A couple of weeks ago, not long after I had started reading R.J.B. Bosworth’s book on Mussolini’s Italy and the ways and means of Fascist rule in Italy, I speculated on whether or not the America of George W. Bush was “fascist” or not. And had concluded that it wasn’t, largely because there simply was not enough violence deployed by the state or party agents acting on behalf of the state.
Well, I have finished the book, and as I hadf hoped, the conclusion was much less muddled and messy than the rest of his narrative (I managed to stay away through the rest of it). Bosworth, in looking at some of the efforts to try and describe what Italian Fascism was, writes this:
[I]t might be argued that the quest for a definition of Fascism has become absurdly laboured. Why opt for a long list of factors or a paragraph of rococo ornateness when Mussolini, on a number of occasions, informed people he regarded as convertible to his cause that Fascism was a simple matter? All that was needed was a single party, a single youth organization, a single institution binding employers and their workforce, a dopolavoro, and, he did not have to add, a Duce (with a Bocchini to repress dissent) and a will to exclude the foe (somehow defined). To be still more succinct, as Mussolini told Franco in October 1936, what the Spaniard should aim at was a regime that was simultaneously “authoritarian,” “social” and “popular.” That amalgam, the Duce advised, was the basis of universal fascism.
Universal fascism. So, how does George W. Bush’s America stack up?
AUTHORITARIAN. Yes, the Bush regime is authoritarian, but excutive government and the regulatory state have been lurching toward authoritarianism for more than a century now, and the Bush regime is only the latest manifestation of the obsession on the part of some Americans with furthering executive power. The Clinton regime was authoritarian as well, as have all American presidents since at least Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with TR and Abraham Lincoln (and possibly Andrew Jackson and James Polk tossed in as well). Slowly, with the rise of executive orders, rule making, signing statements, the expansion of the “commander-in-chief” privilege, and power granted to deal with the nearly eternal states of emergencies of one kind or another, the executive has metastized into a kind-of imperator which can both make and enforce law. The constitution need never be suspended — Republican Rome’s never was — the dictatorship need merely be in substance and not in form. Creating a presidency that can rule without Congress, a president who is superior to Congress and who is never properly accountable to anyone, that can reach into just about every aspect of individual life to regulate, mandate and exercise authority, has been slow and steady work, the work of generations of people who thought they could do good with that power, or — as court historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. idiotically said — prevent “bad” people from having.
(I believe the argument is a simple tautology — bad people are, by definition, people who want power over others. Good people can never want or have that power because the moment they want it, they become bad people.)
Now, let me be clear: the Bush regime has used the powers its has gathered sparingly, just as past presidents were reasonably judicious in the exercise of about every power they grasped (save the power to murder large numbers of non-Americans, usually from high altitude, one of the few things Americans seem to be good at anymore). We have had few Wounded Knees or Wacos, and we could have had a lot more.
But someday, someone who is not judicious or restrained, someone much brighter and whole lot more ambitious than any of the idiot dim-bulbs in the Bush White House, will get their hands on that power. Cincinnatus made Sulla possible, and Sulla made Caesar possible, and Caesar made Augustus possible.
SOCIAL. This is a harder definition to work with. Mussolini’s Fascism claimed to create a social welfare state, especially geared toward making sure the poor could adequately contribute to Italian life (provide cannon fodder for both the party and the army). Bosworth, however, makes clear that the Italian social welfare state didn’t work very well and any “rights” one had to state support could easily be taken away if one was suddenly on the wrong side of the state or party. Welfare was conditional on loyalty to the state and party.
So, what do I mean by social? By welfare state? The basic assumption of the industrial welfare state is probably a commitment by the state to ensure a level of economic existence for some (or possibly most) members of a society in return for a commitment of loyalty and obedience to the state and the ruling party. This can be everything from direct state payments to individuals, indirect subsidies, controlled prices and material aid to guaranteed employment and contracts for businesses supportive of state policy and the party. Key to all of this, however, is the notion of political loyalty — an individual, a family, a company, a corporation, a church, cannot receive any state benefits unless it supports the state, the party, the policy, the leader. Anyone found not supporting risks being excluded.
One owes the state because the state has done for you. It hardly matters how poorly the state has done it.
Republicans long talked of the Democrat social welfare state as an attempt to buy political loyalties, especially among the poor, but most of the FDR and post-FDR social welfare state was universal, and loyalty to state, party was not a condition of receipt. Much of the post WWII welfare state — the G.I. Bill, FHA and VA home loans, Social Security, union contracts and wages, employer-sponsored health care — was given to all comers. Had these things been an exercise in buying loyalty, the Repugblican heirs of Barry Goldwater would never have gotten anywhere, as many of their strongest supporters were folks in the suburbs, recipients of all these goodies, who thought that somehow they made it “on their own.”
However, I think we’ve been trending toward a more “social” model (in fascist terms) for some time now, and much of the Bush “ownership society” (and the faith-based initiatives) are basede both on the misundestanding of Democrat social welfare as well a naked attempt to reroute the entire economy through the Republican-controlled executive and make sure folks understand and remember that when they vote. The most blatant of these was the desire to make churches the recipients of federal largesse, ensuring that politically conservative (and idolatrously nationalistic) chruches would take the most money to “do good.” But the attempt to “reform” Social Security was simply a desire to connect Wall Street even more closely to a Republican-run state (investment banks divide donations fairly evenly between Dems and the GOP) and give people the illusion they actually owned anything.
Team Bush’s “ownership society” has gone splat. Which is just as well, because it would eventually look more like a sharecropper society or some kind of modern serfdom/debt bondage. The only real ownership would be on the part of government-connected banks and the state itself.
But it was “social” in the context of fascism.
POPULAR. At first glance, it appears that the Bush administration is anything but popular. Classic fascism conflates party, state and leader, and aims at the creation of a mass society where the individual matters only in his or her relation to the greater whole — the race and/or nation. The GOP is not a mass party, Bush is not a Duce (except to his most brain-dead devotees; Clinton was a Duce to the empty-headed faithful as well), and there appear to be no efforts to create anything resembling a Republican mass-movement (aside from Karl Rove’s failed attempts to create a permanent GOP majority).
Yet, like the absence of mass state and para-statal violence, I think there is an element here which, if we live under fascism in the United States, is unique to us.
As Americans, we have actually lived under a soft-authoritarian government for more than a century, since the emerging industrial-academic elite decided that American society needed professional policy creation and management. What emerged, about the time of the McKinley/Roosevelt administrations, was a Fabian deal — popular participation in government would be restricted in exchange for the creation of a public/private welfare state (bigger companies begin offering pensions at this point, for example). The managerial elite was divided on some issues (and primarily by the Morgan/Rockefeller dispute that was not mended until the 1930s), but they were set on the notion that society needed to be professionally managed. That meant nationalistic propaganda, the organization of the masses, and the restriction of policy creation and governance to “professionals.”
It also meant that elections became meaningless.
With policies already decided, not by politicians but by a permanent group of professional managers and planners, and the various wings of the ruling elite more or less in agreement on things, what was there to vote on? So elections simply became plebiscites. More importantly, they became the regime’s most important sacrament, the act that made their authoritarian government morally and socially legitimate, that sanctified their rule. Elections are the mystical practice that link people to regime, that morally and emotionally invest people in the wellbeing and legitimacy of those that rule over them, and that — not the choice involved, which is pointless — is why they are so important.
One could no more vote for the welfare state, or imperialism, or war, than one could vote against it. These things were already decided by the professional managers of society, and media and intellectuals would be used to sell these ideas to people.
If America is a fascist state — I’m still not sure it is — then it is a different kind of fascism, a post-mass fascism that wants a passive and not active mass of people, one that invests the role Duce in a fictitious position, The President (and whoever occupies that positition), rather than a flesh and blood human being, casts as The Party the permanent group of people who run the state rather than a political organization, one with an almost perceptable universalism. That would also explain why little state violence (and no para-statal violence) is necessary, since both parties subscribe to nationalism, universalism, Americanism, Caesarism, imperialism, war and welfare. And the huge apparatus needed to sell, perpetuate and legitimize these things.
We get to pick the flavor, kind of, but not the meal.