Friendly Fascism – Are We There Yet?

Banksy graffito

Friendly Fascism – Are We There Yet?

Imagine the following. The leader of a communist or Islamist dictatorship

• orders his secret police to kidnap anyone he declares a ‘terrorist’ and incarcerate them in secret prisons where they are held for years without charge and abused or tortured

• maintains a huge, secret state-within-the-state outside parliamentary or judicial oversight

• maintains a spy network of total surveillance of the communications of his own population deterring people from exercising their freedom of speech and assembly

• orders the murder of his own and foreign citizens on foreign soil

• orders the murder of foreign scientists working on another country’s nuclear energy program

• in undeclared wars sends unmanned drones to foreign countries to murder unconvicted ‘suspects’ and their families

• ignores the ancient and essential basis of the rule of law: habeas corpus, due process and ‘innocent until proven guilty’

• even makes indefinite incarceration by his military without charge or trial a permanent feature of the legal system

• frequently and publicly praises the military as providing ‘a lesson in our national character’ and as the one backbone of the nation which he wants everyone to emulate

Imagine the media coverage such a communist or Islamist dictator would receive in the West. Horror. Disgust. Outrage. Rogue State. Totalitarianism. Fascism. Appeals to the international community to impose sanctions or intervene militarily. Threats of war in the name of human rights, the rule of law, democracy.

This leader exists. He is against communists and violent Islamists. His name is Barack Obama, constitutional lawyer, Nobel Peace Prize winner, President of the United States, that self-styled international beacon of democracy and the rule of law. He is simply continuing the work of his several predecessors, further turning the US ever more into a post-liberal, authoritarian ‘security state’ waging perpetual war and in which the rule of law has been subverted in many key areas under the latest pretext: fighting terrorism. Similar, albeit as yet less militarised, repressive developments have occurred in many advanced industrial states in Europe and elsewhere, including Australia.

There is no outrage in the Western media. There is almost no critical coverage of these ominous developments. Of course this is nothing new: within the corporate media, ethical double standards have always held sway; outrageous when ‘they’ do it, OK when ‘we’ do it. Even when liberal and mildly critical, their core job has always been to provide legitimacy for the capitalist-imperial system itself and to ‘manufacture consent’ (Chomsky & Herman). In their silence, condoning and collusion, the media owners and managers are themselves an important section of the ruling elites responsible for this slide into a post-liberal, authoritarian state.

Liberal mainstream progressives are also co-responsible for the normalisation of the unconscionable. They tend to focus exclusively on the machinations and cretinism of the lunar right. However, especially when the chief executive is a quietly-spoken, ‘cool’, ‘reasonable’, ‘left of centre’ social democrat/liberal, much non-radical grassroots protest and dissent, itself often imbued with double standards, tends to self-pacify and weaken ‒ which is another reason for the progressives’ greater usefulness for the ruling oligarchies in terms of system stabilisation. This lack of radical critique of social democratic politicians in turn results in state-sponsored murder, torture, war crimes becoming even more normalized, mundane. As Phil Rockstroh summarizes:

As exhibited by the often bland, ‘normal’ outward appearance of a serial killer, when the apologists and operatives of an exploitive, destructive system appear to be reasonable, they can go about their business without creating general alarm. By the same token, while many present day Republicans are zealots ‒ barnburners raving into the flames of the conflagrations created by the militarist/national security/police/prison industrial state ‒ Barack Obama and the Democratic Party serve as normalizers of the pathologies of late empire.
In this manner, atrocious acts can be committed by the state, with increasing frequency, because, over the passage of time, such outrages will have been allowed to pass into the realm of the mundane, and are thus bestowed with a patina of acceptability. (

As long as there are no actual ‘jackboots on the streets’, all may seem well to a large part of the liberal-progressive spectrum. As Thomas Harrington puts it:

Yes, I know that habeas corpus is gone, that the officer class in the military is more loyal to the own caste and the Republican party than the Constitution, that there is an incestuous alliance between big business and government, that systemic critiques of the nation’s core foreign policy goals are not tolerated within mainstream political discourse, that spying and informing on innocent citizens is rampant, that there is a small army of intelligence operatives carrying out “patriotic” missions that will never be subject to any public scrutiny never mind public sanction, that clearly illegal acts or torture and domestic espionage have been retroactively immunized by congress with the full complicity of both parties, that the president is now openly murdering US citizens, but there are still no jackboots in the streets! ( on 12 January 2012)

It is, however, important to stress that a post-liberal, militarized, more authoritarian state is not, or not yet, a fascist one, at least in the traditional sense. To avoid political confusion and unproductive polemics, the emotive ‘fascist’ descriptor should only be used with analytical evidence, coherence and precision. The US and Australia can obviously not yet be compared to North Korea, China, Russia. Today there are still largely functioning courts of law (as there still were under Mussolini, by the way), freedom of speech, protest and dissent are still possible, albeit within the usual tightly restrictive limits. There is no explicit one party monopoly of power, although the two main parties substantially represent nothing but the two wings of Capital. There are no storm troopers beating up opponents, Gestapo knocking on doors or concentration camps for the opposition or minority scapegoats. There has been no fascist revolution led by some charismatic dictator abolishing electoral democracy and taking over the state. People can still write essays like this and not land in jail, although they might be recorded in the files of the secret police.

Two succinct attempts at an academic definition of classical fascism may help define the difference. The first by Michael Mann, professor of sociology at UCLA, the second by Robert Paxton, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University:

Fascism is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism. (Mann, Fascists, 2004, p. 13)

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a massed-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, 2004, p. 218)

Instead, the undemocratic extension of executive power and tyranny in the US and elsewhere in the West has come on cat’s paws. There has been a gradual, and increasing, process of concentrating executive power and concomitant internal weakening of the formal checks and balances of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law along the lines that even ‘father of the US Constitution’ James Madison outlined in 1788:

I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

It is also important to stress that this ongoing process of subverting constitutional government and formal democracy is no coordinated conspiracy by a few evil-doers in back rooms. The increasing centralisation of executive power is, rather, a systemic development, a result of the inherent and complex logic of events and challenges in globalised capitalism and inter-imperial rivalry since 1945.

Despite conflicts and disputes among various sections of the ruling oligarchies in Big Government and Big Business, the authoritarian, post-liberal system developing today may be, to use Bertram Gross’ term, an incipient ‘friendly fascism’ evolving out of a systemic post-war logic of capitalist and imperial/state development that is now perhaps coming to a head in a new intensity of shrinking resources and global economic and ecological crisis as the American Empire wanes and the Chinese rises. Already in 1980 Gross was asking:

How are the leaders of the ‘Free World’, the Golden International, and the US Establishment responding to the challenges that face them? […] As I survey the entire panorama of contending forces, I can readily detect […] the outline of a powerful logic of events. This logic points toward tighter integration of every First World Establishment. In the United States it points toward more concentrated, unscrupulous, repressive, and militaristic control by a Big Business-Big Government partnership that – to preserve the privileges of the ultra-rich, the corporate overseers, and the brass in the military and civilian order – squelches the rights and liberties of other people both at home and abroad. That is friendly fascism. (Friendly Fascism, 1980, p. 161).

Gross could see these authoritarian developments already in the 1970s and then significantly increasing under the neo-liberal Reagan administration. However he did not see the US of the Cold War as being a form of ‘friendly fascism’ as yet; it was merely a trend towards a possible future about which he was warning. The question today is whether the US and others have now moved much closer to this kind of post-liberal system or are in fact already there.

Although stressing the differences to classic fascism, according to Gross this new possibility of ‘friendly fascism’ of course also contains some similarities:

In each, a powerful oligarchy operates outside of, as well as through, the state. Each subverts constitutional government. Each suppresses rising demands for wider participation in decision making, the enforcement and enlargement of human rights, and genuine democracy. Each uses informational control and ideological flimflam to get lower- and middle-class support for plans to expand the capital and power of the oligarchy and provide suitable rewards for political, professional, scientific, and cultural supporters. (ibid., p. 169)

His words on a major, and ironic, difference to classic fascism also seem quite prescient in the context of the hegemony of the IMF/World Bank/WTO and financial capital over whole nations and government multi-trillion dollar bailouts of finance capital since 2008 and thus transfer of private toxic debts to the public purse:

A major difference is that under friendly fascism Big Government would do less pillaging of, and more pillaging for, Big Business. With much more integration than ever among transnational corporations, Big Business would run less risk of control by any one state and enjoy more subservience by many states. (pp. 169-171)

To anyone with an open mind, thirty years of neo-liberalism and the latest financial crisis of capitalism have surely revealed the ‘subservience of many states’ to Big Business. Whether our always corporatist, increasingly authoritarian systems are yet fully ‘friendly fascist’ or not, the term is useful in drawing attention to the disquieting nature of the new post-liberal states we live in: these strange hybrids of, on the one hand, increasing executive power, militarisation, weakening of civil rights and the rule of law, general strengthening of the populist, nationalist and neo-fascist right in many countries, Orwellian state repression, surveillance and siege-mentalities, and on the other hand, Huxleyan shopping-fun-and-permanent-entertainment. Perhaps we are moving into something like a new social formation ruled by a deeply oligarchic and autocratic ‘surveillance-industrial-entertainment-disaster complex’ within the continuing historical trajectory of capitalism and imperialism.

However, while we ponder whether we are in a form of ‘friendly fascism’ already or simply continue to ‘amuse ourselves to death’ (Neil Postman), the millions of invisible ‘unpeople’ at the receiving end of the militarised US empire in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the transnationals’ ultra-capitalist and exploitative factories in the emerging and developing countries producing our affluent commodities ‒ all these people would probably have a quite different view of its ‘friendliness’, fascist or not.

Image by Banksy

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on March 2, 2012.

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