John Mackey, the feisty CEO of Whole Foods, says Obamacare is “fascist economics” and he regrets having said it, even though he insists — correctly — that it’s a textbook case of Mussolini-style corporate statism. Private property continues to exist, but the state controls all business. That’s why the fascists called their totalitarian system a “third way” between unbridled capitalism and Soviet-style Communism.
Back in the twenties and early thirties, before German National Socialism became the archetypal “fascist” doctrine, Mussolini’s call for a new kind of national economy intrigued many serious thinkers and leaders, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Mr. Mackey was also right to regret using the term “fascist,” because it invokes so many passions and stereotypes that it hinders, rather than advances, understanding. But “fascism” was a very successful mass movement in Western Europe for an entire generation, and it flourishes in many countries today. It behooves us to understand why it was so popular, and how most of our politics differ from it. We have fascist economics, but certainly not fascist politics or foreign policy in America today, even though there are echoes of it every so often.
There are many varieties of fascism, but the principal elements are:
- A single party dictatorship, headed by a charismatic leader.
- A politics of enthusiasm, involving the masses in ritual public celebration, and direct exchanges between the leader and his followers en masse.
- Hypernationalism, or, in the Nazi case, racism, based on the claim that the nation or race is unique, superior, and entitled to play a major role in world affairs.
- The aforementioned “corporate state” in which private property is legitimate, but the state dictates its proper use.
Fascism was created by the generation that fought, and died in historically unprecedented numbers, in the First World War. It was very much a war ideology: the post-war world, they insisted, must not be governed by the effete and corrupt ruling classes of the past, but by those who had demonstrated courage and virtue in the trenches. The elevation of war heroes to national leadership was seen as a guarantee that future generations would be shaped by the best the nation (or, in the case of the Third Reich, the race) could offer, and they vowed to fight, and destroy, those who had opposed the war, and sapped the nation’s virility thereafter.
As they extended their control over their countries, the fascists bragged of having created a new polity, a totalitarian state that controlled everything and everybody. Fascists’ heroic virtues were incarnated in a charismatic leader. Mussolini’s mass appeal was remarkable — you can see it in the monster crowds that gathered under his balcony in Piazza Venezia — as was Hitler’s, and that of others, from Romania to Spain (the charismatic leader there was not Franco, but Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange). It was common to speak of such leaders as “men of destiny,” world-historical individuals who had imposed their will on history and would reshape the world.
It’s hard to imagine our current leaders speaking in this sort of language. The very idea of bringing war heroes to domestic power is anathema to them. President Obama ran on a promise to end our involvement in Middle East wars, and, in his Second Inaugural Address, boasted of fulfilling his pledge. Fascists don’t change the world by “leading from behind.” They take charge in front of the troops.
Nor is there much in the way of hypernationalism in our current crop of leaders. We’ve rarely had much in the way of traditional nationalism in America; we’re patriots, we celebrate the American dream, but we don’t believe in a unique “people” or “race,” destined to impose its will on the rest of the world.
No doubt there are American political activists who would like their side to totally dominate the country’s affairs, as we can hear in recent calls for Obama to “destroy” the Republican Party once and for all. But it is hard to imagine a mass movement in this country based on an open call for a totalitarian state.
Charismatic leaders are not unique to fascism, and we have had many political leaders, including Obama, who are inspirational orators and who produce crowd behavior — such as the “jumpers” who rallied to Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign — that is reminiscent of the fascist masses. But we are a long way from the cult of personality that dominated Italy and Germany in the fascist epoch.
Indeed, one feature of charismatic leadership seems common to all modern politics: the tendency of people to excuse the leader for the errors of his government. When things go badly, there’s a tendency for followers to say “if only our leader knew what was going on, he’d fix it.” So it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see poll results that show the American people unhappy with Obama’s programs (they don’t like Obamacare, or higher taxes), but largely supportive of the man himself.
If you want examples of contemporary fascism, the easiest place to start is radical Islamists who openly call for totalitarian rule by men chosen by God, and invoke jihad in the “war against the infidel.” No wonder their predecessors in the 1920s and 1930s were inspired by Mussolini and Hitler. And no wonder they despise Obama, who they view as a weakling, a loser, and a pushover.