The United States is not Fascist
It happens a lot. You look at some news headline about surveillance or policing and think to yourself “Here comes the lurch of fascism!” Or someone posts online to alarm us to the fact that we are the citizens of the Weimar Republic, and now is not a good time to be a Good German. Or you meet someone who lived under a dictatorship and you think you hear them say “this is how it starts,” and would like to use this insider tip to alert the world…
Stop right there. These are the tell tale signs of confused alarmism. Because guess what? Your parents, and maybe their parents, were thinking the same thing in the 1950s or the 1960s or the 1970s. It’s important for us to catch ourselves when we dull the twin blades of analysis and language. That racist columnist in that conservative webzine was not specifically being fascist. That conservative movement is not immediately this era’s Brown Shirts. This politician and his law controlling our bodies or our telecommunications is not the bell toll for an incremental government takeover.
First, let us begin with subject position. I am a fierce opponent of this thing we call the United States of America, on both gut and intellectual levels. If we understand the United States as the state that compromises the that territory and its institutions, along with the capital that dominates its civil society, and the adjoining mythos, national traditions, and ethos of the country, than I oppose the United States of America entirely.
I also consider myself antifa, a term connoting an international movement of active anti-fascists, something that would be irrelevant if someone who was antifa didn’t think fascism poses a real threat in parts of our world today.
From there, I firmly believe that to oppose a nation-state in particular, or nation-states in general, as well as fascism, it is important to have a theory of each. Without having at least some sense of theory that frames what we oppose, we cannot well know what we are fighting, nor how to fight it. Now, theory is a good turn-off for a lot of people because they misunderstand it. More important than a boast of how many books you’ve read, we should have a good command of critical thinking, though a few books here and there do help us with our method and our framing of a subject.
Now, I would point to my earlier short essay differentiating between government and the state as my attempt to help us frame our understanding of the state. In short, every modern state where there is a class system and private domination of wealth has a modern police force and is, in effect, a police state on some level of the spectrum from, say, Norway to North Korea. The genesis of the modern police force is ably explained by Kristian Williams in his book as well as in a selection of others, and the rise of incarceration is explained by theorists that include Michel Foucault, Christian Parenti, and Michelle Alexander. Policing and incarceration comprise a system of law, order and repression that meets many of the needs of the modern capitalist nation-state, and they have been augmented in many countries by what have been called the national security doctrine and the surveillance society, which in some of those countries then overlaps with both private security firms and a sprawling military industrial complex.
Rather than compartmentalize these violent organs of the social order as the National Security State, Carceral State, or Surveillance State, I humbly suggest they all fit as organs of an overall police state which is by and large a model for nearly every state that exists in the world, or their alleged aspiration as in the case of so-called ‘failed states.’ This police state was propagated directly by imperialism and neo-colonial projects that trained and sponsored the creation of essentially modern police forces, or by the creation of an international juridical order that offers standards through institutions like the United Nations. In many cases, they are underdeveloped and deformed, as in countries where borders are entirely porous, militaries serve the principal domestic function of preserving internal order, or where there isn’t even a facade that violence is monopolized by the state.
This is not a linear view of national development, but a stark reality that both the imperialist stages of the past 500 years and the Empire that Hardt and Negri see as globalizing the world have sought to build for the interests of capital.
This analysis must be taken further, though, to incorporate a view of the police state as, in Wendy Brown’s words, a masculinist state run by patriarchalist institutions, and the shell of a racist society- whose details may vary from state to state, but on a global level exists as broadly white supremacist.
We could continue, but my point is simple. Every state or country is authoritarian by its very nature, but the degree and the intent have varied in history and in our world. Modernity, however, is a racist, patriarchal system of capitalist exploitation, and it has developed a police state to help preserve its domination, not to mention the array of semi-autonomous institutions that reproduce its ideology and preserve its hegemony (consent of the governed). It takes a particular kind of anti-liberal, nationalist movement to move a society or regime into the violent waters of fascism.
Fascism as Movement and State
Into this development stepped fascism in the period directly following the first World War. The development of the nation-state is uneven and particular in different places at different times, but even if we understood it to have had a progression from the 1648 Westphalia treaty along through French, American and later revolutions through, to and passed imperialist expansion, the countries of Europe were in many different stages at the end of World War I. Italy and Germany were each in very particular places regarding their degree of national unification, experience with liberal parliamentary government, and industrial development. Within each country there were uneven developments and modernity clashed with feudal or old-style authoritarianism.
Fascism, it has often been pointed out, was born out of these contradictions and advanced using contradictions to its advantage. It contradicted itself consciously. Fascism wielded internal contradictions, which united a lot of disparate forces to its rallying cry- including small landowners, businessmen, urban petit bourgeois, returning soldiers- and whenever some of these parts became superfluous, they were sacrificed to save the sum. It initially claimed to be both revolutionary and conservative, (sometimes) socialist and anti-socialist, unifying and divisive, depending on which sector it was trying to impress. For this reason in particular, it is easy for tiny fascist sects and powerful fascist regimes to make very different claims on fascism long after the demise of the Italian and German regimes.
But those contradictions were overwhelmingly surface-level tactics used in the consolidation of a nationalist movement, and peeling back the layers, there have always been unifying features. One of fascism’s central elements that distinguishes it as a right-wing ideology against left-wing socialisms is that it “stressed the organic nation over class as the highest expression of human solidarity,” according to Alexander De Grand. Where left-wing socialism instigates progress through class struggle, fascism imposes class collaboration in order to worship the centrality of the nation.
A fascist regime has never been perfectly crafted, though the stereotypical German efficiency might suggest they came the closest. And it has adapted to different realities at different times, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t surmise a general criteria for determining what makes fascism particular. This is, I hope, the simplest way to be able to parse through the world’s police states and authoritarian currents to see where we truly find fascism, and where we are simply seeing some other form of fascism.
- Anti-communist/anti-left Counterrevolution- Facism enters the stage when it is cued by periods of social unrest that inspire the growth of left wing socialist, communist and/or anarchist movements. In Germany and Italy, the early fascist squads and their immediate predecessors took the lead in killing and assaulting peasant, working class and leftist struggles, as can be seen in the Biennio Rosso period and the Freikorps movement. This is then followed when fascism becomes a regime with an imposed class collaboration, which inevitably ends in the favor of the capitalist class.
- A populist rhetoric- Both bourgeois societies and totalitarian ones use mass culture, but not always with a bend toward populism. Here, the populist rhetoric claims that the rulers are simply the leaders of a citizenry, although who is allowed membership in that citizenry is carefully delineated, as we shall see below.
- Anti-liberalism- Liberalism, the most wholly capitalistic political ideology, suggests that the political form of society be liberal, bourgeois and representative democracy, and fascism comes in when that electoral strategy is failing capitalism. It dispenses with the pleasantries of a liberal civil society, from ideas of free expression, privacy and political or cultural pluralism, because fascism knows that it is needed to save the nation.
- A heightened police state- Whereas in most police states there is ostensibly some measure of checks and balances, fascism wrestles down even the appearance of checks and balances.
- A middle class base- Non-state sectors of the population are allowed to take a paramilitary role in safeguarding their state, national identity, and mythos, and often this is the small landholders, military veterans, managers, owners, and nationalist workers being used against the oppressed and the exploited.
- Voluntaryism- Known also as the triumph of the will, the idea that a perfect nation and race can use its will to perfect itself and seize everything it desires. In this, the will must be universalized, and any dissent must be eliminated. The greatest citizens will reveal themselves during the nation’s wars.
- Racial nationalism- A sense that the nation is linked to racial supremacy, and that in some way, through cultural genocide or brutal genocide or simple subjugation, inferior nationalities and races (race as genetics or ethnicity plus structural power) must be dominated or destroyed.
- Ultra-masculinity- The State is rhetorically conceptualized as the protector of the civilian population. This and other traits of an idealized masculinity are conferred upon the state.
- Totalitarianism- Because of all of these unifying features, fascism seeks to destroy each person’s private life and force them as much as is possible into a public life that proves their allegiance to the new central tenets of the God, family and country.
One of the common threads in the traits I have described is a total subservience of nearly everything to violence. From the nationalism to racial nationality to masculinity, dominance is proven by the centrality of violence. The violence comes through the usual state organs like police, political/secret police, and the military, but it is also exhibited in the populist rhetoric, the voluntaryist sense of will, and the use of civilian fighting squads to quash dissent. Without the centrality of violence, and an at-minimum rhetorical allowance of unbridled violence to prove supremacy, I do not believe we can call something fascism.
Fascism as Political Epithet
Godwin’s Law is a theory on the internet about the devolution of online threads that will eventually lead to someone killing any useful conversation by analogizing one of the objects being discussed to Hitler, the Nazis or fascism. While fascism has its defenders in the mainstream right of many countries, Nazis and Hitler are considered the absolute example of evil, both in their intent and execution. To liken something to Naziism is to shut down conversation in the way someone centuries ago in Salem might shut things down by just surmising their opponent was a witch.
Since fascism is real, and actually exists today- more often than not in the form of movements rather than regimes- we are rendered incapable of fighting it if we have dulled the blade of the term by using it at every authoritarian impulse. Likewise, we don’t know how to fight the angry dog of our current police state because we have cried wolf so many times, and you don’t necessarily deal with an angry dog or even a coyote as you might a wolf. It is easy for the right to call the center-left fascists, and the left to call the right fascists, and conspiracy claimants to call perceived threats as fascist, but it all allows any real fascist threat to move about unopposed.
It is easier to cast a movement as fascist than it is a regime, and indeed movements with varying degrees of fascism exist the world over. They range from the explicit, including the KKK and neo-nazi groups, to much more contemporary, home-grown varieties, like some elements of the American Legion in its day, or some elements of the Tea Party or the Minuteman Project very recently, composed as they are of violent, anti-regulation, middle class, nationalist civilians.
Now, one last note.
I said before that fascism has never been perfected, and that is important for understanding how we define fascist and fascistic regimes. In large swathes of Mussolini’s Italy, corruption and semi-feudal patronage systems ruled the land. In Franco’s Spain, the ruler himself was more a conservative and the forces that swept him to power ranged from outright fascists to nationalistic conservatives. In Pinochet’s Chile or Suharto’s Indonesia, a military regime used a coup d’etat to take power, though a widescale use of death squads and gangsterism were central to the regime’s survival.
The United States and the United Kingdom are not fascist states, and not all of their authoritarian proclivities foretell of fascistic overtones. Nevertheless, the US has a history of fascistic movements that wave its flag, often call for the elimination of unions and regulations of businesses, and/or focuses on the racial purity of the nation. Taken together with organs of the state and big business, these have often placed fascist-like domination upon Black, Latina, and indigenous people. Fascism, despite claims to a totalitarian society, is always uneven.
The key takeaway, though, is that racist police states and authoritarianism, and the social order they protect, are structures that are always worth combating, and we are more capable of doing so if we have a sober analysis of them. In particular, when some part of those trends actually are fascist, we are tasked with a particular responsibility to nip them in the bud or push them back lest they take hold.
Neither taxes nor debt nor being a highly criticized rap star is the new slavery. For that, take a peak into the prisons.