Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America, by Bertram Gross, New York: M. Evans, 1980, 410 pp., $15.00.
Events have already outdistanced this book. Its thesis, that the managers of Big Business and Big Government will enter a new monopoly agreement to regiment the rest of us, is advanced rather breathlessly as the author's own ingenious plumbing of the depths of American possibility. And, to be sure, it is a properly documented and altogether credible job.
In point of sad fact, though, the friendly fascism of the title and thesis is already close to the status of national policy, lacking only presidential declaration to push it over the top. And given the statements and character of the major-party candidates in this election year, there is nothing to prevent just such a declaration no matter which of the pair has won by the time this reaches print.
A recent issue of Business Week, for instance, was devoted almost entirely to what it called "The Reindustrialization of America." Fortune magazine has editorialized on the same thing, calling for an American arrangement that would go beyond and, naturally, offer Yankee improvements upon the wildly popular Japanese notion of State-Business-Everything Else collaboration. Joseph Kraft, the "establishment" columnist, writes about it frequently, even dropping some hints that Ronald Reagan might do more for the development than Jimmy Carter.
The thesis of the reindustrialization project: that there needs to be a new monopoly agreement, a rapprochement between Big Government, Big Business, and, as a sensible addition, Big Labor, so that the rest of us can be harnessed to a centrally planned, smoothly humming economy which, through some delirious misuse of language, will be called free private enterprise or capitalism. The most confusing part of Professor Gross's book is that he actually seems to believe that that is exactly what it would be.
Throughout this engrossing but maddening book, there is reference to friendly fascism as an advanced stage of capitalism, of the free market, of just about everything pertaining to volitional exchange. The alternative to it is just as incessantly seen as some form of democratic socialism, although, mercifully, the author does not go to any great lengths to describe just what that might be. This at least permits more attention to the useful parts of the books rather than encouraging an outright rejection of the entire thing by all those readers, including this one, who do not see any particular form of corporatism or collectivism as an attractive alternative to any other one. It is the great futurological flaw of such books as this and those of Alvin Toffler that they are so embedded in the present that they will not deal with the experimental possibility of some social arrangement altogether different from any form of large-scale, centrally planned or coordinated collectivism.
Gross, to the credit of his obviously decent instincts, does see that concentrations of power have so far proven destructive of liberty no matter the motive. He is, for instance, now aware that even some of the legislation in which, as a very high level congressional staff functionary, he played a central role (the Employment Act of 1946; the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, passed in 1978) are wide open to exploitation as harsh control measures no matter the good that the authors intended them to do.
But that's as far as it goes. (It would be uncharitable and unfair not to point out that Gross goes, in this direction, a hell of a lot farther than most of his colleagues. He should, generally, be lauded for his journey. It is only for holders of an actually alternative vision that it seems proper and necessary to point out how short a trip it has been, no matter what else.) For instance, after more than 300 pages of convincing argument that Big Government and Big Business are moving together toward a regimented society, he comes up with these proposals, as close to concrete as any in the book:
• Inflation should be fought by a "serious" attempt "to manage the capitalist business cycle" with "price stability and guaranteed jobs [part-time as well as full-time] for all."
• Decentralized planning can best be effected by siphoning power away from civil servants and professional advisers and pumping in "participation by citizens' movements."
• Profits—which he assumes throughout to be definable only in terms of the existing State-corporate collaboration of licensure, taxation, and protectionism—would be curtailed in his ideal society rather along the lines of the Swedish model, in which, "in return for losing some of their freedom over the use of profits, the larger corporations might gain…the opportunity to increase their aggregate profits."
The free-market proposition that such worrisome large corporations exist in State-supported defiance of, and not in consequence of, a truly free and open market, decentralized right down to the individual, has not yet attracted Professor Gross's attention except to worry him. In one chapter he asserts that purely local, individual-centered social arrangements lead to clique oppressionism. That market entry opportunities, commercial or social, competitive or cooperative, would also lead to diverse, volitional picking and choosing has not yet excited him.
Although society now suffers from the effects of large-scale corporatist and collectivist organization, large organizations will remain vital for the future, maintains Gross. In hewing to that firm line, he injects several useful reminders that even that widely regarded guru of the small-is-beautiful thesis, E.F. Schumacher, held onto the notion that some such organizations would remain forever necessary. They would be, of course, the ones needed to make sure that people use their freedom wisely. It is notable that Schumacher and Gross both gracefully sidestep the dilemma of a free society held together by organizations of real and overarching power supposedly confined solely to the doing of good. Like Plato, they prefer to assume that the trick will be turned by some mysterious force of good character among the elect.
A real problem may be that people coming to think of freedom at all are so depressed by their past experiences with authoritarianism that they fervently want guarantees, some Plan or Way to have freedom on a platter. An alternative vision is that being free is, face it, a whole lot of trouble and that the only guarantee it offers is your own basic responsibility to live it, love it, and sustain it—and watch it leave if you ever let up.
THE FRIENDS OF FASCISM
Ultimately, the most appalling fact of Friendly Fascism as a book and as a concept is that there is nothing in either that gets to the crux of the authoritarian proposition: coercion. The friendly fascists that are almost upon us would coerce, in Gross's view, in order to maintain their managerial authority, regulated markets, zooming profits, and a two-tiered society of the stratospheric rich and the brute, stunned, worker-consumer middle class. Gross, in turn, would coerce the managers to do good instead of being greedy. He would coerce local organizations to be neat instead of idiosyncratic and, depending on who lives there, swinish or saintly. The slogan that sums up such an urge is that of Saint Just in the French Revolution: "The people will be good or we will kill them." Gross wouldn't kill anybody, of course. But he certainly owes his decent and good mind a long contemplative session with the question of just how he will prevent the Department of Global Good, with the power to suppress tyranny, from oppressing everybody else.
The anarchist answer—certainly venerable enough to deserve Gross's scholarly interest—has been always along the lines of withdrawing all sanctions from coercive institutions rather than worrying about curbing them after they get status and power. Modern libertarian answers add specific market alternatives.
Gross misses the possibilities of either because he unfailingly associates freedom with license and the market with State capitalism. Further, he does not yet care to come to grips with the idea of a stateless society, preferring instead to think of the good State instead of no State at all. But considering how far he has come since the days of his collaboration in the Capitol Hill apparat, I for one would not rule out the possibility that Professor Gross might next essay a look at liberty.
As it is, in Friendly Fascism he has done a fine job of collecting some of the evidence and symptoms of a development that is surely a major and real one. Just how accurate his predictions are could be seen as the presidential campaigning progressed and it became abundantly clear that neither of the front-running candidates would take a position in opposition to it. Carter, with his Trilateral Commission White House, his Rockefeller connections, and his own southern, plantation authoritarianism, is nowhere armored against the institution of some sort of native fascism, in the name of progress, except by his fortuitous ineptness. Reagan might have been because of his personal instincts as a thoroughly middle-class American, but such are the exigencies of politics and the horde of corporatist advisers who descended upon him that he could not see fascism where all his pals see progress and, especially, power. Also, maintaining an Imperial America—the commitment of both candidates—makes some sort of registered and eventually regimented society inevitable. There would have been no alternative—of course and needless to say—in Ted Kennedy, the virtual white knight of friendly fascism, of a society very well-regulated for oh such lovely, laudable purposes. Not one of them, and, sadly, not Professor Gross, is prepared to say, "Look, if we are going to be free, we are just going to have to take our lumps, get off the dole, get off the backs of people in other lands who should be given the whole job of running their own lives, and above all get off the idea that free people can lead a life of guaranteed outcome."
Fascism, friendly or fierce, is the obliteration of the possibility of being responsible for your own actions. So is the welfare state. So is State-capitalism. So is social democracy. So is socialism generally. So is every collectivism. And freedom, friendly or fierce, is the full restoration of the possibility of being responsible for your own actions—which include every conceivable form of volitional social arrangement! Professor Gross should be hailed for seeing the face of the former. He should be urged to see the possibilities of the latter; so far, he hardly glimpses it.
Karl Hess, formerly active as a political operative in Washington, D.C., is now a homesteader, technology experimenter, and welder in West Virginia. His most recent book is Community Technology (Harper & Row).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Fascism by Any Other Name".