American Fascism

Photo Source Alan Turkus | CC BY 2.0

From Whence ‘We’ Came

Fascism is a loaded topic for Americans. The term is usually put forward as oppositional, as the flip side of representative democracy, e.g. authoritarian. Left unaddressed is whose interests’ American representative democracy represents. Twenty years of research by political scientist Thomas Ferguson strongly supports the conclusion that it is monied interests (a/k/a the rich) that determines public policy. And while this isn’t the authoritarian leader alluded to with the charge of fascism, neither does it contrast with it in the sense implied.

In the American iconography, slavery and genocide against the indigenous population took place from the so-called founding forward under this system of representative democracy. Phrased differently, there is nothing intrinsic to representative democracy that precludes slavery and genocide. The social, economic and political repression and exploitation they represented had economic taking as their motive and they were systemic in structure— no single authoritarian leader, no Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, created them as social facts.

The way that slavery and genocide functioned as American institutions was through oppositional definitions of the polity and not-polity. The assignation of slaves as three-fifths a human being in the Constitution was to accrue political representation to slave owners, not partial representation to slaves. Any geographic definition of the polity would have included slaves and some proportion of the indigenous population. One can argue the details of ‘the progress of history,’ but from the founding to the present, with ‘restorative’ interregnums, American representative democracy has meant class rule.

The class relations of American political economy are antithetical to the notion of a unified public interest. The point isn’t to suggest that this or that authoritarian leader isn’t authoritarian, but rather to sketch in the political backdrop to argue that the lived experience of social, economic and political repression is lived experience, not academic theories or bourgeois fantasies. The circumstances of investment bankers stripping assets, industrialists relocating factories built by workers to low-wage locations and tech ‘pioneers’ using licenses and patents to extract economic rents is systemically ‘authoritarian’ in the sense that democratic consent to do so was neither sought nor given.

This Machine Hearts Fascists

Around the time that George W. Bush’s war against Iraq began to unravel I had a chance conversation with a person near the top of the Pentagon’s ‘psyops’ (Psychological Operations) program. This person, a self-described liberal Democrat, explained the logic of the program: if people could be psychologically coerced into acting according to U.S. interests, the military wouldn’t have to kill them. In this context, ‘U.S. interests’ were determined by Donald Rumsfeld acting on orders from Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney.

The psyops ‘mission’ was framed in humanitarian terms: to save the lives of people who would otherwise have to be killed. It wasn’t nature that was going to kill them— the U.S. military was. My acquaintance largely agreed that the pretexts for the war had been a fraud— that no weapons of mass destruction had been found, that the Iraqi political leadership had no ties to the Saudis who had brought down the twin towers and that ‘U.S. interests’ were functionally the whims of the Bush / Cheney administration. Shortly after the conversation I received word that the acquaintance had been transferred to domestic operations with another agency.

Students of legal theory will likely know the precedent for rule by whim— Nazi law. In a broad sense, Nazi law was whatever the Fuehrer said it was. If ‘U.S. interests’ are clearly defined and made known, then they can be adhered to or not, but in either case doing so is possible. But this legal structure binds those setting and enforcing it to the interests as defined and made known. Even if one accepts the idea of unified state interests— given context in a Marxist frame in Lenin’s The State and Revolution, they most certainly aren’t the whims, or self-interested mandate, of the political leadership in a democracy.

A central goal of the Bush / Cheney torture regime was to coerce people into admitting their participation in events that never took place— to provide cover for the administration’s lies, not to relate them to ‘U.S. interests.’ To facilitate this goal the Justice Department wrote memos that proceeded from the facts of torture to redefine it out of existence. In a narrow sense this ties to Richard Nixon’s assertion that anything he did was legal because he was the president. If staff can absolve the political leadership of legal culpability at will, they never had it to begin with.

What unites psyops, torture and the legal structure of U.S. governance in history is the bi-partisan move to consolidate power within the executive branch and in the U.S. presidency. Following from Mr. Nixon, Ronald Reagan ran a multi-faceted operation (‘Iran-Contra’) that included drug running and wars and arms deals specifically prohibited by Congress. In the frame of a unified polity, these were crimes. Mass incarceration— the rapid expansion of the carceral-state, was well underway at the time. The actual result was a few underlings were hung out to dry while the lead malefactors retired in luxury.

Had senior (George W.) Bush administration officials been prosecuted for their crimes, the illusion of a unified polity could in theory have been restored. The political argument against doing so, that prosecutions would have been politically divisive, might have been plausible if Mr. Obama had foregone the further consolidation of power by his own administration. Instead, he expanded the reach and realm of drone murders and illegal domestic spying. And he effectively ended habeas corpus to oversee a secret ‘kill list’ legally authorized under secret laws passed in secret and prosecuted using secret evidence without the possibility of appeal.

One theory posits that Mr. Obama’s decision to forego prosecution of Wall Street executives for crimes that led to the financial meltdown of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed was motivated by class-sympathy for the malefactors— they were his friends, acquaintances, campaign contributors and ‘class-mates.’ Left out of this theory is that since leaving office Mr. Obama has enriched himself giving speeches to those he failed to prosecute and that senior members of his cabinet returned to lucrative careers working for or otherwise representing the interests of Wall Street firms. This is participation in plunder, not sympathy.

Following Donald Trump’s electoral victory, Mr. Obama continued to promote the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) that included an ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) clause establishing a supra-national court that superseded domestic sovereign power. From the 1970s forward finance has been used to render American industry (built by workers) fungible to relocate it outside of the potential reach of worker control. Through the lens of American history, this was an explicit attempt to consolidate class power outside of the political construct of the nation-state. A key clause of the TPP made it functionally impossible to reverse.

Graph: Coincident with the rise of neoliberalism, the U.S. incarcerated the largest percentage of its population and the largest absolute number of human beings in world history. Richard Nixon conceived the ‘war on drugs’ as a political tool to crush political dissent by criminalizing the 1960s counterculture. Units are the number of incarcerated persons per 100,000 citizens. This means the incarceration rate increased approximately four-fold since 1973. Source:

Goebbels and Goebbels of Fun

Twentieth century European history is at best a tangential metaphor for modern American politics. Chattel slavery and genocide against the indigenous population better follow imperial history and the burgeoning capitalist theories of property and capital accumulation than the imperial wars of the twentieth century. Racial ‘science,’ eugenics, evolved from the slave trade to be founded in America and was later adopted by the Nazis. Following WWII Nazi scientists were brought to the U.S. and integrated into American industry to form the technocratic core of the post-war economy. And American Edward Bernays’ use of psychology to coerce political outcomes was adopted by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.

Slave patrols from the antebellum South— the guardians of chattel property, evolved into today’s professional police departments. Convict leasing that followed the Civil War was the racialized use of state power to coerce labor for ‘private’ employers. Jim Crow laws— racialized modes of police repression, served as the model for Nazi law through racial targeting and intentional ambiguity that gave discretionary power to local authorities. Nazi concentration-camp labor benefitted key German industrialists. What ties slavery to Jim Crow to modern prison labor is use of social power to extract economic wealth.

Militarization of the police began in Los Angeles in the late 1960s with the formation of the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) unit to crush the Black Panthers. This constituted the para-military arm of a broad and sustained political assault on (legitimate and overwhelmingly legal) political dissent. This normalization of extreme police violence against citizens was moved forward by Richard Nixon’s ‘war on drugs,’ which was conceived as a political tactic to crush the burgeoning counterculture and more broadly, political dissent.

Mass incarceration–the creation of the largest and most intrusive carceral system in human history, followed from Mr. Nixon’s appropriation of the U.S. legal system for explicitly political ends. It would rival the more repressive political regimes in world history were it not larger in both relative and absolute terms and depend on the use of passive torture rather than more explicit forms. Given its class and race composition and targeted policing, the U.S. today is an apartheid state divided into class and race-determined ghettoes. Whether or not this is fascism likely depends on where in the social hierarchy you are sitting.

To circle back for a moment: slavery was and is primarily an economic institution designed to expropriate the product of slave labor. Genocide against the indigenous population was economic taking, the American colonial version of the European enclosure movement where commons were converted to ‘private’ property and the landless peasant population was made ‘free’ to starve. The European enclosure movement and the American genocide against the indigenous population demonstrate the social violence that is the basis of private property. Today the police target property crimes, serving to instantiate this violence in the social psyche.

Freedom Ain’t Free

A social taxonomy that supports the division of political power from economic power is necessary to pose capitalism and democracy as compatible. In the liberal frame, a government that determines when you wake and go to sleep, how you dress, which speech is acceptable, and which isn’t and what you will spend the overwhelming preponderance of your time and life’s energy doing, is totalitarian. In this same liberal frame, if your employer determines these, compliance is freely chosen. The social violence of ‘property’ is the initial condition from which this free choice proceeds.

This fantasy of freedom can be seen for what it is through the period that followed the Civil War. Nominally freed slaves were promised recompense under the understanding that freedom without property or means is hardly free. Given the distribution of political and economic power that preceded them— the land to farm was already owned, the land to hunt was already owned and doing so on another’s property was a crime, a super-exploitable class was created. This is how the so-called criminal classes of Europe and America were created through enclosure— make the means to live illegal, and the act of living is made a crime.

My acquaintance who oversaw psyops operations for the Pentagon, and does so today for a domestic agency, didn’t see the violence in the ultimatum: see the world our way or we will kill you. And in fact, it wasn’t framed in these operational terms. Psyops is hidden modes of psychological coercion based on a hidden agenda. Edward Bernays apparently saw little difference between using psychology to coerce a choice of products or to render legitimate the overthrow of democratically elected governments for the benefit of U.S. corporations. American consumer culture is itself the result of a century of propaganda intended to instantiate a capitalist theory of life.

Capitalism and democracy are both premised in ‘front of the brain’ (non-psychological) decision making. Neither ‘work’ as theorized in the presence of psychological depth. Edward Bernays was profoundly anti-democratic in that he believed that human beings are prone to making decisions based on emotions. The coercion that Mr. Bernays and Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels used was circular in the sense that it posited a view from outside of psychology—that of the propagandist, without explaining how this is possible.

The current bourgeois panic that this political personality or that is a threat to the continued existence of humanity should be flipped to ask: what crazy-assed, dysfunctional society would create the circumstances where anyone, either individually or collectively, can end the world? I understand why people don’t trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes. But why should something so dangerous be entrusted to anyone rather than gotten rid of? Did I tell you about my friend who regaled me with stories of dropping acid (LSD) while guarding a nuclear missile silo?

Concern regarding ascendant fascism isn’t necessarily misguided— the question back is: where have you been for the last fifty years? As a teenager in suburban Atlanta in the early 1970s, Dixiecrat Lester Maddox was governor, mostly black work gangs in prison stripes lined the roads and the Ku Klux Klan in full regalia solicited contributions at traffic stops in the outlying towns. Heavily armed police regularly kicked in the front doors of counterculture houses looking for draft dodgers and drugs. They held guns to the heads of the inhabitants while they (illegally) searched houses and sent a junior cop for a search warrant when they found something.

Back in New York, moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller passed the most onerous drug laws in the country and specifically targeted poor neighborhoods of color for enforcement. He then conspired with Richard Nixon to murder every living thing at Attica prison to quell a righteous rebellion and then conspired to prosecute the prisoners who weren’t murdered for the murder of the prison guards that he did murder. Three and a half million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were murdered, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans, El Salvadorans and Hondurans were murdered, a million Iraqis were murdered, a hundred thousand Libyans were murdered.

None of this required a ‘strongman’ domestic political leader. The problems are systemic, not personality quirks. In contrast to liberal assurances to the contrary, slavery and genocide are actual historical outcomes of American representative democracy. But as history also has it, nothing like democracy has really been tried. Plutocracy and class rule are its antithesis. Ending these requires ending capitalism. In this sense, electoral politics are a distraction until economic is a reality.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.