How to Fight Friendly Fascism

The fascist regimes of the 1920s and 30s were corporatist, totalitarian and militaristic. Capitalists colluded with their respective states to wage class war against workers’ parties and unions; order was established through an illiberal mix of propaganda and repression; and the system depended on war or the threat of war to thrive. Those regimes were also violent, nationalistic and racist, as were fascists everywhere.

For more than three decades in the United States and Britain and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in Europe and throughout the world, we have lived under a kinder, gentler functional equivalent of classical fascism — in which, ironically, “free market” ideology is invoked to sustain a state-capital alliance as powerful as in the classical version. In the conditions in which this new order emerged, it has been possible to mute the nastiness with which “fascism” is rightly associated. But fascism’s war on the working class continues in this new form. So does its assault on enlightenment values and the enlightened institutions that the labor movement championed.

It has become commonplace to call the kind of regime I have in mind “Reaganite,” though Ronald Reagan was only one of several figures involved in its inception and implementation. In view of Margaret Thatcher’s earlier rise to power and her greater ideological lucidity, “Thatcherite” would be a more apt designation. But thanks to America’s paramount position in the world and Britain’s subordinate role, it is Reagan’s name that has stuck. Bertram Gross was spot on back in the early days of Reagan’s presidency when he called Reaganism “friendly fascism.”

In the United States, Reaganism was never an exclusively Republican concoction. Arguably, it began – timidly — in the final years of the Carter administration. And Reaganism’s most effective implementers have been Democrats — Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama. Obama is the most recent Reaganite president in a continuous chain.

With remarkable suddenness, Reaganism’s moral and intellectual bankruptcy are becoming apparent to all but the willfully blind, thanks to events in Wisconsin and elsewhere. The Reaganite era may therefore now be entering into its final stage. Classical fascism was crushed militarily, though facsimiles survived for decades in the Iberian peninsula, Latin America and elsewhere. As its demise in Germany and Italy approached, fascism’s perniciousness mounted to unprecedented levels. Friendly fascism is unlikely to be done in so abruptly or thoroughly, and its end too will likely be kinder and gentler. Still, regimes in their death-throes can do grave harm.

Thanks to the revelatory events in the Midwest, there is reason to hope that Obama – who, characteristically, toddled off to hobnob with corporate bigwigs in Silicon Valley as workers and students launched their epochal struggle in Madison, and who then paid a call on entrepreneurs in Cleveland as Ohio workers were mobilizing in Columbus — may be literally our last Reaganite president.

Unfortunately, we will not know for sure for some time. Since the Republican establishment, in thrall to its useful idiots, is unlikely to come up with a plausible alternative in whom a sane capitalist would place his trust, it will be hard for Obama to lose in 2012. Meanwhile, no matter how much incontrovertible evidence our “bipartisan” president provides for the hypothesis that he is actually a secret Republican, and no matter how vociferously he talks out of both sides of his mouth, no Democrat will run against him – not that there are many who could or would plot a significantly different course. Plausible third party challenges are even less likely, since third party candidates are perceived as spoilers, and no one with any sense would risk Scott Walker or someone of his ilk landing anywhere near the levers of power.

Therefore expect the Democratic base to rally around Obama again. One would think that, at long last, organized labor would at least make demands on Democrats in exchange for its indispensable support. But if the past is any guide, this is unlikely too. It has been a long time since labor’s vision extended beyond the abject horizons of lesser evilism, and old habits, no matter how inapt, are hard to beak.

Nevertheless, caution at this time is more than usually wrong-headed – if only because those vaunted “independents” for whose sake Obama and other Democrats ignore the interests of their base are unlikely to hand the Democrats another shellacking. Just as Bush and Cheney were godsends for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, the Tea Party-GOP alliance is sure to push “moderate” voters back into the Democratic camp. Sadly, though, even as there is little reason for lesser evilists to fear a challenge from the left, there is even less chance that one will materialize.

But, as workers stir, there are grounds for hope. The principles to which Republicans are committed reflect their moral and intellectual level, but at least they are committed to principles. In contrast, Democratic politicians, Obama especially, are weathervanes. Paradoxically, this moral failing of theirs is why we need not despair, and why the harm the lesser evil will otherwise do after its likely comeback in 2012 can be mitigated. To that end, no effort should be spared in promoting programs that go against the self-justifications that make Reaganism possible.

The time is past due to take on the Reaganites’ relentless colonization of the public sphere — by resuming positions that appeal to longstanding sentiments and traditions and that were once universally understood to be mainstream. One way to do this would be to attack the most vulnerable “private options” that Reaganites, including Obama, defend. Workers fighting to retain collective bargaining rights have shown the way; they have exposed the vulnerability of the Reaganite order.

In a healthier political culture than ours, resistance to privatization would be a by-product of efforts to advance a vision of a radically better society; to install real democracy, including economic democracy or, as few now dare to say except in disapprobation, socialism. Never has that struggle been more needed. But in a culture degraded first by Cold War liberalism and then by the scourge of Reaganism, a genuinely conservative resistance to privatization may be the best we can hope for in the short and medium term.

Here are three broad areas for turning back the Reaganite penchant for private options:

1) Perhaps the most urgent priority, inasmuch as our Nobel laureate Commander-in-Chief is hell bent on waging budget busting, destabilizing, and terrorism inducing wars of choice, is to insist that military service again be treated as a public responsibility; in other words, that it no longer be a desperate career move, like working at a low wage job, for those with no better options in the labor market. This idea draws on longstanding American traditions, and on universal understandings of fairness.

To be sure, we have always had “volunteer” armies to carry out colonizing and imperial projects in parts of the world where European powers were excluded or took no interest. But in the twentieth century, when technological advantages over “natives” no longer sufficed, we relied on conscription to obtain the necessary cannon fodder. As the Vietnam War went bad, the draft concentrated the minds of an entire generation and their parents, tearing the country apart. Richard Nixon therefore put an end to the draft, deciding to rely on proxy armies (“Vietnamization”) and economic conscripts instead. Reaganite presidents then went on to add mercenaries to this lethal mix. This offends fairness, and it enables capitalism’s penchant for perpetual war. In today’s world, Reaganite presidents can wage wars only to the extent that they privatize them. This is why deprivatization is necessary.

One tangible and potentially popular way to move towards this end would be to restore universal conscription — this time for all young Americans, regardless of sex, and without any of the not very subtle class-based exclusions of conscriptions past. Let Reaganites just try to unleash wars of choice then!

2) Ending or at least diminishing the role of “the private option” in health care is not in line with past practice in the United States, but it is very much in line with a strain of mainstream thinking that goes back at least to the days of Teddy Roosevelt. It is also the norm throughout the civilized world.

Instead of defending Obama’s milquetoast reforms (and concomitant gift to private insurance companies and health industry profiteers), we should advocate for public, not private, health care provision. There are many models from which to borrow, as everyone would by now understand had not our Reaganite president taken the very idea off the table from the beginning of his health care “debate.” Ironically, though, in his efforts to placate those even more Reaganite than he, Obama has said that he will allow states to pursue their own initiatives, subject to certain constraints.

Proponents of public provision intent on eliminating or at least minimizing the disabling effects of private alternatives should seize the opportunity in states where the political climate is favorable. Something like that happened at the provincial level in Canada; it can happen here.

3) Then there is education. Private schools and colleges have been around since early colonial times, but for more than a century and a half, we have had a robust system of public education as well. By siding with, not against, teachers’ unions and others for whom public education is a priority – not for Obama’s and Arne Duncan’s “competitiveness” reasons, but in order to bolster democratic citizenship — we can return to where we were, and move beyond it. Except for benighted souls who favor religious indoctrination (which can always be pursued privately, after school hours) or who are wedded to traditional mechanisms for forming social elites, support for high quality public education should be an issue around which everyone can rally.

Years ago, Albert Hirschman called attention to how, in market societies, those who are dissatisfied with particular arrangements such as those found in the schools can sometimes “exit,” perhaps by entering into alternative arrangements, or else remain, seeking change through the exercise of “voice.” Priority should be given to efforts to make exit options in education harder, and the voice option easier to exercise and more effective. This implies not just reversing the privatizing thrust of Reaganite education policy by resourcing public schools, colleges and universities properly, but also developing ways to democratize their functioning.

Privatization and more generally the commodification of everything will be our undoing unless we stop the Reaganite menace in its tracks. To the extent we succeed, we can resume the task, all but abandoned in our mainstream political culture for more than thirty years, of moving forward to a better world. Workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are at this moment showing the way. We must not let the last of the friendly fascists derail their efforts and lead us all, yet again, astray.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. ?




ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).