|Part 1||Part 2|
In Part 1, I discussed the four political impulses– communalism, libertarianism, republican democracy, and fascism– that seem to be the base elements of which more complex ideologies are made. Of course, an entire society can be communalist in some ways, but libertarian in others. To ask whether the United States “is fascist” may seem simplistic. The question might be phrased better as, “How established is fascism?”
Upsettingly, fascism is the most limber in its self-presentation. Fascists lie. They will, if it is convenient, use ideas from other ideologies to push their agendas. We’ve seen fascists in leftist, rightist, religious, and anti-religious costumes before. Corporate fascism asserts “meritocracy”. Donald Trump managed to step over his personal elitism to run as a populist. Rarely does one spot a fascist in his revealed ideology; we observe what he does.
We are not at the point yet where the United States has been afflicted by state-level fascism. One hopes that it never will be. Are we under threat? Yes, and to understand the problem, we’ll have to know why fascism has emerged.
Is Donald Trump a fascist threat?
Donald Trump’s victory was the culmination of a bizarre irony: a man running against forty years of economic damage wrought by Boomers, bullies, and billionaires… despite being all three.
Establishment politicians represent, in today’s dysfunctional political environment, the disingenuous, effete, and hypocritical superego of the corporate system. In 2016, people decided to try out that system’s id.
How did this all happen? The mechanics of it deserve another essay, probably not in this series, but the short version is that Trump managed to unify, for a time, the otherwise disparate in-authority and out-of-authority fascisms. Corporate executives and race-war preppers do not go to the same parties, and they express their thuggish inclinations in different ways, but Trump managed to draw support from both crowds.
All of this being said, I don’t think of Donald Trump as a high-magnitude fascist threat to this country. I did not ever support him, did not vote for him, and was displeased (to put it mildly) when he won the election (which surprised me). He has done a lot of damage, especially on the environmental front. He has embarrassed us in front of the entire world. Still, he lacks the image necessary to pull sustained, effortless authoritarianism off.
Donald Trump puts explicitly what is subtle in corporate fascism. He doesn’t think differently from those people; he just can’t filter himself. In general, corporate fascism is effective because of its bloodlessness. Few people notice that it’s there unless they think deeply about it; corporate fascism presents itself as “not political”. (The corporate fascist’s enemies are the ones “being political.” That’s why they were fired. Trump’s authoritarianism, belched out 280 characters at a time, is too flagrant and plain-spoken for either the emasculated robot fascism of the corporate world or the lawfully-masculine (in presentation) inevitability of the brutal dictator.
Donald Trump, though, has an even bigger flaw as a would-be fascist: his lifestyle. He’s been a self-indulgent man-child for his entire life. On-camera fuckery built “the Trump brand”, which he’s cited as his most valuable asset. This was great for him when he was a zeitgeist of unapologetic, gangster capitalism. It’s repugnant, and so is fascism, but the brands of malignancy could not be more different.
For a contrast, the proper fascist dictator appears superficial. He cannot be self-indulgent in public. If he enjoys his power and wealth in front of people, he’ll be seen to have an appetite for comfort, which kills the aura of masculine inevitability that a fascist leader requires. Adolf Hitler was, in fact, a rich man late in life– Mein Kampf was a bestseller– and he likely had several mistresses. To the public, however, he presented himself as a simple-living, celibate man. He was married, he said, to the German people. The fascist’s sacrificial austerity gives credence to the perceived inevitability of his reign.
Donald Trump could not pull that off. He has been a volatile, self-absorbed clown in the public for longer than many of us have lived. His own history destroys him. Trump is the sort that thrives in disorder and damage, but sustained fascism requires a damaging order– and that’s quite different.
If fascism comes to the United States, it won’t come via the self-indulgent, emotionally incontinent septuagenarian in the White House. Instead, it’ll come under the aegis of a 39-year-old Silicon Valley tech founder whom few of us have heard of.
He’ll arrive with a pristine reputation, because (like anyone who succeeds in Silicon Valley) he will have preserved his image at any cost, destroying the careers of those who opposed him. The same sleazy tactics that founders, executives, and venture capitalists use to protect and expand their reputations, he’ll have mastered before he even considered going into politics.
He’ll use his dirty corporate tricks, more subtly than Trump, as well as the resources within his companies to build up an image of centrist, pragmatic, and professional competence. He’ll likely present himself as a bipartisan figure– a unifier “in these divided times”, a centrist capitalist who can also “speak nerd”. He may or may not hold racist views– he’s probably too smart to believe that shit– but when it suits him, he’ll use any racial tension he can to divide people, just as he used factional tensions within companies to build his corporate career.
State of the States
We can assess our current fascist risk by asking: what keeps fascism at bay? We have a constitutional government. That’s good, but it inevitably comes down to us what that means. Societies can be assessed on several planes: culture, politics, economics, and the social. I’ll cover each of them; doing this gives us a clear sense of how much danger exists, and whether it’s getting worse.
Center-leftists have underestimated the corporate and fascist threats over the past ten years, because they believe that we are winning the culture wars. That’s true enough right now. The religious right is dying out. Marijuana legalization once seemed impossibly radical. Same-sex marriage support is strong among the young. These are all very good signs. So, can’t we let time do its thing, considering our cultural headwinds?
No, we can’t. The cultural is driven, over time, by the economic. The economic and political drive each other; that arrow goes in both directions and sometimes it is hard to tell the planes apart. In turn, the economic and political are driven by the social: who knows whom and in what context, which groups are favored for various opportunities, et cetera. It suits us best to analyze the cultural, social, political, and economic planes separately and, in each, ask, in terms of the four elemental political impulses– communalism, libertarianism, republican democracy, and fascism– “Are we fascist?”
Culturally, we are mostly communalistic. Division and exclusion are frowned-upon. A center-left coalition won the cultural wars of the late 20th-century. Two-thirds of Americans support gay marriage, and there’s no strong desire to prosecute harmless pot smokers. Racism still exists, but it’s largely detested. It’s more acceptable, by far, to err on the side of inclusivity than otherwise.
Sometimes, the right refers to our culture as being “politically correct”. Our popular culture is, for good and bad, deliberately inoffensive. This is likely tied in to the importance of our popular culture to our self-definition and economic standing; it is the most effective export we’ve ever had. To start, we would be an irrelevant European knock-off without the cultural influences of once-disparaged minorities. More importantly, if our popular culture were racist, misogynistic, or belligerently nationalistic, the rest of the world would be unlikely to buy it.
Culture, however, changes quickly; it did in the German 1930s, when Weimar liberalism fell, like so much else, to the Nazis. Environmental, political, economic, and social forces can crush cultural defenses. That happens all the time.
Politically, we remain a democratic republic. Our elections work. They do so imperfectly, but they work well enough that, when plutocrats cheat, they still bother to hide it. Voters have the power to fire representatives who become unaccountable to their constituents, and although it’s not used often enough, it is used. Though there are issues with our electoral system on account of its age, they’re not so severe that one would call us, at this point, a non-democracy.
For now, we’re on the better side of this one.
Economically, we are a market-driven libertarian society. That is not all bad. Many have argued that this is what should be. Do we need public control of the economy? To some degree, yes; total control is undesirable. Government should prevent poverty; but we can trust markets to, say, decide the price of toothpaste. Command economies are not innovative, they don’t work well at scale, and they’re too easily corruptible. When well-structured, and used in a society that takes care of the big-picture issues (e.g., basic income, job guarantees) so everyone has a vote, markets work.
It is not evil that our economy uses libertarian, market dynamics. It probably should. The evil is the totalitarian influence that economic life (not to mention artificial scarcity( has over everything else. Where people live, how they structure their time, and what careers are available to them, are all dictated by a closed social elite of unaccountable, often-malignant bureaucrats called “executives”.
When an economy functions well, it recedes. Economic life becomes less a part of daily existence as people become richer, freer, and more productive in their (fewer, usually) working hours. We’ve seen the opposite. We’ve seen dysfunction spreading. We’ve seen people sacrificing more of their life on the altar of the economic, without much progress.
It has been said to the young, “You don’t hate Mondays; you hate capitalism”. That’s not quite right. Working Americans aren’t miserable at their jobs because, say, oil prices are set by free markets. They’re miserable because of corruption. They’re miserable because they are forced by circumstance to work for a malignant elite– a predominantly social rather than economic one– that despises them.
We’ve covered the good news: we are culturally communalistic. We are politically republican. We are economically libertarian. Generally, this is how things should be. So what’s wrong?
Socially, we are fascist. On the social plane, we are not “becoming fascist”. We are not “at risk of fascism”. We are there. A malignant upper class has won.
As discussed, is social drives the political; the political often drives the economic; economic forces drive culture far more than the other way around. As we are thoroughly corrupt, in the social plane, we should understand that we are not in danger until there is a radical overhaul of our current upper class. State-level fascism isn’t here yet, but we’re governed by an elite (“the 0.1 percent”) that would make it so, if it were in their personal interests. Everything could fall, and it wouldn’t take long.
For example, we’ve already lost freedom of speech. The federal government cannot bar political disagreement or peaceful opposition. But employers can– and do. Job opportunities are stolen from people based on social media posts but, at the same time, job opportunities can be stolen from people because they don’t use social media.
One of the key revelations of the 2010s is that only one social class distinction matters in the United States: those with generational wealth and social connections (“the 0.1 percent”) and those without. The higher-income supposed upper-middle and middle classes will be just as screwed, if a significant percentage of jobs are automated out of existence, as the poor. In any case, the upper class has all the important land and runs all the important institutions. It decides, monopolistically, what jobs people get: who works on what, when, and where. Some people get to be VPs of Marketing and university presidents who earn $1 million dollars per year for three hours per week of work; others get blacklisted and become unemployable. There are people who make those decisions; most of us are not among them.
Under fascism, the governed compete while power unifies. That’s what we’re observing in the corporate world right now. “Performance” is a myth. “Meritocracy” is a malevolent joke on the middle class (and “middle class” is itself, under our fascist society, a distinction invented to make upper-proles feel better about ourselves, and to divide us against lower-proles). What actually matters, in corporate jobs? Not performance. Not even profits. (I’ll come back to that.) Loyalty to the existing upper class. Corporate do not work for shareholders; in practice, they work for their management.
Corporate executives, in truth, have insulated themselves from meaningful competition. It will occur on occasion that one must be replaced. When this happens, they ensure a soft landing for the outgoing executive, while ensuring another member of their class steps in. Positions are shuffled around, but they keep these overpaid positions confined to a small elite. None of us really have a chance at those jobs; the idea that anyone can make it is just a cruel joke they play.
These people set each other’s pay. They use clever systems to hide the class’s rapacious self-dealing. For example, venture capital allows a rich man’s son to manufacture the appearance of success on a competitive market– he’s an entrepreneur, he says– when, in truth, the clients and resources are furtively delivered by their backers. This ruse and many others make it appear merit-based when their children succeed, at the expense of ours.
There is some competition allowed within the upper class, but there are rules to it. No one can damage the image for fortune of the class. Corporate executives are far more vicious in their competition against their workers than against nominally antagonistic firms: competitors in the classical sense.
Executives self-deal and get away with it, because their bosses are other executives, who are doing the same. Is all this self-dealing good for corporate profits? It’s hard to say. Executive-level fascism reduces performance but it seems to reduce variance. The left is often to quick to assert that social evils derive from “profit motive” when it is, in fact, executive self-dealing that is the essence of the corporate problem. Profit maximizing has its own moral issues, but they’re not the most relevant ones.
Do executives care about profit? They want to make enough profit to appease shareholders, and not a dollar more. If they’re making outsized profits, they could have paid themselves better. They could have hidden money in the company, to be drawn out in bad times. They could have used those profits to push efforts that would improve and expand their personal reputations. To an executive, a dollar of profit is waste, because he wasn’t able to find a way to take it for himself. In Corporate America, no executive works for a company. Companies (and their workers) work for executives.
What about shareholders? Why don’t they step in and drop a pipe on these self-dealing, comfort-addicted executives? The answer is that the shareholders who matter are… wait for it… rich people. How did they get rich? By sitting in overpaid executive positions, peddling connections, and ingratiating themselves to the upper class. They will never quash the executive swindle. That game keeps them rich, and ensures that their children are even richer. Perhaps it would do good for “companies” in the abstract if someone stepped in on executive excess, but it would be so bad for the upper class that it will never happen.
Of course, if returns to shareholders are abysmal– enough for the press and public to take notice– there will be executive shuffling, but it’s engineered so that no one really gets hurt. A CEO can be fired, yes, but with generous severance, and his career will be handed back to him (plus interest) within a year or two. The only thing that would put an executive on the outs would be disloyalty to the upper class itself. That, they would never forgive; he would likely be suicided.
What about when firms compete, as they’re nominally supposed to? Firms will compete for customers; that is true. Sometimes, they do so ruthlessly. It is not bad, from the consumer’s end, to live under capitalism. What firms cannot stand is having to compete for workers or their loyalty. They will ruin the careers of people who try to make them do that. Sure, they whine from time to time about a tight labor market and a lack of domestic talent, usually in order to scam the government into allowing them to hire more indentured servants from abroad, but their incessant whining about competition is a part of their strategy to ensure they never face it. They consider “job hopping” a sin, because they can’t tolerate the idea of having to compete for a subject’s loyalty. They share data on personnel and compensation, often in violation of the law (which they do not care about, since they own the most expensive attorneys). Most companies, before finalizing a job offer, call references: other managers at nominally competing firms. This would make no sense if there were real competition between companies. It makes complete sense if there is not.
Executives are not rewarded or punished based on their loyalty to shareholders, but rather to the upper class. Middle managers (who are not part of the upper class, and have no reason to care about it) are, in turn, rewarded or punished based on loyalty to their superiors’ careers. Workers, by and large, know that in today’s one-chance, fast-firing corporate culture, they don’t work for “companies” at all; they work for managers. The explicit theme of class domination is obscured to some degree, leaving workers unsure whether that their failure to advance may be a personal failure, and therefore avoiding public admission of the otherwise prosaic fact: the game has been rigged against them. Only one in a thousand who tries for corporate entry into the upper class will be accepted, and this will require total moral self-deletion.
I’ve mentioned the loss of one’s freedom of speech under corporate rule and that, at the same time, many people must nonetheless have social media profiles to have a career. It “looks weird” to people in HR not to have “a LinkedIn” or “a Twitter”. Opting out of technological surveillance is not an option for many people. They’ve been tricked and extorted into rendering unto current and future employers– corporate capitalism, that is– information that will only be used against them.
Mainstream corporate employers are not especially tolerant. It is bad to be the office liberal, the office conservative, the office Christian, the office atheist, or the office Jew. To win at corporate self-presentation, one must be prolifically bland. One should avoid excess and abstinence both in profanity. One should avoid the topic of labor rights at all costs. What about our other cultural institutions, though? What about our press, our universities, and our sundry nonprofit organizations? Yes, mainstream magazines will publish center-left views. Universities in particular house more leftist than conservative voices. How much will this protect us? Not that much, I’m afraid. Most people will not be part of those institutions for life, and therefore still rely on the Adversary for their careers. Even outside of the for-profit world, many are trained to turn on those who threaten the hegemony of the generationally well-connected. This is a shame, because that’s our society’s number-one problem right now.
State-level fascism hasn’t arrived yet, but our social elite has been preparing for it for decades. They are in no hurry to make it happen, but they will if they judge it to favor their interests. Why have they been fomenting right-wing populism– using racial resentments, religious bigotry, and the frank irrationality that emerges from stunted masculinity and (economically enforced) permanent adolescence? To ensure that, no matter what else happens during a populist uprising, they’ll have an easy time getting their money out of it. The upper class has convinced the rabble that generational wealth and connections– neither of which the rabble themselves have– are a right; meanwhile, leftists and racial minorities are a source of their misery.
This society is set up so that, if such events come to pass, the most armed and ready militants will be on the right wing. Not only will this support the elite’s economic goals and keep the proletariat divided against itself, but it will also mean that any revolutionary effort is likely to be overcome by people with such repugnant ideological and cultural aims that they will never gain global sympathy. The upper class would rather have a 95 percent chance of a rightist-racist revolt that no one (present company included) would support than a 25 percent chance of a leftist revolt that would quickly gain global sympathy.
Do today’s generationally well-connected want to live under state-level fascism? They don’t care. They wouldn’t be living under it; they’d be running it. I do not think they are, down to a man, ardent fascists. I imagine that the vast majority are individually apathetic on the matter. So long as they live in a world where they don’t have to compete for what they have, they remain disinterested in ideology. If fascism rises, they will quickly support it, not because of prior ideological commitment, but because it is practically designed for them; though fascism presents itself as popular indignation, it is deliberately constructed to keep the powerful (except for a few, who may be scapegoated) out of harm’s way.
Socially, we already have fascism. The generationally well-connected live with impunity. They do not tolerate division within their ranks, and do whatever they can to divide us against each other. This includes the division between so-called “red” and “blue” America, which are allegiances to manufactured brands– bloodless center-leftism and right-wing indignation, both of which are harmless to the entrenched upper class– more than coherent ideologies. Meanwhile, our society is almost entirely constructed so that no one can represent significant harm to upper-class interests and keep his career, reputation, and life intact.
In the next installment, we’ll discuss how we got here. Our turn toward fascism in the social sphere occurred around 1975; it is often blamed (hyperbolically, oversimplistically) on the Baby Boom generation. In truth, the sequence of events that led us there was, if not inevitable, predictable and cannot be blamed on a specific generation. So in Part 3, we’ll get a handle on how our current fascist mess was made– and how it might be unmade.