Fascism: A Dated Paradigm for Capitalist Control
By Andrew Torre
The long-standing relationship between capitalism and democratic government in the industrialized world has, of necessity, always been fraught with contention. The mandate of democratic government to opt for the public interest most often conflicts with capitalism’s singular purpose of maximizing profit. This struggle for the power to control society is ongoing, with one sector intermittently gaining ascendency over the other. Underlying the contention is the aberration of separated political and economic systems, with the people controlling the government through democratic process while having no say in the non-democratic economic system – capitalism. Historically, these systems were integrated – until they were separated by the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century and the simultaneous ascendency of capitalism through the Industrial Revolution. Since that time, the ongoing power struggle between the public and private sectors denotes an attempt to eliminate the anomaly of separated systems by reintegrating them. In times of economic crisis such as we’re currently experiencing, this battle intensifies as a failing capitalism is pressed to legitimize itself and secure its power.
Capitalism’s most potent tool for gaining power in a democratic society is to control – or absorb – the democratic government itself. In the U.S., this effort is abetted by laws permitting capitalists to give corporate-friendly politicians the vast sums of money they need to win elections. The strategy has been largely successful in congress and the state capitols, where capitalists’ representatives pass laws favorable to capital, repress legislation that isn’t, and fight to eliminate government aid and protection for the people – an overall effort to render democratic government impotent in its intended role as guardian of society.
Capital’s intent is obvious: free itself from any restrictions that limit profit – like those imposed by government oversight agencies such as the EPA, SOSHA, and the FDA – and privatize for profit all essential government services – energy, education, prisons, health-care, etc., while eliminating corporate taxation. As the power shifts to capital during our worldwide recession, governments have been impoverished and public benefits curtailed through enforced “austerity” programs. The upshot is a society caught between joblessness and under-employment on one hand – causing waning consumption that further depresses the system – and diminishing government support on the other.
For those squeezed in this vise, political ferment is inevitable and its expression predictable. While progressives try to organize themselves against capital’s onslaught, reactionaries turn to their traditional appeals to rabid nationalism and racism as expressed in virulent anti-immigration attitudes – neither of which addresses the core issues of capitalism’s failure, but wins the favor of a public looking for easy answers. In the U.S. we have the corporate-funded “populist” Tea Party, whose vacuous policy consists mainly of flag-waving and misrepresenting the intentions of both the Constitution and the founding fathers. Yet, it has convinced enough people to vote against their own interests and democratically place in power profoundly anti-people federal and state governments. The presidential candidacy of neo-fascist Donald Trump is ample evidence of this distorted consciousness. Throughout Europe, extreme right-wing parties have registered startlingly strong showings at the polls. The neo-nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, the National Front in France, the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) in England, and others throughout Europe have in common an ultranationalist policy of withdrawal from the European Union (EU) and anti-immigration racism. In England, “Brexit” has already won the day.
Historical Conditions for Fascism
Where is all this heading? Since it’s impossible to accurately predict the future, we turn to the past for hints. And indeed, we experience a frightening déjà vu. Europe of the 1920s and 30s exhibited many socio/economic characteristics similar to those of today. In a world steeped in economic depression, strong right-wing parties emerged and in Italy and Germany actually captured the government. In 1936 in Spain, a coup led by Gen. Francisco Franco, who was aided by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, overthrew a democratically elected left-leaning government and established a totalitarian state that lasted almost thirty-five years.
The suppression of the political left and the backing of the capitalist class were common to these right-wing successes. In Italy and Germany, the Mussolini and Hitler movements respectively enjoyed much popular support – and for plausible reasons. These countries were not integrated as nation-states until the latter part of the nineteenth century (Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871), long after both England and France had been unified – which is a prerequisite for the development of capitalism and its expansion into the vast empires required for its survival.
With English and French empires well established, Italy and Germany, as latecomers, found little left of value for their own capitalist expansion. This led to severe economic hardship in these countries, which was exacerbated by other events. Territory promised Italy as reward for its alliance with England and France in WW I was never granted. Italy was in economic and political turmoil, with its treasury emptied by the cost of war, no jobs for returning veterans, food riots, strong Socialist and Communist parties supported by the working class that threatened revolution against the capitalist and middle classes, and a factionalized parliamentary government unable to resolve these issues. This opened the door for Benito Mussolini, who founded the Fascist movement in 1919 with the promise to rescue the veterans and Italy itself, and who dangled before a distressed population images of the “glorious” Roman Empire – the ultimate ascendancy of the Italian people, which he promised to restore.
Post-WW I conditions in a defeated Germany were no better. In addition to a depleted treasury and a weak government seriously threatened by a persistent left, Germany was required to pay heavy war reparations – all of which, as with Mussolini, set the scene for Hitler’s ascent. Simultaneously, England and France gobbled up the Middle East – which was rich in the oil needed to propel industry and lacking in both Italy and Germany – and divided it among themselves.
The new European totalitarianisms had several things in common. Without an extended history of democratic governance, the way was already paved for demagoguery and the acceptance of dictatorship. But winning popular support also required the incorporation of socialist elements – one of which was public works. Hitler built the autobahns and commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to develop a “people’s car” – the Volkswagen. Mussolini dramatically increased the wheat output and, among other projects, reclaimed huge tracts of land for housing and agriculture – including the Pontine marshes near Rome, a feat that had been attempted since the days of the ancient empire but never before accomplished. These measures relieved the severe unemployment problem to some extent – the Pontine project alone occupying thousands of workers for about fifteen years. The projects were capitalized through another totalitarian measure: state control of industry in a reintegration of political and economic systems. This was the price the capitalists paid for being rescued from the socialist threat.
Most importantly, these nations had to dedicate themselves to strengthening and expanding their own nation’s capital exclusively if they were to permanently solve their extreme economic problems. This expansion could only come at the expense of another nation’s capital, since capital at the time was primarily nation-rooted and its potential for expansion limited. This placed capitalist nations in a deadly competition with one another that included the imposition of strong protectionist policies – an explosive situation that demanded extreme militarization on the part of the underdogs, Italy and Germany. Where would empire and its market come from except by taking it forcibly from those who had it? And so we see the root cause of both World Wars I and II.
What light does this history shed on today’s circumstances? The similarities are obvious: a seemingly intractable economic malaise; high unemployment; depleted government funds; restive, underpaid masses; and the emergence of reactionary forces. Can we therefore simply overlay the experience of history on today’s problems in order to confidently predict their outcome? Or, despite similarities with the past, are there differences significant enough to dictate resolutions radically different from those of yesterday? And if so, what are they?
New Times, New Political Solution
The definitive difference today is capitalism’s new paradigm: globalization. While capitalism was always “global” to some extent in that it was compelled to reach beyond the borders of the nation-state, it was still historically nation-state rooted. Capital’s subsequent intensified consolidation through mergers and its ability to cross borders has resulted in huge transnational corporations (TNCs) – that, as the name implies, are no longer rooted in the nation-state – and a vast, rapidly expanding and internationally interlocked financial system. The functioning of global capital today has so transcended the nation-state that it needs it only insofar as the nation contributes to profit maximization. By crossing national borders at will, it is able to play nation against nation to reduce both taxes and labor costs, and to find optimum investment opportunities. At the same time, it wages war against nation-state governments in its effort to remove any restrictions – environmental, social, or economic – that threaten maximum profit.
This situation is diametrically opposite from that of the earlier part of the past century when the nation-state was the protector of its indigenous capital. Fascism requires nationally-rooted capital because its only purpose is to protect that capital – fascism being, in fact, a nation-state response to a threatened nation-state capital. When capital transcends the nation-state, it cannot be rescued by any nation-state when it is in crisis. Therefore, fascism loses its function and becomes obsolete under the conditions of globalized capital.
What, then, does this mean for the current neo-fascist – or better, pseudo-fascist – movements responding to the crisis of capitalism? What is the point of “nationalism” today when the economy is beyond the control of the nation-state? The nation-state was created solely for the purpose of advancing indigenous capital. When capital is globalized, the nation-state loses its purpose and tends toward dissolution. The capitalist-directed EU is clearly a step toward this dissolution, and, as such, is vehemently opposed by the new “nationalist” parties. Were these parties to become successful in controlling nation-state governments, what then would they do with their “nationalism”? Attempt the impossible, retrogressive feat of restoring a nation-rooted capitalism isolated from global capital? The absurdity of this idea makes it clear that there is no survival today outside global capital, under whose control all production and distribution have been organized. These new right-wing movements have the talk of fascism without its substance in economic reality, and are therefore doomed. They are the voices of the ill-informed that cannot be heard by today’s capitalists, as they could have been eighty years ago.
There is an implication here that there are progressive elements in the globalization of capitalism. And there are. Taking the world economy out of the control of individual nation-states means that nations are no longer competing for economic ascendency. Capitalism’s new global paradigm, by eliminating national competition, makes a repeat of the twentieth-century conflicts impossible. There will be no huge armies of competing capitalist nations confronting one another as in the two World Wars. It’s hard today to imagine Japan bombing a Nissan factory in Tennessee, or the U.S. leveling an Apple plant in China. Military operations are now of a different nature than those of the twentieth century. Today they take the form of civil wars in nations struggling to develop, localized “anti-terrorist” assaults like those the U.S. engages in, and localized repressions of political movements. Although huge death tolls, tragic displacement of populations, and massive property destruction result from these confrontations, none approach the devastation of the past century’s world wars.
If not fascist, what then is the nature of capital’s attack on government today and its attempt to control or eliminate it? Clearly, its goal is the antithesis to that of fascism, which is to strengthen and solidify the nation-state. Global capital wants to dilute the nation-state and its government insofar as that government represents the interests of the people in opposition to its own. The thrust is libertarian: governing is transferred to the anarchy of laissez-faire capitalism – the mystical “invisible hand of the market” – rather than to an authoritarian fascist state. And indeed, the most effective of today’s extreme right-wingers are libertarians. The Koch brothers do not offer us a charismatic leader and a powerful authoritarian state as did the fascists (they denounce Trump!), but a nebulous “freedom” allegedly available only in a world controlled solely by an unfettered, overarching global capitalism. Libertarianism is the political arm of the new, globalized, stateless capitalist economy ¬– the reintegration of the political and economic systems under the rule of global capital, rather than the rule of the people, as would be the case in a socialist-type reintegration.
The capitalist forces striving for this end are powerful. They have already organized themselves globally through the overarching, non-democratically controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the World Bank. They control the world’s money and therefore the well-being of the people. They have made remarkable progress in co-opting governments to serve their interests – and ultimately render those governments impotent in the service of the people. They are intelligent in that they represent the best-educated classes. And because they wield global power they are ahead of the people who, lacking international organization, have power only through national and local governments that have increasingly fallen into capitalist hands.
Since economic organization through global capital far outpaces political organization that remains rooted in the waning nation-state, it would appear that the only course for the people is to take back their governments through democratic process and use these governments to create a global organization of the people that can match and confront the global organization of capital – with the possibility of integrating, at last, the political and economic systems under genuinely democratic control. This requires much consciousness-raising about the real causes of our economic problems, and massive grassroots organizing – which seems to have already begun. Short of this, capitalism’s divide-and-conquer, nation-against-nation strategy will hold sway, to the continuing oppression of the world’s people – an oppression that no longer needs fascism, but only capital itself.
241 Landgrove Rd.
Londonderry, VT 05148
I am a political columnist residing in Vermont with articles appearing regularly in all of the state’s leading newspapers, including The Burlington Free Press, Rutland Herald, Bennington Banner, and Manchester Journal. A long-time political activist and member of the Vermont Progressive Party, I have lectured on political economy at local colleges and have appeared as guest speaker on public TV shows. I have written the book, “Myths of Capitalism” (see: mythsofcapitalism.com).