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Friendly Fascism (Part One of Three)

Excerpts from the book Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1980)

by Bertram Gross



Page xi

Friendly fascism portrays two conflicting trends in the United States and other countries of the so-called “free world”,

The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. This drift leads down the road toward a new and subtly manipulative form of corporatist serfdom. The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy, and Japan. It also contrasts with the friendly present of the dependent fascisms propped up by the US government in El Salvador, Haiti, Argentina, Chile, South Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere.

The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. This trend goes beyond mere reaction to authoritarianism. It transcends the activities of progressive groups or movements and their use of formal democratic machinery. It is nourished by establishment promises – too often rendered false – of more human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties. It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition. It affects power relations in the household, workplace, community, school, church, synagogue, and even the labyrinths of private and public bureaucracies. It could lead toward a truer democracy – and for this reason, is bitterly fought …

These contradictory trends are woven fine into the fabric of highly industrialized capitalism. The unfolding logic of friendly fascist corporatism is rooted in “capitalist society’s transnational growth and the groping responses to mounting crises in a dwindling capitalist world”. Mind management and sophisticated repression become more attractive to would-be oligarchs when too many people try to convert democratic promises into reality. On the other hand, the alternative logic of true democracy is rooted in “humankind’s long history of resistance to unjustified privilege” and in spontaneous or organized “reaction (other than fright or apathy) to concentrated power … and inequality, injustice or coercion”.

A few years ago too many people closed their eyes to the indicators of the first tendency.

But events soon began to change perceptions.

The Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis crept out of the woodwork. An immoral minority of demagogues took to the airwaves. “Let me tell you something about the character of God”, orated Jim Robison at a televised meeting personally endorsed by candidate Ronald Reagan. “If necessary, God would raise up a tyrant, a man who may not have the best ethics, to protect the freedom interests of the ethical and the godly”. To protect Western oil companies, candidate Jimmy Carter proclaimed presidential willingness to send American troops into the Persian Gulf. Rosalyn Carter went further by telling an lowa campaign audience: “Jimmy is not afraid to declare war”. Carter then proved himself unafraid to expand unemployment, presumably as an inflation cure, thereby reneging on his party’s past full employment declarations.

Reaching the White House with this assist from Carter (as well as from the Klan and the immoral minority of televangelicals), Reagan promptly served the immediate interests of the most powerful and the wealthiest. The Reaganites depressed real wages through the worst unemployment since the 1929~1939 depression, promoted “give backs” by labor unions, cut social programs for lower and middle-income people, expanded tax giveaways for the truly rich, boosted the military budget and warmed up the cold war. They launched savage assaults on organized labor, civil rights, and civil liberties.

Page xiii

Ronald Reagan must be the nicest president who ever destroyed a union, tried to cut school lunch milk rations from six to four ounces, and compelled families in need of public help to first dispose of household goods in excess of $1,000 … If there is an authoritarian regime in the American future, Ronald Reagan is tailored to the image of a friendly fascist.

– Economist Robert Lekachman

Page xiii

The bad news is that evil now wears a friendlier face than ever before in American history.

Like a good TV commercial, Reagan’s image goes down easy, calming his audience with sweet inversions of the truth … He has learned to liven up his every televised appearance with frequent shifts in expression, constant movements of the head, lots of warm chuckles and ironic shrugs and sudden frowns of manly purpose. Reagan is unfailingly attractive – a “nice guy”, “pure and simple”‘ … But what is really there behind the mask?

– Mark Crispin Miller

The President’s critics have many answers. Some call him “an amiable dunce”. Some see him, reports Miller, as a devil “who takes from the poor to give to the rich, has supported infanticide abroad, ravages his own countryside and props up brutal dictatorships”. Others regard him as a congenital falsifier who surrounds any half-truth with a “bodyguard of lies”. Miller himself has still another answer: there is nothing behind the mask. “The best way to keep his real self hidden” he suggests, “is not to have one … Reagan’s mask and face are as one”. To this, one might add that the Reagan image is an artfully designed blend of charisma and machismo, a combination that Kusum Singh calls charismacho.

“Princes”, wrote Machiavelli many centuries ago, “should delegate the ugly jobs to other people, and reserve the attractive functions for themselves”. In keeping with this maxim, Reagan’s less visible entourage has surrounded the President with highly visible targets of disaffection: Volcker, Stockman, Haig, Weinberger, Kirkpatrick, and Watt. In comparison, Reagan looks truly wholesome. This makes it all the more difficult to focus attention on the currents and forces behind the people behind the President – or for that matter, other less visible leaders of the American Establishment.

Page xvii

They establish America’s symbolic environment. The Reagan administration has triggered a great leap forward in the mobilization and deployment of corporatist myths. Many billions of tax-exempt funds from conservative foundations have gone into the funding of such think tanks as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. According to The Wall Street Journal, nearly three hundred economists on the staffs of conservative think tanks are part of an informal information network organized by the American Heritage Foundation alone. (This contrasts with only about two dozen economists working for trade unions, most of whom are pinned down in researching contract negotiations.)

Page xvii

Expanded government intervention into the lives of ordinary people is glorified under the slogan “getting the I government off our backs”. Decriminalization of corporate bribery, fraud and the dumping of health-killing wastes is justified under the banner of “promoting free enterprise” and countering “environmental extremists”. Private greed, gluttony, and speculation are disguised in “free market” imagery. Business corruption is hidden behind smokescreens of exaggerated attacks on the public sector. Like Trojan horses, these ideas penetrate the defenses of those opposed to any new corporatism. They establish strongholds of false consciousness and treacherous terminology in the minds not only of old-fashioned conservatives but also of the most dedicated liberals and left-wingers.

Hence on many issues the left seems bereft, the middle muddled and the right not always wrong. Other elements are thereby added to the new bill of frights.

One is a frightening retreat by liberals and leftwingers on the key gut issues of domestic policy: full employment, inflation, and crime. “Deep cynicism has been engendered in progressive circles by past experiences with ‘full employment’ legislation (as) the tail on the kite of an ever expanding military economy”. A movement for full employment without militarism or inflation is seen as dangerous by old-time labor leaders, utopian by liberals and, by some Marxists, as impossible under capitalism. Inflation is seen as a conservative issue – or else one that requires the kind of price controls that necessitate more far-reaching social controls over capital. Middle-of-the-roaders try to deal with crime by fussing too much with the details of the police-courthouse jail-parole complex and too little with the sources of low-income crime, racketeering, political corruption and crime in the executive suites. Thus the demagogues among the Reaganites and their frenetic fringes have been able to seize and keep initiatives on these issues.

Page xxiii

Power is always gradually stealing away from the many to the few, because the few are more vigilant and consistent.

– Samuel Johnson


Page 1

Looking at the present, I see a more probable future: a new despotism creeping slowly across America. Faceless oligarchs sit at command posts of a corporate-government complex that has been slowly evolving over many decades. In efforts to enlarge their own powers and privileges, they are willing to have others suffer the intended or unintended consequences of their institutional or personal greed. For Americans, these consequences include chronic inflation, recurring recession, open and hidden unemployment, the poisoning of air, water, soil and bodies, and, more important, the subversion of our constitution. More broadly, consequences include widespread intervention in international politics through economic manipulation, covert action, or military invasion …

I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds. I see pretended patriots who desecrate the American flag by waving it while waiving the law.

In this present, many highly intelligent people look with but one eye and see only one part of the emerging Leviathan. From the right, we are warned against the danger of state capitalism or state socialism, in which Big Business is dominated by Big Government. From the left, we hear that the future danger (or present reality) is monopoly capitalism, with finance capitalists dominating the state. I am prepared to offer a cheer and a half for each view; together, they make enough sense for a full three cheers. Big Business and Big Government have been learning how to live in bed together and despite arguments between them, enjoy the cohabitation. Who may be on top at any particular moment is a minor matter – and in any case, can be determined only by those with privileged access to a well-positioned keyhole.

I am uneasy with those who still adhere strictly to President Eisenhower’s warning in his farewell address against the potential for the disastrous rise of power in the hands of the military-industrial complex. Nearly two decades later, it should be clear to the opponents of militarism that the military-industrial complex does not walk alone. It has many partners: the nuclear-power complex, the technology-science complex, the energy-auto-highway complex, the banking-investment-housing complex, the city-planning-development-land-speculation complex, the agribusiness complex, the communications complex, and the enormous tangle of public bureaucracies and universities whose overt and secret services provide the foregoing with financial sustenance and a nurturing environment. Equally important, the emerging Big Business-Big Government partnership has a global reach. It is rooted in colossal transnational corporations and complexes that help knit together a “Free World” on which the sun never sets. These are elements of the new despotism.

A few years ago a fine political scientist, Kenneth Dolbeare, conducted a series of in-depth interviews totaling twenty to twenty-five hours per person. He found that most respondents were deeply afraid of some future despotism. “The most striking thing about inquiring into expectations for the future”, he reported, “is the rapidity with which the concept of fascism (with or without the label) enters the conversation”. But not all knowledge serves the cause of freedom … the tendency is to suppress fears of the future, just as most people have learned to repress fears of a nuclear holocaust. It is easier to repress well-justified fears than to control the dangers giving rise to them.

Page 3

In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote a popular novel in which a racist, anti-Semitic, flag-waving, army-backed demagogue wins the 1936 presidential election and proceeds to establish an Americanized version of Nazi Germany. The title, It Can’t Happen Here, was a tongue-in-cheek warning that it might. But the “it” Lewis referred to is unlikely to happen again any place. Even in today’s Germany, Italy or Japan, a modern-style corporate state or society would be far different from the old regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese oligarchs. Anyone looking for black shirts, mass parties, or men on horseback will miss the telltale clues of creeping fascism. In any First World country of advanced capitalism, the new fascism will be colored by national and cultural heritage, ethnic and religious composition, formal political structure, and geopolitical environment. The Japanese or German versions would be quite different from the Italian variety – and still more different from the British, French, Belgian, Dutch, Australian, Canadian, or Israeli versions. In America, it would be super-modern and multi-ethnic – as American as Madison Avenue, executive luncheons, credit cards, and apple pie. It would be fascism with a smile. As a warning against its cosmetic facade, subtle manipulation, and velvet gloves, I call it friendly fascism. What scares me most is its subtle appeal.

I am worried by those who fail to remember – or have never learned – that Big Business-Big Government partnerships, backed up by other elements, were the central facts behind the power structures of old fascism in the days of Mussolini, Hitler, and the Japanese empire builders.

I am worried by those who quibble about labels. Some of my friends seem transfixed by the idea that if it is fascism, it must appear in the classic, unfriendly form of their youth. “Why, oh why”, they retrospectively moan, “didn’t people see what was happening during the 1920s and the 1930s?” But in their own blindness, they are willing to use the terms invented by the fascist ideologists, “corporate state” or “corporatism”, but not fascism.

I am upset with those who prefer to remain spectators until it may be too late. I am shocked by those who seem to believe in Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s words of 1940 – that “there is no fighting the wave of the future” and all you can do is “leap with it”. I am appalled by those who stiffly maintain that nothing can be done until things get worse or the system has been changed.

I am afraid of inaction. I am afraid of those who will heed no warnings and who wait for some revelation, research, or technology to offer a perfect solution. I am afraid of those who do not see that some of the best in America have been the product of promises and that the promises of the past are not enough for the future. I am dismayed by those who will not hope, who will not commit themselves to something larger than themselves, of those who are afraid of true democracy or even its pursuit.

Page 5

I suspect that many people underestimate both the dangers that lie ahead and the potential strength of those who seem weak and powerless. Either underestimation stems, I think, from fear of bucking the Establishment … a deep and well-hidden fear …

… the fanfare of elections and “participatory” democracy usually disguises business-government control.


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