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Is the Party Over?

Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America

by Bertram Gross
M. Evans, 410 pp., $15.00

Crisis Investing: Opportunities and Profits in the Coming Great Depression

by Douglas R. Casey
Stratford Press (distributed by Harper & Row), 290 pp., $12.50

Bertram Gross, a liberal Democrat, a former congressional aide, the major author of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978 in its original form, and now a professor, says in his new book that big business and big government may be turning America toward fascism. What Gross sees is not a conspiracy on the part of the ruling class but a “powerful logic of events,” leading to “concentrated, unscrupulous, repressive and militaristic control…to conserve the profits of the ultra rich, the corporate overseers and the (military and civilian) brass to squelch the rights and liberties of people at home and abroad.”

Friendly Fascism, however, will probably enjoy neither the influence of Mills’s Power Elite nor the popularity of Lundberg’s The Rich and the Superrich. It adds nothing to what these earlier populist attacks on concentrated power have already said; its prose is often nearly impenetrable and its argument obscure. One characteristic of friendly fascism, for example, will be its “internal viability, grounded in system strengthening reforms, multi-level co-optation, creative counter-revolution and innovative apathetics.” What this means is only that American fascism won’t come rattling down Pennsylvania Avenue in a tank, but will arrive in such familiar forms as government infiltration of hostile political groups, official toleration of drug-taking to dull the resentfulness of the poor, the use of drugs to tame inmates, and of jobs in the bureaucracy to tame dissidents. But how or whether these abuses may result in something that can plausibly be called fascism is unclear from Gross’s account. Friendly Fascism is nonetheless interesting in so far as it reflects what seems to be a widespread feeling among liberals as well as conservatives that democracy in America has played itself out: that soon Americans won’t be able to govern themselves.

Douglas Casey, an investment counselor specializing in offshore situations, is the author of this season’s best-selling addition to the apocalyptic literature of the populist right, a genre that owes to Ayn Rand what Gross’s left-wing populism owes to C. Wright Mills. Casey, too, says that concentrated bureaucratic power is tending toward dictatorship. He believes, however, that our rulers aim not to preserve but to squander the possessions of the rich and the superrich by transferring their hard-earned money to the undeserving poor in exchange for votes. For Gross, our totalitarian future will be Argentinian. For Casey it will be Cuban. Though both writers say they love the United States, neither trusts or likes it much.

As a defense against fascism, Gross recommends the practice of grass roots democracy. Casey is equally quixotic, but blunter. He would let the government keep the police and the military, but make it sell everything else, including the interstate highway system. Whatever can’t be run for profit shouldn’t be run at all, Casey thinks. As for the welfare poor, their dependent children, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the low achievers, the unlucky, he would let them find work at whatever wages the market offers and have them pay for their necessities on the same basis. If they suffer and die, that isn’t Casey’s problem. Like so many rightwing populists, Casey is an anarchist at heart; not simply the monster of selfishness he appears to be, but a self-imagined pioneer trapped in a three-piece suit, beset by revenue agents and zoning laws, fighting to keep what’s his in a land where a man’s true measure should be nothing more than the heft of his gold and the design of his tax shelter.

In his introduction to Casey’s book, Robert Ringer, the author of Looking Out for No. 1, a mighty classic of rightwing populism published a few years ago, says that “the chances of averting economic collapse, chaos, and ensuing totalitarian rule are slim,” unless Casey’s solutions are adopted by “the power holders” in Washington. But Ringer doesn’t have much hope. His tone implies the foregone conclusion that even Reagan must have made his deals with the back-room boys not to sell the Lincoln Memorial, the federal prisons, and the VA hospitals to private operators but to let the public go right on enjoying them free of charge.

Casey’s book has risen quickly to the top of the nonfiction best-seller lists, sharing these heights with Rose and Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, a book written from a similiar intellectual perspective. A year ago the best-seller lists were dominated by Howard Ruff’s How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, another example of this genre, which urged its readers to prepare for the apocalypse by buying gold and silver, avoiding stocks and bonds, being careful of real estate, and opening a Swiss bank account. Since Casey’s advice is the same, readers may be buying his book less to find new ways to make money than for its confirmation of their apocalyptic fantasies, fantasies which are even more vividly catered to on the fiction side of the bestseller lists, where tales of alien conspiracies to disrupt our tranquillity currently abound: Arabs plotting to upset the stock market, other Arabs planting a nuclear bomb in Manhattan, a Russian plot to mislead and corrupt American journalists, and so on. The main difference between these thrillers and Casey’s book is that for him and his many readers, the alien force is the United States government and the American majorities who elect it.

But from a less tendentious perspective than either Casey’s or Gross’s, the great proto-fascist power centers that threaten our liberties according to these writers seem, in fact, to be falling apart. Since Eisenhower, the presidency, which Casey thinks is becoming a dictatorship and Gross thinks is an instrument of oppression manipulated by the superrich, has been occupied by men who, whatever their views, their personal qualities, or the influence of their backers, have been unable either to complete their terms or convince the public that they deserve a second one. Congress drifts. Except for the oil companies, most of the great trans-national corporations are heavy with debt, uncompetitive, short of capital. But the oil companies which Gross says are our masters are also OPEC’s slaves. The great banks are caught between short-term Arab lenders and long-term third-world borrowers, their liquidity hostage to the will of Islam. Neither the banks nor the government can stabilize the value or control the supply of our deteriorating currency, or even anticipate its vicissitudes. For all the money they spend, the admirals and generals can’t win even their marginal fights, much less the ultimate one which they seem powerless to prevent. Their war planes won’t fly. Their divisions aren’t ready. Their early warning computers give false signals. With respect to most crimes, the police do nothing.

In fact, authoritarianism seems less likely to arise at the center than at the increasingly autonomous bureaucratic outposts—the maternity wards, the classrooms, the asylums, the welfare agencies, the nursing homes; but these institutions are not what Gross is mainly worried about, any more than the populists of the right are mainly worried about the IRS, which they tend to regard with a matador’s practiced arrogance and the toss of an accountant’s cape. What frightens them instead is the prospect that there will arise from the chaos of our national government a centrally manipulated, interlocking, deliberate system of political authority, much like Hitler’s, determined, in Gross’s view, to enslave us for the sake of the rich, and in Casey’s, to fill the bottomless purses of welfare mothers with other people’s money.

Prophecies like these seldom do more than distort the present for the sake of a portentous statement about the future. Though Hitler came to power at a time of great uncertainty, not unlike the present, and promised the unemployed workers, the conservative farmers, and the ambitious bureaucrats who supported him a simpler world without Bolsheviks, Versailles, Jews, abstract painters, quantum physicists, and other deviants, his fascist regime was hardly inevitable. Hitler was not thrust into office by “a powerful logic of events,” but by the most unlikely series of accidents whose developing pattern was obscure at the time even to the Nazis themselves. Had the young Adolf been admitted to art school in Vienna, he might never have considered a career in politics. Had he breathed a bit more gas on the Western Front; had the policeman’s bullet that killed his bodyguard after the Beer Hall Putsch been a few inches to the left and killed Hitler instead; had his chronic flatulence (after his conversion to vegetarianism, Hitler suffered incurably from meteorism) embarrassed him at a delicate passage in his ascending career—for instance, at the now famous secret meeting with Krupp von Bohlen and his fellow industrialists at which it was decided to back Hitler for the Chancellorship; had Papen and Schleicher played a shrewder hand with Gregor Strasser or had Strasser played a better one with Hitler; had Brüning been a smarter politician or Hindenberg less addled, Germany might have found a less bizarre leader than Adolf Hitler.

Despite their passion for discipline and their craving for disaster, the Germans under saner leadership might have muddled on as a constitutional republic, their economy gradually reviving, their war wounds healing, their attention increasingly focused on the need for alliances with their former enemies in the West, and perhaps also with the Poles and Czechs, against the growing strength of the Soviet Union. Had any of countless potential mishaps or distractions occurred to Hitler on his way to the Chancellery the Nazi Party would probably have expired in the cellars of Munich and fascism would be remembered as an Italian aberration as one hopes falangism will prove to have been a Spanish one. Auschwitz would have remained an obscure Polish railway junction and western Marxists would have congratulated themselves for having chosen a master so prescient as to foresee that totalitarianism, essentially an Asiatic and Latin phenomenon, could never take hold in Protestant, ego-ridden, humanist Germany. Gross would have had to invent another title and hypothesis for his book. He would, in fact, have had to look where Marx intended him to look in the first place for the true centers of despotism, beyond the Caucasus to the brutal capitals of Asia and its adjacent lands.

The inflation of large conclusions from insufficient premises is only part of the problem with these books. A worse difficulty is their assumption—particularly Gross’s—that victim and predator live in morally distinct worlds, worlds in which guilt and innocence are impersonal functions of one’s place in a society divided between the exploiters and those they torment; an assumption of popular innocence which many Americans still reject on behalf of Hitler’s Germans.

Gross believes that the American people are helplessly manipulated by an interlocking hierarchy which includes the universities, the media, the corporations, the foundations, the government agencies, the president, Congress, the courts, and so on, all dominated by “the secret Bilderburg conferences and the more open Trilateral Commission.” But how this evil hierarchy actually works and what the plotters agree to do at their secret Bilderburg meetings or their more open Trilateral ones and how they then carry these schemes out, Gross doesn’t say. Nor does he say how it happens that such an irritable population as ours so quick to turn on its leaders and so corrosive in its scorn for their transparent failings, can be so easily fooled year after year. In this respect, Gross is a kind of deist, arguing backward from the evidence of our defective institutions to the existence of the prime mover that must be manipulating them.

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