Worse Than Fascism?

I’ve never been much for calling the United States (U.S.) “fascist,” something that a significant number of my fellow leftists and progressives like to do in a half-serious way. What do such progressives mean when they use that loaded and ugly term to describe the contemporary U.S.? In their more serious moments, the factors mentioned include a merging of corporate and state power; suppression of unions; a culture and vast apparatus of imperial militarism; celebration of violence and cruelty; nationalism; hostility to equality and democracy; demagogic appeals to a frustrated middle class; hatred of the weak and poor; attachment to tradition and hierarchy; the systematic subordination of racial and ethnic minorities; militarized policing; mass incarceration; the devaluation or erosion of basic civil liberties; and hostility to intellectuals, modern science, liberalism, and socialism.

I would be the first to acknowledge that all of these and other reactionary and authoritarian features and tendencies are all too terribly present in the contemporary U.S. I would add that certain American current events can take on a distinctly fascistic feel, as when paramilitary police crushed the Occupy encampments in Oakland, California and New York City in the fall of 2011 and terrorized locked-down Boston and Boston area residents after the Boston Marathon bombings in April of 2013; when Civil Rights protestors in Ferguson, Missouri faced graphic military-style police repression last summer; and when New York City police accused civil rights protestors and New York City’s liberal mayor of contributing to the murder of two NYPD officers last December. One could mention other examples.

Still, call me old fashioned and overly focused on European history, but I think it is misleading and even a little silly to call the U.S. “fascist.” Here, from historian Robert Paxton’s study Anatomy of Fascism (written largely with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in mind), is a useful if incomplete definition of fascism – the real thing – in interwar and WWII Europe:

“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.”

I would elaborate on Paxton’s characterization, adding the existence of a (typically “charismatic”) dictator embodying the “national will,” a strong component of Social Darwinian racism, disdain for elections and normal bourgeois-parliamentary procedures and institutions, the systematic physical destruction of working class organizations, harsh suppression of the Left, and a highly mobilized largely petit-bourgeois sociopolitical base deeply resentful of labor, leftists, and intellectuals and ready to fight and kill liberal, Left, and ethnic/racial others and enemies at home and abroad. I situate fascism within capitalism, seeing it as a product of societal tensions produced by the bourgeois order, as allied with the most reactionary wings of the elite business class, and as unwilling to fundamentally challenge capitalist ownership and direction of the economy.

Held up against these historically appropriate criteria, the United States today is certainly corporatist, imperialist, authoritarian, un- and even anti-egalitarian, objectively racist and sexist, and much more terrible to mention, but not really “fascist.” It has numerous dreadful overlaps with fascism and a number of significantly fascistic components (many if not most of its police agencies, the prison system, much of the U.S. military). But it has no ranting, all-powerful dictator. It has not abolished bourgeois elections and parties, preferring instead to uphold (not-so) “democratic” voting and elections at all levels of government.

Highly mobilized mass movements of nationalist right-wing shock troops do not crush the bones and skulls of liberals, leftists, pacifists, and trade unionists in the streets or gather to undertake violent campaigns of ethnic cleansing and war in the U.S. today. American elites, media, and politics make a great point of claiming to be “post-racial” and non-sexist (a first technically female president following two terms of a first technically Black president is a distinct possibility in 2016) and even in many cases gay-friendly. Radical leftists and others do not generally worry about getting beaten up by jackbooted rightist thugs when they speak on behalf of civil liberties, civil rights, ecological sustainability, electoral reform, peace, or even revolutionary socialism.

The hard right is not terribly mobilized or together in the U.S. today. The powers that be here seem to want the masses apolitical, privatized, distracted, divided, and individualized, concerned primarily with consumerism and personal pursuits. Angry white lower middle-class Americans are expected to channel their violent impulses into watching football and playing sadistic video games, not beating up leftists and fighting wars (only a tiny percentage of the population is enlisted in the military). Nationalism is significantly contained by the broader hegemony of corporate globalization, despite obvious tensions.

Dependent on the money of billionaire oil and gas baron Koch brothers and other elite funders, the Tea Party crowd is clueless and disinterested when it comes to building anything like a mass movement, fascist or otherwise. The top U.S. officeholders reach their positions through the slimy, timeworn, and plutocratic machinations of money, media, public relations, and dollar-drenched major party politics, not by deploying enforcers to shoot, club, burn, and bomb their opponents and civil society into submission.

If the U.S. today is “fascist,” its fascism is cooking on a low flame and distant burner. It exhibits a distinctly “inverted” (demobilized and neoliberal, plutocratic, “market”-mediated and corporate-managed) form of the disease that probably doesn’t deserve the use of the term unless the word is drained of its basic historical essence.

To say this, however is not to offer anything remotely like grateful praise to the contemporary U.S., with its vicious, eco-cidal ruling class and its reigning sociopathic institutions. Under the “inverted totalitarianism” (U.S. political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s term) that is 21st century America’s “corporate-managed democracy” (Wolin again), many of the basic objectives of fascism – the defeat of unions and the working class, the degradation of democracy, the enforcement of hierarchy and savage inequality, racial subordination, the marginalization of the Left, racial divide and rule, militarization of society, and permanent arms and war economy – are achieved without the discomfort and uncertainly imposed by barking Fuhrers and marching brown-shirts. Chilling as it may sound to say, fascism would be redundant in the United States today. The U.S. ruling class doesn’t need it. It gets the same results with a different – more atomized, privatized, apathetic, consumerized, and “inverted” – model of authoritarian rule, one that makes an insistent and deceptive claim to be a great force for modern Western democracy, Enlightenment values (even if U.S. presidents end every major speech with “God Bless America”), and freedom at home and abroad.

One might even argue that the contemporary U.S. model is in some ways worse than classic or real historical fascism in advancing tyrannical imperial and state-capitalist goals. Real-deal European fascism made no pretense of being anything other than authoritarian and anti-democratic. Its hostility to popular governance, civil liberties, social justice, parliamentary deliberation, social diversity, the Enlightenment, free thought and discourse (and more) was open and explicit. It was quite forthright, to say the least. There was no mistaking its vicious, top-down evil. You knew what you were dealing with – and if you forgot, jackbooted thugs were there to remind you.

Things are trickier and more complex with contemporary U.S. state-capitalist and imperial-corporate-financial-neoliberal authoritarianism, which is adept at wrapping itself in the false and illusory false flag of democracy.

Most U.S. intellectuals would no doubt be aghast at the notion that there is any way in which the contemporary U.S. “homeland” might be worse than fascism..Many would remind us of Hitler’s death camps, where six million Jews (along with countless others, including Gypsies, gays, Communists, socialists and Slavs) were systematically butchered by poison gassing and other appalling means. I understand the discomfort, and I repeat that I do not think it is accurate to describe America as fascist.

At the same time, I would urge those who might cite the Nazi Holocaust to question my argument to acknowledge that the contemporary American System is heir to monumental acts and processes of American genocide and mass atrocity at home (the Native American and Black Slavery Holocausts) and abroad (the millions of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Filipino, Laotian, Cambodian, Latin American, Iraqi, Afghan, Palestinian, and other civilians the U.S. military and its proxies have directly and indirectly killed since August of 1945). I also advise reflection on the massive crime of ecocide and omnicide being perpetrated by contemporary U.S. (and global) capital in soulless defiance of the ever more desperate findings, pleas, and recommendations of modern Earth science. Corporate- and Wall Street-managed America stands in the vanguard of anthropogenic global warming, “the leading issue of our or any time” (John Sonbanmatsu). Does this crime not amount to the attempted poison-gassing (carbon-gassing) unto death of, well, life on Earth – a transgression that promises to make even the almost unthinkable misdeeds of the ultimate fascist Hitler pale by comparison?

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).


  1. Johnny mcneill February 9, 2015 10:05 pm 

    It sounds as though we need a new derogatory word to use.Fascist seems to be the closest derogative word to describe what we see.Fascism adapts with time too.The framework is different but the results are very similar.Overcrowded jails,homelessness and starvation of sections of society.If that word is not appropriate I am sure everyone will understand the need to find an appropriate word just as the elites find derogative words about the population.The words been used in the uk against the poor,disabled and mentally ill are words like scrounger,work shy. Food banks on the rise,kids starving at school,old age pensioners dieing of the cold.Bank bail outs and the NSA.If fascist is no longer appropriate let us make a new word and thrust it like a sword.

  2. avatar
    David Jones February 7, 2015 1:06 am 

    I suspect those who fought against fascism would agree with Paul that this is a different beast. History moves on, so should our analysis.

  3. avatar
    Paul Street February 6, 2015 5:24 pm 

    Ed Lytwak: No, under longstanding US norms (which date, yes, from slavery), Obama is a Black person even if one of his parents was white (and even, I would add, if he does not seem to have much allegiance either to Black America or to the cause of racial justice). He is in fact the nation’s first technically Black president. Calling Hillary Clinton “half-woman” is probably somewhere you don’t really want to go…it’s odd to say the least. And yes, technically and historically speaking the US today is not a fascist state — so, at least, I argue, for reasons about which I am very clear in this essay. I did not definitively say that the US is “something worse” than a fascist state. I suggested that “the contemporary U.S. model is in some ways worse than classic or real historical fascism in advancing tyrannical imperial and state-capitalist goals.” What I hear behind “we are never going to get at the truth if we don’t call things by their right name” is a frankly problematic and disturbing inability to tolerate incompleteness and ambiguity. If you have a “right name” for the US model, state it. If you think in some self-evident sort of way that that name is fascist, then you are free to say so. I have explained in this brief essay why I think that would be a mistake.

    • avatar
      Ed Lytwak February 6, 2015 5:42 pm 

      Under longstanding US norms “one drop” of Negro blood makes you Black – hardly a convincing argument for that technicality. Self-identifying would be better but even in that regard the “truth” would be better served by looking at actions rather than words. You are right about not going there with Killary, but let me clarify that I’m talking about an old, white neocon man’s mind in a woman’s body. To the point “fascism” is both an ideological construct and its historical manifestation. I’m not really sure what is to be gained by muddling the distinction between the two. And yes, I do think that truth is served by identifying the U.S. is a fascist state. Sometimes certainty and completeness is what is needed when looking into disturbed waters.

      • avatar
        Paul Street February 7, 2015 9:57 pm 

        Ed Lytwak I’m sorry but In US culture and on the US Census form, one does not have to have two 100% African-ancestry (“fully Black”) parents to be a Black American. I mean….really. As for identifying the US as “a fascist state,” while in this essay I was rather polite and academic about it, my personal honest sense is that it’s a sign of some kind of bitter left dementia and/or stark historical ignorance….this for reasons given. Obviously my essay looks deeply into “disturbed waters,” to say the least…I mean for God’s sake I talk about some ways in which the US model might be seen as “worse than fascism” (it doesn’t get much darker than that…if anything my argument is probably too dark/disturbing) . Why the need to put a label from European history on it? Let the American System own its own distinctive and horrific authoritarian awfulness.

        • avatar
          Ed Lytwak February 7, 2015 10:24 pm 

          You are right that putting labels from European history on the U.S. is counter productive. As I said the term fascism is both an political ideological construct and its historical manifestation. Obviously the historical manifestation is going to be different each time. What I am arguing is that the political ideology, which i would define as the merger of corporate/financial/oligarchic and state power is still a very useful way for looking at and understand what is happening in the US. today. P..S. regarding half black or half white, my main point is that racism has always been an integral part of the U.S. political calculus and Obama is just the latest manifestation – as gender will be in the next election.

  4. avatar
    Ed Lytwak February 6, 2015 3:36 pm 

    Technically, it was the first half-white president. And technically, that would be the first half-woman president. So technically, the U.S. is not a fascist state but something worse? We are never going to get at the truth if we don’t call things by their right name.

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