The last place you might expect to find a progressive would be the executive offices at Allied Chemical, Mobil, or Xerox Corp. But, throughout a business career that spanned four decades, Laurence Britt never stopped challenging the status quo. And at the age of 64, he has become a leading voice on the left.
Britt, who held positions at all of the above companies, traces his interest in history back to his boyhood in suburban Philadelphia. His politics were clarified during his years studying business at Northwestern University in the early 1960s.
"I had a course in Situational Analysis," says Britt. "You would analyze facts and come to a solution for businesses. I applied the same methodology to determine what political philosophy was most appropriate. After a lot of reading and research, I came down on the progressive side."
Since retiring, Britt has written three novels. But it's one short article that has gained him high visibility on the left. Fascism Anyone? (www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/britt_23_2.htm) outlines 14 common threads linking Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal, Papadopoulos's Greece, Pinochet's Chile, and Suharto's Indonesia. The article was published in Free Inquiry in 2003, but type the title into Google and you'll get 3,500 hits. One political website --- Project for the Old American Century --- fleshes out his 14 points with examples of how America is slouching toward fascism (www.oldamericancentury.org/14pts.htm).
Britt sees no conflict between his capitalist career and his left-wing politics; he believes the companies he worked for were ethical. "Capitalism works well in creating prosperity for the most people and providing them the most freedom," he says, "but it needs a lot of regulation."
At Xerox, Britt rose to divisional vice president of finance and, later, business manager of an out-of-the-box activity. Titled "Intrapreneurship," the division used small-company techniques to find new ways of doing things.Among his group's achievements was the Xerox 2510, a copy machine that has basically replaced the blueprint process. "It was one of the lowest-cost product-development activities for one of the highest profits we ever had in the company," he says.
But he never left politics behind. In the late 1980s he answered an ad from Johns Hopkins University Press seeking contributions to a book of new ideas to engage the Soviet Union. He wrote an essay on business and trade that was published and presented to government officials in Washington, D.C.
A few months later he got a call from the FBI, asking him to report to the Federal Building.
"They asked lots of questions: 'Why did you in November have a phone call to the Soviet Embassy?' 'Why did you visit the Soviet Embassy?!' This was after the book came out, after the paper was presented to an audience with people from the CIA and defense intelligence agencies. But the FBI hadn't been clued in. They said I could go, but 'don't say anything about this and most of all don't tell the press.' That gave me an idea of the mindset in these agencies."
In 1990, Britt started a consulting firm to help link American and Soviet companies for trade. It was fairly successful for six years, despite interference from the United States government when it came to exporting goods. But toward the end, in 1994, Britt says, "We ran into the over-arching and growing power of the Russian Mafia. Every time we visited companies, security became more and more obvious. Extortion was the big thing. 'You want to do business? Give us a cut or something bad will happen to you.' Eventually some of the people we were working with got knocked off."
It was on one of his 18 trips to Russia that Britt began writing novels, all of which had prescient elements. June, 2004, which deals with America slipping into fascism, was published by BookWorld Press. In Terror (published on the web), the Russian mafia smuggles a nuclear bomb into the US and uses it for extortion. The book also explores bungling in US intelligence services. Paying the Price (unpublished), which tells the story of a young idealist drawn into corruption, was a precursor to the corporate scandals.
At the end of Fascism Anyone?, after outlining his 14 points, Britt writes: "Does any of this ring alarm bells? Of course not. After all, this is America, officially a democracy with the rule of law, a constitution, a free press, honest elections, and a well-informed public constantly being put on guard against evils. Historical comparisons like these are just exercises in verbal gymnastics. Maybe, maybe not."
In a recent discussion, we asked Britt to elaborate on the 14 points, with an emphasis on his phrase, "Maybe, maybe not." An edited version of that conversation follows.
City: In your first characteristic of fascism, "Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism," you mention displaying the flag. I was surprised to see a large one on your porch.
Britt: I put a flag up on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Flag Day, and Veterans Day. I don't have it up all the time. There's nothing wrong with pride, it's when pride moves into hubris.
City: Many people who might agree with you about hubris put up flags after 9/11 as a way of saying we're not going to take this country for granted.
Britt: Certainly we need to come together, but we need to come together intelligently. We need to understand why 9/11 happened. I don't think too many people asked why. It was just: We're good; they're evil.
City: Why do you think it happened?
Britt: I don't think it happened because we're the beacon of freedom and opportunity, which is what we heard from the president. It happened because America has been extremely aggressive in the last 50 or 60 years on the world stage and has caused a lot of suffering that most Americans have absolutely no clue about.
We've interfered in the internal affairs of 51 countries --- Lebanon, Syria, Cuba, El Salvador, Columbia, Bolivia, Angola, and many more --- since the end of World War II, putting agents on the ground, interfering with elections, things that, if done to us, would be absolutely outrageous.
Twenty-six countries we've attacked, bombed, invaded, without being asked in. Seventeen we've overthrown governments and in just about every case the result was very bad for the people involved. In virtually every case, the government installed was autocratic. We say we're trying to promote democracy, but that isn't happening. Of the seven fascist countries in the article, we set up three of them: Greece, Chile, and Indonesia.
City: Why, specifically, did bin Laden attack us?
Britt: The upshot of that is we've made a lot of enemies. Bin Laden --- like a lot of other people who turned out to be our enemy --- we were one of his early supporters. The CIA trained and armed him because we believed he would be using the weapons against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. So this is an example of blow-back.
He clearly said that the reason he was opposing the Soviets was because of religion; they were the infidels. Nobody thought that through, that some day we might be the infidels. Then the Gulf War came along. By the way, bin Ladenwas particularly incensed with Saddam Hussein because his behavior got the US into the Middle East. There we were with a huge army within miles of Mecca. To his Islamic Fundamentalist mindset, we become an object of hatred. So we fight the Gulf War and stay there, establishing large bases in Saudi Arabia. We become his sworn enemy.
City: Would you have gone after him in Afghanistan after 9/11?
Britt: Obviously he was responsible for what happened in Somalia and for the USS Cole, so obviously we should go after him... or modify our behavior, perhaps.
City: Well, which would you do? Would you go after someone who killed 3,000 Americans?
Britt: Once that happened you have to go after him strongly, which is not what the Bush Administration did. But to learn from the event you have to understand what led up to it, and I think we're going to continue to be the enemy of a lot of people as long as our foreign policy continues to be this aggressive and laced with hubris. Plus, we have no allies now.
City: Your second characteristic is "Disdain for the importance of human rights."What are some cases you're thinking of?
Britt:Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act.
City: The argument is: it's a different world today with chemical weapons, where one person can cause much more harm than during, say, World War II. Do you think it's different in terms of dealing with prisoners of war or suspected terrorists?
Britt: Just one point: All of these are descriptions of characteristics of fascism in the seven regimes that I talk about. I didn't say, per-se, this is what's happening in the US.
City: But you wink at the end and question whether it's going on here. That is your implication, isn't it?
Britt: Of course. But I'm not saying all 14 are happening in America.
City: But I want to see which you think are. The argument is we're seeing new forms of killing that weren't there before.
Britt: Bush's nominee for Attorney General [Alberto Gonzalez], in a memo, talked about how certain aspects of the Geneva Convention might not apply to the prisoners at Guantanamo. I'm kind of astounded that that would be true today, but in World War II when we were facing world-historical enemies, Nazi Germany, we never said anything like that. Look at the threat of World War II compared to these terrorists; it's like nothing.
City: I think the Bush position would be that if an enemy is not following the conventions of war,they're the ones who have changed the rules, hitting soft targets, etc.
Britt: And they did it in one day and they haven't done it since. They never did before and the reason they were able to succeed that day was because of incredible lapses in security. I don't think it will ever happen again, at least not that way.
World War II went on for six years. On an average day in World War II, 35,000 people died. To equate the War on Terror with the magnitude of that kind of conflict and the amount of hysteria that's generated for political purposes is incredible. Yes, it was a spectacular event. Part of the reason was it was covered by cameras and repeated over and over. No other event in history has ever been covered like that. But just think of how many people this year will die from the flu because we don't have flu shots. You can't take a picture of that. So, yes, 3,000 people were killed, but do you turn your democracy on its head?
City: That leads to your next point: "Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause." Filmmaker Theo van Gogh was recently murdered by Islamic extremists in the Netherlands for making a film they found offensive. Islamic schools and mosques there have been attacked. After 9/11, there were hardly any attacks against people in the US.
Britt: That's done by the crowds; if you look at government actions it's a lot less sanguine. People have been arrested all over the place, held for months with no charges. People were deported for no reason. The people in Lackawanna, when you get right down to it, there was nothing there.
City: They had been to bin Laden's training camps.
Britt: But nobody had done anything. There was no plotting, no weapons or explosives. The government made them admit something and put them away.
City: Wasn't that caused by the idea of sleeper cells? The people who did 9/11 had been in the country and had used the freedom of the country to do it. Richard Reid was on the plane trying to set off his shoe bomb. And another man was ready to attack LAX. These men had been to al Qaeda training camps; what do you do?
Britt: You need good law enforcement and good intelligence. And act appropriately. What you don't need is hysteria and complete overreaction. We went from being asleep at the switch to being ridiculously over the top so as to give the impression of really doing something even though it might be ineffectual.
The word "terrorist" has become like "communist." John Walker Lindh is turned into a monster and thrown into prison for the rest of his life. It's ludicrous. He was over there at the time of the attack; he certainly had nothing to do with it. He was converted to Islam and became kind of a fanatic. He's fighting with the Taliban, he gets caught, and he's down in the basement of this place strapped to a stretcher. A CIA guy a couple hundred yards away gets killed and we want to prosecute him for the murder. He was a deluded teenager. They should have just let him go. He had parents back in California. People get misguided every day.
City: He had weapons. He was fighting against US troops.
Britt: He was fighting against the Northern Alliance; he was there before we got into the war. For all we know he didn't even know the US was involved before it was too late. It's the kind of hysteria that gets stirred up. I remember the cover of the NY Post: "The Face of a Traitor!"
City:We've touched on point four, "The supremacy of the military/avid militarism," but in these times don't we need a strong military?
Britt: Of course we do. We're a great power with a lot of interests to protect. It's a question of how we're going to use this power. For the most part the American military has a good history compared to most of the militaries of the world.
City:Your next characteristic, "Rampant sexism," deals with issues like abortion and homosexuality. Do you believe, now that Republicans dominate, the clock will be turned back on gay rights and abortion rights?Could it be that these issues are used as political footballs --- very effectively --- but that not even Bush will try to outlaw abortion? And Cheney's own daughter is gay.
Britt: I've heard a lot of people comment since the election that the evangelicals came out in strength to re-elect him and now they want to be paid back. I think Supreme Court appointments could have the effect of overturning Roe v. Wade. Do I think it will pass? Probably not.
City:Number six is "a controlled mass media." I liked the description in your novel, "June, 2004," of a talk show where one liberal is shouted down by two conservatives.
Britt: That's what goes on now. You put the most outrageous person on with someone who's telling the truth. The perception is that the truth is somewhere between this outrageous lie and the truth. And it isn't; the lie is a lie and the truth is the truth. They present it so people will shrug and say, "Who knows?" The accusations of the swift boat guys is one point of view and the denial is another, so it's somewhere in between there, folks.
Almost every pundit show that you see has right-wingers and moderates, that's your choice. There's nobody from the left --- no Noam Chomskys to balance that point of view so you get some sort of middle ground. What you get is the middle and the right and the middle of that is to the right.
City: Is that the media's fault, or do the American people largely range from the middle to the right and Chomsky, for most, is off the scale?
Britt: No. I believe the American people think that way because that's the only thing they ever hear. If you look at who owns the media and their political orientations, how can it be otherwise? Every time I hear this stuff about the liberal media, it's such nonsense. Who owns the media?
There's Murdoch; we know where he is. Sumner Redstone at Viacom is a right-winger. General Electric owns NBC; [former GE CEO] Jack Welsh was a right-winger and [new GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt's] politics are well-known. ABC is owned by Disney, which is owned by Capital Cities, and that's also run by a right winger. How can any journalist who works within that environment ever stray too far to the left?
City: In "June, 2004," the New York Times is the only media vehicle that has a straight point of view. Do you feel that's true today?
Britt: No, I don't. Look at what they did with Clinton. Even the controversy when Clinton left office --- all those pardons --- it seemed like the New York Times was leading the pack in saying how terrible it was. Where is the liberal press?
City: "Obsession with national security" is next. We have the Patriot Act, but even conservatives like William Safire protest its scope. In a time of chemical warfare and suicide bombings, how would you suggest handling security?
Britt: Effectively. The borders are terrible. In one of my books, Terror, written in 2000, shipping containers were part of the plot. All the things exposed in the 9/11 report, the uncoordinated intelligence, the warning on August 6, that should have been all you needed to say step up security at the airports. Flying airplanes into buildings? Well, maybe we should check who's training because I doubt if a pilot is going to become a suicide bomber. It was all so obvious.
City: I guess we don't have to look beyond the election to see your next point: "Religion and ruling elite tied together."
Britt: It's clear that all the ministers out there in the Red states passed out the voting guides and said you'd better elect Bush. If you look at those seven fascist states I based my article on, they all used religion to bring people in line with the government. Of course, going back to monarchies in Europe, they used the church as a way to cow the population. I guess you could say that monarchies were the older form of fascism.
City: In your recent essay, "Resolved: George W. Bush Is the Worst President in American History" (in "Toward a New Political Humanism,"Prometheus Books) you make a strong case and yet, he was re-elected. How do explain that? Are you out of touch with the American mainstream?
Britt: Sure! [He laughs.]
City: Let me try it another way. Even conservatives will admit that Bush is not the brightest bulb, but many view the presidency as the team he's got around him. Somehow they averted a follow-up to 9/11, which everybody thought there would be. Deep-down, could that be the reason he won?
Britt: I think there are a lot of reasons that he won. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting did a study of the 2000 election. They found that the number of negative stories on Gore vs. the number on Bush was like 10 to one. Look at the Democrat & Chronicle. Every day it's full of photo-ops that make Bush look good. I'm sure that's repeated in papers across the country.
Plus the drum beat of right-wing talk radio just saturates, especially in the red states, with no answer. They fight dirty, the Democrats don't. Clinton was accused of being a drug dealer, a murderer. They turned it on McCain four years ago in South Carolina: it's a black baby. They're ruthless and they get away with it.
And the campaign was so lame. Kerry went all through the month of August and he didn't attack. He never answered the swift boat guys. He allowed Bush to be perceived as effective in the fight against terror, which has been an abysmal failure, starting with the fact that it happened in the first place. I've read the 9/11 Report [The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States] carefully. There's any number of things you could have used for a campaign attack. The August 6 memo is so obvious. Look at the lies [the Republicans] use. And [the memo] isn't even a lie; that's honest.
City:I want to combine the next two: "Power of corporations protected;" "Power of labor suppressed or eliminated."
Britt: It's the union of the government and the corporation. At the FCC, the regulators are in cahoots with the regulated.
City: And we have tax breaks for the rich and a freeze on the minimum wage.
Britt: The power of labor, in history, was seen as the opposition to all the things you were trying to do. You want to make sure their power was limited, so you appoint conservatives to the National Labor Relations Board who will favor management. Overtime rules get screwed up. Everything labor wants they don't get.
City:In terms of number 11,"Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts," I know of one professor kicked out of a Florida University on the grounds that he supported terrorism. But I don't see academics being suppressed. Isn't the wide dissemination of your article proof that free speech is flourishing?
Britt: It isn't blatant yet, but that doesn't mean that in the next few years it won't be. Lynne Cheney led a group, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Its objective was to identify faculty who weren't toeing the line and do something about it.
City: Next is "Obsession with crime and punishment." You're talking about our overcrowded prisons?
Britt: It's the emphasis on incarceration. We have the largest prison population in the world. That's not something to be proud of. Politicians compete for who can be toughest on crime. It's throwing raw meat at the electorate and trying to make them hysterical and therefore we'll accept a Draconian criminal justice system.
City: So non-violent criminals shouldn't be in prison?
City: Going back to business, you have "Rampant cronyism and corruption."
Britt: You don't have to look any farther than Bush's career; it was cronyism personified. He was set up in businesses to do whatever he wanted. He sold his stock in Harken Energy Corp. before it went under. Who investigates this? The attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission was a personal friend of his and was the attorney for his family. He was assigned to find out if Bush violated insider trading laws. "No" was his conclusion. It's not investigated because the head of the SEC was appointed by Bush's father. Once he's in office, he and Cheney, all his friends, Bechtel and Halliburton, get all the deals. It's blatant cronyism.
City: Your final characteristic is "Fraudulent elections." There were many reports of possible corruption last month, but even people like David Corn of The Nation concluded that there did not seem to be a strong case.
Britt: Fraudulent elections were used by the seven fascist regimes to maintain power. They just made sure they were going to get the votes and they were ruthless enough to do whatever was necessary. I see certain tendencies of that here. You certainly saw that in Florida in 2000.
There were deep suspicions about many things that happened last month. Maybe it's not enough to turn the election, but it could have been. When they were perpetrated no one knew what the outcome would be, and I'm sure there are a lot of irregularities. Certainly it's in the minds of voters now that you can't trust the results. A democracy, more than anything else, counts on honesty and the integrity of the vote.
City: Looking at the world right now, do you consider the US a fascist state?
Britt: No. By definition it's a democracy. My article is a cautionary tale. This is what I've researched; this is what I've seen; this is what's happened in the past. You can draw your own conclusions: No, this has nothing to do with the United States; or, there are some disquieting trends here that we certainly have to be aware of, and the powers that be exhibit many of these characteristics, and we'd better damn well be careful.