Participatory fascism is a phrase coined by Dr. Charlotte Twight, professor of economics at Boise State University, and popularized by Robert Higgs, a Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute. Popularized by many media outlets, today’s U.S. political economy is often characterized as largely capitalism gone awry. Others, taking a more nuanced perspective, refer to it as a mixed economy, a combination of a free market economy and a command economy. Still others refer to the U.S. economic system as a form of socialism or crony capitalism.
Although somewhat dated, in Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, Robert Higgs made a compelling argument1:
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.
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 â€“ did Americans not spill their blood to destroy the fascist regimes? â€“ 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 â€“ and no doubt many would be offended by the suggestion â€“ 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.’ 2
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 oneâ€™s own body and oneâ€™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. 3 When Richard Nixon ended the draft in the early 1970â€™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 administrationâ€™s conduct of the war in Vietnam. 4 Even in the mid-1980â€™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 â€“ and sent to federal prison for conspicuous failure to comply â€“ 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 peopleâ€™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 fascismâ€™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 governmentâ€™s pleasure, but it eliminates any meaningful right of private property.’ It is ‘a bogus capitalism indeed, a sham deferral to individual economic rights readily nullified whenever political leaders deem it expedient.’ 5
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. 6
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.’ 7 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.
According to Higgs, things haven’t changed all that much since this was written in 1987. Twenty five years later, he reemphasized his viewpoint on the subject.
- Higgs, Robert. Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. 240-242. ↩
- Twight, Charlotte. Americaâ€™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. ↩
- Gillam, Richard. â€œThe Peacetime Draft: Voluntarism to Coercionâ€. Yale Review. 57 (June 1968) reprinted in Anderson, Martin, ed. The Military Draft: Selected Readings on Conscription. Standford: Hoover Institution Press, 1982. 113. ↩
- 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, â€œThe 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.â€ 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 â€œhad no convictions . . . but did what was feasible and tactically shrewd, see Graham. Toward a Planned Society. 247-258 (quotation from p. 255). ↩
- Twight, Charlotte. Americaâ€™s Emerging Fascist Economy. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1975. 14-17; emphasis in original. ↩
- 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. . . . there is enough continuity for the relationship to be described as one of ‘revolving interlocks.'” ↩
- Twight, Charlotte.Â Americaâ€™s Emerging Fascist Economy. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1975. 279-280. ↩