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  • Published in Book Reviews

Roberto’s The Coming of the American Behemoth argues that fascist-like processes arose from the essential workings of monopoly capitalism in 1930s America, finds Martin Hall

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Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth: The Genesis of Fascism in the United States, 1920-1940 (Monthly Review Press 2018), 463pp.

From first glimpse of the title, the reader may have concerns regarding Michael Joseph Roberto’s investigation, particularly in terms of definitions and terms. The sub-heading suggests that the US went fascist during the period between the wars, and indeed, Roberto does oscillate between positing this and instead simply providing the reader with a comprehensive analysis of an environment in which fascism’s first flowerings are to be found. It has become commonplace in the historiography of the phenomenon to postulate a ‘fascist minimum’[1], and it is certainly the case that there are particular factors that are present in the popular imagination when considering it: a few obvious ones would be a mass street movement, something akin to a Führer principle, and a certain attendant iconography. Indeed, Robert O. Paxton describes it as ‘the most self-consciously visual of all political forms’.[2]

Roberto, while not referencing Paxton’s now seminal work at all, does not shy away from acknowledging that the situation in the US during this period does not meet the conditions of the ‘fascist minimum’ as commonly understood. As a Marxist, Roberto sees fascism as the dictatorship of capitalism in crisis; where his account differs from more orthodox interpretations is in arguing that the guise that dictatorship took in the US was exceptional, due to the particular form of capitalism in the most advanced capitalist nation on earth. In short, it is the particular set of powers conferred upon big business by the trio of Republican presidents in the 1920s, followed by Roosevelt’s New Deal as a curative response to the failures of laissez-faire capitalism, in which Roberto sees the conditions of a uniquely American fascism. Running throughout his analysis is the quite correct Marxist position that what binds together these periods is anti-socialism and a misunderstanding of the general crisis predicated upon an inability to see the contradictions inherent in capitalist accumulation.

The book is rich in detail, but never dry, as Roberto’s lively prose mitigates against the tendency towards repetition that might have been brought about by the book’s structure, in which periods are to a degree analysed more than once, via differing sources. It is an achievement to present such a meticulously researched book dealing with theory, history and politics that also manages to be accessible to the reader trained in none of those disciplines.

Capitalism and the conditions for fascism

Roberto begins by essentially making his case from the outset; one that he argues is predicated upon the consensus of historians writing at the time. He identifies ‘processes inherent in capitalist production and socio-political relations throughout the period as fascist because they extended and deepened the hold of capital over American political institutions and mass consciousness’[3] and from this builds an argument that the US offers a unique example of a particular set of circumstances which can – at least in embryonic form – be deemed fascist. He does, however, allow that these characteristics did not meld into something distinctly fascist, as was seen in the European countries where the typical forms of fascist dictatorship took root. He also discusses Franz Neumann’s 1942 work, Behemoth, and his postulate that National Socialism did not end capitalism, or its contradictions. Roberto wonders to what extent the era of Donald Trump is similar, in terms of a leader who rails against the ruling class but who fundamentally moves along hand in hand with it.

Part One concerns itself with one of the great periods of prosperity in US history, a time when the idea that capitalism would lead to riches for all, was prevalent throughout both liberal and conservative America. Roberto provides a brief history of the Warren G. Harding period (1921-1923) and discusses opposition to him. The Great War had catapulted the US to economic and political prominence, but the prosperity it had brought ended with the Armistice. Moreover, there was the threat of insurgency from the working class.

Government, along with big business, intervened in a number of ways: strikers were demonised, arrested and deported; immigrants were targeted specifically; and company unions were promoted that did not have collective bargaining rights and which were committed to pushing harmony between capital and labour, which of course meant prioritising the needs of the former. During this period, the Ku Klux Klan, which had been established in 1915, achieved a great increase in its recruitment, as middle-class reaction to working-class militancy grew. While the Klan reserved the largest share of its hatred for African-Americans, it was also quite happy to attack Catholics, Jews, Mexicans, Asians, Italians and communists.

In this context, Harding pushed the idea – very familiar to the contemporary reader – that government ought to function more like a business, introducing a national budget system to attempt to get government spending below income. While a great friend to big business, Harding was also ‘a petty bourgeois reactionary and white supremacist’[4] who pushed the doctrine of America first, itself revived today by Trump. Trouble receded for Harding within a year of his entering the White House, as the Great Boom began, leading to an unprecedented period of growth up to 1929 that saw the US become the first true consumer society, with a concomitant growth of the middle class.

Roberto is at pains to bring a Marxist understanding of class to his analysis, and not to fall into the trap common among US commentators of considering large sections of the working class to actually be part of the middle. Nevertheless, he sensibly works within the confines of how the majority of observers saw this phenomenon – and, indeed, the beneficiaries themselves – and engages with the exceptional attitude to class in the US on its own terms, while not straying from an overall Marxist framework. He correctly identifies this period as an example of what Marx and Engels saw as integral to the bourgeois epoch, one of ‘[c]onstant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions’.[5] All effort was made to sell this as a capitalist revolution, in the context of the parallel socialist one taking place in Russia. This revolution was unique to America, and it was sold as such, further cementing the doctrine of American exceptionalism.

The general law of capitalist accumulation

Chapter Two concerns itself with two things: the first couple of Roberto’s rediscovered texts from the period, and one of Marx’s laws of motion, ‘The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation’. He provides a thorough overview and analysis of this particular chapter of Capital, explaining simply for the reader how the sole purpose of capitalist accumulation is always to raise the value of capital, which is extracted (and increased) via the workers’ labour power as production expands. While such a set of circumstances will see a need for additional labour, and could even lead to higher wages, this will always be within the limits required for the extraction of an increasing amount of surplus value. Labour is always subject to capital. Constant capital – machines, buildings, raw materials etc – will grow relative to variable capital – labour power – in an industrial setting. Marx called this ratio the organic composition of capital. As machines create greater wealth, the amount of variable capital required diminishes.

Over time, capitalist accumulation creates what Marx called ‘a disposable industrial reserve army’[6], which is a necessary product of the development of wealth under capitalism, and which establishes the basis of the inevitable crisis caused by this contradiction: as profit is taken from surplus-value created by unpaid labour, the decrease of variable capital over time limits profits. Roberto spends some time on this law in order to set up his overall position and, specifically at this point, his discussion of Lewis Corey’s 1934 work on the Great Depression. This contradiction is key to Corey’s understanding of why during the Great Boom labour started to be more greatly displaced, and why depression emerged out of very high levels of prosperity. Corey analyses the rise of productivity throughout the 1920s, and provides statistics regarding the temporary and permanent displacement of labour that this created: 2,416,000 in the former category and 416,000 in the latter.[7] Corey saw this as evidence of a general tendency in monopoly capitalism.

Contemporary analyses of monopoly capitalism

Just a few years later in 1938, Magil and Stevens saw in monopoly capitalism the start of US fascism due to what they called an ‘entire mechanism of repression’[8] created by big business and the Republicans. Following this, despite the New Deal under the Democrat Roosevelt, the power of monopoly finance capitalism remained superior and indeed continued to grow as the New Deal ushered in the final phase of the transition to state monopoly capitalism. Nothing in the nineteenth-century transition from the industrial to the higher form of monopoly finance capitalism and imperialism altered the general law of capitalist accumulation. Corey (and Roberto) are both of the view that fascist processes aimed at ensuring the domination of capital over labour were inherent in capitalist production during this period. As economic growth led to overproduction, supply outgrew demand, the contradiction could not be overcome, and crisis ensued.

Overall, what Roberto is at pains to stress here is how the basic contradiction between capital and labour in the context of a before-unseen level of monopoly finance capital created fascist processes: the expansion of production and the sheer disparity between wealth and poverty necessitated repression at home and military oppression abroad, in order to safeguard and increase markets. What this required – contrary to what the proponents of laissez-faire would have us believe – was increasing reliance from capitalists on the powers of government to defend their interests.

Roberto next discusses the method in which prosperity was mediated and spun, and the ways in which mass production facilitated this new world, and controlled the worker. To make an obvious point, the increase in productivity described above required a well-oiled complex of machinery to attempt to get consumption to match it. Developments in technology and the attendant rise in constant capital did mean a world saturated with goods that couldn’t all be consumed, but capitalist true believers did not of course think this, and so began the selling of ideas, concepts and lifestyles, as well as mere things: essentially, the beginning of what we would now recognise as contemporary advertising. Marketing and psychology[9] were a huge part of this process, which set out to sell capitalism as a social good furthered by the individual’s part in purchasing its objects.

Advertising became central to distribution in capitalism during this period, and behind this sat another new aspect of capitalism: the public-relations experts. Roberto cites Stuart Ewen, who argues that they generated ‘foundational changes in the American social fabric’[10] during the 1920s. By the end of the decade corporate thinking was hugely influenced by the growth of this field, which furthered the process of turning the public itself into a commodity. At this time, we can see the birth of a form of capitalism which encouraged an illusion of individualism via a process of commodification in which a person’s buying habits defined who s/he was.

A particular facet of this in the US was its linking with the country’s muscular Protestant Christianity, whereby adverts started to appear that linked consumption of products with the structure and message of parables. This became a whole genre of advertising during this period and was a significant part of what contemporary observers referred to as the ‘ballyhoo’ of the Great Boom, leading to a situation where President Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) could suggest that ad men were ‘facilitating “the regeneration and redemption of mankind”’.[11]

Following that, a particular approach developed within US business as it further exercised its political clout is analysed: the idea that every man could become a capitalist, and that this was the path to everlasting prosperity. Roberto analyses this phenomenon through the work of two of the leading capitalist proselytisers of the day, both of whom were key in the development of what would later be called ‘business theory’: Various approaches to this all saw the endgame as the same: a democratic, capitalist world where the striving individual would always flourish.

Contradictions of the Great Boom

Next Roberto contemplates the paradoxes of the era, mostly through an investigation of those in America who were not beneficiaries of the Great Boom. He pays great attention to the ways in which the ballyhoo surrounding the Great Boom functioned as a mask to hide the sheer numbers of Americans who were left behind. Moreover, this was in a context where the left had been crushed by brute force in the aftermath of World War I. Wages stagnated during the 1920s for the majority of working people, while corporate dividends and profits hit new highs. Workers who stayed on the farms tended to keep the attitudes of nineteenth-century rural life, while those who got to the cities tended to get swamped by the pace of modern life. This was the context of the growth of what is known as the ‘second’ Ku Klux Klan between 1920 and 1925, which took root far beyond its southern base.

Life in rural America was particularly hard: land values and crop prices declined as debts rose. Moreover, restrictions on immigration and a declining birth rate had caused the value of labour to increase, leading many farmers to rely further on machinery, which increased their debt and – as discussed above – over time led to a general fall in profits. Neither the rural working nor middle class was doing very well. High unemployment persisted throughout the Boom: studies show anywhere between 10 and 13% of the available work force was unemployed between 1924 and 1929.[12]

Fascist responses to crisis

To provide further illumination, Roberto refers to the leading liberal journalist Mauritz Hallgren, specifically his 1933 work, Seeds of Revolt. Hallgren was sympathetic to the plight of the middle class, who were meant to be doing very well, but he found that in fact over 60% of the population were not making enough money for a decent standard of living, and among this figure were 18% living in abject poverty.[13] Small wonder that consumption could not keep up with production, leading to the crisis at the end of the decade. While this meant that the working class were not greatly worse off after the crash than they had been during the period of prosperity that preceded it, the middle class certainly were. Roberto discusses the various forces of reaction that grew during this period, to some degree at least predicated upon what happened when fundamentalist Protestants from the country found themselves in the city, leading to typically fascist responses to the tide of modernisation.

While Roberto does devote some time to the KKK and other ‘small fry fascisti’, he takes the view that a concentration upon them at the expense of the monopoly capitalist forces would be to miss the point. Despite this, in part two he does provide an overview of the careers of William Dudley Pelley and Gerald B. Winrod, both of whom had relative levels of success. He ties both men’s beliefs into traditionalist Protestantism, and makes a good case for its foundational role in the discrete paths that they took. Overall, though, he is more interested in discussing how such individuals and related groups gave a voice to a particular middle-class discontent, with, as Nancy McLean has described, ‘its own distinctive relationship to capital and labor…and its own modes of thought’.[14]

Finance capital, imperialism and reaction

Of much more importance for Roberto is the outward march of US finance capital during this period before the Great Crash. At this point the country starts to take an imperialist path, one which the great European powers had set out upon some fifty years earlier, at the point when the particular stage of imperialism predicated upon monopoly finance capital began. The large US corporations moved into Europe, Canada and, in particular, Latin America, in order to secure raw materials, establish new markets and export capital. Unlike Fascist Italy, whose dictator, Mussolini, received much praise in the American press, the US had no need to so directly weld the state and finance capital, as the latter was doing very nicely within the structure of a supposedly liberal democracy. This is why Roberto makes the case that ‘fascist processes in the United States were primarily a political and ideological by-product of capitalist modernity in the capitalist epicentre of the world system and not a reaction to it.’[15]

Part Two commences with a question: was the US in a revolutionary moment during the Depression? Roberto discusses the tendency of recent scholarship to downplay this, and contrasts that with contemporary accounts that reflect a broader range of views. He discusses the particular confluence of big business and state power that was used to crush working-class resistance, followed by President Hoover’s reluctant embrace of a form of state capitalism, having been prior to the crash a staunch proponent of laissez-faire economics. Roberto argues that just as the lower middle class looked to Roosevelt to save them, the capitalist oligarchy started looking towards dictatorship, with increasing calls for the power of the state to be extended over all of economic life, and for the president to be able to govern by decree. All this was justified by the notion that it was necessary due to the state of emergency in which the US found itself.

The nature of Roosevelt’s New Deal

Of particular interest is Roberto’s contention that the New Deal represented at least potentially a transition to fascism. Initially, the talk was all about whether or not Roosevelt would need extraordinary powers to end the recession, though the sheer speed of legislation once Roosevelt entered the White House put this idea on the back burner for the time being. Having said that, each piece of legislation passed by Congress gave more power to the executive, leading to the establishment of several new agencies. This paved the way for a transition to state monopoly capitalism and increased the number of voices wondering if this were better understood as a step on the road to fascism. In particular, the form of corporatism dominant in Mussolini’s Italy did not seem so very different. Roberto makes the point that the association of the New Deal with a reformist impulse in the interests of the people,

‘has reduced complex historical processes to simple constructs in a narrative that glosses over or minimizes fundamental contradictions in the world’s foremost capitalist society and in its political order during the 1920s and 1930s’.[16]

In turn, this created confusion regarding the meaning of liberalism in the context of the political economy of the US that is present to this day.

Roberto provides an exhaustive overview of the various agencies the New Deal set up, and their aims and objectives, and successes and failures. Battles within the branches of government pertaining to them are illustrated. In using the state to save capitalism, Roosevelt acted in the only way he could, which was to leave power (and sometimes increase it) in the hands of big business, other than, of course, by endorsing a socialist alternative. Despite this, the idea that the New Deal was in some sense socialist has retained traction on the American right ever since. Roberto uses statistics to argue the falsity of that position, making the point that wealth trickled up and not down during this period, even though much of the middle class continued to believe that its interests were the same as the most rich and powerful.

Roberto concentrates on the media discussion regarding the relationship between capitalism and fascism, which was pervasive. Connections were made between the ways in which both Roosevelt and Mussolini worked to strengthen capitalism, and the intertwining of US and Italian capitalism. This was exacerbated when it became clear that the New Deal had failed to end the crisis, which led to more calls for a fascist turn, but from above, not below. Marxist commentators discussed the role of liberalism in the preparation for US fascism, and blamed its refusal to recognise the class character of capitalism, and its naïve belief in capitalism’s ability to be inclusive and social in character. Writers such as George Sokolsky, V. F. Calverton, J. B. Matthews and R. E. Shallcross are employed to make a case that there was significant contemporary weight behind the position that there was a definite trajectory towards fascism during the New Deal. American journalists took similar views to Marxist analysts at the time, suggesting a confluence of opinion, if not of exact analysis.

American fascists

In terms of the more blatant fascist voices, Roberto makes space for a discussion of the Catholic priest, Father Charles Edward Coughlin, whose radio show gave him a platform for a variety of nativist and fascist views between 1926 and 1938, and a section on Huey P. Long, the nearest the US got in this period to a fascist who had a conceivable chance of entering the White House. Initially based in Detroit, before a network deal saw his voice enter the homes of people in 23 states, Coughlin espoused a world view predicated upon Christian civilisation being under threat from communism and other outside forces. He did support Roosevelt in 1932, which aids Roberto’s argument regarding the character of the New Deal. However, this support waned, and he became a vociferous attacker of Roosevelt, envisaging a world of small-scale capitalism based on voluntarism and an end to corrupt elites.

Long, on the other hand, practically ran his own personalised fiefdom in Louisiana, exercising the degree of power at state level often represented by corrupt cattle barons in Westerns. He was virulently anti-black and functioned as a dictator until his murder in 1935, through allying himself with the poor of one of the poorest states in the US, while always keeping his hand in with the various plutocrats in the state. In this sense, he can be seen as a precursor to Trump perhaps more than any other character in the book.

What is particularly strong in Roberto’s analysis is his emphasis on the class character of American fascism, and what differences and similarities there were between it and what was happening in Italy and Germany. It is argued that fascism emerged within the two-party system, unlike in Europe, where it had its own distinct parties and mass movements. Uniquely in the US, there was the real possibility that middle-class discontent would be seized upon by the two main parties, causing fascist realignment without the need for a mass movement.

The New Deal and capitalism

What is important to grasp from Roberto’s analysis here is that he sees the New Deal as only temporarily saving capitalism, and that over time capitalists would demand a return to laissez-faire. Also, the initial recovery that was cut short by the renewed depression of the late 1930s was predicated upon consumption and not investment, and was therefore bound to fail. This was, of course, exacerbated by Roosevelt’s calamitous decision in 1938 to attempt to balance the books and curtail federal investment.

The president adhered to a kind of liberal utopianism, which reached its zenith in his subsequent1938 message to Congress when he argued for a democratic, competitive capitalism not in the hands of a monopoly of interests. The context was his decision to reverse his policy of balancing the books and re-embark on deficit spending. His initial request for funds to Congress even warned of the threat of fascism in the form of business dictatorship. Roberto places some emphasis on the importance of this position in, to some degree, turning the tide away from fascism, while commenting that Roosevelt was always trapped between being the servant of the capitalist order and a utopian belief in the morality of government as server of human needs.

The final chapter is dedicated to how fascism inhered in the business system. He sees parallel processes taking place in both developed ‘liberal democracies’and fascist states regarding the form that big business was taking. There were two paths: ‘engage the public in furthering democratic controls over it or succumb to inherent trends in its structure that led to fascism’.[17] Roberto’s conclusion critiques again the myth of US exceptionalism, and the way in which it has been employed within liberal historiography to disavow the notion of American fascism. Roberto’s argument that the US had a unique set of circumstances perhaps leading to a form of fascism is an argument predicated upon a Marxist understanding of how a particular stage of capitalism might create a particular form of fascism.

That being said, we cannot ignore the extent to which what Roberto expertly analyses in the US is qualitatively different from the vast majority of definitions of fascism. Here is Paxton again:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.[18]

If we try and place this period within this framework, then clearly Roberto’s argument does not succeed, but the material marshalled in its exposition is impressive, nonetheless. In an era when the word ‘fascist’ is routinely misused across much of the political spectrum, positing America as ‘fascist’ during the interwar period could be deemed unhelpful (and even dangerous in a non-academic context). However, what the book does do is draw out the commonalities across different capitalist societies in periods where outright fascism can be an outcome, though within an overall framework that is predicated upon a particular stage in capitalist development, at the time unique to the United States. In this context, readers ought to begin this book with a healthy dose of scepticism, though they should leave it with both respect for the research, and for the strength of the argument that it allows Roberto to construct.

 

[1] The term was first used by Ernst Nolte in the 1960s. See his book, Three Faces of Fascism (Mentor: New York, 1969).

[2] Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (London: Penguin, 2004), p.9.

[3] Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth: The Origins of Fascism in the United States, 1920-1940 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018), p.11.

[4] Ibid. p.42.

[5]Ibid. p.45.

[6]Ibid. p.64.

[7]Ibid. p.71.

[8]Ibid. p.74.

[9] For an interesting and novel take on this process in the US, please see Adam Curtis’ 2002 documentary, The Century of the Self, which looks at the ways in which contemporary advances in psychoanalysis – specifically the work of Sigmund Freud – were utilised in the US’s nascent advertising industry. 

[10] Roberto, op. cit., p. 96.

[11]Ibid. p.102.

[12]Ibid. p.137-8.

[13]Ibid. p.141.

[14]Ibid. p.147.

[15]Ibid. p.162.

[16]Ibid. p.219.

[17]Ibid. p.376.

[18] Paxton, op. cit., p.218.

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