Yves here. Rob Urie follows up on a recent post in which his use of the term “fascist Left” elicited a great deal of reader consternation. Rob today describes actions and policies in the US that are not hugely different from those of European fascism of the interwar and World War II period.
By Rob Urie, author of Zen Economics, artist, and musician who publishes The Journal of Belligerent Pontification on Substack
“Is fascism merely a dictatorial force in the service of capitalism? That may not be all it is, but that certainly is an important part of fascism‘s raison d’etre, the function Hitler himself kept referring to when he talked about saving the industrialists and bankers from Bolshevism.” Michael Parenti, Blackshirts and Reds.
The question of fascism in the US of A is both tedious and necessary because of the ways in which the term has been weaponized in recent years. It is tedious in that 99.8% or so of commenters using the term emerge from a particular hegemonic framework (liberal / idealist) that excludes relevant information regarding fascist practice and violence. This creates an ‘other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play’ gap in the Western narratives purporting to explain it. It also leaves behind the sense, as with mainstream accounts of the US proxy war in Ukraine, that the veracity of analyses is limited by the way in which the problems they purport to address are framed.
Because how this question of fascism is framed substantially determines the range of information that emerges from analysis, strong claims one way or another become a function of how questions are asked rather than simply revealing the truth of history. For instance, following from WWI, German anti-Semitism was fed through the conflation of ‘Jewishness’ with Bolshevism. The first to be interned in German concentration camps were German communists, not Jews as might be imagined today. A question worth asking then is why one group is considered ‘worthy victims’ while another is considered good riddance?
The ’American’ take on European fascism of the twentieth century has focused more on what are claimed to be historical breaks rather than continuities. The formerly Left conception of German fascism as racialized capitalist imperialism begs the question of which imperialism didn’t develop legitimating narratives that places their victims as victimizers? American slavers maintained that slavery elevated slaves by exposing them to ‘advanced’ culture to which slaves could aspire. Depending on which historian you choose, the concept of race either emerged from American slavery or informed it. Was European fascism then an historical break or a continuity?
In 1917, US President, ‘progressive’ Democrat, racist crank, and proto-fascist Woodrow Wilson created the anodyne sounding Committee on Public Information to sell WWI to the American people. The Committee later served as the model for the German fascists’ propaganda efforts. Wilson’s Progressive ‘science’ substantially informed fascist race ‘science.’ The American eugenics program informed the German fascist program to exterminate ‘undesirables.’ Wilson was still prosecuting the Indian Wars in the US when the German fascists came to power. And in 1919 Wilson launched the Palmer Raids that rounded up American dissidents and put them in concentration camps, then known as ‘prisons.’
The second industrial revolution in the US (1860 or thereabouts) was contemporaneous with the launch-in-earnest of the Indian Wars. Prior to industrialization, Federal plans had been to create side-by-side nations where the indigenous (‘tribes’ if you prefer) would rule themselves. However, industrialization led to the use of natural resources on a scale never before imagined. The US had many of the natural resources needed for industrialization within its borders. The ‘problem’ was that many of these resources were on land occupied by the indigenous. The Indian Wars were a form of internal imperialism, complete with rococo, race based, explanations of why these resources rightfully belonged to American industrialists.
Taken together, and based on multiple accounts including that of contemporary American liberal Adam Tooze in The Wages of Destruction, the German fascists wanted to recreate what the Americans had using the methods the Americans had used to create it. According to Tooze, the German fascists concluded that Germany lacked the quantity and variety of natural resources needed to fulfil their ambitions to follow the American model of industrialization internally, hence their plan to conquer Europe, and in particular, Russia, in order to take them. From a Marxist frame, the German fascists look like ordinary imperialists with a racialized component.
In 1917 Woodrow Wilson joined the Brits and French in sending troops, in Wilson’s case, the American Expeditionary Force, to ‘manage’ the Bolshevik Revolution as WWI became the first industrial war of attrition. As with the recent ‘surge’ in Ukraine, global elites bickered as citizen-soldiers were gratuitously placed in front of machine-gun fire to die. The class-divide, where wealthy elites made decisions and bank while citizen-soldiers were slaughtered on an industrial scale, led to the utter brutality of WWII. European fascism didn’t arise in a vacuum. And much of its bitterness emerged from the slaughter of WWI.
While American Jim Crow laws provided the model for German fascist race laws, American Progressive ‘race science,’ a/k/a scientific racism, provided the pseudo-scientific basis for the extermination of ‘undesirables.’ American eugenics laws based in Progressive science led to the involuntary sterilization of 70,000 poor women in the US. And again, the Indian Wars were still underway in the US when the German fascists began their ascent to power. Add in US imperialism, its ethos explicated below by former US General Smedley Butler, and German fascism appears to be more an historical continuity than a break.
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.(Former US General) Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket.
Anyone who imagines that the imperial subjects to whom (former US General) Smedley Butler refers were treated decently, as ‘free’ citizens of their respective nations, would be wrong. Referring to earlier imperial history, from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States,
“When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.” Howard Zinn
This all may seem to be ancient history. But that view requires evidence of an historical break rather than continuity. Following WWII thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of German fascists were recruited by the CIA and American industry to labor for the Americans. Klaus Barbie, the ‘Butcher of Lyon,’ helped the CIA torture and murder Che Guevara. Via the Cold War, German fascists essentially resumed their fascist project in league with the Americans. Former New York Times reporter, and seemingly decent fellow despite his employment history, Eric Lichtblau, has written extensively about the integration of German fascists into the American mainstream.
Interestingly, Lichtblau saves his most bitter recrimination for the aftermath of WWII. While the simple explanation is that it is the subject of his book, readers are encouraged to view Lichtblau’s talks on the internet (see here, here) for details and nuance. Lichtblau charges that US General George Patton was a vicious anti-Semite, in a manner common to Western imperialists.
September 15, 1945: Evidently the virus started by Morgenthau and Baruch of a Semitic revenge against all Germans is still working. … Harrison and his ilk believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals. George Patton, diary entry.
Readers are invited to consider how this ties to view from the Biden administration, the CIA, and MI6, that the Russians in 2023 are stupid, dirty, people that any American could beat in a fight because ‘we’ are innately superior. Again, hold any view toward the US proxy war in Ukraine that you care to. What this racist precept illustrates is the persistence of imperialist logic with respect to the ‘deserving’ nature of those on the receiving end imperial ambitions.
As if on cue, Politico recently published an article entitled Fighting against the USSR didn’t necessarily make you a Nazi, arguing that even though the US was allied with Russia in WWII, it would have been logical for Americans to attack their ally, rather than ‘the enemy.’ Democrat Hillary Clinton called for Americans with whom she disagrees politically to be ‘re-educated,’ presumably in ‘re-education camps’ similar to those created by the American Progressives who kidnapped indigenous children to assimilate them into the broader culture. And the Canadian Parliament gave a standing ovation to a WWII-era Galician (Ukrainian) fascist who has been accused of war crimes.
The premise of the Politico article is a bit of induction, proceeding from the idea that wars are fought over ideology rather than material conditions. This ties to the post-2016 American liberal view that it is the beliefs of those who chose not to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 that makes them dangerous, and not the meager politics they are able to craft. Author and activist Chris Hedges recently penned an article in which he articulated the fear that re-electing Donald Trump will result in an increase in political violence.
However, causes matter. That is why I have argued for more than a decade that unless American capitalism is resolved with something like a return to the New Deal, fascism would be the likely result. However, this formulation ignores how miserable American capitalism has been for Americans in good times. Counter to Hedges, whom I have the highest regard for, the liberal fear of political violence begs the question of where they have been for the last three centuries? Unless one buys the theory of American exceptionalism, what elevates Liberal violence above fascist violence?
A Tangent Before Tying This Together
With apologies for getting personal, my own story is relevant here. Seven years ago, my spouse and I rebuilt (as in did the work) an abandoned house in a poor and working class, majority Black (98%), neighborhood in the Northeastern US. We went to lengths to assure that we weren’t gentrifying— 90% of the surrounding houses are Section 8. When we arrived, mass shootings were common. For five of these seven years, conditions improved, and the violence abated. Beginning two years ago, the gunfire returned. Beginning six months ago, the murders returned. We are now regularly treated to running gun battles immediately in front of and behind our home.
Graph: Most Americans likely imagine that life expectancy is about the same for all of us, made variable by ‘lifestyle choices.’ In fact, the rich live about fifteen years longer than the poor in the US due to a combination of having nutritious food to eat, receiving adequate healthcare, including dental, and having lower levels of stress. The TED Talk fantasies about new lifesaving medical technologies provide cover for a healthcare system that has the worst outcomes in the developed world. Most Americans would be stunned at how little regulation is applied to medical devices. Many ordinary procedures have zero empirical research to support them. They are make -work programs for medical scamsters. Source: vox.com.
Over the time that we have lived here, we have seen a generation grow from kids to teens and from teens to young adults. Now, take any sense you might have that their lives are any more or less valuable than those of you and yours or me and mine and toss it in the garbage where it belongs. The people are beautiful and complicated. The adult men share 99% of the views, call it a ‘class view,’ with their white counterparts. They want social prestige, decent employment, and to see their kids do well. The difference is, due to this region having been intentionally deindustrialized in the 1960s – 1970s, the kids face a black hole when it comes to what to do after High School.
While racism is usually called upon to explain the bleak futures these children face, a preponderance of the people keeping this city poor proudly, loudly, and repeatedly, call themselves anti-racists. Leaders of a nearby religious community recently set up an illegal SRO (single-room occupancy) in the house two down from ours where they placed fifteen special needs residents in a five-bedroom house with a single bathroom. The residents each paid $1,600 per month (15 X $1,600 = $24,000 per month) for the privilege. When rain poured through the ceiling and the toilet stopped flushing, the residents called the Code Office and were summarily evicted.
I make it a practice to speak with homeless people when they can be so-identified to learn their stories. I recently engaged a homeless man around thirty years old with a welder’s license, who lost his job, was evicted, and now lives in his car with his pregnant wife. Another friend sleeps in the cemetery during the summer and takes odd jobs when he can find them. He begged me for help finding full-time employment. But without a telephone or an address, or any realistic way of faking these to get him a job, there is little I can do. I recently had to talk another friend who was despondent because he couldn’t find a job out of killing himself. Three times over three months. He is a car and motorcycle mechanic.
The point is that the Liberal distinction between passive and active violence makes more sense to the well-to-do than to the poor. If the world doesn’t owe us a living, then why the persistence of class? Some people are born with a living provided while most aren’t. Those who aren’t face exponentially higher levels of explicit violence than those who are. The levels of implicit violence— hunger, homelessness, and the social exclusion that un- and under-employment cause, place the US in 2023 in a special category amongst ‘rich’ nations. We were dying needlessly by the thousands. Now we are dying needlessly by the millions.
While it is possible to racialize just about anything (my neighbors certainly do), there are rational economic explanations for almost all of the bad behavior I am writing about here. When a slumlord can buy a house for $75K and illegally rent it out for $24,000 per month, they earn a return of 32% per month on their initial ‘investment.’ And what precisely does the term ‘earn’ mean here? Once the house has been purchased, very little more is required of a slumlord than to collect the rent. To the extent that maintenance is required, it is the neighbors who do it or it doesn’t get done.
So, when my liberal friends speak of their fears of fascist violence, I don’t disagree with their concerns. But consider, poor people live fifteen years fewer than rich people in the US (graph above). Poor people tend to live in food deserts where nutritious food is unavailable. Many of my neighbors have been refused by doctors who won’t take their health insurance. Obamacare requires an address, telephone, computer, internet access, and spreadsheet skills to choose a policy on which premiums must be paid but coverage remains at the whim of insurers. What are inconveniences for those with resources are life and death struggles for the poor.
So, if this reads like NGO boilerplate for some scam to open rat farms in poor neighborhoods, you might have a point if it weren’t for the systematic nature of the problem. Having spent twenty-five years using math and statistics to perform economic research, the number of Americans dying from preventable illnesses, so-called ‘excess deaths,’ has been at genocide levels since the onset of the Great Recession. Use of the term ‘genocide’ here would be inflammatory if it had no basis. But it does. The large numbers of people dying aren’t random throughout the population. They are poor.
Graph: Life Expectancy at Birth in the most inclusive measure of expected longevity. From 1950 – 1980 life expectancy rose for both the benchmark (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, UK) and for the US. In the early-mid 1980s the US experienced a slower rise than the benchmark nations, representing increasing relative ‘excess deaths’ in the US. Passage of the ACA (Affordable Care Act), known colloquially as Obamacare, did nothing to reverse this trend, and is correlated with the healthcare system meltdown that saw four – six million excess deaths before the Covid-19 pandemic even hit. To save on suspense, it is overwhelmingly poor people who are dying. Source: ourworldindata.org.
By grossing the excess death rate up for the size of the US population, and depending on the starting point, I find four to six million excess deaths in the US from the onset of the Great Recession to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. That is, before Covid-19 struck in 2020, four to six million Americans died from preventable illnesses who wouldn’t have if they lived in countries with a functioning healthcare system. These would be the people who live in food deserts without employment prospects who get sucked into the drug trade where violence is rife.
The Liberal contention that this sort of violence may be regrettable, but it isn’t political, depends on the dubious distinction between economic and political power. But the systematic nature of the violence suggests otherwise. Bill Clinton and Joe Biden passed the 1994 Crime Bill that increased mandatory prison sentences while it made appeals for wrongful convictions virtually impossible to win. Joe Biden claimed to have written the Patriot Act, which ended restraints on police behavior toward the population. These aren’t considered to be failures by Liberals; they are considered to be successes. Just ask Hillary.
Likewise, the problems in my neighborhood aren’t evidence of neoliberal failure, they are evidence of neoliberal success. American oligarchs put their servants in government to the task of deindustrializing the nation, and they did so. Why? To break the back of organized labor as they avoided environmental regulations and the payment of taxes. Up until about two weeks ago the news had it that Americans are living in the greatest economic boom in modern history. While my homeless friends may beg to differ, no one is asking their opinion.
This is to write that the mass social misery in evidence in the US has bypassed the class that is creating it. The rich are doing better than they have since the 1920s. What is it that would make the current state of the nation an accident, or somehow regrettable, to the American ruling class? Joe Biden had an opportunity to do the right thing following his election in 2020, and he chose not to. If Biden really wanted to enact his ‘agenda,’ why have Democrats been systematically replacing those who might support it with Right-wing and Blue Dog Democrats for the last thirty years?
‘Fascists’ didn’t create, pass, and enact the 1994 Crime Bill, Liberal Democrats did. ‘Fascists’ didn’t create the Patriot Act (according to Biden), Liberal Democrats did. Donald Trump found himself on the wrong side of the Democrat’s proxy war against Russia in Ukraine— he only played a minor part in the slaughter of 450,000 Ukrainian soldiers by agreeing to send American-made weapons there. Trump was derided for his inadequate Covid pandemic response until Biden & Co. assumed his crony capitalist / libertarian logic to create the worst response in the rich world.
Again, these aren’t Liberal failures, they are Liberal successes in the sense that they are the outcomes that American Liberals and their sponsors legislated to make happen. Four to six million excess deaths before the Covid pandemic hit, caused by the neoliberal healthcare system that Liberal Democrats created. Twelve and one-half million citizens likely to be permanently disabled by Long Covid due to the Biden administration’s Covid policies. If Liberals want to claim criminal stupidity, okay. That has been my theory for a long time.
My vote in 2024 will either go to Cornel West or I stay home. But even Dr. West relies on the Liberal discourse around fascism to pose it as a neo-Confederate movement rather than as capitalism backed by military force (a/k/a imperialism). As far as political violence goes, Gaza is being flattened using American-made weapons as this is being written. The Biden administration is asking Congress for another $100 billion for Ukraine so that the US can take a breather and reorganize before attacking Russia again. The Russians most certainly know this, so the risk of the American Liberals launching WWIII will remain.
I share the fear of political violence emerging from a second Trump administration, but what part of the prior seven pages didn’t you read? The bodies are piling up in my neighborhood right now. The Liberal city government has followed the national Democrat’s model by firing one-third of the fire department so the City Manager could give himself a fat raise. Since then, the city government has ended the dissemination of public information regarding the shootings, apparently to protect investors like the kind souls (a/k/a slumlords) running the SRO mentioned above.
The way to deal with Mr. Trump and his constituents was to govern effectively so as to beat him at the polls. I have said and written this consistently regarding the generic risk of fascism since the onset of the Great Recession. The choice of the Democrats to not govern effectively only adds to the risk of fascist violence by being fascist violence. The difference between the Weimar relationship with the German fascists and the Liberal Democrats’ relationship with Donald Trump and his supporters is that the latter aren’t political competitors except in the most anodyne of senses. In 2023, the Democrats are more explicitly capitalist, and imperialist, than the so-called political Right in the US.
What a mess. God help us all.