed, they are all around us.

Once accountability is lost, the fascists and fanatics thrive.

The restrictions imposed on societies in the battle against Covid-19 are predominantly well intentioned, but we are becoming accustomed to these often extremely invasive intrusions into individual liberty.

Interning the residents of an entire multi-story building in Hong Kong to quarantine quarters in Penny’s Bay, in conditions that would be unacceptable in a prison, even when some of them had received both vaccinations, typifies such mindless behavior.

It is but a short step to the permanent imposition of such restraints without the compelling necessity of protecting our physical health.

The antidote is almost as old as time. The 4th century BC Greek statesman and intellectual Demosthenes said, “There is one safeguard known generally to the wise, which is an advantage and security to all, but especially democracies as against despots. What is it? Distrust.”

Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.