Fascism in the United States? or just increasing alienation and possible chaos?

My analysis of the financial and economic crises and proposals to address them started as an effort to show the need for a second federal stimulus package, both to prevent draconian cuts in state and local government budgets and to prevent renewed freefall in the economy. But I’m afraid the US and global economies may be down for the count. If that’s true, many more people here and around the world will ultimately become destitute, and desperate.  And as it becomes clear that we’re in a Second Great (or perhaps an even Greater) Depression, as people move from discouragement to despair, as it becomes clear that the “American way of life” is not going to last much longer and won’t be coming back, we could have, gradually or not so gradually, increasing violence and a descent into chaos.  Against that scenario, my proposals are also an effort to buy time, in the hope that by stretching out the collapse of the economy and increasing understanding of what is happening, we might enable more people to learn to cope with changing circumstances effectively and in time to save both civility and lives. My hope is that we might thus hold together, build community, and transition peacefully to a sustainable and survivable future.

Recent events have led me to wonder if we might already be seeing signs of the chaos I’m hoping we can avoid. There’s an interesting discussion going on at http://www.ourfuture.org/blog-entry/2009083205/fascist-america-are-we-there-yet (Campaign for America’s Future) around some articles by Sara Robinson titled “Fascism in America: Are We There Yet?” and “Fascism II.” In the second installment, Sara discusses the disruptions at Congressional “town hall” meetings as possible practice for and preludes to “goon squad” activity – the intimidation of dissenters and anyone beyond the pale of the “goon squad” culture – and suggests means of resistance to prevent the disruptions from growing into such a threat. She promises in the third installment to outline her recommendations for a broader range of activities to head off fascism in the US on a more long-term basis. She says her readers’ reactions tend to be either disbelieving (“It can’t happen here and certainly hasn’t started to”), dismissive of her naiveté (“of course it’s been here for some time”), or grateful for her having raised the issue and interested in discussing it. I’m in that third category.

Much of the commentary on Sara’s articles and her responses are worth checking out if the issue interests you. I intend here to draft some commentary of my own, which I will also copy and submit as commentary on Sara’s articles at the Campaign for America’s Future blog.

The threat of fascism in the US has concerned me at least since the days of the Nixon administration. But I’ve always been a little unclear as to exactly what the implementation of fascism here would involve. The current discussion helps to clarify that, and leaves me a little unsure it matters whether we call the problem fascism or not. What is worrisome is the prospect of suppression of dissent and the growth of an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, in which people are afraid to express dissenting views on either cultural or political matters. If that happens on a national scale and obtains government backing and enforcement, I supposed that’s fascism. That may be overly simple but I’m going with it for purposes of this discussion. On that basis, I have a number of observations to make that do not focus on whether fascism is here or on the horizon, but on the suppression of dissent and how an atmosphere of fear and intimidation could develop.

First, it does seem that disruptive and sometimes threatening behavior at the “town meetings” could be harbingers of tomorrow’s goon squads. I don’t say they are, but they could be, in the sense that at least some of the disrupters are or could become threatening, and as Sara says, like any bully if allowed to succeed they could become worse – more numerous, organized, and aggressive.

Just as clearly, some of the disruptive behavior comes from people who are fed up with Washington and government on many levels, including the Wall Street bailouts. In other words, there may be some xenophobes, some relatively malevolent people, involved, but that doesn’t seem to constitute everyone. There are people protesting who are doing so spontaneously and independently of outside or centralized influence, for reasons that are personal and perhaps not antisocial or potentially violent. We’re all being lied to and robbed, and some of the rage is a response to such more generalized grievances. For a sympathetic treatment of the widespread distrust of government and some of the reasons for it, see Alexander Cockburn’s “Health Plans and Death Plans” at http://www.counterpunch.org, August 14-16, 2009.

On the other hand, however spontaneously and independently many individuals may be acting, a large share of the “acting out” at these events is, if not orchestrated, clearly encouraged by others with a national perspective and agenda. An article in the Financial Times (8/16/09, p. 2) quoted Dick Armey, for example, as advising people to express their dissent with the tactics developed by Saul Alinsky. (You can access at least a few Financial Times articles free at ft.com before they ask you to subscribe for further access.)

These attacks are in part a continuation of the attacks on the Clinton administration, and constitute an attempt by some to weaken and ultimately destroy the Obama (or any Democratic) administration. So long as the Democrats are in power, these people will express their dissent destructively, refusing to compromise or work within the system in that sense. It should be remembered in this connection that there is considerable continuity of personnel from the Nixon administration through Reagan and the two Bush regimes, a substantial cadre of individuals whose agenda is to suppress dissent and grow the empire, the imperial presidency, and with them the national security state. The earlier lineage of these folks goes back to President Truman’s decision to “scare hell out of the American people” to obtain support for maintaining the military rather than disarming at the end of World War II, while government planning documents from that period show an explicit intent to dominate the world for the purpose of continuing to control the disproportionate share of the world’s resources being utilized by the US. See, for example, Policy Planning Study 23, published by State Department planning staff, written by George Kennan in February 1948 (“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. … Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”)

Truman’s agenda laid the groundwork for the McCarthy era and the Red Scare of the 1950s. Richard Hofstadter, in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, theorized that as a relatively rootless society, America is peculiarly fertile ground for anyone suffering from economic or status anxiety to become susceptible to the politics of scapegoating.

The prevalence of economic and status anxiety in the US today can hardly be exaggerated. On Hofstadter’s theory, this would lead large numbers of people to become susceptible to the politics of scapegoating. Unfortunately, there are thought and opinion leaders aplenty who are only too quick and glad to encourage that tendency, and the scapegoating has begun.

It should be borne in mind, by the way, that suppression of dissent is a current reality, not just a future threat, for some whose views deviate from the mainstream or who express their dissent in certain ways and who are in vulnerable positions. Speaking of vulnerable positions, a great many people, who have already been scapegoated for years, experience the US right now as a police state in which arbitrary raids, detention, separation from family, and deportation are immediate threats. Not to mention Guantanamo.

Mike Whitney has also pointed out that enormous transfers of wealth from taxpayers to Wall Street continue to take place. See his “There Is No Recession: It’s A Planned Demolition,” at http://www.counterpunch.org/whitney08102009.html. It could be that elite elements are opportunistically encouraging disruptions to distract attention from the ongoing heist.

Finally, and frankly of most concern to me, there are larger problems on the horizon that may exacerbate the most destructive tendencies currently on display. With the onset of problems arising from peak oil and other resource shortages, the frustration of the culture and lifestyle based on motor vehicles and suburbia, the high likelihood the recession and with it, unemployment will persist or worsen – and unemployment is already at staggering levels – how will people react? The prospect of current systems of social and economic support breaking down makes plausible any number of unpleasant scenarios, including an increase in antisocial conduct and violence. Thus the immediate threat may not be so much fascism as spontaneous social and economic unrest leading to chaos and violence – though in that case, perhaps fascism would not be far behind.

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