Perfect teeth, sharp suits, and empty promises: but it's not fascism

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The Independent Online
THE FREE-MARKET economy, or fascism. Could those be the stark alternatives of the future? On the one hand, an uncontrolled capitalist beast tramples and roots up all certainties, all security, all settled community. On the other, dictatorial governments rely on a combination of nationalist rhetoric and state protectionism to defend society against the ravages of international competition. This is the prophecy of Edward Luttwak, the American futurologist, writing in the London Review of Books.

In the old days, it was a dogma of the radical left that capitalism and fascism had a natural affinity. Big business had financed Hitler and brought him to power because he would abolish the trade unions and deliver a terrorised working class to the steel barons of the Ruhr. Luttwak does not even mention this argument, which was always bad history. Instead, he sees fascism in our own times as the opposite of laissez-faire capitalism - as the almost inevitable reaction of dislocated societies to the impact of the free market.

Last week, in the Independent, Andrew Higgins visited the Zil car factory in outer Moscow, whose 60,000 workers have all been sent on leave with reduced pay. The same day, I found myself looking at another memorial to the massacres of economic change: the Argyll Motors building at Alexandria, in the west of Scotland.

It is an industrial Versailles of red sandstone, arrogant with cupolas and pillars. Folklore says that it cost the company so much that it never recovered; the Argyll was a famously heavy and reliable car, but the company went bust on the eve of the First World War, when its palatial factory was taken over for war work. When my father worked there, during the Second World War, it was being used as an Admiralty torpedo factory.

The story of the Alexandria factory is a tale of diminishing certainties. First came the classic industrial age: grand local entrepreneurs, a confident labour force with a century of engineering skill behind it. Then came the state, insisting on the maintenance of production and employment in the national interest.

Hard times ensued. The Admiralty departed, and was followed in the Argyll palace by the Plessey electronics firm. When Plessey developed problems in the Seventies and prepared to close down at Alexandria, the employees tried vainly to imitate the Upper Clyde shipbuilders' work-in of 1971; they occupied the factory and attempted to carry on production under workers' control. Later, there was a scheme to convert the empty building into a site for small businesses. Today, it is desolate, its windows broken and its doors chained. In the streets of Alexandria, middle-aged men in caps and anoraks stand in aimless groups about the pavement.

Three generations of working people in this district, the Vale of Leven, have tried to answer the questions: why do we work, and what is our significance? At first, there seemed to be answers. 'We work to feed our families, but also to give the world ships, boilers, marine engines and motor vehicles. Our significance is that without our labour, wealth cannot be created. We will always be needed.' The work-in was a last, desperate attempt to affirm that. When it failed, and as the free market condemned the old Scottish manufacturing base to death, work itself seemed to be degraded. And if work had no worth, life had no meaning. Driving a mini-cab or trimming council lawns was a just a way of staying afloat. Why are we here, what do we mean? Luttwak's point is that the sense of being meaningless is gripping the white-collar employees too. He demonstrates the continuing fall in service-sector earnings and 'the unprecedented economic insecurity of working people, from industrial workers and white-collar clerks to medium-high managers . . . individual working lives cannot be dislocated without damaging families, elective affinities and communities - the moss of human relations which can only grow over the stones of economic stability'.

Luttwak declares that conventional party politics have nothing to offer this drifting, drowning mass. Republicans or Tories merely advise more doses of the free market while moaning about the decline of community and family - 'a perfect non sequitur'. The moderate left would only improve the welfare net and protect selected groups 'with victim status', such as blacks or single mothers. So a new-look fascism, offering to restrict the market and protect the population from the mad tides of the global economy, will step in and sweep the board.

But Luttwak is wrong. It is true that all over the world the same grinning tailor's dummy is being wheeled from country to country; he wears a sharp suit, he has perfect teeth and no programme, and he says simply: 'Vote for me, and I will make you as rich and happy as I am]' Berlusconi is one, and so is Ross Perot, and Tymowski in Poland (he with the paranormal powers acquired in the Amazonian jungle) was another. I would not be astonished if this dummy appeared in Germany, or even France. But fascism this is not.

Fascism is organised hatred. It is a bundle of unconnected grievances tied together by a programme for merciless revenge on some inner enemy or imaginary traitors. Zhirinovsky in Russia is a fascist, with his racialism, his cult of violence and his contempt for democracy. The other dummies are just demagogues. Where Luttwak is right is in seeing that the devastation of community and certainty wreaked by the free-market economy is destroying the old party-political systems of the West.

All these systems have rested on promises of continuity. Conservatism and liberalism once promised the better-off that their lives would grow even more secure. Social democracy assured its followers that by peaceful struggle they could share that stability. But free-market 'turbo-charged capitalism' offers only to break society into a cloud of whirling atoms.

There will be new parties, run on personality rather than programme. This will be true both of free-marketeering governments and of the populist movements which spring up to exploit the nervous, depoliticised mass in its search for new certainties. These parties, having no principles, will have 'dummy' leaders but will in practice be run by ambitious cliques out for quick power and quick profit. They will be very corrupt.

But in the end, I believe, the human race will hit back. Life without some expectation that jobs will last and that families can keep their homes is unbearable. Change is now so fast that, in free market conditions, men and women often find their skills obsolete and their jobs abolished in early middle-age. This is not just a social problem. It is a turning away from the idea that people and their labour have any intrinsic worth at all. It is the ultimate silence spreading from the dead palace at Alexandria.

So the tide will turn. The 'turbo charger' will be switched off; stability of a kind will return. I dislike Luttwak's assumption that the alternative to free-market capitalism is fascism. In the end, it will turn out to be democracy.