03 August, 2008

Liberal Fascism, pt. 1

I'm reading Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. I thought I'd write a few thoughts while I'm reading it, much as I commented on Eugenio Corti's Trial and Death of Stalin a long time ago (1, 2, 4; there doesn't seem to be a part 3). Despite the fact that I like Goldberg and read anything of his that I can get his hands on, already I'm having issues with it. I'll mention some below. All the usual disclaimers apply, primarily that he's done the research so he probably knows a lot more of what he's talking about than I do. Still, here goes.

1. The biggest problem with the introduction is that things are out of order. Consider the following explanation of the title:

The introduction of a novel term like "liberal fascism" obviously requires an explanation. Many critics will undoubtedly regard it as a crass oxymoron. Actually, however, I am not the first to use the term. That honor falls to H. G. Wells, one of the greatest influences on the progressive mind in the twentieth century… Nor did Wells coin the phrase as an indictment, but as a badge of honor. Progressives must become "liberal fascists" and "enlightened Nazis," he told the Young Liberals at Oxford in a speech in July 1932.
I'd think that this would have appeared early in the introduction, perhaps on the first page. Instead, it appears on page 21. One has to slog through 20 pages before getting to this point, and while I enjoyed those 20 pages, I suspect that the back-and-forthing about Socialists, Communists, Soviets, Nazis, Fascists, and the French Revolution would lose a lot of readers.

Likewise, it may be the mathematician in me who doesn't understand popular writing, but Goldberg's definition of "fascism" should also appear early. Get your point out, then defend it, I say. Alas, Goldberg's definition of fascism appears on page 23, and the phrasing makes it look as if Goldberg is reluctant to define it all!
Finally, since we must have a working definition of fascism, here is mine: Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the "problem" and therefore defined as the enemy.
2. I don't like his definition of fascism. Again, I'm no political theorist, so maybe he knows better than I, but his definition sounds more like "totalitarianism" than "fascism". But I don't think that fascism is equivalent to totalitarianism. Goldberg doesn't spend time trying to distinguish between the two—not in the introduction, anyway—so it comes off wrong to me. I don't have a better definition to offer, and Goldberg rightly points out that it's difficult to define fascism, and for all intents and purposes nowadays fascism means anything that offends some political sensibility of an ardent left-winger.*

Nevertheless, there's a reason Mussolini called his party the Fascist party: he felt that an ancient symbol, the fasci, symbolized the strength of the Roman empire that he desired to resurrect.

The strength symbolized by the fasci is not inherently evil, just as the ancient Roman Republic was not inherently evil. Our very government has long used fasci in public art: look at the sticks grasped by the eagle on the back of the quarter, or at the back of the dime, and in a statue of George Washington in Congress. As Hitler did with the swastika, however, Mussolini gave the fasci a bad name.**

This nationalist chauvinism could distinguish fascism from other forms of totalitarianism. Mussolini believed that Italy was a place of inherently superior culture to the rest of the world and deserved an empire along the lines of Britain's and France's. Hitler likewise believed in the inherent enlightenment of an empowered German nation, although his notion of "nation" was racist, whereas Mussolini's was not, initially. (Amusingly, Mussolini was at one point the only European power to stand up to Hitler, mobilizing his troops when Hitler annexed Austria.)

I am shocked—shocked!—that Wikipedia has the same idea as I do. More or less.

Goldberg also seems to overlook the fact that Fascists were, from the beginning, violently anti-Communist. It's true, as he points out repeatedly, that ideologically Fascists and Communists held many of the same principles (again, see the Wikipedia page: central economic planning, collectivization, dictatorship). It's also true that Fascists grew out of Socialist parties, a historical fact that by itself should put the lie to the notion that Fascism is somehow an outgrowth of extreme conservative and/or capitalist thought. (The two are not the same in all countries.) However, this does not make them fellow-travelers any more than would the fact that Goldberg and Jesse Helms both opposed taxes and excessive government regulation.

Again, I've only read the introduction, so Goldberg may address all these issues in due course. I looked at the weblog he maintains for addressing reviews and letters, so in fairness I'll point to this entry, which is one of many dealing on the topic of nationalism and fascism.

3. American liberalism may contain totalitarian tendencies; it would makes sense as a natural temptation for any ideology that believes the government, used rightly, can solve our social ills. New York City Council did not fail to help Goldberg's arugment in the year 2006: from a footnote in the text, they tried with varying levels of success to ban pit bulls, trans fats, aluminum baseball bats, the purchase of tobacco by 18- to 20-year olds, foie gras (I don't even know what foie gras is, and please leave me in ignorant bliss), pedicabs in parks, new fast-food restaurants in poor neighborhoods, lobbyists in various circumstances, cell phones in upscale restaurants, a well-known circus, Wal-Mart, and a bunch more that I don't care to copy.

But to say that American liberalism has totalitarian tendencies is rather far from saying that American liberalism has much in common with fascism, much less to title a book Liberal Fascism. Taking again the point that self-proclaimed fascists took nationalist chauvinism to the point of justifying an invasion of another country merely to enlighten its citizens (in such wise did Mussolini attempt to justify an invasion of Ethiopia to the Italian people), American liberalism today is the antithesis of fascism, at least in its "purer" forms today. Many American liberals would gladly sign the Kyoto protocol even if it meant reducing the nation to poverty.

4. My complaint in #3 is perhaps part of Goldberg's point.
Conservatives in America must carry their intellectual history—real and alleged—around their necks like an albatross. …Connections with dead right-wingers, no matter how tenuous and obscure, are trotted out as proof that today's conservatives are continuing a nefarious project. Why, then, is it so trivial to point out that the liberal closet has its own skeletons, particularly when those skeletons are the architects of the modern welfare state?
I think this is a fair complaint, and I enjoy it when Goldberg brings it up in his syndicated column or in other places.

Still, it reminds me of a book I read by Thomas Sowell, whose title escapes me. The book savaged "liberals" for making all sorts of invalid arguments against conservatives. About halfway through the book, I realized that Sowell was doing exactly the same thing to liberals.

So I think the book, if I even finish it, is going to disappoint me. Attacking the enemy may provide emotional satisfaction, but it doesn't provide a new vision. This is part of the problem with conservatism as it is popularly understood: it attacks liberalism, it attacks government regulation, and it especially attacks taxes. But what does it offer? Unless your name is Terri Schiavo, it doesn't seem to offer much at all.

This is grossly unfair to conservatism, which has a lot of really good ideas that I want to see implemented. Sadly, electing George W. Bush president seems to have killed that.

5. I find it irresistible to note that Goldberg seems to be one of the few popular conservatives who is happy to savage Bush as not being very conservative. Talk radio hosts still worship Bush and attack McCain for not having stood behind the president, but McCain opposed for example Bush's "compassionate conservatism" program. Goldberg doesn't mince words on compassionate conservatism:
I have tried to write a book warning that even the best of us are susceptible to the totalitarian temptation. This includes some self-described conservatives. Compassionate conservatism, in many respects, is a form of Progressivism, a descendant of Christian socialism. Much of George W. Bush's rhetoric about leaving no children behind and how "when somebody hurts, government has got to move" bespeaks a vision of the state that is indeed totalitarian in its aspirations and not particularly conservative in the American sense.
[emphasis added]

In the same vein, the last chapter is titled, The New Age: We're All Fascists Now. I'll read that even if I don't read the rest of the book.

*He neglects to mention is that socialism or communism or even liberalism likewise more or less means anything that offends some political sensibility of a far right-winger. It's the only way that Goldberg's colleagues at National Review and on talk radio can say that McCain is not a conservative, but a liberal Republican.

**It perplexes me that Stalin, Mao, and the rest have not managed given a bad name to the hammer and sickle, despite being responsible for many, many more deaths.

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