When Democracy Degenerates into Fascism

Image: Kushnir


Voting aside, fascism can only be stopped by a mass movement, which confronts it directly.

It can happen here. “Here” is any country where capitalism rules. When does a formal bourgeois democracy turn into fascism? This is a question that needs to be answered with reference to many places, certainly without the exception of the United States, which has already experienced an attempt at self-coup with unmistakable fascist overtones.

We are referring to Donald Trump's self-coup attempt, to use the Latin American expression, in January 2021. Many people, even on the left, laugh at the events of that day, pointing out that the alleged coup had no chance of being successful. . It had no chance of success. That doesn't mean it should be dismissed with disdain; on the contrary, it must be taken into account with the utmost seriousness. Hitler's brewery coup of 1923 also had no chance of success, and his violent movement remained on the sidelines as a lunatic for several years. But we know what German history was like afterwards.

There will be no easy comparison between the contemporary United States and Weimar Germany. We are not living in Weimar times. There are no neat brown shirts running madly through the streets. There is no military deeply hostile to democracy and ready to act on that hostility, nor a significant number of industrialists funding storm troopers. History does not repeat itself, like tragedy or farce, in an organized way, and it certainly doesn't need to. However, we can draw a lesson from history before taking stock of contemporary political conditions.

One myth to be dispelled is that Hitler was elected. He did not go. He was given power by German President Paul von Hindenburg, who appointed him Chancellor. Unfortunately, this was completely legal under the Weimar constitution. Moreover, it was enough for the largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, to hold its guns. As is known, they refused to release their militia and limited themselves to giving a legal order, which was simply destroyed. The other major opposition party, the Communists, declared that "after Hitler, it will be our turn", a public sentiment that contrasted sharply with the fact that its members were being forced into hiding or exile. They downplay even the fact that the newly installed Nazis began rounding up party members and destroying their offices.

Union leaders humbly supported Hitler after he took power, agreeing to participate in what would now be a May Day celebration under Nazi leadership. Two days after that May Day, the Nazis began arresting union leaders and banning existing unions; the social democrats would soon meet the same fate. It took Hitler just three months to sweep away all opposition and assume dictatorial power. With all political opposition swept away, the persecution of Jews, Roma and LGBT communities began with results the world should never forget or downplay.

Why did Paul von Hindenburg promote Hitler to Chancellor? In the last election before the nomination, in January 1933, the Nazi vote actually declined from the previous vote; the combined vote of communists and social democrats was 1,5 million votes more than the Nazi vote, which totaled 33%, although the combined left vote was one million less than the combined vote of Nazis and the National Party , the remaining political instrument of the traditional right.

Most support for Germany's traditional right-wing parties in the 1920s shifted to the Nazis, who jumped from 2,6% in May 1928 to 18% (second out of 10 parties) in September 1930. Hitler was named chancellor (the equivalent of the current prime minister), but the Nazis were given only two of 10 cabinet positions. Unfortunately, one of those posts was the Ministry of the Interior who controlled the police, allowing the Nazis to flood the police with their brown-shirted thugs. That Home Secretary, Wilhelm Frick, participated in the brewery coup, but received no more punishment than a light sentence, later suspended.


Violence in the service of corporate profits

The stories in Italy and other countries that succumbed to fascism are not very different. Mussolini also received power. Mussolini was a socialist until he started taking money from arms manufacturers and other business interests. Although he is now not very far to the right and has even denied having a program, he has carefully allowed far-right propaganda to be played out, also allowing fascism to appear to do whatever it wants.

But, his benefactors knew what he and they wanted. Fascists received regular subsidies from shopkeepers' associations and the Confederation of Industry. The Socialists came in first in the November 1919 elections, but the Conservatives began to buy support from fascist squads, and the police allowed them to attack unhindered and even provided them with support.

Mussolini's march on Rome could not have happened without Italian business leaders funding the fascist squads. Soon, King Vittorio Emmanuel appointed him Prime Minister. Bans on union activity and strikes quickly followed. In Spain, a fascist-minded military overthrew the republican government; Military coups brought fascist generals to power in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, with the support of fascist squads using violent tactics. The violent repression of workers and their organizations and the reduction of wages and working conditions occurred in all cases.

In none of the historical cases did a fascist rise come about through a sudden explosion out of nowhere. There was a lot of right-wing violence largely funded by business leaders and supported by the military and police. The tipping point came before the comings to power – there was, and is, no easily definable point at which a rubicon comes to be crossed. So constant vigilance and endurance are always needed. If it looks like fascism and acts like fascism, then it must be taken seriously as a fascist movement.

The 2024 presidential election season has begun in the US. There are not yet industrialists and bankers playing street thugs and maneuvering to overthrow formal democracy. These corporate titans certainly appreciated everything the Trump administration, made up of some of the most virulent ideologues in the bourgeoisie, did for them and would do for them again if given the chance, but that is different from supporting an overt fascist movement. Given the control industrialists and bankers have over the US political process, it is hardly necessary for them to overthrow a system that works so well for them.

However, times and conditions can change and the very fact that a fascist movement exists – which Donald Trump currently leads, but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wants to take the lead – should be taken with the utmost seriousness, especially as it is a move that does not show any signs of scattering.

There is no parliamentary system in the United States, but a two-party system that is seemingly impregnable. That country has an army which, it seems, for all its use as a battering ram abroad for corporate looting, is nevertheless a strictly constitutional body, with no hint of commitment to domestic unrest.

True, but we must get rid of elevating form over function. The classic image of fascism is of stormtroopers looting the streets, violently suppressing any opposition. But in South America in the 1970s, this proved different from what it had in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. There were fascist gangs running rampant in Chile and Argentina, but fascism was imposed through undisguised military coups.

Fascism in the United States, if it ever comes to pass, will come in forms unlike any of these, with Christian fundamentalists forming a key part of the rightist base. But what is crucial is that a significant percentage of that country's industrialists and financiers – its capitalist ruling class – support the imposition of a dictatorship, providing funds and other necessary support. This is the crucial similarity that replaces the different forms of fascist rises.


Empty rhetoric versus class interests

Why is this so crucial? Because fascism is a dictatorship imposed for the benefit of the big industrial and financial capitalists. At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established and maintained with terror in the name of big business. It has a social base, which supports it, just as it has the terror squads, but which is very badly misguided because the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interests of its own social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and perhaps the most critical component, rabid propaganda that intentionally arouses panic and hatred while disguising its true nature and intentions under the guise of false populism, are among the necessary elements.

Despite national differences that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, its class nature is consistent and well known. Big business is invariably a supporter of fascism, no matter what the rhetoric of a fascist movement contains; moreover, he is invariably the beneficiary. Instituting a fascist dictatorship is not an easy decision, even for the biggest industrialists and bankers who can salivate at the potential profits. Because, even if it is to benefit them, these big businessmen are renouncing part of their own freedom, as they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them.

It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism – as is well known, some form of democratic government, under which citizens “consent” to the governing structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain. If workers start to withdraw their consent – ​​starting to seriously challenge the economic status quo – comes a “crisis” that can bring about fascism. The inability to maintain or expand profits, as might occur during a sharp decline in the “business cycle” or a structural crisis, turns out to be another of those “crises” that foment fascism.

No fascist movement can succeed without a sizeable base being convinced that the left must be stopped at all costs. And that the only way a far-right mystical return to the past that hangs in front of them can be accomplished without it being imposed by force; oppositions, moreover, must be repressed with violence. This part of the equation, unfortunately, is very much present in the United States, as Donald Trump's unwavering trajectory sadly demonstrates. Donald Trump's desire to be a fascist dictator is obvious – and that should be unmistakable to anyone on the left; however, unfortunately, this is not always the case: often, Donald Trump and his base are still not taken seriously or, worse, some are even seduced by Trump's siren songs.

I was once on a respected environmental radio show discussing the Trump administration's plans to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, where I shared this view of mine. I was then rudely interrupted and treated in a less than condescending manner by another guest, the prominent head of a non-governmental organization in Washington. He intended to "correct" me by claiming that Donald Trump's trade advisers say they want to do away with the secret courts that corporations use to overturn government laws and regulations.

Donald Trump had been in power for over a year, and by this time, his administration's all-out war on workers and its strenuous efforts to allow corporations to loot and pollute without the burden of regulations was in full swing. Furthermore, the government's trade policy document had been released – that was what it was addressing – and there was nothing ambiguous about its intention to dismantle labor, safety, health or environmental standards held by other countries.

Donald Trump's vaguely leftist rhetoric was just for show, a transparently obvious ploy to woo voters who had very good reason to deplore so-called "free trade" agreements and many other policies that harmed workers while allowing jobs to shift elsewhere. another continent. The Germans in the Weimar Republic also had plenty of reason to be fed up, but these obvious Nazi lies became unmistakably lies when Hitler eliminated those stormtroopers who believed in the leftist rhetoric of the "Night of the Long Knives". Mussolini also used these tactics.


Trump and De Santis' Pasts Don't Confusing

Four years of Donald Trump in the White House – four years of all-out attacks on workers and the environment, incompetent cheating and lies about the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing all misanthropes to fulfill their most hateful antisocial fantasies – could not be clearer. Donald Trump remains an embodiment of the threat of fascism.

And what about his main rival for the GOP presidential nomination? De Santis – or De Satan as he has been nicknamed – clearly also has aspirations to become a fascist dictator. The governor lacks the rabid popular support of Donald Trump, but he seems far more likely to garner strong support from industrialists and financiers than Trump, giving his success in reducing the Florida legislature to a bureau that has come to bear his stamp. . De Santis may also be ruling by decree, considering how lawmakers hand him what he wants.

The record here needs no introduction for anyone paying attention. But let's "highlight" some of his accomplishments. He is waging a scorched earth war against LGBT communities, denying their humanity and forbidding as far as possible to even discuss their interests, imposing draconian bans on abortion (women always stripped of rights and reduced to baby machines under the fascism), unilaterally removing elected officials from office who dare to disagree with him, banning books, covering up history, using immigrants as expendable props in the service of nationalism and nativism, and offering bonuses to police officers to move to Florida, many of whom have been charged of criminal acts, including domestic ones such as theft, kidnapping and murder.

So cruel is the police state that DeSantis is trying to create and so hostile is the attempt to erase slavery and racism from history that the American Black Association, NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) issued a travel warning for African Americans to avoid the state.

While it is indisputably true that an independent fascist party is not going to take power in the United States in the foreseeable future, it is not truly necessary for it to emerge. The two main candidates for one of the two parties that alternate in power, the Republicans, have aspirations to be fascist dictators and there is a considerable base of Republicans ready for that.

Little help is available from the other party, the Democrats, as the “centre left” opposition (actually a “centre right” opposition to the extreme right) is repeatedly defeated, its inability to confront the right or mounting any effective opposition is not just the product of being beholden to corporate money and the ideology of “American exceptionalism”, but the intellectual dead end of liberalism. (I’m using American terminology here; readers in the rest of the world can substitute “social democrat” for “liberal”.)

American liberalism and European social democracy are bound by a fervent desire to stabilize an unstable capitalist system. They are handicapped by their belief in the capitalist system, which means, today, a belief in austerity for workers and subsidies for corporate and financial plunder, no matter how nice speeches they make.

When Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jean Chrétien, Justin Trudeau, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, François Holland, Gerhard Schröder, José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero and Romano Prodi fall to their knees before industrialists and financiers, when each of these leaders quickly implements austerity neoliberal despite leading the supposed “centre-left” opposition to conservative parties that openly advocate corporate domination, there is something more than personal weakness at work. And that woeful record – Bill Clinton, for example, was the most effective “Republican President” America has ever had. He gave an opening for the extreme right-wing demagogues to start offering siren songs, which fall well on a certain left and, thus, deceive others.

However, I can easily understand why so many Americans, not just liberals but also on the left, vote Democrat as a tactical move, arguing that a Democrat in power, particularly in the White House, offers more wiggle room. While I personally don't have the stomach to vote Democratic, I certainly understand this tactical voting as a matter of survival, especially since each Republican administration is worse off than the last.

But it would be helpful if Democratic voters put pressure on their office holders to actually try to implement some of the things they want instead of giving them a free pass. It's a different strategy than the usual shrinking of the Democratic Party, which shouldn't mean first shrinking and then shrinking again.

Voting aside – and voting should be the least important thing you do in a democracy – fascism can only be stopped by a mass movement, which confronts it directly. And that means taking the danger seriously rather than laughing at the ignorance of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and their blind followers. Fascism is never a laughing matter, as the body count left by its funeral procession in history should make everything clear, very clear.

Pete Dolack is a journalist and writer. Author, among other books, of It's Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment and the Systemic Disorder blog

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published in Systemic Disorder blog.

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