Monday, May 9, 2011

Global mega corporations = fascism?

In a recent opinion piece on Aljazeera online, William I. Robinson (Prof. of Sociology, U.C. Santa Barbara) claims that "The global economic crisis and the attack on immigrant rights are bound together" in a potentially catastrophic dynamic.

Robert Reich had a thought-provoking take on something similar the other day. Reich observed on American Public Media's "Marketplace" program that "Corporate profits don't translate." He asked, "How can big American corporations be doing so well and the economy so badly?" His conclusion was, "Because their sales are booming -- abroad. And they're adding new jobs where their sales are."

My interpretation of Reich's point was that the current growth of corporate profits in spite of little to no job creation here in the U.S. shows how detached so-called American corporations are becoming from democratic oversight and input. In fact, this shows how detached they're becoming from any real interest in the well-being of their host countries. If it is true that General Motors President Erwin Wilson stated in 1953 that "what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa," the dynamic that Reich discusses seems to represent a different era. Erwin was equating corporate and national interests, a claim that many of us can argue with. However, Reich is describing an era in which the big global corporations don't even pretend to care whether or not corporate practices are "good" for the U.S., and vice-versa.[1]

Robinson incorporates Reich's observation as a central strand in a "web of 21st century fascism."

I'm struck by Robinson's use of the word "fascism." Even though Robinson himself states "I don't use the term fascism lightly," is it appropriate to use the term at all? Doesn't using this term frame the discussion rather rigidly? I'm reminded here of Godwin's Law that states, in part, that whomever first brings up Hitler or the Nazis in an argument automatically loses.[2]

Robinson qualifies his use of the word somewhat when he writes that "The United States cannot be characterised at this time as fascist. Nonetheless, all of the conditions and the processes are present and percolating, and the social and political forces behind such a project are mobilising rapidly."

The key elements of Robinson's proto-neo-fascism include:
    1. "The fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power . . . [including] such neo-fascist movements as the Tea Party [and] neo-fascist legislation such as Arizona's anti-immigrant law, SB1070, [that] have been broadly financed by corporate capital . . ."
    2. "Militarisation and extreme masculinisation" such as "the top military brass . . . becom[ing] increasingly politicised and involved in policy making."
    3. "A scapegoat which serves to displace and redirect social tensions and contradictions," in this case "immigrants and Muslims in particular."
    4. "A mass social base" such as "among sectors of the white working class . . . that have been experiencing displacement and . . . rapid downward mobility."
    5. "A fanatical millennial ideology involving race/culture supremacy embracing an idealised and mythical past, and a racist mobilisation against scapegoats."
    6. "A charismatic leadership," which "has so far been largely missing in the United States, although figures such as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck appear as archetypes."
I might quibble with Robinson and make a few qualifying observations, such as the fact that "Militarisation and extreme masculinisation" has been a recurring theme in American history since at least the Mexican-American War; that as much as I dislike what the Tea Party stands for I'm not convinced that they're "neo-fascist" so much as scared and reactionary (mostly-) white people[3]; and that the "mass social base . . . among sectors of the white working class" isn't as monolithic as he claims. However, the trends Robinson outlines do cause me some concern. I'm extremely concerned about the corporate behavior that Robert Reich, Michael Moore, and many, many others observe, but I'm not convinced that using the word "fascism" helps clear anything up. On the contrary: I find that it muddies things considerably, in at least three ways:

First, it automatically turns-off a certain segment of readers who think, "oh, here we go again, another example of Godwin's Law."

Second, the word "fascism" has a very real, historically grounded meaning in Italian, German, and Spanish politics of the 1920s-1940s (and, to some degrees, beyond). Fascist governance was quite unpleasant to a great many people, and these direct memories are still part of the lived experiences of people around the world.

Third, the word "fascism" also has a complicated history of uses and meanings that have accumulated since the 1920s (and particularly since 1945), including being tossed about willy-nilly by people seeking only to denigrate their opponents as succinctly as possible, whether or not these opponents had any real or ideological connection to fascism.

Because "fascism" is such a loaded word, people must use it with full awareness and ample caution -- sort of like cayenne in a recipe: sure, a little cayenne is great, but too much cayenne is not great at all.

To use "fascism" to characterize a system of corporate-led quasi-governance in the early twenty-first century, one must be sure that the definition fits. After reading Robinson's article, I'm not convinced that he uses the term with full awareness and caution, and I'm not sure that it fits. I came away from my reading with the impression that Robinson's use falls under the third point I outlined above.

Maybe part of what's going on here is that corporate power is becoming monumental and all-encompassing, and threatens to become supra-national. This is unlike anything that's happened in human history heretofore, and it's rather scary. Rather than recycle over-used, heavily-weighted concepts such as "fascism," I think we'd all be better served to use more accurate conceptions and terms. I'm not going to take the time to identify alternatives, but I'm confident that they're already being used. If we're more careful in our use of language and concepts, we might be able both to describe the phenomenon more accurately (and address it more directly) and avoid alienating potential allies at the outset.

[1] Of course, I do know that this is the premise of Michael Moore's 1989 film, Roger & Me.

[2] I write this in full awareness of how cavalierly I spewed this word when George W. Bush was president. It felt so true back then! Little did I know at that time that I had lost the argument.

[3] The categories "fascist" and "scared and reactionary white people" can, but do not necessarily, overlap.



  1. What about calling it Neo-liberalism?
    According to Encarte dictionary
    Neo-Liberalism = A political philosophy: the political view, arising in the 1960s, that emphasizes the importance of economic growth and asserts that social justice is best maintained by minimal government interference and free market forces.

  2. That word fits one part of Robinson's two-part narrative -- the global economic crisis -- but it doesn't address the other part: the attacks on immigrants/the disadvantaged. Neo-liberalism doesn't by definition mean that immigrant groups get attacked.

  3. True that the definition does not directly address immigrants and disadvantaged. It does address social justice, free market forces and minimal government influences. Are not the attacks on immigrants and disadvantaged the result of the above three assertions?

  4. Are not the attacks on immigrants and disadvantaged the result of the above three assertions?

    I suppose that one may make this argument, but I'm not convinced that it follows, by necessity. That is, I'm not convinced that neo-liberalism = fascism.

    One thing that complicates the neo-liberalims = fascism equation is that fascism, by definition, requires a strong centralized state, whereas neo-liberalism, as you point out above, idealizes a weak state. Or, at least weak in terms of the state's involvement with the economy.

    So, I keep coming back to the main point of my post: Global mega capitalism has many facets that I find troubling, but it doesn't seem like fascism to me; it's something else.

    I think the animal has some traits in common, but it's a new species.

  5. from Scubaseth:

    Wanted to post this but will not let me.

    Sorry, was not trying to equate neo-liberalism with fascism.

    I agree neo-liberalism is a newer breed of economic and political philosophy but does it have negative impact on the cultural, social and environmental fabric of America?

    Even more direct question is does neo-liberalism have a negative impact on the political and economic structure of America?
    It's been around for about 40 years now, whats the data say?

  6. Good questions. As I see it, here are some of the very significant negative impacts that neo-liberalism has had on the U.S. over the past few decades . . .

    ** David Cay Johnston, "The gap between rich and poor grows in the United States," New York Times, March 29, 2007.

    ** Robert Weissman, "Deregulation and the Financial Crisis," Huffington Post, Jan. 22, 2008.

    ** "History of the Eighties — Lessons for the Future," Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Dec. 1997 (particularly Chap. 4, "The Savings and Loan Crisis and Its Relationship to Banking.").