There’s a tendency today to see Benito Mussolini as a pathetic sideshow, an incompetent blusterer who went from Adolf Hitler’s idol to his lapdog. Yet in many ways, Mussolini’s notion of fascism has become increasingly dominant in much of the world, albeit in an unexpected form: in the worldview of those progressives who typically see “proto-fascism” lurking on the Right.
Mussolini, a one-time radical socialist, viewed himself as a “revolutionary” transforming society by turning the state into “the moving centre of economic life”. In Italy and, to a greater extent, Germany, fascism also brought with it, at least initially, an expanded highly populist welfare state much as we see today.
Indeed, Mussolini’s idea of a an economy controlled from above, with generous benefits but dominated by large business interests, is gradually supplanting the old liberal capitalist model. In the West, for example, the “Great Reset,” introduced by the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab, proposes an expanded welfare state and an economy that transcends the market for the greater goal of serving racial and gender “equity”, as well as saving the planet.
Wherever it appears, whether in the early 20th century or today, fascism — in its corporate sense — relies on concentrated economic power to achieve its essential and ideological goals. In 1922, for instance, large corporations and landowners helped finance Mussolini’s Black Shirts for their March on Rome. Confindustria, the leading organisation of Italian industrialists, was glad to see the end of class-based chaos and welcomed the state’s infrastructure surge.
Elsewhere, the German cartels and Japanese zaibatsu both kowtowed to and benefited from fascist state support and contracts. Even today, China, in many aspects the model fascist state of our times, follows Il Duce’s model of cementing the corporate elite into the power structure. Since 2000, a hundred billionaires sit in the country’s Communist legislation, a development that Mao would never have countenanced. 1
Capitalist countries have historically resisted such concentrations of power, but this process seems inexorable after a pandemic which devastated small businesses yet saw the ultra-rich grow richer and the largest firms record eye-watering profits. A handful of giant tech corporations now account for nearly 40% of the value of the Standard and Poor Index, a level of concentration unprecedented in modern history.
Companies like Amazon are our zaibatsu, with influence over a vast array of industries, from online retail to cloud computing, the health food business, media and even space travel. Once such firms may have adhered to free market capitalism, but they have increasingly grown to see the value of a larger, more centralised and pervasive state.
This parallels the alarming transformation of the US Democratic Party, the putative “party of the people” , now increasingly a subsidiary of the corporate elite. Among financial firms, communications companies and lawyers, Biden outraised Trump by five-to-one or more. Today’s oligarchs are particularly keen on the progressive non-profit sector, which provides important support for their political and social advocacy — a means for them to make politically correct statements about climate change, gender and race, while still obtaining enormous profit margins and unprecedented wealth.
But whereas the old fascism sought greater prosperity, its new form, at least in the West, supports only an expanded welfare state that keeps the beleaguered middle and working classes both quiescent and stripped of aspiration. Worthies such as former Bank of Canada and Bank of England chief Mark Carney even embrace “de-growth,” a conscious slowing of the economy and embrace of declining living standards.
Indeed, the widely hailed Club of Rome report in 1972 — “The Limits to Growth” — was financed not by green activists but by the Agnelli family from Fiat, once a linchpin of Mussolini’s original corporate state.2 The Report predicted massive shortages of natural resources, slower economic growth, less material consumption and ultimately less social mobility.3
Fast forward to today’s new economic order, and it’s clear that not all economic animals are equal. There are opportunities galore for Wall Street investors, Silicon Valley tech oligarchs, cobalt miners, electric car manufacturers and renewable energy producers through the massive subsidies for producing green.
And these woke oligarchs, like their fascist counterparts before them, see little use for democracy. Eric Heymann, a senior executive at Deutsche Bank, suggests that to reach the climate goals of Davos, corporations will have to embrace “a certain degree of eco-dictatorship”.4 After all, it would be difficult to get elected officials to approve limits on such mundane popular pleasures as affordable air travel, cars, freeways and suburbs with single-family houses, unless they were imposed by judicial or executive fiat.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest losers will inevitably be the poor. Wherever the conventional green policies central to the “Great Reset” have been imposed — California, Britain, Canada, Australia, Greece, Germany, France — the result has been to create high levels of “energy poverty”; the Jacques Delors Institute estimated that some thirty million Europeans were not able to adequately heat their homes during the most recent winter.
But then there are many hypocrisies at the heart of today’s incarnation of Mussolini-style fascism. Our new elites, for example, see no contradiction in supporting claims of “systemic racism” and “social justice” at home, while cooperating with Chinese authorities who abuse basic human rights in Hong Kong or to impose forced labour in Xinjiang. Boldly progressive firms like Airbnb have no problems sharing customer data with China’s security state; nor does Apple show compunction in relying on Uighur labour to build their products.
But in the battle between the two emergent fascist systems, China possesses powerful advantages. Communist Party cadres at least offer more than a moralising agenda; they can point to the country’s massive reduction of extreme poverty and a huge growth in monthly wages, up almost five-fold since 2006. At a time when the middle class is shrinking in the West, China’s middle class increased enormously from 1980 to 2000, although its growth appears to have slowed in recent years.
Like Mussolini, who linked his regime to that of Ancient Rome, China’s rulers look to Han supremacy and the glories of China’s Imperial past. “The very purpose of the [Chinese Communist] Party in leading the people in revolution and development,” Xi Jinping told party cadres a decade ago, “is to make the people prosperous, the country strong, and [to] rejuvenate the Chinese nation.”
In contrast, the tired capitalism of our corporate elite — who seem to have given up on broad-based economic growth — seems increasingly detached from the interests and aspirations of their own citizens’ needs.
Apple’s Tim Cook, for example, waxes enthusiastically about a “common future in cyberspace” with autocratic China. Wall Street also actively lobbies on behalf of Beijing, hoping to cash in on investments that strip America’s productive capacity but enrich them. Oligarchs like Michael Bloomberg describe China, a country of business opportunity for his firm, as “ecologically friendly, democratically accountable, and invulnerable to the threat of revolution”.
How do we combat this trend towards fascist structures? The answer is straightforward, if unprescriptive: to resist them with liberal ideals and a renewed commitment to upward mobility. That won’t be easy. As of today, the consolidation of oligarchic power is supported by massive lobbying operations and dispersals of cash, including to some Right-wing libertarians, who doggedly justify censorship and oligopoly on private property grounds.
Yet despite their riches and technical know-how, the oligarchic elites face widespread and growing scepticism towards both the traditional and social media outlets under their control. Similarly, it’s also unlikely many in the middle class will embrace their programme of race indoctrination, or accept a marked decline in living standards.
But building a coalition against the new fascism requires avoiding destructive nativism and instead focusing on how to restore competition and protect consumers from the overweening power, and vast wealth of the corporate elites.
Will a citizenry, dependent on transfer payments and increasingly voiceless, still put up a fight? To slow fascism’s spread, either from China or from within, requires a re-awakening of the spirit of resistance to authority that has long marked human progress and now seems far too rare.
- See Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (New York: Harper, 2010), 206–8; David S. G. Goodman, Class in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014), 26, 86.
- See “Club of Rome a Worldwide Organization,” New York Times Archives, February 27, 1972; Enclycopedia Britannica Online, s.v., “Agnelli, Giovanni,” accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Giovanni-Agnelli-Italian-industrialist-1921-2003.
- Norman Yoffee, “Orienting Collapse,” in The Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations, ed. Norman Yoffee and George L. Cowgill (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991), 4–5.
- Eric Heyman, “What We Must Do To Rebuild,” Deutsche Bank Research, November 2020.