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                                                                 What is Fascism?

 June 2008

An historical Note: Henry Ford who greatly admired Hitler and apparently George W Bush’s grandfather were fascist sympathizers and supporters of a plot with many other members of the US corporate elite to assassinate Franklin D Roosevelt and assume power. In 1934 a special Congressional committee was appointed to conduct an investigation of this planned coup intended to topple the administration of FDR and replace it with a government modeled on the policies of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The shocking results of the investigation were promptly whitewashed like so many other unpleasant facts of American history and stashed in the National Archives. While the coup attempt was reported at the time in a few newspapers, including The New York Times, the story disappeared from public memory shortly after the Congressional findings were made available to President Roosevelt. Like the 500 year genocide and ethnic cleansing of native peoples it’s not the sort of item that would appear in our biased patriotic flag waving history books.

Here’s another interesting snippet: John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen Dulles, were the lawyers looking after Bush family fortunes and investments in Nazi Germany. John Dulles would later become the US Secretary of State and the great power and influence in the Republican Party of the 1950s. Allen Dulles would become head of the CIA.

Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. built large oil refineries in Germany for the Nazis and continued to supply them during the Second World War. In October 1942 the Bush banking operations in New York were investigated by the US government under the Trading with the Enemy Act. The capital trading stock of the Union banking Corporation, owned by Prescott Bush, Bunny Harriman and three German Nazi executives, was seized.

A number of prominent and wealthy Americans, including the Bush and Rockefeller families, helped support and build the fascist regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco - with nearly 70 percent of the money that flooded into Germany during the 1930s coming from investors in the US. Henry Ford was building cars and trucks in his German factories for Hitler’s war effort, while simultaneously making huge fortunes at home in America. Hitler awarded Henry Ford the German Grand Cross for his efforts. IBM and many other American corporations were similarly involved.


                                
                               What is Fascism?

When fascism comes to America it will be draped in the flag and wearing a cross – Sinclair Lewis

But I venture the challenging state­ment that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peace­ful means to better the lot of our citi­zens, then Fascism and Communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory Republicanism, will grow in strength in our land.  - Franklin D. Roosevelt, November 4, 1938

 

Fascism has unfortunately become a catchphrase of derision for any group representing a political entity that represents a political opponent. In recent years pundits on both the right and left invoke the term fascist to describe socialists, Marxists, conservatives and even liberals (who represent the very antithesis of what it means to be a fascist). But that doesn’t stop an ultra-conservative Jonah Goldberg of the National Review from writing a ludicrous book with the self-contradictory title of Liberal Fascism. Conservatives like Goldberg try to argue that the Nazis were an example of a 'socialist' government as part of their effort to discredit socialism and leftist policies in general. Perhaps Goldberg is duped by the Nazi party using the name National Socialist. I’m surprised that Goldberg didn’t try to argue that the KKK is a liberal or socialist organization. Goldberg’s sophistry is rather like using the example of the former East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, to discredit democracy. It demonstrates the writer’s inability to adhere to conceptual and metaphysical reality. The notion that workers controlled the means of production in Nazi Germany as in a Marxist utopia is a cruel joke. It was actually a combination of aristocracy and unfettered capitalism. Goldberg is either deluded or knows very well what he writes is drivel and takes pride in it. Since most people, never having been taught how to think critically, don’t have the ability to distinguish between a cogent argument and a fallacious one, this sort of rhetorical rubbish is often effective in convincing them.

Part of the problem results from Goldberg committing the same mistake to which he rightly accuses people on the left, misusing language and rendering a term meaningless. While it is true that Fascism is a statist ideology that does not mean that all proponents of a strong state are Fascists (remember Logic 101, "all men are mortal” does not imply “all mortals are men"). But anyone who has read any political philosophy (or even consulted a dictionary*) ought to know that the political continuum from left to right starts with Communism of the extreme left, onwards to socialism, social democrats, liberals, conservatives and on to the extreme right to fascism, theocracy, monarchism and other variations of  authoritarian ideology. These divisions have been blurred to such an extent by pundits and propagandists on the left and right that they no longer resemble the traditional conceptualizations that are accepted by historians and political philosophers, even dictionary definitions. For example, leftist writers refer to Republicans as fascists and those on the right refer to Democrats as socialists. I really don’t see a huge distinction between the two conservative parties in the United States because nothing much changes for the average person regardless of what party holds power. The United States is really a single party plutocracy and honesty should induce one to refer to it as the “Repulicrat” Party.

[* The American Heritage Dictionary defines fascism as: "A system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism."]

A sure way to make money and get air time on Fox News is to write a book that tells the rabid right just what they want to hear. Historical ignorance and amnesia is a national obsession so forget history, logic or reason.  It's a 'smoke screen' because it's meant to disguise the creeping neo-fascism of the neo-conservative extreme right in our political systems in North America.  Anyone who's read  a good book on fascism such as the recent Oxford University Press publication of Fascism by Kevin Passmore or even the '14 characteristics of Fascism' will quickly see that the conservative/right wing in our political system is, by far, much closer to fascism than any liberal could ever be. I didn't think anyone could do worse research than Ann Coulter, but this guy comes awfully close. If you read the piece “14 characteristics of fascism” that is posted at the Free Inquiry web site and various other web locations, you will be shocked at the congruence between the criteria cited and the current Bush administration.

Quite clearly, Jonah Goldberg has a facile and frivolous grasp of history. He cherry picks facts to fit his needs instead of trying to differentiate concepts as they are generally accepted within academia or the true picture of lineage in the political spectrum. It is specious to think that modern progressive movements have any lineage to Mussolini. Goldberg tortures facts to get them to fit his fantasy Procrustean bed. To his credit, Goldberg does know how to write and maintains a far more serious veneer than the likes of his fellow culture warriors and intellectual lightweights such as Shawn Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.

One of the defining characteristics of fascism is its unqualified contempt and hatred of free thought and liberalism. Consequently for the uninformed and ignorant masses here has been a great deal of conceptual confusion regarding fascism. Among historians and political scientists of the twentieth century there has been universal acceptance of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco as the consummate representatives of fascism. In their younger days Both Hitler and Mussolini dabbled with socialism but any reading of Hitler’s Mein Kampf or his many Reichstag speeches will dispel any illusion about his alleged leftist leanings. When Hitler first gained absolute power his first order of business was to eradicate the parliamentary system, crush anyone with leftist sympathies including trade unions, libertarian socialists and leftist intellectuals of every stripe. The Nazis abolished trade unions, collective bargaining and the right to strike. An organization called the “Labor Front” replaced the old trade unions, but it was merely a propaganda instrument of the Nazi party and did not represent workers interests in any way. It’s true that the Nazis tried to develop an ideology of quasi-socialism — one based on Christianity, in fact. Part of their party platform was the idea that the public need should be put before private greed, and this principle was part of the statement of how they were perceived as a Christian political party. In Germany under Hitler, religion was not purged from public policy. Both Hitler and Mussolini signed Concordats with the Pope and in Mein Kampf Hitler wrote that he was an agent of the Creator. German soldiers during World War Two wore belts buckles that read "Gott mit uns" (God is with us). The head of the fascist government in Slovakia was Jozef Tiso a Catholic Priest and anywhere fascism has prevailed, the Catholic Church was a complicit partner. It is extremely deceptive of Goldberg to link FDR and other liberals with Fascism. The Liberty League and other American Fascist groups of that era hated FDR and even tried to overthrow him in a coup.

In reality, though, Nazi policies did not reflect anything that remotely resembles socialism. How can anyone describe a government that persecutes leftist intellectuals, outlaws the Communist Party and abolishes the right to strike or engage in collective bargaining as “socialist”? Socialists are exponents of democracy, egalitarianism and consideration for the welfare of the worst off in society as well as racial and gender equality, ideals that for Hitler were anathema. Rabid American conservatives like Goldberg are concerned that the USA not come too close to the “socialism” of Nazi Germany, but it is the laws which work against collective bargaining and union activity which cause America to begin to resemble Nazi Germany, not any so-called socialist policies of this or that leftist group. Socialism may or may not be an ineffective way to organize an economy or society, but criticizing the Nazis is surely not the way to make this point. Notwithstanding the empty socialist rhetoric in which he appealed to the masses, Hitler’s labor policy was a windfall for the industrial cartels that supported him. Nazi law gave total control over wages and working conditions to the employer and compulsory slave labor was the crowning achievement of Nazi labor relations.

The same economic reality existed in Italy between the two world wars. In that country, nearly all industrial activity was owned or controlled by a few corporate giants, F.I.A.T. and the Ansaldo shipping concern being the chief examples. Land ownership in Italy was also highly concentrated and jealously guarded. Vast tracts of farmland were owned by a few latifundisti (huge estate landlords). The actual farming was carried out by a landless peasantry who were locked into a role essentially the same as that of the share cropper of the U.S. Deep South. As in Germany, the few owners of the nation’s capital assets had immense influence over government. As a young man, Mussolini had been a strident socialist, and he, like Hitler, used socialist language to lure the people to fascism. Mussolini spoke of a “corporate” society wherein the energy of the people would not be wasted on class struggle. The entire economy was to be divided into industry specific “corporazioni”, corporate bodies composed of both labor and management representatives. The corporazioni would resolve all labor/management disputes, and if they failed to do so, the fascist state would intervene. Unfortunately, as in Germany, there laid at the heart of this plan a swindle. The corporazioni to the extent that they were actually put in place, were controlled by the employers. Together with Mussolini’s ban on strikes and collective bargaining, these measures reduced the Italian laborer to the status of medieval peasant. Mussolini the one-time socialist went on to abolish the inheritance tax, a measure which favored the wealthy. He decreed a series of massive subsidies to Italy’s largest industrial businesses and repeatedly ordered wage rollbacks. Italy’s poor were forced to subsidize the wealthy. Sound familiar? In real terms, wages and living standards for the average Italian worker dropped precipitously under fascism.

As I have mentioned, the Communist Party was declared illegal by Hitler. We all know about the book burnings. Hitler was a Catholic so the church worked in lock step with the Third Reich and the Vatican never questioned anything Hitler did. There are scores of photographs of prominent Catholic priests and dignitaries at Nazi celebrations and functions giving the old Zeig Heil salute and every German infantryman had a belt buckle with the inscription “Got Mit Uns” (God is with us). Moreover, the Vatican was instrumental in facilitating the escape from Germany of numerous Nazi criminals that were destined to be tried at the Nuremburg Tribunals.

Even the religious fanatics who were responsible for flying the airplanes into the WTC on September 11, 2001 have been referred to as Islamo-fascists. This sobriquet is not entirely without merit because fascism has much in common with fundamentalist religion in the sense that both entail an all-encompassing faith based messianic hierarchical world view and ideology that cover all aspects of man’s existence. The regime of Franco in Spain from 1939-1975 is universally considered the classic paradigm of fascism and like Hitler, the alignment of Catholicism with Franco’s totalitarian regime is no accident. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 Franco would never have achieved victory over the short lived democratic Republic without the military assistance of both Hitler and Mussolini. Ironically but not surprisingly the Western Democracies such as France, England and the United States did nothing to help the republican cause since they were more interested in protecting the investments of their financial elites than in promoting democracy for Spain. The United States in particular recognized and supported the tyrannical fascist dictatorship of Franco during his entire rule.

But as the quote by FDR suggests, fascism is clearly on the opposite end of the political spectrum from communism and hence right wing along with conservatism, monarchism and totalitarianism. In fact one of Hitler’s first acts after gaining total control of Germany was to eliminate trade unions and persecute anyone on the left including leftist intellectuals, communists, socialists and anarchists. Jews, homosexuals and atheists were also big on the Hitler hit list. As in Spain under Franco, the Catholic Church, which one could convincingly argue is a classic fascist organization, cooperated and aligned itself with the Third Reich. Hitler was after all an avowed Catholic. Since the Soviet Union’s Bolshevik revolution after the death of Lenin in 1923 morphed into totalitarianism with the advent of Stalin, one could argue that it had many characteristics of a fascist state as well. It certainly in no way resembled communism as articulated by Marx.

Roosevelt well understood the extent of fascism’s popularity and appeal at the political box office during the 1930s; so does Umberto Eco, who takes pains in the essay “Ur-Fascism,” pub­lished in The New York Review of Books in 1995, to suggest that it’s a mistake to translate fascism into a figure of literary speech. By recovering from our historical memory only the vivid and familiar images of fascist tyranny (Gestapo intrusions into private lives, firing squads and death camps for dissidents, suspension of civil rights and the right to collective bargaining for workers, hyper-patriotism, racism, labor camps, book burnings, anti-intellectualism, anti-communist and the chimneys at Auschwitz), we lose sight of the faith-based initiatives that sustained the tyrant’s rise to dominance and power. The several experiments with fascist govern­ment, in Spain as well as in Italy and Germany, didn’t depend on a single portfolio of dogma, and so Eco, in search of their common foundation, doesn’t look for a unifying principle or standard text. He attempts to describe a way of thinking and a habit of mind, and on sifting through the assortment of fantastic and often contradictory notions— Nazi Christian paganism, Franco’s National Catholicism, Mussolini’s corporatism, etc.—he finds a set of axioms on which all the fascisms agree. Among the most notable are:

*The truth is revealed once and only once.

*Parliamentary democracy is by definition depraved because it doesn’t represent the voice of the people, which is that of the sublime leader.

*Doctrine and faith supersede reason, and science is deemed universally suspicious.

*Critical thought and skepticism is the province of degenerate intellectuals who betray the culture and subvert traditional values.

*The national identity is provided and sustained by the nation’s enemies.

 *Cogent argument is tantamount to treason.

*Control of the mass media is paramount.

*Religion and Government (God and The State) are intertwined so that barriers between church and state are blurred.

*Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause and Obsession with National Security

*Perpetually at war, the state must govern with the instruments of fear.

*Citizens do not act; they play the supporting role of “the people” in the grand opus that is the state.

*Hyper-patriotism with invocations of God and the Glorious Leader blessing the sanctified State and with national anthems played at every possible opportunity with the flag waving incessantly.

Eco published his essay over ten years ago, when it wasn’t as easy as it has recently become to see the hallmarks of fascist sentiment in the character of an American government, especially under George W Bush. Roosevelt probably wouldn’t have been surprised by it. He’d encountered enough opposition to both the New Deal and to his belief in such a thing as a United Nations to judge the force of America’s racist passions and the ferocity of its anti-intellectualism and vulgar religiosity. As he may have guessed, so it has happened.

If the characteristics of fascism cited above appear eerily similar to the present political and cultural environment in the United States, it ought to create concern for everyone throughout the world. The Nazis in the 1930s were forced to waste precious time and money on the inculcation of the German citizenry, too well-educated for its own good, against the contamination of impermissible freedom of thought. The plutocrats who run the United States government can count it as a blessing that they don’t bear the burden of an enlightened, educated, skeptical and inquisitive citizenry. The systematic destruction of the public school and library systems over the last thirty years, a program wisely carried out under administrations both Republican and Democratic, protects the market for the sale and distribution of the government’s propaganda posters. The publishing companies can print as many books as will guarantee their profit (books on any and all subjects, some of them even truthful), but to people who don’t know how to read or think, they do as little harm as snowflakes falling on a frozen pond. And most people who do read do not read quality books but instead turn the sort of mindless rubbish contained within #1 best sellers like The Secret and other quasi-religious self help crud or escapist sensationalist fiction.

One can find a similar cultural bond between Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 30s and the Bush administration’s imperial foreign policy and its tax policies, which not only benefit America’s richest people and institutions but are deliberately aimed at eviscerating the social security system or what’s left of it. The United States has achieved its overwhelming military power at the same time and in close connection with a revolt against liberalism, which is arguably as deep as the one that reached its climax with the establishment of the totalitarian regimes of the 1920s and 1930s. Local crises are emerging at the state level all across the United States. The perpetual War in Iraq is bankrupting the public purse, educational institutions have been “dumbed down” and are being starved of funding; science courses at all levels are under siege from Christian fundamentalists, benefits to the poor are being slashed; the proportion of Americans living in poverty is up, as is inequality; crises in Medicare and Social Security loom while tax breaks for the rich and the corporate world continue unabated. And these results are a product of deliberate policy, promoted through a an immoral and illegal imperialist war along with a program of deep tax cuts which promise to erode the financial capacity of the government to undertake any but the most minimal welfare functions.

Observing political and economic dialogue in North America since the 1970’s leads to an inescapable conclusion: the considerable corpus of legislative activity favors the interests of the financial elites and large commercial enterprises. Big business is very well off, and successive Canadian and U.S. governments, of whatever political stripe, have made this their primary objective for at least the last 30 years. Digging deeper into twentieth century history, one finds this steadfast focus on the well-being of big business in other times and places. The exaltation of big business at the expense of the citizen was a central characteristic of government policy in Germany and Italy in the years before those countries were devoured by fascism. Before the rise of fascism, Germany and Italy were liberal democracies. Fascist dictatorships were borne to power in each of these countries by corporatism and they served the interests of big business with remarkable ferocity. These harsh facts have been lost to the popular consciousness in North America. Fascism could therefore return to us and in fact perhaps it has since we will likely not even recognize it when it happens. Indeed, Huey Long, one of America’s most brilliant and at the same time most corrupt politicians, was once asked if America would ever see fascism. His answer was, “Yes, but we will call it anti-fascism”.

In the post-war period, this flawed notion of freedom has been perpetuated by the neo-conservative school of thought. The neo-conservatives denounce any regulation of the marketplace until and when they need a bailout package (like the one during the trillion dollar S & L scandal during the Reagan era or the more recent taxpayer bailout of Bear Stearns) or tax reform, interest rate manipulations or interest free loans from the Conservative Nanny State to rescue them form their own larcenous ways. In so doing, they mimic the posture of big business in the pre-fascist period. Under the sway of neo-conservatism, Thatcher, Reagan, Mulroney and George W. Bush have decimated labor and exalted capital. (At present, only 7.8 per cent of workers in the U.S. private sector are unionized — about the same percentage as in the early 1900s.)

Neo-conservatives call relentlessly for tax cuts, which, in a previously progressive system, disproportionately favor the wealthy. Regarding the distribution of wealth, the neo-conservatives have nothing to say. In the end, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. As in Weimar Germany, the function of the state is being reduced to that of a steward for the interests of the moneyed elite. All that would be required now for a more rapid descent into fascism are a few reasons for the average person to forget he is being ripped off. Hatred of Arabs, fundamentalist Christianity or an illusory sense of perpetual war may well be taking the place of Hitler's hatred for communists and Jews.

Neo-conservative intellectuals in the United States often acknowledge the need for violence and oppression to protect what they regard as freedom and the never-ending imperialist wars consistent with the dogma of Manifest Destiny since the early 19th Century are a testament to that need. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has written enthusiastically that "the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist," and that "McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15." As in pre-fascist Germany and Italy, the laissez-faire businessmen call for the Conservative Nanny state to do their bidding even as they insist that the state should stay out of the marketplace. Put plainly, neo-conservatives advocate the use of the state's military force throughout the world for the protection of private profit. Their view of the state's role in society is really indistinguishable from the businessmen and intellectuals who supported Hitler and Mussolini. There is no fear of the powerful nanny state here, something usually attributed to socialists - there is only the desire to make it a conservative welfare state and to wield its power. Neo-conservatism is thus fertile soil for fascism to grow again into an outright threat to our democracy.

By matching Eco’s list of fascist commandments against our record of achievement, we can see how well Bush et al have begun the new project for the next millennium—the notion of absolute and eternal truth embraced by the evangelical Christians and embodied in the strict constructions of the Constitution; the national identity provided by anonymous Arabs; Darwin’s theory of evolution rescinded by the fiat of “intelligent design”; a state of perpetual war and a government administering, in generous and daily doses, the specter of fear of an Islamic terrorist under every bed; two presidential elections stolen with little or no objection on the part of a complacent populace; the nation’s congressional districts gerrymandered to defend the White House for the next fifty years against the intrusion of a reform-minded president; the news media devoted to the arts of celebrity, fame and trivia, busily minting images of corrupt corporate executives like those of the emperor heroes on the coins of a decadent Rome.

An impressive beginning, in line with what the world has come to expect from the innovative Americans, but surely we can do better. The early twentieth-century fascisms didn’t enter their golden age until the proletariat in the countries that gave them birth had been reduced to abject poverty. The anthems and the jingoistic marching songs rose with the cry of vultures from the rubble of the domestic economy. On the evidence of the wonderful work currently being done by the Bush Administration with respect to the trade deficit and the national debt - to say nothing of expanding the markets for global terrorism - I think we can look forward with confidence to character-building bank­ruptcies, long line-ups of street people at gloomy soup kitchens along with thrilling processions of splendidly uniformed mounted police carrying truncheons.

Postscript:

Here is Chris Floyd of the Moscow Times (English edition)….

Fascism in America won’t come with jackboots, book burnings, mass rallies, and fevered harangues, nor will it come with black helicopters or tanks on the street. It won’t come like a storm—but as a break in the weather, that sudden change of season you might feel when the wind shifts on an October evening: Everything is the same, but everything has changed. Something has gone, departed from the world, and a new reality will have taken its place. All the old forms will still be there: legislatures, elections, campaigns—plenty of bread and circuses. But “consent of the governed” will no longer apply; actual control of the state will have passed to a small and privileged group who rule for the benefit of their wealthy peers and corporate patrons.

To be sure, there will be factional conflicts among the elite, and a degree of debate will be permitted; but no one outside the privileged circle will be allowed to influence state policy. Dissidents will be marginalized—usually by “the people” themselves. Deprived of historical knowledge by a thoroughly impoverished educational system designed to produce complacent consumers, left ignorant of current events by a corporate media devoted solely to profit, many will internalize the force-fed values of the ruling elite, and act accordingly. There will be little need for overt methods of control.

The rulers will act in secret, for reasons of “national security,” and the people will not be permitted to know what goes on in their name. Actions once unthinkable will be accepted as routine: government by executive fiat, state murder of “enemies” selected by the leader, undeclared wars, torture, mass detentions without charge, the looting of the national treasury, the creation of huge new “security structures” targeted at the populace. In time, this will be seen as “normal,” as the chill of autumn feels normal when summer is gone. It will all seem normal.

 

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