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Is America Becoming Fascist?
The similarities between American fascism and particularly the National Socialist precedent, both historical and theoretical, are remarkable. Fascism is home, it is here to stay, and it better be countered with all the intellectual resources at our disposal.
by Anis Shivani
Since mainstream left-liberal media do not seriously ask this question, the analysis of what has gone wrong and where we are heading has been mostly off-base. Investigation of the kinds of under-handed, criminal tactics fascist regimes undertake to legitimize their agenda and accelerate the rate of change in their favor is dismissed as indulging in "conspiracy theory." Liberals insist that this regime must be treated under the rules of "politics as usual. Liberals are quick to note certain obvious dissimilarities with previous variants of fascism and say that what is happening in America is not fascist. It took German justice minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin to make the comparison explicit (under present American rules of political discourse, she has been duly sacked from her cabinet post); but at the liberal New York Times or The Nation, American writers dare not speak the truth.
The blinkered assertion that we are immune to the virus ignores degrees of convergence and distinction based on the individual patient's history. The Times and other liberal voices have been obsessed over the last year with the rise of minority fascist parties in the Netherlands, France, and other European countries. They have questioned the tastefulness of new books and movies about Hitler, and again demonized such icons of Nazism as Leni Riefenstahl. Is this perhaps a displacement of American anxiety onto the safer European scene, liberal intellectuals here not wanting to confront the troubling truth? The pace of events in the last year has been almost as blindingly fast as it was after Hitler's Machtergreifung and the consolidation of fascist power in 1933. Speed stuns and silences.
Max Frankel, former editor of the Times, quotes from biographer Joachim Fest in his review of Speer: The Final Verdict: " . . .how easily, given appropriate conditions, people will allow themselves to be mobilized into violence, abandoning the humanitarian traditions they have built up over centuries to protect themselves from each other," and that a "primal being" such as Hitler "will always crop up again." Is Frankel really redirecting his anxiety about the primal being that has arisen in America? When Frankel says that "Speer far more than Hitler [because the former came from a culturally refined background] makes us realize how fragile these precautions are, and how the ground on which we all stand is always threatened," is this an oblique reference to the ground shifting from under us?
The Iraqi adventure, which is only the first step in a more ambitious militarist agenda, has been opposed by the most conservative warmongers of past administrations. If the test of any theory is its predictive capacity, Bush's extreme risk-taking is better explained by the fascist model. Purely economic motives are a large part of the story, but there is a deeper derivation that exceeds such mundane rationales. Several of the apparent contradictions in Bush's governance make perfect sense if the fascist prism is applied, but not with the normal perspective.
To pose the question doesn't mean that this is a completed project; at any point, anything can happen to shift the course of history in a different direction. Yet after repeated and open corruption of the normal electoral process, several declarations of world war (including in three major addresses, and now the National Security Strategy document), adventurous and unprecedented military doctrines, suspension of much of the Bill of Rights, and clear signals that a declaration of emergency to crush remaining dissent is on the way, surely it is time to analyze the situation differently.
Absent that perspicacity, false diagnoses and prescriptions will continue. It is fine to be concerned about tyrannous Muslim regimes, and surely they need to set their own house in order, but not now, not in this context, and not under the auspices of the American fascist regime. Liberals don't yet realize, or fail to admit, that they may have been condemned to irrelevance for quite some time; the death blow against even mild welfare statism might already have been struck.
The similarities between American fascism and particularly the National Socialist precedent, both historical and theoretical, are remarkable. Fascism is home, it is here to stay, and it better be countered with all the intellectual resources at our disposal.
American fascism is tapping into the perennial complaint against liberalism: that it doesn't provide an authentic sense of belonging to the majority of people. And that is a criticism difficult to dismiss out of hand. As the language of liberalism has become flat and predictable, some Americans have become more ready to accept an alternative, no matter how ridiculous, as long as it sounds vigorous and muscular.
America today is seeking a return to some form of vitalism, some organic, volkisch order that will "unite" the blue and red states in an eternal Volkgemeinschaft; is in a state of perpetual war and militaristic aggression targeting all potential counters to hegemony; has been coercing and blackmailing its own victims and oppressed (justified by anti-political correctness rhetoric) to return to a mythical national consensus; has introduced surveillance technology to demolish the private sphere to an extent unimaginable in the recent past; and fetishizes technology as the futuristic solution to age-old ills of alienation and mistrust.
And we are right in the mainstream of the Western philosophical and political tradition in this subtle (overnight?) transformation. Liberal democracy was replaced by Mussolini by these two Holy Trinities: Believe, Obey, Fight, and Order, Authority, Justice. These slogans seem to replace every liberal system sooner or later. Italian propagandistic slogans included: War is to man as childbirth is to woman, and Better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep. Sooner or later, the mob is persuaded that fascism best addresses its unfulfilled spiritual and psychological needs. Sooner or later there is a Hitler, and even if there isn't a leader as charismatic as him, there is an anti-modernity counter-revolution.
The enlightenment everywhere has contained the seeds of its own destruction. Fascism merely borrows from the enlightenment's credo that violence may sometimes be necessary to achieve valid political ends, and that human reason alone can lead humanity to utopia. Is Nazism an absolute aberration? Is America totally immune to fascism? Then we might as well discredit Rousseau's "general will," Hegel's historical spirit, Goethe and Schelling's romanticization of nature and genius, Darwin's natural selection, and Nietzsche's superman. When all is said and done, a Kant or Mill is never a match for a Nietzsche or Sorel. Industrial malaise (now post-industrial disorder), evaded by the dead-ends and delusions of liberalism, leads only to a romantic revolution, which is fine as long as it is in the hands of Byron, Keats, Carlyle, Ruskin and Arnold, but becomes eventually converted to a propaganda-saturated Third Way. Since liberalism doesn't take up the challenge, fascism steps in to say that it offers an answer to centrifugal difference and lack of common purpose, and that it will dare to link industrial prosperity with communal goals.
How great a deviation from the roots of the enlightenment, the foundations of its self-justification, is the Manichean demonization of enemies, aliens, impure races, and barbaric others? America today wants to be communal and virile; it seeks to overcome what is presented by propagandists as the unreasonable demands for affirmative action and reparations by minorities and women; it wants to revalorize nation and region and race to take control of the future; it seeks to remold the nation through propaganda and charismatic leadership, into overcoming the social divisiveness of capitalism and democracy.
We have our own nationalist myths that our brand of fascism taps right into. In that sense, America is not exceptional. In the near future, America can be expected to embark on a more radical search to define who is not part of the natural order: exclusion, deportation, and eventually extermination, might again become the order of things. Of course, we can notice obvious differences from the German nationalist tradition: but that is precisely the task of scholars to delineate, rather than pretend that fascism occurred only in Italy and Germany and satellite states in the first half of the century, and occurs today only in Europe in minor movements that have no chance of gaining political supremacy.
It is wrong to pretend that fascism takes hold only in the midst of extreme economic depression or political chaos. (A perception of crisis or instability is indispensable to realizing fascism, however.) Fascism can emerge when things are not all that bad economically, politically, and culturally. The surprise about Weimar Germany is how well the political system was at times working, with proportional representation (almost an ideal of strong democracy theorists) providing political expression for a full range of ideologies. Germany was economically strong, an industrial powerhouse, despite having had to overcome massive disabilities imposed by the Versailles Treaty. In the early thirties, Hitler's rise was facilitated by massive unemployment (perhaps forty percent of Germans were unemployed), but this was a phenomenon throughout the Western world.
The key point to note is that at many junctures along the way, it was possible that Hitler's rise might never have happened. And that the elites accepted Hitler as the best possible option. All this makes Hitler and Nazism unexceptional. The basic paradigm remains more or less intact: we only have to account for variations in the American model. Capitalism today is different, so are the postmodern means of propaganda, and so are the technological tools of suppression. Besides, American foundational myths vary from European ones, and the romanticism propounded by Goethe, Schelling, Wagner and Nietzsche contrasts with a different kind of holistic urge in America. But that is only a matter of variation, not direct opposition. Liberals who say that demographics work against a Republican majority in the early twenty-first century do have a point; but fascism can occur precisely at that moment of truth, when the course of political history can definitely tend to one direction or another. A mere push can set things on a whole different course, regardless of underlying cultural or demographic trends. Nazism never had the support of the majority of Germans; at best about a third fully supported it. About a third of Americans today are certifiably fascist; another twenty percent or so can be swayed around with smart propaganda to particular causes. So the existence of liberal institutions is not necessarily inconsistent with fascism's political dominance.
With all of Germany's cultural strength, brutality won out; the same analysis can apply to America. Hitler never won clear majorities; yet once he was in power, he crushed all dissent. Consider the parallels to the fateful election of 2000. Hitler's ascent to power was facilitated by the political elites; again, note the similarities to the last two years. Hitler took advantage of the Reichstag fire to totally change the shape of German institutions and culture; think of 9/11 as a close parallel. Hitler was careful to give the impression of always operating under legal cover, even for the most massive offenses against humanity; note again the similarity of a pseudo-legal shield for the actions of the American fascists. One can go on and on in this vein.
If we look at Stanley Payne's classical general theory of fascism, we are struck by the increasing similarities with the American model:
A. The Fascist Negations
Anti-conservatism (though with the understanding that fascist groups . . .[are] more willing to undertake temporary alliances with groups from any other sector, most commonly the right).
B. Ideology and Goals
Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state.
Organization of some new kind of regulated, multi-class, integrated national economic structure.
The goal of empire.
Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed.
C. Style and Organization
Emphasis on aesthetic structure . . .stressing romantic and mystical aspects.
Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and the goal of a mass party militia.
Positive evaluation and use of . . .violence.
Extreme stress on the masculine principle.
Exaltation of youth.
Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command.
American fascism denies affiliation with liberalism, communism, and conservatism. The first two denials are obvious; the third requires a little analysis, but fascism is not conservatism and it takes issue with conservatism's anti-revolutionary stance. Conservatism's libertarian strand, an American staple (think of the recent protestations of Dick Armey, the departing Bob Barr, and the Cato Institute against some of the grossest violations of civil liberties), would not agree with fascism's "nationalist authoritarian state." Reaganite anti-government rhetoric might well have been a precursor to fascism, but Hayekian free market and deregulationist ideology cannot be labeled fascism.
Continuing to look at Payne's list, we note that the goal of "empire," that much proscribed word in official American vocabulary, has found open acceptance over the last year among the fascist vanguard. Voluntarism has been elevated to iconic status in the current American manifestation of fascism. It takes a bit more effort to notice American fascism's "emphasis on aesthetic structure. . .stressing romantic and mystical aspects," but reflection suggests many innovative stylistic emphases. The mass party militia, especially large bands of organized, militarized youth, seems to be missing for now. Violence is glorified for its own sake. The masculine principle has been elevated as the basis of policy-making. Command is authoritarian, charismatic, and personal. It is true that a charismatic leader like Hitler is missing from the scene; but one would have to ask if this is not a redundancy in the American historical context. Perhaps we are a society mobilized by very small degrees of charisma, unlike more informed, impassioned, ideologically committed electorates.
Roger Griffin holds that fascism consists of a series of myths: fascism is anti-liberal, anti-conservative, anti-rational, charismatic, socialist, totalitarian, racist and eclectic. If one wishes to argue that American fascism is by no means socialist, one ought to take a deeper look at National Socialism's conception of socialism. In a sense, America is a socialist society, to the extent that the government is the main driving force behind technology, innovation, and science: the military-industrial-academic complex. National Socialism was comforting to the right-wing capitalists because they believed that socialism was a convenient fiction for the ideology. Nevertheless, fascism's vitalism and holism militate against any facile interpretations of what socialism means. Fascism is eclectic and ready to abandon economic principle for what it perceives as the greater good of the nation. As Sternhell has described it for Germany, fascism in the American synthesis is a cultural rebellion, a revolutionary ideology; totalitarianism is of its very essence. There are more similarities than immediately apparent between Marxism as it was put into practice by the twentieth century communist states, and "socialist" ideology put into practice by the various fascist states.
Ian Kershaw has evaluated the similarities between Italian and German fascism:
Extreme chauvinistic nationalism with pronounced imperialistic expansionist tendencies;
an anti-socialist, anti-Marxist thrust aimed at the destruction of working class organizations and their Marxist political philosophy;
the basis in a mass party drawing from all sectors of society, though with pronounced support in the middle class and proving attractive to the peasantry and to various uprooted or highly unstable sectors of the population;
fixation on a charismatic, plebiscitary, legitimized leader;
. extreme intolerance towards all oppositional and presumed oppositional groups, expressed through vicious terror, open violence and ruthless repression;
. glorification of militarism and war, heightened by the backlash to the comprehensive socio-political crisis in Europe arising from the First World War;
. dependence upon an "alliance" with existing elites, industrial, agrarian, military and bureaucratic, for their political breakthrough;
. and, at least an initial function, despite a populist-revolutionary anti-establishment rhetoric, in the stabilization or restoration of social order and capitalist structures.
Viewed in this perspective, in only the last few months America has advanced tremendously from emerging to realized fascism. Its imperialist and expansionist tendencies need to be couched less and less in Wilsonian idealist terms for mass acceptance. Unions can still be considered an oppositional, populist force, but working class cohesion has nearly been destroyed. Still, it needs to be said that instead of fascism appealing across class and geographical lines, the country remains divided between the liberal (urban, coastal) and proto-fascist (rural, Southern) factions. Also, the plebiscitary leader has not yet fully emerged. Oppositional groups are often self-silencing, but the most of the ruling establishment continues to practice a mild form of liberalism, and hopes that if things get too out of hand it can mobilize public opinion against brutal suppression. Although not all elites have yet been co-opted, think of Dershowitz's advocacy of torture and Larry Summers's patriotic swing. There is general agreement on militaristic aims. The attempted stabilization of the social order in the form of the culture wars fought in the previous decade is one of the less appreciated manifestations of emerging fascism.
George Mosse describes fascism as viewing itself in a permanent state of war, to mobilize masculine virile energy, enlisting the masses as "foot soldiers of a civic religion." As Mosse points out, fascism seeks a higher form of democracy even as it rejects the customary forms of representative government. Propaganda is pervasive in America; we only need to delineate its descent from the Nazi form. Mosse rejects the notion that fascism ruled through terror; "it was built upon a popular consensus." Fascism is a higher consensus seeking to bring about the "new man" rooted in Christian doctrine. Can there be a better description of the nineties American culture wars instigated by the proto-fascists than the following?:
When fascists spoke of culture, they meant a proper attitude toward life: encompassing the ability to accept a faith, the work ethic, and discipline, but also receptivity to art and the appreciation of the native landscape. The true community was symbolized by factors opposed to materialism, by art and literature, the symbols of the past and the stereotypes of the present. The National Socialist emphasis upon myth, symbol, literature and art is indeed common to all fascism.
Most of this is obvious, except the reference to literature and art; but think of the fetishization of the Great Books and the mythical classical curriculum by Bennett and his like. In thus viewing fascism above all as a cultural movement, the objection might be raised that American fascism lacks a distinctive stylistic expression that iconizes youth and war. Instead, it might be argued that it suffers from callow endorsement by dour old white males, whose cultural appeal is limited in the discredited stylistic forms they employ. To some extent this is true, but one must never underestimate the fertile ground American anti-intellectualism provides for more banal forms of propaganda and cultural terrorism than needed to be deployed by Nazism. (Eminem does electrocute Cheney in his video, but in real life Cheney rules.) American communication technology, as was true of Nazi Germany, has pioneered whole new methods of trivialization of "mass death" and elevation of brutality as a "great experience."
War is both necessary and great, and that is America's continuation of the fascist fascination with revitalization of "basic moral values." Furthermore, the puritanism of American fascism does not necessarily conflict with the Nazi emphasis on style and beauty: Nazism annexed "the pillars of respectability: hard work, self-discipline, and good manners," which explains "the puritanism of National Socialism, its emphasis upon chastity, the family, good manners, and the banishment of women from public life." The analogs to Karl May's widely circulated novels in Weimar and Nazi Germany can probably be found here, as can America's answer to Max Nordau, rebelling against decadence in art and literature, and maintaining that "lack of clarity, inability to uphold moral standards, and absence of self-discipline all sprang from the degeneration of their [artists'] physical organism." Think only of the demonization of Mapplethorpe and others, the emasculation of the NEA, and the continued attack on alleged artistic degeneracy. We must be willing to consider expanded definitions of how romanticism has been incorporated by American fascism.
Liberals might complain that in America there hasn't been a declared revolution, a transformation that asserts itself as such. But as noted above fascism simply takes over the liberals' language of "clarity, decency, and natural laws," as well as its ideals of "tolerance and freedom." That sounds like the sleight-of-hand performed by the fascists here. As Mosse says:
Tolerance. . .was claimed by fascists in antithesis to their supposedly intolerant enemies, while freedom was placed within the community. To be tolerant meant not tolerating those who opposed fascism: individual liberty was possible only within the collectivity. Here once more, concepts that had become part and parcel of established patterns of thought were not rejected (as so many historians have claimed) but instead co-opted - fascism would bring about ideals with which people were comfortable, but only on its own terms.
So to be liberal means to be intolerant, out of sync with the American democratic spirit. That suggestion has taken hold among large numbers of people.
The current American aesthetic appreciation of technology ("smart" bombs) is also of a piece with Hitler's passion. Fascism is not a deviance from popular cultural trends, but only the taming of activism within revived nationalist myths. Mosse holds that fascism didn't diverge from mainstream European culture; it absorbed most of what held great mass appeal. It never decried workers' tastelessness; it accepted these realities. The same principles apply to American fascism.
Umberto Eco, in his essay "Ur-Fascism," identifies fourteen characteristics of "eternal fascism": not all of them have to be present at the same time for a system to be considered fascist, and some of them may even be contradictory: "There was only one Nazism, and we cannot describe the ultra-Catholic Falangism of Franco as Nazism, given that Nazism is fundamentally pagan, polytheistic, and anti-Christian, otherwise it is not Nazism." Eco is intelligent enough to suggest a family of resemblance, overlap, and kinship, and the analyst's task is to note which particular characteristics apply to a system, and understand the reasons for the absence of others, rather than dismiss the fascist categorization if a single feature from a previous fascist variant doesn't apply: "Remove the imperialist dimension from Fascism, and you get Franco or Salazar; remove the colonialist dimension, and you get Balkan Fascism. Add to Italian Fascism a dash of radical anti-Capitalism (which never appealed to Mussolini), and you get Ezra Pound. Add the cult of Celtic mythology and the mysticism of the Grail (completely extraneous to official Fascism), and you get one of the most respected gurus of Fascism, Julius Evola."
It is noteworthy about Eco's matrix that all fourteen of his characteristics of ur-fascism apply to America to some degree: 1. "the cult of tradition" (which may be "syncretic" and able to "tolerate contradictions"); 2. "the rejection of modernism" and "irrationalism"; 3. "the cult of action for action's sake"; 4. "dissent is betrayal"; 5. "fear of difference," or racism; 6. "the appeal to the frustrated middle classes" [this seems to cause the most trouble to American liberals; Eco clarifies, "In our day, in which the old 'proletarians' are becoming petits bourgeois (and the lumpen proletariat has excluded itself from the political arena), Fascism will find its audience in this new majority.]; 7. "obsession with conspiracies," along with xenophobia and nationalism; 8. "the enemy is at once too strong and too weak" [note the simultaneous characterization of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and no doubt future Islamic "terrorists" as capable of irrevocably harming us and being impotent to really do so]; 9. 'Pacifism is. . .collusion with the enemy," "life is a permanent war," and only a "final solution" can herald an age of peace; 10. "scorn for the weak" imposed by a mass elite; 11. "the cult of death" [American fascists ascribe this characteristic to terrorists, when in fact it is one of their own supreme defining characteristics]; 12. transferring of the "will to power onto sexual questions," or "machismo"; 13. "individuals have no rights," and fascism "has to oppose 'rotten' parliamentary governments"; and 14. "Ur-Fascism uses newspeak."
No doubt, fascism is a descriptor too carelessly thrown around; but Nixon and Reagan, no matter how reprehensible their politics, were not quite fascist. Bush is the most dangerous man in contemporary history: Hitler didn't have access to weapons that could blow up the world, and no American or other leader since World War II with access to such weapons has been as out of control. Perhaps a non-controversial statement may be that the fascist tendency always exists, at the very least latent and dormant. But when more and more of the latency becomes actualized, there comes a point when the nature of the problem has to be redefined. We may already have crossed that point. As Eco notes, "Ur-Fascism can still return in the most innocent of guises. Our duty is to unmask it and to point the finger at each of its new forms every day, in every part of the world." And as Eco reminds us, Roosevelt issued a similar warning.
Since liberals don't understand the magnitude of the crisis global capitalism faces, they don't understand the extent of the desperate, last-ditch effort to find an ideological glue ("terror") to hold together the centrifugal forces in the American population. Part of the confusion is that this is fascism but not really fascism it is only its simulation, although no less horrifying for that reason because all the twentieth-century ideologies (liberalism, conservatism, and socialism) are rapidly dissolving.
Anis Shivani studied economics at Harvard, and is the author of two novels, The Age of Critics and Memoirs of a Terrorist. He welcomes comments at:
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