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Fascism and the American Polity
by Walter Contreras Sheasby
January 13, 2004

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The Bush-Cheney Administration's assault on civil liberties is starkly authoritarian and must be resisted with every bit of strength the broad left can muster. The question here is whether we are experiencing a lurch to the right by the governing elites or actually witnessing the rise of an American fascism.

If it is the latter, then it will mean the dismantling of the duopoly, the two-party capitalist system that reflects and resolves real differences in policy within the governing elites. Elections are essentially plebiscites organized by these elites, rather than genuine contests between membership-based political organizations. Partisan differences are settled by appeals to voters in top-down ballot contests (occasionally rigged) in which power, however, is consistently transferred to the putative winner.

Anything short of the dismantling of this method of decision-making by the U.S. elites cannot be considered fascism, regardless of draconian restrictions on political minorities. The U.S. has never been a Democracy, so it is not the loss of Democracy which is threatened by the measures enacted after Sept. 11, 2001. The question, rather, is whether the far more limited realm of Bourgeois Democracy (the electoral system of elite collective decision-making) is being dismantled in these times.

Precursors of Fascism

The historical peculiarities of U.S. development have given it a resistance to fascism by virtue of its exposure to less statist precursors of the disease. The incarceration of millions of unwanted indigenous people in tribal reservations was a Federal program, but the even larger system of chattel slavery was largely a market-based appropriation of labor. The eugenics experiments that sterilized tens of thousands of so-called defectives in the 1920s were conducted by civic groups working with local government. Yet the Nazi system of concentration camps that Americans later found so horrendous was formally based on these U.S. precursors of genocide, with the Nazi legal code incorporating the U.S. system of guarded reservations, slave labor, and eugenic racial purification.

The declaration of war between the U.S. and Germany was prompted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, ending hopes that the U.S. could sit on the sidelines of a war between Germany and the USSR. Prior to that, many U. S. millionaires, like Henry Ford, Prescott Bush, and others, had hailed the caesarism of Mussolini and Hitler.

The unlikely New Deal coalition based in the South, on organized labor, Catholics, Jews, and small business, went from fighting the Depression to fighting the Axis powers (Rhonda F Levine, "New Deal Fat Cats: Business, Labor, and Campaign Finance in the 1936 Presidential Election," by Michael J. Webber , Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 30, Issue 6, Nov 2001: p. 614f.) A party largely financed by racist Southern plantation capitalists and wealthy Northern ethnics created the most powerful military-industrial complex in history, as it was dubbed by President Eisenhower in his Farewell Address. This institution, with its predominantly white Southern officer corps and diverse munitions makers, who became political donors and lobbyists, matured within a postwar political spectrum that basked in the defeat of Fascism and created a pervasive legacy of leftism.

After WWII the so-called respectable right in the Republican Party sought to distance itself from the fascist movements and to craft an electoral coalition to roll back communism and to challenge the statist and collectivist assumptions of Roosevelt's New Deal at home (Political Research Associates, "Mapping the Right: Historic Building Blocks of the Contemporary US Right").

Over the last five decades, a bipartisan consensus emerged that dismissed or ignored the precursors of fascism at home and celebrated the U.S. warlords as liberators from the totalitarianisms of the right and the left. Over time the policy differences have narrowed between an anti-socialist liberalism and an anti-fascist conservatism. (Brian Waddell, "Limiting national interventionism in the United States: The warfare-welfare state as restrictive governance paradigm," Capital & Class, Summer 2001, Issue 74; pp. 109-140).

What is Fascism?

In a study of fascism and U.S. sociology before 1950, Robert Bannister argued that while the leading American sociologists certainly did not explicitly support fascism, they also failed to take it very seriously (George Steinmetz, Theory and methods -- Sociology Responds to Fascism, edited by Stephen P. Turner and Dirk Kasler, Contemporary Sociology, Mar. 1994. Vol. 23, Issue 2; p. 323). By default it was Marxism which dissected its anatomy, particularly in writings by Antonio Gramsci, Leon Trotsky, and the Critical Theory Marxists (Franz Neumann, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm).

A definition of "Fascism - Its Roots and Mentality" by Wilhelm Ellenbogen, leader of the Austrian Socialist Party, in the compilation on Socialism, Fascism, Communism (New York: American League for Democratic Socialism, 1934, p. 36) still seems germane 70 years later:

Fascism is a political movement striving to change the balance of power between the bourgeois and the working classes, altered to the advantage of the latter as a result of some upheaval, back to a condition where the interests of the agricultural and industrial bourgeoisie are again favored. It is a middle-class movement, adhering to the ideology and practice of physical force; having a military organization and using military methods; endeavoring to destroy democracy through violently aggressive mass-action of a spuriously democratic character; possessing a primitive outlook and an inward indifference to the need of an objectively conceived program; abounding in endless contradictions between its theoretical and practical attitudes, aiming to set up a personal or oligarchic dictatorship, and resulting in a profound subversion of rights, public morals, culture and economic life.

The precondition of a fascist overturning of the normal order, according to this and most other definitions, is an upheaval changing the balance of power in favor of the working classes, in which the restoration of power in favor of the bourgeoisie can only be achieved by physical force in defiance of conventional political norms. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was such an upheaval on a world-historic scale impacting the rest of the 20th century.

In the world today, transnational corporate capital faces relatively little opposition to its rule from revolutionary worker-peasant movements, and the few regimes outside its hegemony pose hardly any real threat. Fascism has historically presented itself as a ruling class option when the working classes posed a revolutionary threat, as in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Fascism has not been a phenomenon preceded by an upswing in the business cycle, a weakened and non-combative trade-union movement, and a strong plurality of voter support for conservative parties. The flip side of the rise of the ulta-right, however, is the ongoing crisis of the authentic left.

Political Elites: Left, Right, and Center

Contrary to the dominant model in political science (Pluralism), the U.S. system is not one in which a plurality of contending interests and social strata rule by settling disputes democratically or by bargaining and negotiating. But it is one in which different interests are allowed to participate in the government at various levels. A broad layer of predominantly white male officials holding a range of views (political, religious, economic) administer the federal nation-state and its subsidiaries through election, appointment, volunteering, or inheritance.

Collectively, we can designate this sector as the Power Elite, to adapt a term made common coin by C. Wright Mills, who argued that: "Some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon . . . and by their decisions mightily effect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women. . . They are all that we are not" (The Power Elite, London, Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 3).

According to Mills, the governing elite in the United States draws its members from three areas: (1) the highest political leaders including the president and a handful of key cabinet members and close advisers; (2) major corporate owners and directors; and (3) high-ranking military officers.

But we probably need to expand this definition to include the connective links with the various secondary elites in Congress and State Legislatures and on the local level where small business plays a greater role through Chambers of Commerce and local growth coalitions. Many local members are place entrepreneurs, people who sell locations and buildings, including African-American businessmen who have played a role in electing mayors boosting urban redevelopment and slum removal, as in the Detroit Renaissance.

Political parties play a role in choosing some of these members of the Elite, but vocational, clerical, military, academic, and other social groups also play significant roles. There is often consensus, but uniformity of opinion is not characteristic of the dynamic and fluid movement of new recruits into the elite. In particular, reformers often gain entry in order to challenge aspects of the status quo, only to end up being co-opted in the search for greater leverage through ascendancy.

The realm of the Power Elites is what citizens see when they look around asking "who's in charge here?" As Mills put it, "To say that there are obvious gradations of power and of opportunities to decide within modern society is not to say that the powerful are united, that they fully know what they do, or that they are consciously joined in conspiracy" (The Power Elite, 1956, pp. 18-19).


Blue Bloods: the Upper Class in America

According to G. William Domhoff, the upper class makes up 0.5% of the U.S. population (281,421,906 as of April 1, 2000) which would make only 140,711 souls. However, if you define the Ruling Class as the overlapping set of individuals who are both Super-Rich and Politically Active, then an estimate of 30,000 rulers is about right. Income distribution from the bottom to the top has become more extreme. In 1962 the top 1 percent had 26% percent of the nation's wealth; today, the top 1 percent has nearly 40 percent of the nation's wealth (Holly Sklar, "Upper-Class Tax Cuts, Working-Class Soldiers," Dissident Voice, April 11, 2003, )

As Robert Pollin points out, "It was under Clinton, that the distribution of wealth in the U.S. became more skewed than it had been at any time in the previous forty years -- with, for example, the ratio of wages for the average worker to the pay of the average CEO rising astronomically from 113-to-1 in 1991 under Bush1 to 449-to-1 when Clinton left office in 2001" (Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity, Verso Books, 2003, p. 9).

The End of Corporate Liberalism

There has been a rightward-shift of many political parties in the West that once restrained and regulated their national corporate managers in the name of an over-arching corporate social liberalism dubbed the Welfare State, or the Social Contract, or the Full Employment Economy.

This shift to a New Paradigm, as rightist James Pinkerton calls it, of unbridled exploitation (so-called Free Markets), has affected virtually every liberal, labor, social democratic, and ex-communist party in the world since the toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but it was occurring long before that. During the long boom, regulated and pump-primed and socially progressive Western economies were useful as corporations moved into a postwar globalism vexed and harassed by cold war rivalries.

As Antony Crosland told the British Labour Party in 1956, "The voters, now convinced that full employment, generous welfare services and social stability can quite well be preserved, will certainly not relinquish them. Any government which tampered with the basic structure of the full-employment Welfare State would meet with a sharp reverse at the polls."

However, by the end of the long wave of postwar expansion in the early 1970s, with the onset of stagflation and a declining rate of profit, the Keynesian demand-side stimulation was being replaced by a Friedmanesque anti-inflationary zeal to match the employers' offensive against labor.

The change was announced at a 1976 British Labour Conference by James Callaghan: "We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and even insofar as it did ever exist, it only worked on each occasion by injecting a larger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step." (New Left Review, May/June 1995)

The actual relationship of price trends and employment trends turned out to be much more uncertain and complicated, but there was no denying the ideological impact of Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962) and other conservative attacks on Keynesianism. Economist Robert A. Levine notes that, "Too many economists, including previous followers of Keynes and Heller, have justified the abandonment of growth-oriented fiscal policies by bowing to the principles of an economic conservatism that is really a return to the world of the 1920s. The 1980s and '90s have seen a revival of pre-Keynesian economics, avowing that government cannot push the creation of jobs." (L.A. Times, June 24, 1995)

The abandonment of Keynesian macro-economic policies and corporate-liberal politics coincided with the end of the long profits boom and the onset of a decline in the profit rate. This decline compelled business offensives against labor's bargaining power, privatization of state owned enterprises and deregulation, cuts in the social wage and welfare, and ultimately tax measures to redistribute income upward. Robert Brenner points out that between 1966-1973, the rate of return on fixed capital investments in manufacturing fell by 25% in the leading six capitalist economies, and by 35% in the United States. By the early-mid 1980s, it had fallen by a further 33% in the leading six and by a further 40% in the United States (Against the Current, May/June 1995). There had been no real recovery when the Millennium recession slammed the New Economy followed by the consumer fears after September 11, 2001.

In the U.S., social programs instituted and funded by previous Democratic and Republican administrations since FDR and the New Deal were on the cutting block. Only Pentagon spending remained as the last sacred cow of Keynesian pump-priming of aggregate demand and job creation.

Fat Cats and Democrats

Campaign contributions by individual capitalists follow a logic different from that of corporate PACs. Corporations are generally more interested in buying influence with incumbents, while individual capitalists are more concerned with bolstering the election prospects of favored candidates (See Walt Contreras Sheasby, "George Soros and the Rise of the Neo-Centrics")

Corporations often contribute heavily to likely winners (typically incumbents) to facilitate lobbying efforts, hedging their bets by contributing to competing candidates in a single race, mending fences with donations to previously unsupported winners after the election, or making contributions not on their own initiative but as a favor to other firms seeking to circumvent legal limits on maximum contributions (Val Burris, "The two faces of capital: Corporations and individual capitalists as political actors," American Sociological Review, Jun 2001. Vol. 66, No. 3; p. 361f).

Contrary to popular mythology, Democratic politicians rely far more on fat cats than the Republicans. Despite Democratic claims that the GOP is the party of the rich, the analysis of more than 1.4 million contributors in the 2002 election cycle shows Dems got 92% of million-dollar-plus checks (Richard S. Dunham, "The Real Party of Fat Cats," Business Week, July 14, 2003, p. 47). The members of the Pioneers group, who each collected at least $100,000 for George W. Bush, find themselves squaring off against the members of the Jefferson Trust, each of whom personally gave the Democratic Party at least $100,000, but the Republicans also have an elite Regents club of $250,000 givers (Richard L. Berke, "Don't Discount the Fat Cats," New York Times, Feb 17, 2002. pg. 4.1).

Democratic Fat Cats tend to live in the Northeast, the South, and the Far West, as opposed to Republican businessmen in the Midwest, the New South, Southwest, and Mountain states. Jewish wealth is largely Democratic, while Catholic wealth was formerly so, but has been split by the rise of the religious right in the Republican Party, which remains overwhelmingly Protestant and conservative in its funding by the upper class.

Can It Happen Here?

Fascism is not an artifact buried in history, but exists in a variety of countries in the form of death squads, paramilitary gangs, and conspiracies within the official armed forces, as well as nostalgic social movements and political parties. The U.S. is not immune to such forces, but its rightward shift needs to be seen as a lurch that follows a long period of conservativizing of both political parties.

That there is dissent within the higher circles can be gathered by the remarks of Paul O'Neill, the ousted Treasury Secretary and former CEO of Alcoa, who had been brought into the Bush Administration by his friend Dick Cheney. O'Neill is no radical and not even a moderate in the political spectrum. But he balked at the unilateralism of the war on Iraq: "For me, the notion of preemption, that the U.S. has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap" (L.A. Times, Jan. 11, 2004).

This huge leap, this lurch to the authoritarian right, must be fought with all the strength the broad left can bring to bear. But to look to the few dissidents in the power elite for leadership in rolling back the long drift to the right would be a mistake. Only an organized movement from below, independent of the patronage and constraints of the superrich, can bring about such a transformation.

Walt Contreras Sheasby is an eco-socialist and co-founder of the Green Alliance. He can be reached at