The Political Economy of Fascism

For all of the millions of words written about the fascist danger posed by Donald Trump, there are very few devoted to an actual analysis of fascist economics both as ideology and state policy. Instead there is a fixation on marchers in Charlottesville chanting “blood and soil” or other Nazi era memes. Before considering whether people like Donald Trump or Steve Mnuchin seek to impose a fascist dictatorship on the USA, it might be useful to take a look at some of the demands found in the Manifesto of the Fascist party founded by Benito Mussolini in 1919 that was co-written by labor syndicalist Alceste De Ambris and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the author of the 1909 Futurist Manifesto that had a powerful impact on Russian art in the 1920s.

+ The quick enactment of a law of the state that sanctions an eight-hour workday for all workers

+ A minimum wage

+ The participation of workers’ representatives in the functions of industry commissions

+ To show the same confidence in the labor unions (that prove to be technically and morally worthy) as is given to industry executives or public servants

+ A strong progressive tax on capital (envisaging a “partial expropriation” of concentrated wealth)

+ The seizure of all the possessions of the religious congregations and the abolition of all the bishoprics, which constitute an enormous liability on the Nation and on the privileges of the poor

Unlike Donald Trump, whose populism was mostly campaign bluster and a rightwing version of the hokum Barack Obama used in 2007 to get votes, Mussolini’s dictatorship could hardly be confused with the neoliberalism that has been hegemonic since the early 1970s under Republicans and Democrats alike.

It is useful to remember that Mussolini was a Socialist Party parliamentarian who broke with his party over its failure to support Italian participation in WWI. Like many on the Italian left, Mussolini was drawn to the political philosophy of George Sorel, the syndicalist prophet of violence that George Ciccariello-Maher champions today as a fix for the left’s problems. Sorel, like Mussolini, shared Alceste De Ambris’s syndicalism but moved to the right under the influence of French ultra-nationalist Charles Maurras who was the leading ideologist for Action Française, the magazine of a fascist group of the same name that backed the treasonous Vichy regime. I am sure that George Ciccariello-Maher will not evolve in a similar fashion.

Mussolini’s economic policies can be described as corporatism, an ideology that advocates capitalists and the working class working together to advance mutually beneficial nationalist goals. Despite Trump’s attempts to represent himself as the savior of miners and construction workers, the actual policies being pushed by his economic advisers can hardly be distinguished from Reagan and Thatcher era privatization, deregulation, tax cuts and all the rest. Goldman-Sachs bankers like Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin pray at Milton Friedman’s altar, not a syndicalist like George Sorel.

Wikipedia’s article on Italian fascist economic policy is quite useful. It points out that Mussolini considered Keynesianism as a “useful introduction to fascist economics.” Showing that he meant it, Mussolini spent like crazy. When he seized power in 1922, Italy’s national debt was 93 billion lire. By 1943, it was over 405 billion.

Anybody expecting Republicans to be spending like it was going out of style any time soon? Will they be listening to Robert Reich rather than Grover Norquist?

According to biographer Christopher Hibbert, Mussolini “instituted a programme of public works hitherto unrivalled in modern Europe. Bridges, canals and roads were built, hospitals and schools, railway stations and orphanages; swamps were drained and land reclaimed, forests were planted and universities were endowed.” A. James Gregor, the author of Italian Fascism and Developmental Dictatorship, described fascist Italy’s spending on social welfare programs as comparing “favorably with the more advanced European nations and in some respect was more progressive.” When New York city politician Grover Aloysius Whalen asked Mussolini about the meaning behind Italian fascism in 1939, the reply was: “It is like your New Deal!”

The Nazis felt the same way. In Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s “Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939”, the author referred to how the Nazi Party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, “stressed ‘Roosevelt’s adoption of National Socialist strains of thought in his economic and social policies,’ praising the president’s style of leadership as being compatible with Hitler’s own dictatorial Führerprinzip”.

You can even see Joseph Goebbels hailing the New Deal in this Youtube clip.

After going to work for Columbia University in 1991 and discovering there was this thing called the Internet, I asked the guy in the next cubicle what it was good for. He said they had these mailing lists that might be of interest and urged me to review them in a file maintained on the Columbia IBM mainframe. One of them was one called the Progressive Economists Network (PEN-L) that I joined that day. At the time, there was a subscriber named Lynn Turgeon who was a frequent contributor to Monthly Review, the flagship Marxist journal founded by Paul Sweezey. Turgeon was considered controversial by other PEN-L subscribers because he saw similarities between Nazi economic policies and the New Deal, which he expressed rather pungently in a book titled “Bastard Keynesianism: The Evolution of Economic Thinking and Policymaking Since WWII”:

Some wag has defined an economist as someone who has seen something work in practice and then proceeds to make it work in theory. In some respects, this may have applied to Keynes, who was certainly aware of the tremendous economic miracle of Adolf Hitler in reducing unemployment from over 30 percent when he took office in 1933 to 1 percent by 1936, the year in which the German edition of the General Theory appeared. In his special introduction to the German edition, Keynes recognized how “thirsty” the Germans must be for his “general theory,” which would also apply to “national socialism.”

Like Mussolini and Roosevelt, Hitler sought to restore economic health by large-scale public spending, especially on infrastructure. Although the autobahn had been started in 1913, Hitler made sure to pour huge amounts of deutschmarks into its expansion and capitalized on the project propagandistically with images of him shoveling dirt alongside newly re-employed workers.

Like the WPA in the USA, German public works made little dent in unemployment even if they burnished the reputation of the leader. It was military Keynesianism that worked in both countries in the final analysis.

As for the other fascist regimes, you had the same sort of corporatist policies. While based much more on religious traditionalism, the Portuguese and Spanish versions both looked much different from anything even remotely connected to the Trump White House.

Unlike other fascist states, Portugal’s Antonio Salazar was not the head of a movement as such. His career began as a professor of political economy that helped him get appointed as finance minister in a military regime that came to power through a coup in 1926. From that post, he advanced to Prime Minister a few years later. His main interest was in stabilizing Portugal’s finances that had been buffeted by hyperinflation like other European states after WWI.

Barely industrialized, Portugal had few prospects to move ahead economically through the forced labor regime imposed on German and Italian workers. Salazar’s corporatism was in many ways a fascist adaptation of longstanding Portuguese patterns of state and corporate commingling that were a legacy of its mercantile capitalist past. The bourgeoisie never enjoyed the freedom of its British counterparts and relied heavily on the state to gain access to contracts and privileges. Stuck in 18th century economic relationships, Salazar concocted a mixture of Catholicism, fascism and deep economic conservatism that was in stark contrast to the Italian state’s bastardized futurism.

One doubts that anybody connected to Trump’s White House will find any inspiration in Antonio Salazar’s Estado Novo (New State) brand of fascism.

Finally, there is Franco’s Spain that was ideologically and socially midways between Portugal and Italy. Despite his syndicalist rhetoric, Franco took the side of the bosses even if the state presented itself as an impartial arbiter between the different classes working cooperatively to advance the nationalist agenda.

The official ideology of Franco’s movement was called Falangism. It originally had much more of an anti-capitalist character but Franco suppressed it after taking power just as Hitler did in his Night of the Long Knives that purged the party’s left wing. Perhaps the only concession to Falangist orthodoxy was surprisingly enough the fascist regime’s support for Mondragon and other cooperatives since they were evidence of Franco’s claim that Spain was not class-divided.

It turns out that worker-owned businesses have not exactly been anathema to fascist regimes. Indeed, Sharryn Kasmir, the author of “The Myth of Mondragon”, makes the case that if political parties and trade unions had been legal under Franco, “political energies never would have been channeled into so unlikely a project as cooperativism”.

And it was not just Spain. While the Italian fascists were initially hostile to co-ops, they got the green light from Mussolini after agreeing to purge Socialists and Communists. In 1927 there were 7,131 co-ops and by 1942 the number had swelled to 14,576. Somehow the fascist state did not fear that these “alternative” modes of production threatened the economic system.

Indeed, Mussolini pointed to the co-ops as examples of his corporatist ideals. Kasmir explains this anomaly in terms of how they “embodied worker participation, nonconflictual relations between labor and management, and the withering away of class identifications.”

Anybody expecting Donald Trump to smile benignly at worker owned firms any time soon? I don’t.

Looking back in retrospect, fascism was a political and economic system very much defined by the challenge of a massive socialist movement internationally in the early 1900s and even more so by the example of the USSR after 1917. In order to bring the working class to heel, the bourgeoisie had no other choice but to accept dictatorships that would preserve its rule even if at the same time it was ruled by riffraff like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

To understand the policy preferences of the American ruling class, it is necessary to examine their history in the recent past rather than fixate on marginal figures like Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulos. The prevailing ideology is free market liberalism as exemplified by think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. At their core, they are committed to the economics of the Chicago School and not anything resembling the statist rule of 20th century fascism.

Fascism arose as a response to the threat of working class revolutions. The European bourgeoisie of the 1920s had little interest in Sorel or Maurras’s ideas but were ready to accept gangster regimes based on them as long as they could discipline the working class. Even if the idea that collaboration of the workers and the bosses could save the capitalist system was a con job, there was enough of a con to provide a somewhat stable social base for fascist regimes.

What we are confronted by now is not the threat of fascism but the long march of neoliberalism that began in the 1970s with the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Chile became a testing ground for the economic ideas of Milton Friedman, which soon became enshrined in both the USA under Reagan and Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher. After them, they continued to be carried aloft by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The goal of neoliberal economics is to extirpate all of the gains made in the 20th century under social democratic or liberal governments such as social security or unemployment insurance. Under Donald Trump, the counter-revolution received a powerful shot in the arm. That is why the Republican Party is becoming his party despite his boorish and unstable behavior. This is our task today, to develop a movement that can confront and defeat its racist, nativist and anti-environmental policies. To succeed, we have to recognize the beast for what it is. Donald Trump is simply the latest manifestation of the neoliberal turn that took root in Reagan’s presidency. It has nothing to do with fascism and until we get that figured out, we will be next to useless careening from one antifa adventure to another.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.