Iowa City, IA, January 3, 2011. Imagine if the United States really was, as a number of my fellow leftists claim to think, “a fascist state.” To fit the description, it wouldn’t be enough for the U.S. to be plagued by:
- the fierce co-joining of state and corporate/financial power
- the persistence and deepening of harsh racial inequality and oppression
- stark class disparity (in a country where the top 1 percent owns more than a third of the wealth and the top 20 percent owns 84 percent) producing grotesque hyper-opulence for the rich and powerful Few alongside deep poverty for tens of millions among of the Many
- a viciously narrow one-and-a-half party system whose two wings are equally captive to “the unelected dictatorship of money”
- a largely defeated and pathetically tamed labor movement
- millions of stateless workers whose lack of legal status renders them super-exploitable by employers
- a giant military system and war machine that maims and murders millions of innocents abroad
- a significant mass of the citizenry that relies on war and empire to make a living and functions as a mercenary population for the elite
- an ongoing history of waging illegal wars of aggression abroad
- an authoritarian disabling of functioning democratic institutions at home
- a pandemic of irrational thought and anti-intellectualism
- the violent government suppression and ubiquitous surveillance of domestic dissent
- the regular use of military methods and technologies in domestic policing
- government assault on basic civil liberties (including the right not to be indefinitely detained without facing charges and without legal representation) and human rights at home and abroad
- right wing propaganda systems that (among other things) conflate the right-centrist pseudo-liberalism of business Democrats like Barack Obama with socialism and even “Marxism”
- a massive incarceration and criminalization system that keeps a very disproportionately black and Latino army of more than 2 million Americans behind bars and marks more than 1 in 3 adult black males with the lifelong stigma of a felony record
- an intellectual class and university and media systems that supinely serve the corporate and financial elite and that elite’s state
- the systematic marginalization of radicals and genuine dissenters
- the savage concentration of news, information, communication, and cultural institutions into the hands of a tight corporate oligopoly, with corresponding authoritarian ideological consequences
- a narcissistic culture of hyper-masculinized nationalism that justifies war and empire with claims of special American “greatness”
- a political culture that blames the disadvantaged for their own position at the bottom of the nation’s ever-steeper pyramids of class, race, and ethnicity.
All of these things and more of a terrible and authoritarian nature can be discerned by those willing to see in the contemporary U.S. They are largely consistent with the notion of a “fascist America.” It’s not for nothing that many contemporary Hitler-worshipping European fascists look with favor upon the U.S. as a kind of role model.
Still, there would have to be more for the U.S. to fit the description “fascist state.” To be really fascist, the U.S. would have to be under the thrall of a charismatic dictator who had undertaken a conscious, explicit, and rapid assault on nominally democratic bourgeois-electoralist and representative institutions. That dictator would be supported by a highly mobilized mass of millions of dedicated, proto-militarized, and everyday (largely lower middle class/petit-bourgeois) authoritarians ready to do his bidding at home and abroad. This marching fascist multitude would seek to honor the sanctified Nation State (fatherland) by physically assaulting liberals, radicals, trade unionists, racial minorities, gays and lesbians, libraries, universities, civil society groups, and all political parties other than the ruling regime’s.
In a fascist America, the Occupy Movement would have been lucky to have lasted one night in a single city park before Fuhrer (let’s say) Beck’s minions would have run protestors off with broken bones and worse, herding many into buses and trains to be sent to work camps. There Occupiers would toil under armed guard alongside mostly black prisoners in the making of war materials. It is unthinkable that they would have lasted in their parks for many weeks and even received a considerable amount of half-way favorable media coverage, with journalists freely reporting that more than two thirds of the population supported the movement’s goals.
Untold thousands of Muslims would have been murdered inside the U.S. (not just in the Middle East and Southwest Asia) and sent to giant internment camps. Books would be burning in the streets. Barnes&Nobles outlets would not be allowed to carry volumes from Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, and Howard Zinn or even books by Michael Moore, who would have been whisked off (along with the liberal Rachel Maddow, perhaps) to an unnamed federal detention center in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (the staff at “Democracy Now” would reside in Guantanamo). Elections would be dispensed with. Much of the media would be shut down. The parts that remained would be subject to ruthless centralized control from ideological authorities (some transferred over from FOX News) in Fortress Washington. Democracy and justice activists would have to meet secretly and would live in constant danger of beating, torture, and disappearance.
The “grassroots” core of the nation’s hard right wouldn’t be a bunch of comfortably retired white Republican Tea Partiers who claim to support the “free market” but who want to close the borders and keep their Medicare and Social Security and who don’t particularly enjoy collective action. Instead, they would be younger, steely-eyed, truncheon-wielding, jackboot-wearing shock troops who love nothing more than rugged mass head-cracking action against various perceived liberal, racial, radical, and national enemies of the Founding Fathers’ land at home and abroad. The nation would be on a war footing, poised to invade not just distant Middle Eastern or Asian states but its immediate neighbors Canada and Mexico.
That’s what a truly “fascist America” would look like. It obviously hasn’t arrived and it’s unlikely to appear anytime soon. The hypothetical scenarios I just laid out amount largely to the transplantation into contemporary America of developments that are rooted in the toxic historical subsoil of interwar Europe (particularly of course in Italy and above all Hitler’s Third Reich Germany), the real and time and place for serious discussion of actual historical fascism. Even it could actually access it, the American ruling class doesn’t particularly need that particular mode of rule, which is less stable and durable than the current, considerably softer neoliberal regime of corporate-managed fake-democracy, whereby most of the population is generally de-mobilized, individualized, and fragmented and popular governance is slow-cooked to death through a million plutocratic, state-capitalist cuts. Under the American model of elite-managed shadow democracy, the reign of the Few masquerades as popular self-determination and “the free market” instead of lurking behind the explicitly repressive and holy State.
Even if real historical fascism could be translated across times and place to the modern U.S. it would be largely redundant for America’s powers that be. The American elite already gets the basic regressive and authoritarian outcomes of fascism – increased exploitation and division of the working class, deepening concentration of wealth and power, the disabling of political democracy and social justice, the marginalization of dissent and critical thought, and the advance of stupendous and lucrative militarism and empire – without having to unleash the full brutality of fascist dictatorship.
So why do some radicals and progressives like to throw the word fascism around with great bravado in connection with the contemporary U.S.? Beyond simple sociopolitical and historical ignorance (and I think fascism is a fairly complex historical subject matter), I think many of them may do it for an understandable shock effect. The parallels between contemporary and ongoing authoritarian/racist/classist/sexist/corporatist/ nationalist/imperialist Americanism – see my opening bullet points – and the Third Reich (and for that matter and to a lesser degree with the Soviet Empire of 1928-1991) are no laughing matter. The contemporary U.S. may not be a fascist totalitarian state. But it is highly questionable whether it deserves any longer to be considered a democracy. As veteran left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin argued four years ago on the eve of the fake-progressive corporate imperialist Barack Obama’s ascendancy, the U.S. may have “morphed into a new and strange kind of political hybrid, one where economic and state powers are conjoined and virtually unbridled.” Wolin’s chilling book Democracy Incorporated described a mass-incarceration-ist and militarized nation, “where citizens are politically uninterested and submissive – and where elites are eager to keep them that way. At best,” Wolin argued, “the nation has become a ‘managed democracy’ where the public is shepherded, not sovereign [emphasis added]. At worst it is a place where corporate power no longer answer to state controls” and where “unchecked economic power risks verging on total power and has its own unnerving pathologies.” In Wolin’s view, Cheney-Bush America had the potential to become modern history’s third great totalitarian formation, succeeding the brown fascism of Hitler’s Germany and the red fascism of Stalin’s Russia.
Particularly “unnerving” to me is the possibility that this formation could be the most sophisticated and powerful species of authoritarian rule yet developed. As the brilliant Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey noted back in the Reagan-Thatcher era, the greatest and most potent long-term threat to “the liberal-democratic freedoms we are all supposed to enjoy” has not come from the 1984 “left” but rather in the deceptively “un-coercive” form of “a widespread social and political indoctrination, an indoctrination which promotes business interests as everyone’s interests and in the process fragments the community and closes off individual and critical thought.” The critical homeland and headquarters of this indoctrination and the deadly, oxymoronic and Orwellian “corporate-managed democracy” it breeds was of course the outwardly liberal and ostensibly freedom-loving United States, where the art and science of “taking the risk out of democracy” (what Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman later and famously termed “manufacturing consent”) – something different and arguably even more dangerous than the open and explicit bludgeoning of democracy – was, for various historical reasons, carried to new levels (see Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
Alongside the ever more imminent ecological self-destruction imposed by the profits system and the ever-present danger of nuclear war, this great authoritarian threat (potentially “totalitarian” by Wolin’s account) underlines the desperately “fierce urgency of now” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) when it comes to expanding the great American democracy upsurge that broke out last year in Madison, Wisconsin, Columbus, Ohio, Zucotti Park and more than 850 Occupy sites across the nation and world. On that note, I will now depart to see what kind of sand I can throw into the authoritarian gears of the fake-democratic Iowa Caucus extravaganza on this very cold evening of January 3, 2012.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books and studies, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman&Littlefied, 2007), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
 See for one example among many Michael Pirsch, “America is a Fascist State Because it is Racist,” Black Agenda Report (October 18, 2011) at http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/america-fascist-state-because-it-racist
 See Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011)