Fascism in the Americas



A clear warning sign is not needed for the most deleterious political degenerations to take their place in society, in its institutions and in the minds of individuals.

"If fascism were introduced into the US, it would be called democracy." Pronounced almost a century ago, this phrase continues to touch a sensitive nerve of political reflection. There is something astonishing in the realization that it does not take a clear warning sign, or a brief passing moment, for the most deleterious political degenerations to take their place in society, in its institutions and in the minds of individuals. An official certificate, approval from political science schools or the judgment of opinion makers is not required.

As what frightens us is always the simplest things, political ghosts can move among us without being supported by the image that political actors give of themselves. There remains, then, the challenge of distinguishing a concept or political form in the absence of an assumed (or declared) representation of it. When, some time ago, German jurists and sociologists tried to separate ideal types from empirical forms of government, they were probably afraid of taking socialist and democratic utopias to the skies of theory, but they ended up giving a new meaning to the problem of recurrence and innovation in the field. of the extreme forms of authoritarianism embodied in the political community (tyranny, despotism, caesarism, etc.).

It is not known for certain who uttered the phrase about American fascism. In its hypothetical tone, it seems to have been formulated by someone who already perceived, in the territory of the United States, the shadow of the political movement then in force in Italy and taken as a model in Europe. It was understood that this political form is like a body that, despite being foreign, managed at that moment to adapt to the institutions of one of the countries that most used the word “democracy” as an instrument of self-distinction. Perhaps the phrase was uttered, even if not literally, by a former Louisiana governor whose political career was cut short by his assassination; or else created by its critics, who accused it of populism, mainly for favoring programs of economic-political assistance. For these critics, fascism at the time corresponded to excessive State intervention when it sought to restrict the sphere of savage action by the economic elites.

That phrase was taken up years later by the Austrian-born jurist Hans Kelsen, when he was a professor at the University of California. It was 1955, and shortly thereafter Charles Wright Mills would publish one of the most effective descriptions of the oligarchic nature of the American political system, far removed, unequivocally, from his self-portrait in democratic garb. Kelsen took his quote from a work entitled Symbols of Democracy, which describes, among other things, the positive use that the word “democracy” received in the Soviet Union. The symbolic value of the key term in contemporary political vocabulary allows for the ideological bias of Kelsen's reading: with the American window wide open in front of him, he refuses to look at the landscape and returns to the dark room from which he came, where, together with the arch-rival Carl Schmitt, practiced daily exercises in anti-communism. What bothered him was the equation between democracy and economic and social equality, not the denial of forms of participation in an increasingly restricted and census-based political mechanism.

Among the most interesting retakes of the declaration on American fascism, a theme propagated in recent years also by liberal elites shaken in their political power, is that of Bertolt Brecht. In his diary, in 1942, while in American exile, the writer recalls a somber nocturnal discussion: “Kline, who made a film about Mexico with Steinbeck (music: Eisler) was here at night [1]. He thinks that a certain resistance to fascism can be expected thanks to the American feeling for democracy. Leonhard Frank and Kortner were skeptical. Now, it is true that there is something here [in the United States] called democratic behavior, probably because the whole society was improvised from the beginning – there was no feudalism and militarism was superfluous. But that only means that the class struggle here continues without parlor talk, that is, the winner does not demonstrate, with raised eyebrows, contempt for the victim and the profits are squandered with a certain vulgarity. American fascism would take account of these forms or absence of forms and would be, in that sense, democratic.”

For Brecht, so-called democratic behavior and vulgarity correspond (a lesson from Tocqueville and even earlier from Plato). This would be one of the faces assumed by fascism in its new moral incarnation on American soil. Fascism would not be the negation of democracy, but only a development of the special form it assumed in America. Democracy was then, as it still is today, the field in which the game of authoritarian or egalitarian representations was played – through it the different conceptions of justice in the political sphere (as taught by Aristotle) ​​come into conflict.

Today, Brazil has taken the lead in the field of discussions about the varied and even ambiguous forms of neo-fascism, becoming a true laboratory of expressions of authoritarian violence. But, unlike Brecht's American world, the country is already, to a large extent, devoid of a democratic outfit, that is, it already plays off the field. Many in the country do not feel the need to resort to any formal or institutional guise as seen in public presentations by politicians and cultural representatives. In recent years, it has become more customary to speak of republican values, which soon became (alas, tradition) the language of bachelors.

* Paulo Butti de Lima is a professor at the University of Bari, Italy. Author, among other books, of Democracy. L'invenzione degli antichi e gli usi dei moderni, (Firenze-Milano 2019) [Portuguese translation in press by EdUFF].


[1] Herbert Kline, the director of the documentary about Mexico (screenplay by John Steinbeck, photography by Alexander Hammid), remembered above for the hope he placed in American democracy in its ability to react to European fascism, was subsequently persecuted by the fascist committee of anti-American activities and since then, until his death, his production of documentary films remained extremely reduced.

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