Fifty years from now, historians (if any survive the next 50 years in any fit shape to take time out from foraging for food to scribble and to theorize) will puzzle over this question as Italians still do today over the exact beginning of fascism (roughly, 1920-1943).
Was it with the USA PATRIOT Act? The military tribunals? Nine-eleven—Reichstag fire that some think it was? Florida elections 1998-2000? Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib? Gonzales? Negroponte? PNAC? Panama invasion? Gulf War I? Reagan? NAFTA and the Washington consensus, in general? Chile coup?
Or was it with Hiroshima and Nagasaki—when the US showed the world that it would back its existing economic hegemony with its military death machine?
Hard to say. Some Italian historians say that fascism began when Italian industrialists bankrolled Mussolini's propaganda rag in 1919. Others say it was when Mussolini thugs assassinated liberal parliamentarian Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. Others yet point to the various stages in the process that corrupted elections. Most agree that the object of Italian fascism was to crush the unions, cut wages, and erase the socialist (especially communist) presence from the national scene. At any rate, Mussolini could not have been allowed to rule if he didn't put the state and the treasury at the service of those who felt a right to its ownership and use.
Who benefited? Certainly not the people.The industrialists rejoiced: the work-day was extended to nine hours (reduced again to eight a decade later when unemployment ravaged the economy); wages were immediately slashed by 20 percent; unions were banned. Later, the creaky fascist economy embarked on imperialist ventures: Abyssinia, Eritrea, Ethiopia—complete with poisoned gasses and mass death. Altogether, the victims of Italian fascist occupation in Africa and Europe are said by reliable historians to have amounted to one million (300,000 in Yugoslavia alone). The imperialist phase enriched the armament barons and the industrial/financial oligarchs but wrecked the treasury. Meanwhile, arrests, death-squad beatings and murders, censorship, extrajudicial killings, forcible nationalization and ethnic cleansing in the "liberated" colonies, perversions of the judicial system progressed apace. The fascist right has always operated like this by calumny, defamation, and violence, which it could not do without the assistance of criminalized institutions like the parliament, the press, the courts, the church, the military, and instrumentalized public opinion.
Mussolini's slightly thuggier cousin in the nordic north, Hitler, is said to have decided to invade Poland the moment he was told the German treasury was bankrupt. At this point he had to cover his ass, after all. Having ruled at the biddings of the Krupps and the Thiesses in the shadows, having robbed the people (with their beatific and suicidal consent) of their labor and their wealth, what could a lackey of the bosses do but choose war—so "lebensraum" it was full tilt, and straight into the icy and furious jaws of the victorious Soviets.
Forty million dead in WW II—half of them Soviet!
And for what? Money, of course—but not for the people. No, they got paid in "values"—the same four tawdry pillars of any fascist state: "race" (which soiled them with the crime of genocide), "military training" (which turned them into cannon fodder), "leadership" (which habituated them to obey), and "religion" (which consoled them for the fact that they counted for nothing in this life in which their consent was sought to better exploit them, cretinous dupes of the economic elites who deceived them).
No, I do not think the US is yet a fascist state, but I think that the end is implicit in its beginnings. If later we cannot say when a fascism begins because we see in retrospect so many of its generative moments, it means that we should pay attention now.
Take, for example, the present brouhaha about academic freedom, the Ward Churchill dispute, Bill O'Reilly's televisual witchhunt of anti-American phantoms in academia, the smears of Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz of a "liberal" professoriate, which, in these last years of preventive wars and humanitarian aggressions, of shredding the basic principles of human rights and international law, has exhibited, with a few exceptions (precisely those virulently under attack), the moral courage of a blancmange and the political consciousness of an amoeba—take these symptoms and ask, could this be a hint of the cancer that becomes fascism?
As an educator, I have to take notice. If these attacks succeed, could my dean call me in and ask me to sign an oath of loyalty to . . . to the "regime"? Such an oath was instituted in Italian universities in 1931, based on the argument that teaching could not be done against the objectives of the state. It was, therefore, an ideological oath, through which the signatory promised to fascisticize education by emphasizing the affective, the feeling-centred, and instinctive over the cognitive; by ignoring facts (didn't a senior White House aide deride the "reality-based community" not too long ago?) and inciting faith in the leader, the "race," and God's evident partisan patriotism. In Germany, Munich professors, for example, were warned that it wasn't up to them to decide whether something was true or false but whether is served the Nazi social "revolution." Signing the fascist oath of loyalty to the regime meant agreeing to teach the "wisdom of the cave"—Plato's timeless metaphor for false and illusory knowledge.
Of 1,200 professors, 12 did not sign—three jurists, an"orientalist," a historian, a theologian, a mathematician, a surgeon, an anthropologist, an art historian, a chemist, and a philosopher. Twelve angry men with nothing in common but "an almost physiological repugnance to fascism," a moral intolerance "to fascism's vile rhetoric," or "fascism's apology for violence." Twelve men from different social classes and cultural roots—some religious, others anti-clerical; some socialist and liberal, others monarchists; Jews and Catholics—all with one thing in common, a thick and coherent moral integrity.
One story in particular inspires me. The professor of philosophy was examining a student, who had just been banned by the regime to police-supervised confinement in a remote Italian village. The professor was questioning the student on the ethics of Immanuel Kant, when the absurdity of the situation struck him and he burst out: "But I have no right to be testing you on Kant's ethics. By opposing this regime, you show that you understand Kant's ethics very well. You are the teacher here. Dismissed. Full marks and summa cum laude."
In the 1960s, the writer Ignazio Silone suggested that the names of these 12 dissidents be inscribed in a brick to be inserted in every Italian university. They must have thought he was crazy! For, indeed, academia has never been the place of heroic intellectual freedom—or the hotbed of subversion—it is advertised to be. Make it a generous guess of 12 in a thousand who place their consciences before their careers!
The twelve, earned immediate dismissal, minimal pension, strict and oppressive police surveillance, persecution and professional exile. Those who signed said they "feared hunger more than war:" they had to pay their children's school fees; one memorably cried into his eminent, white beard, "I shall cover my whole work with shame, but I cannot let my children starve." Some stayed at their "fighting post," to prepare a generation of anti-fascists. Many could not give up their profession, an integral part of their identity. Others excused themselves with sophistic reasoning, ("The true act of courage consisted in swearing loyalty," and then went on to sing Il Duce's praises). One kept a glove on while signing and threw the pen down so it splattered black ink on the offending page.
Odd, though, that they should be 12—the good ones. A metaphoric verdict?
Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.