Is This Fascism? Should We Care?


Recently, President Obama authorized the killing of an American citizen without trial, far from any battlefield. This, combined with the acceptance of past acts of torture and surveillance, not to mention aggressive war (for which we executed Germans after the Second World War), raises the question: is this some sort of bipartisan fascism? And, should we care? There is a danger that we will just use the term “fascist,” as was often done in the 1960’s, to mean simply “something very, very bad, that we don’t like.” On the other hand, the term actually does mean something, and it’s really hard to overlook hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq.

At least in the beginning, Mussolini’s fascism (unlike the Nazis) was not overtly racist. His suppression of civil liberties, while serious, wasn’t as bothersome as the aggressiveness of fascism. Mussolini draws repeated attention to the need for the state to expand, and glorifies expansion, in these passages taken from Readings in Fascism and National Socialism (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1952):

The nation as a state is an ethical reality which exists and lives in measure as it develops. A standstill is its death. . . . Hence it is organization as well as expansion, and it may thereby be considered, at least virtually, equal to the very nature of the human will, which in its evolution recognizes no barriers, and which realizes itself by proving its infinity [p. 11, 12] . . . War alone brings all human energies to their highest tension and sets a seal of nobility on the peoples who have the virtue to face it [p. 15].

All political systems, even democracies, ask for sacrifice in times of crisis. But not all systems see a virtue in aggressive expansion: that is a characteristic of fascism. When we look around, what do we see? The military is fully funded with scarcely a peep of protest. Torture, surveillance, and aggressive war are passed over in silence. The banks are bailed out; individuals are on their own. Dealing with climate change, education, and health care, by contrast, are all “controversial.”

No, this is not Nazi Germany. There’s still freedom of speech; and for most U. S. citizens, life is relatively secure, at least for the moment. But everything, including the planet, gets trampled underfoot in the race towards economic growth. It’s not just a set of bad policy decisions; it’s a systematic bias characteristic of just the ideology Mussolini set forth. It makes you wonder who won the Second World War.

Is this a problem? Should we worry? And if so, about what?

For decades, aggressive economic expansion wasn’t a problem because we could endlessly exploit nature, which has no representation in Congress. Now we’re approaching the limits of exploitation, so we are driven to increasingly desperate measures (invading other countries, racking up gargantuan debt, that sort of thing) which has created political instability.

Look at the events leading up to World War I: anyone with a clue could see that with nationalism on the rise, the days of the autocratic Austro-Hungarian Empire were numbered. Sooner or later the cards were going to collapse. Yet no one was able to see the problem in time to avoid World War I and the collapse of the Empire.

The same applies today. Anyone can see that the economy is highly unstable, that there are limits to growth, and that the American way of life cannot be continued indefinitely. Only the exact timing of the precipitating events is at issue. Yet none of our political leaders are able to see the problem and deal with it. We need sacrifice, but we’re not going to try to “live with less” to save the planet — that would be “socialism”!

It is the unquestioned imperative of economic growth which is the underlying cause of all these political problems, from Iraq, to health care, to climate change. Eliminate this imperative, and you create the possibility of addressing these problems.


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