Monday, January 28, 2008

Transnational Fascism

About a year and a half ago I gave some thought to transnationalism, the linking together of people across national lines, often to work against the shortsighted desires of national governments over such issues as human rights, the environment, etc.

I have given the issue some more thought in the wake of the publication of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. The title has provoked widespread derision. I have yet to read it (so many books, so little time), but I think I have heard him defend it enough to raise the red flag (as it were) about a possibility he had perhaps not considered – transnational fascism.

First, what is “fascism,” beyond being one of the most loaded words in political debate? He defines it as “a religion of the state.” I might define it more precisely as the subordination of the individual to the state, so that collectively we may achieve some higher purpose. Almost always that purpose involves moving beyond the hated commercial, bourgeois society. Historically, it has meant pursuing some national (often martial) virtues, and that is how the word is thought of today, as a synonym for “aggressive nationalism.”

But if fascism is in fact the use of the state, perhaps behind a charismatic leader, to move society beyond individual selfishness toward paradise in this world rather than the next, then not only Hitler and Stalin but Lenin, Stalin and even American politicians such as Wilson or FDR or JFK or LBJ can be so described.

Of course, there is fascism, and then there is fascism. I find the book’s use of the world ultimately unacceptable, because history has given the word fascism its meaning and its meaning involves not just national glorification but aggressive militarism (which of course would make Wilson eligible, but perhaps not others in the above list). “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” is simply not, according to how the public actually interprets the word, “fascist.”

Still, tracing the idea's historical origins is useful, because it allows us to focus on this question of suppressing the individual and his dreams to some political leader’s notion of a higher collective purpose. And that kindler, gentler protozoan pre-fascism is likely to emerge not at the national but the transnational level. This at first seems counterintuitive because fascism glorifies the nation-state above all, but that is according to the traditional definition. If we take for the moment (and ultimately I don’t, because here we have to be linguistic descriptivists and take the word as we find it) Mr. Goldberg’s more relaxed definition, fascism doesn’t require flashy military rallies and marches behind eerie artificial symbols in which pictures crowd out thinking, such as the swastika or hammer and sickle. It only requires a transcendent higher purpose that absent collective action is eroded by individual selfishness.

And that is what transnationalism is these days. To take one example, major controls on human freedom to fight global warming are couched not just as morally acceptable but imperative, as tools to fight selfish individualistic excess whose enabling requires a common human response in the name of ethical progress, national and individual self-determination be damned. We are probably not far from the point at which global bureaucratic structures are proposed to limit human behavior. Much of this transnationalization of Golberg-style fascism probably arises from the fact that many of its most important advocates do not believe in the value of their own societies, and actually want them weakened by transnational governance. The best response to this rising threat will require emphasizing the lack of accountability of international organizations run by unaccountable elites, a strategy that has had some payoff in the anger over the EU’s growth, and which always appeals to Americans.



Blogger Joshua said...

On the definition of fascism, IIRC it was George Orwell who observed that in post-WWII Britain the word "fascist" had become merely a synonym for "bully".

Actually that still rings true today. If you favor policies designed to protect your country, its society and/or culture in a way that is the least bit heavy-handed, you can expect the transnational Left to label you a fascist. How's that for an Orwellianism?

12:27 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

I think it is the primary point of Mr. Goldberg's book that fascism is usually translated as enthusiastic patriotism and assertion of the national interest. In fact, it is a big social self-improvement project, where Il Duce or President Wilson is the guru not to be challenged.

1:15 PM  

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