Understanding power requires analysis of shifting ideologies. Power is the ability to get an individual to behave or not to behave in a particular manner and the ability to achieve one’s goals while denying others access to the same. Modern power tends to be persuasive and manipulative rather than coercive, becomes embedded in social life, and tends to serve particular political purposes. Ideology is generally used to describe a system of ideas which form the basis of economic theory and policy. The main purpose behind an ideology is to offer change in society, and adherence to a set of ideals where conformity already exists, through a normative process. The ruling class uses ideology to secure its privileges; in particular, to control the working class otherwise the majority will revolt. Understanding fascism is in fact one of the most important elements in understanding politics today.
In the United States, race has historically served the function of resolving a contradiction at the heart of the country’s foundation. On paper, the creation of the US was inspired by an ideal of equality between people. Racism functioned as an ideology. With cash crops of tobacco, cotton and sugar cane, America’s southern states became the economic engine of the burgeoning nation. Their fuel of choice? Human slavery. If the Confederacy had been a separate nation, it would have ranked as the fourth richest in the world at the start of the Civil War. The slave economy had been very good to American prosperity. By the start of the war, the South was producing 75 percent of the world’s cotton and creating more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River valley than anywhere in the nation. Slaves represented Southern planters’ most significant investment – and the bulk of their wealth.
Below the elite class were the small planters who owned a handful of slaves. These farmers were self-made and fiercely independent. Slaveless small farmers and landless whites were at the bottom, making up three-quarters of the white population – and dreaming of the day when they, too, might own slaves. No matter how wide the gap between rich and poor, class tensions among whites were eased by the belief they all belonged to the “superior race.”1 As a result it was in cotton production that the industrial revolution began, particularly in and around Manchester. The cotton used was mostly imported from slave plantations. Slavery provided the raw material for industrial change and growth. The Atlantic economy can be seen as the spark for the biggest change in modern economic history. The Atlantic economy in the 18th century was founded on slave labor.
The roots of economic neoliberalism are found in the late 19th century – the era of laissez-faire and robber barons. The growth of trade unions and programs surrounding social insurance grew during the 1930s, specifically in response to Keynes’s call for more government intervention. In response, Friedrich Hayek brought together a group of like thinkers under the rubric “private property is the embodiment of individual liberty in its most primeval form and market freedoms are indivisible components of the basic liberties of the person.” Neoliberals advocate dismantling national policies on most economic issues and to confine as many market-inhibiting taxes and regulatory powers as possible to the state or provincial level where they will be constrained by the need to compete for mobile workers and businesses. This ideology is used to direct public policy under the illusion it creates opportunities and frees individuals from control of the state. For the past forty years meritocracy and individualism have been used as a smokescreen to justify policies that increase inequality.
Individualism holds that individuals can determine their own destinies without influence from the society around them, the circumstances into which they were born, or the groups to which they belong. Meritocracy holds that people get what they deserve, based on the merits of their skills and efforts. In combination with each other, these two concepts allow people to justify the inequalities that exist between different racial groups. For instance, they allow white people to shrug their shoulders at statistics showing income disparities between white and black people. After all, according to meritocracy, if white people have more money than black people, they must have worked harder for it. And according to individualism, there’s nothing stopping black people from working harder and catching up to white people, except their own gumption or lack thereof. Thus, most minorities have no one but themselves to blame for their being economically unequal to white people.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883), along with many German nationalists, became notorious for using myth to regenerate the volk and stoke hatred of the aliens – largely Jews – who he thought polluted the pure community rooted in blood and soil. By the early twentieth century, ethnic-racial chauvinists everywhere – Hindu supremacists in India as well as Catholic ultra-nationalists in France – were offering visions to uprooted peoples of a rooted organic society in which hierarchies and values had been stable. Hailing myth and dreams as the repository of fundamental human truths, they became popular because they addressed a widely felt spiritual hunger: of men looking desperately for maps of meaning in a world they found opaque and uncontrollable. A “revolt against the modern world,” as the title of Evola’s 1934 book put it – that demagogues emerged so quickly in twentieth-century Europe and managed to exalt national and racial myths as the true source of individual and collective health.2
The ideological roots of fascism have been traced to the 1880s and in particular the fin de siècle theme of that time. The fin-de-siècle mindset saw civilization as being in a crisis that required a massive and total solution. With the advent of the Darwinian theory of evolution came claims of evolution possibly leading to decadence. Proponents of decadence theories claimed that contemporary Western society’s decadence was the result of modern life, including urbanization, sedentary lifestyle, the survival of the least fit and modern culture’s emphasis on egalitarianism, and breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals. According to the British historian Roger Griffin, fascist societies of the 20th century exhibited components such as “a rebirth myth, populist ultra-nationalism and the myth of decadence.” Essentially, fascism promises that radical, nationalist politics will pull a nation out of decadence into a period of renewal. Fascist ideologues taught that national identity was the foundation of individual identity and should not be corrupted by foreign influences, especially if they were left-wing.
The invisible hand is more like a thumb on the scale for the world’s elites. That’s why neoliberal globalization has been unmasked as bogus economics but keeps winning politically. The existential threat of global climate change reflects the incompetence of markets to accurately price carbon and the escalating costs of pollution. The British economist Nicholas Stern has aptly termed the worsening climate catastrophe history’s greatest case of market failure. Here again, this is not just the result of failed theory. The entrenched political power of extractive industries and their political allies influences the rules and the market price of carbon – hiding behind the premise of efficient markets. The grand neoliberal experiment of the past 40 years has demonstrated that markets in fact do not regulate themselves. Managed markets turn out to be more equitable and more efficient. Neoliberal ideology is so useful to society’s most powerful people – as a scholarly veneer to what would otherwise be a raw power grab.
The path from neoliberalism to neofascism is littered with the upended lives of working people and their families. The effects of the 2008 financial crisis are still being felt. A ‘lost generation’ is facing a ‘bleak future’ and with little hope of achieving the lifestyle that their parents enjoyed. The present-day political irruption of populism is fueled by the institutional decay of electoral democracy, combined with growing public dissatisfaction with politicians, political parties and “politics.” Donald Trump’s populism preys upon collective anxieties. Trump draws on a right-wing version of this populism to label Democrats and those who disagree with him on immigration as enemies of a narrowly defined “American people.” Neoliberalism transforms freedom for the many into freedom for the few. Its logical result is neofascism. Fascism abolishes civil liberties in the name of national security and brands whole groups as traitors and enemies of the people. Fascism proposes an economy geared for self-sufficiency and war.
In 2017 John Bellamy Foster observed: This is not only a new administration, but a new ideology has now taken up residence at the White House: neofascism. Neofascist discourse and political practice are now evident every day in virulent attacks on the racially oppressed, immigrants, women, LBGTQ people, environmentalists, and workers. These have been accompanied by a sustained campaign to bring the judiciary, governmental employees, the military and intelligence agencies, and the press into line with this new ideology and political reality.3 In 2019 Donald Trump’s racist slurs against four Democratic congresswomen of color is a nod to fascism. A critical reading and teaching of history helps inform the ethical ground for resistance – an antidote to Trump’s politics of disinformation, division, diversion and fragmentation. Moreover, memory as a form of critical consciousness is crucial in developing a form of historical and social responsibility that can work to offset a willful ignorance that provides the necessary conditions that both enable and reinforce fascist politics.
1 Greg Timmons. (06 March 2018) How Slavery Became the Economic Engine of the South https://www.history.com/news/slavery-profitable-southern-economy
2 Pankaj Mishra. (19 March 2018) Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism. https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/19/jordan-peterson-and-fascist-mysticism/
3 John Bellamy Foster. (01 April 2017) Neofascism in the White House. https://monthlyreview.org/2017/04/01/neofascism-in-the-white-house/