“American Fascism”: Accurate or Misleading?

Has an Iron Heel already come to the USA?
Is it already here in the USA?

recent article by John Pilger in the British Guardian speaks of a silent military coup that has effectively gained control of American policymaking. It features the following alarmist passage:

In 2008, while his liberal devotees dried their eyes, Obama accepted the entire Pentagon of his predecessor, George Bush: its wars and war crimes. As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration … The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”: “For goose-steppers substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work, planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.” Every Tuesday the “humanitarian” Obama personally oversees a worldwide terror network of drones that “bugsplat” people, their rescuers and mourners. In the west’s comfort zones, the first black leader of the land of slavery still feels good, as if his very existence represents a social advance, regardless of his trail of blood. This obeisance to a symbol has all but destroyed the US anti-war movement — Obama’s singular achievement.

Strong words. Is America the land of “liberal fascism”?

Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.

But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.

It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism

For Paxton, fascism is:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

In formulating this definition, Paxton had Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in mind, but his definition is an excellent starting point in thinking about fascism.

What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.

It’s true that, in the name of “support our troops,” we grant the Pentagon brass and defense contractors too much leeway, and allow our Department of Defense to seek “global power” without reflecting that such ambitions are the stuff of totalitarian states. But let’s also recall that our troops (as well as our representatives) still swear an oath to the Constitution, not to a dictator or party.

It’s also true that, as a society, we are too violent, too attracted to violence (think of our TV/Cable shows, our video games, and our sports), and too willing to relinquish individual liberties in the name of protecting us from that violence and the fear generated by it. Yet Americans are also increasingly weary and skeptical of the use of military force, as recent events involving Syria have shown.

The point is not to despair, not to surrender to the demoralizing idea that American politics is an exercise in liberal fascism. No — the point is to exercise our rights, because that is the best way to retain them.

Authority always wants more authority. But as political actors, we deny by our actions the very idea of fascism. For in fascist societies, people are merely subjects, merely tools, in the service of the state.

Don’t be a tool. Be an actor. Speak up. Get involved. Work to make your imperfect republic a little more representative of the better angels of our nature. Because it’ll be your deeds that keep our country from falling prey to fear and violence and the authoritarian mindset they breed.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.  This article is also at Huffington Post.

George Bernard Shaw’s Warning from History

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw

 

In the preface (dated 1907) to the first German edition of The Perfect Wagnerite, George Bernard Shaw issued a warning about trends that he saw in German character and culture.  What struck me upon reading them was not just their insight into the Second Reich (1871-1918) and their prescience about the Third Reich to come (1933-45), but their insight into certain aspects of American character and culture today.

The worst fault of the “typical modern German,” Shaw wrote in 1907, “is that he cannot see that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  Being convinced that duty, industry, education, loyalty, patriotism and respectability are good things (and I am magnanimous enough to admit that they are not altogether bad things when taken in strict moderation at the right time and in the right place), he indulges in them on all occasions shamelessly and excessivelyHe commits hideous crimes when crime is presented to him as part of his duty; his craze for work is more ruinous than the craze for drink …”

Yes, a craze for doing one’s duty in the name of a state-defined and state-glorifying patriotism can be taken too far, as events were to show.  Shaw went on to say that he struggled himself with the “mania” of wanting to be seen as “loyal and patriotic, to be respectable and well-spoken of.”  But the typical German abandoned himself to this mania, or so Shaw argued.

The result, Shaw warned, “may end in starvation, crushing taxation, suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions, in snobbery, jobbery, idolatry, and an omnipresent tyranny in which his doctor and his schoolmaster, his lawyer and his priest, coerce him worse than any official or drill sergeant: no matter: it is respectable, says the German, therefore it must be good, and cannot be carried too far; and everybody who rebels against it must be a rascal.”

That is a remarkable line: the suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions.  It’s exactly how the Nazis couched their radical and murderous tyranny – as an experiment in greater freedom (for the Aryan elite, naturally, not for “inferiors”).  And most “respectable” Germans went along with this; they saluted the Leader smartly and obeyed.  Or they dared not outwardly to disobey, which had the same effect.

It’s easy to slough off Shaw’s words as a period piece, words that applied to certain Germans at a certain point in history.  But there’s more here than that.  Shaw is warning us that unthinking allegiance to state-defined duty, loyalty, patriotism, all in the name of “respectability” as defined and judged by supposedly sober superiors, is open to exploitation as well as perversion by authoritarian interests.

Subsequent German history proved Shaw to be right.  Tragically so.

But what about the typical modern American?  Are we immune from this exaltation of the self in the service of state interests?  An exaltation that takes its meaning from toil and conformity?  Are we as unwilling as most Germans were to challenge authority before it becomes corrupt and authoritarian?

Consider these words of Tom Engelhardt, writing at Tomdispatch.com about the current state of affairs in Washington D.C. and around the world, as our government hunts the dissident Edward Snowden:

“It’s eerie that some aspects of the totalitarian governments that went down for the count in the twentieth century are now being recreated in those shadows.  There, an increasingly ‘totalistic’ if not yet totalitarian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Washington to be born, while those who cared to shine a little light on the birth process are in jail or being hounded across this planet.”

Yes, the echoes are eerie.  Part of the answer is to listen to Shaw.  Better to act as a “rascal” in pursuit of a more equitable and ethical society than to crave respectability as defined by the state.  The rascal challenges state authority.  The dutiful man?  As Shaw argues, the latter may commit hideous crimes simply because some authority figure told him to do so.

In these days of increasing governmental authority and state intrusion into individual privacy, it may well be wise for us to tap our inner rascals.

W.J. Astore