Thursday, January 26, 2006

Fascism's faces

Riffing further on dcat's post today about Jonah Goldberg's forthcoming book with the funny self-explanatory title, Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton....

Fascism, among fascism scholars, is notoriously difficult to parse as a political phenomenon. Richard Golsan is one of these scholars. He has always insisted that there are elements of the left as well as the right in historical fascist movements, and not necessarily anti-Semitism (early French fascism was not anti-semitic; and many Jews in pre-war Italy initially flocked to the fascists). Our two prime examples of fascism are, of course, Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Both, we can say, were anti-liberal, and fascism has often been an explicit revolt against liberalism. In some cases this means basic market liberalism; in others, it means how we generally take "liberalism" in the US today. In fact, given liberalism's devotion to equity, equality, and liberty, it's a rather large leap to combine "liberal" with "fascism." Of course, this would never stop an intellectually insignificant writer such as Goldberg from making such a flaming claim in the very title of his book.

Roger Griffin writes that,

Historically there has been a high level of agreement among different fascists on which forces threaten the health of the nation [a core obsession of fascism], namely Marxism-Leninism, materialism, internationalism, liberalism, individualism, but considerable variation in what forces are advocated as their remedy and the degree of imperialist and racist violence envisaged in order to impose it. Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Social Thought.

As with any political ideology, liberalism can be guilty of absolutizing itself to the exclusion of other political ideologies, taking itself to be the only true answer to political conflicts. But the best and most fruitful variations of liberalism are precisely the opposite and, rather, entail commitments to pluralism, fallibilism, meliorism, and egalitarianism, to anti-absolutism, anti-fundamentalism, and anti-totalitarianism. The best liberal thinkers, in other words, are committed to rooting out the shortcomings in their own political philosophy and practices and absolutism or “totalitarianism” is simply anathema. This internal tendency has produced some of the best political philosophy of the past couple of hundred years. One cannot say the same of right-wing ideology of which fascism is a variation.

A principal aspect of conservatism is traditionalism, which is by its very nature opposed to change, especially that which arises through critical self-examination. Conservatism reifies tradition, religion, property, family, the nation, and an eternally unchanging constitution. The latter, especially, is a myth. There is no such thing as an unchanging constitution that can be interpreted by the judicial in completely faithful terms. We no longer live in a world of muskets, sabers, and candles. Conservatism has some important elements, I think. For instance, we are never entirely detached from tradition either. Our contemporary experience is always “funded,” to use one of John Dewey’s terms, with the accumulated historical results of past inquiry and practices. And we are social beings rather than Lockean atomistic individuals isolated in theory from each other and then reified into microeconomic conceptions that focus on the behavior of self-seeking rational individual actors whose behavior yields a guide to individual preferences that drive markets. This is the variant of free-market liberalism to which conservatives and liberals alike often adhere.

Anthony Quinton, in his entry on "Conservatism" in the Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Political Theory, discusses non-conservative right-wing ideologies, including fascism, authoritarianism, and elitism. All of these elements can be found in both American political parties and, perhaps, in the present system of American government. The authoritarian “gives the highest place among political values to security.” The elitist believes in “the limited political rationality of the bulk of the public” and of the need for “a ruling minority which makes laws and determines policy, and a ruled majority which obeys it.” They look to “techniques of deception by means of which elites preserve themselves in power.” The latter, inherited from Plato’s discussion of the guardians in The Republic, is a central part of the philosophy of Leo Strauss, godfather of neo-conservative thought. And we know well about the fetishization of security (or “s’curity”) under the Bush regime.

What of fascism? Clearly, it’s not on the side of liberalism but more closely allied with right-wing political ideology. Goldberg is already on very shaky ground in the title of his book. Quinton says of fascism that it “combines an intense nationalism, which is both militarily aggressive and resolved to subdue all aspects of public and private life, to the pursuit of national greatness. It asserts that a supreme leader is indispensable, a heroic figure in whom the national spirit is incarnated.” Think Bush on the deck of the “victory” aircraft carrier and Ann Coulter’s grotesque discussion of his “sexiness.” Think NSA and spying on citizens and non-citizens alike. Think military aggression. Think Cheney’s obsession with consolidating the power of the executive branch.

F. T. Marinetti, the Futurist artist and proponent of Mussolini’s brand of fascism, wrote in his 1908 futurist manifesto that “we intend to glorify the love of danger, the custom of energy, the strength of daring.” “We will glorify war – the only true hygiene of the world – militarism, patriotism,….” “We will destroy museums, libraries, and fight against moralism, feminism, and all utilitarian cowardice.” Tempted to speak out against this brand of futurist fascism? Marinetti replies, “Your objections? Enough! Enough! I know them! I quite understand what our splendid and mendacious intelligence asserts. We are, it says, but the result and continuation of our ancestors – Perhaps! Be it so!... What of that? But we will not listen! Beware of repeating such infamous words! Rather hold your head up!"

Now, I have nothing against daring-do or against constantly reconstructing the present in terms of evolving ideals and the lessons of failed pasts. But fascism exalts the elimination – look at the emphasis on war – of past practices and ideas, especially idealistic ones about common human hopes, with the assistance of or in homage to the charismatic leader. Remember the mantra of our present administration: “September 11th changed everything.” What does this mean but a license by fiat to burn the ideals of liberals and the left, to justify any sort of policy in the name of security including the elimination of basic liberties, both positive and negative? Consider this 1997 remark by the philosopher John J. McDermott,

...fascism will not come to America as an anti-democratic movement. Quite the reverse! If it comes, it will be as an eruption from within our self-preening, self-deceiving confidence in our own ‘practice’ of democracy…. I do see… the contemporary crusading religious fundamentalist coalition as deeply foreboding, for they parade under the anthem of God and Country, thereby replicating the most dangerous of the historically numbing and oppressive movements. Hegel speaks of the cunning of history and here we face just that! Under the fake guise of pure American values and traditions, we are being coaxed into patterns of separation in our schools, opposition to gun laws, and a morally self-righteous smear on all alternative lifestyles. The insidious and seditious hook in this movement is its ability to convince many that their positions are not only authentically American but exclusively so. If ever there were the warning signs of an unhappy consciousness about to detonate itself, these are now before us. (From “Threadbare Crape: Reflections on the American Strand”)

Combined with the Cheneyite consolidation of executive power and full license to engage in acts, such as torture, that destroy the basic fabric of liberal decency and liberalism's abhorrence of cruelty, don’t we have precisely a new form of fascism? It parades under the “anthem” of “democracy” and “security” and “freedom” all the while eliminating the basic foundations of democracy, freedom, and even security. It does so in the name of a mythologized -- even religious -- event that changed the course of not only American history but also human history. And it achieves this by demanding allegiance to the charismatic supreme leader who stands above the law. “Liberal fascism”?! Oh, Goldberg and his red herrings. Poor dumb bastard. We live right now in a time in which, regardless of the academic vagaries involved in defining fascism as a political ideology, there has never been anything closer to America’s own brand of fascism.


Eric Gordy said...

One of the recent reads I am most reminded of by this post is Mark Mazower's Dark Continent, a history of 20th-century Europe. In trying to explain the weakness of liberal governments after the first world war, he points out that these were largely minimal governments offering rule of law and free trade, and little else. Not only were they poor in terms of the kind of ideological vision and "inspiration" they offered, but also generally declined to take on ambitious social programs or otherwise protect citizens from the effects of this deeply one-sided "free trade." And they presided over decline. So it was not very surprising that collectivist movements with a detailed articulation of historical purpose and a set of social programs that covered everything from material needs to sociability gained in popular appeal -- communism and, to a greater degree, facsism. They might have had some objective appeal, or it may have in fact been the case that people thought that their civilisation was dying and they had to do something dramatic about it. But one of the strongest factors seems to have been the failure of liberalism either to genuinely inspire or scare people. As in Lewis Black's description of the US now: "one party that has no ideas, and one that has bad ideas."

What we get with that here is fear, polarization, disillusion, widespread abstention ... all it takes for the kind of "revolution from above" you are describing to take over.

helmut said...

Eric -- Nice omment. I'm reminded of a remark by Zygmunt Bauman to the affect that community arises when individual identity is challenged. Community takes on both nefarious and importantly meaning-giving forms of sociality. It's the reactionary form that the right understands well and has locked into. And, you're right, liberalism has no response. It may seem counterintuitive, but there are merits to not having a response given the framework through which the response is called for. As a philosophical approach liberalism takes up better the contingencies of existence, ontological and political. In a sense, then, it is truer to the condition we find ourslves in pluralist societies undergoing radical flux as technological and geopolitical developments outpace our capacities to assimilate them and transform them to our own collective advantage. Liberalism often gets that basic condition right, but conservatism has the response -- reactionary as it is -- to it. Liberalism often seemsz to say that that's the state of things. Personally, I think this is a braver stance. But in a world of insecurity both real and created by political maneuvering, the concrete proposals of reactionaries ring truer to ears that want comfort and security. Saying that the world is one that can only always be only relatively secure ends up a seeming non-answer. Maybe this is because it requires an attentiveness to larger, more abstract structural conditions and forces. The right, however, appeals to emotional reactions. That's what makes it both publicly accessible and extremely dangerous.

barba de chiva said...

This is a really nice post, Helmut. I'm not sure how you managed to get from Goldberg to Marinetti and back . . . I'm taking notes on form.

But while Goldberg's title is kind of silly, that right attitude in the States has a pretty deep tradition itself, no? We've all seen it, for example, in the characterization of an intentionally mis-understood sub-set of liberal values as "political correctness," a label that gave way quickly to notions of "the PC Police," etc. The frightening thing about that (as you're making clear in the post) was the easy, uncritical adoption of that language by most of the country, regardless of their political committments. The terminology "PC"--and all its attendant discursive manifestations--became quite quickly a pretty good example, I think, of the kind of democratic fascist phenomenon you describe here, undercutting dramatically any serious liberal claims (few of which were ever made, of course) about speech issues. In that light, Goldberg's title (I love it that we're talking about just a title--why would anyone need to read that?) seems a natural next step in the process. Maybe this is the logical conclusion of that line of thinking.

But, then, maybe it isn't.

helmut said...

Barba -- well, it is a forthcoming book, after all. But I didn't see any need to read it. I'm acquainted with how Goldberg works.

As for the PC stuff, it has a twisting history. As I understand it, "PC" is originally a phenomenon of the McCarthyite right and the expression was used to refer to the Red Scare. It was appropriated by the right in the 80s to refer to some forms of multiculturalism and feminism ("feminazis"), and then blown out of proportion to most of the actual claims and arguments. Some of the things said by folks on the left were equally ridiculous, of course, but they never had the same traction with the broader American public as does the right's version of PC today. The latter has the characteristic of playing on the worst elements of human behavior and belief -- fear, xenophobia, racism, classism, etc. The left's version at its worst placed serious limits on speech, but at its best was an attempt to broaden our conception of justice -- and how language can reflect injustices -- rather than shut it down through psychological manipulation.

"From Goldberg to Marinetti and back." Um, yeah, it's a bit meandering. But I'm kind of fond of putting Goldberg in the same class as museum-burners just for the hell of it. He should understand.