Fascism, Corporatism, and Big Ag

For a number of years, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around fascism and corporatism. The latter is but one part of the former, although sometimes they are used interchangeably. Corporatism was central to fascism, a defining feature.

Corporatism didn’t originate with fascism, though. It has a long history that became well developed under feudalism. In centuries past, corporations were never conflated with private businesses. Instead, corporations were entities of the state government and served the interests of the state. Corporatism, as such, was an entire society based on this.

The slave plantation South is an example of a corporatist society. This is the basis of the argument made by Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. They connected corporatism to traditional conservatism, as opposed to the individualistic liberalism of capitalism. Like in fascism, this slave plantation corporatism was a rigid social order with social roles clearly defined. It’s a mostly forgotten strain of American conservatism that once was powerful.

In fascist regimes, corporatism was used to organize society and the economy by way of the government’s role of linking labor and industry—similar to slavery, it was “designed to minimize class antagonisms” (Genovese & Fox-Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class, p. 668). In its initial phases, industrial corporations gained immense power and wealth, as managerial efficiency becomes the dominant priority, centralized planning combined with private ownership.

Fascism is a counterrevolutionary expression of reactionary conservatism. As Corey Robin explains, the political right worldview (fascist and otherwise) has a particular talent of borrowing, both from the left and from the past. It just as easily borrows elements from pre-modern corporatism as it does from modern socialism and capitalism. It’s a mishmash, unconcerned by principled consistency and ideological coherence. This makes it highly adaptable and potentially hard to detect.

This relates to how the right-wing in the US transformed corporatism into an element of capitalism. The slave plantation south was central to this process, combining elements of pre-capitalism with capitalism. Slave owners like Thomas Jefferson were increasingly moving toward industrialized capitalism. Before the Civil War, many plantations were being industrialized and many slaves were leased out to work in Southern factories.

Looking for fascism or elements of fascism in American society requires careful observation and analysis. It won’t manifest in the way it did in early 20th century Europe. Capitalists have been much more independent in the US, at times leading to their having more power over government than the other way around. It’s less clear in a country like this which direction power runs, either as fascism or inverted totalitarianism. Either way, the economic system is centrally important for social control.

Yet capitalist rhetoric in the US so often speaks of a mistrust of government. Some history would be helpful. Consider again the example of the South. In Democracy and Trust, Mark E. Warren writes that,

The Southern herrenvolk democracy thrived on slavery and after the Reconstruction remained “mired in the defense of a totally segregated society” (Black and Black 1987: 75). It shared with the Northern elite a suspicion of majority rule and mass participation. It continued to use collective systems of mutual trust both to provide political solidarity and to divide and discourage participation in the political system. But it differed radically from its Northern conservative counterpart in its lack of hostility to the state and governmental authorities. What the South loathed was, and remains, not big government but centralized, federal government On the state and city levels, elites see politics as a means of exercising power, not something to be shunned. (pp. 166-7)

I would correct one thing. Southerners were never against centralized, federal government. In fact, until the mid 1800s, the Southern elite dominated the federal goverment. It was their using the federal government to enforce slave laws onto the rest of the country that led to growing conflict that turned into a civil war. What Southerners couldn’t abide was a centralized, federal government that had come under the sway of the growing industry and population of the North.

The Southern elite loved big government so much that they constantly looked toward expanding the politics and economics of slavery. It’s why Southerners transported so many slaves Westward (see Bound Away by Fischer & Kelly) and why they had their eyes on Mexico and Cuba.

Slaveholders even went as far as California during the 1849 gold rush and they brought their slaves with them. California became technically a free state, although slavery persisted. Later on, Civil War conflict arose on the West Coat, but open battle was avoided. Interestingly, the conflict in California also fell along a North-South divide, with the southern Californians seeking secession from northern California even before the Civil War.

Southern California saw further waves of Southerners. Besides earlier transplanted Southerners, this included the so-called Okies of the Dust Bowl looking for agricultural work and the post-war laborers looking for employment in the defense industry. A Southern-influenced culture became well-established in Southern California. This was a highly religious population that eventually would lead to the phenomenon of mega-churches, televangelists, and the culture wars. It also helped shape a particular kind of highly profitable big ag with much power and influence. Kathryn Olmsted, from Right Out of California, wrote that,

These growers were not angry at the New Deal because they hated big government. Unlike Eastern conservatives, Western businessmen were not libertarians who opposed most forms of government intervention in the economy. Agribusiness relied on the government to survive and prosper: it needed price supports for stability, government dams and canals for irrigation, and state university research for crop improvements. These business leaders not only acknowledged but demanded a large role for government in the economy.

By focusing on Western agribusiness, we can see that the New Right was no neoliberal revolt against the dead hand of government intervention. Instead, twentieth-century conservatism was a reaction to the changes in the ways that government was intervening in the economy— in short, a shift from helping big business to creating a level playing field for workers. Even Ronald Reagan, despite his mythical image as a cowboy identified with the frontier, was not really a small-government conservative but a corporate conservative. 110 Reagan’s revolution did not end government intervention in the economy: it only made the government more responsive to the Americans with the most wealth and power. (Kindle Locations 4621-4630)

This Californian political force is what shaped a new generation of right-wing Republicans. Richard Nixon was born and raised in the reactionary heart of Southern California. It was where the Southern Strategy was developed that Nixon would help push onto the national scene. Nixon set the stage for the likes of Ronald Reagan, which helped extend this new conservatism beyond the confines of big ag, as Reagan had become a corporate spokesperson before getting into politics.

The origins of this California big ag is important and unique. Unlike Midwestern farming, that of California more quickly concentrated land ownership and so concentrated wealth and power. Plus, it was highly dependent on infrastructure funded, built, and maintained by big government. It should be noted that big ag was among the major recipients of New Deal farm subsidies. Their complaints about the New Deal was that it gave farm laborers some basic rights, although the New Deal kept the deck stacked in big ag’s favor. Early 20th century Californian big ag is one of the clearest examples of overt fascism in US history.

The conservative elite in California responded to the New Deal similar to how the conservative elite in the South responded to Reconstruction. It led to a backlash where immense power was wielded at the state level. As Olmsted makes clear,

employers could use state and local governments to limit the reach of federal labor reforms. Carey McWilliams and Herbert Klein wrote in The Nation that California had moved from “sporadic vigilante activity to controlled fascism, from the clumsy violence of drunken farmers to the calculated maneuvers of an economic-militaristic machine.” No longer would employers need to rely on hired thugs to smash strikes. Instead, they could trust local prosecutors to brand union leaders as “criminal syndicalists” and then send them to prison. McWilliams and Klein suggested that this antiunion alliance between big business and the courts was similar to the state-business partnership in Hitler’s Germany. 104

But these growers and their supporters were not European-style fascists; they were the forerunners of a new, distinctly American movement. (Kindle Locations 4134-4141)

Still, it was fascism. In The Harvest Gypsies, John Steinbeck wrote that, “Fascistic methods are more numerous, more powerfully applied and more openly practiced in California than any other place in the United States.”

The development of big ag in California was different, at least initially. But everything across the country was moving toward greater concentration. It wasn’t just California. Organizations like the Farm Bureau in other parts of the country became central. As in California, it set farmers against labor, as organized labor in demanding basic rights came to be perceived as radical. Richard McIntyre, in his essay “Labor Militance and the New Deal” from When Government Helped, he writes that, “Groups representing farmers outside the South, such as the Farm Bureau, also supported Taft-Hartley because they saw strikes and secondary boycotts as limiting their ability to get crops to market. The split between labor and various kinds of farmers allowed capitalists to heal their divisions” (p. 133).

It was also a division among farmers themselves, as there had also been agricultural traditions of left-wing politics and populist reform. “From its beginning in Indiana the Farm Bureau made it clear that the organization was composed of respectable members of the farming community and that it was not a bunch of radicals or troublemakers” (Barbara J. Steinson, Rural Life in Indiana, 1800–1950). By respectable, this meant that the haves got more and the have-nots lost what little they had.

Even though big ag took a different route in regions like the Midwest, the end results were similar in the increasing concentration of land and wealth, which is to say the end of the small family farm. This was happening all over, such as in the South: “These ideals emphasized industrialized, commercial farming by ever-larger farms and excluded many smaller farms from receiving the full benefit of federal farm aid. The resulting programs, by design, contributed significantly to the contraction of the farm population and the concentration of farm assets in the Carolinas” (Elizabeth Kathleen Brake, Uncle Sam on the Family Farm).

This country was built on farming. It’s the best farmland in the world. That means vast wealth. Big ag lobbyists have a lot of pull in the federal government. That is why fascism in this country early on found its footing in this sector of the economy, rather than with industry. Over time, corporatism has come to dominate the entire economy, and the locus of power has shifted to the financial sector. Agriculture, like other markets, have become heavily tied to those who control the flow of money. The middle class, through 401(k)s, also have become tied to financial markets.

Corporatism no longer means what it once did. In earlier European fascism, it was dependent on organizational society. That was at a time when civic organizations, labor unions, etc shaped all of life. We no longer live in that kind of world.

Because of this, new forms of authoritarianism don’t require as overt methods of social control. It becomes ever more difficult for the average person to see what is happening and why. More and more people are caught up in a vicious economy, facing poverty and debt, maybe homelessness or incarceration. The large landowner or industrialist won’t likely send out goons to beat you up. There are no Nazi Brownshirts marching in the street. There is no enemy to fight or resist, just a sense of the everything getting worse all around you.

Yet some have begun to grasp the significance of decentralization. Unsurprisingly, a larger focus has been on the source of food, such as the locally grown movement. Raising one’s own food is key in seeking economic and political independence. Old forms of the yeoman farmer may be a thing of the past, but poor communities have begun to turn to community gardens and the younger generation has become interested in making small farming viable again. It was technology with the force of the state behind it that allowed centralization. A new wave of ever more advanced and cheaper technology is making greater decentralization possible.

Those with power, though, won’t give it up easily.

* * *

American Fascism and the New Deal: The Associated Farmers of California and the Pro-Industrial Movement
by Nelson A. Pichardo Almanzar and Brian W. Kulik

Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism
by Kathryn S. Olmsted

From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century
by Alex Gourevitch

Developing the Country: “Scientific Agriculture” and the Roots of the Republican Party
by Ariel Ron

Scientific Agriculture and the Agricultural State Farmers, Capitalism, and Government in the Late Nineteenth Century
by Ariel Ron

Uncle Sam on the Family Farm: Farm Policy and the Business of Southern Agriculture, 1933-1965
by Elizabeth Kathleen Brake

A Progressive Rancher Opposes the New Deal: Dan Casement, Eugenics, and Republican Virtue
by Daniel T. Gresham

Whose Side Is the American Farm Bureau On?
by Ian T. Shearn

Farm Bureau Works Against Small Family Farm ‘Hostages’
Letter to FFC from one member of the Farm Bureau who operates a family farm.

by jcivitas

The Impact of Globalization on Family Farm Agriculture
by Bill Christison

23 thoughts on “Fascism, Corporatism, and Big Ag

  1. Would you say the US still has the best farmland in the world?

    Also, I remember reading that people like Herny Ford were pro fascist, and even thought we were on the wrong side of war during ww2. Why did the US end up helping the Soviets? I view the US more in line with that type of fascism then what the Bolsheviks offered. Didn’t the Nazis copy US propaganda even?

    • As far as I know, it’s still the best soil in the world. The best farmland, however, also has to do with climate and weather patterns, such as precipitation.

      Climate change could entirely alter the location of the best farming regions. Canada also has some good farming land and climate change could make it more optimal for high yields. Some have speculated that climate change might have a positive impact on Russian farmland.

      There were many pro-fascists. It wasn’t just industrial and agricultural capitalists. A number of key government officials were also pro-fascists. A famous example being the Dulles brothers who helped establish the fascist tendencies in the US government and protected Nazi war criminals by bringing them to work for the US government.

      The US allied with the Soviets simply because they had a common enemy. The US government had nothing against the Nazis being fascist, killing Jews, or any such thing. The Nazis got much of their ideology from Americans (and the British), after all. Fascists learned much from Anglo-American eugenics and industry.

      It’s just that the Soviets never were as aggressively expansionist as were the Nazis, even at the height of the USSR. Hitler wanted to succeed where Napoleon failed. The US and Britain wanted to maintain their power and influence in the world. The Nazis were a direct threat to that. The only country that had the ability and motivation to stop the Nazis in their tracks was the Soviets.

      • Do you think at the time the US, UK and France could of stopped the Nazis? Some have said that the Soviets saved the world. (at least from nazism) Do you agree with that?

        • If the US, UK and France had taken the Nazi threat seriously enough and early enough, and if they had the defended against the first acts of aggression, the Nazis could have been contained before they became a problem.

          The US might not have entered the war at all or at least not until was too late, if not for the Japanese attack. I agree that, without the Soviets, the Nazis had a high probability of winning. Or if not winning, they could have taken over much more territory and caused much more decimation across Europe and beyond.

          The Soviets had a massive population and massive territory. The Nazi military smashed against the Soviets like a plane flying into a mountain. The mountain remained unmoved. The Soviets absorbed the attack in the way few countries could.

    • No matter what kind of country it is, the one thing that should always be prioritized is infrastructure. There authoritarian countries like Nazi Germany in the past or like China and Singapore today. There are also non-authoritarian countries like Japan and those in Scandinavia. What they all share is large investments in infrastructure. There was a brief period after WWII when the US also built a lot of infrastructure. It has to be done well if it is going to lead to sustainable growth, but there is no way to have any kind of growth in a society without infrastructure.

    • The sad thing is that the Flint may not be an isolated case. It seems that multiple cities in the US have lead in their water supplies.

      • Infrastructure in general has been neglected in the US. This is even more true for poor communities.

        There is a silver lining to this cloud, though. Lead is correlated to lower IQ, ADHD, learning disabilities, impulse control issues, aggressive behavior, and violent crime. That is a lot of problems for a single causal factor.

        If we do some simple improvements to the water supply, the improvements across all populations will be vast. There have been studies that have measured the costs across a lifetime for each IQ point lost. We could transform our society by solving simple problems.

      • I do not believe that the Republicans nor the rich (including many Establishment Democrats) would be willing to invest the necessary funds in infrastructure.

        I’m worried that if lead is discovered that large numbers of people may simply get apathetic rather than angry.

        • The plutocracy won’t do anything willing. But conditions will change. The status quo isn’t sustainable. The plutocracy either relents to allowing genuine reforms or they face far worse consequences.

          It’s either that societies invest in more sustainable infrastructure and other investments in the public good or they will likely collapse. Times are going to get tough in the future and those times will favor the prepared. There is no better form of preparation than infrastructure.

          People do get apathetic. But at some point outrage simply explodes. Even apathy can only last so long.

  2. Unfortunately, collapse is a very real danger.

    Ancient Rome comes to mind, as do a few other societies. Apart from the plague, I have no doubt that the wealthiest played a huge role in Rome’s decline.

    The question at this point is whether a change will come in the form of a reformist like Sanders, or a Fascist?

    • That relates to a number of things. Certain areas of cost of living have become more expensive. Housing is one of them. It’s more expensive to be poor than in the past. And, with rising college costs, it’s more expensive to try to escape poverty than in the past.

      There is also stagnating wages. But for the lower classes, real income has actually been dropping for decades.


      “Incomes at the upper echelons of the American earnings distribution have surged in recent years, while incomes for the vast majority have stagnated. Data from US economist Robert Gordon’s recent book The Rise and Fall of American Growth actually show that real incomes have slightly decreased between 1972 and 2013 for the bottom 90% of US workers.”

      Trump’s supporters are the disgruntled former middle class. Many of the people who once were solidly middle class are now perceived as working class. It’s not just an issue of how one is labeled. It involves real economic issues. Downward mobility is becoming more common.

      • “Trump’s supporters are the disgruntled former middle class. Many of the people who once were solidly middle class are now perceived as working class. It’s not just an issue of how one is labeled. It involves real economic issues. Downward mobility is becoming more common.”

        Is this because the noeliberal world order is collapsing or simply because more money is going into fewer pockets?
        I’ve read various articles that have suggested both scenarios.

        • I’m not sure the neoliberal order is collapsing. It won’t last forever, of course. It’s definitely showing signs of weakening or else turning into something else. The growing corporatism is possibly a sign of a new form of fascism that might be hard to recognize, compared to the older forms.

          As for inequality of wealth, that is inseparable from inequality of everything else: power and influence, opportunities and resources, etc. Inequality is just a measurement. The issue is what exactly is it measuring.

  3. The reality is that the rich have let the nation down by their own greed.

    That’s one reason why I cannot support Clinton – it would be a validation of all that is wrong with society simply because she is the “lesser” evil.

    I don’t think that the Green Party has any miracles, but at least they seem to be for the people. Same with Bernie. I don’t think that the political elites realize that it is not about Bernie. If he steps down and another Progressive comes along or on the right, another charismatic leader comes along, the same thing will happen.

    Only anger will be deeper in a few years after more Establishment mismanagement.

    • I’m nearly at the point of giving up on presidential elections. I’ve known they were rigged for a long time. Yet everything about this campaign season has been worse than I’ve seen in my lifetime. I can’t in good conscience participate in such corruption. I hope that changes some day, but I don’t see it happening.

    • Yeah it has been quite an eye opener. I suspect that the Democratic Establishment would rather lose tha abandon the corporate money. Then no doubt they would try to use Sanders supporters and Sanders himself as a scapegoat.

      The thing is, more people have woken up, and in enough numbers perhaps to make a difference.

      Certainly amongst my generation, the sheer volume of Sanders supporters is a cause of hope.

      Some good may come out of this. The trust of Generation Y in the mainstream media and in the Democratic Establishment has certainly taken a decline.

      • Almost all change is generational change. That is because individuals don’t change much over their lifetime. It’s just enough people of one worldview die and enough people of another worldview come along to replace them. This probably has been a major factor in every large-scale societal change that has happened in history.

        • Could this change in the Internet era though? I remember reading and article you did that did awhile back that said that this generation is smarter then say, how americans were 100 years ago. Do you not think education has and effect on people’s worldviews?

          In todays social media world, it’s so much easier to get different worldviews on things. Look back at how it was in 2000. It was really the people that read books that were getting differing opinion. Nowadays with youtube and facebook it’s much easier to find differing opinions on things.

          • Changes do happen more quickly than they did in the past. It used to be that what came before had to entirely be lost to living memory. The dynamic of change is different now. But it still is largely generational. Education and such does matter. It just only has a major impact for most people early in their life. It’s anyone’s guess what impact that the internet might have. I don’t doubt it’s a game changer, whatever that might mean.

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