Fascism in a Pinstriped Suit
by Dr. Michael Parenti, January 18, 2000

If fascism came to America, some say it would be an unbearable nightmare drastically disrupting the everyday pattern of our lives. And since our lives seem to retain their normal pattern, it follows that fascism has not taken over. In actuality, however, the fascist state, like all states, has no need to make nightmarish intrusions into the trivia of every citizen's life.

The Orwellian image of Big Brother commanding an obscure citizen to do his morning exercises via two-way television leaves us with a grossly exaggerated caricature of the authoritarian state. Rather than alerting us to more realistic dangers, novels like 1984 cloud our vision with fanciful horrors of the future, thereby making the present look not all that bad in comparison, and leaving us the more convinced that there is no cause for alarm.

The dirty truth is that many people find fascism to be not particularly horrible. I once asked some Iranian businesspeople to describe what life had been like under the Shah's police state. "It was perfect," they responded. Workers and servants could be cheaply procured, profits were high, and they lived very well. To be sure, fascism is not perfect for everyone. Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany inflicted a great deal of intentional hardship upon working people, including the destruction of labor unions, the loss of job benefits, and a shift in national income from the lower and middle classes to the upper class. Many among the petite bourgeoisie in Germany, who generally supported the Nazi party, suffered the loss of their small businesses and the dread slippage into working class ranks — with jobs in the armaments factories, when they were lucky enough to find employment. The number of Germans who lived in poverty and want increased substantially as wages were cut by as much as forty percent.

Those who equate fascism with the horrors of Auschwitz are correct in their moral condemnation but mistaken in their sense of sequence. The worst of Auschwitz did not come until the war years. As late as 1939, the Nazi state was still pursuing a policy of encouraging, and more often forcing, the emigration of Jews to other lands. Mass liquidation as a "final solution" was not seriously considered and was in fact opposed until Hitler's order came (sometime after March, 1941, most historians believe).

The concentration camp was never the normal condition for the average gentile German. Unless one were Jewish, or poor and unemployed, or of active leftist persuasion or otherwise openly anti-Nazi, Germany from 1933 until well into the war was not a nightmarish place. All the "good Germans" had to do was obey the law, pay their taxes, give their sons to the army, avoid any sign of political heterodoxy, and look the other way when unions were busted and troublesome people disappeared.

Since many "middle Americans" already obey the law, pay their taxes, give their sons to the army, are themselves distrustful of political heterodoxy, and applaud when unions are broken and troublesome people are disposed of, they probably could live without too much personal torment in a fascist state — some of them certainly seem eager to do so. Orwell's imaginings to the contrary, what is so terrifying about fascism is its "normality," its compatibility with the collective sentiments of substantial numbers of "normal" persons — though probably never a majority in any society.

We might do well to stop thinking of fascism as being a simple either-or condition. The political system of any one country encompasses a variety of uneven and seemingly incongruous institutional practices. To insist that fascism does not obtain until every abomination of the Nazi state is replicated and every vestige of constitutional government is obliterated is to overlook, at our peril, the disturbingly antidemocratic, authoritarian manifestations inherent in many states that call themselves democracies.

Selective Repression

It is sometimes argued by those who deny the imminence of American fascism that we are more free today than ever before. One's ability to accept such reassurance partly depends on the class conditions and life chances that one confronts. The affluent individual whose views fit into that portion of the American political spectrum known as the "mainstream" (from rightist Republican to centrist Democrat) and whose political actions are limited to the standardized forms of participation — informal discussion, television viewing, newspaper reading, and voting — is apt to dismiss the contention that America is fascistic. But those who oppose the existing political orthodoxy and who find themselves under surveillance and subjected to the intimidations, harassments and sanctions of the U.S. national security state have a less sanguine view.

Over the last several decades just about every African-American protest leader who achieved any local or national prominence eventually ended up either under indictment, in jail, on appeal, in hiding, in exile, or murdered by the forces of "law and order." Most of the killings have gone unreported in the national press. Few, if any, of the law officers involved have ever been convicted of murder by the predominantly white, middle American juries that pass judgment on these matters.

The leniency displayed by authorities toward those on the right side of the political spectrum stands in marked contrast to the relentless, punitive justice meted out to people of color, the poor, and radicals of all stripes. While the guardians go unguarded, political activists are arrested on trumped-up charges and end up serving astronomical sentences for crimes they never committed or for relatively minor offenses.

The last decade or so has seen a growth in reactionary and racist groups. Yet the government does little about them. In the first half of 1995 alone, a county employee in California who refused a demand by rightist anti-tax activists to remove an IRS lien imposed on one of them, was beaten by two men and slashed with a knife. A judge in Montana was terrorized, threatened with kidnapping, and had a murder contract put out on her by a militia group that claimed she had no jurisdiction over them. A federal wildlife worker received a threat that his wife and children would be bound in barbed wire and stuffed down a well. During a forum on Capitol Hill, government workers, environmentalists, and abortion rights activists described incidents of harassment, intimidation, and violence perpetrated by paramilitary groups (Washington Post, July 13, 1995). A number of these groups are financed by shady individuals of affluent means. In 1995 the Republican-controlled Congress refused to hold congressional hearings on these paramilitary groups. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has done next to nothing about the menacing arms caches, threats, and openly violent actions these organizations have delivered upon others.

At the same time, however, the government's repressive mechanism is geared up against leftist dissenters. The FBI and local police Red Squads are once again spying, burglarizing, disrupting, and otherwise targeting various organizations that work for social justice, peace and disarmament, or environmentalism. During the 1980s almost two hundred organizations were labeled, not communist fronts as during the repressive McCarthy era of the 1950s, but "terrorist fronts," including Martin Luther King Jr.'s own Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and various church and student organizations. President Clinton lifted not a finger to undo this new round-up list, and in 1995 he supported a repressive counterterrorist act which gives the president power to arrest and detain without benefit of evidence or trial or even formal charges, individuals deemed to be aiding any group designated as "terrorist" by the President.

Copyright 2000 Michael Parenti

See also:


The World Trade Center Demolition and the So-Called War on Terrorism
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