Feb 13, 2007

Is the Bush Administration Fascist?

The following article appears in the Winter 2007 issue of New Politics:

THE IDEA THAT the Bush administration is imposing fascism on the United States has become increasingly commonplace in leftist and liberal circles. It's often taken as a given in political discussions, at protest rallies, and on the Internet. Sometimes this is little more than name calling, but over the past six years, a number of critics have offered serious arguments to back up the claim, and the claim deserves serious attention....

There's no question that ugly changes are taking place, with serious implications for political activism and daily life now and in the future. But to call this a trend toward fascism doesn't help us understand what is going on in the United States, and it doesn't help us understand fascism. Calling the Bush administration fascist promotes a distorted picture of U.S. politics or history. In some versions, the f-word is essentially a scare tactic to rally people behind Democrats such as John Kerry, whose 2004 campaign literature urged that we "keep 95 percent of the Patriot Act and strengthen the rest." In other versions, the charge of fascism reflects conspiracy theories that the Bush administration itself somehow orchestrated the September 11th attacks.

Even when it's coupled with a deeper critique of the U.S. political system, the claim of impending fascism lumps together radically different forms of right-wing authoritarianism under one label. This confusion hurts our ability to develop clear and effective anti-right-wing strategies....

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Francis said...


This is excellent. I've been waiting for years for this sort of analysis. Recently I've been paying some attention to the Maoist blog Red Flags, which is mostly in the orbit of the RCP. The ways they talk about "Christian Fascism" have always confused me, and it was nice to see their approach taken seriously but challenged for its failures. I'd love to hear what Burningman and his comrades have to say about your piece.

Francis said...

Just wanted to let people know I've gotten Burningman a little agitated about this stuff:


reddboy said...

Bush Fascism

I have a two criticisms of Matthew Lyon’s article, despite agreeing with one of its central points - fascism is not “…an extreme version of capitalist repression.”

The first criticism may be largely a matter of language.

The 13th paragraph of Lyon’s piece says: “Some forms of right-wing authoritarianism grow out of established political institutions while others reject those institutions; some are creatures of big business while others are independent of, or even hostile to, big business. Some just suppress liberatory movements while others use twisted versions of radical politics in a bid to ‘take the game away from the left.’ These are different kinds of threats. If we want to develop effective strategies for fighting them, we need a political vocabulary that recognizes their differences.”

In the 5th paragraph Lyons argues that left confusion about fascism…”hurts our ability to develop clear and effective anti-right wing strategies”.

I don’t like these formulations. Including fascism in a category of “right-wing authoritarianism” implies that it is just another step along a continuum and that its distinctions from clearly capitalist authoritarianism are essentially quantitative. In my view, the crucial political questions concern fascism’s differences with either state sponsored or mass based ‘populist’ reaction. A nuanced appreciation of the range within right wing authoritarianism is certainly needed, but it should focus on the relationship between fascist potentials and real tendencies in the global capitalist system. A different emphasis would better clarify the need for a break with reformist “united front” politics.

In other words, I don’t think that we are talking about “anti-right wing strategies”. In my opinion, no special “anti-right wing” strategy is needed. Once there is a break with the simplistic view of fascism as a form of capitalist rule, this understanding should be incorporated into a “clear and effective” anti-capitalist strategy where popular struggles against state repression and ideological and street challenges to reactionary social structures and movements will be important, but not to the extent of constituting an independent arena of struggle requiring its own “strategy”.

Maybe I’ve spent too much time shoveling popular front shit, specifically including varieties of coalitions against the “Ultra-Right”. Based on other aspects of his argument, I doubt that there are major differences with Lyons on this point. However, I do think that this position is “out there” - perhaps in Chris Hedges’ conception of “Christian Fascism” – and it is important to keep the issues as clear as possible.

I generally agree with Lyon’s criticisms of left conceptions of fascism and I do see the problem of not having a clear alternative to them. However, I have questions about Lyons alternative.

Lyons conception of fascism in this piece and in some other writings rests on a historical analysis of “…fascism’s core features…” This is certainly a major improvement over historical ignorance and leftist moralizing, but is it all that is needed? The issue is not whether Lyons gets the historical evidence wrong, I think he is pretty much right. However, has the world has changed to the point where historical analogies don’t shed the proper light? Perhaps the subject is increasingly opaque to Lyon’s categories and mode of analysis. I would say that this is the case, and offer some illustrations in terms of Lyons proposed “core features” of fascism.

These are contained in Lyon’s four bullet points on page 2 & 3. My problems begin with the third sentence in the second point, “…fascism’s bid to win state power.” Lyons reliance on historical example leads him to assume that fascism rests in a particular merger of “people (folk)”, state, and nation that makes “winning state power” the overriding strategic goal. Historically this was certainly true and it underlies the analytical division between fascism out of power and fascism in power which Lyons uses - others do it even more. Paxton, (Anatomy of Fascism) appears to believe that fascism is relatively insignificant until it achieves state power – a very academic sort of myopia.

I think that the development of a global capitalist system makes it very unlikely that fascist movements of the future will attain anything approaching state power except temporarily in ‘failed state’ situations. If true, this will significantly modify the politics of fascist movements, exacerbating the internal reform/revolution dichotomy. In this sense, I would replace the objective division between fascist in power and out of power with the subjective contradiction between reformist and non-reformist fascist agendas, a contradiction that was evident historically, but in much less important ways.

This leads to a related point; Lyons, and many other theorists of fascism, Griffin, Umberto Eco, Paxton, treat fascism as a peculiarly rotten and deformed nationalism. I find this increasingly less plausible as biological and ethnic justifications for domination and subordination are replaced by cultural and economic ones. Transnational social movements and political trajectories are increasingly significant for organizing fascist potentials. Fascist exercise of power is increasingly expressed in transnational, and also subnational extra-parliamentary ‘illegitimate’ frameworks. I agree with Negri that no variant of nationalism will be a platform for the development of viable opposition to global capital, and believe that this applies to oppositions from the right as well as the left.

The third bullet point deals with the class basis of fascism and its essential relationship to capitalism. Two points are made here: First, Lyons asserts that fascism’s attack on capitalism masks a defense of; “…the underlying institutions of private property and class exploitation.” Second, he argues that this enables “… fascism to tap into real social grievances, such as those of some middle-class groups who resent the power of big business but also have a stake in class privilege and feel threatened by working-class movements or oppressed communities below.” Again, this view had obvious validity in past historical cases, but does it now? Not so much, I think.

Current conditions make some potential forms of fascism extremely attractive to sections of the global working class. This base is a different fascist potential from that of pre-capitalist or petty bourgeoisie classes and strata and I think its existence will dictate a different fascism, one that is far less likely to openly organize for its own capitalism or to necessarily accept its “underlying institutions” – either openly or covertly. The leading cadre of fascist movements will probably not be working class either sociologically or ideologically (except possibly in opportunistic rhetoric). However, the bulk of the participants could be, if class politics are rejected in favor of some version of corporativism or productivism – not too large a step from some current ‘socialist’ trade unionist views.

In an earlier discussion J. Sakai said; “…(capitalist and imperialist) oppression…didn’t produce fascism but…movements of liberation that might have been ultimately subverted, but that contained the efforts of hundreds of millions of ordinary working people”.

Sakai may not mean to argue this way, but I see this ‘ultimate subversion’- the demonstrated capacity of capital to deflect, absorb and incorporate “movements of liberation…(containing) the efforts and aspirations of hundreds of millions of ordinary working people”- as an essential difference between current and historic fascism, a difference that impacts its potentials, its base, its relationship to capitalism. This new historical fact relates to the popular consciousness of what is needed and what is possible. It is likely to mean that the trajectory and class composition of future fascist movements will not parallel earlier periods of fascist ascendancy.

The problem develops when a definition, in this case a definition of fascism, becomes a substitute for an investigation and a debate. So I hope our definitions develop out of the discussion, rather than predetermine it – are more a point of arrival than a point of departure. I understand the problems of imprecision and unclarity inherent in this approach. However, before we go too far we should be confident that we are dealing with an unified phenomena best be understood in the categories of historic fascist movements, rather than, for example, as an anti-liberatory consequence of the collapse of ‘really existing socialism’ and the essentially failed promise of anti-imperialist national liberation.

Matthew said...

Thanks to Francis for his positive words about my article. I'm glad the article has been useful in his debate with Burningman and other advocates of the "Christian fascism" position over on the Red Flags website.

I'll use the rest of this comment to respond to Reddboy's criticisms. His contribution is thought-provoking as usual, and I appreciate his effort to promote discussion around a number of important issues. But I wish he was a bit more careful not to put words in my mouth.

Reddboy claims that my description of fascism as a form of right-wing authoritarianism "implies that it is just another step along a continuum and that its distinctions from clearly capitalist authoritarianism are essentially quantitative." Actually, I clearly argue the opposite -- in the exact paragraph Reddboy quotes, no less. The point that fascism and capitalist authoritarianism are qualitatively different is one of the core premises of the whole article. What exactly is wrong with my use of the phrase "right-wing authoritarianism?" Is fascism not right wing? Not authoritarian? I don't get this.

Reddboy also criticizes my reference to "anti-right-wing strategies." I'm not attached to the wording. I agree that we need to approach anti-fascist work in the context of anti-capitalism, not fall into pop front mythology about "defending democracy" against the far right. My point was that grassroots-based fascist movements and top-down capitalist repression threaten us in different ways, and we need to respond to them differently. To argue about whether anti-fascism constitutes "an independent arena of struggle requiring its own 'strategy'" or just a sub-part of one big arena seems pretty abstract to me.

On my conception of fascism, first a general point. Because the word fascism is used in so many different ways, many of them sloppy or confused, we need to explain what we mean when we use the word. That can mean a definition or a more open-ended description, but something that clarifies what kinds of movements and regimes we're talking about (and not talking about). At the same time, any definition or concept of a political current has to be taken as a provisional work in progress, and that's especially true of fascism because it is a current in flux right now. Agreed, we can't substitute a definition of fascism for investigation and debate, but the investigation and debate have been going on for almost ninety years, and it's not too soon to offer some provisional observations -- subject, most definitely, to more investigation and debate.

My conception of fascism is based on what I've learned about movements and regimes of the past and of the present, recognizing that fascism will continue to evolve in ways that we may predict and ways we can't predict. Speculation about the "trajectory" of future fascist movements can be useful, but let's be clear that it is speculation.

A prime example of how fascism has evolved (and may evolve more) is its shift away from nationalism. It's not true that I treat fascism as a form of nationalism, although Reddboy may be inferring that based on stuff I wrote ten or twelve years ago. Classical fascism was nationalist; today, I would say that some forms of fascism are nationalist, some are internationalist, and some call for breaking up nation-states into smaller units. Does that mean nationalism is on its way out as a basis for "viable opposition to global capital"? Maybe, but I'm not convinced. Leftists have written off nationalism before, and been dead wrong.

I do plead guilty to the charge of assuming that winning state power remains a central goal for fascism. I'm intrigued by Reddboy's suggestion that future fascist movements are unlikely to win state power except in "failed state" situations (such as Afghanistan after the Soviet pullout?) and that this will "significantly modify the politics of fascist movements, exacerbating the internal reform/revolution dichotomy." I think Reddboy is onto something here, but the phrasing is way too cryptic -- please elaborate! This may be related to a point I argued in the book Right-Wing Populism in America, that some neo-fascists (such as Posse Comitatus) have moved away from the vision of a centralized nation-state to what I call "social totalitarianism," where local and private institutions, rather than the nation-state, are the main vehicles for systematically imposing the fascist vision on society.

On fascism's class base, I agree that future fascist movements could be based largely or primarily in the working class. Actually, many classical fascist movements recruited lots of working-class supporters, despite common leftist stereotypes to the contrary. In the "Bush" article I referred to middle-class support for fascism as an example, not a defining feature. That dynamic remains alive and well. If we're going to label the Hindu nationalist movement as fascist, for example, that movement is predominantly based on tens of millions of middle-class Indians.

Fascism's relationship with capitalism is a complex issue, and I discuss it at some length in another article that's currently being considered for publication. I see this relationship as essentially contradictory. I did not say, and did not mean, that fascism attacks capitalism in public while defending it covertly. In or out of power, fascism is an autonomous force not subject to capitalist control, and it pursues an agenda that clashes with capitalist interests in important ways. At the same time, fascism has defended the economic institutions that are the basis for capitalist economic power -- if only by refusing to challenge them while attacking those who do.

Reddboy argues that compared with past fascism, future fascism "is far less likely to openly organize for its own capitalism or to necessarily accept its 'underlying institutions' -- either openly or covertly. The leading cadre of fascist movements will probably not be working class either sociologically or ideologically (except possibly in opportunistic rhetoric). However, the bulk of the participants could be, if class politics are rejected in favor of some version of corparativism or productivism..."

If I'm reading this passage correctly, Reddboy is positing fascist movements where the leadership opportunistically spouts anti-capitalist rhetoric but the base is uncompromisingly anti-capitalist, in that it refuses to accept capitalism's underlying institutions (my phrase, referring to private property and economic exploitation). What does this mean in concrete terms? I can imagine a fascist revolution that would fundamentally alter the terms of economic exploitation away from capitalist principles to something even more horrific -- as Hamerquist has argued regarding labor policies in Nazi Germany. But the result would still be a system of economic exploitation. And to genuinely move beyond capitalism, such a revolution (unlike German Nazism) would have to directly attack the centers of capitalist economic power. That's particularly hard to square with Reddboy's own claim that future fascist movements are "very unlikely" to "attain anything approaching state power" except in failed states. So again, what does it mean to posit fascist movements that refuse to accept capitalism's core institutions?

Krisna C. Best said...

I would typically read the comments, but its accomplishment enough that I read Lyon's entire piece. Thank you for posting this. It is solid critical writing and not the lazy left analysis that usually leads the fascism discussion. That shit is straight-up tired. Thanks again.