Just a few weeks ago, Glenn Beck was shrilly declaring that America was marching toward Communism. It was the show's featured theme. Yesterday, he admitted he was wrong -- it's not Communism we're headed toward, it's Fascism!
Of course, he only looked the definition of the word up the day before, so you know, he may change his mind again. But whatever:
Beck: Like it or not, fascism is on the rise. And that doesn't mean the Adolph Hitler kind of fascism. It's fascism with a happy face. I'll explain the exact definition of fascism in a second, and it will boggle your mind.
Well, as someone who's studied fascism in the flesh, this had me interested. So he brought on libertarian economist Sheldon Richman to talk about what it all means:
Beck: I looked up the definition of fascism yesterday, and I want to break it down. The first part is: "Where socialism sought totalitarian control of a society’s economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners." Wouldn't you say this is what's happening with GM right now?
Um, no Glenn, not really. You see, the means by which the Nazis achieved "domination" of private owners was violence and thuggish intimidation. I could be mistaken, but I don't think that's what's happening to GM right now. But that's what's missing from your how you're depicting fascism.
You see, Beck is quoting from Richman's article on fascism in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, which is a libertarian site. He and Richman go on to discuss fascism in purely economic terms.
But fascism was an economic phenomenon only secondarily at best. Primarily, fascism is a political and cultural pathology; its leading ideologues in fact explicitly rejected economics as a driver in human affairs. Fascism was all about blood and iron and will, a love of violence and a contempt for the weak. Only in its mature stages -- when it has actually obtained power -- do economics come into play for fascism.
Moreover, fascism was always populist -- a very specific, producerist kind of right-wing populism. That's hardly what has proceeded from Obama and the Democrats, who if anything are looking more corporatist by the day.
So when we look at the reality of fascism, both historically and in the present, the only serious likelihood of any coming strain of fascism is proceeding, as we might expect, from the populist corners of the right, especially as it indulges and encourages eliminationist rhetoric directed at various "liberal" and minority targets (Latino immigrants in particular).
How far out to lunch was Beck here? Well, one of the goofier moments in this whole charade came when Beck trotted out the back of an old American dime -- first minted, as Beck says, in 1916 -- which has a fasces, the fascist symbol, on its reverse side:
This is the famed "Mercury dime", which was designed by sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, who won a 1915 competition: "The reverse design, a fasces juxtaposed with an olive branch, was intended to symbolize America's readiness for war, combined with its desire for peace."
Now, the fasces has a long history of inclusion in various parts of American symbology besides just this dime. You can find it in the Oval Office, on National Guard Bureau insignia, on the American flag that flies in the U.S. House, in the Mace of the House of Representatives; on the seal of the U.S. Senate, on the Statue of Freedom atop the United States Capitol building, and on a frieze on the facade of the United States Supreme Court building. Fasces are incorporated into the Lincoln Memorial.
But then, fascism as a political movement was not born until 1919. So for sculptor Weinman to have intended the fasces on the Mercury dime to imply a "fascist" intent, he'd have had to have jumped in a time machine, traveled to the future, met Mussolini, and come back to 1915 with that nefarious design in his head. Somehow I doubt this.
But that's just a small example of how badly Beck has distorted the public's understanding of fascism with this segment. By way of remediation, let me offer the definition of fascism from someone other than a libertarian economist -- in this case, from Roger Griffin, the renowned Oxford Brookes scholar who has authored, among other studies, The Nature of Fascism. This is from a survey article he authored:
Fascism: modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity. Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy. Despite the idealistic goals of fascism, attempts to build fascist societies have led to wars and persecutions that caused millions of deaths. As a result, fascism is strongly associated with right-wing fanaticism, racism, totalitarianism, and violence.
Or Robert O. Paxton, in The Anatomy of Fascism:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal constraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
As you can see, none of these would exactly be a handy definition for Beck's purposes, since very little of what they describe fits the politics that are currently proceeding on the main American stage.
Beck's mistake is in attempting to view fascism through an economic prism, when its essence was always political and cultural. Indeed, it's important to understand that fascists rejected economic analyses of the world. This reflected both their devout opposition to socialism (which indeed primarily was preoccupied with economic matters) as well as their core impulse -- the raw will to power, enabled by a discrete set of what Paxton calls "mobilizing passions" (such as a fanatical belief in national ethnic unity, devotion to the instincts of their leader, fear of liberalism, a love of violence, and so on). Maybe Mussolini expressed it clearest when he uttered: "The democrats of Il Mondo want to know our program? It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo."
As Paxton puts it in Anatomy of Fascism (more here):
Even at its most radical, however, fascists' anticapitalist rhetoric was selective. While they denounced speculative international finance (along with all other forms of internationalism, cosmopolitanism, or globalization -- capitalist as well as socialist), they respected the property of national producers, who were to form the social base of the reinvigorated nation. When they denounced the bourgeoisie, it was for being too flabby and individualistic to make a nation strong, not for robbing workers of the value they added. What they criticized in capitalism was not its exploitation but its materialism, its indifference to the nation, its inability to stir souls. More deeply, fascists rejected the notion that economic forces are the prime movers of history. For fascists, the dysfunctional capitalism of the interwar period did not need fundamental reordering; its ills could be cured simply by applying sufficient political will to the creation of full employment and productivity. Once in power, fascist regimes confiscated property only from political opponents, foreigners, or Jews. None altered the social hierarchy, except to catapult a few adventurers into high places. At most, they replaced market forces with state economic management, but, in the trough of the Great Depression, most businessmen initially approved of that.
What's the most fascistic thing to appear on the American political horizon in recent months? Glenn Beck and his "912 Project" and the accompanying apocalyptic fearmongering. He's a right-wing populist, and that never seems to turn out well.