Sex, Lies and Fascism....Again?

by Margaret Wyles

July 17, 2000


Note from the Editor:  Andre Malraux once said, "Any active and pessimistic person is or will become a fascist, except if he has loyalty behind him." Fascism is for the most part discounted as a movement of the past whose ideology has no place in today's world, particularly in the industrialized world. Mention the word in a conversation with co-workers or guests and you can immediately notice an incredulous look in the eyes of the company. The wide majority of us know little about fascism but for the Hollywood-made movies and TV mini-series plotted around WW II. So, if you hint at the possibility that unbeknown to all of us we may witness a fascist renaissance in the USA, the eyes turn to a glare and you lose the audience. Even the suggestion that the American democratic system is becoming increasingly authoritarian will turn an open discussion into a controversial melee. Swans' columnist, Margaret Wyles, far from shying away from the controversy, worked for several weeks on this issue. The result? A superb essay that we hope will be an eye opener and generate further discussion.


"By virtue of her nature and destiny, woman is man's mate. Over and above the necessity of working together, it is man's and woman's duty to preserve man himself. In this most noble mission of the sexes, we also discover the basis of their individual talents which Providence, in its eternal wisdom, gave to both of them immutably. Work honors both man and woman. But the child exalts the woman alone."

This claptrap, exclusive of its arcane language, could have ushered forth from the Dr. Laura voice box on any given day. It was, in fact, excerpted from Hitler's election proclamation of 1932.

"The teaching of the youth to appreciate the value of the state and the community derives its strongest inner power from the truths of Christianity. Loyalty and responsibility toward the people and the [nation] are most deeply anchored in Christian faith. For this reason it will always be my special duty to safeguard the right and free development of the Christian school and the Christian fundamentals of all education."

High sounding words -- not from Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson -- but directives from the youth program of the Third Reich.

We could stop here, satiated with a mere slap at religious fundamentalism by linking them to fascist Germany. However the relevance of the issue becomes clear as we examine how fascist propagandists made use of a repressed psychosis and directed the population to act in accordance with "state." It is my contention that similar methods have been used and are currently being used in this country as well, resulting in repressive measures that would have been viewed with horror just 20 or 30 years ago. The return to capital punishment, a burgeoning prison population, hate crimes, an increase in allegations of police brutality, a near obsession with drug use, the state-sanctioned demonization of uncooperative nations and nationalities, are all evidence of such a trend.

The word fascism is bandied about rather indiscriminately, often ascribed to any repressive measures the state might undertake. Yes, fascism is repressive, racist, reactionary. But what distinguishes a fascist regime from your run-of-the-mill dictatorship is that it draws its strength, its lifeblood from the middle class. It is important to understand that fascism did not BEGIN with Auschwitz, but with just such high sounding words as quoted above, amplified by a zealous appeal to nationalist pride. Likewise, German expansion did not BEGIN with a scenario for world domination, but with the more modest "humanitarian" task of protecting German nationals in other countries. It would be years before the vicious nature of fascism would be revealed behind this cloak of respectability.

Germany, prior to the rise of fascism, was one of the most socially and culturally advanced countries in Europe. Supported by the middle class as well as the working class, the ideas of a more equitable society based on socialist ideals had stirred the land, and a move in a progressive direction appeared inevitable. Yet the country made a 180-degree turn and embraced fascism. Why? The answer is more than an historical curiosity, as it provides not only a framework for understanding current societal phenomena, but also a warning that it could be repeated. The signs are already here that propagandists, who play on the insecurities and ambivalence of the middle class (the major point of discussion later on), have attempted to corral the frustrations of middle class and redirect them to the designated scapegoats, both here and abroad. A drastic economic downturn, such as that experienced in pre-war Germany, could spell equally disastrous results.

In our more recent past, in a less dramatic way, we can examine the factors that preempted the progressive impulses born in the 1960's. While not a political revolution in the sense that the power structure did not change, the turbulent 60's created, at the least, a social and cultural revolution. The doors to the fragile, reified structures of middle class America were thrown open, first by the Civil Rights movement, and then by the more middle class student anti-war movement, which rode on the coattails of a revolution already in progress. It is hard to imagine in these quiet times the sense of possibility that was felt as people experimented with different lifestyles, joining together to display their power in the streets. We felt nothing could stop us -- nothing could separate us. After all, "The whole world was watching."

But the end of the Vietnam War did not lead to world peace, and the efforts of the Civil Rights movement yielded progress only for the few and, arguably, a backward leap for the many. Instead of taking advantage of the momentum that had been created, the movement was derailed as many of us came back to the same institutions we had vehemently opposed just a few years before. We discarded our visible signs of rebellion and emerged, both men and women this time, in tasteful suits and designer labels to evidence our success in a world we had previously disavowed, and our failure, as well, in making real the dreams we shared of a more equitable and peaceful world. Apart from the practical necessities of "having to make a living," it is my contention that we were impeded in our progress by unrecognized psychological impulses that moved in concert with the very real and directed attempts to restore order.

As student activists, we were energized by our newfound freedoms. Yet we feared them as well. Unwilling to take the risk of possible loss and incur the responsibility of reconfiguring our society, we chose the security of the known -- no matter how dissatisfying -- rather than taking a shot at the brass ring. In the end, we were more conservative than we imagined as we sought refuge in reactionary politics, abdicated our responsibility as well as our freedom, and went home to daddy whom we elected in the form of Ronald Reagan. All that remained of the left was a sense of guilt and a merely defensive posture against the reactionary tide that would overwhelm and dismember much of the progress that had been made.

In his book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich explores the psychological basis to explain why the middle class willingly surrendered all of its power, not to the seemingly benign character of a Ronald Reagan, but to the sadistic embodiment of the authoritative father in the form of Adolf Hitler. Reich submits that "it is the authoritarian family (and resultant sexual repression) that represents the foremost and most essential source of reproduction of every kind of reactionary thinking; it is a factory where reactionary ideology and reactionary structures are produced. Hence, the 'safeguarding of the family,'... is the first cultural precept of every reactionary policy.' This is what is essentially concealed behind the phrase 'safeguarding of the state, culture, and civilization.' (emphasis added) That being the case, any revolution must of necessity call into question the sexual relationships within the society, as well as the more obvious political and socioeconomic ones. How often, in fact, have we heard that the family (the traditional composition, of course) is the "cornerstone" of society and with it the values thus associated: individual achievement, hard work, self sacrifice. As other possibilities of sexual and familial relationships bleed through in the form of gay couples, open marriages, single moms, the state itself feels threatened and acts accordingly.

The temporary playtime of the 60's was easily squelched by mild repressive tactics, both ideologic and economic. Almost overnight flag burning turned into flag waving. Once defiant and proud, we now viewed our sexual rebellion with some embarrassment, as we slipped on white wedding gowns and tuxedos and surrendered to the inevitable. One could argue that this merely evidenced a natural maturing process from rebellious adolescence to responsible adulthood. But what differentiated the 60's is that people began questioning the viability and desirability of heretofore sacrosanct institutions, from the macrocosm (the nation, the corporation), to the microcosm (the family). The ruling parties understood the implications of such revolutionary (versus merely rebellious) thinking and moved quickly both overtly (through assassinations and imprisonment of dissidents) and covertly, through a concerted effort to control the media, and thereby the minds of a public simmering with frustration.

The political and economic situation in pre-war Germany, mired in deep depression, on the verge of violent revolution, required far more drastic measures, with commensurately drastic results. The repressed instincts and economic frustrations of the German middle class were initially channeled into fabricated notions of honor and duty and their mystical consciousness quickened with reminiscences of a grand fatherland that could now be resurrected from its mythological past.

It is important to note that it was the middle class in both cases that was charged with the task of maintaining vigilance over society's morals and returning society to order and it was the middle class that was assigned to the task of quelling the revolution. As Reich points out, "Owing to its character structure, the middle class has a social power far in excess of its economic importance. It is the class that preserves nothing less than several thousand years of patriarchy and keeps it alive with all its contradictions."

We presume the rich are different and we are not much troubled by their debauchery -- in fact, we revel in it. Witness the endless gossip in People, the Enquirer, and the vicarious pleasure derived from the tawdry behavior of the entertainment, financial and political elite. The Kennedys who continue to be forgiven every indiscretion even in these "different" times. The poor? Hell, better they debauch than rebel. But we know we have a problem when white girls from good homes get pregnant in high school. The glue is shaken loose, towers crumble.

It is not from some high moral ground that the preachers of religionism constantly reinforce, along with their political constituency, the importance of the "nuclear family." Instinctively, if not actually, they understand as did the creators of the Third Reich that the nuclear family is the nation state in microcosm, and the woman, the mother, held responsible for keeping it all together. By extension, any breach of sexual mores outside of state sanctioned marriage must, at the very least, be accompanied by apologia. Thus the bizarre scenes of an angry president, emasculating himself in front of the nation, seeking forgiveness for the crime of pleasure. That the institution of his marriage might appear vacuous and empty is of no importance. The importance is that the institution be preserved at all costs. Pretense supercedes substance. Might not the same be said of the country as well?

Like nation states, families are cut off from and opposed to one another, their interests in competition with -- rather than cooperation with -- other families (nations). It is not an accident that it is the "nuclear" family rather than the extended family that is held forth as the ideal, because extended families are based more on mutually negotiated cooperation, rather than fixed, societally defined ones. Poor Hillary had no idea the venom that would be unleashed at her innocent suggestion that it takes a village to raise a child. God forbid we should gather together in some tribal configuration and share the burdens and pleasures of raising children!

Third Reich propagandists, themselves repressed, played on the latent fear of uninhibited sexuality which is intrinsic to a patriarchal, authoritarian society. Jews and communists (both of which, not coincidentally, challenged the existing economic structure) particularly were singled out, and described as sexual degenerates, perverse purveyors of unspeakable sexual crimes. Skilled propagandists, the fascists operated upon the emotions of the people, and avoided relevant arguments as much as possible. A foreshadowing of the 30-second sound bite, perhaps? While progressives held forth rational argument, appealing to higher instincts, they neglected to understand and address a more powerful element upon which the propagandists preyed - fear. They imagined -- wrongly -- that the people would welcome newfound freedoms, yet that is what they feared most.

How could it be otherwise? Having internalized the repressiveness of a patriarchal society, they were not themselves free individuals. Like the rat in the cage who is suddenly offered freedom, they cowered in the dark corners hoping for protection from above, venting their frustration and rage at the scapegoats offered them to appease their hungry appetites. By pointing to the alleged "perversions" of demonized subgroups, reactionary politicians played on the unarticulated fears of a sexual freedom that would lead to the complete unraveling of the structure of society.

From an economic perspective as well, the peculiar insecurity of the middle class makes them vulnerable and attracted to fascism. Caught in the "middle" between those few of wealth and power and the restless underclass below, they are ambivalent about their allegiance. They are uneasy as they realize they are the mere lapdogs of the rich who require their services (at least for the time being) to maintain their power and wealth. They are the bankers, the ad men, and the attorneys, middle managers, who contribute little of tangible use to society as a whole, but add much to the cost of everything from sneakers to real estate. The sole function of the middle class is not to produce anything tangible, but to maintain order. Order in the streets, order in the stock market, order in the home, order in the bed.

They do so at a great cost to their psyche. The greater the economic constraints and the social tension, the greater the need to repress more generous instincts. What cannot be held in comfortably or sedated by Prozac or bubble gum entertainment, is directed to find its expression in vicious attacks on demonized subgroups. Ghettos, a bulging prison system, concentration camps are merely the logical extension.

In the same way that the "moral majority" was used to eventually push back the economic, sexual and social freedoms gained in the 60's and 70's, Third Reich propagandists enlisted the middle class to prevent an economic crisis from becoming a social revolution. Populist notions of individual freedom and a national return to glory were used to lure the middle class into believing that their future lay with those already in power, that the system which seemed dead was merely in need of triage.

The elite in England, France and the United States initially supported fascism as a means of quelling a revolution they feared might reach their own shores, adding the element of respectability to mask the barbarous intent. They realized, as we have not, that fascism is merely the strong arm of capitalism, its ruthlessness quotient determined by the strength of its opposition and the seriousness of the economic environment.

Like children admonished by a stern father, middle class members of each rebellion doubt their own instincts, fear the uncertainty of a mass revolution that was never theirs to begin with, and return to the safety of their middle class environment. Only with a true revolution, that overturns the existing order, and in which the "father" is completely deposed, will irreversible change come into effect. And so there is a sigh of relief as a confident Reagan restores order and glory to an ambivalent America by first bringing the hostages home. Remarkably difficult questions cease. In their place? Symbols -- goose-stepping, flag waving -- used to deflect us from real issues, much as a parent unable to answer a child's reasonable question resorts to "That's why. It's the way it always has been."

Order finally restored, the forces behind the kindly Ronald Reagan and his successors and the charismatic Adolph Hitler remove their velvet gloves to reveal the iron fists. Free now to go about their original intent, the true puppet masters turn their attentions outward to Poland and Iraq, and inward to our pocketbooks. The tax reform promised in exchange for our silence merely means a tax break for the rich (like the present attempt to repeal the estate tax). Our concern for health care turned on its head with privatization to feed the coffers of the HMOs.

They would suggest that were I to be broke, I would be better off robbing the homeless man than the suit in the Mercedes. As absurd as it may seem, we have been deluded by such a ridiculous notion. If we question the logic of this suggestion, we are fed reams of indecipherable economic drivel to explain why those with millions can less afford to be generous than the poor.

We are told we must surrender our natural sexuality, and that of our offspring, to maintain the moral fiber of this nation. In turn, we're directed to vent our frustration at the licentiousness of the gays who, in their unabashed celebrations of sexuality, seem, frankly to be having more fun than we are. We are told that corporations must enlist our support in these "competitive" times by working harder, expecting less. We are told the wealth accumulated at the top will "trickle down" to us but when we ask for health care, job security, a 30-hour workweek, or a six-week vacation, we are told the nation cannot afford it.

In the kind but proud figure of Ronald Reagan we are assured that our future is secured -- he, the nation, will take care of us. But when we ask questions, he turns a deaf ear. Finally, they serve up one of our own, a draft dodger who must now kowtow to the military, a drug user who must have us imagine he never enjoyed it, a man with a lustful appetite who would have us believe otherwise. Like us, he has become the sycophantic puppet of the rich and powerful. We imagine we are different, but we are not. Tails between our legs, we have gone back to dad -- to the state -- again beggars at the trough. We feel betrayed, and not a little guilty, as the implied promises made to us for our complicity are thrown by the wayside.

When we complain that our economic woes have increased, they suggest we blame the Jews or the welfare mothers or drug users. We believe the threat so imminent from these people we must build more and more prisons to house the now 2 million inmates, who will suffer merely a more gentrified, but no less hopeless, fate than those who were herded into concentration camps.

How could the civilized German people not know? They knew. Just as we know every day as we stumble over the homeless on our way to Starbucks. Indeed, not 6 million this time. A more discrete hundred or so are served up to eternity for the crime of being poor. Having surrendered our power, we are powerless to do anything.

Other than merely saccharine reminiscences of more interesting times, it is surprising how little analysis has been done of the failure of the 60's revolution to move forward against the reactionary forces that moved against it. That we were co-opted -- either by choice or by ignorance -- to stand in the way of progress, cannot be denied.

And now? As discontent begins to rumble underneath the fašade of the "democracy," what is it that we should do? It is true that there have been few moments of modern social history in which people in general have felt more powerless, few moments in which the complexity of the social order can have seemed so forbidding or endowed with such massive permanence.

The beast does seem to be everywhere. On the television, the radio, the home. His military power is unparalleled; he owns the government, the corporation, and the churches. We imagine we cannot escape his clutches, and by exhorting his evils in a seemingly endless stream of written outrage, we merely add ammunition to his invincibility. Yet he is vulnerable.

The fact that he needs to control everything speaks of his vulnerability rather than his strength. He cannot go to war and count on us to support his efforts with even one human life. He must ask for ever increasing funds to imprison the discontented. He must hire and train special police forces to contain the most moderate of protests held in "designated" areas.

He is vulnerable because he knows he has nothing to offer us but more work, less security, more self-sacrifice. But he will only truly be vulnerable when we all no longer believe, when we refuse, at the least, to do his bidding.


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Published July 17, 2000
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