Sunday, April 12, 2009

What is Fascism?

Tibor R. Machan

Dictionaries aren't decisive about what the central meaning of terms are--they are mostly descriptions of common usage. For definitions of the meaning of important and controversial concepts--as some call them, "essentially contestable" ones--it is necessary to read books or encyclopedia entries. This is how I generally keep reasonably well informed and up to date.

So not long ago I penned a column in which I identified the economic policies of the Obama administration's so far as fascist! In it I said "Fascism is a political system in which a country is lead by a charismatic leader who has full power to order things about because he (or she) is taken to know best."

Among the many comments I received, mostly very complimentary, I also got some that disputed my description of our current trends in political economy. Some of my critics insisted, in fact, that the newspapers in which my columns run should dismiss me because fascism in fact has to do with a system that elevates the nation to an exclusive level of supremacy and not with what I said.

In fact, of course, that would be nationalism, while fascism is indeed mainly what I said it is. One popular on line dictionary states this about what is central to fascism, identifying it as "a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism." So, while nationalism and racism can be elements of fascism, they are only sometimes emphasized in it. And when people use the term to criticize the police or local sheriff, this is just what they have in mind, namely, a strong and unconstrained head or officer of the state! When qualified by the term "economic," it means such a head of state whose power is focused mostly on planning a country's economy just as he or she sees fit.

Fascism, as I tell my students in my political philosophy classes, endorses absolute and arbitrary rule by a charismatic figure--Eva Peron comes to mind as the female of the species. And what these rulers promote differs, although quite a few capitalize on nationalist and racists sentiments so as to gather support from the local population.

The United States of America is what is best described a mixed system, with democratic, fascist, socialist and other elements--not surprisingly, considering the incredible diverse citizenry who send representatives of a great variety of viewpoints to centers of power. Just now the fascist element is strong in Washington, especially where government's relationship to economic affairs across the country is concerned. The signs are not difficult to spot. For the president to induce the firing of a CEO of a major auto company is one. Pouring money into the economy without any constraint is another. Capitalizing so much on personal appeal--so the White House is now constantly posting President Obama's appearances on YouTube and similar web sites in which there is no discussion but presidential propaganda, mainly, reminiscent of the much lengthier speeches of, say, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and, earlier, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. These all rely very heavily on oratory and polemical speech, not on analysis or argument, and they include only minimal serious, unscripted discussions with members of the citizenry or a variety of professional economists.

It is interesting that so many Obama supporters are invoking the name of John Maynard Keynes as they promote the current official approach to dealing with the economy because of a little known fact about Keynes. He wrote an introduction to the German translation of his famous about, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, in which he said that his ideas were especially applicable to the way a dictatorship is supposed to be governed! As Keynes wrote there, "the theory of aggregated production, which is the point of the following book, nevertheless can be much easier adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state [eines totalen Staates] than the theory of production and distribution of a given production put forth under conditions of free competition and a large degree of laissez-faire."

So when I say that here we have serious fascist elements to how the American government is handling the current economic fiasco, I have in mind mainly that the President and his team are acting unpredictably, wielding power and being very vague about why they are doing this rather than that, as well as that their economics teacher, Keynes, was in fact sympathetic to economic fascism.

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