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
Uncle Sam on the Family Farm: Farm Policy and the Business of Southern Agriculture, 1933-1965
by Elizabeth Kathleen Brake
Whose Side Is the American Farm Bureau On?
by Ian T. Shearn
The Impact of Globalization on Family Farm Agriculture
by Bill Christison