October 2023

Participatory Fascism

Michael Bettencourt | Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis entered the public domain in 2023, prompting my curiosity about potential adaptations. The book, characterized by a whimsical viciousness with jeremiad undertones, gives a good feel for the fears and frustrations of an era grappling with rising authoritarianism. It's akin to George Orwell's vision, depicting a regime that employs physical punishment and intellectual suppression to both homogenize and divide, similar to Windrip's abolition of the Negro.

Today's political landscape may superficially resemble this template in discussions of a possible second civil war or better-prepared insurrections ("January 6 was just a rehearsal"). However, I argue that the United States is already treading toward what Robert Higgs termed "participatory fascism" and that oppression will manifest not through pain but pleasure, possibly involving cryptocurrency.

The U.S. governance structure, influenced by the Senate and Electoral College, is inherently undemocratic. Efforts to restrict voting opportunities amplify this issue, allowing a minority party to cling to power despite voter preferences. Furthermore, our workplaces, where we spend most of our days, lack democratic representation, leaving us with little say in decisions. In essence, we don't control any part of the means of production.

Rather than George Orwell's dystopian vision of a boot stamping on a human face, we should heed Aldous Huxley's caution. The real concern lies in an overripe, relentless American culture that keeps people overly concerned about their comforts. By stoking insecurity and resentment through culture wars, authorities can maintain control without outright oppression, effectively making people their own jailers.

This doesn't rule out the possibility of another January 6, orchestrated by more competent individuals. But if the goal is simply to advance a reactionary agenda and suppress resistance, there are subtler methods. Gradually erode liberties, manipulate education, get rid of the libraries, rig the economy to keep people tied to their salaries, control the courts, and distract through manufactured controversies. The government's potential introduction of a digital currency could also grant unprecedented power to shut off resources at will, adding yet another layer of control.

Ultimately, it's easier to distract than denounce, to monger fear rather than war. Resistance is tolerated, so long as it remains confined to identity politics and social media influencers who don't unite against common interests and enemies. Crushing any unified opposition, as demonstrated with Occupy in 2011, is a routine practice.

Meanwhile, we can keep all the trappings of a democracy as long as those trappings are limited to voting, making modest campaign donations (while dark money floods the system), engaging in elections as spectacles, and indulging in excessive consumerism while drowning in debt.

In this scenario, it's not the jackboot on the face but the allure of 50% off Doc Martens that prevails.

While the possibility of future insurrections lingers, I find it hard to envision widespread energy and commitment beyond a few militias and pseudo-soldiers who thirst for a test of steel and spirit. Even the rebels have been worn down, preferring to escape into streaming channels and conspiracy theories that offer a semblance of control and entertainment, as exemplified in The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War by Jeff Sharlet.

If you're thinking about these issues, I'd love to hear what you're thinking about. Send the editor a letter and let's get the conversation going.


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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, María-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2023 Michael Bettencourt
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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