Is liberal fascism a misnomer? Perhaps Sinclair Lewis’s antecedent question is more basic, Can it happen here?
Fascism comes in several varieties without losing its distinctive structural-ideological-political features, all of which point to an hierarchical societal framework characterized by extremes of wealth and power, a system of government authority, its opaqueness shielding it from accountability in both domestic and foreign policy, and, because of its secrecy, able to hide its disconnection from the public interest, as for example a dereliction of responsibility to the working class in terms of job creation, the preservation of the social safety net, and adequate funding for public education, and meanwhile, able as well to hide its connection, rather, to ruling groups and upper social strata through beneficial economic and fiscal policies, subsidies, the wider geopolitical strategies for wealth accumulation in international affairs, and the protective cover of military strength and involvement to preserve order and a martial spirit at home and trade and investment opportunities abroad—ensuring the resultant generation of wealth will not be channeled inward to democratize the social order.
Prevention of democratization at home, unilateral exercise of dominance on all major indices of power and a broad counterrevolutionary posture abroad, pretty well sums up the paradigm of fascism in a skeletal form, its methods varying to suit historical circumstances and cultural tastes, repression in some cases, persuasion and a promotion of false consciousness in others, so long as the basic objectives are served: inequality, secrecy, militarism (all, under Obama, brought to fruition via the warm glow of rhetorical liberalism).
Liberal fascism is an elusive historical formation; instead of goosestepping automatons, gas chambers, Stuka dive bombers, the bombastic Leader, all is normality on display, although, to be sure, some traces of the nonliberal variety of fascism remain.
For goosesteppers substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarization of the total culture, under constant reinforcement, with Second-Amendment gun-rights zealots rubbing their hardware in our noses.
For gas chambers substitute the structural reinforcement of gun violence, incarceration of an underclass, surveillance—admittedly far less painful, but expeditious in its social-control consequences.
For the Stukas, we actually go one better, with armed drones for targeted assassination, directed to terrorizing, as did the Stukas along with the closer analogue, buzz bombs, whole populations.
And for the bombastic Leader, we have the reformer manque, blithely at work in planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while and, now, advertising his “Fireplace Hangouts” in a phony effort to imitate FDR’s Fireside Chats.
Even were large numbers of individuals the victims of political murder abstracted from the record, there would still be ample grounds for treating the presidential context as the flourishing of liberal fascism. Militarism, beyond drones, beyond the global network of bases, beyond extravagant budgets and exotic weaponry, beyond expanding the role of CIA operations, beyond the Pacific-first strategy of enlarging the US presence in Asia and containment of China, is alive and well in the Obama White House through a grand design of permanent war carried on largely by paramilitary forces with the heavy hitters, viz., supercarriers, etc., in the background, and the “modernized” nuclear weapons gently out of sight.
Still, liberal fascism requires more, given that America has been in the business of counterrevolution, militarism, and intervention for some time, as it has, through government-business interpenetration, in support of monopolism and economic consolidation generally.
Now, however, is qualitatively different, or rather, the intensification of previous key trends, with still less protest than perhaps at any time since 1933. In broadest terms, America has absorbed its own negativity, and by America I mean a culmination of tendencies toward the systemic integration of capitalism, now at a mature stage of development, and correlative mechanisms of support, previously inchoate or less operant, starting with the bludgeoning of a radical political consciousness through several decades of applied public and private pressures toward conformity: i.e., internalized boundaries of acceptable doctrine and modes of protest.
Obama can begin from where the long-term formation of a dissipative consciousness leaves off, extolling “change” as the formula for acquiescence—submission to authority, war, assassination, bank bailouts, military budgets, false either-or alternatives in social policy, whatever it takes to keep the ship of, not state, but monopoly capitalism, on course. Why liberal? Because rhetoric trumps reality, and the attachment of leader and led is bound up in an apolitical moral vacuum, affecting each, altogether resistant to critical thinking and analysis.
Yet more, liberalism has itself demonstrated its bankruptcy, as when, for example, a majority of the American people support the armed drone program. Assassination is cost-effective in protecting America from the Nefarious Other.
Whether we had created the conditions of international hostility to the US, is unthinkable. Better to plod ahead. Draw together in classless harmony. Celebrate America as the Land of Opportunity, as societal dislocation proceeds apace, whether unemployment, foreclosures, renditions, torture, nonregulation, crumbling infrastructure, gun rampages, or presidential unctiousness papering over war crimes, wealth concentration, and destruction of the environment.
Keystone XL, anyone?
Addendum: I commend Obama, though, for exposing liberalism, in its journey of transvaluation, from the New Deal to the present, for what it is, a right-of-center political-ideological position hardly worthy of the name, as understood during the New Deal. Liberalism, once centrist, or moderately left of center, could not withstand—nor even try to—the anticommunist hysteria beginning with McCarthyism in the aftermath of World War II, becoming increasingly, as with Americans for Democratic Action and National Security Democrats, part of the red-baiting political-ideological universe of cultural discourse translated into a marked rightward shift in politics which distinguished the major parties solely on who was fairest of them all (i.e., most patriotic).
Under the liberal banner, the US ventured into the Cold War arena. Its anticommunism became a spacious umbrella for sacrificing dissent on the altar of respectability, so that by the 1960s at the latest, liberalism should have been, but was not, detected for being more antiradical than progressive (and, in fact, rendering so-called progressivism as, at bottom, antiradical). Obama could have stepped forward two decades earlier without missing a beat, from a policy- if not racial- standpoint, and his conservatizing thrust has now touched race, with blacks in prominent positions firmly installed in the Praetorian Guard of Vested Interests. Neither Paul Robeson nor Dr. King would be admissible in the political culture of today (lip-service to the celebration of the latter notwithstanding, in light of his Poor People’s Campaign and opposition to war).
Liberalism has been a chief contaminant of democratic theory and practice, joined at the hip to a Democratic party solicitous of Wall Street and the whole flock of interests defining predatory capitalism, from health insurers to defense contractors, and further joined at the hip to a White House that can find no better exemplification of its stewardship than the nomination of John Brennan, closing tightly the circle of secrecy so as to hide the practically daily exhibit of war crimes.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.