The subtle rise of corporatist techno-fascism
Martin Gurri's Public is tearing at a cheap bastardization of our original social order, which freed people to create wealth. In its place we are left with an economy of mansions, butlers, and maids.
In 1934 U.S. Marine General Smedley Butler - who at the time of his death was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history - went to the media with a claim which would almost certainly be censored as a conspiracy theory if made today. A cadre of well-known businessmen were conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government led by Franklin Roosevelt and replace it with a fascist government. Among the well-known names were Robert Sterling Clark, Grayson M.P. Murphy, and Prescott Bush - yes, that Prescott Bush: The father of former president George H. W. Bush and grandfather of former President George W. Bush.
This period in U.S. history followed the “Progressive Era.” Woodrow Wilson, President from 1913 to 1921, was the first American politician to explicitly disavow the idea of constitutional restraints on government power. The “Business Plot” which attempted to recruit General Butler was likely born from disdain for the electoral reaction against the anti-constitutional reforms of the Progressive Era (Republican Warren Harding trounced Democrat James Cox 60% to 34%). Wilson had become unpopular and sickly and was not nominated for a third term. (This was before the two-term limit was adopted.) Teddy Roosevelt had died. The Republicans did not have anyone of national stature who shared Roosevelt’s Progressive views. Supporters of the Business Plot were left to pine for the Fascism of Mussolini’s Italy.
To understand Fascism it is necessary to draw a distinction between Liberalism and Progressivism. Most view “progressivism” (with a lower case ‘p’) along egalitarian lines, stressing equality between races, genders, sexual orientation, etc. The Progressive Era, however, was marked by a “bundling” of government and corporate power. (“Fascism” comes from a Latin word meaning “bundle of sticks.”) Standing in the way of this was the U.S. Constitution, which in a sense erected a wall between the government and the people. In a curious example of current historical illiteracy, today’s Republicans often like to quote Roosevelt as saying “We are the government; the government is us.” This was, however, a Progressive trope designed to tear down the constitutional wall between the government and the people.
Politics is like a clock, not a spectrum
Prominent political theorists tend to associate Fascism with what would otherwise be “right wing” political views. Generally it is described as combining a myth of rebirth (“Make America Great Again”), a sense of ultra-nationalism (“America First”), and a myth of current decadence (“Drain the Swamp”).1 It is easy to see how the Left in general reacted to Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Unfortunately, the focus on rhetoric allows these scholars to pass over the actual accumulation and use of power when discussing Fascism.
When it is looked at through actions rather than rhetoric it becomes clear that Fascism can be arrived at either by moving hard right or hard left. In this we see that political arrangements are not linear (left/right) as much as they are circular. If you imagine a clock, we might locate Liberal Democracy at 12. If we go Left we might locate traditional left wing politics at 9. Go right and we find traditional right wing politics at 3. In either case if you keep going you end up with Fascism at 6.
To understand the difference between 12 and 6 we have to look past Left and Right and consider instead the difference between consent (12) and authority (6). Both Left (9) and Right (3) represent different mixes of authority and consent. Generally speaking, traditional Liberals and Conservatives agree the authority to govern arises from the consent of the governed. The Liberal seeks consent to expand the authority of government in the interests of the common good. The Conservative seeks consent to limit the authority of government in the interests of individual liberty.
On the Left as you pass 9 on the clock, heading toward 6, we see classic Progressivism. Interestingly enough, on the Right as you pass 3 we see exactly the same thing. The sources by which Progressives seek to accumulate power (the “bundle of sticks” if you will) is different in some areas and the same in others. In both cases, power over the social order is wielded by the Federal Reserve’s control of the money supply.2 The Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1977 was a textbook precursor to Fascism: Congress punted on the tough fiscal choices needed to tackle high inflation and high unemployment. Instead they added policy mandates to the Fed. The banking sector is the most important of the bundle of sticks. Both the Progressive Left and Progressive Right seek to buttress their power by enlisting the power of the banks.
On the Right we see these tendencies in a peculiar brand of Evangelical Protestantism known as Dominion Theology. It is a “calling” for Christians to take political power to somehow accelerate the return of Jesus Christ. This is essentially an attempt to use a peculiar interpretation of the Bible as one of the sticks in the bundle. On the Left we now see the power of Big Technology and their platform monopolies as one of the sticks in the bundle.
The history of Progressivism in general and the Business Plot in particular is little-known in the U.S. today because it looks far too much like our current arrangement. On his Substack, Matt Taibbi recently interviewed Matt Orfalea. In the light of Gurri's book, this exchange is remarkable:
Taibbi: Why should anyone care if a hashtag is suppressed on Facebook?
Orfalea: It’s funny. I’d just been looking into how China censors their internet when that #revolution censorship on Facebook happened. And there are just so many similarities. There’s Harvard research from 2013 that says about China: they actually let a lot of criticism of the government go through. That’s not their main concern.
Their main concern is to stop anything that will lead to “collective expression.” And that’s what hashtags are. They’re a collective expression. And they lead to real-world collective action. It just seems like we’re really mimicking Chinese censorship to a “T” now.
Gurri may not have intended it, but his book has likely become a roadmap for the neo-fascism of Big Tech. Whether it be what we read about political candidates or cheap off-patent medicines in the age of Covid-19, the political six-o-clock of pure authoritarianism needs an institutional foundation. Between the banks, technology platform monopolies, the “scientific-technological elite,” and corporate media, Fascism in America has found new footing with this particular bundle of sticks.
Former President Dwight Eisenhower saw this coming. His farewell speech is well-known for his warning against the power of the “military-industrial complex.” But in that speech he warned us of two things, not one:
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocation, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet in holding scientific discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
This quote is often misinterpreted as reflecting contempt for science or for “elites.” While not used, the words “descriptive” and “prescriptive” offer perhaps a more balanced understanding of Eisenhower’s warning. By speaking of science as a means of “discovery” Eisenhower reminds us that science is essentially descriptive. Public policy, on the other hand, is clearly prescriptive. This goes back to our clock. If the authority to govern arises from the consent of the governed, then it does not arise from a federally funded laboratory. This authority is conferred at the ballot box, not the hooding ceremony.
While maybe not in these terms, Gurri’s Public clearly get this. Before the SARS-Cov-2 virus the problem reared its head among climate scientists who strayed from the disinterested descriptiveness of “the science” (note the lower case) to become public policy advocates. Much as it was in the 1930’s, the turn of the 21st century has seen an appeal to “follow the science” as if science was prescriptive in nature. As computational physicist Steven Koonin has written recently, when confined to its proper descriptive role “The Science” simply does not say anything close to what climate advocates claim it says. It is, rather, an institutional foundation for an authoritative model of government. Where eugenics was “The Science” for the Fascism of the 1930’s, now federally funded climatology and epidemiology are “The Science” for the neo-fascism of today.
Gurri's Homo Informaticus is not tearing at the model that gave rise to her comfort. That model was the model which freed humanity to its own ingenuity to create wealth in ways never before imagined. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how the paths to wealth in America were many and varied and available for all to pursue, and how idle speculation over matters of politics so thoroughly gave way to a preoccupation with the creation of wealth. The model which is being torn down is a corporatist techno-fascism preoccupied with the extraction of every last bit of economic rent, leaving us with an economy of mansions, butlers, and maids who serve in a neo-fascist bastardization of what was once called capitalism.
Griffin, Roger (1993). The Nature of Fascism. New York City: St. Martin's Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-0415096614.