One of the challenges Bertram Gross’ book, Friendly Fascism, presents the reader with is this: if your views coincide with those that a major, long-term, well-funded propaganda campaign has aimed to instill, wouldn’t it be prudent to reconsider those views? We don’t come into this world armed with disinformation detectors. We tend to trust those around us and more or less uncritically adopt their values. Born into a Muslim world, chances are you’ll be Muslim. Born into a Catholic family in Italy? Guess what religion you’ll probably embrace? Born into a capitalist country with a highly effective indoctrination system chances are…
An interesting quote early in the book states that the United States is run by and for about 5,000 wealthy persons (mostly men of course) backed by about 50,000 beavers eager to take their places. This is the establishment. Gross disagrees a bit with the numbers, estimating it at 250,000, but accepting the basic premise. The difference between Friendly Fascism and the earlier, version typified by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, is one of brute force but also in that instead of the state plundering industry it assists industry in plundering the population.
During the 1930s corporate excesses had pretty much alienated the general population. On top of that, the suffering brought about by the great depression added to the “danger” of people opening to an alternative to capitalism. The 1%, in self defense, wanting to keep their privileged position, gathered considerable resources in an effort to instill in the population some basic “truths”: capitalism is good; socialism is bad. In fact, they claimed capitalism has been replaced by, various terms here but mixed economy is one of the favorites. Thus instead of the profit-driven, dog-eat-dog paradigm, we now have a balance of interests, all represented equally as if guided by an invisible, benevolent hand.
Everybody’s happy, right? Well, if you’re not it’s due to your own individual failings. The system is perfect. We’ve arrived at the ultimate way to economically organize ourselves. Everywhere the 1% had influence, which was virtually everywhere, this message was amplified. Those who adopted the message, like house servants, stood to profit, their career paths lubricated. Those who resisted stood to be left behind, on the street. Owning the major media, sitting on the boards of universities and other institutions, funding the campaigns of politicians, tended to stack the deck, making certain views “respectable”, others beyond the pale. It is an exceptional person who questions received wisdom. Their numbers are insignificant and tolerable, though they need to be kept marginalized, so long as the mainstream message dominates everyone else.
Gross goes on to sketch existent mixed economy/capitalism, its alienation for many if not all, in terms of non-materialist values. The 60s rebellion and rejection of crass materialism may have eventually returned to the fold but brought an enrichment not to be denied, nor exaggerated. The writer describes the capitalist society as fostering material abundance for some and envy for others, and disillusionment for the super successful as they discover an empty pot at the end of the rainbow. Some of course then pursue with even greater vigor multiplications of the materialist prize, maybe most since visible alternatives are not obvious. Those who do find alternatives or who decline to remount the treadmill tend to not be who achieves power and so perpetuate the system.
In a section on the Shrinking of Capitalism, Gross breaks from his critique of capitalism to portray the spread of communism in a somewhat alarming or at least ambiguous way, making dire, even laughable, in hindsight, predictions. This was ten years before the fall of the Soviet Union but Gross is predicting the real possibility of communism taking over the Caribbean, Central America, Portugal (which had already happened he claimed – there was a military coup overthrowing a right wing regime), Spain, France and Italy. This clearly represents establishment fears after World War II. but not reality. There were actually many opportunities for peaceful co-existence that the U.S. chose to ignore since it would entail limitations on their emperious designs. Their fears of a successful socialist project were certainly also a factor. Why Gross makes this odd turn when until then his critique seemed spot on may be accounted for by his immersal in government, the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, especially the latter, a solid member of the religion of anti-communism and a victim or conspirator in that “reeducation” campaign mentioned above.
In 1975 the Tri-lateral Commission released a report on the Crisis of Democracy. The Commission was formed to search for a managerial formula to keep the concentration of wealth intact. Some of its own members dissented to its language as the unspoken rule among the oligarchy was that it was important to display a public pretense of democracy. The report unambiguously called for less democracy, responding to the 60s movements around civil and human rights, oppression, war profiteering, empire and corporate manipulation of government. There was no dissent however about the basic principle, the need for oligarchic integration to ward off the threat of “too much democracy”.
Gross discusses the business cycle and the professional economists, their self-serving theories and shenanigans. Roosevelt attempted to institutionalize the right to work (very unlike the co-opted anti-union use of this phrase), wanting full employment and security for workers. The business community opposed this on ideological grounds, feeling that government regulations should be minimal and that full employment meant a loss for them in bargaining power. When there was plenty of work then workers could leave for better opportunities or demand better working conditions and pay, reducing profits and control. The business view was that unemployment should be as high as could be tolerated, the more the better, for them. Roosevelt’s project died with him and the ascendancy of Truman. Anticipating Roosevelt’s death business interests had maneuvered to replace Vice President Wallace, a progressive, with the more reactionary Truman. Thirty years later the Humphrey-Hawkins bill attempted to reinstate some of Roosevelt’s ideas but they were stripped from the bill and not long after the vicious attack on unions and workers began, full steam with Reagan.
The arrival of Friendly Fascism, Gross warns, will be on “little cat’s feet” not a violent sudden coup. So gradually that the general population will not notice and even activists will miss much of it, realizing its full takeover only when it is too late. The book lays out eight paths, a chapter each, by which Gross sees Friendly Fascism coming to full power, then a section on the opposing force, True Democracy, which he sees as weaker but not yet defeated. He ends with a chapter, “What You Can Do.” 37 years have passed since the publication of this book so it is tempting to conclude that it is, indeed, too late. This was where I personally stood until seeing a clip of Amy Goodman interviewing Bernie Sanders after the election. His statement moved me to reevaluate my stance: “You do not have the right to give up. Too much is at stake – our democracy and our life system.”