[Paleopsych] Harper's Magazine: Lewis H. Lapham: We Now Live in a Fascist State
checker at panix.com
Thu Oct 27 02:09:55 UTC 2005
Harper's Magazine: Lewis H. Lapham: We Now Live in a Fascist State
Date: Tue, 11 Oct 2005 13:34:38 -0700
[Thanks to Laird for this. He added the title to Lapham's monthly "On Message"
[Knowing the source of this piece makes it all the more disturbing. It is not
every day that the editor of a respected national magazine publishes an essay
claiming that America is not on the road to becoming, but ALREADY IS, a fascist
state.... or words to that affect.
[To help prepare you for what follows, here are the final sentence from this
piece.... [I think we can look forward with confidence to character-building
bankruptcies, picturesque bread riots, thrilling cavalcades of splendidly
costumed motorcycle police. -Laird Wilcox]
By Lewis H. Lapham
October 2005, pps. 7-9
"But I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to
move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to
better the lot of our citizens, then Fascism and Communism, aided,
unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory Republicanism, will grow in strength in
our land." -Franklin D. Roosevelt, November 4, 1938
In 1938 the word "fascism" hadn't yet been transferred into an abridged
metaphor for all the world's unspeakable evil and monstrous crime, and on
coming across President Roosevelt's prescient remark in one of Umberto Eco's
essays, I could read it as prose instead of poetry -- a reference not to the
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or the pit of Hell but to the political
theories that regard individual citizens as the property of the government,
happy villagers glad to wave the flags and wage the wars, grateful for the good
fortune that placed them in the care of a sublime leader. Or, more
emphatically, as Benito Mussolini liked to say, "Everything in the state.
Nothing outside the state. Nothing against the state."
The theories were popular in Europe in the 1930s (cheering crowds, rousing band
music, splendid military uniforms), and in the United States they numbered
among their admirers a good many important people who believed that a somewhat
modified form of fascism (power vested in the banks and business corporations
instead of with the army) would lead the country out of the wilderness of the
Great Depression -- put an end to the Pennsylvania labor troubles, silence the
voices of socialist heresy and democratic dissent. Roosevelt appreciated the
extent of fascism's popularity at the political box office; so does Eco, who
takes pains in the essay "Ur-Fascism," published in The New York Review of
Books in 1995, to suggest that it's a mistake to translate fascism into a
figure of literary speech.
By retrieving from our historical memory only the vivid and familiar images of
fascist tyranny (Gestapo firing squads, Soviet labor camps, the chimneys at
Treblinka), we lose sight of the faith-based initiatives that sustained the
tyrant's rise to glory. The several experiments with fascist government, in
Russia and Spain as well as in Italy and Germany, didn't depend on a single
portfolio of dogma, and so Eco, in search of their common ground, doesn't look
for a unifying principle or a standard text. He attempts to describe a way of
thinking and a habit of mind, and on sifting through the assortment of
fantastic and often contradictory notions -- Nazi paganism, Franco's National
Catholicism, Mussolini's corporatism, etc. -- he finds a set of axioms on which
all the fascisms agree. Among the most notable:
The truth is revealed once and only once.
Parliamentary democracy is by definition rotten because it doesn't represent
the voice of the people, which is that of the sublime leader.
Doctrine outpoints reason, and science is always suspect.
Critical thought is the province of degenerate intellectuals, who betray the
culture and subvert traditional values.
The national identity is provided by the nation's enemies.
Argument is tantamount to treason.
Perpetually at war, the state must govern with the instruments of fear.
Citizens do not act; they play the supporting role of "the people" in the grand
opera that is the state.
Eco published his essay ten years ago, when it wasn't as easy as it has since
become to see the hallmarks of fascist sentiment in the character of an
American government. Roosevelt probably wouldn't have been surprised.
He'd encountered enough opposition to both the New Deal and to his belief in
such a thing as a United Nations to judge the force of America's racist
passions and the ferocity of its anti-intellectual prejudice. As he may have
guessed, so it happened. The American democracy won the battles for Normandy
and Iwo Jima, but the victories abroad didn't stem the retreat of democracy at
home, after 1968 no longer moving "forward as a living force, seeking day and
night to better the lot" of its own citizens, and now that sixty years have
passed since the bomb fell on Hiroshima, it doesn't take much talent for
reading a cashier's scale at Wal-Mart to know that it is fascism, not
democracy, that won the heart and mind of America's "Greatest Generation,"
added to its weight and strength on America's shining seas and fruited plains.
A few sorehead liberal intellectuals continue to bemoan the fact, write books
about the good old days when everybody was in charge of reading his or her own
mail. I hear their message and feel their pain, share their feelings of regret,
also wish that Cole Porter was still writing songs, that Jean Harlow and Robert
Mitchum hadn't quit making movies. But what's gone is gone, and it serves
nobody's purpose to deplore the fact that we're not still riding in a coach to
Philadelphia with Thomas Jefferson. The attitude is cowardly and French,
symptomatic of effete aesthetes who refuse to change with the times.
As set forth in Eco's list, the fascist terms of political endearment are
refreshingly straightforward and mercifully simple, many of them already
accepted and understood by a gratifyingly large number of our most
forward-thinking fellow citizens, multitasking and safe with Jesus. It does no
good to ask the weakling's pointless question, "Is America a fascist state?" We
must ask instead, in a major rather than a minor key, "Can we make America the
best damned fascist state the world has ever seen," an authoritarian paradise
deserving the admiration of the international capital markets, worthy of "a
decent respect to the opinions of mankind"? I wish to be the first to say we
can. We're Americans; we have the money and the know-how to succeed where
Hitler failed, and history has favored us with advantages not given to the
We don't have to burn any books.
The Nazis in the 1930s were forced to waste precious time and money on the
inoculation of the German citizenry, too well-educated for its own good,
against the infections of impermissible thought. We can count it as a blessing
that we don't bear the burden of an educated citizenry. The systematic
destruction of the public-school and library systems over the last thirty
years, a program wisely carried out under administrations both Republican and
Democratic, protects the market for the sale and distribution of the
government's propaganda posters. The publishing companies can print as many
books as will guarantee their profit (books on any and all subjects, some of
them even truthful), but to people who don't know how to read or think, they do
as little harm as snowflakes falling on a frozen pond.
We don't have to disturb, terrorize, or plunder the bourgeoisie.
In Communist Russia as well as in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the codes of
social hygiene occasionally put the regime to the trouble of smashing
department-store windows, beating bank managers to death, inviting opinionated
merchants on complimentary tours (all expenses paid, breathtaking scenery) of
Siberia. The resorts to violence served as study guides for free, thinking
businessmen reluctant to give up on the democratic notion that the individual
citizen is entitled to an owner's interest in his or her own mind.
The difficulty doesn't arise among people accustomed to regarding themselves as
functions of a corporation. Thanks to the diligence of out news media and the
structure of our tax laws, our affluent and suburban classes have taken to
heart the lesson taught to the aspiring serial killers rising through the ranks
at West Point and the Harvard Business School -- think what you're told to
think, and not only do you get to keep the house in Florida or command of the
Pentagon press office but on some sunny prize day not far over the horizon, the
compensation committee will hand you a check for $40 million, or President
George W. Bush will bestow on you the favor of a nickname as witty as the ones
that on good days elevate Karl Rove to the honorific "Boy Genius," on bad days
to the disappointed but no less affectionate "Turd Blossom."
Who doesn't now know that the corporation is immortal, that it is the
corporation that grants the privilege of an identity, confers meaning on one's
life, gives the pension, a decent credit rating, and the priority standing in
the community? Of course the corporation reserves the right to open one's
email, test one's blood, listen to the phone calls, examine one's urine, hold
the patent on the copyright to any idea generated on its premises. Why ever
should it not? As surely as the loyal fascist knew that it was his duty to
serve the state, the true American knows that it is his duty to protect the
Having met many fine people who come up to the corporate mark -- on golf
courses and commuter trains, tending to their gardens in Fairfield County while
cutting back the payrolls in Michigan and Mexico -- I'm proud to say (and I
think I speak for all of us here this evening with Senator Clinton and her
lovely husband) that we're blessed with a bourgeoisie that will welcome fascism
as gladly as it welcomes the rain in April and the sun in June. No need to send
for the Gestapo or the NKVD; it will not be necessary to set examples.
We don't have to gag the press or seize the radio stations.
People trained to the corporate style of thought and movement have no further
use for free speech, which is corrupting, overly emotional, reckless, and
ill-informed, not calibrated to the time available for television talk or to
the performance standards of a Super Bowl halftime show. It is to our advantage
that free speech doesn't meet the criteria of the free market. We don't require
the inspirational genius of a Joseph Goebbels; we can rely instead on the
dictates of the Nielsen ratings and the camera angles, secure in the knowledge
that the major media syndicates run the business on strictly corporatist
principles -- afraid of anything disruptive or inappropriate, committed to the
promulgation of what is responsible, rational, and approved by experts. Their
willingness to stay on message is a credit to their professionalism.
The early twentieth-century fascists had to contend with individuals who
regarded their freedom of expression as a necessity -- the bone and marrow of
their existence, how they recognized themselves as human beings. Which was why,
if sometimes they refused appointments to the state-run radio stations, they
sometimes were found dead on the Italian autostrada or drowned in the Kiel
Canal. The authorities looked upon their deaths as forms of self-indulgence.
The same attitude governs the agreement reached between labor and management at
our leading news organizations. No question that the freedom of speech is
extended to every American -- it says so in the Constitution -- but the
privilege is one that musn't be abused. Understood in a proper and financially
rewarding light, freedom of speech is more trouble than it's worth -- a luxury
comparable to owning a racehorse and likely to bring with it little else except
the risk of being made to look ridiculous.
People who learn to conduct themselves in a manner respectful of the telephone
tap and the surveillance camera have no reason to fear the fist of censorship.
By removing the chore of having to think for oneself, one frees up more leisure
time to enjoy the convenience of the Internet services that know exactly what
one likes to hear and see and wear and eat. We don't have to murder the
Here again, we find ourselves in luck. The society is so glutted with easy
entertainment that no writer or company of writers is troublesome enough to
warrant the compliment of an arrest, or even the courtesy of a sharp blow to
the head. What passes for the American school of dissent talks exclusively to
itself in the pages of obscure journals, across the coffee cups in Berkeley and
Park Slope, in half-deserted lecture halls in small Midwestern colleges. The
author on the platform or the beach towel can be relied upon to direct his
angriest invective at the other members of the academy who failed to drape
around the title of his latest book the garland of a rave review.
The blessings bestowed by Providence place America in the front rank of nations
addressing the problems of a twenty-first century, certain to require bold
geopolitical initiatives and strong ideological solutions. How can it be
otherwise? More pressing demands for always scarcer resources; ever larger
numbers of people who cannot be controlled except with an increasingly heavy
hand of authoritarian guidance. Who better than the Americans to lead the
fascist renaissance, set the paradigm, order the preemptive strikes? The
existence of mankind hangs in the balance; failure is not an option. Where else
but in America can the world find the visionary intelligence to lead it bravely
into the future -- Donald Rumsfeld our Dante, Turd Blossom our Michelangelo?
I don't say that over the last thirty years we haven't made brave strides
forward. By matching Eco's list of fascist commandments against our record of
achievement, we can see how well we've begun the new project for the next
millennium -- the notion of absolute and eternal truth embraced by the
evangelical Christians and embodied in the strict constructions of the
Constitution; our national identity provided by anonymous Arabs; Darwin's
theory of evolution rescinded by the fiat of "intelligent design"; a state of
perpetual war and a government administering, in generous and daily doses, the
drug of fear; two presidential elections stolen with little or no objection on
the part of a complacent populace; the nation's congressional districts
gerrymandered to defend the White House for the next fifty years against the
intrusion of a liberal-minded president; the news media devoted to the arts of
iconography, busily minting images of corporate executives like those of the
emperor heroes on the coins of ancient Rome.
An impressive beginning, in line with what the world has come to expect from
the innovative Americans, but we can do better. The early twentieth-century
fascisms didn't enter their golden age until the proletariat in the countries
that gave them birth had been reduced to abject poverty. The music and the
marching songs rose with the cry of eagles from the wreckage of the domestic
economy. On the evidence of the wonderful work currently being done by the Bush
Administration with respect to the trade deficit and the national debt -- to
say nothing of expanding the markets for global terrorism -- I think we can
look forward with confidence to character-building bankruptcies, picturesque
bread riots, thrilling cavalcades of splendidly costumed motorcycle police.
More information about the paleopsych