Fascism is a false revolution. It makes a revolutionary appeal without making an actual revolution. It propagates the widely proclaimed New Order while serving the same old moneyed interests.
Before World War I, Benito Mussolini was a socialist, but the minute the wealthy classes in Italy offered him financial support and power, he didn’t hesitate to switch sides. (We know about people who switch sides, don’t we?) And with the huge sums he got from wealthy interests, Mussolini was able to project himself onto the national scene as the leader of a movement that specialized in attacking unions, peasant farm cooperatives, socialists, communists, and anarchists. After World War I, to maintain profit levels, the large industrialists and big land owners had to slash wages and raise prices. The state, in turn, had to provide the big owners with massive subsidies and tax exemptions. To finance this corporate welfarism, the populists had to be taxed more heavily, and social welfare expenditures drastically cut. (Does all of this sound familiar?) But the government wasn’t completely free to apply harsh measures because many Italian workers and peasants had their own unions and fairly strong political organizations. With demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, factory takeovers, they won substantial concessions in wages and work conditions and the right to organize and were able to defend their standard of living. To roll back that standard of living and to get the economic changes that the plutocrats and tycoons wanted, the ruling interests had to abolish the democratic rights that helped workers and peasants defend that standard. The solution was to smash their organizations and their political liberties. The leaders of industry, along with top bankers and agribusiness associations, met with Mussolini to plan and finance the so-called “Fascist Revolution.” Within two years after seizing state power, Mussolini had shut down all opposition newspapers and crushed the socialist, liberal, Catholic, democratic, and republican parties, which together had commanded about 80% of the vote.
In Germany, there was a very similar pattern of complicity between fascists and capitalists. German workers and farm laborers had won the eight-hour day, unemployment insurance, the right to unionize. They had built very powerful political organizations, but heavy industry and big finance were in a state of near total collapse. Business wanted to cut wages and get tax-cuts and massive state subsidies to revive profit levels. The German tycoons greatly increased their subsidies to Hitler, and the Nazi party was propelled onto the national stage.
Who did Mussolini and Hitler support once they seized state power? In both countries a strikingly similar agenda was pursued. Labor unions and strikes were outlawed, union property and publications were confiscated, farm cooperatives were handed over to rich private owners, big agribusiness farming was heavily subsidized. In both Germany and Italy the already modest wages of the workers were cut drastically; in Germany, from 25-40%; in Italy, 50%. In both countries the minimum wage laws, overtime pay, and factory safety regulations were abolished or turned into dead letters. Taxes were increased for the general populace, but lowered or eliminated for the rich and big business. Inheritance taxes for the wealthy were greatly reduced or abolished. Both Mussolini and Hitler showed their gratitude to their business patrons by handing over to them publicly owned and perfectly solvent steel mills, power plants, banks, steamship companies (”privatization,” it’s called here). Both regimes dipped heavily into the public treasury to refloat or subsidize heavy industry (corporate welfarism). Both states guaranteed a return on the capital invested by giant corporations and assumed most of the risks and losses on investment. (Sounds like S&Ls, doesn’t it?)
As in all reactionary regimes, public capital was raided by private capital. As a result, in Italy during the 1930s the economy was gripped by recession, a staggering public debt, and widespread corruption, but industrial profits rose, and the armaments factories busily rolled out the weapons. In Germany, unemployment was eased somewhat because of the massive arms program and the arms spending. But generally, poverty increased. But from 1935-1943, the net income of German corporate leaders rose 46%. In both countries, the conditions of labor deteriorated greatly: speed-ups, dismissals, imprisonment for workers who complained about unsafe or inhumane work conditions, longer hours for less wages.
Much of politics is the rational manipulation of irrational symbols. In fascism, these irrational, atavistic appeals go back to the mythical roots of the people: for Mussolini, back to the grandeur that was Rome; for Hitler, the ancient volk. Then there’s the cult of the leader: Il Duce, the Führer. With leader worship and state worship came the glorification of militarism, war, and conquest-basically conservative symbols to get people distracted from their own immediate political/economic class-interests and get them galvanized into war, the conquest, militarism.
Fascist doctrines stress one people, one state, one leader. The people are no longer to be concerned with class divisions, but must see themselves as part of a harmonious, authoritarian whole, a view that supports the socioeconomic status quo. In contrast, a left agenda advocates a sharpened awareness of class injustice and class struggle, the articulation of popular demands and the self-generated participation of popular forces.
Fascism, especially the Nazi version, had an explicit commitment to racism. Human attributes are said to be inherited through blood. Genetics and biology are said to justify the existing class structure (just as our academic racists today are doing with their bell curve theories and their warmed over eugenics clap-trap.)
Fascism also supports sexual inequality and homophobia. The oppression of gays was criminal and homicidal; the oppression of women was traditionally patriarchal. “Women’s greatest calling is to tend to the needs of her husband and children, producing as many [children] as she can for the state.”
In Nazi Germany, racism and anti-Semitism were used to rechannel some legitimate grievances to irrelevant enemies (scapegoating). Many middle-class Germans knew they were victimized by powerful economic forces, but they were too bound up in the conventional social order to adopt a revolutionary course, so they went in a fascist direction and started voting for the Nazi parties.
Anti-Semitic propaganda was very emotive and irrational, but cleverly crafted to appeal to certain groups. Workers and peasants were told, “It’s the Jewish capitalists, the Jewish usurers, who are doing this.” The middle class was told, “It’s the Jewish trade union leaders and the Jewish communists who are doing this.” The superpatriots were told, “The Jew is the enemy alien, an internationalist.” This is the rational use of irrational symbols and arguments.
What distinguished fascism from ordinary right-wing autocracies was the way it attempted to cultivate a revolutionary aura and give the impression of being a mass movement. Fascism offers a beguiling mix of revolutionary sounding mass-appeals and reactionary class politics. The Nazi party’s full name was the National Socialist German Workers Party. Both the Italian fascists and the Nazis consciously tried to imitate the left: youth organizations, mass mobilizations, rallies, parades, banners, symbols, slogans, uniforms. And I think for this reason, too, many mainstream writers treat fascism and communism as totalitarian twins. But most workers and peasants could tell the difference. Industrialists and bankers could tell the difference. And certainly the communists and the fascists could tell the difference.
Western capitalist states have tolerated and cooperated with fascism. After World War II, the Western capitalist allies did little to eradicate fascism from Italy or Germany except for the Nuremburg trials, but the police, the courts, the military, security agencies, the bureaucracy have remained largely staffed by those who had served the former Nazi regimes, or their ideological recruits, and that remains true to this day. How do you murder six million Jews, a half million Gypsies, several million Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, and others, and thousands of homosexuals, and get away with it? The only way you get away with it is that the very people who are supposed to look into these crimes were themselves complicit.
What happened to the U.S. businesses that collaborated with fascism? Corporations like DuPont, Ford, General Motors, ITT, owned factories in these enemy countries that produced fuel, tanks, and planes that wreaked havoc on Allied forces during World War II. After the war, instead of being prosecuted for treason, ITT collected $27 million from the U.S. government for war damages inflicted on its German plants by Allied bombings. General Motors collected $33 million. Since the war, U.S. leaders have done their part in keeping Italian fascism alive, giving millions of dollars to right-wing organizations and neo-fascist organizations in Italy.
A coalition of neo-fascist and separatist groups headed by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi won the 1994 elections in Italy. Their platform: a single tax rate for rich and poor alike, school vouchers, a stripping away of the welfare state, the introduction of private retirement accounts, and, of course, the privatization of just about everything. The Italian neo-fascists are learning from the American reactionaries how to achieve fascism’s goals under democratic forms with democratic facades-use an upbeat, Reaganesque optimism; convince people that government is the enemy (especially its social democracy aspects); strengthen the repressive capacities of the state; instigate resentments against the newly arrived immigrants; and preach the imaginary virtues of the free market.
The political center is always described as a kind of moderate place between the extremes of left and right. A closer reading of history should tell us that the center is more inclined to make common cause with the right against the left, because the center and the right share a commitment to corporate capitalism and the free market mythology. In the United States consider how gently, for generations, the murderous, lynching night riders, the Ku Klux Klan was treated by federal authorities in this country. Compare that to the way the Black Panthers were treated. Consider how the right is investigated, compared to the left. When the Center for Cuban Studies in New York was bombed by a right-wing Cuban group, which boasted, admitted, they did the act, the FBI didn’t have a clue, couldn’t find them.
Far from being moderates, as they’re always labeled, people in the political center are quite capable of the most immoderate and extremist acts imaginable. It was the Democratic Party who gave us the loyalty purges of the late 1940s. It was the Democratic Party that gave us Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Vietnam. It wasn’t the John Birch Society that tried to bomb Indochina into the Stone Age. It wasn’t the American Nazi Party that perfected napalm. Napalm was developed at Harvard. It wasn’t the Nazis who put thalidomide in the defoliants used throughout Indochina. And today, it’s not the skinheads or the Klan or the militia that maintains the death squads and other homicidal operations throughout so much of the Third World. It’s the best and the brightest of the political center, with plenty of help from the right wing. The way the mainstream shades off into the fascist right can be seen quite clearly in the Republican Party. The GOP agenda today is really not much different from the kind pushed by Mussolini and Hitler; it’s fascism without the swastika, it’s fascism in a pinstriped suit. First, break the labor unions, depress wages, and impose a rightist ideological monopoly over the media.
The rest of the GOP agenda is to eliminate cultural dissidents and the arts, attack the rights of women and gays, abolish taxes for the big corporations and the rich, eliminate government regulations designed for worker and consumer safety and environmental protection, privatize and plunder public lands and enterprises, wipe out public services-and cloak this whole reactionary agenda in a kind of a revolutionary sound. Newt Gingrich talks about the GOP “revolution.” Some revolution! It’s the same old reactionary class agenda. And today in the United States, some middle class Americans, like the middle class Germans of yore, beset by real economic difficulties, turn their anger toward irrelevant or imaginary foes: the immigrants, the Jews, the poor, the welfare mothers, people of color, feminists, gays, atheists, and others.
Growing numbers of us have lost our skepticism that “it could never happen here” because it is happening here. We are facing the Nazi-like Omnibus Counter-Terrorism Bill of 1995, which in effect suspends all Constitutional rights for anyone designated by the President as a terrorist, and anyone giving aid to those labeled terrorists. If you give money to an organization, it might go to their radical wing and you can be labeled a terrorist.
Something else explains the speed-up of reactionism in America today. For years the United States leaders and political and economic elites saw themselves in mortal combat with communism for the allegiance of peoples at home and abroad. They argued that U.S. workers enjoyed a higher standard of living than their counterparts who lived under communism. That was always a theme. “Our workers earn more, our workers live better than anybody under communism, so stick with capitalism.” Competition with an anti-capitalist system sets limits on how far to mistreat the working populace. Long before the collapse of communism they tried to break unions, they tried to depress wages, but now they’re dropping all pretenses at capitalism with a human face.
The potential threat of workers getting radicalized wasn’t the only restraining factor. It was also the working class’s ability to fight back, to win democratic victories, the eight-hour day, Social Security and various benefits. When the communist nations were overthrown in Eastern Europe, a very interesting querulous and irate note began to appear in some of the conservative publications. It went like this: “Eastern Europe is now moving toward a total free market, so why must we here in the United States still have to tolerate these collectivistic, liberal regulations and restraints that are put upon us? Now is the time to sock it to the public. There’s no reason why masses of people in this country should have a middle class living standard. It’s time these people lower their expectations, work harder, and be satisfied with less.
With the collapse of communism, there’s been a shift in policy toward the Third World too. “You’re not going to turn to Moscow now, Moscow’s in our pocket.” So they’re hitting them hard. The IMF, the World Bank, GATT, NAFTA, are undermining the sovereignty of Third World nations, plundering their markets, drastically cutting non-military foreign aid, and in some cases directly invading them and destroying the government that had any reformist tendencies or was maintaining economic development. U.S. leaders are making war against economic nationalism in countries like India, Brazil, Mexico, Iraq, Panama, South Korea, Taiwan and so forth.
A lot of people on the left still don’t get it- that these guys are playing for keeps, that they are going after you, that they are not going to leave any little bit for you. There’s only one thing that the ruling circles throughout history have ever wanted-all the wealth, the treasures, and the profitable returns; all the choice lands and forests and game and herds and harvests and mineral deposits and precious metals of the earth; all the productive facilities and gainful inventiveness and technologies; all the control positions of the state and other major institutions; all public supports and subsidies, privileges and immunities; all the protections of the law and none of its constraints; all of the services and comforts and luxuries and advantages of civil society with none of the taxes and none of the costs. Every ruling class in history has wanted only this-all the rewards and none of the burdens.
The danger of fascism comes not from skinheads or the militia or the Christian right fanatics. It comes from the ongoing practices of the National Security State and its various enforcement agencies; it comes from the boardrooms of corporate America. But before we pronounce ourselves doomed, keep in mind that at the present time, there are people who are demonstrating and getting arrested and raising hell to protect the environment and the forests; there are others who are doing the same at nuclear submarine bases; there are people who are demonstrating for justice and against racism in the judicial system as the national protests for Mumia Abul-Jamal show. There are people protesting against nuclear testing in the South Pacific, against Medicare cuts and family assistance cuts, against the suppression of the homeless, against the anti-immigration laws, and for affirmative action. There are large majorities in this country who even support welfare, if you don’t call it welfare, if you say “Should government help the poor, should government do more for the poor?”
We have to get a lot angrier and a lot more determined. They want everything, and everything is at stake. Many people are getting angry; our job is to see that they direct their anger at the real perpetrators of their misery, and not against the very people who want to make common cause with them.
When the power of capital is increasingly untrammeled, all of us are put at risk: the environment, the sacred forests, the beautiful and mysterious creatures of the sea, the ordinary people who, with their strength and brains and inventiveness create community and give to life so much that’s worthy of our respect. The real burden to society is not the poor, but the corporate rich. We simply can no longer afford them.
Conservatives complain whenever we fight back; they say we’re engaging in “class war.” Well, I believe it is class war, but I also have another name for it. When people unite against the abuses of wealth and privilege, when they activate themselves and militantly attack the hypocrisies and lies of the powers that be, when they fight back and become the active agents of their own destiny, when they withdraw their empowering responses and refuse to toe that line, I call that “democracy.” Their first loyalty is to the dollar; our first loyalty is to democracy and to the well-being of our society and our Mother Earth.
Michael Parenti (born 1933) is an American political scientist, historian, and media critic. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University and has taught at several universities, colleges, and other institutions. He is the author of twenty books and many more articles. His works have been translated into at least seventeen languages. Parenti lectures frequently throughout the United States and abroad. His book, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, was selected as Book of the Year (2004) by Online Review of Books. He is the father of author and The Nation magazine contributor Christian Parenti.
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