Don’t mistake the show-biz version of fascism for the genuine article.
Is fascism making a comeback? What is it, exactly? There is no shortage of helpful memes and checklists on the internet which purport to provide a simple definition. Ignore them; they list the symptoms and cloak the disease.
Fascism is, first and foremost, an economic pathology. In a healthy economy, there is enough production of physical wealth that society can invest in progressively higher living standards for the labor force. For example, wages should steadily rise, education should improve, scientific research should be conducted, and infrastructure should be expanded and modernized. If these requirements are met, the productivity of labor will rise, increasing the per capita production of physical wealth, and the cycle will continue.
A fascist economy, on the other hand, is self-cannibalizing, like a man eating his own leg rather than spend money on food. People are treated as a commodity; cold-blooded accountants begin crunching numbers and they discover, lo and behold, that if you cut spending on food, pensions, health care, and infrastructure, short-term profits can be increased. Unlike in a healthy economy, under fascism it is really true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer — and then the poor start dying.
For people who think fascism is a good idea, the perennial problem is how to deal with a work force that doesn't want to be slowly killed off. The solution of choice is social engineering: you manipulate culture and promote ideologies that will induce people to accept their victimization, or to blame the wrong people for it. Some well-intentioned people have mistakenly thought that this social engineering is the essence of fascism, but it’s not. It’s a symptom.
Back in the 1930s, people were induced to embrace their victimization through chauvinism: everyone must make the heroic sacrifice for the greater glory of the fatherland. This was the argument for speeding up the assembly lines and eating less food. There are different arguments today.
One of them is the popular environmentalist notion that we all must cut back on everything, because every bite of food you eat and every breath you take is contributing to global warming. When people have had this argument sufficiently drummed into their heads, they become much more tolerant of austerity. They also become more willing to condone genocide, since the world is overpopulated and to save it, it may be regrettably necessary to eliminate a lot of people.
Treating humans as a commodity requires a shift in culture. The idea that every life is precious must be phased out. In the 1920s-30s, there was the eugenics movement, which was quite popular in the UK and US before the Nazis caught on and imported it to Germany. The theory of eugenics posited that there was a hierarchy of races, with the very whitest considered to be the most advanced, and the rest considered increasingly undesirable — and expendable — based on the relative darkness of their complexions.
Eugenics fell out of fashion after World War II because people associated it with Hitler. So the leading spokesman for the movement, Julian Huxley, proposed that eugenics be given a makeover and presented to a gullible public as a new cause, as the campaign against the threat of overpopulation. Since the areas which were depicted as overpopulated were inevitably the ones where the darker-skinned people dwell, the net effect was unchanged. However, while Nazis and eugenics are considered bad by most people today, the idea that the world is overpopulated has become almost universally accepted, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
The key here is that the value of human life has been diminished. Fans of irony may appreciate that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who famously said that the killing of 500,000 children in the course of the Iraq War was “worth the price,” has now written a book warning about fascism, which she suggests is making a comeback with Trump. In my view, with the murder of those 500,000 children, that horse is already out of the barn.
Getting the population to blame the wrong people is called “demonization” and “scapegoating.” Hitler famously did that with Jews, as well as some other groupings. Nowadays it’s more apt to be Muslims, Russians, or Chinese. You can tell which way the wind is blowing by watching BBC dramas and taking note of the ethnicity of the Bad Guys. American TV will pick up the cues and be doing it next season.
Don’t expect contemporary fascism to look like it did in the 30s. The people who sponsored it back then were smart enough to learn from their mistakes. This time around, it won’t be characterized by the rah-rah militarism you see in the movies. It will be a more glossy, focus-grouped, sexier version of fascism.
Following the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, the nucleus of the fascist movement “changed their spots.” They knew that advocating hard-line military dictatorships would likely arouse the suspicions of the population, so they became loud proponents of “human rights” and “democracy” (while continuing to routinely impose hard-line military dictatorships on smaller countries that they wished to loot.)
This was not an entirely original tactic. When Hitler intervened to seize the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938, he claimed he was doing so because of a “responsibility to protect” ethnic Germans who were allegedly the victims of human rights abuses. This approach has been enthusiastically revived by “Regime Change” advocates.
So, has fascism gone completely polite and buttoned-down? That’s not really in the cards, because inevitably it involves killing large numbers of people, and even if you claim to be doing it for humanitarian reasons, there is a certain level of cognitive dissonance that can’t be avoided. So to anesthetize the population against the horror of genocide, there was a big revival of cultural pessimism, beginning in the 1960s.
This was sort of a re-run of the early 20th century, where the establishment promoted forms of art which were alienated, enraged and hedonistic. The 1972 film “Cabaret” does a good job of illustrating how this fed into the burgeoning fascist movements in Europe. Youth are particularly susceptible to this sort of cultural imprinting, since it is normal for adolescents to be confused and enraged, although in a healthy society they outgrow it by the time they are in their twenties and are discovering a productive sense of identity. If you deny them that sense of identity, by keeping them poorly educated and unemployed, things can turn ugly.
The revival of cultural pessimism took the form of what might be called “evil porn,” including slasher films, ultra-violent video games, rock music with misogynistic or Satanic lyrics, mosh pits. Kids who embrace this subculture can style themselves as fascists or anti-fascists, but it doesn’t matter which — they represent fundamentally the same phenomenon.
The paramilitary-thugs-on-the-streets model was used in the the 1930s to create fear and rage in the population, but the thugs were not the leaders of the fascist movement (as Hitler’s brownshirted Sturmabteilung street fighters found out to their dismay, on the “Night of the Long Knives.”) Today the street action is not needed to create fear, because the media do an admirable job of that. Instead, it is being used as a decoy. The popular phenomenon of street rumbles in various American cities between redneck racists and Antifa groupings is political theater where both sides sport elaborate, photo-friendly gang paraphernalia. There is probably a notable contingent of FBI assets on either side. But these are not the real fascists nor the real anti-fascists. If you believe that they are, you are missing the real battle.
The impeccably coiffed and tailored administrators at the IMF or the Atlantic Council are a far greater threat to humanity than the tattooed buffoons of the Proud Boys or the ninja delinquents of Antifa. The former may look reassuringly posh, but they can crush whole nations without breaking a sweat.
And yet, these bureaucratic killers vow their eternal fidelity to the “liberal order.” So today, how does one tell the fascists from the non-fascists, when they all say that they are awesomely pro-democracy and pro-human rights? That’s easy. You look at the economic policy.
One thing that this historical period has in common with the 1930s is that the financial system of the “Atlantic” countries, North America and Europe, is bankrupt due to unchecked financial speculation. As in the 1920s, the 1980s saw financial bubbles arise. But instead of just one crash, as happened in 1929, the crisis in 1987 led to a series of them, because the response to each crash was to create a yet bigger bubble to keep the game going, right up to the present day.
The responsible way to deal with a collapsing bubble is to quarantine the speculative paper and provide emergency capital infusions to the real economy, to ensure that the population is adequately fed, clothed, and employed and that production of real wealth is re-started. The fascist approach is to demand austerity, and prop up the speculative paper by squeezing more profits out of the flesh and bone of the labor force.
A good example of modern fascism is the policy of the International Monetary Fund and kindred institutions toward nations of the developing sector. After a given nation has been loan-sharked into insolvency, the IMF generously offers to re-fi the loans, but with strings attached. The strings go by various names, such as “structural adjustment” and “conditionalities.” They require the target nation to reduce food and fuel subsidies, devalue currency, lift import/export restrictions, balance budgets, and reduce pensions. All of these policies have the effect of looting the living standards of the population and speeding up the transfer of monetary and raw materials wealth to foreign predators.
By the latter part of the 20th century, the Third World nations had been bled dry by these policies. The focus of the looters turned to the formerly communist nations, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And once those nations had been thoroughly plundered, the austerity pushers moved in on the weaker nations of the EU, such as Greece. The final frontier will be the richer nations, including the US itself.
At one time, the US had institutions which existed to defend the labor force against attacks on living standards. Labor Unions were strong, and had a traditional alliance with the Democratic Party. That is no longer the case. Democrats, like their Republican brethren, now consistently take the side of Wall Street against the working population.
The next big crash is imminent. Both parties will call for austerity. There may be civil unrest, and the fascist elements in the American plutocracy have taken steps to stay in control. They used the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to massively increase electronic surveillance of the population (and in this regard, Edward Snowden should be honored as a leading anti-fascist), to dismantle civil liberties protections (for example, Obama’s elimination of Habeas Corpus and his assertion of a presidential authority to assassinate without trial), and to militarize the police. Facebook has contracted with the Atlantic Council and the National Endowment for Democracy, two bastions of neoconservatism, to assist in targeting overly independent news sources for censorship.
Anyone who suggests that we can violently resist the national security juggernaut is either a fool or a police agent. The tactics which have been historically successful are those of Martin Luther King, Jr. But most importantly, the population must be inoculated against the inevitable propaganda blitz to sell them austerity. This is not a time for driving living standards down in order to bail out a clique of despicable gangsters. This is a time for a return to the economic policies which saved the US from fascism in the 1930s, when most of Europe was less fortunate.