In 1980, Bertram Gross warned that developments in the United States could be leading to a form of fascism. He saw an alliance of big business and big government as the basis for tyranny. How many of his worst fears have come true?
Gross made his warnings in a long and detailed book titled Friendly Fascism. There had been plenty of left-wing analyses of power structures in the US and elsewhere, but this book was different. Gross had been part of the establishment, working in the administrations of US presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He had played an important role in developing full-employment legislation.
Gross had seen the exercise of power in the US up close. He was an insider, so his book had more credibility. He was akin to dissidents and whistleblowers, those with inside knowledge who break ranks and reveal what goes on behind carefully constructed screens.
I read Friendly Fascism in 1982 and took some notes. Recently, while going through my old files, I came across these notes and thought, “Gross had some astute insights back in 1980. I wonder how well they’ve stood up since.” Has the US continued to move in the direction that Gross warned against?
To find out, I bought a copy of the book and reread it, more carefully this time around. The original 1980 edition was published by M. Evans and Company. The edition I bought was published by Black Rose Books in Montreal.
On my second reading, I was surprised by the large amount of information and insight offered in Friendly Fascism. It is a comprehensive treatment of a system of rule. Here, I will outline some of Gross’s assessments of power in the US, giving examples of how some of these have foreshadowed subsequent developments, plus examples of predictions that did not pan out. Finally, I offer a few comments about how Gross was able to anticipate so many developments.
Fascism, classic and friendly
By using the term “fascism,” Gross comes up against the many associations people have with the word. Those familiar with history will think of the dictatorial regimes in Italy, Germany and Japan in the 1920s and 1930s that were defeated in World War II.
These regimes were racist, militarist, imperialist and brutal, so “fascism” takes on connotations of these characteristics. Gross carefully lays out his argument that the core of fascism is something different. It is rule by a symbiotic system of big business and big government.
He refers to fascism in the first half of the 1900s in Italy, Germany and Japan as “classic fascism.” He notes that their racism, militarism and imperialism were nothing new; they simply followed the path of successful capitalist powers. Given this, the WWII allies were a temporary military alliance against the German and Japanese empires, “not an alliance against fascism as such.” (p. 27).
Gross questions some of the usual accounts of fascism, saying it’s a myth that it was a revolt of the lower middle class, but instead that fascist regimes had supporters from a range of classes, and the lower middle class didn’t hold power. He points out that analysts of classic fascism in terms of an authoritarian personality miss the political economy of capitalism. Finally, he emphasises that brutality is not peculiar to fascism, so calling police brutality “fascist” isn’t a serious analysis.
Despite Gross’s strictures about the word “fascism,” most readers will find it difficult to completely separate it from mental images of Nazism and Hitler. That is what gives “friendly fascism” a sting.
Gross devotes considerable space to explaining “the Establishment,” the system of rule in the US. To even talk of this is to enter a perspective that clashes with the surface commentary in the media and civics textbooks, which focus on formal structures of representative government and on particular individuals. In the decades prior to the publication of Friendly Fascism, a few political analysts tried to specify the who and how of the US Establishment. Gross draws on the work of authors such as G. William Domhoff, Ferdinand Lundberg and C. Wright Mills. These authors were familiar to me: in the 1970s, I read their books. Gross supplements his analysis using his own experience working within the US Establishment.
One of Gross’s most intriguing insights is that the Establishment in the US is not monolithic: there’s no central conspiracy. On the contrary, conflicts go on all the time, both jockeying for power and clashes over how best to rule, for example whether to introduce social welfare measures that may limit profits but will pacify discontent. In the media, we can read about divisions among dominant groups concerning investment policy, taxation and various other issues, but seldom do we hear questioning about fundamentals, for example private ownership or processes for citizen participation. The system seems to be in constant turmoil but its basic features do not change. That is the genius of rule by a sort of government-business consortium.
In this system, the US president is a key node in many networks. Gross notes that the Chief Executive Network — the President and various White House agencies, among others — is analogous to a Communist Party leadership group.
Gross emphasises that business interests don’t just influence government from the outside; they are part of it. The implementation of policies occurs at lower levels of the Establishment. Those from these lower levels who show loyalty can find a place in the system. He says intellectuals who obtain government or foundation grants become technicians for hire, and are no longer interested in ideas on their own.
Gross describes the ideology of the Establishment in terms of three beliefs. The first is that Communism and socialism are bad. Anti-communism served to restrain the expansion of the welfare state, and anything aiding the poor and disadvantaged was attacked as creeping socialism. Has this changed since Gross wrote? Not much. In the US, there continues to be scaremongering about socialism, far more extreme than in most other countries. A comprehensive government health insurance system, common in industrialised countries, is called “socialised medicine,” a term intended to stigmatise it.
The other two beliefs comprising the ideology of the Establishment are that capitalism is good and that capitalism doesn’t exist. These seem contradictory, but only on the surface. The message that capitalism — conceived as free enterprise — is good was promoted by corporate propaganda after World War II, to counter the unflattering public image of corporate greed. This has continued, with “corporate social responsibility” one of the more recent iterations.
The belief that capitalism doesn’t exist was encouraged by never using the term, instead talking of “the market,” a “mixed economy” or “post-industrialism.” Gross comments that scholars vied with themselves to focus on research methods while ignoring the elephant in the room: the existence of capitalist society.
Some uncanny predictions
On the first page of Friendly Fascism, Gross writes about the future of the US. Rather than moving towards genuine democracy, he saw “… a more probable future: a new despotism creeping slowly across America.” The consequences for citizens would “include chronic inflation, recurring recession, open and hidden unemployment, the poisoning of air, water, soil and bodies, and, more important, the subversion of our constitution. More broadly, consequences include widespread intervention in international politics through economic manipulation, covert action, or military invasion.” Aside from chronic inflation, this seems pretty much how things have turned out.
Let’s consider some of Gross’s other assessments to see how much they apply to US society decades later. Gross didn’t make predictions but rather noted a logic of capitalism, US-style, that he suggested might play out in various ways, usually not as he wished but as he feared. I call these things predictions to emphasise how prescient his analysis was in so many ways.
- “Even in its more expansive and successful moments a deep malaise corrodes the atmosphere of every advanced capitalist society” (p. 98). Work, community and family are falling apart. This is a result of job specialisation, consumerism and labour markets. Assessment This process has continued, and indeed is a key feature of US society.
- For knowledge workers, disciplinary specialisation means ignorance of the bigger picture, enabling service to the Establishment. Assessment In 2000, Jeff Schmidt made a detailed examination of this process in his book Disciplined Minds.
- Mental breakdown is a result of breakdowns in social relationships. Assessment In 2018, Johann Hari provided a moving account of this process in his book Lost Connections.
- Businesses are involved in crime and corrupt practices, while police, prosecutors and judges are soft on corporate crime. Assessment This pattern of corruption and lax regulation has continued. A few corporations collapse, like Enron. In others, massive fines for criminal conduct are absorbed by corporations as the cost of doing business, as in the pharmaceutical industry.
- The authority of major institutions — Congress, business, police, courts — is in decline, as shown by opinion polls. Assessment The decline has continued, as documented and lamented by numerous commentators.
In summary, many of Gross’s assessments of the social impacts of US capitalism seem just as relevant today as when he made them. This suggests he has accurately gauged a relationship between the capitalist system and society that has turned out to be long-lasting. See the appendix for more examples of uncanny predictions.
Some lousy predictions
In a chapter titled “The challenge of a shrinking capitalistic world,” Gross makes several predictions that have not panned out.
- Communist regimes might expand compared to capitalism. Assessment As we know, the reverse happened. The Soviet Union and Eastern European Communist governments collapsed, while the Chinese economy was transformed into state-managed capitalism.
- In the 1980s, Communist China could become “a new source of aid to communist movements in many parts of the world.” (p. 124) Assessment What actually happened is that communist movements have been in decline worldwide. The Chinese government, through its belt-and-road initiative, supports development projects, not communist movements.
- In the 1980s, suggested Gross, Central America and the Caribbean could become socialist. Assessment This didn’t happen. The outcomes were worse, with severe repression in several countries, including genocide in Guatemala.
Gross overestimated the strength of communism and underestimated the dynamism of capitalism, which entered a neoliberal phase in which socialist tendencies were squashed. However, Gross probably would recognise what has been happening in Russia and other successor states following the breakup of the Soviet Union, in which a type of predatory capitalism has taken over that has many characteristics of friendly fascism.
Gross made accurate predictions when he pointed to the internal logic of capitalist societies, with the breakdown of traditional family and community structures. What he didn’t anticipate was the collapse of the Second World, the state socialist world, which was the major competitor to capitalism.
Exploitation versus welfare
One of the important clashes within the Establishment that Gross recognises is between those who seek short-term profits via the exploitation of workers and those who think that for long-term social stability and sustainable profits, it is necessary to provide social support for disadvantaged groups because otherwise they might become the basis for a challenge to the system. This clash has been apparent since the late 1800s, during which far-sighted rulers introduced unemployment protection and other government measures to provide relief from poverty and misery. In the United States, every measure to protect citizens — a universal pension system (called Social Security), unemployment payments, environmental protection and much more — has been furiously opposed by some sectors of the Establishment, while supported by far-sighted defenders of the system. What is most interesting is how, in the US, the more exploitative tendencies have prevailed so often compared with other comparable societies.
Gross tells about two episodes in US political history that seem to have been forgotten, episodes with which he was closely involved. After World War II, there was a proposal before Congress to guarantee full employment, with the government providing a job for anyone unable to obtain one in the private sector. Supporters said this would calm social unrest and provide a basis for stable markets and profits.
But opponents didn’t want government intervention and, more importantly, didn’t want to give workers and unions more power. The bill for this initiative was passed, but its provisions were so thoroughly weakened that employment goals were symbolic only. Some 25 years later, there was a similar proposal during the Nixon administration. It was seriously considered but again the bill was weakened to become only symbolic. In both cases, those favouring measures harsh on the most vulnerable prevailed. In both cases, there were capitalists who recognised that pursuing short-term profits can undermine long-term profitability.
The unfolding logic
Gross aimed to reveal a powerful logic in the world’s contending forces.
“This logic points toward tighter integration of every First World Establishment. In the United States it points toward more concentrated, unscrupulous, repressive, and militaristic control by a Big Business-Big Government partnership that — to preserve the privileges of the ultra-rich, the corporate overseers, and the brass in the military and civilian order — squelches the rights and liberties of other people both at home and abroad. That is friendly fascism.” (p. 161)
As soon as Gross referred to a powerful logic, he was quick to say, yet again, that capitalist leaders have no single plan, and that there are no central planners. This point is crucial, because it is easy to believe that if developments are serving particular interests, then surely someone is behind the scenes manipulating things. The “logic” to which Gross refers is the outcome of contending forces within the Establishment, like the groups pushing for or against welfare measures.
Gross warned that “the various crises in American society provided opportunities for Establishment leaders to do things that would accelerate — often unintentionally — the tendencies toward a repressive corporate society.” (p. 163) This was two decades before the 9/11 attacks and the launching of the so-called War on Terror.
Back in the 1980s, Gross’s assessments might have made some readers feel that friendly fascism had already arrived. Gross said no, it hadn’t. He noted that there was still much democratic openness and opportunity in the US. Government misdeeds continued to be exposed, civil liberties continued to be asserted and workers continued to strike. Gross pointed to citizen activism, especially against nuclear power, conscription and military interventions. We now know that this activism was successful in stopping nuclear power and conscription, and continued in other areas, most notably climate change.
Gross addressed the perennial question, “What can you do?”, recommending action (rather than resignation), learning from failures, having aspirations, avoiding co-option, being part of a larger movement, and involving people on the inside of the system. He said not to expect quick success but instead to have a realistic schedule, with aspirations high enough to encourage continued action. This is just the sort of advice provided by far-sighted activists, for example Chris Dixon, Another Politics, L. A. Kauffmann, Direct Action, and George Lakey, How We Win.
How could Gross make so many accurate predictions?
Gross didn’t set out to make predictions about the future trajectory of the US political system, as he was more concerned with warning about what might happen. Nevertheless, many of his observations seem to have been borne out, as already noted. What enabled this? Here are my best guesses.
Gross analysed the core of fascism as being a partnership between big government and big business, saying this did not require the brutality commonly associated with classic fascism. Whatever the label, he identified government-business as a central dynamic of political economy in the US. If this dynamic continued and became stronger, then it’s possible to extrapolate to the future, and this is just what Gross did.
Another of Gross’s insights is that the US Establishment is not unified but conflictual, with contending pressures. With this insight, Gross identified the strength of the US capitalist system in responding to pressures and threats in a flexible way. This also means that what usually passes for political debate, including between government and business, and which seems to be about the most important issues of the day, operates within assumptions that maintain the system. In other words, Gross saw through the usual cut-and-thrust of everyday politics to a core dynamic that is seldom addressed in media coverage and popular understanding.
A related insight is that the system needs to maintain its legitimacy and prevent grassroots insurgency. This is done not through central planning but through the clash of priorities within the Establishment as it responds to challenges from below. Gross could see trends, for example the breakdown of community and the use of education and the media to pacify the masses, that have continued ever since.
Finally, Gross recognised the importance of democratically-minded challengers to the system. He was quite aware that citizen activism would continue to play a crucial role in preventing moves toward a more repressive political system, whether or not it was called fascism.
As well as making uncanny predictions, Gross also made predictions that did not come true. This is hardly surprising. Who can accurately say what will happen in the next 40 years? What we can learn from Gross’s diagnosis is the importance of identifying key driving forces, not being too distracted by the everyday clash of contending forces, and seeing what can be done.
What would Gross say about Donald Trump, the rise of right-wing violence and the efforts of anti-fascist activists, notably Antifa? Are these symptoms of a turn to overt fascism or are they a sideshow, with government-business synergy becoming more entrenched? For an analysis of Trumpism as a neofascist political movement, see Anthony DiMaggio’s 2022 book Rising Fascism in America. If Gross were here, perhaps he would say we need to look beyond the surface struggles to the driving forces leading towards friendly fascism.
I thank Susan Engel, Michael McKinley and Ian Watson for valuable comments.
Appendix: additional uncanny predictions
- In the 1980s, the “free world” empire could be broken up or, more likely, reconstituted. “Remodeled under pressure, the ‘Free World’ might then, conceivably, be capable of reexpansion, effectively absorbing various communist regimes back into the capitalist world order.” (p. 173). Assessment This pretty much describes what happened with the former Soviet Union and Eastern European communist regimes.
- The militarism of friendly fascism would be global, science-based, integrating civilian and military elements, and sanitising violence (in contrast with classic fascism’s glorification of violence). Assessment Drone killings are one example of science-based violence that is hidden from the US public, and thus sanitised. On the other hand, the “shock-and-awe” bombings that initiated the 2003 invasion of Iraq are closer to a glorification of violence.
- The “Radical Right” now seeks change, making the Establishment more authoritarian with themselves part of it. “Today, the momentum of the Radical Right is impressive.” (p. 198) Assessment Since then, its momentum is even more impressive.
- Ways of maintaining the legitimacy of the Establishment include continual fear-mongering about socialism and communism, extolling the wonders of the market, and remaining silent about corporate power. Those pushing in egalitarian directions need to be dismissed as “levellers” and lower classes seen as inferior and hedonistic. Hierarchy needs to be validated. Assessment Tick.
- Dangers loom from ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect and lab-produced viruses. Assessment As it turned out, international measures were taken to protect stratospheric ozone, so that danger has mostly been averted. The greenhouse effect refers to what is now commonly called climate change or global warming. In 1980, this was just a blip on the environmental radar. It has now become front and centre. As for lab-produced viruses, the lab-leak theory of the origin of Covid is either correct or could have been correct.
- Television serves as a pacifying medium. Assessment Since 1980, television has been supplemented by social media and video games, each with addictive capacities.
- “Almost every component of America’s mammoth school system serves as a training ground in the submission to authoritative rules and procedures.” (p. 277) There is more docility at university and graduate student levels. Assessment Not much seems to have changed. Free schools remain at the margins.
- Under friendly fascism, the rewards of jobs or welfare are contingent on loyalty and conformism. Assessment This process has been institutionalised through the increase in precarious employment, in the so-called gig economy.
- Economic inequality will become entrenched. There are incentives for making more money and accumulating wealth but no incentives for promoting equality. Assessment Economic inequality has increased in the US, where it is more extreme than in most affluent societies, with dysfunctional consequences perceptively analysed by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level.
- Liberal feminism is not a threat to the system. Getting more women into elite positions can actually strengthen the system.
“No matter which way America goes during the remainder of this century, more women will undoubtedly reach positions of higher prestige and visibility. Whether or not we get a woman president eventually, the time is not far off when there will be a woman Supreme Court justice, women astronauts, and more women as corporation executives, generals, police officers, legislators, politicians, professionals, and middle- and top-level bureaucrats. Such a development is not at all inconsistent with the crystallization of a full-fledged oligarchy. Indeed, it could help. By bringing more women into well-established masculine roles, it could undermine system-transforming tendencies in the women’s liberation movement and maintain, if not strengthen, the manipulatory machismo that seems inherent in many of the tendencies toward friendly fascism.” (p. 327)
Assessment This trajectory has been documented in exquisite detail by Hester Eisenstein in her book Feminism Seduced.