What is Fascism? Recently Chris Hedges wrote of an imperialist US that is infected by “the virus of fascism, wrapped in the American flag, held aloft by the Christian cross and buttressed by white supremacy.” Hedges was not using the term fascism as it would be used by a political theorist or historian. It is common to use “fascism” to indicate a more general and imprecise fascistic tendency. Yet there comes a point when so many fascistic traits are in evidence that you know you must be dealing with a type of Fascism.
The US has become a Fascist state. The similarities between the US regime and past Fascist regimes are too numerous to ignore. There are notable differences, it is true, but they can all be traced to a single point of departure: the original Fascism was a nationalistic creed with imperialist ambitions, this new Fascism is an imperialist ethos and mode of governance. The old Fascism presented itself as monolithic and sought to hide or destroy inter-elite disputes. The new Fascism presents itself as pluralistic while insisting that its monolithic orthodoxies only exist because they are natural, rather than being ideological, and not subject to reasonable dispute. In other words, this new Fascism is an ideology that claims to be non-ideological and, like the old Fascism, it is a politics that claims to be anti-political.
In 2008 Sheldon Wolin published a book called Democracy Incorporated in which he traced the descent in the US from “managed democracy” to “inverted totalitarianism”. In describing the symptoms he was alarmingly insightful, but his chosen diagnosis is wrong. “Totalitarianism” is a word that tells us nothing. It is hopelessly subjective and the only claim that the concept of “totalitarianism” had to being objective was that it referred to the commonality between regimes where the formal state sector concerns itself with all levels of society. This was always a specious method of tying together the Soviet Union and the German Third Reich. It made it seem that these “totalitarian” regimes possessed a common form of ultimate tyranny that could only happen in the West if we allow creeping socialism to put us on the path that Friedrich Hayek described as The Road to Serfdom. Totalitarianism is a circular argument. The conceit is that it is fundamentally benign if you have advertisers and media barons telling put how to behave and what to think, but if a government department does it it becomes evil totalitarianism. Totalitarian state control is bad because it causes Totalitarianism which is bad because it is totalitarian and it is symptomatic of totalitarian state control. It’s just bad, m’kay?
Fascism is a much more useful and appropriate term to use than “totalitarianism”. The “inverted” part of Wolin’s “inverted totalitarianism” can simply be transposed onto this “inverted” and, in many respects, pluralistic Fascism.
Fascism is both a political and cultural phenomenon gripping both the elite and the masses. Symptoms include the degradation of democratic institutions; a “justice” system that crushes the weak but will not or cannot touch the strong; a culture of mean-spirited chauvinism and the abandonment of ideals of empathy; increasing state violence and state surveillance; a “corporatist” relationship between government and capital; militarism and interventionism; an emphasis on factional affiliation in politics; an acceptance or celebration of political victory through the exercise of power rather than the contest of ideas; and, last but not least, a proud anti-intellectualism.
But this is not confined to the US. The entire Western world seems to be infected with the virus, and even that is only part of the extent of it. We are witnessing a new wave of Fascism. Imperialist and neoliberal authoritarianism is now expressing itself in mass culture and throwing up salient outcrops of both overt Fascist and cryptofascist groupings. But these are small fry, a mere symptom of a new composite Fascism that has come to dominate our political landscape.
A Legion of Straw Hitlers
People don’t like it when you use terms like Fascism. Eric Draitser recently reported receiving flak for publishing an article asking: “Has Turkey Become a Fascist State?” He was criticised for going too far, but if anything it is his defensiveness in the article that is unwarranted: “One must also be careful not to use the term haphazardly at the risk of robbing it of its true meaning. Indeed, it would not be fair to say that Turkey in 2015 is as fascist as Ukraine or Germany under Hitler; such a description would be grossly irresponsible and not at all accurate.” In fact there is no “true meaning” of fascism. It is not a platonic ideal, nor is it Christmas.
Moreover, in Draitser’s piece there is an implication that fascism comes in degrees and the author seems, by his inclusion of Ukraine, to be thinking of the wartime Fascism. You could almost imagine how fascism might be portrayed on a scale with some regimes being more fascistic than others, but you would have to be very careful and explicit to use such a scale. We have a vision of Fascism that is informed by World War II, the Holocaust, by the fact that Axis was our defeated enemy, and by revelations that only came through that defeat. The proper comparison is not the way we perceive Fascist regimes and movements now, but the way they were perceived in, say, 1937 or 1935. For many people, especially the well-to-do, they seemed a legitimate part of the political landscape. Moreover, in terms of oppression the Fascists may have become more fascistic during WWII, but the exigencies of war forced them to be less ideologically pure – so can they really be said to have become more Fascist?
Using the term Fascist cannot be categorically affirmed or denied and must be considered on its merits. People like to use straw man arguments against the usage because it is a facile way for them to feel like they are clever and knowledgeable. It is perfectly conventional (though absurdly stupid) to argue against comparing anyone to a Nazi on the basis that it is invalid to compare people with Hitler. The absurd stupidity is due to the fact that Hitler was one man out of millions of Nazis. Many Nazis who were not Hitler were very important and very powerful people who caused huge amounts of suffering and death. Moreover, although Nazis did have tendencies in common, the fact is that any given Nazi could have almost any personal characteristics. They were diverse, and the only thing with which you can define them is that they were Nazis and therefore they did not reject the sum totality of Nazism.
The thing that makes using Straw Hitler arguments even more ridiculous was that Hitler himself was a product of circumstance. Unless you believe that he had some sort of diabolical and empowering supernatural essence of evil running through his veins, then it stands to reason that his significance lies in the role he played in historical events. The reason that it is wrong to call someone “as bad as Hitler” is because he bears responsibility for more death, destruction, pain and grief than any other single human being that we know of. Unfortunately, postwar inquiries into the personalities and psyches of top surviving Nazis showed them to be uncomfortably unremarkable in most respects, and Hitler almost certainly was too. Not everyone could be another Hitler, but there are tens, if not hundreds, of millions alive that could fill that role.
As well as arguing against using the term Fascism on the false pretext that it is equivalent to calling Cameron, Trump, Modi, or Erdogan the new Hitler, there are many other straw men that can be demolished. We might choose any point at which Fascist Italy, Spain, or Germany committed mass atrocities and claim that we aren’t that bad. People often use a Straw Holocaust argument in much the same way that they use Straw Hitlers, but we should remember that before 1938 German atrocities in Europe were dwarfed in scale by the atrocities committed by imperial powers, including Germany, in the colonies. Their atrocities were dwarfed by those carried out under the Global War on Terror. Fascists said and did things with an overt brutal violence that is striking, but we must be careful not to filter out those same tendencies in current political leaders and other public figures. Donald Trump and Ben Carson are both promising to torture people. They are campaigning on it, not hiding it. Equally, the US is not pretending that it does not have a very extensive programme of using drones and missiles to murder people in numerous countries. In this they are aided by innumerable Quislings, such as the PM of my own country who was “comfortable” with the US killing a citizen suspected of being in Al Qaeda.
Our retrospective view of Fascism is to look for the dramatic highlights and to construct a vision that makes the phenomenon uniquely evil and totally unconnected to our governing regimes and to Western imperialism past and present. That parallels the way most people, especially elites, tried to normalise Fascism and minimise its danger when it first occurred. If Hitler came back to life today and committed all of his crimes over again, you would have people vehemently arguing that he “isn’t as bad as Hitler” right up to the point where he kills himself. Even then it would take time before they reluctantly admit that Hitler actually was as bad as Hitler.
My answer to those who claim that we cannot be compared to Fascists because things are not as “bad” is to ask “what do you mean by ‘bad’ and what time and place in the history of Fascism are you referring to?” Since the end of the Cold War most countries have been moving, however gradually, in but one direction: more policing, more surveillance, more militarism, more xenophobia, more “corporatism” (a term which I will explain in Part 2) and, above all, less democracy. Unless things change there must come some point when you admit that this near global trend has to be named. The emerging prominence of right-wing populism and old-fashioned xenophobic chauvinism (which has always lurked beneath the internationalist veneer of neoliberalism) shows that this is beyond democratic deficit, globalitarianism, refeudalisation, inverted totalitarianism, neocolonialism, neofeudalism, or any single one of these grim diagnoses. There is a broader trend involved and all of these analyses are part of the greater Fascist transformation that has slowly come to dominate.
To sample just one country, in the UK popular columnist Katie Hopkins wrote, “these migrants are like cockroaches” and “a plague of feral humans.” She also wrote: “Show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.” And she wrote that she would send “gunships” instead of “rescue boats” to deal with asylum seekers. Members of the UK public, or perhaps more predominantly the English public, echo her cruelty. Tourists visiting the Greek island of Kos complain that people in need make their holidays “awkward”. Others tweeted that asylum seekers would be good “target practice” for the Army and that “[t]heir sense of entitlement beggars belief”. There has been a backlash, for sure, but to put that in context there has been significant jump in anti-refugee sentiment with 47% of 6000 polled Britons saying that the UK should not allow any refugees from the Middle East and 41% rejecting asylum seekers altogether.
Meanwhile the UK government has used unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out extra-judicial executions of two of its own citizens, an act which Patrick Cockburn describes in historical terms as “a mark of tyranny”. David Cameron furthered this impression at the Conservative Party conference (while police snipers aimed their rifles at protesters outside) by saying that “my job as prime minister is quite simple, really: ultimately, it’s not to debate; it’s to decide.” This echoes the sentiment and policies of George W “the Decider” Bush, but it actually takes the leadership role even further towards the Führerprinzip (“leader principle”) which was adopted by the Nazis and other Fascists. Cameron is making an unsupported assertion of righteous power without legal pretense. Cameron can say that his role is “not to debate; it’s to decide” regarding any action he undertakes and he is only limited by the degree to which there is a substantive and costly backlash. As with Katie Hopkins’ proposals to commit mass murder, the truly alarming thing is that there is no concrete transforming response. Cameron and Hopkins pay no price because even if a majority are disapproving, a minority are energised. This type of approach also fuelled the power of Nazism and earlier Fascism because they worked on undemocratic principles of mass energy and “will to power” rather than popularity in percentage terms. The danger is that once you start down that path continued political power becomes reliant on never backing down, then both rhetoric and policies can only become increasingly extreme.
The UK has, of course, its persistent right-wing populist nationalist movements including UKIP, the English Defence League and Britain First to name a few. But the last symptom of UK fascism I want to indicate here is not the Islamophobic rantings of white extremists, it is the disturbing establishment reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent. A Conservative Party response in video form has been justly derided. The video implies that Jeremy Corbyn is, in essence, an enemy of the UK by dint of stupidity or malice, but as Jonathan Jones points out there is an audience that will find this suggestion highly plausible. It is a “smear with legs”. (Ironically Jones himself has been named as one of the Guardian‘s cadre of anti-Corbyn smearers, but that is another story).
The smear is working. Already an unnamed serving General has said: “The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.” Adding that there was “the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.”
Far from distancing himself from the idea that Corbyn is dangerous and illegitimate, the Conservative chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Crispin Blunt, condemned the unnamed General but reaffirmed that Corbyn is a fundamental “threat to security” and announced that the Tories will exclude Corbyn from the normal established practice of sharing intelligence with the leader of the opposition. It is a mixed message written in 400-point bold font with the caps lock on. Blunt’s schizophrenic position can only be reconciled by assuming that when he criticises the unconstitutional suggestions of the anonymous General he doesn’t really mean it – perhaps his fingers are crossed so that it doesn’t count.
Then at conference Cameron redoubled the rhetoric, “we cannot let that man inflict his security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology on the country we love.”
Delegitimising Corbyn is the logical extension of David Cameron’s overt rhetorical rejection of legal and constitutional niceties. He has said: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’.” As with the Corbyn attack ad, it would be highly naïve to think of this as some sort of miscalculation. He is not candidly revealing a hitherto hidden authoritarianism. It is a calculated move to plant authoritarian notions into the public discourse and to give them legitimacy.
This all adds up to Fascism. The word has been cropping up quite frequently recently, especially since John Pilger’s February article “Why the rise of fascism is again the issue”. A recent New Statesman column warns of “creeping fascism”. In it Laurie Penny writes: “It’s not that Britain wasn’t a racist, parochial place before. But the xenophobic, Islamophobic and, most obviously, the anti-immigrant rhetoric has ramped up everywhere.”
Predictably the recent attacks in Paris fuelled a sudden surge in Fascism. There has been xenophobic paranoia of both the crude populist variety (e.g., the Sun falsely claiming that 20% of UK Muslims support ISIS) and the crude elitist variety (where instead of shouting you smirk and make snide remarks about how naïve lefty do-gooders are for wanting to let ISIS waltz into the country willy-nilly with sob stories about being “refugees”). Cameron also announced a massive surge in intelligence and military spending, and is seeking to make the UK the 11th country to join in the bombing of Syria. Mass xenophobia; increased state capacities for surveillance and violence; and foreign military intervention – it’s a Fascist trifecta!
There is an inevitable subjectivity to using the word Fascism this way, but I think it is the right term. To understand why Fascism is the right word to describe imperial and national governance in our time will require more than the shallow approach of detailing xenophobic acts in central Europe and the insane rhetoric of Republican Presidential candidates in the US. This Fascism has spread its tendrils throughout, turning ostensible political diversity into actual ideological uniformity. This is not the story of why or how Donald Trump is a Fascist. It is the more important story of why Bernie Sanders is a also Fascist and why Pope Francis is fertilising Fascism.
But what is Fascism?
Academic definitions of Fascism are complex and inherently subjective. The only way to make a categorical definition would be to say that Fascists are people who call themselves Fascists, which would lead us nowhere.
The “First Wave” (1919-29) and “Second Wave” (1929-40) Fascists were dramatic in their rhetoric, their rituals, and their visual presentation. It is these things that we conventionally use to define Fascism rather than trying to define them through the actualities of policy and governance. Unfortunately Fascism has a very strong and distinct odour, but the specifics are elusive and the things that can be best defined as Fascist are not concrete and easily delineated.
The orthodox liberal Western would have it that Fascism is revolutionary and anti-capitalist. The cliché is that elitist support of Fascism and Nazism was a gross miscalculation. (Oligarchs who thought to use Hitler against a restive populace soon found that he slipped the leash and let slip the dangerous and self-destructive irrationality of the mob.) But there is another tradition which holds that despite the Fascist rhetoric of rebirth and transformation, it is in fact a means of preserving the status quo in the face of crisis.
Fascism has always featured elite patronage. To put it in simple terms, let us imagine the rise to power of a Fascist regime during the Second Wave: Capitalism is in crisis; people see it as corrupt and unfair. Revolutionary mass movements are growing and social democrats, who may be governing, are become more dirigiste – meaning that they are threatening to intervene economically in ways that the rich think dangerous and loathsome. It seems that either there will be nationalisations and other state interventions against the dysfunctions of capitalism, or there will be revolution. But there is a “third way”, a Fascist alternative. The Fascists are authoritarian. They promote a sense of chauvinistic unity and xenophobia that allows them to control the masses. Fascists loathe leftist revolutionaries, but harness working-class and petit-bourgeois (or lower middle-class) discontent by denouncing the corruption of big business and finance capital.
The key question for diagnosing the nature of Fascism, therefore, should be whether or not they live up to their anti-plutocratic rhetoric. Liberals claim that Fascism turns on its elite sponsors, but does it? Michael Parenti writes:
Who did Mussolini and Hitler support once they seized state power? In both countries a strikingly similar agenda was pursued. Labor unions and strikes were outlawed, union property and publications were confiscated, farm cooperatives were handed over to rich private owners, big agribusiness farming was heavily subsidized. In both Germany and Italy the already modest wages of the workers were cut drastically; in Germany, from 25-40%; in Italy, 50%. In both countries the minimum wage laws, overtime pay, and factory safety regulations were abolished or turned into dead letters. Taxes were increased for the general populace, but lowered or eliminated for the rich and big business. Inheritance taxes for the wealthy were greatly reduced or abolished. Both Mussolini and Hitler showed their gratitude to their business patrons by handing over to them publicly owned and perfectly solvent steel mills, power plants, banks, steamship companies (“privatization,” it’s called here). Both regimes dipped heavily into the public treasury to refloat or subsidize heavy industry (corporate welfarism). Both states guaranteed a return on the capital invested by giant corporations and assumed most of the risks and losses on investment.
In other words, Mussolini and Hitler instituted much the same agenda that the notorious “libertarian” Koch brothers would put their money behind. (Please note here that the Kochs’ professed libertarian beliefs do not hinder them from supporting extreme social conservatives either). What distinguished the Fascists was that they married a right-wing plutocratic agenda with right-wing populism (racism, militarism, nationalism, social conservatism and fear of terrorism) and a pretence of left-wing anti-plutocratic populism. Like Donald Trump, they claimed to oppose elite corruption and promised state support for decent poor people. Parenti points out, however, that “most workers and peasants could tell the difference.” As with Trump, the elite liberal narrative vastly exaggerates working-class support, conflating it with that of petit bourgeois support (or with the “lower-middle class” support in British terms). Such people, who are roughly in the top 40% of wealth and income, have always been the backbone of popular support for old Fascism and in most neo-Fascist and racial supremacist groups.
Where Parenti takes things too far for most people is in simply dismissing the popular embrace of Fascism: “it attempted to cultivate a revolutionary aura and give the impression of being a mass movement.” The fact is that Fascism has a true aspect in which it is a mass movement – however deceptive its ideals and rhetoric may be. Parenti is right that it in pure Realist terms it is reactionary rather than revolutionary, but it is still a phenomenon that can be studied in its own right. In contrast, the problem with the orthodox Western liberal discourse on Fascism is that it completely whitewashes this fundamental continuity of social order between the “capitalist” oligarchy of a liberal “democracy” and the capital-based oligarchy of a Fascist dictatorship. Liberalism and Fascism are far more closely aligned than people would like to admit – but more of that later.
Parenti emphasises “rational fascism” in contradistinction to the standard narrative that Fascism is a self-destructive mass-movement of the irrational mob led by a megalomaniac demagogue. The fact is, though, that Fascism is not rational in the long-term and it is self-destructive. Parenti has missed a trick here because as a student of Late Republican Rome, Parenti should recognise echoes of the elite dysfunction he himself describes in The Assassination of Julius Caesar.
In Rome it was the degradation of democratising institutions (which had been forced by the common people on the state through centuries of struggle) that left the upper orders effectively unopposed. The oligarchs harnessed overt political violence to their own ends and, though they made conservative claims about preserving social order against mob onslaught, it was they who corrupted government and economic functioning so thoroughly that the Republic was destroyed.
Fascism should also be seen as causing elite dysfunction or what might be termed “plutocratic distemper”. By co-optation and by political violence it destroys the ability of the masses to constrain the power elite.
If they are not constrained political elites quickly become dangerously deluded and fanatical. The ruling ideology of the ruling class is always going to state that the processes which elevate them above others are meritocratic and to the benefit of all. This ideological medium encourages the blossoming of self-interest, self-satisfaction and self-regard. Above all this leads to contempt for those who are not successful and powerful. Fascism allows this elite derangement to run wild.
The old wisdom would have it that power corrupts, but we also have good evidence now that material success makes people relatively arrogant, antisocial, and aggressive. More to the point, they become irrational with respect to the source of their success. Thus, as with Rome, elites fear mob rule and destabilisation but in fact they themselves are the most destructive and destabilising force. The things that they abhor, such as industrial action and leftist political activism, are actually the things that stop them from destroying themselves.
Rudolf Rocker wrote: “Political rights do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace.” If not constrained by fear of mass resistance the ideology and distorted psychology of power elites exacerbates inequality, creates crises of dysfunction (or “contradiction”), and cannot respond to crisis except by worsening it.
Liberal” is the New “Fascist”
In political terms the way most people use the term “liberal” most of the time is nonsensical. People can have conversations that make perfect sense by using “liberal” to mean some ill-defined centre-left opposition to “conservatism”, but as soon as you expand the context outside of a narrow and unedifying set of preconceived boundaries it ceases to make any sense.
The vague common usage of “liberal” to mean the political equivalent of being liberal with salad dressing cannot withstand the historic and contemporary realities of political liberalism. Conservative Republicans in the US usually espouse laissez-faire free-trade policies which are the hallmark of political liberalism. Leading liberals like Robert Kagan and Francis Fukuyama are also leading neoconservatives. The governing party in Australia is a right-wing conservative party called the Liberal Party. The archetypical East Coast liberal Henry Kissinger became emblematic of right-wing conservatism and Realism without changing his ideology and he was instrumental in violently promulgating neoliberal economic governance based on classical liberal traditions.
Historically liberalism has so deeply associated itself with personal property rights that it has always been a crypto-conservative movement. With exceptions for liberal socialist and left-libertarian variants, liberalism has become the defence of status quo and privilege. It’s ultimate ethical justification lies not in pure ideals of freedom, but in the claim that all other alternatives are worse. That is a deeply conservative stance and when Francis Fukuyama published The End of History, liberalism became the first movement since the Khmer Rouge to claim that we had reached Utopia. Like the regime in “Democratic Kampuchea” the Earthly paradise they announced was oddly conservative and flawed in nature. But hey, nobody promised that Utopia was going to be a bed of roses, did they?
Fukuyama was right at least to the extent liberalism has enjoyed a near monopoly on elite political ideology throughout most of the world since 1990. There are many variations of liberalism and many ideals, but the ideals should not be confused with actualities of policy.
[Here is a thought experiment that will show the underlying reality of liberalism: Imagine a world where the Soviet Bloc won the Cold War and Marxism/Leninism became so orthodox that people virtually forgot that it even existed; a world where political plurality meant that various Communist Parties competed against each other for votes but very few called themselves “The Communist Party”. Instead the Communist Parties called themselves the Workers Party, the Democratic Party, the Conservative Party or the Law and Order Party. In that world we would be stupid to ignore the reality of authoritarian Communist governance expressing itself in mass-surveillance, political repression, wars, torture, violent policing and extra-judicial killings. We would be stupid to use the term “communist” to refer to those who believe in democratic self-governance (after all communist ideals are hostile to political authoritarianism just as clearly as liberal ideals are) while ignoring the repressive Communist rule which they support in reality. The same is true of liberalism.]
The liberalism that we actually live with – the “liberal” “democratic” “capitalist” consensus – is an elitist conservative authoritarian neoliberal neoconservative monolith. Now this multinational behemoth is marrying itself to right-wing populism it should become clearer that it was fascistic all along. This may surprise many people, but it really shouldn’t. The transformation into a global Fascist movement is not without precedence. In practice neoliberalism has always been the bridge between liberalism and fascism.
The Missing Link
Indonesian President Sukarno was one of a number of post-colonial Third World “corporatist” leaders. He was concerned with state-building and national economic development and he did it with a great deal of military involvement in the non-military areas of society. He had a unique take on corporatism, but the basic idea of fostering unity under central authority and guidance is one shared by all of the corporatist leaders of that era, and it is a feature of Fascist rhetoric. Mussolini himself linked both terms not, as some claim, as being synonymous, but rather with corporatism being an important ingredient of Fascism. He wrote: “Fascism recognises the real needs which gave rise to socialism and trade-unionism, giving them due weight in the guild or corporative system in which divergent interests are coordinated and harmonised in the unity of the State.”
As Michael Parenti pointed out (see above), Mussolini did not so much “foster unity” as crush dissent. In Parenti’s terms, authoritarian or not, clearly Sukarno is no Fascist. Indeed the fact that he incorporated communism and allowed a major role to an independent Communist Party makes Sukarno clearly distinct from historical fascism. The most important thing to note here is that Sukarno acted more in accordance with Mussolini’s rhetoric than Mussolini himself did, in that Sukarno made a real effort to be inclusive.
Sukarno was overthrown in a US-backed coup (which effectively means a US instigated coup). When General Suharto took charge he purged all “communists” in a slaughter that began exactly 50 years ago. More than 500,000 were massacred, probably more than one million. (Far from showing remorse though, Joshua Oppenheimer writes: “The Indonesian army ‘celebrates’ the 50th anniversary of the massacres it carried out in 1965 – by putting up banners around Jakarta warning against the return of ‘new-style’ Communism. Absurd, discouraging, and pathetic.”)
For Andre Vltchek in those 50 years: “Indonesia has matured into perhaps the most corrupt country on Earth, and possibly into the most indoctrinated and compassionless place anywhere under the sun. Here, even the victims were not aware of their own conditions any more. The victims felt shame, while the mass murderers were proudly bragging about all those horrendous killings and rapes they had committed. Genocidal cadres are all over the government.”
The US triggered the initial massacre by supplying death lists of leftists to the coup plotters they supported.(1) US elites were generally very happy with the coup and the massacres that followed. In 2012 Conn Hallinan wrote that the New York Times “reported the Johnson administration’s ‘delight with the news from Indonesia.’ The newspaper also reported a cable by Secretary of State Dean Rusk supporting the ‘campaign against the communists’ and assuring the leader of the coup, General Suharto, that the ‘U.S. government [is] generally sympathetic with, and admiring of, what the army is doing.’”
Suharto retained the corporatism of Sukarno in a “New Order”, but it was married with an ultra-liberal approach to foreign direct investment (FDI). There was considerable wariness of foreign control, a desire to protect and promote the business interests of the politically powerful, and a desire to retain protections and regulatory tools in order to achieve economic and social goals. These conflicting, nigh paradoxical, motives led to a “profound dualism” between regulated domestic industry and liberalised export oriented FDI (2) The US educated economists who imposed the liberalisation were known as the “Berkeley Mafia”. Sadli, the “principle architect of the new foreign investment regime”, said “everything and everyone was welcome. We did not dare to refuse. The first mining company virtually wrote its own ticket”.(3)
Under Suharto’s “New Order” the military had an even greater political and economic role than under Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy”. Apparently liberalism and corporatism can coexist very happily. It should surprise no one that this meant that the rich and politically powerful enjoyed economic support and protection, while the poor were left to the tender mercies of unregulated market forces. On the other hand, the poor had all the joys of being heavily policed against their innate criminality and dangerous political tendencies, while the rich and powerful were more or less beyond the reach of the law. Does that sound familiar? My claim is that this was the birth of the Third Wave of Fascism, soon to be known by the name of “neoliberalism”. It amounts to removing government support mechanisms for ordinary people and increasing support for powerful and wealthy interests and individuals; while increasing state regulation, policing and imprisonment for the poor, whilst deregulating commerce and creating effective impunity for the wealthy.
Neoliberalism continued in the right-wing regimes of Latin America, notably in Chile and Argentina. Pinochet, an ostensibly nationalistic authoritarian anti-Communist military dictator, played host to the “Chicago Boys” – US-trained economists who were far more ideologically committed to what we would now call “neoliberalism” than the Berkeley Mafia.
In Chile and in Argentina, the advent of “neoliberalism” was accompanied by a lot of goose-stepping jack-booted military display. Leftists were “disappeared”, tortured and killed. The strident ideology of nationalist rebirth, militarism, punitive patriarchal authority and corrective violence, conformity, anti-Communism, tough-on-crime, national security and fear of “terrorism” were more-or-less carbon copies of overt pre-War Fascism. The academic distinctions between this form of right-wing ideology and actual Fascism amount to little more than petty and undignified hair-splitting (I am not saying that the Emperor has no clothes, but he only wearing as thong, and it is not a pretty sight).
In Argentina, “neoliberalism” had quite an anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi flavour. Jews, who were 1% of the p opulation, made up 12% of the Junta’s victims and were “singled out” for unusually brutal treatment. Police central HQ had a giant Swastika, and Jews in camps were tortured beneath portraits of Adolf Hitler.
The Third Wave
In Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua and many many more places a neocolonial liberalism blended with militarised authoritarianism. The result was almost identical to the anti-worker, anti-poor, corporate welfare and privatisation policies implemented under Mussolini and Hitler.
Clearly the “level-playing field” claims of liberalism/neoliberalism are hollow pretensions. The claim is that there is some pure neutral condition of market transaction (“equilibrium”) that can only be corrupted by government intervention (which will inevitably be an expression of economically impure political power). However, markets are created by the agreement of participants to certain conditions and they are maintained only with continued assent. (Pleased note that I am not trying to suggest that markets are inherently democratic; those who are dependent on given markets may be forced to assent to grossly unfair conditions.)
The government cannot help but be a major and powerful participant in markets because its controls legal tender and taxation policy; its spending and policy affects market conditions (such as production costs or interest rates); and it imposes legal frameworks such as contract law, consumer protections, health regulations, labour regulations etc. It does not stop being a participant by selectively claiming that certain forms of involvement would be “distorting”.
Because markets are not self-sustaining we can usefully compare the relationship of building an economy with “market forces” to that of building a city with the force of gravity. Neoliberalism frequently intervenes in favour of big businesses, which is the equivalent of building high-rise corporate office buildings on the grounds that they are for the good of all. But neoliberalism happily sacrifices the wellbeing of peasants and workers, which is the equivalent of refusing to build low-cost housing on the grounds that forming structures by raising up building materials is dangerous attempt to defy the laws of gravity which clearly favour leaving such materials sitting on the ground. Clearly this is hard for the homeless, but in the neoliberal ethos we can not court disaster by denying the all-powerful force of gravity for the sake of mere poor people. We only do it for the rich because we absolutely must and our righteous principles must give way to pragmatic concerns no matter how much it rankles.
None of this is new, of course. Little is. Jonathan Swift satirised this sort of hypocrisy in 1729 in “A Modest Proposal”. He suggested that the children of the poor could best serve society as a source of meat. Of course this was under a Mercantilist paradigm of commodified value to the state which is supposedly different from a Liberal paradigm of commodified value to the market, but Swift would have felt a bitter deja vuhad he lived to see the mass deaths of children during the Great Famine.During the Famine Ireland was exporting food to England while the Irish died in droves. England, which was in the grips of a liberal orthodoxy, even made charity illegal in the certain belief that even though people were starving to death, they would be even worse off if they were saved from death but then had to confront a distorted economy.
Moving forward to the 20th century again, the neoliberalism established under the Fascist jackboot of Augusto Pinochet diffused and eventually spread throughout the globe. Eduardo Galeano tells us that the violence of the genocide in Guatemala did not end when the massacres stopped, but rather became the “slaughter that is greater but more hidden – the daily genocide of poverty”, 4) and Naomi Klein observed that the political violence in Argentina didn’t truly end, but became crushing economic and structural violence. 5) By-and-large, that was also the form of violence that spread globally in the guise of the neoliberal Washington Consensus.
The jackboots weren’t altogether absent, however. Neoliberalism and Fascism had not merely formed a marriage of convenience. Despite its libertarian rhetorical rationalisations, neoliberalism has not brought about lower taxes and shrinking state sectors. Instead it has seen a shift of tax burden onto the poor and a reallocation of government spending away from social supports and into policing, surveillance, and imprisonment. Neoliberalism hasn’t reestablished a genuinely “liberal” governance without the fascistic traits of post-coup US client states, it has merely been Fascism-lite.
Now that we are seeing the populist right-wing tribalism take hold. It completes the half-drawn sketch of mass-surveillance, militarised policing, mass incarceration, inequality, political marginalisation and a vast growing democratic deficit. Laurie Penny’s aforementioned articleon “creeping fascism” uses the phrase “boiling frogs”. This is a common way of alluding to a deadly situation that remains unnoticed because of its slow incremental development. This comes from the claim that if you attempt to put a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but you can fill a pot of cold water with frogs who will remain in sublime contentment as you heat the water right up to the point where they die.
We Are Frog Stew
At the risk of belabouring the point, let me re-emphasise that political liberalism, including neoliberalism and libertarianism, is not liberal in the sense cognate with the word “liberty”. It is often socially liberal, but is often not socially liberal. For example, the US Republican party is a fundamentally liberal party in its general laissez-faire economic stance, but it has a small socially liberal wing and a dominant socially conservative wing. Moreover, liberals are, in theory, all for liberalisation of markets, but in reality the poor are left to market forces, but the rich enjoy protectionism.
Neoliberalism combines all of the hypocrisy of selectively liberal liberalism with a clear authoritarian streak. This is perfectly in fitting with classical Liberalism, where “free” markets were enforced with laws, courts, prisons, armies and gunships. For example, as James Petras writes: “Whereas the Chinese relied on their open markets and their superior production and sophisticated commercial and banking skills, the British relied on tariff protection, military conquest, the systematic destruction of competitive overseas enterprises as well as the appropriation and plunder of local resources. China’s global predominance was based on ‘reciprocal benefits’ with its trading partners, while Britain relied on mercenary armies of occupation, savage repression and a ‘divide and conquer’ policy to foment local rivalries. In the face of native resistance, the British… did not hesitate to exterminate entire communities.” Unable to compete with China, the British and French invaded in the name of the “free market” for opium.
Then, as now, this liberal imperialism leads to militarism and political oppression at home and abroad. Darius Rejali’s massive book, Torture and Democracy, paints a disturbing picture of the use of torture by the three “great Liberal democracies”: the UK, the USA, and France. They are some of the most prolific torturers and they are the greatest innovators in torture techniques, and in each instance the use of torture in the imperial context has been mirrored by torture in the police cells and prisons of the homeland: Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and Chicago; Saigon, Algiers, and Marseilles; Calcutta, Belfast, and Liverpool.
The problem that we collectively have with liberalism is that each time it adds to the shackles with which it binds us it convinces us that our chains are our freedom. The reason the liberalism has been allowed to transform slowly into full-blown Fascism is two-fold. The first is that the actions of the highest political authorities are mediated by dialectic relationship with public opinion. The second is that though our free speech is severely distorted by unequal access to audiences, it is still a corrective and constraint on excesses in the short-term. In the long-term, however, these short-term constraints become the means of unfettered excess and tyranny. They are the boiling frogs mechanism that prevents the masses from grappling with and opposing the “creeping fascism”.
Sheldon Wolin highlights gradual evolution as a key aspect of “inverted totalitarianism”. He claims that in US history there are “antecedents but no precedents” for this new tyranny. Outside of the US, however, there something of a precedent, and it is the most disturbing
What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security…
This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.1
An obvious example of the new style of frog-boiling gradualism can be seen in the current competition to become the presidential candidate of the United States Republican Party. Each outrageous thing said by Ben Carson or Donald Trump is legitimised by the very fact that they are allowed to say such things without any repercussions. The Daily Show, for example, has accidentally been quite pernicious because it is normalises political insanity. We are falsely comforted by the fact that comedians are allowed to say very rude things about political leaders without being dragged off in the night. However, widespread ridicule does not alter the credence and deference accorded to irrational and idiotic right-wing public figures by the news media. The result, inevitably, is that the the goalposts are shifted – the boundaries and the centre of the allowed discourse are all shifted to the right and towards overt Fascism. The Onion satirised the effects in an article handily summarised in its title: “Santorum Nostalgic For Time When Beliefs Were Outlandish Enough To Make Headlines”.
By contrast, the media have a near inexhaustible number of ways to discipline and constrain politicians and political discourse from drifting to the left. The crude red-baiting of McCarthyism has mutated into a complex theological inquisition based on the religious faith of neoliberalism. For evidence you could read any number of articles posted by the media watchdog FAIR, because it crops up with a scarcely credible frequency.. To give one minor but very topical example, Anderson Cooper questioned Bernie Sanders’ “electability” and asked Democratic presidential contenders to affirm or deny that they were “capitalists”. Because his usage of the term “capitalism” was undefined and fundamentally empty Cooper was simply enforcing a ritual genuflection before the altar of orthodox ideology. Sanders, unlike Clinton, actually refuted the premise and affirmed his commitment to “democratic socialism”, but that just shows the gulf between popular sentiment and that of the political elites.
The Lizard of Oz
The popularity of Bernie Sanders and UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may indicate that resistance is building to the constant rightward shift, but we shouldn’t underestimate the force it has exerted over time. In the US every electoral; disappointment for the Democrats can be attributed to a failure to deliver those things that people want according to polls. But even though this clearly places the US public considerably to the left of the Democrats, the news media jump on every poor electoral performance as proof that Democrats are dangerously leftist. This is not confined to the US alone. In Australia, the UK and Aotearoa (New Zealand), the right-wing governing parties (Liberal, Conservative and National) have all won elections with the help of PR firm Crosby-Textor and specifically at the direction of Lynton “The Lizard of Oz” Crosby. Their method is to target Labour Party leaders (each country has a Labour Party) with emotive and manipulative criticisms. The medium is not campaign ads but rather the news media, and the campaigns rely on considerable voluntary compliance from news media. Effectively Crosby-Textor becomes a type of neoliberal politburo dictating a Party Line which the “independent” media are happy to adopt of their own free will. This makes Crosby-Textor akin to Rupert Murdoch’s News International, in that they are a multinational thought-control outfit wielding considerable power. Like Murdoch they can look beyond single elections and single countries and intentionally shift the political discourse rightward. For example, the UK election defeat for Labour in 2015 saw exactly the same headlines that were used for the 2014 Labour defeat in Aotearoa. The lesson of these historic defeats was apparently that Labour had gone too far left and was now teetering on complete irrelevance. I am sure that if the Australian Labour Party had not had an extraordinarily dramatic leadership battle the analysis of its earlier defeat would have also been identical.
The relevance of this is to point out that there is a transnational bloc of Fascist states populated by boiled frogs that is referred to as the “Anglosphere”. It began with the Thatcher/Reagan creation of a conservative neoliberal orthodoxy. It was spread by “globalisation” through transnational agents such as corporate, financial and media interests along with US-dominated “multilateral” governmental bodies.
This “Anglosphere” is joined by the European Union in having imposed the authoritarian laissez-faire regimes on the “developing” world. This is also true of all of the BRICS countries except China, but even China complies with the economic order that is the most important part of this global Fascist Bloc. This has created what sociologist Peter Philips calls a “Transnational Capitalist Class” (TCC) which has created “21st Century Fascism” because: “The TCC are keenly aware of both their elite status and their increasing vulnerabilities to democracy movements and to unrest from below.” The result is that: “The 99 percent of us without wealth and private police power face the looming threat of overt repression and complete loss of human rights and legal protections. We see signs of this daily with police killings (now close to a hundred per month in the US), warrantless electronic spying, mass incarceration, random traffic checkpoints, airport security/no-fly lists, and Homeland Security compilations of databases on suspected resisters.”
Bernie Sanders is a Fascist
Paul Street and David Swanson have both warned against the imperialist militarism of Bernie Sanders. John Walsh condemns him in these terms: “The fundamental problem with Sanders’s campaign is that it is based on bribery, and an especially immoral sort of bribery at that. For Bernie promises more social benefits if we, the beneficiaries, let him continue the Empire’s warfare – both economic and military. That is a most unsavory sort of bribe. Basically he gives us butter if we give him guns to kill innocents.”
Chris Hedges has written numerous pieces and made numerous statements focussing on criticising those who support Sanders. A key theme that Hedges shares with many is that Sanders is the “sheep dog” or “a Pied Piper leading a line of children or rats—take your pick—into political oblivion.” But taken as a whole Hedges is indicating something more profound – a complicity and an inclusion into a Fascist project.
I may be wrong but I think that Chris Hedges understands that a Fascism exists as a monolithic enterprise just as it is outlined by Peter Philips (quoted above). A narrow global elite controls a global Fascist apparatus. Now we suddenly notice that we are surrounded by sprouting mushrooms of police violence, surveillance, racist and xenophobic thuggery, like the fruit of a fungus that has been growing underground for 40 years. In such circumstances if you do not reject the Fascist movement, you are part of it.
You might wonder how a brave outspoken politician like Sanders who embraces “democratic socialism” could possibly be compared to a Fascist, yet I would happily compare him to the Nazi Ernst Röhm. Admittedly Sanders is not a street fighter sending his own Brown Shirts to beat opponents, but he did say that Saudi Arabia should “get their hands dirty”, he voted to support Israel when they were slaughtering Gazans including hundreds of children. Part of our boiled frog outlook on life is that we normalise and accept such behaviour, but to openly endorse the mass killing of children in that manner is more foul and disgusting than Ernst Röhm’s thuggery. You may disagree, but if you think that it is invalid to compare a Nazi with someone who merely goes along with his nation’s penchant for war then maybe you should watch this video of a dying 6 year-old Yemeni boy crying “don’t bury me”.
The real point of connection between Röhm and Sanders is that they are both earnest avowed socialists. Röhm was pro-worker and anti-capitalist. His SA Brown Shirts attacked Communists, Jews and people who raised their voices against Nazism, but they also attacked scabs. In other words, he was both enforcer and sheepdog. He helped the Nazis to power, making their left-wing pretensions seem more substantive. In the end Hitler had Röhm killed in the “Night of the Long Knives”. Without wishing to over-simplify, it is fair to say that before being killed Röhm was pushing for the transformation promised by Nazi rhetoric, while Hitler was busy consolidating power by not challenging vested interests.
Sanders might become the next president, and if he doesn’t take the road taken by Hitler in his first years as leader, he will take the road taken by Röhm – the one leading to an early grave. In The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertold Brecht parodies Hitler’s historic rise to power as a the rise of a Chicago gangster whose closest oldest lieutenant (Ernie Roma) is killed for, if anything, being too loyal – too loyal to what he wrongly thought Ui (Hitler) stood for. The organised crime analogy is an apt one. This new Fascism is an enterprise with its own rules and those, like Sanders, who do not reject them completely and wholly will find that they cannot reject any part of the enterprise.
Jeremy Corbyn is an Antifascist
The exception that proves the rule is Jeremy Corbyn. The British news media have made it quite clear that they think him to be a dangerous extremist. Mark Steel parodies them thus: “We knew Jeremy Corbyn was mad, but now we know he’s psychotic. It turns out he won’t press the button to annihilate cities in a nuclear holocaust. How could anyone be that mentally unstable?” Corbyn, an avowed republican, horrified the punditocracy by not singing “God Save the Queen”. Roy Greenslade collated some press reactions in headlines: “Corbyn snubs Queen and country” (Daily Telegraph); “Veterans open fire after Corbyn snubs anthem” (The Times); “Corb snubs the Queen” (The Sun); “Not Save the Queen” (Metro); “Shameful: Corbyn refuses to sing national anthem” (Daily Express); “Fury as Corbyn refuses to sing national anthem at Battle of Britain memorial” (Daily Mail); “Corby a zero: Leftie refuses to sing national anthem” (Daily Star).”
You can summarise the Corbynophobic response as a violent antagonism to the fact that Corbyn doesn’t merely use anti-establishment rhetoric, but he also actually means it. He doesn’t backtrack on prior stances merely because his change in status (i.e. having become leader of the opposition) is difficult to reconcile with his conscience. Corbyn opposes everything that creeping Fascism has wrought in UK society and in Westminster. He is an antifascist.
The fact that the leader of the opposition is an antifascist is really not that important, though. There are four and a half more years until the next UK general election and a lot could happen to Corbyn in that time. He might go for a ride through the lonely woods on his “Chairman Mao-style bicycle”, become overcome with depression, and then garrotte himself with his “Chairman Mao-style” inner-tube. He might be abducted by the Lizard Illuminati in order to have his brain harvested and replaced with a Sinclair ZX-81 computer that is programmed to believe that Corbyn is the reincarnation of Friedrich Hayek. The more likely prospect, however, is that tens of thousands of political strategists, think-tankers, journalists, editors, and PR professionals will put many hours into formulating ways to denigrate and delegitimise Corbyn. The faith people place in Corbyn will be turned against them and used as a club to beat them into demoralised and hopeless submission.
More interesting than Corbyn himself is the fact that his popularity is due to a strong submerged public desire for the rejection of Fascism. It is the same reason that Bernie Sanders was able to sidestep Anderson Cooper’s stake-filled pit of orthodoxy by simply repeatedly asserting his allegiance to social democracy. The audience and the wider viewership loved this approach because, however deluded they might be, they very understandably saw it as a rejection of the prevailing Fascist orthodoxy.
It is that incipient but often unacknowledged antifascist strain in the public that is most interesting because one of the clearest and common symptoms of substantive Fascism is substantive mass anti-fascism…
- … and you can read all about that in “The Resistible Rise of Global Fascism Part 2: 8 Signs You Are Living Under a Fascist Regime.”
- Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945 (University of Chicago Press, 1955).