the holistic radical

October 12, 2006

"Better Sell It While You Can": Proto-Fascism Packaged in 21st Century America

Filed under: Uncategorized — sesame seed @ 12:27 am

The imitation picks you up like a habit
Writing in the glow of the TV static
Taking out the trash to the man
Give the people something they’d understand

A stickman flashing a fine-lined smile
Junk bond trader trying to sell a sucker a style
Rich man in a poor man’s clothes
The permanent installment of the daily dose

And you tell off when you tell it like it is
Your world’s no wider than your hatred of his.
Checking into a small reality
Boring as a drug you take too regularly
The athlete’s laugh, the broken crutch
The first true love that folded at the slightest touch
Brought down like an old hotel
People digging through the rubble for things they can resell.

Elliott Smith, “Junk Bond Trader”

Militarization is essential to fascism. There are no two ways about it. Fascism is an extreme state, and, as such, extreme measures are necessary to protect it. Militarization functions to induce fear and helplessness in the populace (Wolin describes the usefulness of apathy to fascism) and is structured to consolidate power further, thereby maintaining helplessness, censorship, abuse of civil liberties, strict gender roles, and other features of fascism in a perverse feedback/ reinforcement loop. Giroux cuts to the core of fascism, its nuts and bolts, by bringing to the forefront the fact that the US is more militarized, more obsessed with using the accoutrements of weaponry, warfare, and actual or implied violence to maintain control of its hegemony/resources “than at any other time in its history” (1). The truly shocking (or not shocking, depending on how cynical we are) thing is that such a sentence could have been written about virtually any American moment, past, present, and future. Each observer in their own era can continue to go on to see such tactics as “dramatic” or “radical” shifts away from democratic, domestic-agenda government, but we need to see such maneuvers (as, for example, destabilizing social programs and being an international aggressor) as part and parcel of fascism, pieces of a system of domination over the masses and/or the “powerless.” Until we come to an understanding of that, we run the real risk of accepting—and thus becoming accessory to—the growing militarization and regimentation of everyday life, becoming more than exploited wage slaves, but becoming violated means-to-ends, dehumanized, dispensable, forgettable, slaves, shells of ourselves.

The economic scenarios described by Grioux on pgs. 8-9 (taxing the poor, corporate welfare, slashing social programs, etc.) are particularly bad now, but they are par for the course in a hypercapitalist country as ours. Slashing public moneys for welfare initiatives and infrastructure to hand over to an already obese military machine has occurred cyclically in our nation’s legacy. Indeed, if not for citizen participation, we must never forget that corporate capitalism would go unchecked by that agent of the people, the government, and that we would still be eating tainted food (well, even more so than tainted spinach and lettuce, which shows in its own way that we’re at the end of our empire), driving cars without seat belts, working twelve hours a day with no overtime, sending our children to sweatshops, and so on. We do not appreciate that every one of these symptoms are decisions of policy and that they are building into the widespread establishment of privatization. Bankruptcy has gotten more difficult, not for businesses, but for average people scraping by, and I don’t doubt debtors prisons will become fashionable again as our life choices will not be controlled by us but by the profit motives of unchecked corporations. Like any poor country, our poor are disempowered and invisible, our so-called Democracy grinding along without them. We no longer view governance as that which has the power to limit corporate capitalism—or if we do, we are unthinkingly conceived of as dreaded Communists. We confuse politics (and its brand of theatre) for governance. We want to believe that capitalism will be a social system as well as an economic system, that it will solve social ills as well as economic ones, when, in actuality, it not only fails at both, but promotes economic (and, consequently, social) strife. We want to have our cake and eat it too, to be able to believe without guilt that people earning minimum wage and without health insurance will still be able to work their way to our arrogantly middle-class standard of “self-sufficiency.” We will start wars over that belief that “self sufficiency” for all is possible under capitalism, even when capitalism is the very thing undercutting that “self sufficiency.”

I will argue that our values about what constitutes “prosperity” need to change swiftly and completely if we are not to kill eachother (and our planet) with capital. Our Federal government in recent administrations (labelled both Democratic and Republican) has been able to get away with “spending as much on war as it is on education, public health, housing, employment, pensions, food aid and welfare put together” (1) because of the underlying power-serving perception—starting with WWII, I suppose—that war really is like a glorious tonic to bring a nation out of Depressions both psychic and economic. So when it is considered acceptable to use warfare has changed from not only protecting human rights to defending our economic interests, which, of course, could never be “defended” by, say, diplomacy. Our economic system, that benevolent capitalism that really is so good at ensuring The Best Standard of Living In the World, is apparently so fragile that it is without question, it is a given, that it can only remain intact through violent oppression and force, not through its own treasured Free Market mechanisms.

If that magic silver bullet of war should take out hordes of innocents (the ones killed and the 99% of us who are not cruel profiteering heirs), well, that’s the price of warfare-commerce, which have become one and the same (with each fought in the name of each other and each using interchangeable guerrilla vocabularies). Collateral damage, collateral for a loan for the future return on investment. Casualties—deaths removed fro agency, accountability, or responsibility, happening as a matter of course and told in the divorcing passive voice. Written off and refunded as an expense of doing business (cracking open those eggs to make an omelet). The public has been misled into not insisting on alternate forms of prosperity. As Al Gore suggests in his film An Inconvenient Truth (in what’s got to be my favorite scene), somehow the public believes deeply that wealth and sustainability are mutually exclusive—never mind the fact that without environmental (and, I’d add, economic and social) sustainability, there will be no wealth to be had. (I’m referring to the scene where Gore discusses a meeting of executives talking about the costs of implementing Sustainability—as though it were still optional instead of necessary—who make, in talking to each other, a graphic of a balance scale with a yummy pile of gold on one side and, you know, The Entire Planet Earth on the other, and how Gore quite wryly breaks down this fallacy, that Sustainability is zero-sum and unrealistic as a goal to have.) The public is uneducated and ignorant of alternate forms of prosperity aside from imperialist hierarchical capitalism. Thus the public so far cannot change the fascist course monopolizing prosperity and defending its own interests. Discourse on the subject of assuring prosperity is dead, and of assuring that prosperity as a communal thing has long been past rigor mortis. It is a term that is not analyzed or questioned. It is taken for granted that one must work within the capitalist system and then, maybe, eventually, if you work hard enough for about all of your life, and if you have had certain advantages of circumstance or connection (i.e., right parents, right gender, right schools, right skin color, right chipper attitude), you will be rewarded with a 24 karat gold-plated elitist garland.

So war is the current conduit through which our economy operates—blood for oil, as is commonly summarized. The public is not creating the pressure to dismantle the military and develop alternate and just forms of prosperity. Giroux notes that the culture of glorified aggression becoming normal in everyday life and growing is because domestic and foreign policy has “privileged security over freedom, the rule of the market over social needs, and militarization over human rights and social justice” (6). The term “privilege” is key to our understanding how this direction can take such powerful hold in a so-called Democracy, and so we must unpack how certain ideas become “privileged.” The public thinks somehow, with great cognitive dissonance, that, as according to the laissez-faire mindset, that there can be prosperity without the (re)distribution of wealth, that there can be true prosperity with oppressive socioeconomic disparities. Giroux notes that since 9/11 “the military has assumed a privileged place in American society” and, indeed, those of us who are observers of fascist tendencies would agree that is not a promising omen. But the military, or militarized elements of daily life, have had privilege accorded to it over and over in American history, usually during times of economic instability or insecurity, again, due to this pervasive conception that the military will lift us (as a nation, of course) out of fiscal volatility more rapidly than, say, rationally thought out legislation and policy (which are not nearly so glamourous and cinematic). Rallying our homeland around a common, clear-and-present danger is a narrative that has an intuitive and understandable drama to it. Hashing out funding appropriations correlated to inflation for 80/20s resisting phaseout is not narrative, not Madison Square Garden political theatre. We have already learned that people want to be secure, are frighteningly willing to sacrifice their political rights and civil liberties for even the most basic of economic assurances. Knowing this, political and business/corporate interests in power have ingrained into the public consciousness that the narrative—the only narrative—that’s going to best provide that promised “prosperity” is the military-industrial one. There are only so many letters that will fit on a banner headline, and besides, no Neil Simon of our generation is joining the Army and sentimentalizing on it. There can be no illusion of heroism in the military anymore. It must be disseminated to potential recruits that any enemy they will be fighting will be one that we have provoked through our guns and butter. And maybe if they know that it will be a war that will never end, a war to defend a putrid economic system, maybe then they will not join the military—that would be our hope. Rebels who try to make new national narratives—narratives generating from a need for truth and openness, for awareness and just action—risk their careers and their lives against a heavily armed propaganda machine, a disinformation age fusing the “best and brightest” not only from Madison Avenue but the Pentagon. So now artists, intellectuals, and, yes, Virginia, (yes, Washington), even lowly English majors can add “martyrdom” to “drinking coffee” on their job descriptions, and maybe work in a University giving out more rifles than Teaching Assistantships. I know I’ll sleep better at night for that.

It’s my belief that once we recognize that our time is not unique in its atrocious exploitation of everyone but the most powerful, then we can really get angry, and that such anger can be used to really do something. If we think that our time is unique, we’ll miss the forest for the trees in whatever we do, treat the symptom but not the disease, and other metaphors for addressing the superficial rather than the deep; we’ll also fall into the comfort that somehow it will pass, or get better in the future, or correct itself—perhaps by taking more of its own poison-medicine, capitalism. We must realize that what is happening in our day is not special but part of the abusive pattern of capitalism before we can ever begin to dismantle that system. Fascism can be characterized across countries and post-Industrial Revolution periods for this very reason. It does not matter if we make t-shirts lambasting W. or Windrip, Franco or Hitler or Mussolini. They may not be the same, but they should be similar enough to scare us into wanting to reclaim our democracy, and if we are not scared into motivation, we need to examine how we are living our lives and what we want our planet to think of our generation after we have passed. Religion is no longer the opiate of the masses—that honored place goes now to capitalism, which has spread its suppression of thought more effectively than any faith ever could. It is significant that Giroux puts “unbridled self-interest” (and we can assume he means economic as well as ideological self interest) with “unquestioned obedience, fear, [and] cynicism” as one of the things that permits authoritarianism to take hold and endure (14).

Giroux notes that Bush capitalizes on military culture by (despite having never served) donning the uniform, speaking to veterans (while cutting their meager benefits), and so on. What needs to be more fully explicated is the fact that he is relying on his status as “Commander in Chief” to push public perception to legitimize his political decisions (and those decisions are, unfortunately, distinctly his, because there has been no noticeable and effective public challenge to those choices). We have governance by photo-opportunity. I have long thought that the combination of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces with the figure of the President of the United States, i.e., the Chief Executive, to be a dangerous anachronism. The supreme most military leader should not be the same person as the person who is signing the federal laws determining social rights and economic policy, period. Since the advent of the instantaneous telephone call, there is no need for those two grave responsibilities to be bound in one individual, without a check on the power of either. There is no war that we should be deciding to enter into in a matter of split-seconds. War is too serious of a pursuit to be decided by the figure who can veto the decisions of the Legislative and Judicial branches, or stuff those institutions with his cronies. The British are not coming—no one is; they really could not care less about our crumbling infrastructure, ugly architecture, freeways, sprawl, and strip malls. (How else except through propaganda would we believe that overseas members of our own human species would want to attack us instead of working to build up their own nations, if only for the fact that we had imposed economic burdens unbearably tipping the cards into our hand?)

How else on this green earth could 75% of people polled believe the military will “do the right thing” “most of the time” (2)? Because they’ve been sold that the military is guarding “prosperity,” that those serving in the military and those running and manipulating the military, are just like us, just wanting to make things a little better. The military has made and given out video games showing what one could do as a pilot, etc., and people think that joining the military is just a more real version of that game, or going to camp, or shopping at the army-navy surplus store. You know, that folk sensibility, that parallel narrative. If the military is just like us, how could they do wrong? If we like capitalism, if capitalism benefits us and maybe not some others, how could it be wrong? People think, especially if they come from dysfunctional families or bad economic circumstances, that the Service will give them a honest role in society and provide not only economic stability, but order—and this desire for order is natural and akin to the way civilians will relinquish rights for plenty; it is a bias we all have because most of us have grown accustomed to three squares daily, thanks very much. They don’t realize that the military’s version of order is insanity, that it achieves whatever it thinks it is achieving through a legalized, contractually bound, hierarchical absolutism; that it squeezes the life force and individuality and creativity out of you, that it is devoid of intelligence and is designed to strip away your intelligence. Aside from blatant economic motivations, it is this idea, this narrative, of “order” or “discipline” and “making good” that drives why people are still joining the military. For people with broken families, which would happen to describe a vast majority of poor people (who are faced with the choice of sublimating that pain into workaholicism and attempts to enter the middle class and deny their past, or continued poverty/dysfunction/ substance abuse), the military becomes their family (Vonnegut touches on the need for surrogate families in one of his books, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, I believe). E pluribus unum.

Giroux quotes Gareth Evans as saying that the “War on Terror” has only promoted “more war and more terror” (7). Can any thinking person (while they still exist, that is) actually be surprised at such an outcome? Does this come as a revelation to anyone, and, if so, how much corporate media have they been consuming? How long can we delude ourselves as a society that incessant war, as depicted by many dystopic novelists and thinkers who have observed history and the psyche, from Lewis to Orwell, would result in a good outcome, that global stability could come from designating an ever-growing list of “enemies”? After Bush’s really depressing re-election in 2004, he was arrogant enough to proclaim that he had “political capital” and that he was going to “spend it.” Did we not see the significance of that statement? He’s rendered Democracy obsolete and thinks that Capitalism is a form of governance he can cash out, going on shopping sprees with our lives. He truly believes that he can do anything as long as he can present the façade that he can “afford it”—i.e., he’s not paying for the Iraq war, for demolishing the government, for domestic decay—his successor will. Is no one terrified at this? (Terror is the word to be using.) If we should be somewhat fortunate enough to have a Democratic successor, that is, a Democratic successor in a Democratic climate, a Democratic successor who is not Democratic in name only—which are assumptions enough, they will have so many debts to pay that any job they do in 2008, as well meaning against the status quo as they could possibly be, will be a botched resuscitation. They will be perceived as “ineffective” and the Right wing cabal will attempt an “I told you so” name-calling bid for power, dismantling any policies that might check capitalism, reduce militarization, etc.

Giroux notes in a sentence that seems obvious but which is nonetheless describing a situation that must be addressed, that “Dissent does not come easy in a country where people can be detained, tried without representation, and held indefinitely in a jail under a legal policy of enforced secrecy” (14). Fascism is a mass movement in that it eclipses all, it is a movement of absolute militarization and mobilization of monopolized resources for authoritarian ends. Our dissent must come on a mass scale as well—a mass scale of people getting involved and changing how they live and think and a mass change in politics and governance and economics in this country. Giroux may be faulted for—and we may be accused of—”preaching to the choir,” but if we are, that’s at least marginally better than being silent, if only for the sake of history, which will damn our silence.


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