Thursday, June 24, 2010

What Was Fascism?

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

As Karl Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation, a prescient book published in 1944, the very breadth and intensity of fascist movements after the Great Depression means that none can be reduced entirely to local causes. Rather, the collapse of market economies ushered such movements into a variety of states, with only a few succeeding. The collapse of the market image of society in the Depression amplified regional and local resentments already there. As Polanyi says, “It was in the third period–after 1929–that the true significance of fascism became apparent...Until then fascism had been hardly more than a trait in Italy’s authoritarian government...It now emerged as an alternative solution of the problem of industrial society. Germany took the lead in a revolution of European scope...” (p. 252). 
While containing a few socialist ideas at first fascism in power retained capitalist ownership, created a one party system, defined Jews, homosexuals, the Romani, social democrats, Bolsheviks, the incapacitated, and “degenerate” artists as constituencies to be excluded, placed in concentration camps or exterminated, and mobilized the general populace for internal repression and external aggression. Its success grew out of resonances back and forth between local, church, gestapo, neighborhood, police and military interventions, in which local resentments were linked to the larger condition of economic failure.
Fascism is extreme and scary. So today the Right must not allow it to be remembered as a reaction to the failure of unfettered marketeerism. Thus publicists such as Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism now redefine it to mean any large intervention of the state into the economy, even if it is to reduce poverty, respond to recession, regulate capital more carefully, or respond to global warming. Keynesianism, the New Deal, anti poverty programs, are now placed under the umbrella of “liberal fascism”, even though these developments in the thirties actually helped to ward off the fascist potential simmering in several states. Goldberg is the most literate of a band of media talking heads such as Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity who identify the large state as such with the drive to fascism. But why ignore its one party character?  That fact must be avoided to push the equation between state size and fascist tendency. Okay, Why insist that a large state is key? 
That claim allows the contemporary Right to ignore or deny how market failure spurred  fascist reactions the first time around and to insist that a minimally regulated economy is the only way to avoid the danger now. To the extent an underregulated market allows inequality, global warming, and a extreme boom/bust cycle, to that extent all social movements and state actions designed to ward off those effects can now be deemed irrational and counterproductive. Hence the need to evade how unfettered capitalism promotes global warming.
This rewriting of the history of fascism is dangerous partly because of the neoliberal fantasy it protects, partly because of the state repression of minorities it sanctions, and partly because of the orientation to the future it adopts. It is thus also pertinent to see that the Goldberg/Beck revisionism is not exactly new. Its roots are located in academic neoliberals, starting as early as middle nineteen thirties. As Michel Foucault has shown in The Birth of Biopolitics, in the middle thirties a group of German and French neoliberals began to redefine classic market theory: first, to claim that its collapse was not a major source of the fascist reactions; second, to redefine the ideal itself so that rather than the state leaving the market alone (the laissez faire model) the state must now become an active, meticulous supporter of social arrangements to fit workers, consumers, and schools to the dictates of market society; and, third, to claim that an unfettered market provided the best possible organization of society. Friedrich Hayek offered a moderate version of this view in The Road to Serfdom, and others pushed it even more actively.
Thus the story told by Goldberg et al is a radicalization and simplification of a long term neoliberal theme that has now gained hegemony on Fox News, financial TV Shows, numerous right wing think tanks, the corporate right, and a large section of the white middle class. 
It is easy to see why the corporate/financial right supports this historical revisionism and the neoliberal imaginary. It vindicates the extreme rewards to which they feel extremely entitled. But why does a large section of the white middle class buy into the neoliberal fantasy while also supporting anti-minority, nationalizing drives that actually foment a large, active, aggressive state? Perhaps it is partly because that myth is the only story currently available that allows those caught in the pressure cooker of contemporary life to imagine individual ways to escape the binds they are in (by winning a lottery, starting a small business, becoming a great athlete or a beautiful model, etc), while it also allows them to vent their dissaffection on those below them. Whatever the sources--and we must come to understand them better–the result a dangerous constellation of forces and ideas.

So, then, a few “talking points”:
1) Fascism, the first time around, emerged as a response in several countries to the failure of unfettered market economies.

2) Social democrats stood heroically against its consolidation in Hitler’s Germany. But Jews, Communists, homosexuals, the Romani and other minorities were not able to act politically against it(to say the least), while several other sections either pursued or silently accepted consolidation of the fascist state.

3)A fascist state is not any large state. Contemporary states shaped by neoliberal ideology are themselves large–-a fact many seek to explain away. A fascist state is a large, one party, bellicose nationalizing state built around an ideal of purity (racist or religious) that feeds on war and the violent repression of minorities.

4) The right wing redefinition of fascism ignores the historical failure of the neoliberal imaginary as well as deflecting attention from the distinctive character of a fascist state.

5) The intensity of the desire to deny or evade the historical connection between the collapse of the pure market ideal and the rise of fascist movements reflects an imperious sense of special entitlement among the corporate right (not all corporate figures are on the right) and an insistent response by a large section of the white middle class to real binds facing it. 
It may be incumbent upon the democratic left to publicize these points as we encourage the white middle class to redefine the sources of its grievances and the actual remedies for them. The complicated task is to identify the dangers reactionary social movements promote while speaking sympathetically to the binds that usher them into being.


  1. This is a wonderful analysis of fascism. By manipulating the image of fascism, corporate elites are able to turn the people against their own interests. It is hard to say where we will be in the next few years.

  2. If anything, Fascism is a movement/concept on the Right of the political spectrum. At least that's what I had in mind before reading this. This work seems to confirm that.