Jul-Aug '03 [Home]


The Winners and Losers of Fascism:
It Can't Happen Here… Can It?

by Pete Dolack

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[Part Two of a two-part article. In Part One,, the institution of a fascist dictatorship was demonstrated to be a dictatorship established for the benefit of a country's economic elite. It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism—some form of democratic government, under which citizens "consent" to the ruling structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain than ruling through naked force. The prospect of such consent breaking down, and how and why it broke down in the nations that fell to fascism, are significant factors to consider in assessing the probability of fascism coming to the United States.—PD]

Although a tiny economic elite of big-business leaders, bankers and large rural landowners benefit tremendously from fascism, it is no light decision for these beneficiaries to implement it. Only during periods of unusual social instability and economic uncertainty, when the economic elite feel threatened, does fascism become a possibility. As dangerous as the Bush administration has become in 2003, the economic elite of the United States—its ruling class—is certainly not feeling threatened; on the contrary, the very security and control they feel enable them to offer one harsh, repressive measure after another.

The economic elite control all levers of government and do so against ever-diminishing resistance. They need not go through the trouble of instituting fascism, with the chaos that would entail, when they already dominate the country. The very fact of their dominance and the haughty manner with which their servants in the Bush administration and the Congress execute their will—brushing aside dissent with a flick of the wrist and/or a burst of vituperative propaganda—makes it unlikely that these rulers will want to gamble on fascism.

This statement is not the paradox it seems. Vicious right-wing dominance, if assured, stays the hand of even more extremist power grabbers; however, any slip in the iron grip the right-wing dominance has makes the economic elite uneasy, thus increasing the chance of a militarized takeover by extremists. If reality were as simple as the basic dynamic sketched here, the rest could not feel much optimism for the future. The reality is much more complex. Historical experience, cultural and national differences are important; the ability of all working people, blue-collar and white-collar, to resist and form united defenses is crucial.

Potential Forms of Fascism in the United States

"Unlikely" is not the same as "never." How might American fascism be implemented? It surely would be wrapped in old-fashioned American populism. It likely would be pegged to a national emergency, such as a "war on terrorism." It would require a ruthless clique confident that its dominance is only right and natural and prepared to ram it down every throat of protest. Sadly, this clique already has an influential presence within the Bush administration. Its implementation may require a figure around whom a cult of personality can be or has been built; more likely a 'leader' manufactured and installed by the economic elite than a figure who, like a Hitler or Mussolini, takes early control of a movement.

A declaration of martial law is the likeliest means of implementation. [Accomplishable by executive order.—Eds.] The U.S. government already has its martial law infrastructure in place, and the military—the decisive element and logical agent from the ruling class perspective—has practiced it. Under martial law, the military would follow orders, not act independently, and its social base is well suited for implementing and maintaining it. Many officers come from a relatively wealthy background, making the commanders share sympathies with the economic elite whose instrument they would be. Officers from modest backgrounds tend to hold ideological convictions and are predisposed to believe what they are told.

The enlisted ranks are drawn from two primary sources—inner-city youth, who are disproportionately African-American, and suburban middle-class conservatives. The urban poor often choose the military as a career of last resort and are hard-put to defy orders—which could include the violent suppression of people situated exactly where they once were. The road from soldier in uniform to prisoner, and possible torture as a "traitor," would be short and smooth for the men and women faced with such a dilemma of conscience. While some suburban middle-class conservatives join up due to personal economic limitations, many more enter military service out of ideological conviction or even family tradition. These soldiers eagerly adopt the service version of the story, making it easier for them to carry out their assignments with a clear conscience.

Undoubtedly, strategic commanders would take the precaution of sending units far from home, as the Chilean army sent them to 'mop up' after the 1973 coup. Then, conscripts from distant rural areas were sent into Santiago to arrest, loot, and kill the city's residents. There too, the road from soldier to tortured prisoner proved very short, even for officers.

The Infrastructure for Dictatorship

The martial law option in strategies to counter wide-spread dissent gained ground in California when Ronald Reagan was governor there, and hit its stride after he won the presidency in 1980. Such plans center on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), known by most Americans as the agency that deals with the aftermath of hurricanes and other natural disasters—and since September 11, familiar to those New Yorkers most affected by man-made disaster. But emergency aid intervention represents only a small aspect of its operations:  FEMA will administer martial law, and it has created a mobile and underground governing system capable of doing so.

In 1984, Lt. Col. Oliver North, as the National Security Council's liaison to FEMA, helped draft a plan to impose martial law. I vividly remember watching the Iran-Contra hearings and seeing a panelist attempt to question Lt. Col. North about that plan; Senator Daniel Inouye silenced him brusquely and barred any further mention of it by anyone. According to a 1987 Knight-Ridder report, the plan called for suspension of the Constitution, appointment of military commanders, and a shift of government control to FEMA in the event of "crises" described as "widespread internal dissent" and "national opposition to a U.S. military invasion abroad." It is now treated as self-evident that, on these terms, dissent at the level of the Vietnam War protests would constitute a "crisis."

A 1993 Cox News Service report found that FEMA's budget for its secret programs was 12 times that spent for public disaster relief. This report, itself less than complete, discusses "preparation for nuclear war," broaching the verboten topic of martial law with only one reference to unspecified "national security programs." During summer 2002, FEMA—which has been subsumed, like dozens of other agencies, by the new Department of Homeland Security—began seeking contractors to build "temporary cities" in remote areas, saying these were intended for refugees from weapons of mass destruction. Later that summer, Attorney General John Ashcroft said he seeks to create internment camps for U.S. citizens deemed undefined "enemy combatants." Coincidence?

In July 2002, Peter Kirasnow, a Bush appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, declared that Arab-Americans could be rounded up and sent to internment camps. This official was quoted by the Detroit Free Press to say that if a future terrorist attack "come[s] from the same ethnic group that attacked the World Trade Center, you can forget about civil rights."

Come the time, the military and the police will have had plenty of practice. Since the late Sixties, the U.S. Army, National Guard and police departments have coordinated efforts in "Garden Plot," a series of war games in which martial law is imposed, political opponents rounded up and dissent crushed. At a 1969 conference held in conjunction with one of these "war games," Charles O'Brien, Nixon's Deputy Attorney General, declared:  "Anything goes. A civil disturbance anywhere in this state is an attack on the state itself." In 1984, FEMA began "Rex-84" with the Department of Defense—national exercises to practice making mass arrests and detentions in anticipation of "civil disturbances, major demonstrations."

These martial law scenarios are only one threat to civil liberties. Although opposition has mounted, the Emergency Health Powers Act, a model law proposed for adoption by all 50 states, would grant governors the power to declare a "health emergency" that would allow them to decree mandatory vaccinations, quarantines, forcible seizures of hospitals, and destruction of "contaminated" property, even whole buildings, without owner consent. Under this law, anyone who refused to take a vaccination or medication would be forcibly removed to an internment camp. A single case of a disease would be sufficient to trigger the emergency law, thereby suspending the Constitution. One recalls the public panic whipped up, first over anthrax, then smallpox, since the September 11 attacks. This model legislation was prepared at CDC the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, a thoroughly politicized agency of the federal government.

No takeover scenario is complete without the Christian Right, which would form a core social base for fascistic clampdowns. The economic elite and the Christian Right experience considerable tension. But, if few of the monied subscribe to the Christian Right's moralistic agenda, they are still quite happy to advance some of its tenets in exchange for support for their own. The Christian Right expects to assume a key role in a right-wing takeover, just as the Catholic Church did in Franco's Spain; its extreme element seeks direct religious dictatorship. However slight the chance Christian extremists have of taking power themselves, they would provide critical support for any right-wing dictatorship, a fact frequently reconfirmed by the Bush administration's eager solicitude.

Social Splits Exploited

It hardly requires stating that industrialists and other big-business interests have complete control of the Bush administration; indeed, they staff parts of it.

Still, even the Bush administration or a future one will need a social base to implement so draconian a system as fascism, under whatever guise. In 20th century fascist takeovers, the middle class was typically determinative; the elites at the top supported fascism, while blue-collar workers and the poor opposed it. Once the middle group weighed in—the clear case in Germany, but also elsewhere—the scales were tipped. In the U.S. today, the middle group is so huge, it can be expected to follow history and thus prove decisive.

Economic uncertainty underlies the psyche of most American middle-class men and women. This is hardly unique to the U.S., of course:  Fascist propagandists played skillfully on these fears during past economic crises to achieve their coups. Much of the middle class becomes fearful of losing its ability to maintain its lifestyle; this is layered over a fear of descending (again) to blue-collar penury. People with such fears may be susceptible to populist-sounding demagoguery. Salaried white-collar labor forces don't think of themselves as "workers," a term usually designating the blue-collar wage earner. Yet, what is the non-executive office employee if not a "worker"?

The conditions described here are still germane even if the Bush administration or its successor tries to implement "merely" an authoritarian, not a totalitarian regime, one with abridged Constitutional guaranties and selective roundups of undesirable minorities and political dissidents—in short, a right-wing regime harsher than most Americans—except African-Americans or Native Americans—have ever experienced, if less severe than outright fascism. The scare tactics of sudden, ill-defined "terror alerts" repeatedly employed by the Bush administration and aided by non-stop, breathless corporate news hyping of the hue of the day, the constant gearing for new wars, and economic policies that must lead to increased instability are, at the very least, strategies designed to tighten the political screws on the governed.

An authoritarian regime would be much easier to institute than a totalitarian system such as fascism. The marital law infrastructure is well suited for authoritarianism and ruling class representatives are quite prepared to use other available means. In March of this year, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared:  "The Constitution just sets minimums. Most of the rights you enjoy go way beyond what the Constitution requires." Justice Scalia added that in wartime, "protections will be ratcheted right down to the Constitutional minimum. I won't let it go beyond the Constitutional minimum." This attitude is consistent with the "strict constructionism" promoted by right-wing ideologues who seek confine those rights to the few explicitly enumerated in the Bill of Rights. (The right of privacy, drawn in Griswold v. Connecticut from the "penumbrae" of the Constitution, is not one of them.) So narrowed, an authoritarian right-wing dictatorship may not even need to formally suspend the Constitution. Under fascism there would be no debate at all, of course; the Constitution would be abolished and the will of corporate elites applied with deadly force.

Fascism was not the inevitable fate of any nation which suffered it during the 20th century. It is not the inevitable fate of the United States of the early 21st. Resistance to fascism requires that working people, whatever collar they wear, unite in their common defense and overcome the social ills—racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, anti-Semitism, immigrant bashing, etc.—which the powerful exploit to divide and manipulate them. They must be vocal, of course, but they must be vigilant, too:  The class nature of fascism is clear. Right-wing movements can be defeated, but as long as capitalism exists, so does the potential for fascism.

This is the second of a two-part article excerpted and adapted from The Winners and Losers of Fascism, a book-length discussion of what fascism is through a study of the phenomenon in Germany, Italy, Spain, Chile, and Argentina, and an analysis of the possibilities of fascism in the United States. Part One appeared in the Apr '03 issue of Big City Lit.