WHAT IS FASCISM?
1. Define the enemy and brutalize it.
It is often said that fascist regimes require a charismatic leader with a knack for whipping up popular support and mobilizing nationalist aggression. But this is not always the case. Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was a stolid, distant figure whose voice was never even heard on the radio until he announced his country’s surrender in 1945. Yet the mere appeal of his name was enough to engineer the deaths of 15-20 million Chinese civilians. This mass murder was accomplished not just by means of the usual scorched-earth campaigns and attendant famine and disease, but a great deal of direct slaughter: shooting people in pits, or roping together a dozen at a time and burning them alive with kerosene or gasoline. Something else was going on, which we shall attempt to examine below, to effect the kind of blind obedience that made Japanese farm boys and upright gentlemen with a taste for haiku and flower arrangement (which they were observed fiddling with in their barracks) alike gleefully rape pregnant women and disembowel them with their bayonets (Harmsen, Nanjing and Shanghai).
Japan’s convenient excuse at the time for the Nanjing atrocities of 1937, not to mention its much broader devastation of eastern China’s cities, towns and villages, was that they “lost control of the army.” But much of the depravity was issued down from commands on high. Hal Gold’s Japan’s Infamous Unit 731: Firsthand Accounts of Japan’s Wartime Human Experimentation Program (which makes for as difficult reading as Vivien Spitz’s Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans) recounts how for fourteen years beginning in 1932, a year after Japan’s occupation of Manchuria, Chinese citizens were randomly seized, sent to secret medical experimentation centers (the flagship site near Harbin in Heilongjiang Province included crematoria) and dissected alive on the vivisection table, forced to have sex with each other after being injected with syphilis, tied to stakes and blasted with various germs including the bubonic plague, and many other vile experiments. The expertise gained was used to drop a plague-outfitted ceramic bomb on Ningbo in October 1940 (among other bacteriological attacks); hundreds died but quick action by the city in isolating the affected zone prevented a wider outbreak. Emperor Hirohito approved of chemical and biological warfare and signed off at least 375 times on toxic gas attacks in China (Gold).
The Germans matched, indeed exceeded the barbarism of the Japanese, being responsible for a comparable number of civilian deaths in Poland and the Soviet Union, some 20 million (a figure including most of the six million Jewish Holocaust victims). But the Nazis had an even more ambitious goal in the Hunger Plan, formulated in early 1941; by encircling large territories and cutting off food supplies they would have deliberately starved to death an estimated 20-30 million Russians and Ukrainians (Stargardt). The plan was disrupted as the Wehrmacht got bogged down in Operation Barbarossa later that year and far fewer died than intended, though of course many millions of Poles, Slavs and Jews were murdered by other means. Shooting people into pits was the dominant method in the early years of the war. As many as ten to twenty thousand per day could be shot at a single killing site, but it was found to be exhausting and traumatizing for the shooters. More effective means were constantly experimented with, including dynamiting groups of people, a method also found to be inefficient (Mayer). One solution was to redirect carbon monoxide fumes into the vans ferrying victims to the killing sites and simply dump the lifeless bodies into the pits. More creatively yet, in October 1941 in Konin, Poland, eight thousand Jews were thrown naked into pits filled with quicklime and melted alive; by the following morning all except the victims’ heads had dissolved, their faces still frozen in screams (Rhodes). Eventually, of course, the mass murder was sped up in the gas chambers and crematoria of the extermination camps, accounting for another three million victims.
The insistent question is how ordinary soldiers could be compelled to participate in the gratuitous, cold-blooded slaughter of civilians — and that of defenseless troops as well. The Japanese army took few prisoners of war, and many of those it did were worked to death or succumbed to starvation and disease; for the most part captured Chinese troops were killed outright. Germany made a pretense of protecting Soviet POWs but several million of them were starved to death in the concentration camps anyway. The comprehensive slaughter of the enemy was always warfare’s operating principle. Julius Caesar routinely had all captured troops put the sword, matter-of-factly recounted in his Gallic Wars. Rape and pillage in which civilians were seen as the victors’ prize was likewise a timeworn practice, as was the scorched-earth campaigns of the Thirty Years Wars in Europe (1618-48) and the even more destructive Taiping Civil War in China (1850-64), the latter resulting in the deaths of tens of millions. Civilians were long disregarded in the military calculus as being of any significance, morally or otherwise. In modern times, fascism operates as if it were still immersed in this past, when war was glorious for its own sake. It happily dispenses with such ethical encumbrances as the Geneva Conventions and relishes in the spirit of total war. As Hitler oft retorted whenever any of his generals hesitated to pull out all the stops, “There is no room for sentimentality here.”
Of course, widespread civilian destruction is reserved as a last resort by all modern armies, to brutalize and break the population psychologically and make the enemy cave in, as in the Allied carpet bombing of Germany and the Americans’ flattening of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII. But the fascist state does the same proactively rather than reactively. While the U.S. military, in its pointless and catastrophic war on Indochina, came to understand the importance of not alienating civilians in the South Vietnamese countryside to avoid pushing them into the hands of the Vietcong, it nonetheless indiscriminately bombed both North and South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, resulting in one to two million civilian deaths — the largest aerial bombardment in history (J. Gibson). Included in this devastation was hundreds of thousands of tons of napalm — gelled gasoline — dropped on military and civilian targets alike, and the four million Vietnamese exposed to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, disabling or rendering gravely ill a quarter of them. To confuse the public, fascist states typically pay lip service in their propaganda to acting only in the interests of defense and peace. Hitler regularly claimed the Germans were only protecting themselves against the worldwide Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy and acted dismayed when the Western powers declined to join him in his invasion of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. similarly banked on the bogeyman of Communism in its war of aggression against Indochina.
In order to turn an army into an effective fighting machine, obedience needs to be hammered into the troops down to the last man. For those who might contemplate wavering, they know they have no choice: you cooperate in killing because refusing to do so could result in your own immediate execution for insubordination. However, what needs stressing is that not all soldiers are reluctant to kill. Many do so willingly, and this wrath is vented on enemy civilians as enthusiastically as it is on enemy troops. To explain this we need to delve into a more intractable kind of obedience, operating on a deep psychological level and instilled from an early age through a powerful indoctrination process, requiring a crushing and molding of the immature ego in the name of group conformity. Once thus reshaped, individuals can be turned into sadists without their having much conscious comprehension of the process.
Central to this process is dehumanization. Before an enemy can be brutalized, it must be defined and identified, made vivid, threatening and larger than life, yet less than human. Dehumanization renders the enemy unique, separate, and therefore expendable. It’s easier to compartmentalize and rationalize the act of killing if one believes that what one is killing is not really human. It also helps if the enemy is physically and recognizably distinct, of a different race. This highlights the fact that fascism is undergirded by racism. Thus the yellow race of Vietnamese “gooks” served as a convenient enemy for the American military. For the German and Japanese fascists, “race” was a bit more problematic. Where the enemy was not racially distinct in a physical sense, it was simply declared to be so. The Japanese inculcated the absurd notion among its citizenry that they were racially superior to the Chinese. There are subtle facial markers which do distinguish the Japanese from the Koreans and the Chinese, southern Chinese from northern Chinese, etc., but East Asians as a whole are as often as not indistinguishable from one another. Russians and Poles are in no meaningful sense physically distinct from the Germans, yet by positing an imaginary “Aryan” race, the Germans convinced themselves they were superior to the brute-like Slavs on the one hand and the wily and cunning Jews on the other, both classed as “Untermenschen” — subhumans. It is telling that when a nation turns against its own people, the Other is effectively racialized and physical or hereditary distinctions created where they never existed. Being a mere descendent of a landlord branded one a landlord in early Communist China. Landlords were also dehumanized by being depicted in the media as stunted, stoop-shouldered, and (like the Japanese and American enemies) mustached, all signifiers of wickedness. This made it easier to unleash the peasantry on many innocent people, resulting in two to three million deaths by Mao Zedong’s own estimate.
If you still find it inexplicable that ordinary people can be brainwashed into believing in an enemy — a less-than-human and expendable enemy deserving of righteous murder — consider yourself lucky that your indoctrination failed.
2. Prioritize rage over rationality.
In Philip K. Dick’s alternate-history novel The Man in the High Castle, Germany and Japan defeat the Allies in WWII and divide up the United States between them. The fascinating premise resulted in one of the author’s most popular works, yet the book is burdened by a central limitation — its modest length. Whereas most of Dick’s novels present tightly structured, self-contained worlds, here he was working on a canvas too broad to be contained in its 200-plus pages. The multiple locations, characters and background contexts could be no more than limned, and the resulting gaps were begging to be filled in. Amazon Studios found the concept fecund enough to come to the rescue and flesh out Dick’s broad brush strokes into a magnificent four-season (40-episode) eponymously named TV series (2015-19). Creator Frank Spotnitz inserted new plot lines, and devices drawn from Dick’s own oeuvre (parallel realities, time slips), while staying true to the overarching narrative. No expense was spared in recreating a visually imposing Nazi and Japanese-occupied America as the triumphant fascists might have run it, once the troublesome war was out of the way and the superfluous Jewish and African Untermenschen dispatched. There are indelible images: the smart black SS uniforms (in high-definition Blu-ray), the melting down of the Liberty Bell into a shiny copper swastika, the blowing up of the Statue of Liberty, Albert Speer’s once-stalled plans for his Grand Dome (dwarfing in size the U.S. Capitol) now rising awesomely over Berlin, the proud Reichsführer Himmler assuming the helm after Hitler’s death in 1962 when the story is set (and the year the novel was published), and the like.
Dick’s speculative novel provides much food for thought. I have a contrary thesis: a German or Japanese victory in WWII would have been impossible even under the best of conditions, given the inherently self-destructive and entropic nature of fascism. Fascism is predicated on and fueled by rage. Its very basis is unstable and unsustainable. Just as capitalism requires constant economic accumulation and expansion to avoid collapsing in on itself, so fascism requires constant territorial expansion, and it is precisely this that drives its military adventures into the ground. There is no such thing as a calm, cool, collected fascism, capable of righting itself and achieving long-term stability or equilibrium. As huge and necessary as the combined effort of the Allies and the Soviet Union against the Nazi juggernaut was, it’s arguable the Germans lost the war even before they began it, by building up armed forces designed for blitzkrieg rather than protracted war. Fresh off their conquest of France, so confident were the Germans of being able to subdue the Bolsheviks that they failed to make even minimal provisions for winter warfare in Operation Barbarossa, launched in June 1941 and expected to be completed before the summer was over. As a result of this folly, by December, bogged down outside of Moscow, some one million German troops would perish by either arms or, dressed in rags in subzero temperatures, exposure (Shirer). The Japanese army likewise overextended itself in fighting on two fronts — China and the Pacific War. But even before that, in 1937, some Japanese military advisers had warned their top brass not to proceed on to Nanjing after conquering Shanghai. As they predicted, the Jiangsu Province campaign, like the Nazi’s Moscow campaign, turned into a costly diversion that eventually drained and stalemated their forces in eastern China, at the cost of millions of casualties on both sides (Harmsen).
The dilemma of aggression versus realism was to repeat itself in the European theater over the next several years as the Germans continued to lose ground against the Soviets and their shortages in manpower and materiel grew more acute. The horrific limbo of the Lodz ghetto illustrates this nexus of ambivalence. After the Nazi takeover of Poland in 1939, the remaining Jews of Lodz deemed healthy enough to work and hence spared immediate execution were forced into the city’s Jewish ghetto. By mid 1942, they had been reduced to 70,000, a third of their original population, and were manufacturing clothing on a starvation diet for the German army’s upcoming second campaign on the Eastern front. Already the “pragmatist” faction among the Nazi leadership were warning that the Lodz Jews were too weak to work and were dying of illness and malnutrition at a rate of several thousand per month, which was to rise to almost 5,000 per month by September, at the height of the battle for Stalingrad. Nevertheless, despite the Wehrmacht’s desperate need for clothing and supplies which were being provided at the time largely by the Jews in the Lodz and other Polish ghettos, the “exterminist” faction prevailed and swayed a vacillating Heinrich Himmler, who in June 1944 finally ordered the remaining Polish Jews sent to death camps, when the Soviet advance toward Germany narrowed the Nazis’ priorities (Mayer). Only 877 Jews were found alive in Lodz by the Red Army in January 1945. When we note that Himmler was wavering, this was not of course out of any moral concern over the killing of the Jews, but whether the meager food rations barely keeping them alive would be better apportioned to German troops then fighting under extreme conditions.
At all events, a more rationally minded military leadership would have properly fed their prisoners of war and put them to work in factories. That the Nazis never productively exploited more than a fraction of their millions of Polish, Soviet and Jewish captives but murdered or starved them to death is one of fascism’s key paradoxes. It thrives on violence but undermines itself in the process of expending its violence: a death-drive ideology.
If it seems presumptuous to style the United States as “fascist” in the same sense as German or Japanese fascism, the U.S., again, is no stranger to devastating, pointless and failed military ventures which moreover have a racist basis — the war on Indochina for one. But it’s not necessary for a fascist state to engage only in outward aggression; it can just as effectively turn its aggression inward, as is increasingly the case in the U.S. This might not be immediately evident. On the contrary, many regard America as the world’s beacon of democracy and the only counterweight to the forces of totalitarianism. Rather than address this mainstream propaganda head on, my task here is merely to apply certain criteria I have observed in my study of fascism and see whether the American example fulfills them or not.
To return to the predominance of irrationality over rationality, let’s have a brief look at the extraordinary wastefulness of the U.S. economy. This wastefulness is effecting a slow but steady nationwide degradation and decrepitude. If the U.S. has survived as a representative democracy for two and a half centuries, it shouldn’t be forgotten that its rise has always been tainted, and its wealth stolen, originally enabled by slavery and today by inequality and exploitation. Even without a war of aggression at present, U.S. military expenditure in 2020 was $778 billion, 39% of global military spending and far ahead of any other country (China comes in second with $252 billion), $392 billion on nuclear weapons alone. The commonly stated rationale is that the U.S. needs to maintain overwhelming military dominance to protect not just its own interests but those of the entire “free” world. Even if nuclear weapons are never used, the knowledge of how many the U.S. has in store keeps hostile states in check through sheer intimidation. This symbolic power, by which America reminds the world who’s boss, simply costs that much amount of money. It’s expensive being the global cop. The unacknowledged rationale for the tremendous expenditure is the matrix of corporate relationships and profits in the military-industrial sector.
An even greater amount of money is wasted on the business of incarceration. The U.S. imprisons more people than any other country — 2.3 million in 2020 (followed by China with 1.7 million, but China’s population is four times as large) — and keeps another 4.6 million on probation or parole (Oudekerk & Kaeble). While only $80 billion is spent annually on the operational costs of prisons and jails (“only” being relative, that is, to nuclear weapons spending), hundreds of millions of dollars are lost to the economy from the reduced or absent labor of the imprisoned, the paroled, and their families. The U.S. is unique among industrialized countries in sabotaging the reintegration into society of the incarcerated. Parolees have enormous difficulty finding employers that agree to hire them, not to mention for a decent wage. Many return to crime in order to survive, and are sent back to prison in a vicious circle. Their families likewise suffer from their lost wages. On top of that, working mothers or relatives often have to pay for an imprisoned family member’s necessities (soap, toothpaste, phone calls, emails), at artificially inflated rates that can run up to $10,000 per year (Lewis & Lockwood). If the family can’t support them, they go into debt while in prison, making it all the more difficult to get a financial foothold when they get out. In another vicious circle, the family’s children too are likely to enter a life of crime, lacking positive role models and burdened with psychological and developmental difficulties. Tallying up all of these hidden debits, a Washington University study (cited in Ferner) estimates that for every dollar spent on incarcerating people, there are ten dollars in social costs, adding up to one trillion dollars yearly — more than the military budget.
Maintaining a massive prison population is a huge financial burden. The costs are passed on not just to taxpayers, which already falls disproportionately on the poor, but directly on to the poor as well — the families and neighborhoods that serve as the prime source of incarceration recruitment. But it’s not as if the industry is actively looking for human fodder solely for the sake of cynical profiteering, apart from the ten percent of America’s prisons that are privately operated and whose profiteering is very much in evidence (Bauer). On the contrary, prisons and jails are a big drain on state budgets. They do provide some employment (at low wages) for the mainly white rural locals living in their vicinity, and private contractors do profit from the obscenely low wages paid to prisoners, an average of eighty-six cents an hour; Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas engage in inmate slave labor for no pay at all (Brakke; “Economics“). But these hardly offset the costs. Jackie Wang confronts this enigma in her incisive Carceral Capitalism:
Although it’s important to analyze the economic conditions that have been driving contemporary police practices, an analysis of prisons and police that solely focuses on the political economy of punishment would be incomplete. There are gratuitous forms of racialized state violence that are “irrational” from a market perspective. From an economic perspective, the new sentencing regime that emerged alongside the War on Drugs — such as three strikes laws for drug possession — make little economic sense: Why waste an exorbitant amount of public money on incarcerating nonviolent offenders, sometimes for life?
Curiously, the prison industrial complex draws its guards and prisoners largely from the same populations — uneducated rural whites and impoverished urban blacks — as the military industrial complex draws its recruits for the army. The underlying motivation of this intertwined military-prison industrial complex is, again, symbolic: to put people in their place. The rage directed towards America’s enemies abroad is also directed toward America’s internal enemies — minorities and the impoverished. It’s nothing other than a political economy of irrationalism, for there’s no sensible explanation for the diversion of wealth and governance away from the nation’s disintegrating infrastructure, threadbare educational, medical and social services, and paralysis in the face of global warming. As David Graeber sums up the function of irrational state power in his Debt: The First 5,000 Years,
we are looking at the final effects of the militarization of American capitalism itself….the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures….a vast apparatus of armies, prisons, police, various forms of private security firms and military intelligence apparatus, and propaganda engines of every conceivable variety, most of which do not attack alternatives directly so much as create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, and simple despair that renders any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy….Economically, the apparatus is largely just a drag on the system; all those guns, surveillance cameras, and propaganda engines are extraordinarily expensive and don’t really produce anything.
3. Manufacture a mythology of lies.
In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer depicts Hitler’s chilling oratory and its effect on his followers:
Now the 600 deputies, personal appointees all of Hitler, little men with big bodies and bulging necks and cropped hair and pouched bellies and brown uniforms and heavy boots leap to their feet like automatons, their right arms upstretched in the Nazi salute, and scream “Heils.” Hitler raises his hand for silence. He says in a deep, resonant voice, “Men of the German Reichstag!”
The silence is utter.
“In this historic hour, when, in the Reich’s western provinces, German troops are at this minute marching into their future peacetime garrisons, we all unite in two sacred vows.”
He can go no further. It is news to this “parliamentary” mob that German soldiers are already on the move into the Rhineland. All the militarism in their German blood surges to their heads. They spring, yelling and crying, to their feet. Their hands are raised in slavish salute, their faces now contorted with hysteria, their mouths wide open, shouting, shouting, their eyes, burning with fanaticism, glued on the new god, the Messiah. The Messiah plays his role superbly. His head lowered, as if in all humbleness, he waits patiently for silence. Then his voice, still low, but choking with emotion, utters the two vows….
Donald Trump’s oratory of pathos is of a less eloquent sort — shorter sentences, fractured grammar — but it casts the same spell and commands the same madness among his base. In his rallies, his outbursts rotate among three targets, Mexican immigrants, Democrats, and the mainstream media. At a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania,
Trump’s bellows hands shift, horizontal to vertical; now he’s chopping. “Brutalized,” chop! “Murdered,” chop! “Hacking,” chop! “Ripping out, in two cases, their hearts.” A man’s voice somewhere ahead of me cries out “fuuuck!” More, like a liturgy, a horrible psalm of repetition, “illegal alien” and “rape” and “sexual assault of a child” and “alien,” and “unlawful contact with a minor” and “rape” and “indecent exposure” and “sex crimes” and “animal”; “released by Philadelphia to wander free in your communities.”
He gestures to the sectioned-off area where CNN and other news organizations are assembled, protected by a cage, and denounces them as “very bad people” and “scum” and “liars.” “’Look at them!’” he cries, pointing. His thousands turn to the cage to scream.” As for the Democrats, one Trump fan conveys the prevailing mood to reporter Jeff Sharlet by bending over and “sniffing the wet blacktop like a hound,” mimicking supposed pedophiles in the act of sniffing out children to molest. “Creepy Joe!” cries another supporter. “Demons,” he rejoins. A female fan expounds:
“Not even human….It’s too terrible to speak of.” She turns away, to the happiness of a small circle of new friends she’s made at the rally, a whole family decked out in Trump wear. But she keeps coming back. “The truth and the lies,” she says. I don’t know what she means. She turns away again, returns again, her eyes watery. “I’m going to say it,” she decides. But she can’t. She walks away. Her friends seem worried. She comes back, leans in. “They eat the children.” She shakes with tears. Her friends nod. (Sharlet)
In The Fascism This Time, Theo Horesh succinctly contrasts Trumpian-style demagoguery with its Hitlerian progenitor: “While early twentieth-century fascism may have produced well-organized mobs of neatly dressed automatons marching in goose step to a vision of the future, early twenty-first-century fascism presents a slovenly crowd of obese retirees giggling over their own offensiveness. Yet, both inspire followers to be swept away by the crowd.” Despite his buffoonery and carnivalesque rallies, Trump and his supporters, Horesh stresses (writing at the end of Trump’s term in office), represent an ominous new national development. Examples indeed abound, from the expansion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) concentration camps for the children of detained and deported immigrants (though 350,000 immigrants were already in ICE detention under Obama) to the January 6, 2021 attempted coup and attack on the Capitol Building. Trump brought out the ugliness of the country’s rightwing and supremacist sectors, and there could be more violence to come. But there is a tendency to place undo emphasis on Trump, a mere figurehead. I cannot but feel that his supporters are out of their league in the face of America’s diverse majority and have only managed to expose themselves as a rather pathetic and incompetent bunch.
This does not mean, on the other hand, that the country is not on an increasingly fascist trajectory, one that began long before Trump. If this is not immediately evident, it’s because it is all too familiar and close to home. It’s called brainwashing, and brainwashing works precisely when it’s not recognized as such.
A hallmark of fascism is the dumbing down of public discourse to a neat and tidy narrative of the nation’s patriotic mission, typically calling for a return to a mythologized past imbued with pastoral signifiers. In the American case: rugged individualist cowboy types and devout Christian wives and children in their giant playground of a landscape devoid of Native Americans, Hispanics and blacks, although I’m sure there are white supremacists out there who are not averse to the restoration of slavery. While this nostalgia has historical roots, the gulf separating the fantasy of the past from the complex reality of the present requires a great deal of denial and distortion. The cognitive dissonance experienced amidst the chaos and change of contemporary society is too great to absorb and deal with. Half of the public rises to the challenge and the other half demands drastic action to halt the slide, to return to the past and preserve American life as they think they know it. The tension between these two publics has always existed in American society; Trumpian politics is just the latest twist. The immediate question is how much political power the mythologists currently possess and how much damage they are causing. Americans become fascists when they succeed in imposing their simplistic mythology on the rest of the country. Rejecting evolution in favor of creationism in the schools, subjecting the public to the daily display and brandishing of guns, charging mothers who miscarry with murder on the grounds of fetal neglect, and refusing face masks amidst a pandemic in the name of freedom, are a few of the recurrent mythologist causes fought over in the U.S. culture wars. They also serve to distract from a much more comprehensive, inclusive and protean lie long foisted on the U.S. public: the master lie of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism is the belief that the U.S.A. is the greatest country in the world. Conservatives and rightwingers take this notion thoroughly for granted and uphold it enthusiastically. Liberals and progressives tend to be more jaded and reject the balder forms of jingoism yet may still assume their country to be an example for the rest of the world to emulate. All countries have points to be proud of. Few countries can approach America’s rich legacy of popular music — blues and jazz, soul and country, rock and rap (a great musical tradition derives as much from the mixing of cultures as from social oppression and anguish, both found in abundance in the U.S.); technological innovation, which has given us computers, the internet, social media, electric cars and space travel; the counterculture, civil rights, feminist, gay rights and ecology movements; or as vital and still vibrant a free press, from independent neighborhood bookstores to the online behemoth Amazon, which despite its reprehensible labor practices has succeeded in making millions of books available to people around the world.
The dark side of all of this is an inherent, intractable sense of American superiority — and a corresponding ignorance about the rest of the world. This is apparent at the top regardless of what administration is in the White House, from Trump’s contemptuous dismissal of international agreements to Joe Biden’s patriotic platitudes at a May 28, 2021 speech at Joint Base Langley Eustis in Hampton, Virginia: “America is unique. From all nations in the world, we’re the only nation organized based on an idea.…None of you get your rights from your government; you get your rights merely because you’re a child of God. The government is there to protect those God-given rights.” But it’s also apparent among ordinary folk of whatever political persuasion, and it need not be affirmed because it’s expressed implicitly. There are of course exceptions (notably the well-traveled) to this profound ethnocentrism, this notoriously American apathy and indifference toward all that is foreign. Yet whenever I go back home for a visit, I am struck by how little curiosity there is, how few people — otherwise openminded, highly educated people — bother to query me about the countries I have spent much of my life in. It’s a phenomenon I’ve heard reiterated by other American expats, so I know it’s not just my imagination.
American exceptionalism also takes the form of a highly distorted understanding of how the rest of the world views the U.S. Most Americans assume the world is envious of their country and everyone would live there if they could. This may be true in, say, Central America or the Caribbean, whose inhabitants are fleeing irredeemably corrupt dictatorships, and it may have been more commonly the case in impoverished countries elsewhere in decades past. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that people not blessed with being born in the greatest country on earth are finding fewer reasons ever to visit it, let alone contemplate living there. Friends and acquaintances I’ve known in my years living abroad frequently express shock at the extent to which Americans are inured to the state oppression they suffer under. In what other country, for example, can you be arrested for dashing into a shop for five minutes to buy something while your kid waits in your car, or bounty hunters sue you in state court for providing a pregnant woman a lift to an abortion clinic? (Brooks; Keshner).
The notion that one’s own country has nothing of interest to gain, nothing of value to learn from other countries and cultures is insidious because it makes it easier to overlook their humanity. It also makes people seem the less human the more distant they are geographically. The fascist corollary to this is that it makes it easier to rationalize their elimination.
4. Incarcerate the enemy at home.
What’s shocking about America’s gulag archipelago of prisons is not just the sheer number of the incarcerated — over two million — but the general indifference toward the incarcerated. As with Americans’ lack of interest in other lands and cultures, there is a similar degree of ignorance about the nation’s internal colony, distanced and dehumanized from its citizenry in its own way. Part of this has a racist basis. Blacks, Asians and Native Americans make up 42 percent of the prison population; if Hispanics are counted separately from whites, the minority prison population rises to 72 percent, compared to the 38 percent of minorities in the country as a whole (www.bop.gov). The internal colony consists not just of the incarcerated but encompasses as well the transitional territory of the impoverished inner city, which supplies much of this population and recycles it back into the prisons through recidivism and a counterproductive parole system. Jackie Wang describes the distancing process by which white America insulates itself from its domestically exiled legions and keeps them out of sight and out of mind:
The urban landscape is organized according to a spatial politics of safety. Bodies that arouse feelings of fear, disgust, rage, guilt, or even discomfort must be made disposable and targeted for removal in order to secure a sense of safety for whites….The media construction of urban ghettos and prisons as “alternate universes” marks them as zones of unintelligibility, faraway places removed from the everyday white experience….What happens in these zones of abjection and vulnerability does not typically register in the white imaginary.
Conservatives claim that the skewing of the prison population towards minorities is unremarkable; they are simply the groups most prone to crime. What conservatives ignore is the historical context. The white majority have from the outset engaged in a centuries-long, unrelenting campaign of oppression against blacks and other minorities. By the end of the Civil War, the U.S. had four million slaves. In the Reconstruction and the Jim Crow eras up through 1965, white vigilantes lynched some 3,500 blacks, with little accountability. As Alec Karakatsanis reminds us, “for many decades, white elites in the South used the punishment system to transfer wealth, confiscate land, and preserve racial hierarchy through convict leasing — that is, criminalizing people so that their bodies could be forced to work for profit.” The mortality rate of convicts in South Carolina chain gangs in the 1870s was 45 percent. “We must not be held to too strict an accountability,” intoned Alabama Inspector of Convicts W. D. Lee in 1890. “We have a large alien population, an inferior race. Just what we are to do with them as prisoners is a great question as yet unsettled. The Negro’s moral sense is lower than that of the white man. We say that he has been degraded by three or four generations of slavery” (Bauer). In the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, 10,000 blacks were left homeless and 300 were murdered when their neighborhood was destroyed by whites. Also from the mid-nineteenth century through the third decade of the twentieth, thousands of Mexicans were murdered by white vigilantes in Texas, California and New Mexico (C. Gibson). The treatment of Native Americans over the same period is well known, having been starved off their lands by the U.S. army, who slaughtered virtually the entire national herd of 30 million buffalo, since “we were never able to control the savages until their supply of meat was cut off.” Or as one army general put it, “kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone” (Phippen).
Then from the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, in response to decades of racial segregation and police harassment, American ghettos exploded in pent-up rage in some 2,000 uprisings. During a mass arrest in Cairo, Illinois in 1971 (which had experienced two straight years of conflicts between blacks and law enforcement), after a white woman’s purse had been stolen, the city police chief announced, “I want every nigger in Cairo rounded up, and if that means busting heads to bring them to jail, I want them brought in” (Hinton). During this same decade of violence, federal allocation of funds for police increased 2,900 percent to $300 million in 1970 — not the most creative approach to repairing race relations (presently state and local governments shell out about $250 billion annually on police, corrections, and the courts). The urban uprisings were brought under control after a significant slice of the black male population was transferred from the ghetto to prisons by the expedient of vastly increasing the construction and capacity of prisons, whose population ballooned from 200,000 in 1970 to 2,300,000 by 2000. In recent decades, the mutual hostility has only become more entrenched with the targeting of blacks by increasingly militarized police forces stocked with military-grade weapons, including mine-resistant tank-like vehicles and Black Hawk tactical transport helicopters, routinely gifted to state and local police across the country by the army (Hinton; Whitehead). Over the past decade nationwide, police have shot to death 2,000 blacks, many of whom were found to be innocent. Some of this lethality is due to police panic, elsewhere to execution-style killing. This past April in North Carolina, police repeatedly shot a black man, Andrew Brown Jr., in the head as he sat in his car in his driveway while they shouted, “Let me see your hands!”; body camera footage showed that Brown had his hands on the steering wheel the entire time (Szekely & Layne).
The incarceration industry is not exclusively a racist enterprise. Whites who fall afoul of the law may be better positioned to avoid long prison terms or prison altogether if they are wealthy and well-connected, yet they experience the same fate once they disappear behind prison walls. A large, looming prison system, irrespective of who is imprisoned, is attractive to fascism. Fascism also relies on public support, without which it cannot acquire the power it does. Americans can be unforgiving toward those who cross the line into crime, and are enthusiastic supporters of harsh prison sentences.
Simultaneously, however, much of the public (excepting of course the minority communities overwhelmingly affected) is willfully ignorant about the reality of prison life. Several unique features of American incarceration stand out. We’ve mentioned the perverse practice of charging prisoners for basic necessities at outrageous rates and exploiting their labor for absurdly low wages, putting extreme financial pressure on them and their families. There is also a shocking absence of hygienic, nutritional and medical measures. As many as a half of prisoners have a psychological disorder (the percentages vary between jails, state and federal prisons); being ignored and left untreated in the hostile prison environment ensures their further mental deterioration. At Logan Correctional Center for women in Illinois, prisoners “are walking through raw sewage in their housing unit…living with maggots, mold in the sinks & showers, no bleach to clean…No cameras in their open living quarters with an all-male correctional officer staff” (Conway). U.S. jails and prisons do not as a rule mete out systematic, dictatorship-style torture directly at the hands of officers (unless guard-administered beatings count), but they tacitly pass this responsibility onto the prisoners, who routinely engage in rape and injurious or lethal attacks on fellow inmates using shivs (homemade knives), while staff look the other way. Other prisons can be absurdly draconian about sex, putting prisoners caught in consensual embrace, even merely gesturing fondly to each other, in solitary confinement (Bauer). Up to 100,000 inmates are currently held in solitary confinement, though estimates can vary widely as prisons hide their data (Manson). The title of one recent news article captures what happens to some of them: “A prisoner was ‘covered in filth and barking like a dog’ after 600 days of solitary confinement in a Virginia jail” (Bhardwaj). Prisons and jails often refuse to comply with the federal government requirement to report the causes of prisoners’ deaths, because to do so would implicate the prisons in their outright medical neglect of the inmates and enabling of prisoner-on-prisoner violence (Press).
It’s a shibboleth that prisoners consist mostly of incorrigible violent types who need sequestering for society’s safety and moreover deserve their lengthy prison sentences anyway. There are indeed many prisoners who fall in this category. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should be treated atrociously while doing their time. Purely as a matter of expediency, not to mention humanitarianism, reform is unquestionably superior to punishment, as attested by innovative prison models such as Norway’s. Would you rather see angry convicts further hardened by prison released back into society with poor job prospects, or rehabilitated and employable parolees with newly acquired skills or trades? But equally important, many prisoners are not in fact violent, indeed don’t belong there in the first place. Slightly less than half of prisoners in state prisons, 70 percent in locals jails, and 94 percent in federal prisons are nonviolent offenders. Many are there for drug crimes, some locked up for simple marijuana possession — at a time when the country is rapidly moving toward cannabis legalization. Thousands more each year wind up imprisoned for misdemeanor offenses which morph into jail time over failure to pay multiplying court fines, which many simply lack the means to pay (Ockerman).
A single past criminal record, no matter how inconsequential the lapse, can doom a person to minimum-wage jobs, for the two thirds who succeed in finding one; the remaining third remain unemployed. Seventy million Americans bear the invisible shackles of a criminal record — a powerful means of social control provided to the state. A felony conviction disqualifies one from voting. Many ex-convicts are unaware of this, but instead of simply preventing them from voting, they are, astonishingly, sent back to prison for attempting to vote (Lantry; Levine). Of course, racist conservatives in states like Texas, Florida and Georgia have an interest in disenfranchising blacks by any and all means including imprisonment, as it favorably impacts Republican electoral outcomes.
5. Increase the state of fear.
The most effective weapon for keeping the population docile is psychological terror: the ensemble of intersecting anxiety-inducing processes and effects dispersed throughout daily life. Because these forms of mass distress are normalized to appear as universal and inevitable, there is scant awareness of their collective function, and little coordinated protest. We do not mean crude, Big Brother-style repression. Repression in its contemporary American incarnation is far more sophisticated and subtle. The best way to describe it is by breaking down the generalized, faceless terror into its components (terror here being distinct from terrorism, i.e., destructive acts carried out by self-identified terrorists).
Financial terror refers to the distress of being heavily burdened, or rendered indigent, by unmanageable or unanticipated financial pressures and hardships. Eighty percent of Americans are in debt to an average of $38,000, mainly auto loans and credit-card debt, while average mortgage debt per household adds another $190,000. Average student loan debt per undergraduate student is $49,000; 28 percent of those with student loans default. Master’s degree graduates of Columbia University’s film program have an average debt of $181,000, and some have debts up to $300,000 (Korn & Fuller). It’s often said that people have no one but themselves to blame for going into debt, since it’s a personal choice. But this downplays the circumstances that force many to go into debt in the first place, which is to rescue themselves from economic constraints or crises or to help other family members. It also ignores the aggressive, predatory activities of financial organizations and educational institutions to induce people to go into debt. Capital One Financial Corporation, for example, earns $23 billion in interest each year with its bespoke targeting of the lower echelons of wages earners in order to “push people into debt who would have otherwise avoided it” and “profit off people’s misery,” as one former employee puts it (Botella).
It would be nice if society could simply acknowledge and take more responsibility for the ease with which it allows people to go into debt, instead of smugly blaming individuals. There are of course particularly American, religious roots to the tendency to hold the poor responsible for their own failures. The Puritans “brought with them…a biblically prescribed view that God helps those who help themselves, that poverty is a kind of sin, the result of a willful failure to work and thrive” (Snedeker). But the problem runs deeper:
The hold that debt has over our lives is not merely numerical. It functions as a disciplinary apparatus as we internalize the ideology that naturalizes indebtedness….We are, from an early age, socialized into a form of financial citizenship that compels us to accept indebtedness as inevitable and to constantly engage in self-disciplinary acts that authorize and extend the debt economy — whether it’s pursuing a job as a corporate lawyer instead of a public defendant in order to pay off student loans or telling your peers they are irresponsible for not building their credit. (Wang)
Medical terror refers to the devastating impact of snowballing medical bills from sudden illness or accident. No one’s physical well-being is exempt from risks and perils but American medical terror is especially horrific, as it piles financial terror on top of a health emergency. It’s hard to say which would be worse, a stage-four cancer diagnosis or the cost of that diagnosis: 42 percent of cancer patients lose their life savings after two years of treatment, averaging $92,000 per patient (Bandoim). Not surprisingly, catastrophic illness is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. (Graeber). Annual medical expenses for Americans is $5,000, including those with insurance or patchwork assistance from Medicaid, Medicare, or the inadequate Affordable Care Act. That’s the per capita average; it is certainly much higher if we discount the many young, healthy people with no medical expenses. There is no shortage of news stories on the obscene cost of medical care — of hospitals criminally price-gouging patients as much as ten times actual costs or springing inscrutable hidden fees (Sun; Kliff & Sanger-Katz). At first glance, it can seem as if such stories are concocted for entertainment value and hospitals are playing practical jokes on patients, as when one hospital charged a man $1 million for his coronavirus treatment (Kliff). Meanwhile, Democrat politicians wring their hands and mouth protestations of outrage, Republicans sit back in sardonic silence, and the rest of the world shakes its head in incomprehension at the sad, sadistic U.S. medical system.
Compounding medical terror is pharmaceutical terror: the colluding of the drug companies, hospitals and physicians in overprescribing medicines, particularly to the elderly, for profit (Span). While 40,000 Americans sit in prison for cannabis offenses — a safe and natural medicine — drug companies contribute to the growing national overdose tally of almost 100,000 deaths per year (93,331 in 2020 and counting) from lethal opiates and opioids (Katz & Sanger-Katz). Many of these deaths are admittedly due to illegal abuse, from such drugs as fentanyl whose safe dosage is very hard to control, but many users start out with legally acquired medication and graduate to illegal use only after their prescriptions run out and their only recourse to assuage chronic pain is the black market.
Social terror refers to the violence — and the fear of violence — which hangs over American communities like perpetual storm clouds. Some commentators are fond of pointing out statistics showing that violent crime in the U.S. has actually decreased over the past couple decades (due to a variety of factors it’s not necessary to go into here), and therefore panic about crime is exaggerated and overblown. This misses the point that the violence is already way out of proportion to other developed countries and is comparable to places like Brazil, Columbia, South Africa, and the Philippines. Three hundred and sixteen people are shot every day in the U.S., one third of them lethally; gun injuries rack up $1 billion in medical costs per year (Santana; Flowers). Private insurance typically pays for only a portion of victims’ gun injuries, which average $96,000 per in-patient stay, that is, exclusive of emergency room treatment; the remaining medical and rehabilitation fees are picked up by Medicaid (maybe) and the victims themselves (Fransdottir & Butts). So great is the diarrheic flood of guns in the U.S. that Mexico is presently suing American gunmakers, who design their weapons to appeal to Mexican drug cartels, to stem the flow of guns into their country; a Colt special edition .38 pistol, for example, is engraved with an image of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata on it (Agren). Gun violence also includes the threat of their use. I was once robbed at gunpoint near the University of Chicago campus; it was an interesting experience but once was enough. If you’ve spent your entire life in this country without a gun incident you might think omnipresent gun terror isn’t as bad as it is made out to be, because you don’t know anything else. But the majority of the world’s population in fact live in considerably safer circumstances and go about freely without being shadowed by the specter of assault. In Canada, England, Germany, Japan, and China, countries where I have lived besides the U.S., a night on the town is a stress-free experience, for women as well, where they’re much in evidence at late hours.
I am jolted back into an uneasy reality whenever I return to my hometown of Chicago, with the constant sound of police, firetruck, and ambulance sirens at all hours of the night. You only begin to notice this if you’ve been out of the country for a while or live in a rural area. Foreign visitors are thoroughly unnerved by this ominous, round-the-clock noise pollution. Sirens have a dual indexical function. They first of all indicate — index — the presence of an emergency vehicle so that cars can get out of the way. But sirens also index a general state of emergency. Inured to it as a result of routine, lifelong exposure, we are unconscious of the phenomenon in its generalized aspect, and simply regard sirens as an inevitable feature of daily life. But there is in fact little need for sirens, except intermittently to clear traffic (I should qualify this: in the U.S. sirens clear people very quickly and effectively; Americans tend to pull over almost in a panic, whereas in China emergency vehicles are frequently blocked by indifferent cars and pedestrians, though the situation has improved in recent years). That these vehicles have nothing better to do than blast their siren down empty streets at night when people are sleeping bespeaks something else: state power’s insistent affirmation of itself. You might be more conscious of it were you to imagine if the standard sonic signatures identifying emergency vehicles were replaced by air-raid sirens.
Another way to appreciate the face of state power is to be in a confrontation, however trivial, with the police. One evening I was pulled over on a Chicago street. Instead of calmly or politely informing me that one of my taillights had stopped working, the cop resorted to yelling and cursing. I happen to be white. Being black makes it infinitely easier for police encounters to spiral out of control or erupt in instant gunfire. In an incident only days ago, Chicago police kicked in the door of a house in a black neighborhood without announcing themselves or presenting a warrant and pointed their guns at the parents lying prone on the floor and then at their two girls in the bedroom, four and nine years old, who wet their beds and have since displayed PTSD symptoms; it was the wrong house (Niemeyer). A young black man describes another typical encounter with the Chicago police:
Once my friend and I were walking down the street. We were at Wood Street and 45th and we had just come outside. Then the cops came. Deep. Three cop cars. Because my phone had a weed plant on the screen they wanted my PIN number to unlock my phone. But I said, “I’m not going to give you my PIN.” So one of the white cops punched me in my stomach and put me inside the cop car. (Kaba)
Atlanta police were recently filmed by a bystander repeatedly kicking a handcuffed mentally ill woman in the face and down a hill, who had been threatening people with a weapon (Marcus). Whether she was armed and dangerous is irrelevant in regard to this very telling police behavior following upon her being subdued. One hardly needs to be armed and dangerous. A black woman in California stopped her car at the side of a road to change places with her father, and was obedient with the police when they approached her. For no reason, they slammed her to the ground, knocking her unconscious (Weber). These sorts of incidents happen far too regularly to be considered mere random acts by a few rogue police. Gratuitous state violence is a form of symbolic power. The police are enlisted and encultured into it for the precise purpose of evoking and dramatizing the state’s power through countless intimidating displays and acts, whether it involves punching people in the stomach or, as renowned Malian musician Ballaké Sissoko experienced after a recent American tour, U.S. customs officials destroying his priceless kora (Sawa).
WHAT IS SEXUAL FASCISM?
A few preliminaries. Let’s imagine you believe that the heterosexual monogamous family unit is the only proper place for a sexual relationship, and virginity for women and sexual abstinence for both sexes before marriage is appropriate and even essential. You believe adolescents have no sexual rights of their own and must be protected from sexual knowledge and experience before they reach the age of consent (16-18 years of age in the U.S. depending on the state). You believe casual sex, serial lovers, simultaneous relationships, and the like, are reckless and dangerous, or at the very least, immoral. You believe sex to be not very important in fact, a mental obsession and addiction that can be controlled through self-discipline and a focus on the more meaningful aspects of life. At the same time, you believe sex to be enormously important, inasmuch as sanctioned sex is holy and unsanctioned sex can wind up being destructive to all parties. If you hold to any of this, I’d wager you’re a traditionalist and fairly conservative, if not necessarily religious. Communist regimes would find all of the above most salutary, and fascist states like Nazi Germany were especially fond of controlling sexual behavior through such strictures. But they can be found everywhere, and as one looks back in history, sex laws were even harsher. In Elizabethan England, for example, adultery was punishable by death; in Medieval Europe, the Church dictated which days of the calendar couples were permitted conjugal relations.
Now ask yourself if any of the following applies to you as well. You believe that there is no place for family nudity, and women must tone down their raw allure by shaving their legs and underarms and wearing a bra, while it’s okay for men to go about topless. You believe the public sight of a woman’s breastfeeding nipple is obscene. You believe perceived improprieties of any sort should be referred to grievance committees instead of dealing directly with the offending person (we don’t mean criminal assault or rape when of course we resort to the police). You believe the police should be informed if teenagers close in age are caught having sex, above all if one is above the age of consent and one is not, and that it’s acceptable or necessary for children of any age to be punished and even prosecuted if they engage in sexual harassment or assault. You believe sex work is degrading and both prostitutes and their patrons should be arrested. You reserve special loathing for pedophiles, who if they can’t be locked up for life, must be exiled permanently from society, regardless of the severity of their offense. You would troll the national and state sex-offender registries for newly listed offenders and their families to hunt down and attack. You believe all of this while regarding yourself as otherwise liberal and enlightened, in our day and age, toward gay and transgender rights, extramarital sex, and other practices that only a generation or two ago were deviant or unlawful.
No one country has a lock on the sentiments just expressed, but what’s salient about the American response to sexual prohibition, as it is currently characterized and defined, is its fanaticism, its eagerness to find fault where there is none, and the ensuing rage where it is found. In the name of being progressive, Americans are particularly susceptible to sexual fascism. As Theo Horesh notes, “liberals are carrying out their own paradoxical crackdown on sexual freedom. The criminalization of relatively minor infractions of sexual norms; the severe crackdown on borderline cases of sexual harassment; the pathologization of late-adolescent expressions of sexuality.” Because the U.S. has a long, Puritan-inspired legacy of intolerance toward the sexually rebellious (Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is perhaps the iconic example albeit one that pales in comparison to the punitive response to today’s sexual deviants), a legacy backed by widespread popular support, it’s easy for the state to latch on to sex law as a ready means of expanding its regimes of surveillance over everyone.
Defining sexual fascism hinges on whether we treat it as a psycho-political or purely as a political phenomenon. Psychologically speaking, it designates the constrained sexual habits and behavior people invariably display due to cultural and ideological conditioning under the patriarchal state. The study of the unconscious acquisition of sexual stricture through collective indoctrination began in earnest with Wilhelm Reich, notably in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (published in 1933). As he writes, the state reproduces its structure in miniature in the family, with the father the natural head of the household and the mother fulfilling a subservient yet vital role as birth-provider:
The authoritarian state gains an enormous interest in the authoritarian family: it becomes the factory in which the state’s structure and ideology are molded….The suppression of the natural sexuality of children and adolescents serves to mold the human structure in such a way that masses of people become willing upholders and reproducers of mechanistic authoritarian civilization….Wholly unconscious of what they are doing, the parents carry out the intentions of authoritarian society.
As Jason Stanley remarks in How Fascism Works, “To boost the nation, fascist movements are obsessed with reversing declining birthrates; large families raised by dedicated homemakers are the goal.” Hence the constant nostalgia among the conservative right for a return to the “family values” of motherhood, fertility, and Christian piety (what Reich termed “mystical contagion”). Feminism, conversely, is held to be the single greatest threat to the family, as even conservatism’s upholders intuitively grasp that “sexually awakened women, affirmed and recognized as such, would mean the complete collapse of the authoritarian ideology….To define freedom is to define sexual health. But no one wants to state it openly” (Reich). Several decades after Reich, Western feminists such as Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1970), her eloquently articulated vision of the post-bourgeois family, were to clearly and forcefully state the call for sexual liberation from patriarchy. As Firestone imagined the future, children would have an independent legal and sexual status far beyond what even the most progressive thinkers would dare envision today:
The concept of childhood has been abolished, children having full political, economic, and sexual rights, their educational/work activities no different from those of adults. During the few years of their infancy we have replaced the psychologically destructive genetic “parenthood” of one or two arbitrary adults with a diffusion of the responsibility for physical welfare over a larger number of people. The child would still form intimate love relationships, but instead of developing close ties with a decreed “mother” and “father,” the child might now form those ties with people of his own choosing, of whatever age or sex. Thus all adult-child relationships will have been mutually chosen—equal, intimate relationships free of material dependencies. Correspondingly, though children would be fewer, they would not be monopolized, but would mingle freely throughout the society to the benefit of all.
We need not pursue a psychological explanation any further except to point out how entrenched the impulses toward sexual repression are among all sectors of present-day society across the left and the right. We have enough on our plate to observe the political consequences of the ensemble of laws and injunctions exploited by the state and through community coercion as well to surveil people’s sexual lives. In this political sense we may designate sexual fascism as sexual terror, when its impact permeates society so thoroughly as to merge with other forms of terror and expand and deepen society’s collective fear. As pro-sex feminist Gayle Rubin wrote in a 1982 essay, “Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality,”
Sex law is harsh. The penalties for violating sex statutes are universally out of proportion to any social or individual harm….The law is especially ferocious in maintaining the boundary between childhood “innocence” and “adult” sexuality. Rather than recognizing the sexuality of the young and attempting to provide for it in a caring and responsible manner, our culture denies and punishes erotic interest and activity by anyone under the local age of consent. The amount of law devoted to protecting young people from premature exposure to sexuality is breathtaking.
In the decades following Rubin’s essay sex laws have only proliferated, in consequence of various sex panics (e.g., the alleged Satanic ritual sex abuse in daycare centers in the late 1980s — a collective panic recently resurrected in fresh guise by QAnoners’ accusations of Satanic baby-eating by the Democrat elite), the creation of the sex offender registry following the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994, the making of the registry public following Megan’s Law of 1996, and the further expansion of the state and national registries following the Adam Walsh Act of 2006 (“No easy answers”). In my essay, “American fascism: The sexual rage of the state,” I go into more detail about the consequences for offenders, both serious offenders and those unfairly tripped up, who join the 918,000 currently registered (“United States“). The sex offender registry is a sinister apparatus of state-sponsored grassroots terror the likes of which George Orwell couldn’t have dreamt up and exists nowhere else in the world (a handful of mainly Anglo countries have sex offender registries but they are kept under tight police control and unavailable to the public, a huge and important difference). Here it suffices to mention one extreme but hardly unique example of not just the state’s intrusion into people’s lives, but its creativity in producing new types of offender. In the name of protecting young children from sexual assault, a seven-year-old boy in upstate New York was recently arrested on a rape charge. No details of the case were revealed (it’s hard to believe anything other than innocent sex play was involved), and it’s unknown whether the boy will be placed on the registry, but a defense attorney, “citing cognitive science data showing that young children lack a true awareness of what they are doing and the consequences of their actions,” made the obvious point that “‘the science doesn’t support prosecution of second graders'” (Nir).
Another current of American sexual terror goes back to the Mann Act, or White-Slave Traffic Act, of 1910 and concerns commercial sex. Originally intended to keep tabs on the brothels, it soon expanded into a secretive policing mechanism directed against adulterers and elopers who crossed state lines or traveled anywhere in order to have sex unlawfully, or were deemed intending to have sex; unmarried couples could be arrested merely for checking into a hotel room together (Rubin). Over the decades the Mann Act, very much alive today, has returned to its original purpose of combatting trafficking. But the word itself has once again changed, jointly at the hands of self-righteous, opportunistic, power-hungry politicians, evangelicals, and “carceral feminists” (to use Elizabeth Bernstein’s term), and become twisted and bastardized. A few decades ago “trafficking” meant the global underground trade in arms, drugs and humans (the latter including but not limited to sex workers, both the willing and the duped). Today, “trafficking” means any commercial sexual activity, and “traffickers” any and all sex workers and their customers, down to porn consumers in the confines of their home (since sex workers are assumed exclusively to have been “trafficked” into the trade against their will, and consumers sustain and promote the trade with their purchases). There is a clear intent to this Newspeak, for what better way to frighten people off porn if they are made to feel complicit in the supposed enslavement of the performers they are viewing? Once the net is cast so widely as to encompass the entire sex industry and its consumers, millions are implicated in illicit activity and live under the shadow of suspicion and potential punitive consequences. To cite Bernstein, feminists and Christian activists
have come to foster an alliance with neoliberal consumer politics and a militarized state apparatus that utilizes claims of a particular white, middle-class model of Western gender and sexual superiority in achieving its goals [of] the postindustrial security state….Sex trafficking and surveillance have in fact become co-constitutive, with sex trafficking reciprocally serving to moralize the extension of new modes of surveillance….Evidence of this increasing institutionalization also exists in the growing numbers of anti-trafficking divisions of police departments and law enforcement-led “anti-trafficking taskforces” that have sprung up around the nation, an institutional arrangement which, like the founding of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during early twentieth-century campaigns against white slavery, is likely to prove lasting in its effects.
The March 16, 2021 mass shooting by a white gunman of eight massage workers and customers at several Atlanta spas threw a momentary spotlight on the Asian-dominated massage business. It also serves as an example of how the bugbear of “trafficking” only opens up more crevices for law enforcement to insert its tentacles. The media attention did little to advance the public’s understanding or sympathy for massage workers, primarily immigrants from China and Korea — here again we see racism at work — who struggle in a limbo of widespread suspicion and hypocritical, schizophrenic fascination that at once pulls them in and pushes them away, as police routinely conduct raids on their workplaces or more duplicitously ferret out sexual activity through entrapment (the practice of undercover police posing as customers and encouraging a sexual transaction on the massage table as grounds for arrest). The renewed interest quickly turned sour as major media outlets, blindered by an operative vocabulary limited to the words “trafficking” and “prostitution,” cast aspersion on the entire massage business and the many immigrant workers trying to make an honest living in the grey economy. In one irresponsible recent investigative piece, USA Today found purported fraud at certain cherrypicked massage businesses and implied by extrapolation that all massage businesses were fraudulent (Quintana). There is no denying sex work goes on in many massage parlors, consisting mostly of innocuous hand jobs, and why not? What’s wrong with erotic massage, which is legally tolerated in most countries? But the fact of the matter is the majority of massage workers in the U.S. do not engage in sexual massage. There is much corrective journalistic work on the topic to confirm this (e.g., Lam; Macmillan & Bhattarai; my own essay “American massage“).
THE SEWAGE SYSTEM
With 2.3 million in prisons and jails, including ICE detention, juvenile detention, and civil commitment (where violent sex offenders are incarcerated after serving out their prison sentences), another 4.6 million on probation or parole, 918,000 on the sex offender registry, and 434,000 youth in foster care (many involuntarily), overall eight million are thus being held against their will or under some kind of penal or protective jurisdiction, on top of the 70 million with a criminal record. This amounts to almost a quarter of the American population. To be sure, many of the imprisoned are a threat to society. But many are not. That’s the point. Fascism sweeps up everyone. In the name of law and order, large numbers get put away in human cages, or get stuck in digital cages (subject to criminal-record blacklisting, GPS tracking, or other forms of electronic carceral surveillance).
However, and this is also key to understanding fascism, the state cannot drag so many into its net without the approval and support of the population at large. And with both perceived and very real dangers all around them, the paranoid half of the American public is highly obsessed with law and order. Politicians exploit this to get elected and promise to follow through. The state is happy to oblige and expedites this collective desire for ever more arrests for an increasing array of crimes. Oddly, nothing really changes, but what counts is the illusion of progress, namely that the internal enemy is being packed off and society cleansed of its human waste, even when it’s recycled back into society in the more toxic form of traumatized ex-convicts and parolees.
I use the metaphor of the “sewage system” to underscore that it’s not merely a question of the object itself. Rather, sewage is the constituent product of a system, an economy, both politically and symbolically speaking. It’s a political economy in that it is a real economy producing something, the criminalized and incarcerated, for consumption by its stakeholders — prison and police officials, contractors, prosecutors, and politicians; though it’s largely at taxpayers’ expense and with collateral damage to the communities of the incarcerated. It’s a symbolic economy as well in that it produces something illusory for public consumption, human waste, which furnishes the evidence of its own production, even if and precisely because real humans are involved.
But it’s not enough to sweep things up once and for all to restore society to some primordial state of order. The public demands ongoing evidence, continual reassurance in the form of a constant flow of waste. The human sewage needs to be sent out of the way, but not simply to disappear. What happens to those dispatched to the carceral underworld needs to be made evident. To provide the guilty with free room and board in which to do their time is unacceptable. They must be made to suffer throughout the duration of their sentences under the harshest possible conditions. In this sadistic theater, the line between those on stage and the audience is clearly drawn. If the question is what accounts for the enormous amount of human sewage the fascist state is compelled to produce, the answer is that there is something about this continuous outflow that is immensely satisfying. After all, as the Nazis regularly said of the Jews, it serves them right: they had it coming to them.
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This essay will appear in Sexual Fascism: Essays (forthcoming, January 2022)