Monday, 5 March 2018

It Can't Happen Here

The American economist Tyler Cowen believes that the US is safe from a Fascist takeover of the sort imagined in Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel, It Can't Happen Here: "My argument is pretty simple: American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of." But Cowen's praise for big government is qualified: "In many Western societies, it is very difficult to get rid of excess bureaucracy and regulation, to the detriment of dynamism and economic growth. Just as we are insulated from a fascist takeover, so are we probably stuck with some of the less efficient features of modern social democracies". The implication is that secular stagnation may be a product of government inertia as much as technological change but that this at least delivers political stability. There is something to be said for this idea. The current populist wave has been exaggerated as a threat to democracy and authoritarian policies have been advanced mainly by established conservatives along well-worn paths. In the US, the Trump moment has revealed itself to be a continuation of modern Republicanism with an added layer of dynastic corruption.

But there are two problems with Cowen's theory. First, it misrepresents the relationship of historic fascism with the state, presenting the former as a dynamic aggressor and the latter as a passive victim. Second, it assumes a continuity in the subjects and modes of state regulation across a century, partly to support the charge of inertia and partly to support the claim that the modern state remains essentially social democratic rather than neoliberal. As a result, Cowen's argument relies heavily on a particular misreading of history: "Surely it ought to give us pause that the major instances of Western fascism came right after a time when government was relatively small, and not too long after the heyday of classical liberalism in Europe, namely the late 19th century". In fact, the heyday of classical liberalism was the middle of the nineteenth century. After 1870, rapid industrialisation, imperialism and the exigencies of World War One combined to rapidly grow the state. If there was a Fascist window of opportunity, according to Cowen's theory, it would have been closer to 1848 than 1922 or 1933.

In lauding the resilience of big government, Cowen can use a critique of libertarian demands for a small state to make a sociological claim about fascists: "Yet the greater focus of the night watchman state, for all its virtues, is part of the reason why it is easy to take over. There is a clearly defined center of power and a clearly defined set of lines of authority; furthermore, the main activity of the state is to enforce property rights through violence or the threat of violence. ... The culture and ethos of such a state is likely to be relatively masculine and also relatively martial and tolerant of a certain amount of risk, and indeed violence." That fascist parties in the 1920s attracted violent misogynists is hardly news, but it is a fallacy of composition to assume that all fascists were young, male and brutal. Much of the electoral backing for fascist parties came from the "respectable" bourgeoisie and older voters, while the history of fascist parties in government was marked by the gradual marginalisation of the street-fighters (most famously the SA in Germany) and opportunistic alliances with established conservative elites in the military, foreign and civil service.

Cowen's fundamental premise is that fascism is exogenous and therefore a larger government will be more resilient: "The history of fascism more generally has been characterized by conflict between party and state, and extreme fascist victories typically have required the ascendancy of party and thus a relatively weak state". This is to ignore the extent to which historic fascism was an endogenous faction (and reaction) within the state apparatus, rather than a populist insurgency by a hitherto excluded and powerless social stratum. Cowen's theory requires us to believe that fascism got in "under the wire" before the expansion of the modern state created a structural bulwark against its advance, but a different reading is that fascism was actually a product of the growth of the state in the 50-year period between 1870 and 1920. Indeed, one could go further and suggest that fascism was an attempt by political nationalism to catch-up with and master the rapid development of the state in that period (e.g. the Nazis' Gleichschaltung). It was reactionary, but it also sought to supersede modernity and thus adopted a revolutionary mode.

It is no coincidence that Fascism and Nazism would arise in those larger Western European countries, Italy and Germany, that saw the creation of a new state apparatus as part of political unification in the nineteenth century. That coming together obviously had many ramifications, from cultural homogenisation to a psychological anxiety about dissolution, but the bureaucratic effect was the association of the state with the "national idea". More established nations, like the UK or France, had a conservative apparatus, but one that was committed to the preservation of the status quo rather than the achievement of any programmatic goal. In contrast, the state apparatus of Germany and Italy was both progressive, in its commitment to a new order, and reactionary, in its distaste for democracy and its fear of socialism. This was evident in the enthusiasm of the apparatchiks. For example, the Nazis enjoyed considerable support among civil servants in the 1920s and 30s (which they repaid with employment bans on first Jews and then married women once they came to power).

In Germany, not only did the Nazi Party not capture the state wholly from without, but defeat in the Second World War and formal de-Nazification did little to change the personnel, not least because the Allied Powers decided that the construction of the new Federal Republic in the face of the Communist challenge required a pragmatic forgetfulness (compare and contrast with the attitude towards the Ba'ath Party in Iraq after 2003). While many individuals claimed that they had only joined the Nazi Party to advance their careers, the high proportion of ex-party members (or "Altnazis") in the civil service, judiciary and university administration - many still espousing far-right and authoritarian views - was a running sore that would become a prime focus for the German student movement in the 1960s. This history is inconvenient for Cowen's theory because it shows both the extent to which the fascist state was already incipient within the apparatus of the Weimar Republic and how fascist elements can still be accommodated within a social democratic state.

In seeking to cast the war as a dividing line between the vulnerable and the resilient state, Cowen notes that German government spending was 36.6% of GDP in 1932, which was "considerably smaller than what the German government would grow to after the de-Nazification following World War II, when government rose to 44 percent of GDP by 1958 and to much more later". This isn't a compelling argument. After all, current US government spending is only 36% of GDP, but Cowen's premise is that this represents a large state that is now invulnerable to fascist takeover. Using government spending as a share of GDP as a proxy for the size of the state is also problematic because of differences in the way that social goods such as healthcare and education are accounted for between the private and public sectors. National accounting data tell us little about the institutional resilience of the state apparatus, which is surely more important when considering its vulnerability to an authoritarian coup d'etat. It also tells us little about the changing composition of government activity: what subjects the money is spent on and what modes are employed in managing that expenditure.

State regulation in the hundred years between 1850 and 1950 was concerned more with people than commodities, reflecting both the initial purpose of the modern state (to manage labour for capital) and limited environmental consciousness. The social democratic era saw a gradual decline in the focus on labour (culminating in labour market deregulation) and an increase in the focus on land, raw materials, and commodities. This was a result not just of material changes, such as the oil crises of the 70s and growing evidence of environmental damage, but of social demand. This demand was exemplified in the early-80s by the growth of the Green movement, protests against nuclear power and weapons proliferation, and consumer boycotts (e.g. against South African fruit). By the 1990s, neoliberalism had fully shifted the focus of the state towards commodities (the EU and WTO rounds to the fore), with the disciplining of labour now largely internalised. The last twenty years have seen a limited revival of more traditional biopolitical forms to deal with the "recalcitrant minority" of labour (workfare etc), as well as a growing social demand for greater control over the movement of people internationally. It is this recent oscillation that has marginally improved the prospects for fascism.

Cowen's claim is that Big Government remains social democratic and that its consequent flaws are unintentionally anti-fascist: "Just as we are insulated from a fascist takeover, so are we probably stuck with some of the less efficient features of modern social democracies. ... We can therefore think of the ongoing evolution and cementing of Big Government, in the social welfare and bureaucratic senses of that term, is an extended exercise in risk aversion" (Cowen's yearning for the US to take more risks - a central theme of his works like The Great Stagnation - here comes close to a flirtation with the fascist aesthetic). The reason why a fascist takeover in the US is unlikely has little to do with the size of government, or the preponderance of paper-shuffling civil servants over heavily-armed border guards, and everything to do with the political configuration. Fascism depends on the opportunistic support of conservative factions and big capital, which in turn assumes a leftwing that is perceived to pose an existential threat. Today, the Republican Party is too well-entrenched within the apparatus (particularly at state - i.e. sub-federal - level), the Democratic Party too compromised by capital, and the American left too weak.

1 comment:

  1. Ben Philliskirk6 March 2018 at 09:34

    I'm not sure what planet he must be on to argue that 'classical liberalism' was more vulnerable to fascism because political power was more focused! The entire existence of classical liberal regimes depended on limits to political power and giving sway to economic forces. It was known as 'laissez-faire' for a reason.

    In (small government) 19th Century Spain it was very easy to issue pronunciamentos and occupy the apex of the state, but a lot more difficult to cement a permanent position of power. Fascists were determined not only to command mass obedience, but also to mobilise the whole of socio-economic life behind their goals. As you point out, to do this without a bloody social revolution would have been impossible without the prior existence of established state institutions that at least partly sympathised with their aims. There is no coincidence that Spain, with a less developed central state power, saw a bloody civil war before the far-right were able to establish themselves in power.