Friday, 23 November 2012

It Can't Happen Here! (Oh Yes it Can)


“Bring out the old-time musket,
Rouse up the old-time fire!
See, all the world is crumbling,
Dreadful and dark and dire,
America! Rise and conquer
Rise world to our heart’s desire!”

Recently I finally found the time to read Sinclair Lewis's warning about the rise of Fascism in America It Can't Happen Here. Its been on my to read list for quite awhile so its good to finally cross it off. Its also a pretty good read on its own merits too, so time well spent as far as I'm concerned.

A bit of background It Can't Happen Here was both set and published in 1935 as a rebuttal to the often repeated response to the rise of Fascism and Communism in Europe, "Don't worry dear it can't happen here" to show that actually Dictatorship can easily happen in America and if it did this is how it'd probably go down, and spoiler warning it isn't a pleasant ride.

Since the original Red Scare of the 1920's had effectively broke the back of Left wing radicalism it was much more likely that the threat to American democracy would come from the right, which is why the Dictatorship is very similar to the Fascists of Europe. Reading the book two things struck me, first its fascinating to see a contemporary audience grappling with the then unprecedented rise of Totalitarianism and an awful lot of the events, characters and themes are eerily similar to the world of today.

Of course being set in the Great Depression the economic woes will be familiar to us, but going a bit beyond that, we see media manipulation, an alliance or merger of government and corporations, and idolisation of the nation and military, blaming any and all problems on subversive elements, and quite a bit more.

Its told mostly from the point of view of Doremus Jessup an editor of a Vermont newspaper, whom has politically views suspiciously similar to Sinclair Lewis's own. Through Jessup's we see America's quite quick transformation into a Dictatorship and the rise of its nasty side. Jessup is one of the few to perceive how close the threat of jackboots actually is and early chapters often have him getting fed up with the complacency of his peers, in short he's sick of hearing "It can't happen here".

The "coup" occurs during the Presidential elections, in effect America votes for a Dictatorship. On one level this is a refference to Hitler's rise, not only becoming leader of the largest party in the Reichstag but also becoming Chancellor by entering a coalition with Conservative parties. There is also another argument that America despite its constantly stated love of freedom has a very long history of supporting and voting for very restrictive measures, like Prohibition which was a nationwide restriction on a very popular recreation, and was only ended in 1933 so still in recent memory. Prohibition is rightly regarded as a failure but its often forgotten that much like the War on Drugs it enjoyed a lot of support at first and took years of failure before it was repealed.

Jessup's political views are extreme left Liberal, he hates all the isms though his main criticism of the Communists some of whom he befriends is that there dominated by Russia. In the thirties this was quite true Cominterm the Communist International had quickly been dominated by the Soviet Union to the point where they could order parties to merge with others and dictate their own political programs. And funnily enough the anti Communist laws and measures in the West that were brought in because they feared Moscow's influence actually made the problem worse, because most independent Communist, Socialist and Anarchist groups like the Communist Labour Party didn't survive the crackdowns whereas those enjoying the support of the Soviet Union could better weather the storm and then dominate the political space.

So he has a bit of a reputation for being a radical in his social circles, however he believes in one man one vote and normally votes Democratic at least until this election where he switches to Towbridge a moderately progressive Republican. Since Jessup spends most of the novel as "the one lone Liberal" it means the book is saved from becoming a party election broadcast (The Iron Heel I feel is damaged since the Socialist Party it champions so much effectively fell apart a few years after) whilst still maintaining a concious political line beyond the trite "freedom good, Dictator bad" you could get from a children's book. Him being alone in his thinking also helps prevent the Liberal politics from becoming overbearing.If you don't agree with him (and I don't but more on that later) it shouldn't detract from the experience too much.

Also it scores some points by not having its Hitler character be much like Hitler. The problem with Adolph Hitler in fiction (you know beyond his monstrous policies) is that he quite easily comes of very clownish. A loud often shrill voice, quick to anger, a moustache made famous by not one but two comedians. And a burning passion for things which don't translate well to a non German non Nazi audience. So its quite difficult to get him the person to be menacing, also given that America is not Germany its very unlikely they'd have such a love affair with an American version, and even if they did the rise of NSDAP meant they wouldn't be so prosaic about letting him get high office.

No Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip -the Chief- is no Hitler, he's an American folk hero with the common touch. Instead of the SA he uses an unemployed association numbering in the millions to propel him to power, and then when he does get round to establishing his own SA the Minute Men (M.M.) rather then saunter about with naked threat he covers them up as a sort of patriotic marching society, well until his regime cements control anyway, after that the concentration camps and military judges come out in force.

The Image                        The Reality

The book has a very clever way of establishing Buzz and his ideas early on whilst establishing Jessup's America. Jessup never actually meets Buzz, the closest he gets is attending a few speeches during the election campaign, in fact he doesn't meet or interact with any of the key players  of the regime, instead he has to deal with and suffer the cruelty of the local regime big fish. I like that, it gives the book a national scope and shows that this is indeed a transformation of the whole of America requiring the action of millions.

So to establish the Buzz as the linchpin of  all the changes that Jessup and his family and friends suffer the beginning of most early chapters have a short extract from Buzz's own Mein Kampf, called Zero Hour, in this way we get little titbits about the man and his radical new ideology that has both Tycoon and beggar supporting him. I've read Mein Kampf and I guess so did Sinclair Lewis because Zero Hour is a very similar book. Both are a combination of biography and political manifesto, and both are extremely disjointed, in fact I think breaking Zero Hour up with chapters of It Can't Happen actually makes it seem the more coherent of the two because you forget some of the contradictions in the mean time.

Zero Hour is full of tales of Buzz's humble upbringing, and peppered with a distrust of intellectuals -whilst presenting a blueprint for a new society- some praise for left wing theorists and politicians for their empathy for the working man and criticism for the big city industrialists -even though his policy would entrench the system that makes poverty so cruel and reward the industrialists with even greater power- its through reading Zero Hour that first makes it clear, even clearer then the M.M. and self appointed title of Chief that Buzz is indeed a Fascist. Fascist philosophy holds that the most important aspect of society is the Nation, it does at least acknowledge that there are differences between citizens and that there is a Class conflict, but its "solution" was to get both capital and labour to come together under the guidance of the Fascists who would mediate for both and get them to achieve a compromise for the benefit of the nation. They called it the Corporate state, and guess what Buzz changes America's name to? That's right he turns it into the Corporate state, and his official Ideology is Corpoism.

You may wonder why if Buzz is so explicitly Fascistic why he doesn't just you know embrace the label. Well there are two main reasons one the Fascists are well known to America at this point, news of black shirted thugs brawling in the streets of Rome and Brown shirted SA smashing up the Jewish quarter were well known, the main explanation for all the odd style choices and wordplay from Buzz's regime is a deliberate attempt to avoid parallels with Hitler and Mussolini. The M.M. for example were Civil war era uniforms and there symbol is a simple American five pointed star.

Upton Sinclair the famous American Socialist (whom is mentioned occasionally in It Can't Happen Here) did something similar with his Eradicate Poverty In California bid for Congress he publicly admitted after failing to win that EPIC's platform was exactly the same as he earlier bid for Congress as the Socialist Party Candidate (no prizes for guessing which campaign got the higher vote share). The point is you should never take a political party or movement at face value, just like you should never judge a book by its cover.

So in essence Buzz with the help of Sarason his Secretary and personal Goebbels, trick America into putting Fascist in power. Sarason's main job is to keep the media image of Buzz and Corpoism positive and he does so using every trick from forging stories of Red Terror and Mexican incursions. However its important to note he doesn't do this through some monolithic Fascistic BBC, his control of media is made easy since most of the big media Barons throw their support behind Buzz, especially William Randolph Hearst's. Its only the papers of annoying thorns like Jessup that are taken over. Sinclair remembers what a lot of American right wingers wish to forget, in there desperate attempt to lump it in with the left. It is an indisputable fact that Fascism in every nation it took root in always found friends in the established Conservative movements and Capitalists, and always persecuted the Liberals, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists and Social Democrats, and sought to curtail all independent organisations of the Labour movement.

Oh and did I mention that Buzz stands as the Democratic candidate, after FDR and his supporters split to form the "Jeffersonian Party". That seems a little odd but you have to remember two things, first in the 1930's the Democratic Party was far more willing to accept large scale government spending and intervention thanks to FDR's New Deal programs. And of course the Republicans where the party of the establishment and strangely often had the majority of black votes (since Southern Racists where staunchly Democratic, right up until the Civil Rights acts of the 60's) Buzz Windrip is an political outsider in appearance, draws a vast amount of support from the unemployed whom support the principle of government intervention, and some of his policies specifically single out Blacks (and Jews) for even further discrimination nationally by capping the amount of money a Black family can earn in a year (with some ridiculous requirements to be eligible for the full amount)  and barring them from most jobs beyond unskilled labour.  Add all that together and it makes sense, though it should be stressed apart from the anti Jew and anti Black policies (which sadly weren't as unpopular at the time as we'd like to believe) he does a good job of hiding the "teeth" of his policies. His most popular and most oft quoted policy is he commitment to ensure full employment and a minimum of $5,000 per White American family annually.

This is still absurd and offensive but it is a good illustration of my above point

But as the saying goes "be careful what you wish for" copying Hitler's "economic miracle" Buzz Windrip solves unemployment by putting the poor in Labour camps were room and board are deducted from there already low wages. M.M. Officers stop the confiscated businesses of prisoners and dissidents from stagnating by taken them over for themselves. Schools are radically reorganised into super universities dedicated to physical training and the "Practical sciences" like engineering and aeronautics. Most unemployed not to be put in camps find work either in the M.M. or the regular Army which within a year has been overtaken by M.M. much like how the S.S. grew from a guard unit into an army within an army superior to the Wehrmacht, and Mussolini's "elite" Blackshirt divisions. Somehow despite placing caps on maximum earnings the wealthy businesses don't seem to be hurting much or at all under Windrip, funny that.

So within the year things are looking pretty bleak for Jessup, with acquaintances being sent to camps, others fleeing across the border to Canada, and all local important government positions being taken by those New Englanders that leapt at the chance for advancement by putting on uniform and filling up there arrest quota's. In fact the State of Vermont no longer exists anymore, as Buzz took Gerrymandering to the logical extreme of abolishing the States and merging them into Districts.  

But all is not lost, the real Reds are used to state oppression, police raids arbitrary trails and mass arrests (a fact that is at least acknowledged if dismissed immediately after being brought up) and have gone underground surfacing sporadically to give the M.M. a headache or two. And in Canada the Yankee diaspora has established its own resistance networks and begun re infiltrating America. If that wasn't bad enough the key players in the regime have begun to fall out with one another as the contradictions in there power base (mostly between Nationalist puritans and decadent Capital) flare up in a way that's similar to the Nacht der Langen Messer (Night of Long Knives) in 1934. That event saw not only the Ernst Rohm and the SA crushed, but also the entirety of the Nazi parties "Left" or "Socialistic" wing annihilated. How does this toxic mess of political blood letting end? Well you'll have to find out by reading it for yourself I don't feel comfortable spoiling the very end of a book, even one as old and well known as this.

So that's the plot and its grounding in the reality of the day established, how about its relevance today beyond a way to spend an evening or two? Well as is well known on the internet the prospect of a Fascist Democratic candidate isn't so far fetched to some people out there, thought it has to be said if Obama really is a Fascist, or a Communist, or a Islamist or some nightmarish amalgamation of the lot then he is without a doubt the most inept political leader in world history. Because in the past four years he's done so little for any of those groups that he wouldn't even complete page one of any of there manifesto's.

But the underlying theme/threat of a merging of Corporate entities and the Government isn't quite so far-fetched. Left and Right wing thinkers have been warning about the rise of the Military Industrial Complex, the alliance between Foreign Offices and financial institutions and the lack of interest from governments in curbing the worst effects of globalisation such as outsourcing.  The whole point of Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots is to challenge the power of finance capital over the political process.  The whole point of the famous 99% image was to expose the inherent unfairness that 1% a minuscule segment of the population receive all the attention from politicians and are the prime concern when it comes to government policy. 

And as far as Red Scares go, there have been some big attempts to kick start another one but it largely hasn't taken hold. The only people I've ever heard mention the big C word fall into one of three categories, the group who already hated it but don't know what it is, the group whom love the idea but also don't know what it is, and the old guard of true believers. But the intent is there and it is conceivable that the media might be able to cook up another image of an Agent Provocateur  (no not the lingerie line) haunting ever rally and march.

I'd like to say the old trick of gaining popularity by kicking Blacks and Jews has gone, truth is the "Jews are behind everything bad" sentiment is still alive. It has dissipated as a viable tactic for a political movement though so we've made some progress. Unfortunately as the constant rumours and conspiracy theories about both Obama's place of birth and parentage show coupled with some rather ugly comments by some Republican affiliates about mass "coloured voting" resentment toward the Americans of African descent hasn't been put to rest either. But again the opportunity to gain politically has diminished too. Unfortunately since 9/11 and NAFTA it looks like Blacks and Jews have been replaced by Latino's and Muslims, but as the recent elections have shown at best that doesn't translate well nationally only locally in some regions.

So overall despite the "Updates" from the march of history It Can't Happen Here still has a lot of wisdom that's worth chewing over if you have the opportunity.

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