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).