Thursday, January 17, 2008

Liberal Fascism


Jonah Goldberg has recently written a new book, _Liberal Fascism_. Predictably enough, he has kicked a hornet's nest. In just the last week or so, he's received a bunch of negative emails and reviews from liberals who don't want to be associated with fascism. He's had a contentious appearance on _The Daily Show_ with Jon Stewart. He's also had a surprisingly hostile review from Michael Ledeen.

I haven't read the book yet, I'm sure I'll get around to it sooner or later, but nonetheless I'll endorse the thesis if not the book itself. First of all, let's understand that here in the United States we've had "liberalism" and "progressivism", alternating according to one fashion or another to describe the broad "moderate" Left, since say 1910 until today.

So what if anything is the connection between Leftism in the United States and fascism? Well, the United States has never been a fascist country. Nonetheless, there were substantial connections between pre-war progressives here in America and fascists overseas, primarily Italy but also Germany. Michael Ledeen is a smart guy, but this is where he is plain wrong. It's not that American liberals did the same things over here that the various fascists did over there or even tried to, but the intellectual lines of influence are clearly there. Recall, Jonah's thesis is about _Liberal_ Fascism, not fascism in general.

It's also important not to oversell the case. The connections between fascism and liberalism were not death-grip strong (and certainly there have been other influences on modern liberalism as well), but again they did exist. Jon Stewart asked Jonah if he were trying to establish paternity for liberalism. I forgot exactly what Jonah said in reply, but he might have suggested it was a matter of grandpaternity instead.

Jonah defines fascism as follows:

“Fascism, at its core, is the view that every nook and cranny of society should work together in spiritual union toward the same goals overseen by the state.”

Ledeen objects to this definition, though it seems ok to me. I would add a couple things for emphasis. First of all, the essence of fascism is an odd self-contradiction. On the one hand the nature of community is traditional, a group of people tied together by blood and soil. This is how fascism is typically associated with the Right.

But there's a twist. In contrast to traditional societies, in fascism there is an emphasis on efficiency and common purpose, "spiritual union" as Jonah puts it. This has some very important consequences. First of all, the ethical center of society is moved upward, away from the individual and the family and toward the state, or in any case the bigger institutions of society. Decision making power over industrial organization, social status, or child-rearing is also moved upward, because those decision makers are best available to organize society around a common purpose.

This is why traditional blood-and-soil societies tend to be agrarian, whereas fascism tends toward the industrial. Let's bear in mind that this train of thought was substantially motivated by the need for efficiency. In this historical context, the nineteenth century had just ended. And it was the nineteenth century more than any other, which revolutionized economic production in the world, as well as the way everybody thought about it. Big industrial organizations were efficient, rinky-dink rural craftsmen were not. Whoever didn't get with the program of high-level planned organization, like the Confederacy, lost out to those who did.

This, I'd gather, is largely the point of Jonah's book. The prewar progressives here in the US asked themselves what's the best path for security and prosperity for America? And the answer was pretty simple. Let's get some of that industrial organization they've got in Italy and Germany and bring it over here. All we have to do is sacrifice a little bit of individual and family autonomy. Jonah's liberal critics are correct to point out that this has very little if anything to do with the Final Solution. But, even if it doesn't rise to that level of total horror, it is still pretty bad on its own terms. It's still an artifact of the idea that big, centrally planned things are necessarily the most efficient. That's a mistake, of course, but it was a plausible one in 1915, because in the 19th century economic development did coincide with centralized planning. Now, we have a century's worth of experience to show that, unless there is some massive gap in technology or property rights, _decentralization_ is far more efficient.

So, Jonah is correct to emphasize that the Hillary-Clinton-It-Takes-A-Village nanny state has substantial fascist roots, and if implemented will likely fail because of it. If this embarrasses some liberals, too bad for them.

Let me finish by scoring one definitive point for Jonah's critics. The prevalence of vegetarianism, environmentalism, Whole Foods, whatever, has nothing to do with fascism. It is true that Nazi Germany and the modern environmental movement share this back-to-nature ethos, but that's just happenstance. In both cases, this is the result of amorphous, pagan, quasireligious spirituality prevalent in both contexts. But there were no Paul Ehrlich, Rachel Carson, Sierra Club types who had any meaningful connection with Nazi Germany or were influenced by them at all. Vegetarians and environmentalists in America are right to complain if Jonah tries to associate them.

1 comment:

Geddy Lee said...

Scratch a liberal, find a fascist.

I suspect there is more to the connection with quasi-pagan phenomena like environmentalism and vegetarianism with fascism, but I'd have to see JG's argument. Thanks for the connection to industry--I hadn't thought much about that before.