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The Contemporary Condition

Aspirational Fascism

In an earlier post, entitled What Was Fascism?, I responded to a set of right wing pundits who treat social democracy, liberalism and a welfare state as modes of fascism. The logic behind that equation is simple: unregulated markets promote consummate freedom and rationality; state regulation of markets stifles both and produces irrational intervention in the daily lives of people. One point of my post was to remind people what these revisionist histories seek to forget: Drives to European fascism were triggered above all in the thirties by the advent of the Great Depression; and that Depression was produced by practices of market utopianism. While market utopianism was not itself fascistic, the collapse it fomented helped to spawn fascist movements in several countries and to intensify them in others. Only a few actually succeeded. But the results were devastating.

There were several characteristics of fascism the first time around. It was virulently anti-semitic, propelling death camps in its most extreme version. It also defined social democrats, communists, homosexuals and the Romani as degenerates, deserving to be placed on the dumping grounds of history. Its racism with respect to non-Europeans was virulent. Where it succeeded, it introduced a one-party state, disallowing electoral challenges, to say the least. The success of fascist movements, when they did succeed, was spurred by a dark series of resonances between the state, industrialists and local vigilante groups who spread terror in the streets. These versions of fascism were also capitalistic. Profit and ownership of the means of production were private. Fascist capitalism replaced the myth of market self-sufficiency by one of exclusionary national unity, brownshirts, bellicose militarism, police repression and aggressive war policies.

It is thus a mistake to equate every large state with fascism, as the radical right loves to do under the umbrella of market utopianism. In fact, it is difficult to find a capitalist state anywhere that is not also a large state, though the priorities of such states do vary significantly.

One critic of that post suggested that I had merely pretended to read Hayek. Hayek, of course, was an early purveyor of the view that regulated markets promote a fascist state, though socialism was his key target. He presents an uncanny mixture of the insightful and the fanciful: a fascinating account of freedom, spontaneity and social processes of self-organization; a utopian view of market processes as the only place such processes occur; and a homogeneous suspicion of any large state, however distinctive in aim, accountability, and organization. He was not a friend of aspirational fascism. A critique of Hayek, joined to a corollary appreciation of his early engagement with complexity theory, could thus be timely. He was, for instance, wary of any association between the state and religious enthusiasm. It is too bad, then, that he confined the play of spontaneity and real complexity to economic markets, setting into motion an ideological movement that denies the role of spontaneity and self-organization to social movements and, indeed, to a much larger host of interacting human and nonhuman domains (See The Fragility of Things). Welcome to the world of under-regulated markets and rapid climate change, Mr. Hayek.

What about aspirational fascism today and the possibility of its enactment in America? Its reoccurrence, if it happened, would express some continuities with the past punctuated by a series of significant differences. To detect hints about those affinities and differences, we can listen to Republican, Tea Party candidates such as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich; we can heed the expressions of hate and ugliness regularly spouted by an active minority in their audiences; we can recall the Tea Party’s willingness to shut down the government to support the ends of a minority movement; and we can attend to repressive police practices already underway in American cities. Here is what such listening suggests:

1) Neo-Fascism, if it were to arrive, would not take the shape of one party rule. The media, corporations, the state, and vigilante groups together would cow constituencies on the middle and the left. The minority party would offer only weak resistance to the policies of the right, and some sections would collude with it.

2) Anti-semitism, while hovering in the wings, would be displaced by virulent opposition to all Muslim groups, within and outside the country. Gays, feminists, professors, atheists, and union leaders would also be on the list of enemies. The war on terror would morph, as it is always on the verge of doing, into a war on Islam as such. The most right wing tendencies in Israel would be supported enthusiastically, even as calls to make America a more Christian nation intensified. Those two apparently incompatible drives can be sustained in some circles by saying that the first stage of Armegeddon will arrive in Israel, to be followed by the Second Coming in which only Christians are rescued. You don’t need to worry about the devastation of the earth if you are waiting for the Second Coming; you don’t want to if you are committed to a neoliberal image of production, consumption and markets. Such a combination, to the extent it succeeded, would silence a large and growing section within Christianity that eagerly supports a pluralist culture.

3) Carbon based sources of energy for production, consumption and military operations would be celebrated and extended. The dangers of fracking and nuclear power would be ignored. Climate change would be ridiculed. And imperial operations designed to protect traditional modes of energy would be launched.

4) As the effects of climate change foment suffering and disorder in several regions, the United States would become even more of a garrison state, invoking massive state power to barricade its borders and creating a series of wars in vulnerable or oil rich regions.

5) As market utopianism, unlimited corporate campaign money, and state repression grows, inequality of wealth, income and communicative power would become even more extreme. Attempts to protest these developments would foment more intensive modes of state and media repression to disparage and silence them. You might think that the Supreme Court would help here, but its recent drive to give more rights to corporations as “persons” than to living persons is hardly reassuring. The majority of the current court participates in the ideology of market utopianism.

6) As the combine of market utopianism and state bellicosity grew, another world wide market collapse would almost certainly occur. It is an open question whether China would escape its effects. The right would draw upon the suffering promoted by that collapse to pursue even more intensely market utopianism. Since a perfectly free market is always a chimera promised for a fanciful future, you can always blame the latest failures on too much market regulation and taxation of “job creators”.

6) Vigilante groups, already discernible in this country, would grow in size and type, seeking to silence alternative voices as they infiltrate localities, churches, corporations, and universities. The state and the police would enter into covert alliances with them.  

Such a new type of fascism is certainly not inevitable. It does, however, operate as an aspiration in some circles that already makes a big difference in our politics. It also could occur, if a major terrorist event encountered a Republican President and Congress. It poses a real danger.

The immediate question is how to criticize market utopianism more effectively as we identify the dangers it promotes, the denials it demands, the suffering it fosters, the unfocussed anger it unleashes, and the repressive, militaristic state it solicits to sustain its fantasies. Above all, how can we awaken a large constellation of “Independents”--who first try to ignore politics as much as possible and then become susceptible to slightly softened versions of right wing sound bites when a crisis emerges. Here Mitt Romney, perhaps, is even more dangerous than Rick Perry, as he exudes a willingness to be the soft voice of a rampant minority movement. The secret of the neoliberal/evangelical machine resides in the way that it promises smooth markets for the future as it feeds off crises of today it helps to foment.

Barack Obama, for all his eloquence, is not good at exposing these drives and dangers. Paul Krugman, for all his economic insight, does not crack through either. Academic radicals have insufficient reach and connections on their own. Steve Colbert and Jon Stewart show merely a few flashes of brilliance in this regard. What then? Some noble intellectuals in the American Jewish community are now speaking out actively about the American/Israeli/Palestine quagmire. A forthcoming documentary by Bruce Robbins at Columbia University is promising in this regard. Recently, I have begun to wonder whether Rachel Maddow and Elizabeth Warren might provide hope in exposing the insidious character of this machine to a wider audience.

One thing seems clear, however: it will take enhanced participation by more people in the micropolitics of families, churches, unions, localities, consumption cooperatives, universities, the new media, protests, and corporate exposes to pave the way for the social movements and electoral coalitions needed today. Connections to social movements in other countries are critical too. In these respects protest movements on Wall Street and in Wisconsin, along with militant protests against austerity in England, Greece and elsewhere may be promising.

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William E. Connolly

William E. Connolly is a political theorist known for his work on democracy and pluralism. He is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.

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