|Part 1||Part 2|
This series of essays shall cover one of the most depressing topics I’ve ever written about: fascism. The truth is, I’ve been writing and rewriting “the fascism essay” for almost two years. I’ve worked on one version or iteration, polished a bit… only to decide not to publish it. It’s such a dreary, demoralizing subject.
When fascism descends, one is faced with a fight– probably a losing fight– that a person of conscience still owes the world to fight.
I promise that this series will not focus on Donald Trump. It would be a mistake to conflate him with the more general fascist threat. More than he is a fascist, he’s an opportunist. Inevitably, someone would have tried what he did. Perhaps we are lucky. For reasons that will be discussed later on, he is quite ineffective when it comes to fascism. He has damaged this country, and he will probably damage it more before he is gone, but it would be going a lot worse if the game he is playing were played competently.
I’ve had to fight fascists for 7 years. In 2011, a comment I made about a product at a large tech company received far too much internal publicity, after which my name was placed on the list of suspected unionists that circulates around in Silicon Valley. I got death threats– I still get death threats. I experienced, more than once, a job offer that was rescinded after someone found my name on the list. I’ve been libeled in various corners of the Internet, and this libel has had a negative effect on my career.
Having been fighting fascists for 7 years, and having to continue to fight them, I am well aware of our nation’s fascist energies. Donald Trump did not create them out of thin air, and we will not be rid of the threat after he is gone.
In fact, as I’ll establish over the next few essays, it is the nature of end-stage corporate capitalism to become fascist.
We have been lucky with Trump, at least so far. Two years have passed and he has not instituted state-level fascism. I don’t think he can. We would be in much worse shape if, instead, we had been saddled with a polished 39-year-old tech founder as opposed to the an emotionally incompetent, openly racist septuagenerian who tried to trademark the phrase, “You’re fired.”
Fascism is an immense and unpleasant topic, so I’ve broken this essay up into several pieces. The planned schedule is to release one every three days, in eight installments. I shall cover:
- What is fascism?
- Is the United States fascist?
- Fascism and capitalism.
- Why fascism appeals to people.
- Fascism’s endgame.
- Why we have to fight fascism– now.
- How we must fight fascism.
- When it is acceptable, and when it is not, to use violence against it.
Before we can discuss fascism, we must ask: what is it, and where does it come from?
Ideologies are as numerous as human cultures, but complex societies tend to establish and differentiate themselves in their handling of four elemental impulses that recur in human politics, and probably have for all time. Those are: communalism, libertarianism, republican democracy, and fascism.
We can understand each of the four from first principles by noting that much of politics comes down to one question, which we face on a daily basis in economic and social life: does one cooperate, or compete? Do we honor social contracts, or break them for personal gain? When we encounter other tribes, is our instinct to share resources and allow further specialization, or do we fight until we’ve chased them off– or killed them all?
In general, those who cooperate are better off, in the aggregate, than people who fight. “Winning” a war often mean losing less. The communalist sees this sort of competition as unsavory and would prefer that it never happen. Of course, communalists have no issue with competition in games and sports– it’s well understood that sportsmanlike, low-stakes competition has a place in any society– but they do not want to see the high-stakes fights in which people, businesses, and nations work to actually hurt the other.
A team, tribe, or group does better if its members cooperate than if they suffer in-fighting. An example I know far too well is that of programmers, who have low status in the workplace– even in software companies and startups, where they ought to be in charge. There’s a well-known reason for this: despite their superior individual intelligence, they have zero collective intelligence, which makes it easy for their bosses to pit them against each other.
The communalist view has a lot to recommend it. The toughest global problems– climate change, public health, avoidance of international conflict– are cooperative in nature.
No matter what, though, people will compete. Rules will be broken. Interests diverge. The communalist view is that we should cooperate all the time, but the libertarian counterargument needs only four words, followed by a mic drop: Have you met people?
Arrangements that seem to lack competition, on closer inspection, have unsavory varieties thereof. Foremost in mind would be a business monopoly, which is not a true absence of competition– it is certainly not a cooperative arrangement where everyone wins– but an asymmetric and socially harmful conflict where an in-group (the monopolist) holds all the cards, and the public loses. The situation would improve if others could enter competition with the monopolist.
Libertarians don’t want governments to eradicate competition, but to protect the individual’s right to enter. In general, libertarians want government to be limited, transparent, and simple.
We might consider the communalist impulse to be a sort of ancestral left, while the libertarian one represents the primordial right. Just as most of us call ourselves centrists, we generally recognize the value in both impulses.
Communalism proposes an ideal, but the libertarian reminds us of an uncomfortable truth: competition– of the serious kind, where people can get hurt– is inevitable. Therefore, it’s better to have well-structured and fair competition than pretend that none exists.
How do we reconcile a communalist ideal with competitive reality?
Republican democracy, the third elemental impulse, puts it like so: as citizens, we cooperate. We share information in order to make the best decision, and largely want the same things: good government, prosperous daily life. However, anyone who wants to acquire or retain power must compete for it. Additionally, a private citizen who believe he can do better in a leadership role than the person currently there may run for the office.
The above, we take for granted. We shouldn’t. Workplaces, for example, are not run this way. Someone who even jokingly suggested running for his boss’s position would be summarily fired.
In sum, the republic holds the communalist idea, but introduces competition to hold political leaders accountable to the public.
The communalist would not have anyone compete; we should all cooperate. The libertarian’s worldview is one in which everyone competes for everything. The republican impulse is the only one of the three introduced thus far, as expressed by the table below, that makes a difference between someone in power (or seeking it) and the general public.
|Political System||Leadership||The Public|
Communalists and libertarians both have a blind spot: the fact that power relationships and leadership roles emerge almost immediately in human societies. Communalists underestimate what people will do to compete for position. This is easy enough to see. Libertarians have a blind spot, too, and in some ways it’s a bigger one.
The libertarian mindset approaches governance with a mathematician’s conservatism, by which I mean it starts from a small set of rules (analogous to mathematical axioms) and wants to restrict government’s role to what can be proven from those rules. No distinction is made between rich and poor, in-crowd or underprivileged. Everyone competes, all of the time– survival of the fittest. But, what is the first thing people do after winning in socioeconomic competition? See, the libertarian believes that past behavior predicts future results and that people who achieved socioeconomic success will double down on whatever worked… but that’s not what happens. Instead, those who’ve won (often, by pure luck) will do everything they can to insulate themselves (and their progeny) from future competition, and stay “winning” forever. At absolute most, society gets one generation of rule by the fittest. After that, a self-protecting, effete, useless oligarchy sets in.
Republican democracy does better. It says: cooperate as citizens, but compete for office. Then, it invests resources to make these competitions– which happen at regular times and are subjected to rules to prevent corruption– as fair as possible. This seems to be the best solution. A well-structured republic uses the competitive energies of the ambitious for the greater good. In the republic, power is self-limiting, as it comes with increased scrutiny, responsibility, and competition. The objective here is that no one seeks power just to have it, and people contend for office only if they have a higher moral or public goal they wish to achieve.
Does the republic have a blind spot? In a way, it does. The objective of the republic is to make government reliable, trustworthy, and therefore boring. Such systems are engineered to prevent the emergence of feedback loops that otherwise dominate human systems. The issue is that feedback loops emerge anyway. We seem, as humans, to be primed to recognize and react to them quickly, although this exacerbates the problem. For example, when one side of a conflict appears to be winning, many of us begin to act as if that side has already won. It is through these feedback loops that the mere suggestion of a person’s popularity (or stigma) can become fact, and billions of dollars are spent every year to induce them.
The republican element of human politics tends toward self-limitation, but other elements emerge and dominate. Those tend to be unanticipated feedback loops that weren’t known to exist until someone exploited them. Republics will, from time to time, have to contend with a sort of Jungian shadow: a dual-opposite mentality asserting the right of the rich to get richer, and of those with power to use it however they want (including, notably, to acquire more power).
The dual opposite of a republic would be a society where the governed must compete, merely to survive. Meanwhile, the powerful are immune to challenge from below. There is only one political party and it will always be that way. Those with power have no responsibilities to those below them, because power is subject to no appeal but itself.
That sounds like an unimaginable dystopia, right? That would never, ever emerge from a free society. Right?
It has already done so. Consider the corporate workplace. Regular employees are ranked and pitted against each other– and against the hungry masses, for management is happy to remind its subjects of the desperate millions ready to take more abuse and less pay. Stack ranking and annual reviews exist largely as a mechanism through which executives remind the little people that they aren’t a permanent part of the company– they are a resource that will be used up and discarded. Meanwhile, corporations rely on a self-dealing one-party government called “management” that uses every bit of power it has (which is, all of it) to keep the underlings where they are. Power begets power. It does not accept limitation; who has the right to limit it? Certainly, there shall be no separation of powers. Power is allowed and expected to unify– managers protect their own, and those who do not learn this one rule do not remain in management for long.
Of course, individual corporations are too small to indulge in the end-stage horrors for which fascism is known: international belligerence, extreme racism, repression and disinformation. In comparison to state-level fascism, the corporation’s fascism-lite seems benign. Is it? It’s hard to say, because state-level fascism seems, likewise, harmless to the general public when it sets in.
The core of fascism, I would argue, is not to be found in the end-stage calamities to which it often inexorably leads. Rather, it is this: the people compete against each other, endlessly, but power unifies.
Under fascism, power’s disparate forms– cultural, political, religious, state, economic, legal, and social power– congeal into an inflexible fasces. Industrialists, political officials, media personalities, and sundry middling bureaucrats and managers form a one-party system that cannot be appealed. At the same time, people are divided against each other, ranked in ceaseless competition. Those judged to rank at the bottom– a small percentage that must be called “work-shy”, or “below expectations”, or Lebensunwertes Leben— must be punished. This is not always done out of hatred for the unlucky; it’s done to terrify the middle-ranking majority.
Fascism is neither leftist nor rightist in any traditional sense. Fascists learn that they can lie with impunity; there’s no one above them for the public to appeal to. The fascist will use socialist, capitalist, royalist, revanchist, communist, populist, nationalist, or religious symbology as needed. A corporation will declare itself a meritocracy and punish anyone who says it is not so. Truth doesn’t matter; the closest thing there is, is reputation, which the fascist manipulates masterfully.
Donald Trump lies so frequently not because it is part of a political strategy, but because he’s taking his corporate tricks into the public theater– with mixed results. His lies are of a kind that would pass easily in the corporate world; it is good for us that, in presidential politics, he’s out of his depth. What one must understand about Trumpian lies is that anyone who would recognize them as lies is not part of his intended audience. These lies exist to rally the loyal and to frighten– not convince– the opposition. Loyalists see a man so fervid he occasionally gets a detail wrong; opponents see a person unconstrained by truth or apparent logic. When intelligent people are called out on their support for someone so obviously divorced from truth, they often use the Thiel defense: they’re taking him seriously, but not literally.
A corporate executive (and an established fascist) can say anything, because he’s in a milieu that admires bullies– “tough leadership” is the corporate term of art for the sorts of people who smashed science projects in grade school– and because he’s surrounded by people who are paid to behave as if they believe every word he says (and to rat out nonbelievers). Trump’s problem is that he still has to deal with the 50-plus percent of the population that won’t put up with his mendacity. A president cannot, at the current time, fire the public.
Republics are set up to force politicians to compete, in an effort to make sure that elected officials work on behalf of the public. Ours isn’t perfect, but the system does does a decent job. Voters don’t fire incumbents often enough, one might argue, but political officials know that they can.
While republics strive for responsible government, fascism imposes competition on the people, to render them accountable to the elite– against which no one and nothing can compete.
What about competition within the elite? Surely, that must happen, even under fascism– right? Of course, it does. The same divide-and-conquer techniques that fascism uses against the public, the dictator will use against his lieutenants and middle managers. Such bureaucrats and seneschals are happy to squabble for the boss’s favor. However, there’s one rule, and it’s absolute: the competition can never be seen from below. (As a corollary, mid-ranking hierarchs cannot court popular support.) Court intrigue within power is fine, so long as it stays there. To the public, though, they must present a unified front.
Fascism requires this unity among power because it does not present itself as a brand of politics. Rather, fascist is bigger (as in, more totalitarian) but also harder-to-see than regular politics, toward which it project disdain. It presents itself as post-political. Current exigencies, it argues, require a union of power to make swiftly the decisions that are inevitable and beyond appeal. Those could not, it must always say, have been made any other way. If people became aware of a debate within power, this would suggest that alternatives existed, and the sense of inevitability in the fascist’s movement would be compromised.
When fascism runs smoothly, the governed do not perceive themselves as under a self-serving elite, or having a repressive government. Authority assures them that, for each concession it demands of them, there were no other options. We had to shoot the protesters, because if hostile nations found out about internal dissent, they’d take advantage of our weakness. We have to fire 5% of our workers every year, because otherwise nothing will get done.
It is shocking how readily people will accept authoritarianism if fed a halfway-coherent argument that there are no alternatives.
I used to write a lot, between 2010 and 2015, about organizational dynamics. As a result, I got a lot of letters from people facing managerial adversity at their workplaces.
I mentioned that fascist governments are mendacious and will present themselves as needed: if they need to seem populist, they’ll seem populist. If socialism is en vogue, they’ll become left-authoritarians. If a veneer of capitalism suits their needs, they’ll take the right. The corporation’s lie is meritocracy, and it’s so pervasive that people believe in it. So, when they face managerial adversity, they believe that “performance” can save them. (It can’t.) Or, they go over the boss’s head, or to the company’s HR department. After all, if it were a meritocracy, it would reward when a good employee rats out a bad manager, right? Of course, that move almost never works. If anything, the afflicted employee gets fired faster.
Corporate “performance” is mythical. It’s a word they made up that sounds objective but, in fact, means whatever the corporates want it to mean. (It is, arguably, unintentionally honest. Succeeding in the corporate world has nothing to do with performance in the sense of being good at one’s job; but it is a performance in the theatrical sense.) Corporate “meritocracy” is a litmus test for ideological compliance and personal loyalty to management. One must not only follow orders, but pledge fealty to inflexible managerial supremacy with every action. In the United States, one must remember that managers do not work for companies. (I’ll bust the “shareholder” myth, some other time.) Rather, companies work for their managers.
So, what happens when these unfortunate people, suffering managerial adversity, attempt to appeal to higher “meritocracy”? They are crushed; the system requires it. The unspoken agreement among corporate bosses is never to let the little people pit them against each other. Whether the little people are right is immaterial. Anyone who tries this must be destroyed. Even if the worker could somehow prove to HR that he was a “high performer” (whatever that means) who had a bad boss, his “boss-killer” reputation would follow him, he would be unable to join another team, and he’d be terminated within time for that reason alone. To do that is to break the one rule the corporates actually care about. Ethics, laws, and even public perceptions have flexibility, but managerial unity must never be challenged.
Fascism, like corporate management, requires a one-party system. It will never allow real elections. It will use the strangest lies to test loyalty; those who value truth too much become a problem that must be dealt with. Even when disloyalty is deserved, for the bureaucrat or manager was incompetent or abusive, fascism will not tolerate it. Fascism would rather kill innocents than risk division from below.
Understanding Complex Societies
In the next essay, I’ll answer the question, “Is the United States fascist?”
The short answer is: No. Not yet, and I hope not ever. The United States is a republic with serious problems, but none even approach the magnitude to state-level fascism.
The longer answer is… more complicated. Whether the 21st-century corporate system’s effete brand of fascism-lite can be transmuted into full-bore national fascism is a matter that remains untested. Our first true “President Corporate America” has been unpopular and largely ineffective. On the left, we ought to use his continuing failure whenever possible to embarrass the milieu from which he came.
It’s easy to understate the corporate threat, because we’ve had “corporate capitalism” for a long time, and for decades it represented no threat to our nation’s freedom at all. Why it has changed requires further analysis, and I’ll cover that in a future essay.
For now, we observe that corporate existence has primed people to accept life under, at the very least, fascism-lite. Our adversaries- people who would impose fascism if they could benefit from doing so– are collecting data, as I write this, on their workers. What do they see? I’ve been in the corporate world, so I’ve seen it as well. To impose fascism is easy. It’s like taking freedoms from a baby.
In the corporate world, when someone is fired unjustly, what do her colleagues do? Do they encourage customer boycotts? Do they threaten to quit unless the wrongly-fired employee is reinstated (or, at least, offered a reasonable severance)? Do they storm the manager’s office, like it was done back when people had the courage to handle these things properly? None of the above. They get back to work, as if it had never happened.
What about the increasing totalitarianism that corporate jobs assert over a worker’s time, living arrangements, and (in the age of technology) reputation? Have any of these people pushed back against that? No.
We feel safe, in the United States, because our “professional” middle and upper-middle classes remain notionally liberal. We should not. Their politics is the politics of not being political, which fascists (who present their own aggressive politics as not-political) love. We see how they’ve been trained to fail when put to ethical tests in the lower-stakes corporate game, and they reliably do. What’s going to happen, then, if the stakes become high? If we can’t count on them when jobs are at risk, we surely can’t count on them when freedom and lives are on the line.
The corporate world is full of of-course-I-would-hide-Anne-Frank quasi-liberals who, nonetheless, nod in agreement when some mid-level managerial thug calls one of their colleagues “a low performer”. They probably make up 85–90 percent of corporate denizens, because people of conscience don’t last long. Forgive me for not trusting them to hold society up, should it ever endure an attack of national scope.
In the next essay, we’ll assess in more detail the fascist threats to the United States, as well as why the ostensible liberalism of our popular culture is unlikely to protect us. We’ll also answer one of the most important questions that I have not yet addressed, which is motivation. Why would anyone want to turn this country fascist? What would be in it for them.
It has often been argued that a system like ours is resistant to fascism because it would not bring comfort or wealth to the current elite. To take over such a large country requires massive effort, and the financial rewards are minuscule (at absolute best) from the perspective of an upper class that, materially speaking, already has everything.
That argument is wrong. A nuanced picture of our society, and a psychographic profile elite, both of which will come in later essays, will establish their perceived gain– and it’s terrifying.
More relevantly, the vast majority of us, should fascism come to pass, will lose. Some of us, including me, will lose everything. This could become the fight of our lives. For me, for seven years, it already has been.