Living in a Fascist State
On message - By Lewis H. Lapham
"But I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, then Fascism and Communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory Republicanism, will grow in strength in our land." -Franklin D. Roosevelt, November 4, 1938
10/21/06 "Harper's Magazine", October 2005, pps. 7-9 -- -- In 1938 the word "fascism" hadn't yet been transferred into an abridged metaphor for all the world's unspeakable evil and monstrous crime, and on coming across President Roosevelt's prescient remark in one of Umberto Eco's essays, I could read it as prose instead of poetry -- a reference not to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or the pit of Hell but to the political theories that regard individual citizens as the property of the government, happy villagers glad to wave the flags and wage the wars, grateful for the good fortune that placed them in the care of a sublime leader. Or, more emphatically, as Benito Mussolini liked to say, "Everything in the state. Nothing outside the state. Nothing against the state."
The theories were popular in Europe in the 1930s (cheering crowds, rousing band music, splendid military uniforms), and in the United States they numbered among their admirers a good many important people who believed that a somewhat modified form of fascism (power vested in the banks and business corporations instead of with the army) would lead the country out of the wilderness of the Great Depression -- put an end to the Pennsylvania labor troubles, silence the voices of socialist heresy and democratic dissent. Roosevelt appreciated the extent of fascism's popularity at the political box office; so does Eco, who takes pains in the essay "Ur-Fascism," published in The New York Review of Books in 1995, to suggest that it's a mistake to translate fascism into a figure of literary speech. By retrieving from our historical memory only the vivid and familiar images of fascist tyranny (Gestapo firing squads, Soviet labor camps, the chimneys at Treblinka), we lose sight of the faith-based initiatives that sustained the tyrant's rise to glory. The several experiments with fascist government, in Russia and Spain as well as in Italy and Germany, didn't depend on a single portfolio of dogma, and so Eco, in search of their common ground, doesn't look for a unifying principle or a standard text. He attempts to describe a way of thinking and a habit of mind, and on sifting through the assortment of fantastic and often contradictory notions -- Nazi paganism, Franco's National Catholicism, Mussolini's corporatism, etc. -- he finds a set of axioms on which all the fascisms agree. Among the most notable:
The truth is revealed once and only once.
Parliamentary democracy is by definition rotten because it doesn't represent the voice of the people, which is that of the sublime leader.
Doctrine outpoints reason, and science is always suspect.
Critical thought is the province of degenerate intellectuals, who betray the culture and subvert traditional values.
The national identity is provided by the nation's enemies.
Argument is tantamount to treason.
Perpetually at war, the state must govern with the instruments of fear. Citizens do not act; they play the supporting role of "the people" in the grand opera that is the state.
Eco published his essay ten years ago, when it wasn't as easy as it has since become to see the hallmarks of fascist sentiment in the character of an American government. Roosevelt probably wouldn't have been surprised.
He'd encountered enough opposition to both the New Deal and to his belief in such a thing as a United Nations to judge the force of America's racist passions and the ferocity of its anti-intellectual prejudice. As he may have guessed, so it happened. The American democracy won the battles for Normandy and Iwo Jima, but the victories abroad didn't stem the retreat of democracy at home, after 1968 no longer moving "forward as a living force, seeking day and night to better the lot" of its own citizens, and now that sixty years have passed since the bomb fell on Hiroshima, it doesn't take much talent for reading a cashier's scale at Wal-Mart to know that it is fascism, not democracy, that won the heart and mind of America's "Greatest Generation," added to its weight and strength on America's shining seas and fruited plains.
A few sorehead liberal intellectuals continue to bemoan the fact, write books about the good old days when everybody was in charge of reading his or her own mail. I hear their message and feel their pain, share their feelings of regret, also wish that Cole Porter was still writing songs, that Jean Harlow and Robert Mitchum hadn't quit making movies. But what's gone is gone, and it serves nobody's purpose to deplore the fact that we're not still riding in a coach to Philadelphia with Thomas Jefferson. The attitude is cowardly and French, symptomatic of effete aesthetes who refuse to change with the times.
As set forth in Eco's list, the fascist terms of political endearment are refreshingly straightforward and mercifully simple, many of them already accepted and understood by a gratifyingly large number of our most forward-thinking fellow citizens, multitasking and safe with Jesus. It does no good to ask the weakling's pointless question, "Is America a fascist state?" We must ask instead, in a major rather than a minor key, "Can we make America the best damned fascist state the world has ever seen," an authoritarian paradise deserving the admiration of the international capital markets, worthy of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind"? I wish to be the first to say we can. We're Americans; we have the money and the know-how to succeed where Hitler failed, and history has favored us with advantages not given to the early pioneers.
We don't have to burn any books.
The Nazis in the 1930s were forced to waste precious time and money on the inoculation of the German citizenry, too well-educated for its own good, against the infections of impermissible thought. We can count it as a blessing that we don't bear the burden of an educated citizenry. The systematic destruction of the public-school and library systems over the last thirty years, a program wisely carried out under administrations both Republican and Democratic, protects the market for the sale and distribution of the government's propaganda posters. The publishing companies can print as many books as will guarantee their profit (books on any and all subjects, some of them even truthful), but to people who don't know how to read or think, they do as little harm as snowflakes falling on a frozen pond.
We don't have to disturb, terrorize, or plunder the bourgeoisie.
In Communist Russia as well as in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the codes of social hygiene occasionally put the regime to the trouble of smashing department-store windows, beating bank managers to death, inviting opinionated merchants on complimentary tours (all expenses paid, breathtaking scenery) of Siberia. The resorts to violence served as study guides for free, thinking businessmen reluctant to give up on the democratic notion that the individual citizen is entitled to an owner's interest in his or her own mind.
The difficulty doesn't arise among people accustomed to regarding themselves as functions of a corporation. Thanks to the diligence of out news media and the structure of our tax laws, our affluent and suburban classes have taken to heart the lesson taught to the aspiring serial killers rising through the ranks at West Point and the Harvard Business School -- think what you're told to think, and not only do you get to keep the house in Florida or command of the Pentagon press office but on some sunny prize day not far over the horizon, the compensation committee will hand you a check for $40 million, or President George W. Bush will bestow on you the favor of a nickname as witty as the ones that on good days elevate Karl Rove to the honorific "Boy Genius," on bad days to the disappointed but no less affectionate "Turd Blossom." Who doesn't now know that the corporation is immortal, that it is the corporation that grants the privilege of an identity, confers meaning on one's life, gives the pension, a decent credit rating, and the priority standing in the community? Of course the corporation reserves the right to open one's email, test one's blood, listen to the phone calls, examine one's urine, hold the patent on the copyright to any idea generated on its premises. Why ever should it not? As surely as the loyal fascist knew that it was his duty to serve the state, the true American knows that it is his duty to protect the brand.
Having met many fine people who come up to the corporate mark -- on golf courses and commuter trains, tending to their gardens in Fairfield County while cutting back the payrolls in Michigan and Mexico -- I'm proud to say (and I think I speak for all of us here this evening with Senator Clinton and her lovely husband) that we're blessed with a bourgeoisie that will welcome fascism as gladly as it welcomes the rain in April and the sun in June. No need to send for the Gestapo or the NKVD; it will not be necessary to set examples.
We don't have to gag the press or seize the radio stations.
People trained to the corporate style of thought and movement have no further use for free speech, which is corrupting, overly emotional, reckless, and ill-informed, not calibrated to the time available for television talk or to the performance standards of a Super Bowl halftime show. It is to our advantage that free speech doesn't meet the criteria of the free market. We don't require the inspirational genius of a Joseph Goebbels; we can rely instead on the dictates of the Nielsen ratings and the camera angles, secure in the knowledge that the major media syndicates run the business on strictly corporatist principles -- afraid of anything disruptive or inappropriate, committed to the promulgation of what is responsible, rational, and approved by experts. Their willingness to stay on message is a credit to their professionalism.
The early twentieth-century fascists had to contend with individuals who regarded their freedom of _expression as a necessity -- the bone and marrow of their existence, how they recognized themselves as human beings. Which was why, if sometimes they refused appointments to the state-run radio stations, they sometimes were found dead on the Italian autostrada or drowned in the Kiel Canal. The authorities looked upon their deaths as forms of self-indulgence. The same attitude governs the agreement reached between labor and management at our leading news organizations. No question that the freedom of speech is extended to every American -- it says so in the Constitution -- but the privilege is one that musn't be abused. Understood in a proper and financially rewarding light, freedom of speech is more trouble than it's worth -- a luxury comparable to owning a racehorse and likely to bring with it little else except the risk of being made to look ridiculous. People who learn to conduct themselves in a manner respectful of the telephone tap and the surveillance camera have no reason to fear the fist of censorship. By removing the chore of having to think for oneself, one frees up more leisure time to enjoy the convenience of the Internet services that know exactly what one likes to hear and see and wear and eat. We don't have to murder the intelligentsia.
Here again, we find ourselves in luck. The society is so glutted with easy entertainment that no writer or company of writers is troublesome enough to warrant the compliment of an arrest, or even the courtesy of a sharp blow to the head. What passes for the American school of dissent talks exclusively to itself in the pages of obscure journals, across the coffee cups in Berkeley and Park Slope, in half-deserted lecture halls in small Midwestern colleges. The author on the platform or the beach towel can be relied upon to direct his angriest invective at the other members of the academy who failed to drape around the title of his latest book the garland of a rave review.
The blessings bestowed by Providence place America in the front rank of nations addressing the problems of a twenty-first century, certain to require bold geopolitical initiatives and strong ideological solutions. How can it be otherwise? More pressing demands for always scarcer resources; ever larger numbers of people who cannot be controlled except with an increasingly heavy hand of authoritarian guidance. Who better than the Americans to lead the fascist renaissance, set the paradigm, order the preemptive strikes? The existence of mankind hangs in the balance; failure is not an option. Where else but in America can the world find the visionary intelligence to lead it bravely into the future -- Donald Rumsfeld our Dante, Turd Blossom our Michelangelo?
I don't say that over the last thirty years we haven't made brave strides forward. By matching Eco's list of fascist commandments against our record of achievement, we can see how well we've begun the new project for the next millennium -- the notion of absolute and eternal truth embraced by the evangelical Christians and embodied in the strict constructions of the Constitution; our national identity provided by anonymous Arabs; Darwin's theory of evolution rescinded by the fiat of "intelligent design"; a state of perpetual war and a government administering, in generous and daily doses, the drug of fear; two presidential elections stolen with little or no objection on the part of a complacent populace; the nation's congressional districts gerrymandered to defend the White House for the next fifty years against the intrusion of a liberal-minded president; the news media devoted to the arts of iconography, busily minting images of corporate executives like those of the emperor heroes on the coins of ancient Rome.
An impressive beginning, in line with what the world has come to expect from the innovative Americans, but we can do better. The early twentieth-century fascisms didn't enter their golden age until the proletariat in the countries that gave them birth had been reduced to abject poverty. The music and the marching songs rose with the cry of eagles from the wreckage of the domestic economy. On the evidence of the wonderful work currently being done by the Bush Administration with respect to the trade deficit and the national debt -- to say nothing of expanding the markets for global terrorism -- I think we can look forward with confidence to character-building bankruptcies, picturesque bread riots, thrilling cavalcades of splendidly costumed motorcycle police.