I haven’t really talked about anything political here at Ghostwoods. I don’t believe in telling people what they should be thinking. Politics, like religion, is a divisive subject. We all have our beliefs, and much as we’d like to think otherwise, that’s all they are — beliefs. Catholicism, materialist atheism, spiritualism, democratism, republicanism, Buddhism: they’re all impossible to prove ‘correct’, whatever correct means, and they’re all a choice of personal style.
But I can’t keep my mouth shut any longer. If you’re one of the 20% of Americans who opposes universal health-care — and you’re on the US hard-line right-wing — then in the interests of your own blood pressure, you may want to stop reading this post now.
First of all, a definition from historian Robert Paxton:
“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 restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Paxton is one of the world’s leading authorities on the rise of fascism in otherwise sensible countries, and his definition of fascism now almost universally accepted by political scientists. There are two key elements here I want to bring your attention to. First of all is the corporatization of the state — where the two elite power bases of corporate power and political power work together for mutual benefit, at the expense of the public. Sometimes, the elite are joined by the religious power base, too. The other is the recruitment of grass-roots militants working on behalf of this hybrid elite to stifle rational debate and fair democratic process.
There’s been a hell of a lot of hysteria, puff and self-aggrandizing toss over the last twenty years about how we’re all “Fascist, man”. That’s all it has been. Until, in America, this summer.
Paxton identified five clear stages that societies go through on the path of fascism.
Fascism becomes possible when a free democracy loses its way. There’s an implied social contract in society — we work to produce tax and consume goods so the rich can stay wealthy, in return for financial security and support when we need it. Health-care, support in old age, protection from foreign aggressors and domestic criminals, and fair treatment in return for all the hard work we put in. When a government loses focus on this contract, and puts the interests of the corporate world ahead of the social contract, the democracy becomes increasingly weak and shaky, and people get scared and angry. I’m going to tip my hat here to Fox News, banking, agribusiness and insurance for particularly blatant corporatization of government, but they really and truly are just the tip of the iceberg.
Paxton’s first stage is when passionate rural interests begin to group together to promote a nationalist fix of the ‘broken’ society. This has the goal of restoring national greatness by restoring traditional (often religious) values, driving out ‘parasitic’ or ‘corruptive’ foreigners, and ignoring those damn fool intellectuals who caused all this mess.
In the second stage, these grass-roots interests spawn active militant bands in order to persecute disliked minorities. Historically, this has usually started by harassing minority agricultural workers on behalf of land-owners. When a weak liberal state arises, badly-battered right-wing political forces decide to deadlock the nation’s political process by refusing to engage with the government.
This is the moment where the third stage tips over. Because the right feels threatened by the rise of the left, it seeks reinforcement. Instead of fighting a long-term game to regain legitimate political capital, they turn to the grass-roots militant bands for support in further pressuring the government, with the aim of using them to regain power. The third stage is clearly marked by the open alliance between nationalist grass-roots militants and disenfranchised right-wing political interests.
I linked earlier to the New York Times piece on the Tea-Bag movement and the open acknowledgement of the power of the Birther conspiracy agenda by congressmen. The militants and the American political right have joined forces, and the militants are being taught how to harass, infiltrate, and disrupt democratic process. They’ve had a very genuine taste of power over the summer months, bonded together in adversity, learnt how to circumvent normal democratic flow, and enjoyed all the lovely, heady goodness of being part of a mob consumed with its own self-righteousness. All without any repercussions from police or state.
That is not an experience you forget about; it is an experience that you seek to repeat, and it is the last stop on the path.
“You must never imagine that just because something is funny, Messire Marquis, it is not also dangerous” — Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
The trouble with imagining that the USA is on the edge of a fascist precipice is that it seems so damn implausible. The Tea-baggers weren’t scary, they were hilarious, with their incoherent signs and their almost 19th-century scare-mongering. It could never happen here… But the stark truth, of course, is that every major civilization on Earth that has ever fallen — and that’s all of them, in case you weren’t counting — has done so with people thinking just that. To quote political futurist Sara Robinson:
This is the sign we were waiting for — the one that tells us that yes, kids: we are there now. America’s conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country’s legions of discontented far right thugs. They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their enforcement arm on America’s streets, sanctioning the physical harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals, and public officials who won’t do their political or economic bidding. This is the catalyzing moment at which honest-to-Hitler fascism begins.
From here, the path is bleak, and very, very difficult to avoid. As the third stage develops, the militants get more and more aggressive. Harassment becomes local thuggery — abuse, vandalism, beatings and even killings. The targets are minorities, people who challenge the group’s orthodoxies, and minor political opponents of the sponsoring elite.
“If we can only identify fascism in its mature form — the goose-stepping brownshirts, the full-fledged use of violence and intimidation tactics, the mass rallies — then it will be far too late to stop it.” — Dave Neiwert,The Eliminationists
Stage three matures as the elite/militant alliance racks up political victories. Each one increases their collective sense of power and rightness — as well as their experience — and makes the next one easier. From there, the rise is swift. Then all it takes is one catalytic event, a domestic disaster or threat of war. Usually, in the past, this has been stage-managed by the alliance, and used as an excuse to temporarily halt democratic and/or due legal process whilst the emergency is dealt with.
In stage four, the alliance gains control of the country. The two sides of the alliance then slowly turn on each other. If the militants win, authoritarian police states generally follow. Street thuggery is all they really know. If the elites manage to win, then you may end up with a military junta or a theocracy, or some other version of dictatorship.
Stage five typically depends on a military victory. If the stage four state can enter and win a war (foreign or domestic), it can consolidate its power, and enter a period of violent expansion, savage domestic social engineering, or other activities which arise from being drunk on power. In the absence of a big binding victory like this, the stage four state will generally lose focus and disintegrate into the sort of totally corrupted banana-boat regime we all know and loathe.
In 2007, Naomi Wolf noted the Transportation Security Administration’s proposed “Secure Flight” plan. Under it, all passengers on American flights — both international and domestic — would have to get government clearance to travel. She described this in terms of the slide of Germany into fascism, saying:
“If this proposed regulation goes through, we will move from 1931 to about 1934 — when the borders started to close — with the stroke of a pen.”
As of October 15th — just over two weeks time — airlines will have to provide the TSA with your full name exactly as it appears on a piece of government-sanctioned ID, your date of birth, and your gender for all flights. Flight approval rests on criteria which are not available to you for scrutiny. I advise you to go have a look at the piece that Wolf wrote if you are in even the slightest doubt whether travel scrutiny powers are already being regularly misused.
I don’t know what the answer is. Sara Robinson suggests that if the state re-strengthens by making good on old promises and delivering a fair deal again, and if the media chip in and do their bit to avoid spreading corrosive propaganda, and the police take the side of the people to aggresively punish the militant bands, well, then the slide can be averted.
It would be nice to think that this were possible, but I’m far from convinced. I don’t even know if there is an answer. And like I said at the start, I’m not telling you what to believe. But it seems to me that Paxton’s first three stages can be clearly ticked off the list, and I’m getting very worried, both for America (and the people there I love), and for the rest of the world.
As a kid, I always wondered why the people who knew they’d be in the firing line — the jews and intellectuals and homosexuals and so on — didn’t get the hell out of Germany in the early 30s. I understand now, of course. But our understanding of the process is better now, too. If fascism does arise in America, it will be white and piously Christian and every bit as dumb and emotive as ever. So if you’re in America, and you’re not a dumb white Christian, you really, really might want to start looking for options.
Because when the walls slam shut, and the rallies start, and the boots are marching in the street, and there is no room left for doubt… why, then it will be too late.
I’ll leave the last word to Sara Robinson again:
We are now parked on the exact spot where our best experts tell us full-blown fascism is born. Every day that the conservatives in Congress, the right-wing talking heads, and their noisy minions are allowed to hold up our ability to govern the country is another day we’re slowly creeping across the final line beyond which, history tells us, no country has ever been able to return.
Red Phone Box, a darkly magical story cycle written by myself, Warren Ellis and twenty-six other writers, and edited by the sublime Salomé Jones, is out now. I think you'll like it.