Saturday, March 29, 2008

An Irrefutable Analysis of Total Domination

The publisher of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony and Survival calls it "an irrefutable analysis of America's pursuit of total domination and the catastrophic consequences that could follow". It's the typical hyperbole of a publisher's blurb, of course, but also a disturbing notion.

Kirby's comment about the possible relations between Islam and "respect for life and freedom" (see previous post), got me thinking. I come back to this nugget of wisdom from Ezra Pound quite often these days:

In August 1942, the following elucidatory statement was heard on the Berlin radio: the power of the state, whether it be Nazi, Fascist, or Democratic, is always the same, that is—absolute; the different forms of administration are merely a matter of the different activities which one agrees not to allow. ("A Visiting Card", 1942, SP, p. 276)

Here's what I'm thinking: A democracy is committed to allowing the free expression of ideas, even the idea that democracy is a bad idea. A fascist state is committed to controlling the expression of ideas; it is committed to "the free expression of opinion by those qualified to hold it" as Italian radio stated the "Fascist policy" in its introduction to Pound's broadcasts. It is therefore in the difficult position of implicitly endorsing views it does not explicitly suppress.

This was once a paradox. But I don't think it should stop us from thinking. The genius of democracy is that the state can maintain its absolute power over allowable activities without having to suppress opinions to the contrary. But these days, for some reason, Western intellectuals (i.e., liberal-democratic thinkers) are in a tizzy about people who express the view that we should do away with democratic rights like freedom of speech.

In my opinion, we should talk as much as we are able. If the state begins to restrict our freedom of expression, well, then, we'll have to continue covertly. Obviously. Pound's insight is dead on: whatever we do, we are living under the "total domination" of the state. Once again we see the relevance of Lewis's "art of being ruled."

Monday, March 24, 2008


The words "anti-fascism" and "anti-semitism" are subtly different in their grammar. An anti-fascist is against an ideology while an anti-semite is against a group of people. That is, the suffix "ism" in the two cases has a different significance. In the case of anti-fascism it is attached before the prefix "anti", so that it is part of what is being countered. In the case of anti-semitism the suffix is attached after the prefix. It is anti-(fascism) but (anti-semite)ism. Anti-semitism is itself an ideology, while anti-fascism is the stance against a particular ideology.

The grammar of "anti-Islamism", as far as I can tell, is more like that of "anti-fascism" than "anti-semitism". At least when used by anti-Islamists, themselves. Last week, I encountered two very different examples, which got me thinking about this political stance. (I think anti-Islamism will, for obvious reasons, be as characteristic of the twenty-first century as anti-semitism and/or anti-fascism are of the twentieth.)

I found the first example in Granta 100. It includes a fragment of an "abandoned" story by Martin Amis called "The Unknown Known". In his note to this story, Amis says that "Islamism is a total system, and like all such it is eerily amenable to satire" (163). The fragment is a first-person account of an outrageous terror plot intended to out-9/11 9/11. Here's an example of its satire (the protagonist is describing how he felt when he lived in Greely, Colorado):

A thousand times a day I would whisper it ('But her father...her brothers...'), every time I saw a luminously bronzed poitrine, the outline of underwear on a tightly packaged rump, a thin skirt rendered transparent by a low sun, a pair of nipples starkly staring through a pullover, a white bra strap contending with a murky armpit, a stocking top arresting the architecture of an upper thigh, or the very crux of a woman sliced in two by a wedge of denim or dungaree. They strolled in swirly print dresses across the Walkway, indifferent to the fact that anyone standing below, in the thicket of nettles and poision ivy, could see the full scissoring of their legs and their shamelessly brief underpants. And when, in all weathers, I took a late walk along the back gardens, the casual use of a buttress or a drainpipe would soon confront me with the sight of a woman quite openly undressing for bed. (160-1)

The satirical element here lies not just in the style of the description but the way it becomes obvious that the narrator's offence at the "shamelessness" of American women is connected to his own lack of respect for their privacy. Thus, the serious cultural difference between Muslim modesty and American promiscuity is not analyzed but simply played out from the perspective of the latter, and obviously at the expense of the former. Modesty in dress (at least when founded in the Muslim experience) is presented as silly (and ultimately perverse), while suggestiveness in dress is presented as wholly innocent (and innocently wholesome).

The second example can be found in Ursula K. Le Guin's recent piece in Harper's (Feb 2008). Le Guin uses "Muslim" attitudes to women in passing (her essay is about something completely different), characterizing it in the arguably standard manner, namely, as medieval:

In the Dark Ages, a Christian priest could read at least a little, but most laymen didn't, and many women couldn't—not only didn't but couldn't: reading was considered an inappropriate activity for women, as in some Muslim societies today.

Islamism (the "total system" that Amis is against) is related to, but not identical with, Muslim beliefs about the proper relations between men and women. Amis also satirizes polygamy, it should be noted. But who's the prude now? we might ask. The point here is that there are a number of perfectly serious discussions about the role of women in society that are pre-empted by this anti-Islamist rhetoric, a rhetoric that is always in danger of becoming anti-Islamic. It simply depends on where your satire or, as in the case of Le Guin, your standard illustrative example, suggests that Islamism originally goes off the rails.

Too often, it turns out, the anti-Islamist thinks that the problem originates in (emanates from?) the Koran. So we have Geert Wilders denouncing it as "fascist" (Economist, March 22-28, p. 38), for example. When pressed, he would no doubt argue that its role in Islamism (not Islam) illustrates what he means. But his critique, like Amis's satire, and Kurt Westergaard's cartoon, is offensive to a much broader audience. We have to watch developments very carefully if we want to see when this opposition to a total system itself becomes a total system.

Monday, March 10, 2008

More Friendly Fascism

In late 1970, Bertram Gross published a paper with the ominous title “Friendly Fascism: Model for America”, which he later expanded into a book called Friendly Fascism: The new face of power in America (Evans, 1980). In 1975, in an (as far as I can tell) independent analysis, Joseph Holland also predicted that the US would see the rise of a new and “friendly” form of fascism. Nancy Bancroft took up the idea again in 1982, calling for Marxist scholars to keep an eye on things.

Holland's forecast specified downward social mobility for most Americans; high unemployment; decreased purchasing power; economic scarcity; bitter geographic and racial tensions; social unrest leading to repression of labor and leftist movements; limited, if any, electoral choice; and the orientation of the economy toward global management and defense production. In the seven years since Holland described American fascism, part of his prediction has become reality. The rest does not look out of the question. (Bancroft 1982, p. 155)

That’s more or less Gross’s point as well. While he is by no means a Marxist himself, he would agree with Bancroft’s way of putting it:

Marxist interpretations of fascism differ from non-Marxist ones chiefly by suggesting that fascism is a form of capitalist class rule. In the Marxist view, fascists do not take over or subvert a democratic government. Rather, the existing democratic government itself becomes fascist, to meet new needs of the dominant class. Prior to fascism, democratic forms and ideology partially hide capitalist rule. With fascism, democratic restraints disappear and the class rule of a small elite becomes vastly more exploitative. (Bancroft 1982, p. 155, my emphasis)

The essence of fascism, as Gross puts it, is close ties between big government and big business, through which all real decision-making takes place, under the cover of the meaningless spectacle of popular politics.

The prospect of fascism is actually a perennial theme among commentators on American democracy. Tocqueville intuited the threat of “a new physiognomy of servitude” in the power of the majority. Much of Norman Mailer’s work, starting with The Naked and the Dead in 1948 and intensifying in the 1960s railed against what Simone de Beauvoir (in The Mandarins) had called the “nascent fascism” of American politics, foreign and domestic. Indeed, in his commentary on 9/11 and the War in Iraq, Mailer suggested that fascism is “the natural government for most people” and that the “spreading democracy” might easily “encourage more fascism at home and abroad”. Noam Chomsky, speaking before 9/11, said that “the United States has been in a sort of pre-fascist mood for years … Now, we haven’t had the right person yet … but sooner or later somebody’s going to fill that position.” Bancroft, similarly, talked of “proto-fascism”. All of these people are careful to point out that an “American version of fascism” will differ from the despotism of a Hitler or a Mussolini.

Sources (very rough)

Bancroft, Nancy. "American Fascism: Analysis and Call for Research". Phylon (1960-), Vol. 43, No. 2. (2nd Qtr., 1982), pp. 155-166.

Chomsky, Noam. Understanding Power.

Holland, Joseph. "Marxist Class Analysis in American Society Today" in Sergio Torres and John Eagleson, eds., Theology in the Americas. Maryknoll, N.Y.: brbis Books, 1976)

Mailer, Norm. Why Are We at War.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Friendly Fascism

While Bertram Gross's Friendly Fascism: The new face of power in America (M. Evans, 1980) leaves a lot to be desired as piece of writing, its vaguely flarfy title concept is worth thinking about. Here's my version of it.

Fascism (on this view) has four essential components: it encourages violent action, it glorifies personal leadership, it dissolves the difference between business and government, and it denigrates the distinction between private and public affairs. The first two, the cult of violence and the cult of personality, may be considered, precisely, the "cultural" aspect of fascism or simply "cultural fascism". The third and fourth constitute its "organizational" aspect, which, in turn, have a social mode (business = government) and a subjective mode (private = public).

Friendly fascism is organizational fascism, i.e., fascism without the cultural characteristics it is commonly associated with. Now, a friendly fascist society will, of course, have to retain some of the cultish elements; it will still cultivate violence and leadership throughout the social order. But it will not do so "officially", as it were.

In fact, the most workable way of doing it is probably to cultivate these things as entertainment rather than policy. Thus, the friendly fascist state produces imagery that activates our desire for violence and greatness, but it does not openly propose itself as the model of such images.

A rigorously non-fascist society would tolerate no collusion among business people and government officials; it would maintain a clear distinction between private and public concerns; it would acknowledge the strength of the people over that of the leader; and it would pursue peaceful solutions over the use of force. We don't, obviously, live in such a society.

If kulchural studies is a science to support what Wyndham Lewis called "the art of being ruled" then it must take seriously "the spectre of friendly fascism".