Blogs > Liberty and Power > Fascism: Clarifying a Political Concept

Oct 8, 2004

Fascism: Clarifying a Political Concept

In light of my recent post on Islamofascism, which has generated some good comments, I thought it important enough to discuss this topic in much greater detail.

Ironically, I've just discovered this morning an Adrian Lyttleton essay appearing in the October 21 issue of the NY Review of Books. Lyttleton's review of Robert O. Paxton's new book, The Anatomy of Fascism, asks the question"What Was Fascism?"

For years, the left asserted that fascism was simply capitalism with the gloves off. It was Leon Trotsky who first argued that fascism was a degenerative form of capitalism. Likewise, Nicos Poulantzas claimed that it was an authoritarian response to the contradictions of capitalism, when democratic institutions are no longer capable of patching up the"broken barrel" that is the free market.

But the free market, as such, has never existed in countries that fully embraced the fascist model of political economy. In Nazi Germany, for example, there was a Bismarkian history of heavy state involvement in the market. Far behind in the capitalist competitive"race," Bismark attempted to usher in modernity with policies of subsidization and tariff protectionism that benefited quasi-feudal landowners and industrialists. These trends continued through the first world war and led to glaring dislocations in the structure of production. In the post-World War I era, following an almost classic Hayekian"road to serfdom," the Weimar Republic responded to escalating chaos by embracing more stringent tariff and tax policies, public works, and rigid restrictions on foreign exchange. The"free market" was never the means by which German industry attempted to recoup. Instead, German industrialists embraced the statist policies of the Nazis, who merely cashed-in on the long Prussian tradition of political interventionism.

The suppression of a competitive price structure was achieved by the Nazis through laws that blocked market entry, setting up cartel arrangements based on compulsory prices that thwarted deflationary tendencies and froze the status quo of the corporate elite. (The Nazis, of course, also used the state to freeze out Jewish businessmen and landowners, who were simultaneously blamed for the decadence of both capitalism and Bolshevism.) Economic control became a technique of mass domination as a quasi-dictatorship of industrialists laid bare the class bias of fascist" corporatism." This" compulsory order" guaranteed profits, socialized losses and enriched capital-intensive industry.

Such production controls veil and dissemble economic facts, and the capital structure is mangled in the process. Moreover, state control over banks enabled the Nazis to embark on a huge military build-up, which funneled monetary expansion into a growing military-industrial complex. An autarkic philosophy of economics, as Franz Neumann called it, led to the collapse of German purchasing power, the crowding out of capital investment for consumer goods production and a dwindling domestic market for the very bourgeoisie that gave Hitler his mass support. Workers' wages plummeted, labor unions were crushed, and German business became a parasitic class. A similar process ensued in Mussolini's Italy.

Lyttleton emphasizes correctly, in the Paxton book review,"[t]hat fascists believed in the primacy of politics and had only an instrumental interest in economics."

Hitler put it succinctly: economics was there to serve the Volk, not the other way around. Fascist regimes were not afraid to use political methods and propaganda to achieve economic results. They announced clear targets and made their successes highly visible through intensive propaganda, framed in the language of struggle. ... [A]t a time when orthodox laissez-faire economics seemed to have no solutions to offer, the activism of the fascist regimes had great appeal. It is understandable that a number of the architects of the New Deal were impressed.

Of course, laissez-faire economics had both a solution and an explanation: it was government intervention that engendered the boom-bust cycle, and it was only government intervention that could make that cycle worse. But Lyttleton is absolutely correct to claim that “it was just this emphasis” on the politico-economic aims of fascism that

makes it possible to speak of a distinctive fascist political economy, which can best be summarized as the creation of a wartime economy in peacetime. Many of fascism’s institutions were direct recreations of the ad hoc structures created to manage the economy during World War I, such as the committees or consortia run by businessmen, but sanctioned by the state, which allocated raw materials and foreign exchange. This was the reality behind the pompous facade of Mussolini’s corporate state. The “consortialist state” would be a more accurate name for it. The ideal of autarky or economic self-sufficiency was distinctly fascist, and plainly linked to the creation of a war economy. But it was also a logical choice for fascist ideology.

These very same dynamics, it should be noted, were at work in the American political context. Murray Rothbard and others have written well of “War Collectivism in World War I” (see the essay by that name in the Radosh-Rothbard collection, A New History of Leviathan). I’ve written about these dynamics in an early article on the railroads during the first world war, but these same patterns were repeated in virtually every major industry in the United States. It is utterly fitting that the Wilsonian crusade to"make the world safe for democracy" entailed, necessarily, interventionism abroad and interventionism at home. That reality is no different today, when neoconservatives embrace the same Wilsonian mission in the hopes of transforming the Middle East. It is in the march toward war that the organic unity of the warfare state and the welfare state is built, with each aspect mutually reinforcing the other. And it is in this constituted nexus, as Lyttleton suggests, that fascism overturns the essence of economic freedom:

Fascist “anti-capitalism” was not just pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, or a nostalgic vision of a pre-industrial craft and rural economy. Fascism expressed a consistent preference for “national production” over international finance, and for an organized and politically mobilized economy over the free market. ... In the developed fascist economy, industrialists lost much of their freedom to make decisions, although ... they were not too unhappy about this, since they kept their profits and were assured of a docile labor force whose wages stayed low. Only the small businessmen who had been conspicuous among fascism’s early supporters were radically disappointed. The hierarchical organization of cartels and producers’ associations under state supervision tended to favor larger firms.

This disappointment of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois was interesting, sociologically. Barrington Moore once asked about the Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, the title of his famous book. And John Weiss in his book, The Fascist Tradition, agreed fundamentally with Moore, that classical fascism was fueled by the peculiarly twentieth-century mass response of middle-class conservative groups"threatened by rapid liberalization of the social system in which they enjoyed a privileged place." Paradoxically, these middle-class groups provided the mass support necessary for the creation of fascist states, while ceding much control to the industrialists who benefited most from fascist political economy. Moore argued further that fascism has not developed in its classical form in traditionally democratic societies because these societies were able to affect a more complete break with the feudal past and its social order of static mediocrity.

Lyttleton's review discusses some of these issues as well. Fascist movements were very much shaped by the countries in which they emerged. Different manifestations were often a by-product of a different mix of leader, party, bureaucracy, traditional institutions, and cultural heritage. In almost all cases, however, fascists"acknowledged no theoretical limits to the invasion of private life." (Lyttleton warns that, actually,"[t]he increasing intrusion of fascism into private life threatened to undermine the consensus in favor of fascism among the middle classes.") This private-public fusion is, perhaps, one reason why some commentators talk in terms of"Islamofascism," which seeks an equally comprehensive public absorption of private life. As I write here, with regard to one of fundamentalist Islam's founding fathers, Sayyid Qutb:

Pining for a theocratic Islamic caliphate, Qutb's influential"theological criticism of modern life" lamented the dualistic"schizophrenia" of the secular and the sacred, science and religion. But as is typical with religious monists, Qutb sought to collapse secular life into religion. His"deepest quarrel was not with America's failure to uphold its principles," [Paul] Berman explains."His quarrel was with the principles. He opposed the United States because it was a liberal society" (emphasis added). The most"dangerous element" of that society was, in Qutb's view, the"separation of church and state." His version of liberation entailed an adherence to strict Islamic law ("Shariah") in defense of"freedom of conscience." But such liberation"meant freedom from false doctrines that failed to recognize God, freedom from the modern schizophrenia." It is no great leap to realize the dictatorial implications of this utopian vision, whose enforcement would echo the totalitarian projects of fascism, Nazism, and communism.

But, clearly, whatever totalitarian echoes one sees in the Qutbian vision, there are distinctions that disqualify the usage of the word"Islamofascism" to describe it, or to describe Islamic fundamentalism in general. This takes a bit more explanation, and Lyttleton's article helps.

As Lyttleton observes,"fascism was something else, something new and disquieting in its ability to mobilize positive enthusiasm and dedication, a form of modern mass politics." One of the keys to understanding fascism is its identification as"national socialism," or"national syndicalism," or more precisely,"nationalist socialism." And therein lies some of the parallels, not with theocratic Islamic fundamentalist dictatorships, but with quasi-fascist military dictatorships in the Arab world. There is a key difference between these military dictatorships and the regimes that neocons criticize typically as “Islamofascist.” The military dictatorships in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq took power in comparatively “secular” Arab countries. The whole Pan-Arab nationalist-socialist movement was opposed to the fundamentalists; in fact, as a member of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb himself was executed in 1966, under the Egyptian dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

As Lyttleton points out, “[a] degree of secularization would ... seem to be a prerequisite for the emergence of fascist movements, which may appeal to religious values but use them in the service of nationalist or racist political goals.” Lyttleton continues:

In the Middle East, perhaps because Italy and Germany were seen as natural and influential allies against Britain and France, the dominant imperial powers, sympathy with historic fascism seems to have been particularly widespread. Nor can one put this down exclusively to the influence of anti-Semitism on Arab Muslims; one can find an interest in the fascist model among both the Christian Lebanese Phalange and the Israeli extreme right. [Lyttleton cites Heller’s essay, “The Failure of Fascism in Jewish Palestine, 1925-1948" from Larsen’s book, Fascism Outside Europe.] ... A more sinister long-term significance can be found in the ideological affiliations of the Baath Party of Syria and Iraq. Its founding father, Michel Aflaq, echoed fascist denunciations of “materialism” and soulless democracy. ... The two-front battle which the Baath fought against communism and movements based on the Shia majority is somewhat reminiscent of the situation in which the historic fascist movements found themselves. The Baath party-state was made possible by the secular nature of Iraqi society and by the growth of an urban middle class, financed by oil revenues. There seem to be few reasons not to call Saddam Hussein’s regime, “fascist.”

As Fitzgerald once pointed out (in a John Waterbury edited collection, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes), in Latin America, as in Egypt, quasi-fascism was enhanced through the creation of industrial oligopolies that depended"upon privileges and concessions obtained by access to government so that a 'proprietary' rather than 'entrepreneurial' business ethos obtains based on control over a limited market and exclusive licenses instead of mass sales and price competition."

But all of these developments in the Middle East were a quite distinct phenomenon from “Islamofascism.” Additionally, these developments demonstrate the fact that the Muslim-Arab world is not a monolith, but a cauldron of shifting tribes. And none of the tribes—be they Pan-Arabist or fundamentalist, be they led by military dictators, monarchs, or warlords—will accept the Western imposition of the"rule of law" (which law? Shariah?) without the cultural, philosophical, or socio-psychological preconditions upon which such a Western conception can be built and nourished.

In many ways, this situation embodies what Ayn Rand once said about World War II Europe, which was consumed by the struggles of competing forms of collectivism and statism. As the evil character Ellsworth Toohey states in The Fountainhead:

Watch the pincer movement. If you're sick of one version, we push you into the other. We get you coming and going. We've closed the doors. We've fixed the coin. Heads—collectivism, and tails—collectivism. Fight the doctrine which slaughters the individual with a doctrine which slaughters the individual. Give up your soul to a council—or give it up to a leader. But give it up, give it up, give it up. ... Offer poison as food and poison as antidote. Go fancy on the trimmings, but hang on to the main objective. Give the fools a choice, let them have their fun—but don't forget the only purpose you have to accomplish. Kill the individual. Kill man's soul. The rest will follow automatically.

There is an underlying socio-psychological dynamic at work in the universe of collectivist statism. Collectivism of any sort has a deadening effect on the individual's freedom to order his own conduct, and on the sense of self-responsibility that such freedom entails. Hayek warned of this effect back in the 1940s, when he examined the"socialist roots" of Nazism and fascism:

Responsibility, not to a superior, but to one's conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one's own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name. That in this sphere of individual conduct the effect of collectivism has been almost entirely destructive is both inevitable and undeniable. A movement whose main promise is the relief from responsibility cannot but be antimoral in its effects, however lofty the ideals to which it owes its birth.

The root of this"revolt against self-responsibility in action," as psychologist Nathaniel Branden once said,"is the revolt against self-direction in thought." When a social system emerges that is inimical to this self-direction—a system that forbids individuals the capacity to function as rational, independent beings—"psychological and physical disaster is the result."

It is thus no coincidence that the triumph of fascism in Germany and Italy was so dependent on the molding of youthful minds. Lyttleton writes:

The cult of youth was one of fascism's most successful forms of propaganda; fascist supporters were distinguished from those of other parties more by their age than their class. But the cult of youth was not just useful to the Fascists. It was a logical consequence of fascism's martial ethic and ideology of permanent struggle. It was by the molding of the new generations through the youth movement that the creation of the"new man" [the similarities to"New Communist Man" are not coincidental either—CS] devoted to the Leader and the Movement and free from all social attachments was to be finally achieved.

If we are to draw any positive signs anywhere in the Middle East for a veritable freedom revolution, it is this: Emerging youth movements in Iran may very well become a bulwark against the theocratic authoritarianism that the mullahs represent in that country. Potentially, this internally generated movement in Iran would be far more effective in the long run in establishing indigenous democratic cultural patterns, than any externally generated U.S. molding of Iraq. On this, I am in agreement with Gus diZerega and have written extensively about the Iranian context.

I also agree fundamentally with Gus that

the best way to eliminate theocratic fantasies from the Arab world is to allow them to have theocracies in power if that is what a majority wants or is willing to accept—and best, by election. That legitimates the idea that the people should decide, and while they will initially decide poorly, the misrule thugs like that will institute will in time wither the ferocity of their theology and their commitment to mindless interpretations of scripture.

In clarifying a political concept such as fascism, we can only be strengthened; understanding what the threat is, and what the threat is not, we can redouble our efforts against those forces at home and abroad that would undermine our liberty.

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David Pickering - 9/20/2006