Consumerism and Fascism

The term ‘fascism’ is one of those words that isn’t used in polite company. The images of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis mean that the term is rarely taken seriously, often used to just insult someone, like in a recent internet debate when one guy labeled for no apparent reason geologists concerned about peak oil as “fascists.” And, while Marxian theory and socialism remain acceptable despite the horrors done in their name, fascism is seen as the nefarious ideology, defeated and evil.

As someone who is most decidedly anti-fascist, I find that a dangerous state of mind. Fascism is not only real, but has many forms. It is not inherently anti-semitic, and in fact can appear quite benign. I won’t go into the academic debates about the meaning of the term, though wikipedia gives a good summary. They are concerned with political fascism, which is primarily a nationalist ideology which derives obedience from the masses through providing emotional outlets. It is anti-rational, anti-intellectual and anti-communist, even as it uses the tools of rationality and science to create a new form of collectivism.

In an era of globalization, when for most people the idea of war as a glorious endeavor is dead, that traditional form of fascism is currently in retreat. It shows itself at times in the fringes of anti-immigrant movements, or ultra-conservative efforts to regain ‘traditional values.’ However, the term itself doesn’t need to mean the particular manifestation as shown under Mussolini and Hitler. The term can be applied to modern politics and culture by looking at the fundamental core of fascism: control of the masses through emotion, myth making, and efforts to produce unity, a form of collectivism. Unlike Marxism, this collectivism is not based on material equality, but rather on a shared emotional devotion to something larger than the self. In politics, that has traditionally been the state or ones’ ethnic group.

At it’s core, devoid of particular political manifestations, fascism has some fundamental components:

1. People are manipulated by appealing to and in fact creating emotional reactions to various symbols and ideas. The focus is not on reason or the intellect; indeed, fascism is inherently anti-reason, but on emotion and sentiment.

2. Fascists use the tools of reason and rational thinking in order to manipulate. This includes rationalizations, propaganda, the creation of symbols with artificial and irrational forms of attachment, and strategies at studying human behavior to improve the ability to manipulate.

3. Fascists empower themselves through this manipulation, while creating a myth that all benefit from the success of the fascist movement. This again is done through myth and symbol, creating an emotional attachment of people to the system.

4. Fascists use the manipulation to mobilize people for action to benefit the system and particularly the elites. In the 20th century this meant warfare, with the symbols of the state becoming sacred (flags, anthems, etc.) and the state itself worshiped (pledges of allegiance, loyalty oaths). Military service is honored, and members of the military are revered as heroes.

One question that I have, continuing my thoughts from yesterday’s blog, is whether or not American consumerism can be seen as a form of fascism. On the one hand it isn’t overtly political, doesn’t embrace nationalism (indeed, markets are global) and isn’t supporting war (though it does led to the need for oil and other resources which does fuel wars). On the other hand, consumerism is at base emotional, and could be seen as a form of war on nature and even the developing world.

Think about it: we consume tremendous amounts of stuff, mostly based not on needs, but on wants created for us by an advertising and marketing industry that spends over $300 billion a year in the US alone (over ten times our foreign aid to third world states). This has led to pollution which threatens us with global warming, arming regimes that have oil, getting involved in wars, and allowing the developing world to persist in conditions ranging from poverty to chronic malnutrition, even as we are concerned with being to fat, or not having the newest computer software or designer suit. Moreover, it doesn’t even occur to most people to question that state of affairs, it is seen as natural.

As in fascism, this gets rationalized in the guise of market economics, though it goes far beyond the kind of capitalism envisioned by Adam Smith. And, of course, it’s contrasted with Communism, which overtly killed and abused people, making seem like we’re the good system and they were the bad. An artificial dualism cuts out alternatives that don’t fit within the ideological discourse. Moreover, this is done primarily by appealing to emotion, whether it is McDonalds commercials stressing friends and family, or efforts to create brand name loyalty through images and symbols. Mountain Dew gets imbued with the sense that it is the adventuresome drink, all because it spends millions showing teens doing daring things to “do the Dew.”

Clearly commercials and media efforts to create new “wants,” by making them seem like needs is through propaganda (advertising). Most things now deemed essential were luxuries not that long ago. In 1975 only the wealthy could buy a $1300 Betamax VCR. The tools of manipulation are very well thought out, integrating psychology, sociology, and marketing research. Yet the goal is to manipulate through emotions, and get people mobilized to consume and keep on consuming. Consume even as debt rises, even as costs soar, even as bubble after bubble inflates and pops. As a result people get caught up in the hypermaterialism of consumer society, made ignorant of culture and even world events due to a focus on consumption and news that is more entertainment than enlightenment. The gap between the rich and the poor polarizes ever farther, as this manipulation generates huge profits for corporate leaders, as well as political parties and candidates.

The parallels with fascism are disturbing, and could have severe negative consequences for the state of citizens both in terms of individual psychology and our sense of community. It could even set up the possibility of real political fascism, once the last bubble pops and the material goodies become harder to obtain. I’m intrigued by this admittedly politically incorrect comparison. Americans may be caught up in an irrational world of consumer materialism, oblivious to the damage it does to the planet, to the have nots on the planet, and even their own psychological state. In fact, I may turn this question into a major research project.

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  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on July 13, 2008 - 1:12 am

    The way I see it, fascism and consumerism are only instances of the innate human need for purpose in life. For centuries, our lives were consumed by religion, it dominated most aspects of culture and power. Since then, religion has dwindled and marginalized to the point where we rarely acknowledge it outside of the particular traditions that come with that faith. You have talked about this subject extensively on your blog. Today, that human need to find purpose is no longer filled by religion, it is filled by ideologies, particularly the ideology of consumerism. Fascism was only a natural reaction in a setting such as the Weimar Republic, where what we would define as consumerism was impossible due to the economic state of Germany at the time. People looked for a place to find meaning to life, and they found it through the glorification of the state. Fascism is only one of many examples of the things humans have defined their lives by. Whether it be God, a State, and abstract political ideal, or a lifestyle totally dependent on consumer goods, they all fulfill that basic, primal human need for logic in an illogical world.

    So that begs that questions, is a psychological dependence on consumerism favorable to something less material, and more abstract. Consumerism has created the culture which we all adhere to, but is there a better alternative? Philosophical ideologies (Like Communism, Liberalism, Religion and Fascism) have different implication when compared to more physical ideologies (Like Consumerism, or a life focused entirely on family). In many of the examples you gave about Fascism, you mentioned war. It is easy to justify war in the name of an abstract ideology, your ideology can’t be bombed or assassinated. But on the other hand, you most certainly can have all your material possessions taken away, or your family harmed. Hence we in the West take value in peace whereas other, less physically ideological cultures, don’t, or at least not to the extent that we do.

    I could go on for hours about the comparative cultural affects of a philosophical ideology vs. a physical ideology on a civilization. But in the end, which one is more sustainable or favorable.

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