The Under-Appreciated Merits and Necessity of the F-Word

All that is necessary for evil to prevail, is for good men to call it something else.”

There’s a theory in psychology that holds that dissonance between action and thought will be resolved through the alteration of one’s beliefs. A person, for example, who finds himself in the arms of someone not his spouse, who has, nevertheless, long denounced extramarital affairs, may soon conclude there are some circumstances under which sexual dalliances outside of marriage are perfectly acceptable, if not to be desired. This view, more commonly known as rationalization, transforms the usual understanding of thought and belief as the cause of behavior to thought and belief as justification for behavior whose causes lie elsewhere.

Take, for example, the case of the person who argues vigorously against labeling the United States as increasingly fascist in its orientation. This view, apart from being incendiary to virtually every American, is regarded by many of those who are otherwise sympathetic to uncompromising criticism of the United States, as extreme and entirely indefensible. Those who object to the United States being so labeled almost invariably cite the absence of a systematic program of ethnic annihilation among policies pursued by the current administration as sufficient grounds to show the label “fascist” is entirely unwarranted, and more likely to either be the carefully chosen word of an agitator, or the carelessly chosen word of an ignoramus.

Of course, the United States government has not rounded up Jews, or Arabs, or members of any other identifiable ethnic groups en masse, herded them into camps, to be enslaved or gassed (though a substantial number of Arabs have been arrested, usually for immigration violations, and imprisoned under appalling conditions since Sept. 11.) But the absence of a policy of ethnic extermination does not mean the United States has not supported, even initiated, genocides of a more subtle kind. It can be argued, and some, such as William Blum,have indeed made the point, that the American tendency throughout the post-war period to intervene militarily in Third World countries, with enormous loss of life, has been tantamount to a holocaust of the poor [1]. This includes Washington’s backing a near genocide in East Timor, and tolerating the slow, but systematic mass killing of Iraqis through the deliberate destruction in the Gulf War of Iraq’s sewage and water treatment facilities, followed by a program of crippling and inhumane sanctions.

Moreover, much as Zionists would prefer that Nazi Germany’s policies of systematic extermination be understood to have been uniquely focused on the Jews, it’s also true that Nazism was richly anti-Communist, and, it can be argued, fundamentally anti-Communist in the first instance. Anti-Semitism, or more specifically, the pro-German ethnic purity policies of Hitler’s followers, clashed deliberately with the emphasis of the Communists and Socialists on building a mass movement based on class. Rather than wage-earning Germans thinking of themselves as sharing common economic interests at odds with those of capital, and extending across national boundaries to wage-earners of different ethnic backgrounds in other countries, the Nazis defined a competing orientation: Germans would think of themselves in ethnic terms, as a “people,” and, moreover, as a people with a humanitarian obligation to rid the world of the scourge of Communism, while purging from its own ranks non-Germans, being mostly Jews and an assortment of other “undesirable” groups, such as the Roma. Accordingly, it was not only Jews the Nazis rounded up and murdered; Roma, communists, socialists and homosexuals were included, as well. Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union, the cradle of Communism, with the extraordinary loss of some 20 million lives, only added to the toll of Communists the Nazis sought to systematically exterminate. In the end, Nazism managed to slaughter more Communists (when Russia’s 20 million dead are accounted for) than Jews, a statement that is not intended, and indeed, in no way diminishes, the horrors committed against Europe’s Jewish population, but which emphasizes what has been forgotten, either inadvertently in the West, or more likely, deliberately: that Nazi crimes were not uniquely anti-Jewish.

Following the war, anti-Communism, as a defining ideology, burst into full bloom in the United States, and it was Washington that took up the torch. Millions upon millions in Korea and Indochina died as a result. In Indonesia, 500,000 to one million communists were systematically eliminated, as US officials supplied lists of names and then crossed them off as Indonesians pulled the trigger. And in Central and South America, members of various socialist and nationalist movements were systematically hunted down and murdered by authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships, often put in power with the blessing and through the covert, and sometimes not so covert, intervention of the United States. This, of course, wasn’t a genocide as the word is usually understood. But it was, in its effects, tantamount to a genocide.

But even allowing that the United States has not pursued genocidal policies as brazen as those pursued by the Nazis (except in the case of the early colonization of America against the Indians), the reduction of “fascism” to the systematic elimination of six million Jews, and more specifically, to one element of one brand of fascism, i.e., Nazism, is far too simple. As a product of German fascism, and while a salient and particularly horrific product of fascism’s emphasis on racial and national solidarity, the pathology of anti-Semitism was not as hyper-developed in other brands of fascism, including the original, Italian variety. Still, the nationalism that was a common element of Italian, German and Japanese fascism is not entirely absent in the United States. Of course, as a multiracial and multicultural community, the United States can hardly be said to be nationalist in a racial or ethnic sense, but there has been a tendency for Americans to see themselves as “a people,” and one that must, owing to what is believed to be its superiority as marked by national wealth and military primacy, bring order and prosperity to the rest of the world. That this is hardly different from the Nazi’s idea of Deutschland uber alles, or the wartime Japanese belief of a paternalistic obligation to dominate Asia in the interests of those countries over which Japan’s hegemony would extend, should be clear.

Fascism, however, is more richly textured than that. Germany, Italy, and Japan were muscularly militaristic, and built vast military machines, for reasons countries always build vast military machines: conquest. And that conquest has, almost invariably, been carried out under the pretext of self-defense. The Nazis, it may be recalled, didn’t invade other countries without contriving superficially plausible reasons for their naked acts of aggression, invoking self-defense, humanitarianism, and the need to pre-empt attack by hostile forces. It could hardly be said that the echoes of history are not evident in the bloated “defense” budget of the United States, or in the cartoonish and barely plausible rationales offered by US governments for clearly illegal and unprovoked acts of aggression against other states.

There are, then, multiple grounds on which to defend the thesis that the United States has long been in some respects “fascistic,” and has become clearly more so since Sept. 11, with the administration enlarging its powers, and the very clear abridgment of civil liberties and the creeping growth of police state powers (as in Washington’s TIPs program, but more ominously, the jailing without charge or due process of American citizens.) Increasingly, Washington has taken steps that, as recently as two years ago, few would have acknowledged the administration would be able to get away with, without provoking an uproar of protest. This vastly underestimated the extent to which the majority is prepared to acquiesce.

Far from being unusual, acquiescence may be nothing out of the ordinary. Twenty years ago, the socialist political scientist, Ralph Miliband, presciently sketched out how a “conservative-authoritarian” regime might arise in Britain. But for the details, he could have been talking about the United States after Sept. 11.

“Soldiers would play a much bigger roles in all areas of national life than hitherto, but the regime would not necessarily be a military one. There would be plenty of civilians, of the most respectable hue, available to run the state, in partnership with military men and police chiefs. Police forces would be given much more of a free hand to act as they thought fit. Nor, in the climate engendered by the regime and its propagandists, would they be disposed to ask anyone’s permission to do so.

“Nevertheless, much of the state would function more or less normally. A dismal aspect of such conservative authoritarianism is precisely the normality which endures, and which provides reassurance to many people who want a quiet life that things are not all that different, really, of course, for activists and others in jail or rehabilitation centers of one sort or another (‘concentration camp’ evokes the wrong memories). There would be cricket on the green, and at Lord’s; Derby Day at Ascot; the football season and the FA Cup; comedy on television; the same announcers blandly reading the news; the Queen’s Christmas Broadcast; even the House of Commons, minus some unpatriotic MPs, temporarily detained.” [2]

Another reason for the public’s acquiescence is that the majority is dispossessed of any formal, legal means of putting a stop to a growing list of outrages. You may not like what Washington is doing, but what are you going to do to stop it? Letter writing, telephone calls to congressmen, and letters to the editor have little, if any effect [3]. Effective action requires the disruption of the smooth functioning of society, as in widespread and vigorous campaigns of civil disobedience, but that comes at a high personal cost, and there are too many comforts to distract the attention of the majority, especially when the administration’s outrages are carefully limited not to inconvenience or threaten ordinary Americans in any way. On the contrary, they’re presented as enhancing the security of the majority.

In other words, there is a massive bias toward inaction. But if you’re disinclined to act (as most overwhelmingly are), you need to rationalize why you’ve chosen to do nothing. One way is to ignore what’s happening. “I can’t do anything about it, so why get worked up about it?” Another is to minimize. Thus, some activists argue vigorously against labeling the United States fascist, because the thesis establishes a compelling moral case for action that has high personal costs. “If the US government is truly fascist, then we’re under an obligation to do something about it, beyond merely marching and demonstrating and writing letters. Are you prepared to take the next step?” This, of course, is offered rhetorically, with the concluding line remaining tacit. “If you’re not prepared, then stop calling the government fascist. It’s too agitating.”

And indeed the idea that terrible crimes are being committed while we sit by and do nothing, at least nothing terribly effective, is indeed agitating and a source of acute discomfort, as is The Nuremberg Tribunal’s admonition that citizens have an obligation to contravene their country’s laws, if necessary, to stop crimes against humanity. How many are willing to risk their personal liberty to prevent, for example, their own government committing a crime against peace in an unprovoked, all-out attack against Iraq, or descending further into fascism? It’s so much simpler to minimize the descent, to call it something else, or to ignore it altogether.

The usual pretext for activists pulling their punches, and playing down the extent of Washington’s outrages, is that the idea that the United States is increasingly fascist, is deeply offensive to a majority of Americans. The word “fascist,” it is said, carries too much emotional weight, and is so inextricably tied up with the Holocaust, that to utter it in connection with the United States is to engineer a self-imposed marginalization. No one, it is rationalized, will listen to anyone so daft as to liken the United States to a country that exterminated six million Jews. And how can we mobilize support if we’re not listened to?

And yet, while the argument cannot be dismissed out of hand, for the immediate tendency is indeed to guffaw at suggestions the United States is fascist or becoming so, there is a powerful proclivity on the part of the majority to accept “the normality which endures, and which provides reassurance to many people who want a quiet life that things are not all that different,” as Miliband put it. Such alternatives as “conservative authoritarianism” in place of the agitating and offensive “fascism”, only reinforce this tendency. There are great pressures to employ euphemisms, precisely because they haven’t an emotional significance, and therefore do not often call forth powerful emotions, or powerful actions. We must, activists say, present ourselves as rational and levelheaded and credible. But in a world where great crimes are committed under the noses of the majority who would prefer to lead a quiet life, it is powerful emotions — revulsion, an acutely discomfiting sense of injustice, and compassion for the weak — that are the only hope against an immense bias toward inertia. That, and the truth scrupulously adhered to, no matter what the psychological pressure to deny or minimize it.


* Fascism, as David McGowan cleverly refers to it. See his Understanding the F-Word: American Fascism and the Politics of Illusion. Writers Club Press, 2001

[1]  Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Intervention since World War II, Common Courage Press, 1995. Blum writes, “a few million people have died in the American holocaust and many more millions have been condemned to lives of misery and torture as a result of US interventions extending from China and Greece in the 1940s to Afghanistan and Iraq in the 1990s.” He adds: “So great and deep is the denial of the American holocaust…that the deniers are not even aware that the claimers or the claim even exists.”

[2]  Miliband, Ralph. Capitalist Democracy in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1982. p. 155.

[3]  This isn’t to suggest that letter writing, telephone calls to congressmen, and letters to the editor can’t be useful; only that by themselves, they’re ineffective. The larger point is that the majority shouldn’t be left with letter writing and calls to elected representatives as the only recourse — and a largely ineffective one — to influence public policy.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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Capitalist Democracy in Britain by Ralph Miliband