Living in a Fascist State
"But I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy
ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by
peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, then Fascism and
Communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory
Republicanism, will grow in strength in our land." -Franklin D.
Roosevelt, November 4, 1938
By Lewis H. Lapham
Magazine", October 2005, pps. 7-9 -- -- In 1938
the word "fascism" hadn't yet been transferred into an abridged
metaphor for all the world's unspeakable evil and monstrous crime,
and on coming across President Roosevelt's prescient remark in one
of Umberto Eco's essays, I could read it as prose instead of poetry
-- a reference not to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or the pit
of Hell but to the political theories that regard individual
citizens as the property of the government, happy villagers glad to
wave the flags and wage the wars, grateful for the good fortune that
placed them in the care of a sublime leader. Or, more emphatically,
as Benito Mussolini liked to say, "Everything in the state. Nothing
outside the state. Nothing against the state."
The theories were popular in Europe in the 1930s (cheering crowds,
rousing band music, splendid military uniforms), and in the United
States they numbered among their admirers a good many important
people who believed that a somewhat modified form of fascism (power
vested in the banks and business corporations instead of with the
army) would lead the country out of the wilderness of the Great
Depression -- put an end to the Pennsylvania labor troubles, silence
the voices of socialist heresy and democratic dissent. Roosevelt
appreciated the extent of fascism's popularity at the political box
office; so does Eco, who takes pains in the essay "Ur-Fascism,"
published in The New York Review of Books in 1995, to suggest that
it's a mistake to translate fascism into a figure of literary
speech. By retrieving from our historical memory only the vivid and
familiar images of fascist tyranny (Gestapo firing squads, Soviet
labor camps, the chimneys at Treblinka), we lose sight of the
faith-based initiatives that sustained the tyrant's rise to glory.
The several experiments with fascist government, in Russia and Spain
as well as in Italy and Germany, didn't depend on a single portfolio
of dogma, and so Eco, in search of their common ground, doesn't look
for a unifying principle or a standard text. He attempts to describe
a way of thinking and a habit of mind, and on sifting through the
assortment of fantastic and often contradictory notions -- Nazi
paganism, Franco's National Catholicism, Mussolini's corporatism,
etc. -- he finds a set of axioms on which all the fascisms agree.
Among the most notable:
The truth is revealed once and only once.
Parliamentary democracy is by definition rotten because it doesn't
represent the voice of the people, which is that of the sublime
Doctrine outpoints reason, and science is always suspect.
Critical thought is the province of degenerate intellectuals, who
betray the culture and subvert traditional values.
The national identity is provided by the nation's enemies.
Argument is tantamount to treason.
Perpetually at war, the state must govern with the instruments of
fear. Citizens do not act; they play the supporting role of "the
people" in the grand opera that is the state.
Eco published his essay ten years ago, when it wasn't as easy as it
has since become to see the hallmarks of fascist sentiment in the
character of an American government. Roosevelt probably wouldn't
have been surprised.
He'd encountered enough opposition to both the New Deal and to his
belief in such a thing as a United Nations to judge the force of
America's racist passions and the ferocity of its anti-intellectual
prejudice. As he may have guessed, so it happened. The American
democracy won the battles for Normandy and Iwo Jima, but the
victories abroad didn't stem the retreat of democracy at home, after
1968 no longer moving "forward as a living force, seeking day and
night to better the lot" of its own citizens, and now that sixty
years have passed since the bomb fell on Hiroshima, it doesn't take
much talent for reading a cashier's scale at Wal-Mart to know that
it is fascism, not democracy, that won the heart and mind of
America's "Greatest Generation," added to its weight and strength on
America's shining seas and fruited plains.
A few sorehead liberal intellectuals continue to bemoan the fact,
write books about the good old days when everybody was in charge of
reading his or her own mail. I hear their message and feel their
pain, share their feelings of regret, also wish that Cole Porter was
still writing songs, that Jean Harlow and Robert Mitchum hadn't quit
making movies. But what's gone is gone, and it serves nobody's
purpose to deplore the fact that we're not still riding in a coach
to Philadelphia with Thomas Jefferson. The attitude is cowardly and
French, symptomatic of effete aesthetes who refuse to change with
As set forth in Eco's list, the fascist terms of political
endearment are refreshingly straightforward and mercifully simple,
many of them already accepted and understood by a gratifyingly large
number of our most forward-thinking fellow citizens, multitasking
and safe with Jesus. It does no good to ask the weakling's pointless
question, "Is America a fascist state?" We must ask instead, in a
major rather than a minor key, "Can we make America the best damned
fascist state the world has ever seen," an authoritarian paradise
deserving the admiration of the international capital markets,
worthy of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind"? I wish to
be the first to say we can. We're Americans; we have the money and
the know-how to succeed where Hitler failed, and history has favored
us with advantages not given to the early pioneers.
We don't have to burn any books.
The Nazis in the 1930s were forced to waste precious time and money
on the inoculation of the German citizenry, too well-educated for
its own good, against the infections of impermissible thought. We
can count it as a blessing that we don't bear the burden of an
educated citizenry. The systematic destruction of the public-school
and library systems over the last thirty years, a program wisely
carried out under administrations both Republican and Democratic,
protects the market for the sale and distribution of the
government's propaganda posters. The publishing companies can print
as many books as will guarantee their profit (books on any and all
subjects, some of them even truthful), but to people who don't know
how to read or think, they do as little harm as snowflakes falling
on a frozen pond.
We don't have to disturb, terrorize, or plunder the bourgeoisie.
In Communist Russia as well as in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany,
the codes of social hygiene occasionally put the regime to the
trouble of smashing department-store windows, beating bank managers
to death, inviting opinionated merchants on complimentary tours (all
expenses paid, breathtaking scenery) of Siberia. The resorts to
violence served as study guides for free, thinking businessmen
reluctant to give up on the democratic notion that the individual
citizen is entitled to an owner's interest in his or her own mind.
The difficulty doesn't arise among people accustomed to regarding
themselves as functions of a corporation. Thanks to the diligence of
out news media and the structure of our tax laws, our affluent and
suburban classes have taken to heart the lesson taught to the
aspiring serial killers rising through the ranks at West Point and
the Harvard Business School -- think what you're told to think, and
not only do you get to keep the house in Florida or command of the
Pentagon press office but on some sunny prize day not far over the
horizon, the compensation committee will hand you a check for $40
million, or President George W. Bush will bestow on you the favor of
a nickname as witty as the ones that on good days elevate Karl Rove
to the honorific "Boy Genius," on bad days to the disappointed but
no less affectionate "Turd Blossom." Who doesn't now know that the
corporation is immortal, that it is the corporation that grants the
privilege of an identity, confers meaning on one's life, gives the
pension, a decent credit rating, and the priority standing in the
community? Of course the corporation reserves the right to open
one's email, test one's blood, listen to the phone calls, examine
one's urine, hold the patent on the copyright to any idea generated
on its premises. Why ever should it not? As surely as the loyal
fascist knew that it was his duty to serve the state, the true
American knows that it is his duty to protect the brand.
Having met many fine people who come up to the corporate mark -- on
golf courses and commuter trains, tending to their gardens in
Fairfield County while cutting back the payrolls in Michigan and
Mexico -- I'm proud to say (and I think I speak for all of us here
this evening with Senator Clinton and her lovely husband) that we're
blessed with a bourgeoisie that will welcome fascism as gladly as it
welcomes the rain in April and the sun in June. No need to send for
the Gestapo or the NKVD; it will not be necessary to set examples.
We don't have to gag the press or seize the radio stations.
People trained to the corporate style of thought and movement have
no further use for free speech, which is corrupting, overly
emotional, reckless, and ill-informed, not calibrated to the time
available for television talk or to the performance standards of a
Super Bowl halftime show. It is to our advantage that free speech
doesn't meet the criteria of the free market. We don't require the
inspirational genius of a Joseph Goebbels; we can rely instead on
the dictates of the Nielsen ratings and the camera angles, secure in
the knowledge that the major media syndicates run the business on
strictly corporatist principles -- afraid of anything disruptive or
inappropriate, committed to the promulgation of what is responsible,
rational, and approved by experts. Their willingness to stay on
message is a credit to their professionalism.
The early twentieth-century fascists had to contend with individuals
who regarded their freedom of _expression as a necessity -- the bone
and marrow of their existence, how they recognized themselves as
human beings. Which was why, if sometimes they refused appointments
to the state-run radio stations, they sometimes were found dead on
the Italian autostrada or drowned in the Kiel Canal. The authorities
looked upon their deaths as forms of self-indulgence. The same
attitude governs the agreement reached between labor and management
at our leading news organizations. No question that the freedom of
speech is extended to every American -- it says so in the
Constitution -- but the privilege is one that musn't be abused.
Understood in a proper and financially rewarding light, freedom of
speech is more trouble than it's worth -- a luxury comparable to
owning a racehorse and likely to bring with it little else except
the risk of being made to look ridiculous. People who learn to
conduct themselves in a manner respectful of the telephone tap and
the surveillance camera have no reason to fear the fist of
censorship. By removing the chore of having to think for oneself,
one frees up more leisure time to enjoy the convenience of the
Internet services that know exactly what one likes to hear and see
and wear and eat. We don't have to murder the intelligentsia.
Here again, we find ourselves in luck. The society is so glutted
with easy entertainment that no writer or company of writers is
troublesome enough to warrant the compliment of an arrest, or even
the courtesy of a sharp blow to the head. What passes for the
American school of dissent talks exclusively to itself in the pages
of obscure journals, across the coffee cups in Berkeley and Park
Slope, in half-deserted lecture halls in small Midwestern colleges.
The author on the platform or the beach towel can be relied upon to
direct his angriest invective at the other members of the academy
who failed to drape around the title of his latest book the garland
of a rave review.
The blessings bestowed by Providence place America in the front rank
of nations addressing the problems of a twenty-first century,
certain to require bold geopolitical initiatives and strong
ideological solutions. How can it be otherwise? More pressing
demands for always scarcer resources; ever larger numbers of people
who cannot be controlled except with an increasingly heavy hand of
authoritarian guidance. Who better than the Americans to lead the
fascist renaissance, set the paradigm, order the preemptive strikes?
The existence of mankind hangs in the balance; failure is not an
option. Where else but in America can the world find the visionary
intelligence to lead it bravely into the future -- Donald Rumsfeld
our Dante, Turd Blossom our Michelangelo?
I don't say that over the last thirty years we haven't made brave
strides forward. By matching Eco's list of fascist commandments
against our record of achievement, we can see how well we've begun
the new project for the next millennium -- the notion of absolute
and eternal truth embraced by the evangelical Christians and
embodied in the strict constructions of the Constitution; our
national identity provided by anonymous Arabs; Darwin's theory of
evolution rescinded by the fiat of "intelligent design"; a state of
perpetual war and a government administering, in generous and daily
doses, the drug of fear; two presidential elections stolen with
little or no objection on the part of a complacent populace; the
nation's congressional districts gerrymandered to defend the White
House for the next fifty years against the intrusion of a
liberal-minded president; the news media devoted to the arts of
iconography, busily minting images of corporate executives like
those of the emperor heroes on the coins of ancient Rome.
An impressive beginning, in line with what the world has come to
expect from the innovative Americans, but we can do better. The
early twentieth-century fascisms didn't enter their golden age until
the proletariat in the countries that gave them birth had been
reduced to abject poverty. The music and the marching songs rose
with the cry of eagles from the wreckage of the domestic economy. On
the evidence of the wonderful work currently being done by the Bush
Administration with respect to the trade deficit and the national
debt -- to say nothing of expanding the markets for global terrorism
-- I think we can look forward with confidence to character-building
bankruptcies, picturesque bread riots, thrilling cavalcades of
splendidly costumed motorcycle police.
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