1980, South End Press 0871313170   387 pages

          Bertram Gross
I first read Friendly Fascism during, ironically, 1984.  Shortly after reading it, I visited Gross at his home to talk about the book and learn how more might be done than what he offers in his final chapter, “What Can You Do?”  Thirty-two years later I remember little of our actual conversation, only that I’m sure I took it to heart, adding politics to my voracious reading and study habits. My most lasting impression of the afternoon is the generosity shown by both him and his wife with their time, thoughts and tea.

Warnings of and comparisons with fascism have become increasingly common over the past decade since books like Naomi Wolf's The End of America:  Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (2007) listing ten steps toward a closed, fascist society, and documentaries like Aaron Russo's 2006 film America: Freedom to Fascism.  Internet articles frequently use the term to describe current conditions, and I have often referered to and recommended Gross' book.  The time had come to reread.

FriendlyFascismI found Gross’ words even more relevant today than in the mid-‘80’s, since they are no longer a translucent warning but a substantive description of the world in which we live. Fascism as Gross describes it is now in full, Huxley-esque bloom.

Oh, but it can’t be that bad; surely that’s an exaggeration meant to emphasize dangerous trends!

No.

We’re so used to keeping vigilant against 1984  (which was required high school reading for many my age) that we’ve ignored Huxley (which was not. Make a note.) What we now have, in the US at least, is 1984 in the user-friendly packaging of Brave New World:  Voila!  Gross’ Friendly Fascism.

It is easier to repress well-justified fears than to control the dangers giving rise to them.[1]

Exploitative Abundance

Since the owners[2] know this, they have furnished us the privilege of paying them for aids to repress our fears and zombify our brains – like the longest workweek and least job security in the West, chronic environmental and food illnesses, TV, addictive and manipulative websites (like the fake book and games), drugs, shopping, dumb phones with “apps” for everything unimportant, tweets, twitters and other sound nibbles conveying far less information that the avian languages they’re meant to resemble, and the ability to instantaneously share photos of our navels with the entire world.

Anyone looking for black shirts, mass parties, or men on horseback will miss the telltale clues of creeping[3] fascism….the new fascism will be colored by national and cultural heritage, ethnic and religious composition, formal political structure, and geopolitical environment….supermodern and multi-ethnic - - as American as Madison Avenue, executive luncheons, credit cards, and apple pie….fascism with a smile…”[4]

Gross added, “What scares me most is its subtle appeal.”[5]

Those Who take the most from the table teach contentment. (Bertolt Brecht)

As his point of departure, Gross gives us a history of classic Fascism – “capitalism in full nudity”[6] – before discussing the corporate society, the establishment, capitalism, and the coming rise of globalism – all cooperating in the germination of a friendlier fascism. From a distance of three decades characterized by exponential change, some of this groundwork is dated or less than exciting; on the other hand, concepts like globalism – i.e. US-led transnationalism superseding individual nations – are spot-on, while much of the rest remains absolutely engaging.

Take, for example, this quote from Daniel R. Fusfeld[7]        

As long as the economic system provides an acceptable degree of security, growing material wealth and opportunity for further increase for the next generation, the average American does not ask who is running things or what goals are being pursued.

which illustrates the milieu designed to preoccupy most people while the net was being woven around them.

Or, this comment by Kenneth Boulding[8]

With the coming of science and technology, it is fair to say that we can get ten dollars out of nature for every dollar that we can squeeze out of man.

which sets the stage for the environmental devastation we see – well, some of us see – today. 

In chapter 3, Gross’ primer on the true purpose behind “philanthropy” would win Cory Morningstar’s approval. Personally, this time I particularly appreciated his occasional sardonic comments, especially when directed against capitalists or capitalism: 

“Capitalists have never needed theorists to explain the connection between money and power. It has taken theorists at least a century, to develop the pretense that they are separate.[9]

A gifted genera list, Gross earned degrees in English, English Literature, and Philosophy, served with Truman’s Council of Economic Advisors, authored the Employment Act of 1946, served as Economic Advisor to the prime minister of Israel and lectured at HebrewUniversity, SyracuseUniversity, and HarvardBusinessSchool. A Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, president of the Society for General Systems Research, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Urban Affairs at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, so broad was his expertise, so intimate his knowledge of the workings of power, that the jaded senior I have become began to question, during this second reading, whether he intended the book as a warning to intellectuals or a blueprint for those in power.

An ounce of actual violence can yield a pound of terror.  p.298

“Only by wrapping himself and all his agents in the trappings of constitutionality could the President succeed in subverting the spirit of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights”[10] seemed to foreshadow the Black professor of constitutional law who would suavely assuage the fears of liberals, who saw him as one of their own, while he put paid to his predecessor’s decried decimation of those same “goddamned piece[s] of paper”.  Also predictive of Obama-like figure(s): “Multi-ethnic co-optation can also be taken for granted.  Particularly conspicuous roles would undoubtedly be assigned…[and here he quotes Samuel Yette, The Choice, 1971) “to provide color credibility where such credibility was crucial to selling an otherwise invalid product”[11].

Terrorism, environmental destruction, military overkill, methods of surveillance and control (including the legalization of drugs like marijuana so those being controlled can self-harm at will), language distortion through cultural myths and the jargons of overspecialization, and mass culture – he nails them all while demonstrating their use in siphoning power from the masses to the owners, usually with complete cooperation from the losers.

A little fascism...

In his concluding chapters, Gross discusses probabilities:  It will happen; it couldn’t  happen; or, the trend toward it is irreversible.  He compares the US of the 1980s with a future US under friendly fascism, illustrating differences with charts[12].  Once again, a mere three decades have transformed these chapters from a caveat to a chilling description of the world outside our windows. Check. Check. Check. I ticked off the items on his lists.  I populated the margins of pages where he described opportunities for resistance with a single, repeated word, “gone”.  The insidiousness of the slow motion checkmate is breathtaking, even to those of us quite used to exposing our brains to ugly truths. Bargaining at this late stage?  Forget it, because “a little fascism is like a little pregnancy.”[13]

This is where the full weight of “Friendly” becomes apparent. As Huxley wrote[14]:

[Y]ou’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist.

"Do not go gentle..."  Dylan Thomas

In this re-reading, I found his final chapter, “What Can You Do?” discouraging for two reasons. First, notwithstanding his work in systems theory (which I had not yet studied when I spoke with him), he did not recognize our culture as a closed system[15]. Second, because so much of what he offers in this chapter is no longer possible.

He does, however, assuage my one jaded doubt: His warnings were definitely intended for those who would act against the monster. No doubt he was quite aware that the owners needed no blueprint. Gross encourages resistance of all kinds from everyone. He also cautions that “[a]ny protest or resistance is better than narcissistic ‘retreat to personal satisfaction’[16].  Noting that the elephant in our room is enormous, with a thick, impenetrable skin, he cites an African proverb:  “a single ant will drive an elephant mad…if it crawls into the elephant’s trunk….Any part of the modern establishment has many more vulnerable apertures than an elephant.”[17]  He advises us to unlearn the myths the system taught us, join with others who are truly resisting, and to keep fighting.

It is essential to learn from mistakes and false starts, and to begin again in an endless struggle to make things better rather than sit idly by, waiting until they become worse.[18]

I intend to.


[1] P. 2

[2] For the duration of this review I will refer to those with power (TPTB) using Carlin’s apt and accurate term. I refuse them the dignity of capitalizing it, and I absolutely refute the usual sycophantic “elite”, which means (according to Webster) “resembling the finest, best, most distinguished, most powerful”.  Fuck ‘em. 

[3] Note: This is also the term Michael Parenti uses.

[4] P. 3

[5] Ibid

[6] P. 30

[7] “The Rise of the Corporate State in America,” Journal of Economic Issues, March, 1972.  I appreciated Gross’ thorough references. 

[8] The Meaning of the Twentieth Century, Harper and Row, NY, 1964

[9] P. 47

[10] P. 190

[11] P. 326

[12] Gross reinforces his text with charts and lists throughout the book.

[13] P. 335

[14] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, HarperPerennial, NY, 1946,p.244

[15] “The tendency in a closed system is toward equilibrium:  to return to center, to remain the same (Capra

1996, 56-61)….The value of a closed system lies in the tendency to remain the same….Ludwig von Bertalanffy wrote in General System Theory (1968) that there are “open systems,” which operate in a state far from equilibrium “characterized by continual flow and change” (Capra 1996, 48).Living systems…are open systems.” Black, Get Over It!, Heinemann, Portsmouth NH, 2004

[16] P. 379

[17] Ibid

[18] P. 386

PHOTO of Dr. Gross:  Trans-action Magazine, December, 1965  See this.

 

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