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May 17, 2006

Fascism isn't just a buzzword

Steve G argues that "fascism" is just a buzzword that Bush's critics use as a thoughtless insult.

Some people incorrectly use the term "fascist" to criticize any inappropriate exercise of state power. However, there's nothing distinctively fascist about arresting demonstrators, torturing prisoners, fixing elections, domestic spying, or fighting imperialist wars. Communist countries, monarchies,  theocracies, military dictatorships, and other authoritarian regimes commit similar offenses.

Anyone who wants to identify similarities between the current administration and true Fascism will have to specify exactly what's fascist about Bush and the Republicans. This is not a trivial task. However, I believe there's a very strong case to be made.

I'm NOT saying that we have a fascist government in America today. The United States is a democracy, we still have a free press, and the armed forces haven't acquiesced to the one-man rule of George W. Bush. I'm not claiming that it's inevitable, or even especially likely, that America will eventually become a full-blown fascist state. I'm certainly not saying that anyone in power today is consciously striving to create a full-fledged fascist dictatorship on the model of Mussolini's Italy or Franco's Spain. What I am saying is that the Bush administration has embraced many of the key mutually-reinforcing ideological tenets of Fascism: militarism, imperialism, corporate statism, state-sponsored religion, male dominance, irrationalism, and mass propaganda.

Steve writes:

Fascism arose as a counter-point to Marxism. Marx argued that economics set up a situation where there would be class-driven conflict through a series of prescribed steps which leads, ultimately, to the dissolving of governments and the flourishing of people in a state of complete peace. Fascism denied all of this. In his 1932 piece "What is Fascism," Benito Mussolini, took issue with all of these points. Fascism begins with the axiom that war is the natural state of man.
This is a crucial point. A state of war is a special thing. When one is in the state of war, the normality of life is suspended. War is a time of crisis and in a state of crisis, what is normally irrational if one wants to create a civil society may become rational. During wartime, a nation is so threatened that all possible projects within the nation depend upon successful prosecution of the war, and as such, all other projects are therefore less important than winning the war. Everything in life is subjugated to the government's efforts. The survival of the country and everyone in it is in question, so your little interests need to be put on hold. A state of martial law allows for complete governmental control because it is needed to protect each and all.

It seems to me that the Bush administration is trying to do something remarkably similar. Here are some non-trivial characteristics that the administration shares with capital F-fascism.

1. Perpetual war. The administration has declared an open-ended "Global War on Terror" (GWOT), aka the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism"(GSAVE), now also known simply as "the long war." Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. The war on terror is unwinnable by design. The so-called war on terror is an endlessly extendable excuse for growing presidential power, foreign military adventures, and increased domestic surveillance. The GWOT has already served as an excuse for the illegal invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq, the construction of billions of dollars' worth of permanent military bases abroad, and veiled threats of nuclear attack on Iran.   

The Fascists said that perpetual war was part of the human condition. The Republicans have declared a phony war that can be guaranteed to last as long as they want it to. I don't see a big difference.

2. The Unitary Executive. Fascism is a cult of the leader in which the His supreme authority is required to wage perpetual war. The Republicans have demonstrated fascist tendencies by undercutting the constitutional checks on the power of the Executive Branch and concentrating power in the President himself. Their bogus theory of the Unitary Executive  holds that the POTUS has the authority to override not only the laws enacted by the Legislative Branch, but also the any part of the constitution that might constrain his supposed Article II power to do whatever he deems necessary to fight the so-called war on terror.

Conveniently, you're not supposed to criticize the president during a war. Criticizing the war is also treason . The president says so.

3. The Corporate State. As Steve points out, Fascism arose as one solution to the punishing ups and downs of the free market. Fascism proposed to end the struggle between workers and bosses by uniting the powers of the state and big business to crush labor.

Like the Fascists, the Republicans hate the free market. They don't want competition, they want a handful of big businesses to dominate the economy at the expense of all other interests. They dream of an orderly world of rising profits and increasing shareholder returns, relieved of messy strikes and upstart competitors.

Corporations already shape American policy by subverting democracy and propping up the government's security state. Consider how US policy is influenced by the administration's close ties to companies like Diebold, Haliburton, AT&T, Verizon, and Duke Cunningham's crooked defense contractors. The disastrous Medicare Plan D, the biggest government program US history, is a sop to Big Pharma. Bush's abortive attempt to privatize Social Security was a pure gimme to the Republicans' friends in the financial services sector. The ruinous bankruptcy bill that was practically written by the multi-billion dollar credit card industry.

Also consider the government's intimate relationship with the right wing media machine from FOX News and Regenry books, to far-right talk radio, astroturf conservative websites, and journalistic front groups like Jeff Gannon's unlamented Talon News... For more information on this aspect of the Republican corporate state, see David Brock's exhaustive study, The Republican Noise Machine, and the chapters on the self-declared conservative media in Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media.

The Abramoff/Cunningham/Foggo/Scalon lobbying scandals illustrate how corporations have circumvented democracy by simply buying influence. Of course, Duke Cunninham specialized taking bribes from defense contractors while sitting on the House Intelligence Committee. These scandals also reveal how the culture of corruption helps perpetuate America's aggressive militaristic foreign policy.

4. Unification of church and state. The original Fascists wanted to bring the church into the corporate state. Many of today's Republicans seem to have similar ambitions. The influence of the religious right is palpable in many spheres of American policy from the selection of Supreme Court nominees to America's relations with  Israel. The current administration has also slashed secular public assistance and championed faith-based programs to provide social services with tax dollars through religious organizations.

5. The security apparatus. Like Fascist citizens of yore, some Americans are so scared of terrorism that they are prepared to sign away their civil rights in the name of security. Our government is filling that demand by spying on its own citizens, including the press, with the connivance of their corporate allies (e.g., the telcos and ChoicePoint). We also have a global penal archipelago, constructed by private contractors and legitimized by the state's insistence that anything goes in the war on terror, including torture, kidnapping (rendition), and the suspension of habeas corpus.

6. Xenophobia. Fear of outsiders is a cardinal feature of Fascism. Contemporary examples of this ugly trend include anti-immigrant rhetoric, the further militarization our borders, and Bush's proposal to create permanent second-class citizens (guest workers) who will work cheap without voting, organizing, or sharing any part of the American dream.

Our government and its mouthpieces engage in constant fear mongering about outsiders scheming against the American way of life, be they terrorists, Islamists, Old Europeans, the UN, or the Axis of Evil.

7. The cult of anxious masculinity. Like the Fascists of old, Bush and his toadies thoroughly besotted romantic ideas of Decisive Action, Will, and Violent Struggle. They cheer for macho pageantry like Commander Codpiece's "mission accomplished" aircraft carrier stunt.

Like the old Fascists, many contemporary Republicans exhibit an uneasy mix of homophobia an homophilia.

Other areas of overlap between Republicans and Fascists: Contempt for the feminine. Contempt for contemplation and deliberation. Contempt for compassion. Contempt for reason. 

8. Control over women's bodies and the family unit. The Fascists were very concerned with controlling women's bodies. The man's dominance within the traditional family is an integral plank of Fascist ideology. Many Republicans share the same overwhelming preoccupation. Women are, after all, the source of future cannon fodder for perpetual war, the guardians of traditional virtue, and keepers home and hearth.

Check out our government's new Forever Pregnant guidelines, exhorting America's fertile women to live in a perpetual state of "pre-pregnancy." Remember how religious politics trumped science in the Plan B fiasco? 

9. Propaganda. The right wing media contribute to the corporate state by supplying an endless stream of jingoistic imagery, fake news, and political theater (see, Corporate State, above). The state itself gets into the act all too often. Government-produced fake news clips and shills like Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher are just two examples of this disturbing trend. I haven't even addressed the administration's attempts censor the news from Iraq, or the disturbing allegations regarding its hostility towards American and non-American journalists in the theater of war.

10. Distrust of science, expertise, and open debate. A few contemporary instances: David Horowitz's academic freedom bills, the subordination of scientific experts to ideologues in government agencies, and the politicization of reproductive health policies at home and abroad. The current administration denied global warming in the face of scientific consensus and intimidated and censored its own scientists to uphold the party line.

Once again, I am not arguing the the US government is fascist, or that it's necessarily going to become fascist, or that anyone in charge is deliberately trying to turn us into fascists. I am arguing that the current regime demonstrates many of the self-reinforcing attitudes, values, and policies that defined Mussolini's ideology of Fascism and that were embodied by Fascist states in the 20th century.

For whatever reason, Fascism and modern Republicanism share a set of ideas that has enduring appeal, especially when combined as an ideological package. I have attempted  to show how these tendencies are mutually reinforcing and self-perpetuating. It is a mistake to ask how far fascism has "crept up" on us. Instead, we should be focusing on how unchecked militarism and corporate statism are already undermining our freedom, regardless of whether these fixtures of American politics are harbingers of an even darker future.


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This is an excellent post, but grounding a discussion on the details of actual fascism seems to me a bit like sticking up for the traditional meaning of "begging the question." How much energy should go into preserving a traditional definition when so many people are intent on using the new one?

Wow, that "pre-pregnancy" stuff you linked to is creepy as hell.

I think it's worth preserving the distinction between Fascism the as an ideology (as outlined in Mussolini's writings) and/or as a political movement such as those in Spain and Italy in the 20th century vs. authoritarianism in general.

Maybe it's too strong to say that people who use "fascist" as an epithet are incorrect. Maybe it's more accurate to say they're using the term loosely or metaphorically.

You've outdone yourself with this one, Lindsay. Bravo.

PS: After what you did to me I'll never keep myself in a pre-pregnant state again.

"Maybe it's more accurate to say they're using the term loosely or metaphorically."

It seems to me that a loose or metaphorical usage is handier, if only for polemical purposes. With analogies like this there's a danger of reifying a set of traits as being essentially fascist. Especially since there are so few historical examples to draw from.

Oh, I think it'd be very much worth preserving the distinction, if possible. "Fascism" as a technical/historical term about governance is very useful, and its popular form is almost completely useless. Hell, I'm not sure if the popular form even involves the state anymore - see, for example, people referring to nonstate actors as "Islamofascists." "Begging the question," however, is useless as a technical term as well as a popular one - it has plenty of synonyms in both areas. So it's less worth defending, granted.

I just wonder if fighting for the historical meaning of fascism isn't a similarly losing battle. It's a shame if it is. /end those-were-the-days rumination.

What we have is creeping fascism, about to stand upreich.

Umberto Eco, who is smarter than you and me put together, figured this all out back in 1995.

Agreed, Lindsay, this is the best post yet.

Fascism worked best when the propaganda could appeal to a homogenous, monoglot society. I found the appeal to the irrational, through a perversion of mysticism (Hitler's evocation of the pagan Germanic ideal, Mussolini's of ancient Rome) interesting; in this case, instead of appealing to a pre-Christian vision of national unity, America appeals to a vision of a bygone, mythical, Christian America. When Germany's homogeneity stopped, i.e., at its religious divisions, Hitler's vision had to be altered (upon hearing an SS "Yule Carol," Hitler said, "this will never replace Silent Night." He also had to accommodate both his Protestant and Catholic base). I will be very, very surprised if heterogeneous America warms as one unified body to any attacks on illegal immigrants. Factions may get behind such hatred, but not all of us, thank God.

Also, though I can't stand making the economy out to be all of history, the economic program must be key to describing a state as "fascist". State control of business; full employment of workers, but abolition of trade unions; mobilization of the civilian worker toward an economy on a war footing. (The Reich Minister for Economics, Hjalmar Horace Greeley von Schacht, resigned because of such meddling in his economic plan, and I think especially because the economy was being placed on a war footing.) We don't yet have a state-enforced abolition of trade unions, but they're being made irrelevant in other ways; and while our military expenditures aren't large as a percentage of our GDP, they're a huge percentage of our overall budget.

Appeals to social unity, toward irrational ends of blind faith; an economic policy designed to crush the individual worker's power, and to create a unified workforce in the service of the state, and most likely for war; state violence toward dissenters, and the espionage- and police-state without limits. And all of this to an end of violence and hatred, instead of cooperation between nations and peoples. That is fascism.

"8. Control over women's bodies and the family unit."

Oh yeah,. how about this for reference:

"I'll put an end to the idea that a woman's body belongs to her. Nazi ideals demand that the practice of abortion shall be exterminated with a strong hand."

Adolf Hitler
Mein Kampf

I think there are large numbers of Americans arguing in favor of fascism. But as to how well America will implement it... I've always said: America's will be the first fascist state where the trains won't run on time.

Excellent post.

1) Fascist reasons (and similar characteristics) for going to war against Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia)... Mussolini went to war with Abyssinia in 1935 to divert attention from domestic and economic problems; to unite the Italian people under one leader; to show the rest of Europe how strong Italy was; to use Abyssinia's natural resources; and to conquer Abyssinia since Italy had failed once before in 1896. It should also be noted that war occurred over 'shady' pretenses---Italian troops attacked British and Abyssinians at the Wal Wal oasis one year prior to invasion, yet Mussolini, who asserted the opposite had happened, demanded an apology from Abyssinia(pretty flimsy reason for going to war). Italy had been planning an attack for some time due to Abyssinia's strategic location. And when they did attack, they used chemical weapons against civilian targerts (including Red Cross tents), tortured and imprisoned civilians, and were brutal in their conquest. Of course, there was no exit plan. Mussolini first denied any atrocities had happened, then said rebels had been the targets of chemical attacks, and finally admitted that these were merely isolated incidents. Any of this sound familiar?

2) The Republicans, under the Bush Administration, are pushing for local laws throughout the states to be passed that would disempower unions, especially government ones. Taking away collective bargaining rights is on the table (or will be) for multiple states. Tabor (attacking government unions and workers) is another one. This needs to be accomplished for a State to devolve into fascism. Uniting government with big business in its entirety will occur at a more rapid pace by 1) weakening all Union workers employed by big business, and 2) specifically attacking government unions---which would allow the current government Administration (as well as state and municipal ones) to 'stay the course' in a more blatant manner. By de-fanging the unions while coinciding it with attacking specifically latin-american immigrants, we have the elements of a Spanish Imperialistic appropriate.

It's a good thing to make distinctions between traditional definitions and the variant forms of fascism that sprouted out from them. On a practical level, preserving the distinction will allow many to deduce how the derivatives sprouted from the original. It can also help to expose the chicanery of contemporary 'leaders'. For example, in 1919, fascism originally advocated for the separation of church and state, progressive taxation, and a democratic republic. Within a few years, these ideas were discarded. But this was only after the fascists had gained numbers and power. It was a ploy to lure the masses into the fold. Of course, Bush-Baby and Shotgun Cheney are using similar fascist techniques to lure people in (prescription drugs, tax cuts, fear-mongering, etc). Even though they have lost what remained of their popularity, the damage they have wrought will take over a decade to undo.

Historical analysis and distinctions between the fountainhead and the stream are imperative in letting people know what they are actually drinking.

1. often Fascism
a. A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.
b. A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.
2. Oppressive, dictatorial control.

#2.) We get to elect a new “unitary executive” in 2008. And we had a chance to overthrow this one in 2006.

#4.) The Catholic Church resisted attempts to become a State organ in both Fascist Italy & Franco’s Spain. Both governments had promenade Bishops and clergy on their enemy lists. Do faiths based initiatives and a strong appeal among people of faith really even qualifies under this (supposed) clause?

#6.) It is the Bush administration that is calling for an Amnesty Bill? The Anti-Illegal backlash has been building for years as the problem grew worse. Also, every people are xenophobic to one degree or another, dose that make every people fascist?

#8.) Both the Nazi’s and the Communists USED appeals to a strong family and nationalistic pride to inspire and create unity and common cause with their regimes. Hitler was for highway funding, I’m from highway funding –ergo, I’m like Hitler.

9 & 10.) Pretty thin.

Regardless, estimates on the number of dead in Francos Spain number about 200,000 political prisoners. Compared with the slaughter in this century under radical egalitarianism and national socialism, I’ll gladly be a fascist.

The term really dates the Left.

Could it be that the contemporary left is so devoid of thought that they are back to pulling out troupe’s dating back to the Spanish Civil War?
Because I cant even smell a whiff of the `fascismo` .

This post was so good I don't even need to link to Dave Neiwert.

Back around 1989 I happened to be thumbing through a couple of dictionaries comparing definitions (same dictionary, published about a decade apart) and discovered the more modern definition of "fascism" took out the phrase about the coalition of government and business that was present in the earlier edition, making it easier for people to confuse fascism with totalitarianism. People seem to forget that Auschwitz was a money-making proposition.

Herman Ab, the head of the German bank in WWII, sat in on the meeting where government and business decided on Auschwitz as a swell idea. Free labor. When Ab died in the 1990s, David Rockefeller, in the obit, said that Ab was the greatest banker of our time.

"Work will set you free." Someone else's work.

The thing is, we keep wanting the form of our downfall to be the same as Nazi Germany's (what, Fascist Italy's wasn't dramatic enough?). America's government, in order to pass the bar and be worthy of the epithet, must have concentration camps; they must call them concentration camps; they must do away with x many people, using gas and crematoria, and they must do so because of political ideology or religion or race, not for any other "perfectly justifiable" reason, and they must use symbols in the same way the Nazis did (no, fetishizing the flag or the National Anthem isn't enough; we must use the very same flag, in national, state-led rallies). We must purge our Communist party and our trade unions.

Well, guess what: we don't have a Communist Party. Our economy is in a completely different position than inter-war (or even pre-WW I) Germany. The original American colonies weren't founded by the remnants of a knightly crusader order, and we don't use crosses as insignia on our planes. We don't have borders that have recently shifted, chafing our pride. Of COURSE we're not going to be the same as Fascist Italy, Fascist Spain, or Nazi Germany! We're a completely different people! We have different national characteristics, a different personality, different economic and military traditions and institutions, different industry, and different politics. We are a different society.

Our downfall will come through completely different channels. The form will be different. The substance (hatred and violence) will be exactly the same. So will the shame. And probably, the people who feel the shame will be exactly the people who deserve it least, while the greatest criminals will bray their self-justification until the end, just like last time.


1) You are using the little 'f' definition of generic fascism, or worse yet, the dictionary def. L.B. uses the original definition of capital 'F' or Italian Fascism--originating back to its inception. To lay down a cohesive argument, you need to know where the opposing viewpoint is coming from.

2) And that is the problem---a unitary Pres, no matter who it is, moves towards the direction of fascism and away from classical liberal democracy (I use the term liberal not in the contemporary usage, but in relation to fascism, communism, etc). Presidents should be beholden to the laws and Constitution, not above them nor immune to them. Same with everyone else in positions of power.

4) Yes, the progressive Catholics did resist fascism, just as Romero and the liberation theologists resisted Reagan's dictators and oligarchal families in Central America. They resisted because, among other things, they saw a danger of too much power in so few hands. They also did not want the State to use Religion for its own purposes. That is one negative outcome that occurs when the State is intertwined with Religion. Other problems that result (especially with the faith-based initiatives) involve accountability, oversight, services rendered, ensuring no one religion or sets of religions have more influence than another, playing favorites, etc, etc. This is exactly why there is a growing number of religious institutions who oppose faith-based initiatives---just like some of the Roman Catholics who opposed fascism. So, to answer your question: Yes, faith-based initiatives do fall under this clause when they take over public services.

6) To produce a solution, one must undertand the roots of the 'problem'...and not appeal to xenophobia while calling for police state tactics. Bush is promoting tactics that do not deal with the issues nor provide a real solution. The issues involve the disaster called NAFTA and globalization, yet Bush promotes CAFTA and trade with China (by the way, the Great Wall of China was unable to keep outsiders from coming in)---further exacerbating the 'problem'. Economic and Labour relations terms such as Green and Brown areas of Mexico play a big part as well. As does livable wages, Real wages, slave labour camps, worker dormitories, land reform, environmental degradation, the World Bank, MNC's, and self-sufficiency. Yet, Bush does and says nothing about the real issues. Instead, he appeals to xenophobic individuals. Xenophobism itself does not make one fascist, but it is a factor which contributes to it.

8) I doubt too many people would agree with either Stalin or Hitler. As for highway funding, please elaborate---I'm not so sure how you relate this to the subjugation of women.

You assert 9 and 10 are pretty thin. How? Why?

National Socialism during the 20th century was a form of fascism. As for Stalin, he was, by no means, a fan of liberalism. You seem to confuse the terms with their rightful historical places.

Fritz, not to worry about your sniffer not working---when one is mired in the bowel-movements of fascist bamboozlement and bombardments, one can not help but lose their senses. Pig farmers don't smell the shit. Neither do pigs.

This is a fine, fine post.


I think in #8 Fitz was trying to say that one can advocate the subjugation of women without being a fascist. True, but it seems to me that the Bush administration has attempted to move us toward fascism on virtually all fronts.

However, I think that general xenophobia is a notable exception. I see the portions of Bush's immigration policy that seem hostile to Latinos as being sops that he gives to his most xenophobic supporters.

But the administration has stoked the flames of xenophobia whenever it suits their purpose. Remember, for example, the attacks on the French during the run-up to the war in Iraq. And we got to see the "Frenchmen are silly and cowardly" theme again during the election campaign, when Kerry was ridiculed because he "looks French."

The use of the word "Fascism" is part of a false distinction between "left" and "right" totalitarianism. The distinction is not a meaningful one. Totalitarianism is always and everywhere the same; the differences are opportunistic and insignificant.

And, yes, Lindsay, the USA *is* today a totalitarian country, and has been at least since the late 1970s.

Now here is how totalitarianism goes. First comes the sadism. Second comes the choice of a target group. Third comes the invention of a pseudophilosophy to justify the oppression and genocide of the target group. Fourth and fifth come the choice or formation of a propaganda machine and a political party. Sixth and last, and much the least important, comes the choice of a charismatic figurehead leader, who is dispensible and originates nothing.

The conventional theory of totalitarianism focuses exclusively on the leader: the evil madman who somehow, implausibly, manages to take over an entire nation. The point of this is to define totalitarianism as intrinsically inauthentic and thereby to exonerate the people. The cold fact that no one is willing to face up to is that totalitarianism is always the AUTHENTIC expression of some faction within a society that is large enough to bid for power.

Totalitarianism is the natural and inevitable decay mode of democracy. If you are serious about preventing totalitarianism, then you must first prevent democracy, which can no more be prevented from decaying into totalitarianism than radium can be prevented from decaying into lead.

I contend that rather than unifying under a totalitarian government, we are, just as our founding fathers said, fracturing into factions, each of which will wreak its own havoc and do its own violence. America's character leans against tyranny. Big deal. So there'll be violence without the tyranny.

During Hitler's rise, the trope that was leveled against him was that he was effecting "National Bolshevism." So the Nazis always shied away from putting Communist economic theory to work in their system. But you know what? Congratulations, Germany: you never had National Bolshevism. You had something different in form, but just as brutal and murderous, as Stalin's Russia. So they avoided the trope's accusations, but who cares? They were just as bad.

America's downfall will scrupulously avoid having a monolithic figurehead, and may--may--avoid genocide. Instead, after our greed forces enough people into poverty, and hence into crime, we will choose our "target group": the poor. Or possibly, a red state/blue state divide. Or the several of our disgraced intelligence or police agencies will take up arms and propaganda war against one another.

As much as it was a trope in the 60's for people to cry "Fascism," it's just as much a right-wing trope to say, "America Cannot Be Guilty!" And that trope is false. Yes we can be guilty, and the guilt is not in putting on a black uniform with a death's-head. It's in hatred.

It's as I suspected. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

Seems that way, eh? Funny that Orwell designated Britain as an obedient annex to the USA ("Airstrip One") in 1984.

Totalitarianism is the natural and inevitable decay mode of democracy. If you are serious about preventing totalitarianism, then you must first prevent democracy, which can no more be prevented from decaying into totalitarianism than radium can be prevented from decaying into lead.

Leaving us with... monarchy! Theocracy? Kleptocracy? Anarchosyndicalism? Wait, that last one has a lot of democratic elements, so that's right out.


Outstanding post! My observation is justified by the excellent posts and discussions, above. I wondered if your point discussion would better stand alone without a reference to fascism. If it served only a provocative role, then it's a bit disingenuous. But I think it makes the point that if we are on a slippery slope, then it's best to know where the sliding might lead us.

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