Fascism: why in Europe why not in America?

New Years resolution a blog post a week so starting early and building on the political analysis in my Alfred Deakin Research Institute Working Paper American liberalism and capitalism from William Jennings Bryan to Barack Obama:

Is there a new fascism on the march? Observers point to the far-right terrorism in Europe, how Islamophobia repeats the tropes of anti-Semitism and the renewed strength of the American radical right. Most forget that Australia saw its fascist episode recently in the form of One Nation. Fascism is more likely to become a significant political force in Europe than in the United States. We need to move beyond expressions of horror to analysis.

Fascism as a mass movement has two elements that exist in tension: it mobilizes around the defense of a dominant culture perceived to be under threat, this situates it on the political right but within the right it represents a rebellion of political outsiders. Fascists parties were led by outsiders and political adventurers, Mussolini was the classic example but Catholics were overrepresented among the Nazi leadership compared to the strongly Protestant establishment right. As the Nazis surged they made their first breakthrough among conservative peasants and conservative manual workers. The Australian Depression-era radical right comprised similar political adventurers and outsiders, Francis de Groot of New Guard fame was a Catholic. One Nation in Australia mostly recruited its support from lower income conservatives. Fascism is a manifestation of class conflict in the ranks of the right. This is one reason for the popularity of anti-Semitic themes was a displacement of class politics (the ‘socialism of fools’ as Engels noted) and many classical fascist parties flirted with anti-capitalist rhetoric.  This rhetoric was however combined with vehement hostility to the organised labour movement (a similar approach is revived by contemporary Australian conservatives champions of self-employment). The potential for class conflict within the ranks of the right is ever-present but it becomes significant only when there is a reason for lower-income conservatives to feel disenchanted with their political leadership. The major driver of such discontent is economic. One Nation flourished in Australia because many conservatives were disenchanted with the economic performance of the Howard government. The strength of fascist parties is based in the electorate, capitalists give them little direct support. There is a tension between fascist parties and traditional conservative elites, but I the German case those elites eventually capitulated to fascism. Elites distrusted the Nazis’ populist economic rhetoric and disliked their demagogic crudities but ultimately considered them preferable to democracy.

This might led us to anticipate the emergence of a radical right in the United States due to the severe economic recession. However in the US political polarization sustains the political system. Democratic or Republican partisans blame the other party rather than ‘the system’ for nation difficulties. Thus they are willing to defer to the established leaders of their parties in the interests of defeating the opposition. In their own way Romney and Obama demonstrate this. This is an old American pattern in the late 19th century the strength of cultural alignments emerging from the Civil War insulated the two-party system against challenge despite the traumatic impact of the rise of corporate capitalism. It is also the case that the contemporary American ultra-rich have less need for populist conservatism they have been very successful in advancing their interests within the political system.  Fascism does not depend on the 1% to gain mass support but it needs the 1% to make the leap to power. It is quite likely that even a prolonged period of economic stagnation will not shatter the foundations of the American political system. The division of power within American government also makes it more difficult for electoral majorities to effect drastic changes in public policy.

Europe is quite distinct from the US. Partisan alignments are much weaker. It is much easier for the radical right to win support from voters who were previously loyal to mainstream conservatives. The structures of the European Union also incarnate a ‘system’ remote from popular control and a ready focus for populist discontent. It may also be the case that European conservative elites might be more willing to work with the radical right because they have been less successful in working within the mainstream right than the American ultra-rich. The lessons of the 1940s now seen completely forgotten by many European conservatives.

The collapse of European social democracy also assists the cause of the radical right. The US Democrats are able to rely on a constituency heavily weighted towards ethnic minorities. The Republicans can win the votes of white working-class voters but these voters are a diminishing portion of the working class. Much of the American working class is insulated from the appeal of the right by cultural politics. The last electorally significant American radical right party the George Wallace Presidential candidacy of 1968 drew mostly on white southerners but did attract some support among northern white working-class voters. In Germany in the 1930s most workers were incorporated within the Marxist culture of the labour movement, if Social Democrats (SPD) and Communists had not been at war it is unlikely the Nazis would have been successful. Now the culture of the labour movement has almost entirely collapsed across wide areas of Europe (perhaps Britain is a partial exception?). In the early 1930s the SPD proposed no effective response to the Depression and acquiesced in the deflationary agenda of the Bruning administration, rather as contemporary European social democrats have accepted deflationary ‘technocratic’ administrations. However in the early 1930s SPD voters remained loyal to their party or defected to the Communists not the Nazis. Now the European radical right does well among working class voters.

 

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