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Friday, May 31, 2024

Fascism: What’s in a Word?

The word “fascism” is a lightning rod. No one wants to be called a fascist. Everyone is ready to call someone else a fascist. 

Like many highly charged words, the more common its usage becomes, the more inexact its meaning becomes.  

Today, Trump is a fascist, Putin is a fascist, Modi is a fascist, Radical Islam is Islamofascism, the House and Senate members who passed the FISA renewal are fascists, Ukraine is a fascist country, political correctness is fascism, anti-Zionists are fascists, Zionists are fascists, and so on….

Clearly, the word “fascism” in these contexts is most often an expression of extreme disapproval-- a kind of expletive.

A problem arises when the claimant-- the person using the word-- has something more definite in mind, something more exacting. A problem arises when the user of the word intends to draw an association with the real, historically concrete phenomena of fascism that emerged in the aftermath of World War I and rose tragically to ravage and terrorize nearly the entire world. 

The idea that people or organizations are preparing to organize Blackshirts, Brownshirts, Silver Shirts or whatever to intimidate or overthrow conventional political processes is understandably reprehensible. But to conjure such an image in order to influence the political process, though without sufficient warrant, is misleading.

In a highly charged political context, it is not only misleading, but also unhelpful, and even incendiary.

Even a policy as sanctified by much of the left as the New Deal has been called fascist, proto-fascist, or fascist-tinged by commentators from across the political spectrum. And the “sainted” FDR has been labeled fascist by many. Critics from both left and right have seen parallels between elements of the New Deal and Mussolini’s corporatism. Still others have found similarities between the Rooseveltian Civilian Conservation Corps and Hitler’s German Labor Services. Since the New Deal was a mish-mash of trial-and-error pragmatism, it is a disservice to wed it with any particular ideology.

Of course, “fascism” depends on how we define it. Problems of definition arose immediately after World War II and the defeat of the major fascist powers. The emerging Cold War led to the US and its allies accepting a narrow definition when it came to new-found allies among former Nazis and Nazi collaborators. In its conflict with the Soviets, US leaders relied on Germans and Eastern Europeans with dubious, fascist ties to advance weapons programs, utilize intelligence, and bolster anti-Communism. Vetting of fascists by ideology was a haphazard process at best.

On the other hand, attempts to link fascism to Communism was an ongoing project. Determined efforts to find common features to justify anti-Communism led to a construct called “totalitarianism.” Popularized by Hannah Arendt, Cold Warriors wanted and got a tally of supposed similarities that served their purposes and served to generate a common definition of two disparate ideologies.

Thus, the Cold War created both a narrow and broad interpretation of fascism-- one for practical purposes, the other for propaganda purposes.

As the Cold War warmed in the 1980s, academics like Stanley Payne (Fascism, Wisconsin, 1980), made attempts at more independent, nuanced, and objective definitions of “fascism.” Payne engaged in comparative historical analysis and arrived at his typological description of fascism. Unfortunately, it suffered somewhat from raw empiricism and a failure to properly weigh the factors disclosed. To its credit, it undercut the Cold War conflation of Communism and fascism by emphasizing anti-Communism as a common feature of fascism, and not conflating it with Communism. 

Further, Payne in 1980 recognizes the historically met concept of “liberal authoritarianism” -- a form of illiberal liberalism-- that might serve to explain much of the confusion of our anti-Trump left today, who are anxious to dispense with the Bill of Rights to save “our” democracy.

In a recent essay regarding the “fascism is imminent” fashion of today, noted liberal commentator, Patrick Lawrence, riffs on the concept of “liberal authoritarianism.” Lawrence declares in his article This Isn’t Fascism posted on Consortium News that “I cannot quite tell what people mean when they speak of fascism in our current circumstances. And [as] far as one can make out, a lot of people who use the term, and maybe most, do not know what they mean, either.”

Unfortunately, while Payne still serves as a keystone for contemporary Western academic scholarship, the old Cold War conflation of Communism and fascism has resumed, particularly under a new wave of retro-Cold Warriors like Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder. 

But more consequentially, the charge of fascism-- invoked irresponsibly-- has served as a weapon in electoral politics. Specifically, many in the Democratic Party-- bereft of an appealing program-- charge that a vote for Biden is a vote against fascism. Given that Biden’s failure on inflation and his bloody war-mongering are rejected, especially by youth and the Party’s left wing, portraying Trump as a fascist is an act of desperation, but an act that will ultimately do little to forego the rise of Trump and his ilk.

Again, invoking Lawrence:

Much of this, let’s call it the pollution of public discourse, comes from the liberal authoritarians. Rachel Maddow, to take one of the more pitiful cases, wants us to think Trump the dictator will end elections, destroy the courts, and render the Congress powerless. The MSNBC commentator has actually said these things on air.

One-man rule is the theme, if you listen to the Rachel Maddows. The evident intent is to cast Donald Trump in the most fearsome light possible, as it becomes clear Trump could well defeat President Biden at the polls come Nov. 5.

We can mark this stuff down to crude politicking in an election year, surely. There is nothing new in it. But this is not the point.

Opportunistic voices on the left will often draw a crude analogy with the rise of Nazism. They argue the simplistic and false case that disunity on the left opened the door for Hitler’s ascendency to the Chancellorship of Germany in 1933. They repeat an old whitewash of history-- dismissing Hitler’s backing by the German capitalists, the perfidy of the weak government, and the betrayal of the Social Democrats. They ignore the economic crisis, the rulers’ failure to address the crisis, and the peoples’ desperate search for a radical answer to that failure. An unquestionable sign of that desperation was the continuing growth of the votes for the Communist Party, along with the decline in votes for the Social Democrats, and other centrist parties.

Nazism was not inevitable, but ushered in on a fear of revolution, of workers’ power, by a despairing ruling class. That was the reality wherever fascism seized power in twentieth-century fascism.

Today, the answer to a deepening crisis of capitalist rule that is losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the masses is not rallying support around the failed policies that created and deepened the crisis. The answer is not to cry wolf or remind the people that matters could get worse. They know that!

The answer is to develop real answers to the despair facing working people-- reducing inequality, raising living standards, guaranteeing health care, increasing social benefits, improving affordable public transportation, protecting the environment, improving public education, and so on. These issues have existed for many decades, worsening with each passing year. There is no mystery. We are offered only two parties and they are determined to evade these issues. 

Lawrence makes a similar point:

I suppose it might make America’s many-sided crisis — political, economic, social — more comprehensible if we name it [fascism] to suggest it has a frightening antecedent. But this is profoundly counterproductive. So long as we, some of us, go on persuading ourselves we face the threat of fascism or Fascism, either one, we simply obscure what it is we actually face.

We name it wrongly... I do not see fascism in any form anywhere on America’s horizon. To call it such is to render ourselves incapable of acting effectively.

But that still leaves us with the question: What is fascism? Is there no cogent definition?

Indeed, there is one that springs forth from a deep and thorough study by the late Marxist thinker, R. Palme Dutt. Published in 1934, soon after Hitler’s rise to power, Fascism and Social Revolution (International Publishers) locates fascism in the cauldron of the rise of Communism, a deep economic crisis, and the collapse of capitalist class legitimacy.

Dutt, unlike servile academics weaving a bizarre, historically challenged link between Communism and fascism, discovers direct ties between capitalism and fascism (p. 72-73).

Fascism manufactures its ideology around its practice. Dutt explains: 

Fascism, in fact, developed as a movement in practice, in the conditions of threatening proletarian revolution, as a counter-revolutionary mass movement supported by the bourgeoisie, employing weapons of mixed social demagogy and terrorism to defeat the revolution and build up a strengthened capitalist state dictatorship; and only later endeavoured to adorn and rationalize this process with a “theory” (p. 75).

Dutt’s operational definition contrasts favorably with the failed attempt by writers like Payne who attempted to engage comparative studies in order to arrive at a superficial typography of fascism.

Dutt further adds the class dimensions, absent in nearly all non-Marxist definitions:

Fascism, in short, is a movement of mixed elements, dominantly petit-bourgeois, but also slum-proletariat and demoralized working class, financed and directed by finance-capital, by the big industrialists, landlords and financiers, to defeat the working-class revolution and smash working-class organizations (p. 82).

Elegant in its simplicity, robust in its comprehensiveness, Dutt’s explication of fascism aptly characterizes historic fascism from the march on Rome to the Generals’ coup in Indonesia and Pinochet’s regime in Chile. When social conditions deteriorate drastically and workers and their organizations threaten the capitalist order, the rulers throw their support behind counter-revolutionaries prepared to defend and strengthen the capitalist order, even at the expense of bourgeois democracy.

These institutions and organizations fester within bourgeois society as latent counter-revolutionary forces ready to be unleashed at the right moment by a desperate capitalist ruling class.

Clearly, Dutt’s study and elucidation of fascism clears the muddy waters stirred by today’s alarmists and opportunists. There is no imminent threat of revolution; the revolutionary left and the workers’ organizations currently pose little threat to the capitalist order, unfortunately. 

There is no emergent organized mass movement responding to a counter-revolutionary call. The mass movements of the right-- the Black Legions, the KKK, the Proud Boys, the militias, etc.-- do exist, should conditions ever ripen for a mobilization against the working class; but for today, they remain unacceptable to most of the ruling class.

For the most part, the capitalist class, especially its dominant monopoly sector, is satisfied to conduct its business within the confines of bourgeois democracy. “Finance-capital… the big industrialists, landlords and financiers…” defend and protect the two-party system because they regard it as functioning adequately, though the “lawfare” attacks piling up on Trump and the rabid media attacks against him show that an important section of the ruling class considers his unpredictability to be a threat to stability. 

Others think that his buffoonery and bluster serve as a safety valve for the discontent infecting the citizenry, much as Berlusconi’s clown-act pacified and entertained Italians unhappy over their political fate for three decades.

In any case, Trump does not pose the threat of fascism that many would like us to believe. 

We need to find other words to describe the deep crisis of bourgeois legitimacy that we are enduring, words that do not force us into a frenzied defensive posture that deflects us from finding real solutions to a real and profound problems facing working people. 

Greg Godels

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Are We Having an Election in November?

With an important US presidential election-- we are told-- only months away, but one posing two repugnant, disheartening choices, it may be a good time to explore where we are and how we got here.

What we can agree is that most of us, when asked, believe that things are going badly: an October, 2023 AP-NORC poll finds that 78% of those polled responded that “the country is going in the wrong direction;” a January Morning Consult poll concludes that less than a third of those responding “say the country is headed in the right direction; a recent Harvard Kennedy school poll says that less than 10 % of youth 18 to 29 believe that the US is “generally headed in the right direction” and so on with NBC, ABC, Pew, etc. polls. We could quarrel over the exact numbers expressing dissatisfaction, but all polls point to a nation decidedly unhappy with our direction.

Of course, there is room to debate exactly what people mean by the “wrong direction.” They may mean in regard to their own current situation or that of their family or friends; they may mean their sense of security; they may mean their own or others’ prospects. Or they may mean that “society” is heading the wrong way culturally, politically, or economically. No doubt respondents to the various polls have complex, even contradictory reasons for losing confidence in the US trajectory. Moreover, one cannot discount the influence of monopoly media reportage and commentary in constructing the sense of dissatisfaction.

It is fair to say, however, that most people believe that our future will be determined by political outcomes. Whether or not they have confidence in the political system-- polls say they don’t-- they do, in fact, rely on campaigning and elections to determine the future course of the country. Most US citizens have not yet chosen or do not know of other political courses of action beyond voting or indifference.

A fixture of our political system is the two-party monopoly. While it is not unlawful or completely uncommon that there be other parties, tradition, entry-demands, financing, chicanery, and even violence have worked to deny third-party movements access or ensure their lack of success. Popular sentiment is denied by Republican and Democratic leaders and functionaries and those others invested in the two-party system who control the rules of the game. A fall, 2023 Gallup poll finds that “Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults currently agree with the statement that the Republican and Democratic parties do ‘such a poor job’ of representing the American people that ‘a third major party is needed.’” For a poll-based summary of US voters’ overall negativity, see this Pew article.

So ahead of a November election, we face two poles: one represented by a self-styled nationalist-populist promising to “Make America Great Again,” while weighted down with a sordid, vulgar, and elitist history; and the other represented by a corporate Democrat once known as the “senator from MBNA” (the infamous credit card company) for his cozy relationship with the credit card industry, a reliable friend of wealth and power, and a history of supporting legislation hostile to the interests of Black people.

This is where we have arrived.

Do the two-parties offer answers to the negativism expressed in polls?

I don’t see it. 

The Republican Party remains a corporate party wedded first and foremost to the interests of capital. It has a relatively independent wing that is able and willing to force its own cultural and social agenda on the entire party. Parts of that wing recognize that the self-proclaimed “party of labor” -- the Democratic Party-- has long failed to deliver anything of deep or lasting value to working people. Elements of this wing have-- in the twenty-first century-- constructed a faux-populist image to attract working people, with some success. Variations of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” had been used earlier by Reagan and the Clintons to entice workers’ votes.

Trump and others have attracted angry voters with their vocal disdain for the “establishment,” elite arrogance, East Coast condescension, and US leaders’ general superciliousness. While “draining the swamp” is a worthy goal, four years of the Trump administration provided no relief from elitism.

The Republicans historically vacillate between isolationism and belligerence. But at least they vacillate. 

While the Republicans do not want to identify with racism, misogyny and the many other know-nothing-isms, they are not above courting the scum that do. 

The Democratic Party-- the other option that we are allowed by our ruling class-- wears the mythical mantle of “the party of the people.” The sole basis for this claim is dim recollections of the New Deal, a little understood period of US history that brought some benefits to working people as a result of a desperate attempt to save capitalism from itself.

With capitalism on a firmer footing after World War II, US rulers, with the full cooperation of Democratic Party Cold Warriors, dealt a fatal blow to the so-called popular front, purging left-wing militancy from unions, universities, schools, media, and any other area of influence. 

The coup de grĂ¢ce to New Deal thinking came after the collapse of the Keynesian paradigm/New Deal political coalition in the 1970s. When Reagan ushered in market fundamentalism and ushered out government intervention, the Democrats were not long in jumping on board. Soon, every Democrat saw the wisdom of efficiency, balanced budgets, private initiatives, and entrepreneurial sovereignty. As the Republican Party embraced religious zealotry and medieval justice, many saw the Democrats as the new Republicans, with their stealth attacks on welfare, Social Security, and Medicare.

Today’s Democratic Party is neither democratic nor a party, but a brand. It lives and breathes on money from corporate sponsors. Its contact with its supporters is through advertising, television talking heads, the punditry, and indirectly through various media; the idea of human contact with potential voters is only useful if it can be filmed and included in a television commercial.

Like the Republicans, the Democrats have an activist wing that provides a social democratic veneer to the party’s image. Unlike the Republican counterpart wing, the “progressive” Democratic wing never dares to attempt to impose its views on the party. Without exercising “leverage,” the Democratic Party left wing simply serves as a cover, a safe space for “progressives” to welcome other progressives into the party’s arms.

The truth is the Democratic Party is a corporate party, but a party that has occasionally been forced by social pressure, circumstances, or crises to play a people-friendly role. The pressure is not there now.

Moreover, the Democratic leadership has nothing to offer working people. The class base of the party has shifted. With the loss of the South to the Republicans and the ugly Nixon fiasco in the 1970s, the Democrats captured the suburban petty-bourgeoisie and its aspirants who were comfortable with the shrinkage of the welfare state, lower taxes, and deregulation, yet socially liberal on personal questions. Stable super-voters, active in social movements, and financially generous to the Democrats, they (and their contemporary urban gentry counterparts who share a similar profile) are the new keystone of the Democratic Party. The traditional backbone of the Democratic Party-- minorities, unions, youth, the poor-- are taken for granted. After all, according to the reasoning of Democratic leaders, those groups have nowhere else to go.

This realignment has refashioned its core issues around lifestyle, personal rights, and a hyper-regard for the diversity of individual values. The traditional left's concerns for common social values of equality, community, and material security have been forced into the background. Good jobs, health care, education, and secure retirement are not there for all to have, but for those who earn them.

Democratic leaders celebrate achievers-- those who have broken through glass ceilings-- but have contempt for those fallen or stuck in the basement. Both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have arrogantly, and with little forethought for appearances, relegated the heartland of the US to a land of gun-loving, Bible-thumpers-- in Clinton’s unforgettable words, “the deplorables.” Never mind that the Midwest has been ravaged by corporate deindustrialization, leaving cities and small towns depopulated, poor, with shrinking social services, and marginal employment. The “deplorables” have failed to push on, get a late-life STEM education, and rise by their own bootstraps. In the meantime, let’s extend a welcoming, helping hand to those few who merit admission to the highest rungs of elite society. 

This contempt for the non-coastal residents came forth most recently in a New York Times bestseller, White Rural Rage, by Schaller and Waldman, who depict small town USA as backward and infected with racism. Like so many in the Democratic Party intelligentsia, they see this as a threat to “our” democracy. That is to say, the authors worry about contempt for the democracy of the “successful,” but care little for the democracy of the “losers.” For a tightly argued, thoughtful rejoinder to this dose of elitism, read Les Leopold’s Wall Street War on Workers, though I wish Leopold would have as a sub-title “and the Two Parties’ War on Workers.”

For the forthcoming election, the Democrats will once again hope to corral those left-of-center with Trump’s alleged threat to “our” democracy. They will go so far as to raise the specter of fascism. Ironically, the closest move against democracy that resembles the realities of life under fascism is the recent bipartisan passage of an expanded section 702 of the infamous FISA, an act that permits warrantless spying on US citizens. The ACLU comments that it is a “bill that gives the government more ways to secretly surveil us.” Even more ironically, Trump-- the alleged enemy of democracy-- denounced the entire FISA act.

Leftish Democrats will again raise the old canard about divisions on the left in Germany opening the door to fascism in the 1930s. According to this historical reconstruction, the failure of the Communists and Social Democrats to unite against Hitler allowed him to take power. It is an ill-informed, simplistic take on a complex situation. But suffice it to say, it excuses the real causes of Hitler’s rise: the draconian Treaty of Versailles, discredited centrist politics, compromised industrialists and business people, a profound economic crisis, displaced workers whose voices were not heard, their desperation, and-- yes-- a rotten, broken capitalist system. 

The Democrats face an enormous problem with poor management of the economy and support for unpopular wars. Some say the Democrats are the war party. But that is not fair. Both parties are war parties, each with its own badges of shame.

But Biden and the Democrats will pay a price for enabling the bloodletting in Ukraine and, especially, for complicity in the massacres in Gaza. The intensity of the outrage against the genocidal slaughter in Gaza will only increase.

Regardless of which of the two parties wins in November, we are in for a rough patch. While the candidates are different, they are different in equally despicable ways.

I will follow the wise council of most of my fellow citizens who say that “a third majority party is needed” and cast my one vote towards that goal.

Greg Godels