“Fascism is not a set of ordered beliefs… it is essentially an emotional protest, partly of those members of the middle class (such as small shopkeepers) who suffer from modern economic developments… It is irrational, in the sense that it cannot achieve what its supporters desire… If it could succeed, the results would be widespread misery…” (Bertrand Russell, “Scylla and Charybdis”).
“The decay of reason in politics” is due in part to the “classes and types of individuals to whom the world as it is offers no scope, but who see no hope in Socialism…” (Bertrand Russell, “The Ancestry of Fascism”).
My friend George, a white Italian-American male in his mid-fifties, has found a home with like-minded people who make up the tea-party movement. In April, the Tea-Party Express held a rally in Boston that drew approximately ten thousand spirited protestors whose most enthusiastic moments came when they applauded the crowd-pleasing punch-lines delivered by a gushing Sarah Palin.
Nonetheless, the beliefs which motivate George and thousands of others go far beyond the rather tepid notions of a Republican ex-governor.
For years, George has been looking to Fox News for information and ideas, as he still does. He is also a believer in chain-mails, that perverse subculture of political pornography, which he takes as good coin. These emails, written to incite fear, send a chilling message: the Democrats are creating in the U.S. the same social conditions that led to Nazi Germany. This email as George will quickly point out, was “written by a history professor, you know” – thus, it must be true.
So, the circumstances are dire. Totalitarianism is the likely future of the United States unless the “Demofascists” are stopped by stout-hearted patriots. Preposterous? Of course. Unbelievable? Yes. But google “Obama is Hitler,” and see for yourself.
Thus, George’s near-visceral hatred is directed primarily against the “unholy trinity” of Obama, Pelosi, and Reid. This contemptuous dismissal of politicians who are merely moderate Democrats is also summed up in the word “Obamunists.”
Now, George has found a political home in the ranks of the tea-partiers who affirm his social resentments and anger and who seem to offer a way out of “the mess this country is in.”
Like them, George detests and fears the “Three Bigs”: big government, big business, and big labor (never mind that the union movement today is at an all-time low). He hates illegal immigrants who he believes are the cause for the economic collapse in the housing market and who are largely responsible for the overall economic troubles in the United States. In some vague way George “knows” that Jews are guilty, too.
George would not appear to be a likely recruit to a movement that contains many of the essential elements of mid-twentieth century, European fascism. His years on a job and his experience in the class struggle might have led him into a different direction.
George recently retired from the United Parcel Service (UPS). After many years as a laborer, in his last decade with the company he occupied a position that might be described as lower level middle management. This promotion, or this circumstance – the phrase “caught in the middle” is accurate – left him emotionally twisted, tangled, and confused. He despised “the big bosses” at UPS, especially the managers, and he deeply resented the company rules that were (and are) mechanically applied without reason or compassion, much less common sense.
George had ideas which he believed could have improved efficiency at UPS and made more money for the company. He hoped to gain a hearing, get recognition, and maybe even earn a small bonus. Nothing like this ever happened. At UPS, the ideas flowed in only one direction: from the top to the bottom. For George, continued frustration led to lingering disgust and permanent resentment with the bosses and their system.
Not infrequently, adherence to company rules rendered George unproductive or even counter-productive, yet he lacked the authority to make even the most modest of changes that would have benefitted the company. Like most workers, George wanted to be of use. He offered ideas in a work environment in which ideas were forbidden. His requests and pleas were routinely ignored, until, finally, he shut up. It didn’t do him much good; George’s feelings were transparent, and before long he was labeled a “troublemaker.”
George daily endured multiple humiliations, in matters small to large, from a management that did not even derive satisfaction from the humiliation it inflicted on its workers: to enjoy the debasement of its workers, UPS would first have had to notice them as people. Instead, workers were “resources,” not unlike loading docks or a fleet of trucks.
Yet, George would not look for help to fellow workers, the union, or the labor movement. If he despised the arrogance and stupidity of the bosses, he especially feared the power of the union. After all, George was a junior member — but still a member — of management.
During the UPS strike in 1998, the company assigned George to drive delivery trucks through picket lines as part of a failed effort to defeat the Teamsters union. He did as he was told. For his troubles, George was rewarded by rocks and bricks hurled at the windshield of his truck. Caught, literally, in the middle of the class struggle, George blamed the workers for violence and excused the policies of the company which provoked it. Siding with established authority was the easiest thing to do.
Today, the tea-party movement is becoming that “authority” with which it is easy to side. Its members largely consist of people who look like George, who live in neighborhoods like his and who share his experiences — not the “immigrants and scum,” who unfairly receive the benefits of the Obama government which is leading America to ruin.
Politics never occurs in a vacuum. With the continuation of an economic crisis in the United States and the increase of fear among the millions of Georges whose financial and social stability are not at all assured, comes an anxiety and panic that resembles the fear of people in turbulent waters about to be drowned. In desperation, hoping to become survivors instead of victims, they clutch at anything, whatever is at hand, in hopes of keeping afloat.
In times of social turmoil, when financial institutions collapse, when companies dissolve, when pensions disappear, when homes lose the value of their cost, people feel themselves victims of incomprehensible, inexplicable but overwhelmingly powerful forces. “All that is solid melts into air” – and who can explain why?
With the absence of a left alternative, with the numerical weakness, especially, of the socialist left, frightened people retreat to identity, religion, and scapegoating. They embrace false solutions. It’s like taking poison to cure an illness.
It’s not the first time in history that poison has been mistaken for medicine. George’s fear and resentment of immigrants, Blacks, and some of the most exploited among the working class resembles the picture Karl Marx drew of the self-defeating beliefs of the English workers in the 1870s. Writing in a letter to a friend, Marx observed:
“And most important of all! All English industrial and commercial centres now possess a working class split into two hostile camps: English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared with the Irish worker he sees himself a member of the ruling nation and for this very reason he makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland and thus strengthens their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social and national prejudices against the Irish worker…
“This antagonism is artificially sustained and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret which enables the capitalist class to maintain its power, as this class is perfectly aware.”
(Karl Marx, The First International and After, “Marx to Mayer and Vogt, 9 April 1870,” p. 169).
It’s a lesson confirmed more than once by history: People frightened enough will grasp at any solution – even false ones. After all, a false solution at least seems to resolve social and personal turmoil by providing an apparently satisfactory explanation of the troubles that beset a nation and its people. So, the tea-partiers rally in favor of the Constitution, call for lower taxes, and demand a smaller government – a smaller government with an ever-growing military budget and with iron-clad guarantees of continuing Medicare and Social Security benefits. And, meanwhile, blame the “illegals,” the Mexicans, and Jews, the unions and the liberals, including the moderate Republicans or RINO’s (Republican In Name Only) for every one of the real social ills.
Unfortunately, false solutions can lead to real consequences. Instead of joining with others who suffer from the same social system, instead of building and strengthening links to workers, national minorities, and immigrants, George and those like him confuse their enemies with their friends.
George and his tea-party crowd march along a well-defined road, unaware of and unwilling to see their ultimate destination.