The road grows shorter
SAM SMITH – It is not easy to recognize fascism if you haven’t been there before. Our eyesight is blurred by everything from cultural optimism to psychic denial. But news of the NSA’s mass spying on American’s phone records – in number of victims, at least, perhaps the most broadly illegal and unconstitutional act in our history – makes it all simpler. There is not an ounce of hyperbole in calling the NSA’s action those of a fascist regime and not of a democratic state. NSA has not only violated the law, it even refuses to allow the Justice Department to investigate its violation. This is the behavior of a dictatorship, not of a democracy.
Sadly, even more telling that NSA’s action – in determining how far down the road to fascism we have traveled, is the response to it by the public, the press and the law. In a real democracy, citizens, media and their attorneys stand up against such abuse; in this case there is a truly frightening ambivalence and apathy.
According to the Washington Post, nearly two thirds of Americans support the NSA in its actions – 44% strongly. This may not be so surprising when one considers how little time and space the media has permitted for arguments that paranoia is a poor way to protect oneself or that a regime that will trash its laws and constitution rather than adopt a more reasonable foreign policy is not to be trusted to be either fair or safe. On a regular basis the press reinforces the idea that “national security” is inherently at odds with democracy and decency, repeatedly nudging the citizen towards the former even if it is, as it so often is, a phantom refuge.
Further, many lawyers – and the commentators who quote them – foster such trends by the mythology that justice is best served by following precedents or case law. This bias is based on the cheerful presumption that progress in the law as elsewhere is inevitable. On a number of occasions, however, I have asked extremely intelligent lawyers what does one do in a society where the legal precedents are becoming worse – as they are in a country dismantling two centuries of ideals? Not one has given a coherent answer.
One can not tell how much longer America has before it gives up on democracy completely. What we can say, however, is that the road has just gotten much shorter. – May 2006
WHY WE NEED HISTORY
Now that Frances Fukuyama has rediscovered history, the Nation Magazine’s Katrina Vanden Heuvel would like to put it to bed again. In the best tradition of the establishment’s view of “civil discourse” – i.e. avoiding the real issues – Vanden Heuvel suggested in the :Washington Post that we “stop equating our opponents with famous dictators, their chief executioners, police apparatus or ideologies. I’m all for learning from history, but times are hard enough in American politics – with war, threats to national security, the greatest divide between rich and poor in our history and deep cultural divisions. Present differences deserve to be described in contemporary terms. The purpose of public speech is not just to restate anger but to clarify the principles and evidence that fuel it — in ways that invite discussion, not inhibit it.”
Vanden Heuvel is dead wrong. The reason people get away with bad historical analogies is because we don’t discuss history enough. We are left with an assortment of myths, stereotypes, and trite metaphors. Our present state is in no small part the result of not understanding and discussing our past. For example:
Have we always been so publicly callous about torture before?
Why have we passed more laws in the past 30 years than we did in our first two hundred?
Whatever happened to the Tenth Amendment?
Have corporations always been granted the status of individuals in our society?
The list is endless, but let’s just consider the aspect of history that Vanden Heuvel doesn’t want us to mention: similarities between present day American politicians and politics and some unpleasant precedents.
Her examples remind us that people can make these analogies crudely, wrongly, or for nefarious purposes. But if Vanden Heuvel felt more at home with history she would realize that this is part of a great American tradition: putting up with a certain amount of nonsense in order to preserve our freedoms including that of speech.
But what if we ignore Vanden Heuvel’s advice and ask ourselves, for example: how close are we to Hitler’s Germany? What can we learn from even a cursory consideration of history?
In the first place, one needs to separate Hitler, Nazism and fascism. Conflating these leads the unwary to assume easily that all three are inevitably characterized by anti-Semitism, when in fact only the first two are. By avoiding this distinction we don’t have to face the fact that America is closer to fascism than it has ever been in its history.
To understand why, one needs to look not at Hitler but at the founder of fascism, Mussolini. What Mussolini founded was the estato corporativo – the corporative state or corporatism. Writing in Economic Affairs in the mid 1970s, R.E. Pahl and J. T. Winkler described corporatism as a system under which government guides privately owned businesses towards order, unity, nationalism and success. They were quite clear as to what this system amounted to: “Let us not mince words. Corporatism is fascism with a human face. . . An acceptable face of fascism, indeed, a masked version of it, because so far the more repugnant political and social aspects of the German and Italian regimes are absent or only present in diluted forms.”
Thus, although the model generally cited in defense of organized capitalism is that of the contemporary Japanese, the most effective original practitioners of a corporative economy were the Italians. Unlike today’s Japanese, but like contemporary America, their economy was a war economy.
Adrian Lyttelton, describing the rise of Italian fascism in The Seizure of Power, writes: “A good example of Mussolini’s new views is provided by his inaugural speech to the National Exports Institute on 8 July 1926. . . Industry was ordered to form ‘a common front’ in dealing with foreigners, to avoid ‘ruinous competition,’ and to eliminate inefficient enterprises. . . The values of competition were to be replaced by those of organization: Italian industry would be reshaped and modernized by the cartel and trust. . .There was a new philosophy here of state intervention for the technical modernization of the economy serving the ultimate political objectives of military strength and self-sufficiency; it was a return to the authoritarian and interventionist war economy.”
Lyttelton writes that “fascism can be viewed as a product of the transition from the market capitalism of the independent producer to the organized capitalism of the oligopoly.” It was a point that Orwell had noted when he described fascism as being but an extension of capitalism. Lyttelton quoted Nationalist theorist Affredo Rocco: “The Fascist economy is. . . an organized economy. It is organized by the producers themselves, under the supreme direction and control of the State.”
The Germans had their own word for it: wehrwirtschaft. It was not an entirely new idea there. As William Shirer points out in the Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich, 18th and 19th century Prussia had devoted some five-sevenths of its revenue on the Army and “that nation’s whole economy was always regarded as primarily an instrument not of the people’s welfare but of military policy.”
Has “civil discourse” been harmed by knowing the foregoing and the uncomfortable similarities it bears with what is happening to our country today?
Another more complex example is Adolph Hitler. On many grounds, the analogy does not serve us well:
Germany’s willingness to accept Hitler was the product of many cultural characteristics specific to that country, to the anger and frustrations in the wake of the World War I defeat, to extraordinary inflation and particular dumb reactions to it, and, of course, to the appeal of anti-Semitism. Still, consideration of the Weimar Republic that preceded Hitler does us no harm. Bearing in mind all the foregoing, there was also:
– A collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.
– The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs, and rising property taxes. Many of the actions were taken in the name of efficiency, an improved economy and the “rationalization of production.” There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a hyped version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.
– The Nazis as the first modern political party. As University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Childers explains, the Nazis discovered the importance of campaigning not just during campaigns but between elections when the other parties folded their tents. With this “perpetual campaigning” they spread themselves like a virus, considering the public reaction to everything right down to the colors used for posters and rally backgrounds. Knowing this, one can not watch the manic manipulations of public moments by the Bush regime without a sense of déjà vu.
– The use of negative campaigning, a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi campaigns argued what was wrong with their opponents and ignored stating their own policies.
– The Nazis as the inventors of modern political propaganda. Every modern American political campaign and the types of arguments used to support them owes much to the ideas of the Nazis.
– The suddenness of the Nazi rise. The party went from less than 3% of the vote to being the largest party in the country in four years.
– The collapse of the country’s self image. Childers points out that Germany had had been a world leader in education, industry, science, and literacy. Much of the madness that we see today stems from attempts to compensate for our battered self-image.
So while many of the behaviors that would come to be associated with Nazis and Hitler – from physical attacks on political opponents to the death camps – seem far removed from our present concerns, there is still much to learn from their history.
We are clearly in a post-constitutional era; the end of the First American Republic. Depending on what day it is we think of its replacement variously – ranging from an adhocracy to proto-fascism. But one does not need to know the end of the story to know that we headed at a rapid pace away from the extraordinary principles of American democracy towards the dark hole of power with impunity, to the sort of world in which, as Rudolph Giuliani has calmly asserted, “freedom is about authority.”
If we describe present differences only in contemporary terms then we have nothing to guide us but what happened yesterday.
George Bush and his capos have capitalized on this disinterest in history to rewrite the Constitution and other things. He’s not the first.
For example, Article 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic stated, “In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights described in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153, partially or entirely. The Reich President must inform the Reichstag immediately about all measures undertaken . . . The measures must be suspended immediately if the Reichstag so demands.”
It was this article that Hitler used to peacefully establish his dictatorship. And why was it so peaceful and easy? Because, according to Childers, the ‘democratic” Weimar Republic had already used it 57 times prior to Hitler’s ascendancy.
There are eerie similarities between Article 48 and George Bush’s approach. When you add to this the remarkable incompetence of the current regime, the collapse of both traditional liberal and conservative politics, and the economic crises, it feels like a new Weimar Republic setting the stage for awful things we can not at this point even imagine. It may be that history has something to tell us after all. – 2006
ART & FASCISM
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has accused artist Hans Haacke of “trivializing the Holocaust” by creating analogies between Mayor Giuliani and Adolph Hitler. Said Foxman, the work “denigrates the memory of six million Jews and others who were killed by the Nazis.”
Foxman’s contribution to the Giuliani campaign illustrates the growing confusion over the nature of fascism, spurred in no small part by a form of historical revisionism that essentially reduces the Second World War to a matter of anti-Semitism. In some ways this revisionism is more dangerous than the claim that the Holocaust never happened, since the denials are safely on the fringe while the myth that fascism is inexorably linked to anti-Semitism is widely held.
One of the reasons we have such difficulty perceiving our current conditions is our aversion to this single word: fascism. While there is no hesitation by politicians to draw parallels with the Holocaust to justify whatever foreign adventure appeals to them, or for the media to make similar analogies at the drop of swastika on a wall, we seem only able to understand — or even mention — the climax of fascism rather than its genesis. Why this reluctance? Perhaps it is because we are much closer to the latter than to the former.
In any case, it is one of the most dangerous forms of political myopia in which to indulge. Italians, who invented the term fascism, also called it the estato corporativo: the corporatist state. Orwell rightly described fascism as being an extension of capitalism. It is an economy in which the government serves the interests of oligopolies, a state in which large corporations have the powers that in a democracy devolve to the citizen.
The link between business and fascism was clear to German corporatists. Auschwitz was not just a way to get rid of Jews, it was also a major source of cheap labor. As Richard Rubenstein points out in The Cunning of History, “I.G. Farben’s decision to locate at Auschwitz was based upon the very same criteria by which contemporary multinational corporations relocate their plants in utter indifference to the social consequences of such moves.” I.G. Farben invested over a billion dollars in today’s money at Auschwitz and, thanks to the endless supply of labor, adopted a policy of deliberately working the Jewish slaves to death. In such ways do economics and freedom become intertwined. Those who think it can’t happen here should consider that four days before Mussolini became premier, he met with a group of industrialists and assured them that his aim “was to reestablish discipline within the factories and that no outlandish experiments …. would be carried out.” In Friendly Fascism, Bertram Gross notes that Mussolini also won “the friendship, support or qualified approval” of the American ambassador, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Thomas Lamont, many newspapers and magazine publishers, the majority of business journals, and quite a sprinkling of liberals, including some associated with both the Nation and The New Republic. ”
Orwell understood fascism. One of the characteristics of his inner party, the ten percent who controlled the rest, was that there was no sexual or racial discrimination. He understood that ethnic eradication, while characteristic of nazism, was not required for fascism. Even earlier, Aldous Huxley set up a similar non-discriminatory dystopia in Brave New World.
In fact, one of the characteristics of the modern propaganda state is the use of ethnic and sexual iconography to cover its tracks. Thus Richard Nixon was slurring Jews in Oval Office conversations even as he set a new record in their high-level appointments. And W.J. Clinton was called our first black president by Toni Morrison even as the government was sending young black males to prison in unprecedented numbers.
There is something else about fascism that we miss: it requires a modern, technocratic society. John Ralston Saul has written:
“The Holocaust was the result of a perfectly rational argument — given what reason had become — that was self-justifying and hermetically sealed. There is, therefore, nothing surprising about the fact that the meeting called to decide on “the final solution” was a gathering mainly of senior ministerial representatives. Technocrats. Nor is it surprising that [the] Wansee Conference lasted only an hour — one meeting among many for those present — and turned entirely on the modalities for administering the solutions …. The massacre was indeed ‘managed,’ even ‘well managed.’ It had the clean efficiency of a Harvard case study “
Marshall Rosenberg, who teaches non-violent communication, says that in reading psychological interviews with Nazi war criminals what struck him was not their abnormality, but that they used a language that denied choice: “should,” “one must,” “have to.” For example, Adolph Eichmann was asked, “Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people their death?” Eichmann replied, “To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy.”
Asked to explain, Eichmann said, “My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache — ‘office talk.'” In office talk “you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, ‘Why did you do it?’ you say, ‘I had to.’ ‘Why did you have to?’ ‘Superiors’ orders. Company policy. It’s the law.'”
Yet for all the words we have devoted to the Holocaust, go into almost any bookstore and you’ll find far more works on how to manage, manipulate and control others – and how to use “office talk” — than you will on how to practice the skills of a free citizen.
The most important lessons of the Holocaust are simply missed. Among these, as Richard Rubenstein has pointed out, is that it could only have been carried out by “an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy.” In The Cunning of History, Rubenstein also finds uncomfortable parallels between the Nazis and their opponents, of which we are being now reminded with recent questions about the role of the Vatican and the Swiss during WWII. For example, a Hungarian Jewish emissary meets with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt in 1944 and suggests that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne’s reply: “What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them?”
Writes Rubenstein: “The British government was by no means adverse to the ‘final solution’ as long as the Germans did most of the work.” For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand “as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century.”How many school children are taught that, worldwide, wars in the past century killed somewhere between 100 and 150 million people? In World War I alone the death toll was around ten million. All this, including the Holocaust, was driven by a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, “attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive.” Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery — willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.
Thus, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half of the officers assigned to them. But the bureaucratic internal logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore.
Milton Mayer, a Jewish journalist, who wrote a book about ordinary Nazis, They Thought They Were Free, concluded:
Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany ~ It was what most Germans wanted — or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I felt — and feel — that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.
Giuliani’s politics contain proto-fascist elements. We should not hide from this fact. The discussion of Giuliani and fascism is also pertinent for local historical reasons. During the rise of Mussolini, more than a few New York City Italians supported the fascist dictator. Of course, this same community produced such progressives as Fiorello La Guardia and Vito Marcantonio. This is a sensitive subject, witness the change from the New York City Historical Society’s frank depiction of the intracultural struggle in its exhibit on Italians in NY to a post-exhibit mealy-mouthed summary on its web site which reads: “The 1933 election of reform candidate Fiorello La Guardia as mayor of New York reflected the strength of Italian voters. Like any community, however, Italian-Americans are not monolithic in their political views. The rise of European Fascism created significant political divisions among New York’s Italian population. Yet, when called upon, civilians organized behind the war effort, staging countless rallies, war bond drives, Red Cross efforts and youth enlistment campaigns.”
The Italian-American right is not the only story shoved down the memory hole. How many know, for example, that 21% of the initial votes for Republican mayor Fiorello LaGuardia came from the left-wing American Labor Party? Where would Giuliani have fallen in this political divide? Hardly on the side of LaGuardia.
These are matters worth discussing frankly. Let Giuliani explain how he differs with the fascist idea, and not hide behind Abraham Foxman’s coat tails. Let’s debate the fascistic side of both the Clintons and Giuliani. Or are we now a nation that permits “fuck” on cable TV but not “fascism” in an art museum? If so, we are finished, whatever we call it.