Participatory Fascism

Participatory fascism is a phrase coined by Dr. Charlotte Twight, professor of economics at Boise State University. For most people, fascism in America is a difficult subject for a person to get their head around. Recently, while reading Crisis and Leviathan by Dr. Robert Higgs, a colleague pointed me to a brief review of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.1 The post is very similar to this passage in Higgs’ book2:

As critics decry the pervasive governmental intrusion in the economy as “socialistic”,” it clearly has not produced an economic order resembling any standard form of socialism.

Anarchism in Spain - Poster with Fascism Snake Has it instead produced “fascism”? The term unfortunately has been abused by Americans in at least two distinct ways. On the one hand, “fascist” serves merely as a loose term of opprobrium by which radical leftists characterize anything they dislike about the present political economy. On the other hand, and more commonly, it simply brings to mind the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler, which are generally considered to have nothing in common with the postwar economy of the United States. Indeed most Americans find the mere suggestion of such similarities offensive and repellent – did Americans not spill their blood to destroy the fascist regimes? – and refuse to consider seriously the possibility that the United States may be fascist in some respects.

The term fascism, however, has a definite meaning; and one may employ it as an analytical concept independent of distasteful historical examplars. As Charlotte Twight has shown, the essence of fascism is nationalistic collectivism, the affirmation that the “national interest” should take precedence over the rights of individuals. So deeply has the presumption of individual subservience to the state entered into the thinking of modern Americans that few people have noticed – and no doubt many would be offended by the suggestion – that fascism has colored countless declarations by public officials during the past fifty years. Unfortunately, as Friedrich Hayek noted during WW II, “many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of naziism, and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny.”3

More than anything else, the peacetime military draft signaled the triumph of fascist sentiment in the post-World War II era. “There existed,” wrote Richard Gillam, “a state of quiet consensus that America had entered a period of perpetual national emergency which demanded and justified creation of a garrison state based on peacetime military conscription.” For more than twenty years, periodic extensions of the draft law took place with little individual right of ownership over one’s own body and one’s own life. “Gone was any sense that conscription itself violated ideals which were once themselves seen as vital” to the American way of life.4 When Richard Nixon ended the draft in the early 1970’s he acted not so much to restore a traditional individual liberty as for reasons of political expediency, hoping to diminish the troublesome opposition of students and others to the administration’s conduct of the war in Vietnam.5 Even in the mid-1980’s the fascist idea that political leaders deem military conscription necessary retains its grip on the thinking of elites and masses alike. Young men are required by law to register for a draft – and sent to federal prison for conspicuous failure to comply – even though no conscription is presently authorized. Only the absence of an emergency prompting a large increase in the number of people under arms permits the volunteer military system to survive.

Alone among collectivist systems, fascism preserves private property, but “capitalism is turned inside out in this unlikely union.” Fascism recognizes people’s desire to possess private property and admires the strength of the profit motive, but it “uses these features of capitalism [only] insofar as they do not conflict with the national interest as formulated by fascism’s political authorities.” Every part of economic life is ideologically, constitutionally, and legally vulnerable to governmental control. Hence “fascism tolerates the form of private ownership at the government’s pleasure, but it eliminates any meaningful right of private property.”6 It is “a bogus capitalism indeed, a sham deferral to individual economic rights readily nullified whenever political leaders deem it expedient.”7

Twight argues that this abstract description of fascist economic policy matches in detail not only the actions of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini but the practice of the government of the United States since World War II. Of course the fanatical hero worship, the general suppression of civil and political rights, and the mass murders that marked the fascism of Germany and Italy have not characterized the American case. But the similarities of economic policy are striking. All fascist systems have imposed the same sweeping controls over such “vital” industries as agriculture, energy, transportation, communications, and armaments whenever the political authorities deemed the controls appropriate; all have heavily regulated the labor markets and union-management relations; all have captured the financial and money-supply mechanisms and used them to promote “national” objectives; all have resorted, at least episodically, to wage-price controls and physical allocations; all have extensively controlled international travel and international exchanges of goods, financial capital, and currencies; all have employed a huge administrative corps to monitor private activities and to formulate and enforce governmental directives. In all cases a coalition of big business and the government has emerged, as “fascism’s abrogation of the market in favor of political control over the economy inherently favors big business at the expense of the small entrepreneur.” Characteristically there has been an “extensive interchange of positions between ranking civil servants and high corporate executives” – the revolving door familiar at the highest levels of American government, especially but by no means exclusively between the Pentagon and the major defense contractors.8

In recognition of the apparent openness of the American political system and the “care and attention . . . devoted to the formal trappings of due process,” Twight calls the political economy of the United States “participatory fascism.” There is an “ostensible inclusion of all potential dissident parties with the government’s decision-making process.” This “provides the appearance of fairness”; it placates the losers in the policy struggles, who settle for having had their views considered. Thus “the bright facade of fair procedure blinds the public to the system’s fundamental abrogation of individual economic freedom.”9 Evidently Schumpeter missed the mark: America’s political economy has marched not into socialism as he understood it but rather into an arrangement more accurately described as participatory fascism.

That was written in 1987 – 21 years ago! The following is Glenn Beck’s interview of Jonah Goldberg that took place in February 2008 that may help bridge some of the time gap.10

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In a future post, I’ll review Robert Higgs’ Crisis and Leviathan. Stay tuned. In the meantime,

Do you feel America has been “creeping” towards fascism over the course of the 20th century?

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  1. Smith, Jimmy. “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left”. 29 December 2008. Analytical Insights. 31 December 2008.
  2. Higgs, Robert. Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. 240-242.
  3. Twight, Charlotte. America’s Emerging Fascist Economy. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1975. Chapter 1; Hayek, Friedrich A. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944. 4.
  4. Gillam, Richard. “The Peacetime Draft: Voluntarism to Coercion”. Yale Review. 57 (June 1968) reprinted in Anderson, Martin, ed. The Military Draft: Selected Readings on Conscription. Standford: Hoover Institution Press, 1982. 113.
  5. Hamby, Alonzo L. Liberalism and Its Challengers: FDR to Reagan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. 307; Freidel, Frank. America in the Twentieth Centry. 4th ed. New York: Knopf, 1976. 381-392. According to Herbert Stein, “The free market economists of the Nixon administration, and the President himself, regarded the draft for military service in peacetime as an intolerable infringement of personal liberty and an extremely unfair tax.” Presidential Economics: The Making of Economic Policy from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984. 195; Nixon, Richard M. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978. 522. My judgment that Nixon ended the draft expediently rather than ideologically rests on my belief that he almost invariably acted as an unprincipled political animal. In this case the principle came very cheap, so he upheld it. For some evidence, including the testimony of his aides, that Nixon “had no convictions . . . but did what was feasible and tactically shrewd, see Graham. Toward a Planned Society. 247-258 (quotation from p. 255).
  6. For a primer on the problem of private property under two opposing types of economic systems, see Nibley on the Redistribution of Wealth – Ed.
  7. Twight, Charlotte. America’s Emerging Fascist Economy. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1975. 14-17; emphasis in original.
  8. Ibid. 17-29 (quotations from 21-22). For data on the revolving door between the Pentagon and the contractors, see Proxmire, William. “Retired High-Ranking Military Officers” in Pursell, Carroll W., Jr., ed. The Military-Industrial Complex. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. 253-262. In 1969, for example, the one hundred largest prime military contractors employed 2,072 former military officers of the rank of colonel, navy captain, or higher. A New York Times editorial (“A War Machine Mired in Sleaze”. March 31, 1985) reported that during 1981-1983, “at least 1,900 high-ranking officers retired from the military and went to work for contractors.” Also Navarro, Policy Game, pp. 257-258. For extensive discussions of the personal nexus between big business and big government, see Dye, Thomas R. Who’s Running America?. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1983 and Domhoff, G. William. Who Rules America Now? Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1983. After an extensive survey of the evidence, Domhoff (p. 143) concludes that “the highest levels of the executive branch, especially in the State, Defense, and Treasury departments, are interlocked constantly with the corporate community through the movement of executives and lawyers in and out of government. . . . [T]here is enough continuity for the relationship to be described as one of ‘revolving interlocks.’”
  9. Twight, Charlotte. America’s Emerging Fascist Economy. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1975. 279-280.
  10. The quote that Mr. Beck refers to at the beginning of the interview can be found in George Bernard Shaw’s statement on socialism.

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  1. Jeremy’s avatar

    Reading Goldberg’s book opened my eyes to so many things. Whoever doesn’t believe we are moving towards a fascist regime must read it. They will undoubtedly change their minds and start to look at our current politicians in a much different light.

    U.S. history tells a tale of how the government has slowly been making people believe that we cannot do it on our own; that we need the government to help us succeed. {Wasn’t that Michelle Obama’s big thing? She promised America that Obama was going to help the people acheive greatness, as if Americans couldn’t do it for themselves!}

    We have seen what happens when our government steps in and provides everything for a people. Just look at the decline of the native Americans. Why try when you are going to get everything you need anyway.

  2. Christopher’s avatar

    U.S. history tells a tale of how the government has slowly been making people believe that we cannot do it on our own

    Jeremy, Could you please enlighten me on how “U.S. history tells [this] tale”? And the story of the U.S. governments’ attitudes and actions towards Native Americans is much more one of taking everything away from a people than it is providing everything for those people. Your comments reflects a general ignorance of U.S. history, a shocking lack of understanding of those that have a different ideology than you, and a gross distortion of Michelle Obama’s words.

  3. Greg’s avatar

    Thanks Jeremy. Although I haven’t read Goldberg’s book, I look forward to reading it. My understanding is that Liberal Fascism looks at the rise of fascism primarily since the 1960s whereas Higgs’ Crisis and Leviathan starts with “Crisis Under the Old Regime, 1893-1896″ or about the time the Fabian society appears to have infiltrated entered American society and politics.

    It’s been a fascinating read since it describes – from an “outsider’s” point-of-view – the growth of government subsequent to “national emergencies”, both real and propagandized. In fact, I sometimes wonder what the author would have wrote a few years from now concerning 9/11 since the effects of that tragedy have led to the same results – participatory fascism!

  4. Chris H.’s avatar

    The Fabian infiltrated American society and politics? While that would be a dream scenario for me, I do not believe it to be the case. If they did, they failed because we have never gotten close to English style socialism.

  5. Chris H.’s avatar

    My comments are moderated now. Really?

  6. Greg’s avatar

    Thanks for keeping me honest Chris. As you would expect by now, I disagree that “we have never gotten close to English style socialism.” Our economic systems have gotten much closer than most people suspect. In fact, that was one of the purposes of popularizing Keynesian economics which has dominated our political economy ever since the 1930s. For example, see some of the references to John Maynard Keynes.

    p.s. All comments are moderated.

  7. Chris H.’s avatar

    I think we disagree about the degree to which we should consider Keynes socialist. I will be writing about Keynes soon at my blog. Until then, thanks for the response (I think it is my first here).

  8. Greg’s avatar

    Thanks Chris – please let me know when you write your post. I would enjoy reading your thoughts about Keynes.

  9. Rick’s avatar

    I have to worry about certain things that are slowly transpiring in our government. The recent 20,000 troops for homeland security seven years AFTER 9/11? There was a reason the founding fathers didn’t like the idea of a standing military. If in the interest “national security” someone turns that force against our own citizens. Then there is the so-called “Cow Tax” that would virtually tax beef and pork producers out of business. Sometimes I wonder if these things are being done on purpose. Sorry for the tangent.

  10. Greg’s avatar

    I agree with you Rick. I believe the story you are referring to above is Pentagon to Detail Troops to Bolster Domestic Security. Whether or not a person agrees with my post about participatory fascism, it appears that post-9/11 government leaders continue to reinforce the thesis of Higgs’ book Crisis and Leviathan. Namely that real and perceived national “emergencies” continue to move us more and more towards a fascist state. It seems apparent that the Book of Mormon was written for our times.

  11. Rick’s avatar

    My comment about the “Cow Tax” wasn’t meant to be a vague as it appeared when I reread it. Farmers are quite upset about this particular EPA regulation enforcement. If this is passed, it will force a yearly tax of $30,000-$40,000 tax on farmers that cannot afford it. They will be bankrupt overnight or the government will seize the taxed cattle for failure to pay taxes. If this should happen and these forces are told to enforce this upon the farmers, you will have a major food crisis on our hands. It’s getting ready to boil over, in my opinion.
    Yes, the Book of Mormon was definitely written for our times, complete with Gadiatons.

  12. Greg’s avatar

    U.S. history tells a tale of how the government has slowly been making people believe that we cannot do it on our own.

    Jeremy, Could you please enlighten me on how “U.S. history tells [this] tale”?

    Christopher, I can’t speak for Jeremy, but I believe one good place to start may be Jerreld L. Newquist’s Prophets, Principles and National Survival.

  13. Greg’s avatar

    Rick, I don’t think your comment about a “cow tax” is necessarily tangential to the topic of fascism. I think it is an excellent example of government overreaching. Here is a New York Times story in reference to your point – see Farmers Panic About a “Cow Tax”. Thanks for your comments.

  14. Rick’s avatar

    I don’t believe it is just the media or the democrat side of things that has pushed the limits either. One particular instance stands out vividly during the Bush administration. Do you remember the all the commotion that was brought up about “free speech zones”? It was when Bush out campaigning, I believe and there were groups that wanted to protest where he was giving his speeches. The protesters were “quarantined” to an area that not only could not even see the president, they were not even viewable by the press that was reporting on the presidents speech. I believe it was Jefferson that once said (paraphrasing) “If you limit free speech, you have lost it completely.”

  15. Greg’s avatar

    I concur. It doesn’t seem to matter who is in charge at the White House. Perhaps it is as President J. Reuben Clark, Jr. said:

    I have wished to bring together and to call to your attention a number of matters, the close relationship of which it is easy to miss, and to indicate to you that, so assembled, they make a pattern which cannot be accounted for except on the theory that some group of minds is working out a diabolical plan for the destruction of our liberties and freedom” (see Newquist, Jerreld L. Chapter 14. Prophets, Principles and National Survival. Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1964. 322-323.).

  16. Christopher’s avatar

    Christopher, I can’t speak for Jeremy, but I believe one good place to start may be Jerreld L. Newquist’s Prophets, Principles and National Survival.

    Greg, you’re kidding, right?

  17. Greg’s avatar


    Update: 23 Jan 08 – Christopher, I suppose I should clarify this seemingly glib reply. While I can’t specifically address Jeremy’s point above, to some degree I believe Prophets, Principles, and National Survival documents the government’s policies over a period of time that illustrates its slide into fascism and forms of socialism, even though the book does not specifically address policies directed towards Native Americans in particular. As a master’s student of American History, I’m sure you’re aware that these types of policies generally erode individual liberty, responsibility and self-worth. In general, my comments above were made in that context, although that was not clear above.

  18. Tony Rigby’s avatar

    In light of the topic at hand, this Glen Beck segment might be of interest:

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