Sunday Sermon: Fascism

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about the US’ slide into fascism, whether or not Trump is a fascist, etc. It’s interesting, because yes indeed the US is on the cusp of collapsing from a pseudo-democracy into an authoritarian empire, but it also conceals a deeper problem. Namely, that the US has always been more or less fascist. I.e.: “I was fascist, before fascism was even cool.”

I’ve avoided posting about this, because I don’t want to appear to be muddying the issue of the US’ descent into imperial madness, but I think it’s also important to look at the broad historical trend of US imperialism and to see it as such. Today’s liberals who are (rightly) crying about how the US risks losing its democracy are making an important complaint, but that presupposes that the US was a democracy to begin with. Or, I suppose I could say, “the question is the degree to which the US was a democracy to begin with.” And then there is the inevitable “what is fascism?” discussion. These things are all matters of degree: there is no clear line that means you’re a democracy if you do all these things perfectly, or you’re fascistic if you do these other things, etc. Political philosophy, as usual, lets us down.

One expert on fascism [sb] describes it thus:

Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism — born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put men into the position where they have to make the great decision — the alternative of life or death….

…The Fascist accepts life and loves it, knowing nothing of and despising suicide: he rather conceives of life as duty and struggle and conquest, but above all for others — those who are at hand and those who are far distant, contemporaries, and those who will come after…

…Fascism [is] the complete opposite of…Marxian Socialism, the materialist conception of history of human civilization can be explained simply through the conflict of interests among the various social groups and by the change and development in the means and instruments of production…. Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say, in actions influenced by no economic motive, direct or indirect. And if the economic conception of history be denied, according to which theory men are no more than puppets, carried to and fro by the waves of chance, while the real directing forces are quite out of their control, it follows that the existence of an unchangeable and unchanging class-war is also denied – the natural progeny of the economic conception of history. And above all Fascism denies that class-war can be the preponderant force in the transformation of society….

To me, that’s just a bunch of Gabble, though to Mussolini it was (??) the roadmap of the rest of his life, I suppose. I’m going to rewrite Mussolini’s description as follows:

Fascism is a political system that forms after authoritarians win the class and political war and are able to take over and re-form the state as they will.

There are lots of details that come from that: usually, the authoritarians lean on ethnic nationalism and economic re-structuring to appeal to the masses who support their state. You’ll notice in Mussolini’s jeremiad there are specific references to Marxian ideas of economics; Mussolini’s fascism was established as opposition to Marxist labor movements that were stirring in Italy at the time – the Marxists were what Mussolini successfully cast as opposition and threat: the Marxists were going to take over and rule the country badly so, uh, better let Mussolini and his fascists step in an “rescue” Italy or something like that. Hitlerian fascism pulled basically a similar maneuver: pick an easy target that is not politically unified and beat the tar out of them, then declare victory. Nobody should fail to notice the US’ over-the-top opposition to caricatured socialism and marxism; it ought to be creepily familiar. The US shot and hanged socialists and marxists, too – just not as many and not as efficiently.

The core of the fascist movement, however, is an authoritarian nationalism coupled with dictatorial control of the politics and state control of the economy. Initially, that serves to legitimize the fascists because for a while, having an authoritarian economy can squeeze extra efficiency out of the system, or stabilize an obviously failing system – e.g: the new government can make things better by declaring runaway inflation to be illegal. That actually works for a while, as does shifting to a war production economy or stealing huge amounts of money from one part of the population to give to another. These are temporary fixes: you cannot feed your family on national pride, you need the nationalists to steal someone else’s food and re-distribute it – ironically that’s what the fascists often accuse the Marxists of planning to do.

I wasn’t particularly careful to “spin” my framing of fascism, but by now you ought to be able to look at what I described and see the United States referenced, repeatedly. [Mao’s China, too, but that is another story; it was fascist not communist] I don’t see any of what I described as anything particularly special, really – it’s just “the stuff that governments do, if you let them.” And, more to the point, it’s damned hard to stop them from doing that sort of stuff. In the case of the US, there is one point that is not obviously fascistic: the dictatorial control of the politics. The US was carefully configured to have a government with supposed “checks and balances” except that they’re not really checks or balances, at all. The “founding fathers” supposedly were careful to divide up the government’s powers in order to produce potential grid-lock to prevent authoritarian rule, except they also made sure that the senate was always in a position to overrule the house, the executive was always in a position to supervise the judiciary, and the vote was inherently controlled through the electoral college. That’s why I refer to the US as a “pseudo-democracy” – it has the facade of a democracy but it’s run by a small number of oligarchs who make the entire puppet dance to their whims. The US does not have overtly dictatorial politics, but – as conservatives endlessly remind us – “it’s not a democracy, it’s a republic.” Well, it’s not much of a fucking republic, either.

What’s interesting about US fascism is that the government has not completely taken over the economy, there’s a revolving door at the top: large financial interests control the government and the government controls the economy on behalf of the large financial interests. When liberals complain that the US is sliding into fascism, they have to ignore the fact that the US government has been printing money constantly for the last decade to prop up the financial sector which, in turn, props up the senate and the president. There are differences between how the nazi German government and I.G. Farben, Bayer, and Krupp came to an entente and how US Steel and Rockefeller’s oil empire, Dole fruit and Domino Sugar influenced and controlled US domestic and foreign policy – but the difference is that the Germans did it wearing snappy Hugo Boss-designed uniforms and the Americans did it in bespoke suits. [The degree to which the British political system post WWI is the same is left as an exercise] The US government has always “juiced” its economy in favor of white supremacy – that’s the “nationalist” part of US fascism – ever since the racket began, with land grants to white settlers coupled with tacit (later overt) support for genocidal eradication of the original occupiers of the land. Hitler, another of the figures who helped define “fascism” to the modern world, specifically called out the US’ genocidal land policy as something he aspired to emulate. If you’re thinking, “shit, did Marcus go there? Is he saying the US is as bad as the nazis?” Yes, worse, because US fascism which was not-yet named as such, helped inspire its European copy-cats.

Slide into fascism? Shit, we invented it.

Once the US government had dramatically “juiced” its economy by handing out land and mineral rights, it switched to militarizing the society around the time of the Spanish/American war (which really should be called the American/Spanish War) Why militarize the economy? Because you can’t have an empire without a massive military. Americans today are not taught of the active debate around the topic of US imperialism that swirled around, after we had papered-over the differences that caused the civil war, but there was a whole lot of debate about whether the Philippines, or Puerto Rico or Cuba (or Canada, Nicaragua, or more chunks of Mexico) should be grabbed and used to “juice” the economy with more hand-outs for white people. How fascistic was that? Ultra-nationalist government, based on white supremacy (apartheid in the south) completely ignoring democratic plebiscites to just go on an expansion rampage that was interrupted when the Europeans made the massive mistake of inviting the US monster to come over and help one side win one of its interminable inter-European wars. Don’t get me wrong: the US had slid into fascism around the time when the founding fathers decided (without a popular vote) on a constitution, and began enforcing it, killing indians, levying taxes, and building a military.

US fascism has extended the coupling between the government and the economy to the point where the Department of Defense is used as a massive money-bucket for doling out favors to companies that dole out favors in return. That is exactly what the nazis did but I don’t think we can claim they stole that idea from the US; it’s just basic government/corporate economic takeover 101 stuff. Nazi Germany couldn’t build its massive and powerful military, nor could Russia or the US, without using the same methods, which amount to complete militarization of society. The difference, if there is one, is that the nazis eventually stopped after they were asked nicely. [Japanese fascism/imperialism tracked exactly the same trajectory but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the enthusiast]

Our problem, in other words, is not “will the US slide into fascism?” it’s “will the fascists that have been running the US all along stop pretending and then we’ll have to stop pretending too?” Our problem is not that the US might turn into a fascist dictatorship, it’s that it’s been a pseudo-democratic fascist oligarchy all along and some of us are just finally waking up to that, and it’s not pretty.

Any anarchist will tell you that governments are inherently illegitimate except, as Orwell might have said, “some are more illegitimate than others.” The US government slipped free of any vestige of civilian control back in the 50s, which is how it carried out a genocidal war in Vietnam, followed by a constant litany of wars and war crimes ever since. It utterly blows my mind that liberals can ask “Is America fascist?” when the simple answer to that would “ask someone from Iraq.” Or Iran. Or North Korea. Or Syria. Or Nigeria. Or, or, or, or. Is America fascist? The US has built up a nuclear arsenal that absolutely would have made Hitler cum in his langhosen. The US ruthlessly wields the threat of nuclear death over the entire world, while diplomatically struggling to rein in any other nation’s ability to gain a deterrent. I’ve mentioned Rousseau a number of times in this blog, because Rousseau was deeply concerned about the point at which you can say a state is not legitimate – a point which the US passed long ago; a point which the US passed when it decided to embed chattel slavery in its constitution (albeit by kind of kicking some dirt over it so it wasn’t totally obvious). The US government, since it is not controlled by the people within its borders, is an occupying power and we built this monster that rules over us, with our own hands.

Can it be dismantled?

It has to be. How, I do not know, but the US government’s stated plans for climate change are: “fuck you aaaahahahahahahahaha!” which is “realpolitik” so hard core that Stalin would be impressed and Kissinger would (and does!) grant his blessing. Is the only way we are going to get rid of this beast to watch it take the whole planetary ecosystem down with it, and then someone can perhaps sneak over and shoot it in the back of the head? By then, it won’t matter because we’re just arguing who rules the ruins. And, besides that: nuclear weapons. Basically, the situation is like that priceless moment in The Usual Suspects when Verbal Kint askes, “What if you try to shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?” We may find out.

But, please, no more of this “the US is slipping into fascism” stuff. We invented it. It’s ours. The nazis tried to do it, and the Italians and Japanese tried, and we didn’t let them because it’s our schtick and we don’t need a bunch of dolph-come-latelies using our punch-lines. I would say something hopeful like “the nazis made the trains run on time” but look at what the Trumpers and the Bidenites have done to the US Mail and the COVID-19 response. The Bidenites have already issued more drilling permits than the Trumpers did. Yes, Biden is a fucking fascist. Haven’t you seen the nationalist pomp and circumstance these assholes surround themselves with? Or the military fly-overs at the football games? This is the country that turned “2 or 3 Japanese on Hawaii saw a submarine and didn’t tell us” into locking up 200,000 Japanese-American citizens in concentration camps. And now they’re building concentration camps for climate migrants.

We’re doomed. Who can shoot the devil in the back?


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … fascism? Shit, we invented it.

    An assortment of Assyrians, Spartans, Calvinists, Roundheads, and others wish to dispute priority on the patent.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    We invented fascism? Um, yeah sure, except for such minor exceptions as the British Empire, the Caliphate, the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire, Alexander the “Great”, the Chinese Empire, the Assyrians, and one or two others. I suppose one could argue that we are more fascist because our leaders claim to be elected by the will of the people, and most of the rest merely claim the divine right of kings, but potayto, potahto.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    liberals can ask “Is America fascist?” when the simple answer to that would “ask someone from Iraq.” Or Iran. Or North Korea. Or Syria. Or Nigeria.

    Or the UK. When someone was running a bus round past Buckingham Palace with a picture of Prince Andrew on them saying “Have you seen this man?” in reference to his Giuffre troubles, I did briefly consider the possibility of a kickstarter campaign to run a bus past Ann Sacoolas’s mother’s house with a similar banner. I doubt any business capable of mounting the effort would be cooperative, however. Killing citizens of other states with impunity is bad enough when said states are overtly hostile, or harbouring terrorists or whatever. Killing citizens of so-called allies then just waving your husband’s diplomatic immunity (not letting on, immediately at least, that you’re an active intelligence officer yourself) and buggering off back where the courts can’t do anything is typical of high-handed fascists.

  4. flex says

    One citizen’s fascism is the oligarch’s democracy.

    I’ve often wondered why there isn’t more discussion about the role of the proletariat in Orwell’s 1984.

    Winston describes them as being willing to put up with the fascism they live under, and the fascists in charge don’t ask anything more from them than patriotism and obedience. The proletariat don’t have the ability to improve their lot, they are dependent on the ruling class and they appear to know it. It is also clear that anyone who would challenge the rulers, any leader among the proles, would be caught in the traps laid for them by the oligarchs. IIRC, one revolutionary is described as living peacefully, playing chess at a café in his old age, no longer a threat to the oligarchs, and so ignored by them.

    I’m not suggesting the novel be viewed as a celebration of prosperity for the proletariat, the boot-on-the-face metaphor is accurate. But what happens in 1984, like what happens in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, is that an early middle-aged bureaucrat (a member of the ruling government) feels something is wrong, has enough education and knowledge to identify the rulers as fascists, and rebels. In both cases, the working class people they attempt to inspire are uneasy about the idea, and act more for pleasure/friendship/love than for any expectation that something could change.

    Orwell’s other writings, in particular Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, show where he got the idea that the proletariat isn’t interested in how the government is structured. The vast majority of the people in a nation want, in the word’s of Terry Pratchett’s Lord Vetinari, “Only that things go on as normal and tomorrow is pretty much like today.”

    In my opinion, because at the end of the day I’m hardly qualified to make this judgement, the root of the problem is culture.

    To combat climate change effectively, our governments need to regulate industry better. To put in place strong incentives to adopt carbon-neutral processes (or even carbon-sinks). And to put in place strong dis-incentives for carbon-emissions. Incentives strong enough to re-shape the economic landscape. That isn’t going to happen without a change in culture, and it will be fought every step of the way by the current oligarchs.

    Unfortunately, culture is the hardest thing to change.

  5. Ketil Tveiten says

    I feel it needs to be said that we seem to be working with a very wide definition of «fascism» here. It doesn’t really seem useful to me to lump anything authoritarian under the label uncritically. A lot of what Marcus describes here is just bog-standard ruling-class-does-what-it-wants authoritarian politics, little changed since they started doing that stuff five thousand years ago. I’m not seeing any of the explicit nationalism and militarism one usually considers a part of fascism, in eg. the semi-democraticness of the Constitution.

    I would rather, if advancing the thesis «the US is fascist», look at stuff like the overtly nationalistic flag-worship ritual you make school children do every morning, which is explicitly a thing fascists did in the 1930’s and everyone on this side of the Atlantic stopped doing after that whole war thing when fascism stopped being cool.

    Basically Marcus, you’re not wrong, but your arguments are a bit unfocused here; there’s plenty of fascist things going on that we can talk about without the need for torturing the definition of the term as far beyond its normal use as you do here.

  6. says

    Yes, there is a huge amount of terrain to cover. I didn’t, for example, go into “manifest destiny” and the “white man’s burden” as well as the “gospel of wealth” – religious ultranationalist/supremacist propaganda that was so crude it would have made Goebbels blush.

    There is so much “america, love it or leave it” propaganda it’s hard to know where to start. Toby Keith or Teddy Roosevelt? It’s all ultranationalist racist fascist propaganda.

    It’s not “torture” it’s “enhanced languaging.”

  7. jenorafeuer says

    I still like Elizabeth Sandifer’s summary in the essay ‘Guided by the Beauty of their Weapons’:

    The easiest mistake to make when trying to understand fascists is to think that they are best described in terms of a philosophy – as though fascism is a set of tenets and beliefs. This is a mistake that largely benefits fascists, who are generally disinclined to actually call themselves fascists, since they recognize that, much like “Nazis,” it’s not exactly a label that does a great sales job. […]

    No, the useful way to understand fascism […] is as an aesthetic – as a particular mix of fetishes and paranoias that always crops up in culture, occasionally seizing some measure of power, essentially always with poor results. It can basically be reduced to a particular sort of story. The fascist narrative comes, in effect, in two parts. The first involves a nostalgic belief in a past golden age – a historical moment in which things were good. In the fascist narrative, this golden age was ended because of an act of disingenuous betrayal – what’s called the “stab in the back myth.” […] Since then, the present and sorry state of affairs has been maintained by the backstabbers, generally through conspiratorial means.

    The second part is a vision of what should happen, which centers on a heroic figure who speaks the truth of the conspiracy and leads a populist restoration of the old order. [,,,[ A great leader, as it were.

    It’s a narrower definition than what you’re using, but even under this definition the entire ‘Lost Cause’ movement in the U.S. South has always been a pretty blatantly (proto-)fascist movement searching for a leader to rally behind. And it’s not too much of a stretch to paint at least some of the Revolutionary war as feeling like the monarchy was letting the colony down, at least for some of the people involved.

    (Granted, my take is that the U.S. South joined the Revolution mostly because the plantation owners were pissed that they weren’t being treated like the landed barons they felt they were, and they figured this ‘democracy’ idea was just a passing idealistic fad that would fall over soon enough and they would be the rightful rulers after that.)

  8. birgerjohansson says

    Mussolini officially became dictator 97 years ago, January 3rd 1925, after murdering Mattotti.

  9. Bruce says

    I always fear when people say: “at least the Fascists made the trains run on time.” It sounds as if it’s an excuse, or a justification, as a benefit that one can only obtain by accepting fascism. But the reality of Mussolini’s regime was not that he made the trains run on time, but that he made the newspapers say that the trains ran on time. He didn’t improve the train schedules. He just prohibited the papers from exposing late trains. In other words, the “benefits” of fascism didn’t actually include any actual benefits. It was all just propaganda to steal undeserved authority, of course, as we all recognize. So let’s not accidentally open the door to providing mindless fake excuses for the ignorant victims who get persuaded to go along with it.

  10. says

    But the reality of Mussolini’s regime was not that he made the trains run on time, but that he made the newspapers say that the trains ran on time. He didn’t improve the train schedules. He just prohibited the papers from exposing late trains. In other words, the “benefits” of fascism didn’t actually include any actual benefits.

    Important point.
    It’s sort of like how the governor of Florida barred public officials from talking about “climate change” and they are expected, instead, to talk about “persistent flooding” and, of course, the COVID-19 response, “hey things are great! Nobody is dying!”

    The important part about all of this is that authoritarianism doesn’t work except in the short term, and only then by hiding the real results or manipulating economic measures to make things look better. After all, authoritarians don’t have some magical method for actually improving things simply by dictating them.

  11. snarkhuntr says

    I think Jenorafeuer really nailed it. Fascism is not, in any meaningful sense, an actual ideology or philosophy. It is an aesthetic cloak that authoritarianism wraps itself in. It is a social fad, a meme in the Dawkins sense that spreads from vulnerable mind to vulnerable mind.

    It is more than anything else, a set of feelings that it’s adherents have. Worship of the fallen, golden past. A desire to vindicate themselves over their enemies with violence. A studied disinterest or disdain for intellect. The veneration of the strong. The belief that violence, and the tools if violence, confer legitimacy.

    This stuff has been swirling in the culture for quite a while. See those absurd depictions of Trump’s blancmange physique recast as a MCU muscleman. See the absurd proliferation of videos/photos of politicians posing with firearms in hand. To a certain sort of person, firearms – especially the AR15 and it’s variants – have become totemic of masculinity and strength. The rise and public acceptance of the unscientific idea of ‘alpha’ personality types is both a symptom of, and cause of this popularity as well.

    To understand this recent incarnation of Fascism in North America, I found a few works helpful. Eco’s classic essay on Fascism, obviously. But also a book that I’ve plugged before on this blog “Warrior Dreams”. It’s a bit dated, but pins the shift in American concepts of masculinity to around when you guys lost the Vietnam war – that’s when the idea of ‘sporting’ gun culture was replaced with the ‘tactical’ bullshit that’s so in vogue today.

    Lastly, I cannot reccomend more highly the book “it came from something awful” to really understand the baffling meme economy that seems to be taking over so much of modern political discourse. The rise and celebration of ‘trolling’ or ‘triggering the libs’ as mainstream right wing dialog has an actual source.

  12. crivitz says

    Okay, somebody has to mention this: “Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism, at least it’s an ethos.”
    What Snarkhuntr says above about the sporting gun culture shifting to a tactical gun culture rings true to me. I remember back in the 1970s reading lots of magazines about guns and sport hunting that over time became less about hunting or target shooting and more about that “tactical” gear. Something seemingly related to this is when I see contemporary news footage from the 1960s of some of the major civil rights events, you’ll notice how people were dressed. For example if there are marchers walking down a street lined with white racists yelling at them or angrily confronting them, I notice that the white guys are wearing button-down shirts, chinos and loafers and look like any other American of that era. This has changed to what we see nowadays when racists or right-wingers generally are making a nuisance of themselves in public. They wear clothing that is as close to “tactical” as they can get and of course, often carry firearms. Yes there are the proud boys and others wearing their polo shirts, but I think that is just for ironic effect and even then, they have a lot of “tactical gear” on them. In the army, these types were known as “geardos.” And as ever, in the words of Merle Haggard, leather boots are still in style for manly footwear.

  13. snarkhuntr says


    I certainly can’t knock the fash for wearing leather boots. Practical, durable, comfortable and (over time) inexpensive: they’re just good.

    As a former soldier and recovering cop, I find Geardos inexplicably creepy. Firearms, and the other ephemera of ‘tactical’ jobs are to me, tools. They should be owned and carried by those who use or reasonably expect to use them. I find it utterly unsettling when someone who has no conceivable use for a particular firearm or firearm accessory starts waxing poetic at me about how cool it is.

    The analogy I have developed to explain my feelings is this:

    Imagine that you’re a carpenter. Nothing special, just a person who spends their day putting up framing for houses.

    Now imagine that your spouse brings you to a party thrown by her co-worker. You don’t really know anyone there, so it’s awkward. You’re making noncommittal small talk and counting the minutes till you can go home, when all of a sudden the co-worker’s husband approaches you. “Did I hear you say that you’re a carpenter?” He asks, “Come with me for a minute”

    This man you’ve never met before takes you out of the party and into a room in the basement. He’s almost vibrating with excitement. He leads you into a small room and turns on the lights. “What do you think of THIS?” He asks.

    The room is entirely lined with pegboard and cabinets. The pegboard is completely covered with hammers. All different types of hammers. Everything from vintage craftsman claw hammers to ultra-modern titanium framing hammers with magnetic nail holders and carbon fibre handles.

    You’re stunned. This is like a whole year of your income worth of hammers. The guy starts showing you his favorite ones. There’s the colonial-era antique that he’s convinced built some of the first pioneer houses. There’s the ultra-modern ones that he insists are the same ones used by the best equipped building crews building the newest office buildings in town. Sensing that you’re not impressed, the guy opens up one of the cabinets. It is lined with air and butane powered coil/stick nailers. “See these?” He asks, “Fully automatic, every one”.

    You’re still baffled, so you ask the guy “So, do you spend a lot of time building?”. He says “I don’t really build anything, but me and some friends like to get together a couple times a month and drive nails into a few planks, just to keep in practice.” After a moment’s thinking, he says “say, sometimes we like to bring in a real carpenter to talk to us about the framing that they’ve done, or to show us a few tricks with the tools. Do you think you might be interested in coming around and driving a few nails for us?”

    Seriously – what do you say to people who fetishize the tools but have no conception of the actual work?

  14. crivitz says

    Snarkhuntr– your carpenter analogy really hit the nail on the head. Sorry, I’ll see myself out;-{

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