Friday, March 14, 2008

It Takes a Fascist Village

Is Hillary Clinton a fascist? Were FDR and Woodrow Wilson? Yes, says Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. After making brief reference to it two months back, I have finally gotten around to reading it.

The book has been highly praised by a lot of people I respect, but mostly for exposing them to events and ideas that I already knew something of. I knew about FDR’s aides’ infatuation with totalitarianism (although mostly with regard to Stalin) and the abuses of liberties under his reign, about the common ground between Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, about the longstanding desire of the left to increase state control over previously (and rightly) private spheres, about the fundamentally leftist nature of the fascist economic agenda (it was after all the German National Socialist Workers’ Party, and I learned that the Italian root of the word “fascism” referred to a bundle tied together, and apparently was previously used to refer to labor unions), and about the disturbing enthusiasm of some in the Progressive era for eugenics, including racial eugenics. What Mr. Goldberg was able to do was to tie all this together and link it into a narrative of, essentially, the fascist century. For those unaware of the events above (and events I was not aware of, such as the extent of Wilson’s abuses of individual rights not just during but before World War I, and his belief in the obsolescence of representative democracy), the book is a valuable investment.

It is not without flaws. While he early on defines fascism as “a religion of the state,” in other places the definition becomes fuzzy. After reading it, although he does not explicitly express it this way, his conception of fascism seems to me to include:

1. A belief that ordinary bourgeois life strips man of his dignity, and that it is the job of politics to foster (if not forcibly instill, whether people are receptive or not) a common sense of higher purpose beyond the day-to-day lives that free people would otherwise live. Middle-class values and the free markets that promote them are the enemy, a view that suggests the consanguinity of progressivism, fascism and communism. If necessary, war or war metaphors are to be used to overturn the market and the overturning of tradition and dissolving of class hierarchy that it creates. We need to unify the collective and move it beyond bourgeois ordinariness, toward something better.

2. The role of the state in cultivating this change, and hence the need for the state to become the central focus life (cf., Mussolini’s oft-cited remark that in fascist Italy it would be “everything in the state, nothing against the state, nothing outside the state'”).

3. The (convenient) need for a charismatic leader to propel this change, particularly in getting beyond the dreary checks and balances of representative government.

4. A belief in pragmatism – the philosophical school that says, among other things, that we evaluate political decisions by their consequences, and that it is therefore right and proper for the government to constantly experiment until the right solutions to social problems are found. (That the government should be solving these problems is taken for granted, and inherited from American Progressivism. That Americans may have largely laid the groundwork for European fascism is an argument that might’ve been made more of.)

It is this last proposition on pragmatism and experimentation that most struck me. I organize political space purely around individualism vs. collectivism, and have long noted the frightening confidence that people place in government’s employment of experts to steamroll individual liberty in the interests of bettering society. But the idea that this belief could be combined with a charismatic, warmaking (in actuality or in analogy) leader to persuade people to subsume their individuality into the collective was something I had not considered. I do buy the continuum between progressivism and planning on the one hand and more conventional fascism on the other. Indeed, perhaps progressivism’s greatest flaw is its misconceptions of how problems are solved. The individualist realizes that problems are hard to solve and that mistakes can have large consequences, so that we require decentralized competition in the market to find the best solution and to match individuals to their own preferred solutions. But the planned society, fascist or not, requires that remedies be discovered by bureaucrats likely heedless of the consequences and driven by miserable incentives, to be imposed uniformly on all of us. But to progressives and earlier fascists, we must get beyond politics to “solve problems” (cf. Tony Blair’s “Third Way,” a term that for many years was explicitly associated with fascism). “Change,” anyone?

I was also struck by his interpretation of the role of business in the fascist society. Left-wing lore has long had it that big corporations created and nurtured Hitler, but Mr. Goldberg demonstrates quite persuasively that business was a minor part of Hitler’s support, and was essentially gang-pressed into accepting Hitler’s agenda. Big business frequently finds it wise, when it comes to the state, to go along to get along, not just in 1930s Germany but anywhere, including here. The state can suppress competition, provide modest but guaranteed profits, and otherwise make the captain of industry’s life easier. And it can also destroy, as many business men (see Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s struggles, for one) have learned the hard way. But government intimidation of citizens and control over the economy is the cause, and business support only follows from that. (I wish that in my own book I has spent more time on the tendency of corporations to snuggle up to the state once it has the power to help them, but I thought the primary threat is of government’s hostile attacks on business.)

And yet…there is still the whole question of what precisely fascism is. While Mr. Goldberg repeatedly distinguishes between fascism as a political system and the genocide of the Nazis (and between the wholesale construction of a fascist society on the one hand and mere patterns of thought that owe a lot to the fascism on the other), and while (see below) there are clear common threads between fascism and current elements of the progressive agenda, the lack of a more tractable, consistently applied definition perhaps causes him to go too far. I am not convinced, for example, that the propaganda applied to JFK before, during and after his candidacy is anything more than ordinary political hagiography; there is not, I think, much that connects it to the system of Mussolini or Hitler, at least not in a way that is meaningfully different from “Morning in America” or the invocation of “the silent majority.”

I would’ve also been much harder on FDR, who is depicted as, on the one hand, a skilled politician whose shaping of public opinion was admired by Mussolini and Hitler but, on the other, an amiable dunce who in policy terms absent-mindedly presided over the expansion of government power. In my judgment his presidency was catastrophic to individual liberty because of its permanent expansion of the legitimacy of state control over private commerce. Mr. Golberg has a tendency to assume the best about the “fascists” he describes, whether FDR then or Sen. Clinton now, and that is not in my judgment warranted.

I did like the discussion of the desire of progressives/fascists to manufacture a continual air of crisis, so as to call forth the higher energies of the people and willingness to be pointed at the leader’s chosen target – Czechoslovakia in 1938, CO2 emissions or America’s alleged broken souls now. I always interpreted this in terms of the cynical incentives of politicians to cultivate public support, recalling H.L. Mencken’s remark that “[t]he whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." But in fact many on the left do honestly believe in crises, and do believe that the government must be our savior. The air of eternal manufactured crisis is not just about self-interested political calculation, but that does not make it less dangerous. For Mencken and many of his modern libertarian successors, crises are simply made up; for the left, crises are real and the effort to solve them gives the lives of the left meaning. In a sense, the threat of fascism comes not from Hitler or Mussolini on the platform but from the thousands of mesmerized listeners in front of them.

But the most compelling part of the book, which is worth its price on its own, is Ch. 9, “Brave New Village,” which discusses the role in neo-fascist/progressive thought of government in minding (if not seizing) our children. It is positively chilling to see Mr. Goldberg amass the evidence that the modern left views children not as members of individual families to be shaped and raised by their parents but as common property, to be educated, controlled and molded for the left’s view of the “common good.” By investing children with the sorts of “rights” that the Founders invested in adults purely to achieve and preserve self-government, the door is opened to crush the family as the transmitter of values, to be replaced by the state. To take one example (p. 347), Sen. Clinton asserted in a 1996 speech that “there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child.” This ought to strike fear into anyone who values a free society, first because destruction of the family is a goal in and of itself, and second (as Mr. Goldberg demonstrates), “for the children” becomes the lever to pry open the door to destroying individual self-ownership by regulating guns, food, tobacco, etc. Mr. Goldberg is right (and I had never thought of it this way) to describe home-schooling, with its ability to protect free men and women of the future from the bureaucrats of the present who wish to assimilate them into the cult of higher purpose, as perhaps the most anti-fascist public policy ever conceived. For progressive, children are an undifferentiated group who are in all manner of "crisis," and who must be shepherded by society led by the sanctified teachers' unions. For conservatives, children are individuals to be guided within the context of their families. This is why the left is so hostile to school vouchers and homeschooling, which destroy the child collective and free parents to raise their children as they wish.

Finally, several stray thoughts. I wonder if Mr. Goldberg has given much thought to whether the “war on terror” in general and the war in Iraq in particular, which he supports but hardly mentions, qualifies as a fascist adventure. (Iraq is only mentioned once, in a different context.) President Bush’s language is certainly replete with the imagery of grand higher purpose, of the sort Teddy Roosevelt (whom Mr. Goldberg depicts as a sort of proto-fascist) might have admired. We are expected to give up civil liberties, for example, to win a war on terror that has no defined end – a classic manufactured, permanent crisis. Perhaps, despite the scorn it exposed him to, the president’s advice shortly after 9/11 that Americans should concentrate on shopping and was thus (whether he knew it or not) the best favor he ever did us.

I also wondered why Japan never found its way into the analysis, since it certainly seems to contain all of the author’s ingredients for fascism, and would thus presumably have much to teach us. Fascist Spain doesn’t show up much either, which raises the final point – fascism as something beyond Hitler’s racialism. Franco, like Mussolini, was not anti-Semitic, and indeed Franco sheltered Spain’s Jews during the war. The Holocaust was the most horrifying endstage of Hitler’s fascism, but it is Mr. Goldberg’s intent to remind us that fascism as an ideology contained many elements beyond German annihilationist anti-Semitism, and these elements are repellent yet still with us today. While not without flaws (whose book isn't?), Liberal Fascism is useful beyond soothing the anger of every person of the right who has been ignorantly deemed a "fascist." It reveals that dangerous ideas depreciate more slowly than we might hope.


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