A 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is also at Huffington Post.
13 thoughts on ““American Fascism”: Accurate or Misleading?”
If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.
If it prepares and exercises perpetual war, if it spies on all its citizens, if it militarizes its internal police, if it passes laws that take away civil liberties , and imprisons its own population for their resistance, and is behooven to the large corporations, it IS a Fascist state.!
Just because we aren’t gassing our citizens yet, merely spying on them, doesn’t make us less fascistic. It is dangerous not to alert our citizens to the fact that our elite political class and their alliance with the large corporations have succeeded in making us walk and quack like that duck.
They have succeeded in virtually nullifying the electoral process through the Citizens United ruling by the Supremes and the many states in which voter ID or voter suppression has become law. Our passive citizenry now accepts that it is OK to deny a criminal, who is a citizen of our country, the right to vote. but does not deny the right to vote to the politicians who deny tens of thousands the right to vote. So telling the people to just vote and it will all go away is like telling a drowning man to swim for shore when a big hungry shark is about to sample him.
Get scared, get very scared and let that fear drive you towards restoring our democracy.
Great essay. As you correctly explained, the U.S. government is clearly not fascist. However, it is moving inexorably towards what Robert Marston Fanney termed “totalitarian corporatism” in his new book on climate change titled “Growth Shock.” Whether America is ruled directly by a dictator like Hitler or Mussolini, or is ruled surreptitiously by a cabal of global capitalists, will make little difference to the average citizen and to the democratic institutions which would otherwise empower them. In either case, the general population will bear the brunt of the suffering that has only just begun.
The world is in the early stages of a terrible crisis. The ecosystems of the planet have a limited capacity to absorb the exploitative nature of our modern technological civilization in conjunction with an expanding human population. All indications so far suggest those limits have already been surpassed. A calamity is coming, and world leaders know it’s only a matter of time. Rather than attempting the politically difficult task of enacting long-term solutions, they are resorting to increasingly authoritarian measures to maintain social control. It’s a recipe for disaster.
This commentary may be alarmist, and some would accuse me of just being another idiotic doomsayer. But if you carefully study all the empirical trends which matter to our collective survival, it would be incredibly optimistic to reach any other conclusion.
Thank you Robert. Pointing out the relationship of climate change to the world’s move towards authoritarian rule has great merit. Who are the greatest funders in our country of climate change denial? Some of the largest corporations who are also funding outfits such as ALEC that have an active program of paying politicians to front legislation that restrict unions, limit citizen voting rights, loosen environmental regulation, oppose progressive tax policies that would burden the rich while improving the common good, privatize the common services, etc.
“What’s in a name?” queried the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon. While I agree the current state of US society does not fit the definition of “classic” fascism, there are hordes of ignorant haters who would enlist in the blink of an eye in pogroms against Arab-Americans, Jews, African-Americans, Muslims (above all, currently!), you name the ethnic/religious affiliation. The Tim McVeigh crowd endorsed “The Turner Diaries,” which longed for a race war that would be triggered when African-American federal agents try to seize the citizens’ beloved firearms (what else?!?). Are Limbaugh & company anything less than proto-fascist demagogues?? I think not! The dulling of class consciousness has been the genius of Capitalism in this nation. If the toiling masses ever wake up to the fact that they’re being exploited–that they’re NOT (gasp!) “the middle class”!!–the state won’t hesitate to unleash the most ruthlessly brutal force. But in the meantime, we get to choose between Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee at the polls every few years and NO REAL CHANGE is permitted. Relative class peace prevails for now. Do these realities have to depress and demoralize those of us who are aware/awake? I prefer to remain mad as hell, thank you.
Thanks for the great comments. I wrote this article to provoke thought. Personally, I think it’s self-defeating to claim that America is fascistic. For if we are, we’ve already lost. No — America has serious flaws, but we’re not a police state, we’re not a dictatorship, we’re not totally denying freedom. What we need to do, first and foremost, is to put an end to the idea we’re at war. Even in Nazi Germany, the worst excesses came only after the war started against Poland in Sept. 1939. So many rights can be abridged or denied in the name of war. This is yet another reason why we should not attack Syria. More war will take us down a dangerous path.
Obviously, you can fight terrorism without declaring war on it. We did it for 30 years before 9-11. Ending war will also help end the climate of fear that feeds oppression and authoritarianism.
Then, let’s respect the environment; let’s restore education as critical thinking; let’s rebuild America. And we’ll get off this dangerous road we’ve been racing along since 9-11.
Commander-in-Chief Obama, who for some bizarre reason possesses a Nobel Peace Prize, has suggested the WOT needs to wind down. To top that, he even suggested the use of killer drones can be wound down. I guess he’s getting really sloppy about “deadlines,” though. I hear Syria now has until mid-2014 to make nice on chemical weapons.
” the worst excesses ( of Fascism) only started after the war on Poland in Sept of 1939″. WRONG!
The worst excesses started immediately after the Nazi party burned down the Reichstag in 1933-34 and used that as an excuse to stampede the citizens into accepting their loss of freedom, much like what Americans allowed to happen after 9/11 with the enthusiastic support of virtually the full support of both of our political parties. .
The Germans allowed a series of anti Semitic laws to be passed and an immediate curtailment of civil liberties of all citizens, only a bit more stringent than our Patriot Act, again with ‘bi-partisan’ support. Shortly thereafter in Germany, Jews and dissenters were arrested and sent to ‘concentration camps’ (prisons), and then followed Kristal Nacht. If you were a Jew, a radical, or just a dissenter your world fell apart in Germany long before September 1939. No, we don’t have a ‘dictator’ yet, but we have a political party that hopes they will stay in power forever.
If you are a whistle blower in the U.S. today, who revealed the fact that our government allowed torture and is now sitting in prison in our country while the torturers are free, you might begin to see the similarities. Like one of my friends used to say, ” it all depends on whose bull is being gored”. Play like it isn’t happening and pretty soon you begin to believe it isn’t happening. It is only happening to “other ” people, not you.
Once power has been concentrated in a few hands of people whose only desire is to remain in power you have an authoritarian state and if part of that power derives from huge corporations that control the economy you have a fascist state.
Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat history.
What I meant by “worst excesses” after Sept. 1939 was the beginning of mass murders (mainly by shooting) in Poland, followed by the “war of annihilation” in the Soviet Union in 1941 and the definition of “The Final Solution” early in 1942. Even Hitler’s order to begin euthanasia of “unwanted mouths” was backdated to Sept. 1, 1939, as if euthanasia was a necessary wartime exigency.
My point is that an authoritarian government can justify murderous policies in the name of winning a war. So we have to eliminate that wartime mentality.
Also, we don’t have concentration camps (1933), we’ve had nothing like the Nuremberg Race Laws (1935), and there’s been nothing like the vicious pogrom of Kristallnacht (1938) in the U.S.
Do we have problems? Of course we do. But they are not alleviated by lumping them all together as a fascist takeover of the American polity.
Yes, history provides a warning to us. It warns us to fight authoritarianism while you still can. And we still can.
Is Death the only “worst excess” of a fascist state. . Isn’t losing ones freedom while alive an excessive loss.? Must we wait patiently for that “worst excess” Death that fascism brings to declare that we know what it looks like.?
If you are in the middle of the railroad track and you see the express train 100 yards away barreling down the tracks towards you at 80 mph, that is not the time to consider whether the train driver wants to stop for little you..
When you see a persistent pattern from both parties that govern us of support for war making, support for banking and corporate interests over the common good, for turning a blind eye to ignoring our constitution by spying .on all aspects of our life, for ignoring habeas corpus, for attempting to silence journalists who reveal the corruption in our governance, do you say ” Oh well, lets just hope that somebody else comes up with a good idea on how to deal with this.
There are now people sitting in our jails who have spoken out and done something to let us know the danger . Do you believe for a moment that they are thinking that it “hasn’t come to a point yet where we can say we are in a fascist state”. Yeah, they are not Dead nor are they in a concentration camp so it just shows we have nothing to fear. No way Jay!
Put yourself in their place. When are you going to say something or do something on principle that those in power wont like?
Hear hear! Of course, “the system” has been rigged to favor the elite from Day One. I have finally obtained a copy of Joseph Ellis’s “His Excellency, George Washington” and I WILL read it one of these days. So the problem is not at all new. Capitalism, of course, is all about benefiting the few at the expense of the many. The problem we face now is that in the mad scramble for the planet’s dwindling natural resources–and Thomas Malthus WAS correct, IMHO, despite a recent op-ed in NY Times and other efforts to dismiss him–the ruling class has moved a long way down the road to totalitarianism in order to defend their privileged perch, which is ever so much higher above the average citizen. Even Obama admitted the other day that 95% of the wealth gained in this make-believe recovery from the market plunge of 2008-09 has gone to the top 1% of income recipients. There has been censorship and domestic spying (wiretapping and inspection of what we now call “snail mail,” for instance…the Palmer Raids thru Hoover’s COINTELPRO) during past war crises, from the Civil War and WW 1 thru Vietnam, but the extent of government intrusion into citizens’ private communications exposed by Mr. Snowden is a qualitative, not merely quantitative, escalation. It may not fit the classic definition of Fascism, but it sure as hell feels like Orwell’s dystopia of “1984” to me.
These are good points. Let me take another tack. Fascism involved the deliberate mobilization of the people in rabid support of the state and its self-anointed leader. Our state is not mobilizing the people; quite the contrary. The plutocratic “elites” are appeasing and/or distracting the people with consumer goods and creature comforts and infotainment. Don’t think “1984”: think Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” People are not being mobilized; they’re being kept somnambulant. It’s not a will to power, it’s a drive to shop. I just got a reminder today that there are “only” 100 days to Christmas.
BTW, Greg and b. traven, isn’t it time for you to write articles telling me how wrong I am?
Oh, I gotcha on this one, Mr. Astore! I only fairly recently got around to reading Bradbury’s famous novel. The society depicted therein was engaging in alarmingly frequent small-scale nuclear wars!! Truffaut left this entirely out of his film version, which I viewed soon after completing my reading of the book. Thank goodness the world has not (yet!) degenerated to that level of madness. Meanwhile, TV screens blanketed the walls of folks’ homes, broadcasting mind-numbing pap and fluff (called “prole-feed” in Orwell’s book). I don’t recall that the TVs were two-way, as in the world of “1984.” “Good citizens” were expected to snitch on anyone harboring those dangerous old tomes. Now, let’s jump to George W. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein and Osama bin-Laden (whom he linked, with utter falsity): every night on the evening TV news, the faces of these bogeymen would appear on screen so that “good citizens” could hurl vile epithets and generally vent hatred toward them. Was this not the daily “two-minute hate” (expanded to 5 minutes on special occasions)? [The fact that bin-Laden was “our ally” in Afghanistan–ultimately proving to be a Frankenstein Monster–created by the CIA, fighting Soviet troops there for a decade, naturally was obliterated from the popular consciousness. Just like the ever-changing political-military alliances in Orwell’s tale. “We have never been at war with East Asia.”] And for a truly alarming percentage of the US populace, the soothing appearance of Bush, the mangler of English and front man for the evil machinations of government, was tantamount to an appearance by BB (Big Brother) himself. He’d found his calling in life: “I’m a War President.” He was “The Decider.” “Mission Accomplished.” Rest easy, citizens, he will protect you!!
Good stuff, Greg. I like “Fahrenheit 451” because it captures the death of serious discourse and its replacement by reality TV, so to speak. The protagonist’s wife is utterly absorbed in reality TV, so much so that she’s completely displaced from her husband and from reality. The screen world has become her reality. Meanwhile, ideas as represented by books, at first neglected, are then burned as disruptive and seditious. And the book does end with a nuclear attack, as you indicate. Purification by fire? No — perdition by fire.
True enough about Bush, but for every American who trusted him, lots of others distrusted him, or were at least skeptical of him. If America was fascist, everyone with a bumper sticker that read “Somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot” would have been hauled off to the camps.