The specter of fascism and the future of democracy
Bob Sheak, September 16, 2018
Carl Boggs, professor of social sciences at National University in Los Angeles, has written extensively on the U.S. power structure, identifying three crucial centers of power, including the mega-corporations, the presidency and executive branch of the government, and the military-industrial complex. They are pivotal, he maintains, in determining the major economic, political, and military policies for the United States and, through media, public relations, think tanks, and various experts, in shaping the society’s culture. They represent a power structure that is inimical to democracy, has always limited democracy, and is in the process of further diminishing it.
In his most recent book, Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads, Boggs opening sentences capture the thrust of his analysis: “In this book I argue that the United States, the most exemplary liberal democracy in the world in terms of reputation, is well along the path to a new type of fascism, or what might be called a ‘fascist equivalent – ruled by a modern power structure that is increasingly oligarchical and authoritarian, not only politically, but economically and culturally” (p. 1). Boggs does not argue that the US is fascist yet, but rather that there are structural and other developments that are moving in that direction. He refers to “a merger of historical forces that seem to be gaining momentum: corporatism, super-patriotism, militarism, imperialism, racism” (p. 2).
Boggs tells us that he is intellectually indebted to C. Wright Mills, a famous sociologist from the 1940s-1950s, who published a path-setting book titled The Power Elite in 1956, “where he explored the rapid growth of the freewheeling corporate sector with a confluence of state, business, and military interests” and how these developments were “already subverting liberal-democratic institutions” (p. 2). Boggs contends that the power of these institutional forces has grown immensely since Mills’ book was published. He puts it this way.
“What Mills found during the 1950s has surely expanded and deepened since: state, corporate, and military power has become more concentrated and integrated, the big-business and banking sectors impacting all realms of American society, beginning with government where Congress, the White House, state legislatures, federal agencies, parties, and elections have been colonized and reshaped by stupendous networks of wealth. Corporate interests were able to decisively influence policies, laws, and public opinion through a complex matrix of lobbies, think tanks, PACs (political action committees), and the media” (p. 2).
Boggs’ research leads him to find that fascism can have different manifestations, depending on the conditions in a given society. The principal implication is that, if fascism comes to the U.S., it will be rooted in the history and reflect the specific conditions that prevail at the time. Citing Bertram Gross’s book Friendly Fascism (1982), he suggests that “a distinctly American fascism is destined to be of a more ‘friendly’ type, without major social disruptions, systematic terrorism, paramilitary actions, Mussolini-style demagoguery, or outright attacks on the Constitution” (p. 11) – and that elements of liberalism will co-exist with right-wing authoritarianism (p. 10). For example, there is no large-scale fascist (or neo-fascist) movement or party” in the U.S. today. But, to reiterate, there are other troubling signs.
The troubling signs
Why is it important to consider all this? It’s important for those who value democratic values, the constitution, the importance of an independent judiciary, the rule of law, an informed and engaged citizenry, and social justice because these values and institutions offer us the potential protections against the abuses that inevitably follow from an economy and government increasingly dominated by the rich and powerful, and they offer us opportunities, however slim, to help create a better and sustainable alternative. Unless we understand how power in the higher circles of the society operate, we will not be able to identify, let alone effectively address, the great economic, political, international, and environmental challenges that threaten us here and across the world.
Power becomes more and more consolidated at the top
Boggs argues that the situation has become so dire that we now confront a system that is becoming more and more fascistic, that is, a situation marked by such tendencies and trends as follows. Democracy and its basic values are being eclipsed. Corporate power is becoming more concentrated in a fewer corporate and seems increasingly unassailable. Right-wing forces, with support from the rich and major corporations, control the major institutional levers of state power. Republicans use their power to control the legislative process, rig congressional districts, and suppress the vote. The Supreme Court and the federal judiciary are becoming increasingly politicized and dominated by ultra-conservative justices.
The domestic and global scope of American corporate and state power has no parallel. The “integration of corporate, state, and military power is more advanced in the U.S. than anywhere except perhaps China.” The American power elite, Boggs observes, “now possesses more leverage across the globe than any ruling groups in Europe, Asia, Latin American, or elsewhere” (pp. 151-152). It has accumulated vast wealth and power within the existing domestic institutional arrangements so that “there is no need to resort to a single-party dictatorship and terror under a supreme leader” (p. 152). The major media pay little critical attention to these situations, unless they are celebrating them. All of this “co-exists with many formal structures and norms of Constitutional democracy – a ‘democracy’ to be sure,” where party competition, elections, and legislative activity still exist but have been steadily undermined by the wealth and power of ruling elites (p. 156). Sadly, Boggs writes, “corporations, Wall Street, federal government, the military, educational system, surveillance network…are systematically and unapologetically authoritarian, never much impacted by voting results” (p. 175).
Quoting from Sheldon S. Wolin’s book, Democracy, Inc. (2007) on the last point, Boggs writes: “One cannot point to any national institutions that [today] can be accurately described as democratic…” Congress, the presidency, court system, parties, state agencies, workplaces, schools and universities, and of course the military” (p. 7). A turning point for Wolin was “an enlarged ‘power imaginary’ that surfaced during and after World War II.” This was manifest in the following: “War mobilization, superpower ambitions, nuclear politics, the security state, and permanent war economy all served to extend the boundaries of power, eroding constitutional limits while feeding into statist, corporate, and imperial authoritarianism – the very stuff of historical fascism” (p. 7).
There is another recent book that serves to document the concentration of power not only in the U.S. power structure but internationally as well. Peter Philips identifies 389 individuals who lead and/or are associated with “the most important networks of the Global Power Elite.” They are “the core of the policy planning nongovernmental networks that manage, facilitate, and protect the continued concentration of global capital,” “providing the ideological justifications for their shared interests and establishing the parameters of needed actions for implementation by transnational governmental organizations.” The title of the book is Giants: The Global Power Elite.” The benefit of the book is that it provides the names of the individual, their bios, their connections to mega-corporations and to important nongovernmental organizations, and how they are continually thinking and planning about how to protect and advance their interests within capitalist political-economic systems. It is anti-democratic in its essence and coordinated thrust.
The military keeps growing
The military continues to grow, and does so in support of corporate interests abroad, unending, destructive, counterproductive wars and interventions, and at the expense of other non-military domestic programs. It has grown amidst “a process of global expansion, development of a Cold War ideological consensus, and narrowing of elite political culture binding Democrats and Republicans to a common international agenda.” At the same time, “the political and popular culture grew increasingly militarized, visible not only in foreign policy but in the media, high rates of crime, gun mania, and the world’s largest prison system” (p. 116). There is hardly a sports or pubic event that is not begun without patriotic songs and symbols.
By 2016, Pentagon “spending consumed more than half of all discretionary spending – at nearly one trillion dollars dwarfing expenditures of potential rivals such as Russia and China.” It “employed more than three million people worldwide, held fully 80 percent of the federal inventory, operated more than 800 bases in dozens of countries, and possessed a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the planet several times over” (p. 118).
Weapons makers profit exorbitantly by leading the world in unfettered foreign weapons sales – providing the means that fuel disorder, violence, repression, and wars across the globe (https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/16/donald-trump-gunrunner-for-hire).
There are other costs, as spending on the military is one of the principal sources of the climbing national debt and comes at the expense of reduced spending and “austerity” in “social programs and public infrastructure, as spending “devoted to missiles, planes, ships, and guns” take precedence over spending for “roads, water and power facilities, bridges, public transportation, and education” (p. 118).
Despite this awesome military force, the elites who make up the power structure worry about losing military preeminence in the world. U.S. elites are concerned in recent years about nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Boggs refers to R. J. Lifton’s concept of “nuclearism,” or the “ideology of U.S. nuclear power…would allow the world’s dominant warfare state to set its own international rules and norms promoting its supposedly unique set of virtues, including the ‘American model’ of corporate globalization” (p. 125). But, also importantly, the U.S. military is mired in costly and catastrophic wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, has extended provocatively NATO military forces in Eastern Europe on the border of Russia, is involved in dangerous naval operations in the South China Sea with China, supports Saudi Arabia’s military onslaught on Yemen, is expanding its present in Africa, allows US arms producers to sell by far more armaments to other countries than any other nation, and is making outer space the new battleground.
The huge military is said by to be a force for peace. In realty, it has done little to promote peace and has been stuck in unauthorized wars that have ravaged countries, killed and uprooted millions of people, created the conditions for the spread of “terrorist” groups, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars along with many tens of thousands of American casualties, men and women, who have fought in these wars. The published work of Andrew J. Bacevich in such books as The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism or Chalmers Johnson’s book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope. Among other proposals, Johnson writes that “[w]e need to reduce, not increase, the size of our standing army and deal much more effectively with the long-term wounds our soldiers receive and the combat stress they undergo.” And “we must give up our inappropriate reliance on military force as the chief means of attempting to achieve foreign policy objectives” (p. 196). In his recently published book, A Nation Made by War, Tom Engelhardt offers an apt summary.
“…we’re truly in a new American age, whether of the plutocrats, by the plutocrats, and for the plutocrats or of the generals, by the generals, and for the generals – but most distinctly not of the people, by the people, and for the people.
“After all, for more than sixteen years, the US military has been fighting essentially failed or failing wars – conflicts that only seem to spread the phenomenon (terrorism) they’re supposed to eradicate – in Afghanistan, Iraq, more recently Syria, intermittently Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Meanwhile Donald Trump’s generals have been quietly escalating those wars. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more American soldiers and special ops forces are being sent into Syria, Iraq, and neighboring Kuwait (about which the Pentagon will no longer provide even inaccurate numbers); US air strikes have been on the rise throughout the region; the American commander in Afghanistan is calling for reinforcements; drone strikes recently set a new record for intensity in Yemen; Somalia may be the next target of mission creep and escalation; and it looks as if Iran is now in Washington’s sniper scopes” (p. 146).
But it is all good for the Pentagon in increased budgets and power and for the arms producers in profits.
Programs created to have wide benefits are attacked and citizen participation declines
To reiterate, social-welfare programs are being eviscerated, along with environmental and consumer protections. There is increasing inequality in all aspects of the society, trends that go back to the 1970s, especially arising during the years of the Reagan administration. Citizens are increasingly detached from community and political activity and preoccupied with private worries, how to pay the bills, debt, entertainment, consumption. Boggs refers to signs of how vigorous democratic politics have declined, as evidenced by how “widespread and dynamic participating, institutional accountability, broad access, issue knowledge and awareness, sense of political efficacy – have sharply declined in recent decades.” Forty to fifty percent of the electorate don’t vote in presidential elections and sixty percent or more who don’t typically vote in mid-term elections. And, Boggs points out, “[r]ecent history shows…that counterforces to the political establishment – social movements, alternative parties, community enclaves – have not been sufficiently durable to challenge the status quo” (p. 165).
It should be noted, however, that there is robust activity in the civic culture and that such activity demonstrates that resistance to the power elite has not come close to being eliminated, though it has not been particularly successful either. But it exists. On this score, Henry Giroux writes in his recent book:
“While Trump attempts to expand its alt-right social base under its authoritarian hierarchy, forces for grassroots resistance are mobilizing around a renewed sense of ethical courage, social solidarity, and a revival of the political imagination. We see this happening in the increasing number of mass demonstrations in which individuals are putting their bodies on the line, refusing the fascist machinery of misogyny, nativism, and white supremacy. Airports are being occupied, people are demonstrating in the streets of major cities, town halls have become the sites of resistance, campuses are being transformed into sanctuaries to protect undocumented students, scientists are marching en masses against climate change deniers, and progressive cultural workers, public intellectuals, and politicians are speaking out against the emerging authoritarianism. In a number of red states, middle-aged women are engaged in the ‘grinding scutwork of grassroots organizing’ while addressing the big issues such as ‘health care and gerrymandering, followed by dark money politics, education, and the environment.’ Democracy may be in exile in the United States, and imperiled in Europe and other parts of the globe, but the spirit that animates it remains resilient” (American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism, p. 306).
A private-public system of surveillance is massively expanding
There are ominous signs and the power elite has consolidated enormous control of the society’s principal economic, political, and military sectors. In addition to the fascist tendencies already discussed, our privacy is in danger of being eclipsed by an ever-more sophisticated state surveillance system augmented by large communications corporations. Julia Angwin offers an insightful analysis of this phenomenon in her book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. And Yasha Levine documents the historical and contemporary influence of the military in creating the internet and how tech-industry giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon now collect massive amounts of information on millions of Americans in the book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. The internet can be used for good or bad. On the one hand, Levine writes:
“Today, we live in a troubled world, a world of political disenfranchisement, rampant poverty and inequality, unchecked corporate power, wars that seem to have no end and no purpose, and a runaway privatized military and intelligence complex – and hanging over it all are the prospects of global warming and environmental collapse. We live in bleak times, and the Internet is a reflection of them: run by spies and powerful corporations just as our society is run by them. But it isn’t all hopeless.”
On the other hand:
“Not all surveillance is bad. Without them, there can be no democratic oversight of society. Ensuring oil refineries comply with pollution regulations, preventing Wall Street fraud, forcing wealthy citizens to pay their fair share – none of these would be possible. In that sense, surveillance and control are not problems in and of themselves. How they are used depends on our politics and political culture” (p. 274).
Under the current power arrangements, however, there is every reason to believe that most of us have lost control over our personal information and live in a world where we have little privacy. David Gray looks at how use of the internet technology by corporations and the federal government is now little protected by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in his book The Fourth Amendment in an Age of Surveillance. The Fourth Amendment was designed to guarantee a basic degree of security against threats of unreasonable governmental intrusion.” However, it is increasingly irrelevant today and fails to address issues related to the electronic media. Gray writes:
“…in a recent ranking compiled by Privacy International comparing surveillance practices and privacy protections among nations, the United States landed at the very bottom, earning the designation ‘endemic surveillance society’ along with Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Russia, China, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom” (p. 6).
Boggs points to the enormous expanse of the government’s intelligence/surveillance systems as follows.
“…the system has expanded to include no fewer than 17 federal agencies along with hundreds of state and local bodies charged with homeland security, surveillance, espionage, covert operations, and everyday law enforcement.”
“…American surveillance entities vacuum up billions of electronic transactions daily, enabling them to locate and observe millions of people through cell-phone activity, social media transactions, and Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates. The NSA in turn shares part of its voluminous information with such intelligence-oriented bodies as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), FBI, CIA, Defense Information Agency (DIA), IRS, and multiple layers of state and local police forces.”
“The NSA, moreover, has worked closely with such corporations as Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T, Apple, and Google, all central to the smooth functioning of American communications technology. The agency has produced a massive watch list, identifying more than a million potential ‘threats,’ entered into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) and Terrorist Identities Group (TIG).”
“…in 2013 alone, the NSA collected more than 125 billion telephone items and 97 billion pieces of computer data from around the world, much from (theoretically exempt) American citizens….” (p. 183).
There are additional concerns stemming from the current power structure. Dissent is fraught with risks, though not yet systemically quashed. More and more government functions are privatized, the infrastructure deteriorates, and ecosystems are degraded and depleted in record numbers, while increasingly cataclysmic climate change unfolds with little restraint on corporate polluters in the context of an unplanned and increasingly unregulated, profit-first capitalist economy.
Fewer constraints on the power elite amidst the “war on terror”
Since 9/11, constraints on U.S. power have further diminished, Boggs contends, “as the War on Terrorism perpetually legitimates the imperial state, cloaking its naked drive for economic and geopolitical advantage behind the wounded innocence of avenging victim, as in the case of Germany following its World War I defeat and then added humiliation at Versailles” (p. 7). And the ascendance of Trump to the White House, along with a right-wing cabinet, the systematic assaults and diminution of the federal bureaucracy, the undermining scientific research and environmental protections and attacks on the science itself, the ruthlessness of the Republican Party, the concurrence of most segments of the corporate community, and a cult-like following of tens of millions of Americans – all indicate that the U.S. has more fascist elements and tendencies than ever before. Boggs notes: “The sad truth is that popular movements, local organizations, and third parties ultimately constitute the only hope for challenging, possibly reversing, the seemingly relentless fascistic trends identified through this book. Such resistance will be the last line of defense in a world of unprecedented crises, overwhelming challenges, and potential disasters” (p. 179). But this line has yet to reverse the growing concentration and consolidation of power.
Reactionary Populism gains new life under Trump
Along with all the rest, the right-wing political forces have gained strength from the growth of a reactionary populism since the 1990s, including “local militias, Christian fundamentalists, and the Tea Party among them.” Boggs points to how Trump benefited, as 35 percent of his presidential vote come from evangelical constituencies (pp. 12-13). His presidency has “apparently lent new legitimacy to the evangelical movement, especially the selection of Mike Pence as vice-president and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As American society moves ever rightward,” Boggs writes, “evangelicals have grown in numbers, organizations, media presence, and general influence. They work indefatigably through state legislatures, PACs, think tanks, conferences, and medical outlets to carry out ‘God’s work, hoping to Christianize secular institutions, beginning with education, bringing ‘family values’ and patriotism to the forefront.” Boggs thinks that they “could help to solidify a social bloc behind fascistic tendencies….” (p. 13).
Historian Kathleen Belew documents the growth of “the white power movement” in the U.S. in her brilliant, but disturbing, book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Here is some of what she found.
“While white power featured a diversity of views and an array of competing leaders, all corners of the movement were inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal after the Vietnam War and by social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men. White power also qualifies as a movement through its central features: the contiguous activity of an inner circle of key figures over two decades, frequent public displays, and development of a wide-reaching social network.
“White power activists used a shared repertoire of actions to assert collectivity. Public displays of uniformed activists chanting slogans and marching in formation aimed to demonstrate worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment to both members and observers. Activists encouraged dress codes and rules about comportment and featured the presence of mothers with children, Vietnam veterans, and active-duty military personnel. Members showed unity by donning uniforms and by marching and chanting in formation. They made claims about their numbers. They underscored their commitment with pledges to die rather than abandon the fight; preparing to risk their lives for white power; and undertaking acts that put them at legal and physical risk. A regular circulation of people, weapons, funds, images, and rhetoric – as well as intermarriages and other social relationships – bound activists together” (pp. 10-11).
And they thrive.
“The state and public opinion have failed to sufficiently halt white power violence or refute white power belief systems, and failed to present a vision of the future that might address some of their concerns that lie behind the more diffuse, coded, and mainstream manifestations” (p. 239).
The white power movement, ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, armed, opposed to progressive values and ideas, poses no threat to the power elite. They represent the potential street fighters against those who criticize the existing power structure from progressive and leftist points of view.
The Democratic Party falters
While there are policy differences that divide the Democrats from the Republicans on “secondary or tertiary” issues like immigration, gay marriage, abortion, both parties, Boggs contends, support “modern capitalism and the warfare state” (p. 159). Though it is important to recognize that in the Democratic Party there is a progressive caucus that sets it apart from the Republicans on most issues. Certainly, progressive Democrats strongly support civil rights, progressive taxes, the need to regulate the economy and break up some of the mega-corporations, less spending on the military, immigration reform that provides for pathways to citizenship and honors international laws on refugees, the need to rachet up support for renewable forms of energy, and the vital importance of government spending on infrastructure, housing, education, job training, and other policies that provide benefits to ordinary Americans. And Obama and his administration should be given credit for signing the international agreement in Paris in December 2015 aimed at limiting greenhouse emissions, the advance of federally-binding fuel-efficiency standards for cars, vans and light truck, and in the successful multilateral agreement signed with Iran, the UK, France, the EU, Germany, Russia on banning Iran from ever developing nuclear bombs.
And it’s uplifting to follow Bernie Sanders political involvement in the U.S. Senate and in support of progressive candidates across the country. He is one of the political leaders who will help us to envision what can and must be done in the pursuit of truth and a more democratic and just society and world. Here is a sample of what he says in just published article.
“The truth is, however, that to effectively oppose rightwing authoritarianism, we cannot simply go back to the failed status quo of the last several decades. Today in the United States, and in many other parts of the world, people are working longer hours for stagnating wages, and worry that their children will have a lower standard of living than they do.
“Our job is to fight for a future in which new technology and innovation works to benefit all people, not just a few. It is not acceptable that the top 1% of the world’s population owns half the planet’s wealth, while the bottom 70% of the working age population accounts for just 2.7% of global wealth.
“Together governments of the world must come together to end the absurdity of the rich and multinational corporations stashing over $21tn in offshore bank accounts to avoid paying their fair share of taxes and then demanding that their respective governments impose an austerity agenda on their working families.
“It is not acceptable that the fossil fuel industry continues to make huge profits while their carbon emissions destroy the planet for our children and grandchildren” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/09/13/new-authoritarian-axis-demands-international-progressive-front).
But it’s also true that Obama and the Democratic Party generally supported the bail-out of the big banks in 2008, allowed the banks to sell its junk assets to the Federal Reserve. They supported increased military spending, military engagements throughout the world, drone warfare, an energy policy that included oil, gas, and nuclear energy, and were weak on poverty, public job creation, raising the minimum wage, single-payer medical insurance. They remain tied to big money for campaign contributions. Obama did little to reach out to peace groups, unions, or other civic organizations. His trade proposals, like the TPP, had “bad labor laws and practices, few if any consumer or environmental protections that can be enforced in courts of law, and precious little freedom of speech” (Ralph Nader, To the Ramparts: how Bush and Obama paved the way for the Trump presidency, and why it isn’t too late to reverse course, p. 165).
Is avoidance of the political/economic/military reality a better option?
Given the enormity of the challenge and the awesome power of mega-corporations, the imperial presidency, and the military, such an analysis that highlights their awesome power may have the effect of undermining citizen and collective activism and efforts by people to support the kind of changes that are necessary. The reality of a power elite may be too much to contemplate. One may respond by coming to the belief that there are no effective ways to orchestrate a political strategy that will lead to systemic/structural changes. The odds of making such changes do indeed appear unlikely now. If this is the response, then there will be those who become fatalistic and become or remain politically and intellectually disengaged. Or the response may be to focus one’s energies on how in some limited local way one can contribute. Or focus on an important single issue. And such efforts will not, by themselves, be enough. Local and regional efforts will and are occurring, but such efforts alone have not and will not change the existing power arrangements and the attendant policies that are diminishing democracy, fostering ever-greater inequalities, impelling a militarized foreign policy and war, and threatening all of us here and around the world with more environmental devastation.
My approach seeks truth, even when it is disturbing and does not reveal, or readily reveal, a clear political path to a better world. But it does help to confront the realty of our situation and such information is a necessary element in the efforts to challenge the power and retrograde policies of those who now have it.