International Endowment for Democracy ���or���

The Specter of Friendly Fascism: The Unfolding Logic

By Bertram Gross
From Friendly Fascism, chapter 7, pp. 159-172. Boston: South End Press, 1980
Cry, Trojans, cry! lend me ten thousand eyes
And I will fill them with prophetic tears
Cassandra’s mad
WILLLAM SHAKESPEARE, Troilus and Cressida

Often do the spirits
Of great events stride on before the event
And in today already walks tomorrow.

"The logic of events is driving the rulers of the Third World toward more modern and more efficient forms of dictatorship and all modern dictatorships are bound to have fascist features to some extent."

How are the leaders of the "Free World," the Golden international, and the U.S. Establishment responding to the challenges that face them?

If one looks at any particular area, the prompt reply may be: "With cautious confusion." When one looks at this or that part of the U.S. Establishment, one can see reactionaries trying to "turn back the clock of history," conservatives who seem to favor the status quo and liberals who seek some system-strengthening reforms.

But as I survey the entire panorama of contending forces, I can readily detect something more important: the outline of a powerful logic of events. This logic points toward tighter integration of every First World Establishment. In the United States it points toward more concentrated, unscrupulous, repressive, and militaristic control by a Big Business-Big Government partnership that—to preserve the privileges of the ultra-rich, the corporate overseers, and the brass in the military and civilian order—squelches the rights and liberties of other people both at home and abroad. That is friendly fascism.

There is, of course, no master plan, no coordinated conspiracy. There is no predestined path, leading step by step to a sudden seizure of power by friendly fascists. I emphasize these points, if only because it is easy for a confusion to arise. By trying to make my analysis systematic and explicit, I may give the impression that the reality will be equally systematic and explicit.

On the contrary, the powerful leaders of the capitalist world have no single secret flight plan. In fact, the major navigators are in constant dispute among themselves about both the direction and the speed of flight, while their most redoubtable experts display their expertise by nitpicking at each other over an infinity of potentially significant details. At any particular moment First World leaders may respond to crisis like people in a crowded night club when smoke and flames suddenly billow forth. They do not set up a committee to plan their response. Neither do they act in a random or haphazard fashion. Rather, the logic of the situation prevails. Everyone runs to where they think the exits are. In the ensuing melee some may be trampled to death. Those who know where the exits really are, who are most favorably situated, and have the most strength will save themselves.

Thus it was in Italy, Japan, and Germany when the classic fascists came to power. The crisis of depression, inflation, and class conflict provided an ideal opportunity for the cartels, warmongers, right-wing extremists, and rowdy street fighters to rush toward power. The fascist response was not worked out by some central cabal of secret conspirators. Nor was it a random or accidental development. The dominant logic of the situation prevailed.

Thus too it was after World War II. Neither First World unity nor the Golden International was the product of any central planners in the banking, industrial, political, or military community. Indeed, there was then—as there still is—considerable conflict among competing groups at the pinnacle of the major capitalist establishments. But there was a broad unfolding logic about the way these conflicts were adjusted and the "Free World" empire came into being. This logic involved hundreds of separate plans and planning committees—some highly visible, some less so, some secret. It encompassed the values and pressures of reactionaries, conservatives, and liberals. In some cases, it was a logic of response to anticapitalist movements and offensives that forced them into certain measures—like the expanded welfare state—which helped themselves despite themselves.

Although the friendly fascists are subversive elements, they rarely see themselves as such. Some are merely out to make money under conditions of stagflation. Some are merely concerned with keeping or expanding their power and privileges. Many use the rhetoric of freedom, liberty, democracy, human values, or even human rights. In pursuing their mutual interests though a new coalition of concentrated oligarchic power, people may be hurt—whether through pollution, shortages, unemployment, inflation, or war. But that is not part of their central purpose. It is the product of invisible hands that are not theirs.

For every dominant logic, there is an alternative or subordinate logic. Indeed, a dominant logic may even contribute to its own undoing. This has certainly been the case with many strong anticommunist drives—as in both China and Indochina—that tended to accelerate the triumph of communism. If friendly fascism emerges on a full scale in the United States, or even if the tendencies in that direction become still stronger, countervailing forces may here too be created. Thus may the unfolding logic of friendly fascism—to borrow a term from Marx—sow the seeds of its destruction or prevention. But before turning to this more hopeful subject in Part Three, it is first imperative to look carefully at the unfolding logic itself.

The symbol for "crisis" in Chinese is made up of two characters whose meanings are "danger" and "opportunity." To me, that precisely describes the present situation.

A few years before his death, John D. Rockefeller III glimpsed— although through a glass darkly—the logic of capitalist response to crisis. In The Second American Revolution (1973) he defined the crises of the l960s and early 1970s as a humanistic revolution based mainly on the black and student "revolts," women’s liberation, consumerism, environmentalism, and the yearnings for nonmaterialistic values. He saw these crises as an opportunity to develop a humanistic capitalism. If the Establishment should repress these humanistic urges, he wrote, "the result could be chaos and anarchy, or it could be authoritarianism, either of a despotic mold or the 'friendly fascism' described by urban affairs professor Bertram Gross."

Before his book was completed, one of Rockefeller’s consultants visited with me at Hunter College. We discussed tendencies toward friendly fascism, not humanistic capitalism. I made my case that friendly fascism would be a despotic order backed up by naked coercion as welt as sophisticated manipulation. Above all, I warned that the various crises in American society provided opportunities for Establishment leaders to do things that would accelerate—often unintentionally—the tendencies toward a repressive corporate society. This warning was not reflected in Rockefeller’s book.

The better schools of business management train their students not merely to adapt to the stresses of corporate life but to anticipate challenges before they materialize. The best ones stress the shaping of the crises that may open up new horizons. In national politics, crisis management and crisis exploitation have become welt-established modes of leadership.

At the higher levels of transnational capitalism, therefore, it is only logical for many corporate and political leaders to respond to challenges by creative efforts to perfect their accumulation of capital and privilege. If you were a billionaire, a corporate overseer, or a top executive and dedicated entirely toward advancing your own interests and those of your family members and associates, how would you respond to specific crises of the kind outlined in the previous three chapters? If you were a behind-the-scenes adviser to one of the above, what would you propose? I can answer this question by simply observing the behavior (not the public pronouncements) of Establishment notables as they try to make a virtue of necessity or enjoy the sweet adversity of other people’s misfortunes. But one can get almost identical answers to putting one’s self in their position. Performed as a mental exercise (however unpleasant), the logical result of this is a series of general recipes like the following.

Responding to the Side Effects of Success. Consider a certain amount of frustration as contributing to a stabilizing cynicism and apathy. Nonetheless, tone down overly high aspirations, especially among the lower levels of the Establishment. In turn, provide for tighter integration and higher expectations at the Establishment’s top levels. Publicly lament restlessness, family breakdown, alienation, and other forms of social fragmentation. But recognize that these powerful tendencies deepen the apathy that represents mass consent to governance by the Establishment’s upper levels. Remedy any resulting absenteeism, turnover, and low productivity with human relations programs conveying a sense of employee "participation." Resist regulations that shift to the polluters and makers the cost of antipollution and consumer protection measures; instead, use pressures for protecting people and nature as an excuse for higher prices and more public subsidy. Respond to crime and corruption by expanding "law and order" drives against street-level and middle-level lawbreaking. Direct attention away from the crimes of corporate and government elites; sanitize these activities by legislative and judicial action exempting the elites from scrutiny and prosecution. If necessary, substitute coercion and new forms of authoritarianism for declining public confidence in the authority of leaders, institutions and doctrines.

Responding to the Challenge of a Shrinking Capitalist World. Try to prevent formation of new socialist or communist regimes, overthrow those that are formed, and do profitable business with those that cannot be overthrown. Extend efforts to absorb communist regimes into the world capitalist economy. Undertake the delicate task of absorbing the new crude-oil capitalists and the more powerful Third World regimes into the middle levels of the Golden International. Try to integrate the strategies and policies of the governments and larger corporations of the Trilateral World and the many international agencies that serve them, particularly the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Responding to New Forms of the Old Crises. In the name of "full employment," job creation, and "supply side" economics, promote new forms of open or hidden payments to big business. In the name of combating inflation, cut social expenditures and promote recessions that lower real wages and weaken labor unions. Hold forth the promise of greater profitability in the future. Dampen class conflicts by sharing the spoils of Third World exploitation with parts of the home population. If exploitation of the Third World is less successful, resort to firmer treatment at home. In either ease, "divide and conquer" by co-opting the leaders of potential opposition and nurturing class fragmentation and ethnic conflicts. Try to keep actual warfare limited to small geographical areas and non-nuclear weapons. While calling for a balanced budget, expand arms exports (including the nuclear power plants that enable the proliferation of nuclear war capabilities) and the stockpiling of overkill while striving for "first strike" superiority. Reap the benefits from arms production as a factor in overcoming economic stagnation and a guarantee of profitable growth in the industrial-scientific-military complex. Seek larger armed forces, draft registration and conscription as instruments of military intervention, relief of unemployment, and promotion of militarist discipline in society.

The breakdown of forms of authority is a much deeper and wider process in modern history than the Vietnam War. . . . The destruction of that threatens to produce the chaos of modern times.
You see this as leading to authoritarianism or fascism?
It’s absolutely one of the things that will occur.

Back during the early days of World War I, Robert Michels, the German sociologist who later supported Mussolini’s fascism, formulated his famous "iron law of oligarchy." As any organization grows, he held, the more dominant force will be a small minority at the top. Today’s crises and future threats, genuine or conjured, only promise to accelerate what—in deference to the superior technologies of the present—might be renamed the "steel and plastic law of oligarchy." The word "law," of course, is always deceptive. It promises a regularity, a uniformity, an inescapability, which I do not accept. Even within the logic of the passage to friendly fascism there is room for surprises, reverses, and variations.

Behind alt the varied and conflicting responses to different crises, however, them is a broad and almost all-encompassing unity: the effort to consolidate oligarchic power. A flew round of miraculous exploits would be incompatible with too much conflict, chaos, or anarchy within or among the national Establishments. These Establishments must be reshaped and redeployed. This is what President Nixon had in mind when he told C. L. Sulzberger that the trouble with the country was the weakness and division among "the leaders of industry, the bankers, the newspapers. The people as a whole can be led back to some kind of consensus if only the leaders can take hold of themselves."

This, of course, is the fundamental insight underlying the creation and the operations of the Trilateral commission. Where this logic is heading is suggested in The Crisis of Democracy, a sophisticated call for oligarchic integration. This study was prepared for the commission by three social scientists. Samuel Huntington of the United States finds a "democratic distemper" in the United States caused by an upsurge of egalitarian values and an "excess of democracy"? Michel Crozier of France holds that "European political systems are overloaded with participants and demands," while the Communist parties of the area "are the only institution left in Western Europe where authority is not questioned . . .". Joji Watanuki of Japan finds that "in comparison with the United States, where the 'democratic surge' can be regarded as already having passed the peak, in Japan there is no sign of decline in the increasing tide of popular demands, while at the same time the financial resources of the government are showing signs of stagnation." Together, the three seem to agree that "the principal strains on the governability of democracy may be receding in the United States, cresting in Europe, and pending in the future for Japan." Huntington argues that the challenge of communist threats, inflation, unemployment, commodity shortages, and frustrated aspirations can best be met by less, not more, democracy. "Democracy will have a longer life," suggests Huntington, "if it has a more balanced existence." The essence of such balance is to respond to the erosion of authority by more authoritarian government.

This unusual bluntness, as Alan Wolfe points out, shattered "a taboo of American society, which is that no matter how much one may detest democracy, one should never violate its rhetoric in public." As a result, when the report was formally discussed at a Trilateral Commission conference at Kyoto, Japan, in May 1975, various commission members denounced the report as too pessimistic. While some of this disagreement may have been for the public record only, some of it undoubtedly reflected the sincere attachment of old-fashioned conservatives to the liberal proprieties. Also, some top- and middle-level members of First World establishments may have trembled at what might happen to them with a tightening of oligarchic concentration and control. Even the dissenters, however, did not contradict the trilateral report’s assumption of a need for greater consolidation and coordination within and among national establishments.

To discard the remaining liberal checks on growing oligarchies may be a difficult and heart-rending decision for many such individuals. It may be facilitated by a deepened sense of impending threats to the system, like those that appeared to loom up during the 1960s. Writing in the National Review toward the end of that decade, Donald Zoll provided an example of the possible rationalizations. Responding to the turmoil of the antiwar and civil rights movements, Zoll argued in a spirit of rueful advocacy that in the face of truly serious crisis, conservatives must consider expediential fascism. They should contemplate abandoning the "traditional rules of the game" by "candidly facing the necessity of employing techniques generally ignored or rejected by contemporary Western conservatives." He therefore urged "political approaches that are totalitarian in nature [though] not quite in the original fascist sense that puts all aspects of life under political authority, at least in the general sense that political theory can no longer restrict itself to general conditions and procedural rules." His alternative to "totalitarian radicalism" would be a totalitarian conservatism uninhibited by "liberal proprieties as to method." Zoll confessed that this "might imply common cause with the Radical Right or even some form of expediential fascism—hardly an appealing association. But if the alternative to expediential fascism is to let America die," then—according to Zoll’s logic—better fascist than dead.

A similar note of urgency is trumpeted by General Maxwell Taylor who, in contrast with Zoll’s response to internal danger warns – mainly against external dangers. "How can a democracy such as ours," he asks, defend its interests at acceptable costs and continue to enjoy the freedom of speech and behavior to which we are accustomed in time of peace?" Although his answer is not as candid as Zoll’s, he replies that such traditional and liberal properties must be dispensed with: "We must advance concurrently on both foreign and domestic fronts by means of integrated national power responsive to a unified national will" (my italics). Here is a distressing echo of Adolf Hilter’s pleas for "integration" (Gleichschaltung) and unified national will.

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

It is hard to grasp the unfolding logic of modem capitalism if one’s head is addled by nightmares of spectacular seizures of power. The combined influence of institutional rigidities, traditional concepts of constitutional democracy, and rifts among powerful elites is so great that friendly fascism could hardly emerge other than by gradual and silent encroachments. Like the tyranny referred to in a New York Times editorial, it "can come silently, slowly, like fog creeping in 'on little cat feet.'" Many of the most important changes would be subtle shifts imperceptible to the majority of the population. Even those most alert to the dangers would be able to see clearly, and document neatly, only a few of these changes. Indeed, some important social and economic innovations in manipulation or exploitation (coming in response to liberal or radical demands) might well be hailed as "progress." In other cases, dramatic exposure, attack, and hullabaloo could have smokescreen consequences, blurring and. sidetracking any effort to uncover root evils.

Hence I deliberately avoid the high-charged attention-attracting drama of predicting the decade, year or circumstances of a sudden seizure of power by the friendly fascists. Like Oliver Wendell Holmes, I have almost no faith in sudden ruin." Although friendly fascism would mean total ruin of the American dream, it could hardly come suddenly— let alone in any precisely predictable year. This is one of the reasons I cannot go along with the old-fashioned Marxist picture of capitalism or imperialism dropping the fig leaf or the mask. This imagery suggests a process not much longer than a striptease. It reinforces the apocalyptic vision of a quick collapse of capitalist democracy—whether "not with a bang but a whimper," as T. S. Eliot put it, or with "dancing to a frenzied drum" as in the words of William Butler Yeats. In my judgment, rather, one of the greatest dangers is the slow process through which friendly fascism would come into being. For a large part of the population the changes would be unnoticed. Even those most alive to the danger may see only part of the picture—until it is too late. For most people, as with historians and social scientists, 20-20 vision on fundamental change comes only with hindsight. And by that time, with the evidence at last clearly visible, the new serfdom might have long since arrived.


When the experts of the Rand Corporation or the Hudson Institute prepare step-by-step scripts for future events, the effect is to heighten the drama—and perhaps the saleability—of their work. But the single-track scenario is a highly misleading device. It violently oversimplifies the immense complexity of historical change. It obscures the vast possibilities for accident, spontaneity, and the unpredictable conjuncture of simultaneous action on many apparently different fronts. The logic of events cannot be explained by any simple-minded syllogism or simplistic assumption of unified action along one clear path.

It would be easier to grasp the unfolding logic of modern capitalism if the most powerful leaders in capitalist society could readily agree on the flight plan toward a still more perfect capitalism. As it is, the major navigators are in constant dispute among themselves about both the direction and speed of flight, while their most redoubtable experts prove their expertise by nitpicking at each other on an infinity of potentially significant details. Besides, with weather conditions often turbulent and changing, forward motion sometimes creates more turbulence, and these are situations in which delays or even crashes may occur. Thus, in the’ movement toward friendly fascism, any sudden forward thrust at one level could be followed by a consolidating pause or temporary withdrawal at another level. Every step toward greater repression might be accompanied by some superficial reform, every expansionist step abroad by some new payoff at home, every well-publicized shocker (like the massacres at Jackson State, Kent State, and Attica, the Watergate scandals or the revelations of illegal deals by the FBI or CIA) by other steps of less visibility but equal or possibly greater significance, such as large welfare payments to multinational banks and industrial conglomerates. At all stages the fundamental directions of change would be obscured by a series of Hobson’s choices, of public issues defined in terms of clear-cut crossroads—one leading to the frying pan and the other to the fire. Opportunities would thus be provided for learned debate and earnest conflict over the choice among alternative roads to serfdom. The unifying element in this unfolding logic is the capital-accumulation imperative of the world’s leading capitalist forces, creatively adjusted to meet the challenges of the many crises I have outlined. This is quite different from the catch-up imperatives of the Italian, German, and Japanese leaders after World War I. Nor would its working out necessarily require a charismatic dictator, one-party rule, glorification of the State, dissolution of legislatures, termination of multiparty elections, ultra— rationalism, or attacks on rationality.

As illustrated in the following oversimplified outline, which also points up the difference between classic fascism and friendly fascism, the following eight chapters summarize the many levels of change at which the trends toward friendly fascism are already visible.

Despite the sharp differences from classic fascism, there are also some basic similarities. In each, a powerful oligarchy operates outside of, as well as through, the state. Each subverts constitutional government. Each stresses rising demands for wider participation in decision making, the enforcement and enlargement of human rights, and genuine democracy. Each uses informational control and ideological flimflam to get lower- and middle-class support for plans to expand the capital and power of thee oligarchy and provide suitable rewards for political, professional, scientific, and cultural supporters.

A major difference is that under friendly fascism Big Government would do less pillaging of, and more pillaging for, Big Business. With much more integration than ever before among transnational corporations, Big Business would run less risk of control by any one state and enjoy more subservience by many states. In turn, stronger government support of transnational corporations, such as the large group of American companies with major holdings in South Africa, requires the active fostering of all latent conflicts among those segments of the American population that may object to this kind of foreign venture. It requires an Establishment with lower levels so extensive that few people or groups can attain significant power outside it, so flexible that many (perhaps most) dissenters and would-be revolutionaries can be incorporated within it. Above all, friendly fascism in any First World country today would use sophisticated control technologies far beyond the ken of the classic fascists.

While the term "friendly" is useful (indeed invaluable) in distinguishing between the old-fashioned and the modern forms of repressive Big Business-Big Government partnerships, the word should not be stretched too far. The total picture provided by the following eight chapters may be thought of as a cinematic holograph of horror—all the more horrifying if the reader finds himself or herself entranced, if not captured, by its compelling logic.

Despite my emphasis on the United States, this unfolding logic is not strictly American. It may be discerned in the other "Trilateral" countries (Canada, Western Europe, and Japan) and in the closely related capitalist societies of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel. In all the more developed capitalist societies, corporate oligarchies tend to transcend the nation-state, while in the less developed ones—often with the rhetoric of socialism—State control plays a more decisive role in fostering the growth of big capital and its entry into the larger world of the Golden International. Moreover, the emergence of neofascism in the First World will often continue to be blurred by denunciation of old-style autocracies and military dictatorships as "fascist" in accordance with the colloquial identification of fascism with simple brutality or oppression. Often, the germ of truth in such denunciations is that under dependent fascism old-style dictatorship may often serve to nurture the growth of big capital. On the other hand, when genuine neofascism emerges it may re associated with a relaxation of crude terror and the maturation of ore sophisticated, effective, and ruthless controls.

A major factor, of course, is the historic pattern of relationships within the big-business community and between big business and government. Thus, in Japan, the logic of oligarchic integration in response to economic adversity is much more compelling and feasible than in the United States—so much so that many American business leaders look longingly at the pattern of what they like to call "Japan, Inc." On the other hand, it is distinctly possible that the Japanese may plunge far ahead of the Americans in the creation of a tighter power structure. In Japan, Business Week has reported, "vast empires are growing, embracing scores of companies in a dozen or more businesses, each company nominally independent, but with increasingly centralized management, and often bound together by ties that go back a century to the original zaibatsu. . . All the groups are drawing more tightly together today in the face of economic diversity—consolidating resources and integrating management." Similar tendencies may also be found in Germany; there the resurgence of Nazi-style parties, fashions, and cults must also be taken into consideration. The United States, in turn, may outpace all the others in exploiting ethnic conflicts and organized disorder. Also, big capital in America, already more transnational than the Japanese, has a flying head start in making the leap towards an international capitalist Establishment with dc-Americanized Americans as the first among the senior partners. This possibility is underscored by the Americans’ low-key leadership through the Trilateral Commission in articulating—as Richard Falk has put it—the "general recognition by the elites in the most powerful states that there is an emergent crisis of unprecedented proportions that involves, in particular, the capacity of capitalism to adapt to the future." Americans on the commission have vigorously insisted "that national governments are not necessarily capable on their own of working out the adaptations that are necessary to sustain the existing elites in power in these three centers of global wealth." Thus, as Falk has explained, the Trilateral Commission operates "as a geo-economic search for a managerial formula that will keep this concentration of wealth intact, given its nonterritorial character and in the light of the multiple challenges to it."

As an American traces the many paths to friendly fascism, he or she may find—as Theodore Draper did in commenting on my first article on the subject many years ago—an "uncanny resemblance to present-day America." Those from Canada, Japan or Western Europe may find distressing similarities with their own countries. The reason is that I offer facts on a present "in which already walks tomorrow" and judgments concerning a possible future clearly suggested by present trends.

In so doing, I may have underestimated the evils of friendly fascism and overstated the present facts and tendencies relating to America’s world orientation, establishment, informational management, rewards and punishments, and modes of system maintenance. These are empirical questions; I stand ready to be corrected by any superior presentation of the indicators. Also subject to an empirical challenge is my analysis in the following eight chapters of the various paths toward repression and exploitation by a new corporate society. Speculation and conjecture have their place, of course, and I have used both. But so do informed judgments on demonstrable—albeit controversial—indicators and trends. I should be more than delighted if someone can demonstrate that there is little or no motion along any or most of the paths through which I trace the unfolding logic of friendly fascism.

Democracy Library