ToddSeavey.com Book Selection of the Month: Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
by Jonah Goldberg
Happy Kwanzaa — or should I say fascist Kwanzaa? At least, you may come away from this book worrying that all ethnic-solidarity political movements (like the one that concocted Kwanzaa in fairly recent times) smack of the fascist desire to overcome the complexity and confusion of modernity through “solidarity,” whether individualism is to be suppressed in the name of the race, the state, or a revolutionary class.
While readers might disagree about how much of our politically-correct era smacks of fascism, they will not be able to dismiss the much clearer and more explicit ties between the Progressives of a century ago and fascism. As Goldberg documents — in detail that will likely prove excruciatingly embarrassing for many who (like Hillary Clinton) style themselves Progressives today — Woodrow Wilson, Mussolini, and later FDR and Hitler constituted a veritable (and vocal) mutual admiration society (as did fascists and their close kin the Communists until their Non-Aggression Pact fell apart). However, once fascism became associated with the Holocaust, the left scrambled to paint fascism as a right-wing phenomenon and deny that the left itself had ever been entwined with fascism.
Yet it was under Woodrow Wilson — a racist and imperialist precisely because he was a Progressive who wanted to remake and reform the world, eliminating poverty, alcoholism, and low-IQ humans — that war fever and “patriotic” censorship were at their peak in the twentieth-century U.S. Under Wilson, not only were antiwar publications shut down but you could be arrested for discussing the president’s errors in your own home, or for insulting designated “patriotic” organizations, such as the Red Cross.
As Goldberg puts it (with only the subtlest hint of the frat-guy humor we thought we knew him for on NationalReview.com, here subordinated to serious scholarship that will surprise his friends and foes alike), the Progressives, such as William James, were always searching for “the moral equivalent of war,” to eliminate individualism in the purifying fire of collective purpose — and sometimes that “moral equivalent of war” turned out, in fact, to be war.
Like Mussolini, who said Wilson was plainly instituting the American version of fascism, American leaders in the early to mid-twentieth century felt that a powerful central state was the logical analogue of faster, more efficient, more modern methods in other areas of life: mass-market radio, automated assembly lines, modernist architecture, eugenics (eugenics being more a left-Progressive push than a right-wing one and often explicitly opposed to traditional, bourgeois, “unplanned” marriage and romantic norms). If you want to “get things done,” to act without the bourgeois restraints of property rights, individual freedom, and tradition, you need the strong hand of the state to refashion society, with the ultimate shape of the good society presumably being obvious to all, save perhaps those low-IQ types who would be eliminated through eugenics. Everything would work out just fine.
Or at least intellectuals from New Republic to H.G. Wells — and even Cole Porter — thought we’d be shown how to make things fine, by great leaders like Mussolini (and other socialists, since Mussolini always thought of himself as one and arose from socialism). I always thought H.G. Wells’s stories smacked of his arrogant Fabian Society-style socialism, but even when he depicted things like a human race that suddenly gains super-intelligence and thus (naturally) decides to hold massive book burnings to destroy now-obsolete works of bourgeois art, I never thought Wells was consciously fascist — just naively socialist. Thanks to Goldberg, I now know that Wells and others took inspiration interchangeably from both socialism and fascism — and why not? Both (closely related) movements were efforts to end the fragmentation caused by capitalism, individual freedom, and industrial modernity, drawing everyone together into a single, tribe-like collective. If socialism and fascism seem like “opposites” now, it’s only because we’ve allowed the left to claim for decades that they are.
But if we drop the partisan allegiances and look with fresh eyes at, say, FDR interning tens of thousands based on their race or denouncing as “traitors” any businesses that failed to display his Blue Eagle symbol and follow his industrial-planning orders, how vast are the differences between Italian, Russian, German, and American collectivism, really, at their philosophical bases (different by far though their body counts may have been — America and Italy being relatively benign and Germany and Russia each killing tens of millions)?
We Have Ways of Making You Talk About Fight Club
Throughout the kindred socialist, progressive, and fascist movements was the hunger for “direct action,” the (naive but familiar and almost endearing) revolutionary sense that what needs doing is so obvious that a fired-up mob can easily cast aside society’s bourgeois nonsense and, with one mighty push, make things right.
Goldberg sees a similar aesthetic impulse at work in several of today’s pop culture works, including Fight Club, which I concede I had a hard time “placing” politically before reading Goldberg’s description of it as fascist: it’s plainly Nietzschean, with its machismo and purification rituals and contempt for consumer society and desire to tear down the existing world — yet it’s not quite anarchic or leftist, with its battling male prankster-terrorists quickly forming a cultish and paramilitary force that reveres its leader. Fight Club, despite its partial pull-back from the abyss at the end, is arguably fascist — which makes all the more disturbing the surprisingly young, male, enthusiastic, and large crowd that turned out for the Chuck Palahniuk talk I once went to see, hosted by my decidedly non-fascist friend Read Schuchardt, a mild-mannered media studies professor. I had expected the Barnes & Noble that day to be filled with a typical crowd of ironists and film nerds, but Fight Club may appeal most to the same demo that forms the eager youth cadres in all totalitarian movements.
Similarly, the macho-achievement vibe of something like The Matrix, when yoked to a revolutionary impulse, may have implications that are as much fascist as socialist. Given my own current project, planning a book on Conservatism for Punks — itself intended to harness the anarchic, creative impulse for productive political ends — I should keep in mind that all such strategies are playing with revolutionary fire, and not all revolutions lead to Sweden, despite what some socialists might tell you.
Goldberg also reminds readers of the immense popularity of eugenics, across the political spectrum and among all the high-minded idealists of the interwar period (witness George Bernard Shaw’s unbridled enthusiasm for combining socialist economic planning with eugenic reproductive planning — and come back in February for my analysis of another brilliant yet eugenics-influenced writer of the 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft, as that month’s Book Selection). That is troubling enough to make me rethink my casual use of the word as a neutral or even positive thing when promoting biotech, which is quite a different, less centralized, less authoritarian phenomenon — voluntary, piecemeal enhancement for unforeseen but diverse ends vs. enforced purity and a single, all-natural “ideal.”
So Does All This Make Hillary a Nazi?
There is interesting volatility in both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidate polls as I type this, but as early as next week (with the Iowa caucus), it is possible that Hillary Clinton will cement her status as the Democratic nominee — and perhaps go on to be president. She is alluded to in the subtitle of Goldberg’s book and has, quite rightly, taken pains recently to explain that she is a “progressive” rather than a “liberal.” I fear that for once an American politician is using those terms in the way they were traditionally meant to be used. A century ago, when “liberalism” still meant what we today label “libertarianism” — minimal government, free markets, strict property rights adherence, and individual freedom (to flourish or flounder) — liberalism was a despised punching bag for all the early-twentieth-century political movements, progressivism, socialism, and fascism, each seeking to invest the state with the power not only to solve all our minute problems but to force us to band together with the zeal and cohesion of a tribe or tight-knit religious community.
Hillary’s not going to put anyone in internment camps (barring some strange new wrinkle in the war on terror), but as Goldberg explains, she comes from that same religious-left progressive tradition that saw itself as doing the Lord’s work whether it was expanding and ostensibly rationalizing the government bureaucracy or banning alcohol. Hillary has a mission, and it requires that we all think of ourselves as one “village,” committed not to selfish, individual ends but to letting government tax us more, regulate us more, and run our healthcare.
And she’s not unique this regard, of course. Goldberg also condemns “compassionate conservatism” and warns that “We are all fascists now,” as the subtitle of his penultimate chapter puts it. That is, after a century of collectivist zeal across the political spectrum (except among libertarians like Ron Paul, for whom I’ll vote in the Republican primary), almost all of us expect government to address every problem, speak to every heart, unite all citizens, forge a better world. We have largely forgotten that there was ever a time when government was a little-noticed last resort with few duties and few powers. As De Tocqueville and others warned over the past two centuries, it may be that mass democracy has inevitably led to demagoguery and a mild form of totalitarianism — government in every nook and cranny, but eager to “help.”
I’ll take another look at Hillary’s first entrance into the White House in this coming Friday’s Retro-Journal entry, and I hope the entry you are reading now will generate some Responses below about the broader question of how we go back to the days when politicians didn’t increase their popularity by sounding like they wanted to use the state to solve all our problems (Goldberg himself says he may weigh in here, which would be great). I’m not worried that America is about to develop Nazi death camps, but Goldberg’s book — which is too sweeping in its warnings to be dismissed as a mere anti-Democrat book a la Ann Coulter — does leave me worried that we have long since come to accept a watered-down form of totalitarianism as the normal mode of politics (is there any area of life not covered by regulations and taxes, any area in which politicians do not get cheers by promising to do still more?).
Socialists have long comforted skeptics with the assurance that if socialism comes to the U.S., it will be stamped “Made in America,” and Ron Paul recently lamented, in response to Huckabee’s rise in the Republican polls, that when fascism comes to America, it will of course do so bearing the beloved symbols of the cross and the flag. Have we stopped minding totalitarianism, as long as it contains a dash of patriotism and a promise to help the poor? Goldberg’s book, I hope, will spark a serious dialogue about that question rather than another round of distracting right-left name-calling during which the state will happily continue to grow.
Some Other Big-Picture Books from Editor Adam Bellow
The same editor who shepherded Goldberg’s book, Adam Bellow, has a few other books, out now or about to appear, that address other admirably large political questions, each worth reading:
•Day of Empire by Amy Chua (a law prof at Yale with a thorough knowledge of history) looks at no less epic a topic than the handful of empires, starting with the Persians and arguably ending with us, that have dominated not just one region but the entire known world (in their day) — the hegemons, if you will. Encouragingly, she finds that such empires were characterized not by their unparalleled brutality but by a tendency to be very open to outside influences and eager to mix and match elements from diverse subordinate cultures, at least during their ascents — but to turn inward and become xenophobic and repressive during their declines. They also offered a package of imperial citizenship that subject peoples wanted. Should America strive for that brand of imperialism, accept a multipolar world, or withdraw to become a mere nation-state again?
I can’t be sure, but I will say that Chua’s description of the empire that preceded England and the U.S. as hegemon — Holland — offers an exciting example of an empire more of trade than of military might, leading me to hope that the whole “empire” analogy will simply become irrelevant as military powers melt away into overlapping, peaceful commercial “empires,” with ill-defined borders and little cause for armed conflict.
On a more practical level, I learned from Chua that Holland’s financial success circa the seventeenth century was built in large part on the popularity of civet cats, raccoon-like animals whose anal glands can be squeezed to yield a very popular perfume scent — animals that to this day are valued for their ability to confer an extra aromatic quality to coffee beans that pass through their digestive systems. So, since the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England transferred much of Holland’s monarchical and mercantile might to England, and since we in the U.S. are in turn the heirs of England’s common law and political traditions, there is a very real sense in which American liberty was founded on ass-coffee. (Civets were also the likely source of SARS, so they have their good points and bad points.)
•The Al Qaeda Reader, a collection of essays and pronouncements by bin Laden and his associates, is a useful resource, especially for anyone still laboring under the illusion that al Qaeda is really just a group of “freedom fighters” who want to be left alone by the American imperialists. As they make painstakingly clear, they want to keep killing until they destroy all manifestations of democracy, individualism, religious pluralism, female literacy, homosexuality, and Judaism, taking as their literal marching orders the Koran’s instructions that the only non-Muslims to be spared are those willing to pay a special tax to their new Muslim overlords and submit to the ruling Muslim theocracy. Al Qaeda happily equates the duty to engage in jihad against non-Muslims with terrorism and sees Mohammed as a positive model of religious violence.
Interestingly, some of these writings are addressed solely to fellow Muslims and attempt to rationalize the aspects of al Qaeda’s philosophy that (thank goodness) seem counterintuitive to most normal, sane Muslims. Particularly intriguing, I thought, was the fact that while homicide in the name of religion is relatively easily reconciled with Islam, suicide is not — which means that conservatives and pro-Israeli commenters who were so keen to relabel suicide bombings “homicide bombings” a few years ago were unquestionably barking up the wrong tree. Calling al Qaeda or the Palestinians murderers is not going to make them feel guilty — but calling them suicidal just might.
As with so many other manifestoes in this world, especially ones by faith-based organizations, the writings of al Qaeda have an almost heartbreaking naivete about them at times: bin Laden never questions his most basic premises — such as the existence of God — but merely rails against the world, wondering why it chooses so brazenly to ignore the obvious truth. He can only ascribe it, exasperatedly, to some form of perversion or stupidity on our part.
•Embrace the Suck: A Pocket Guide to Milspeak by Col. Austin Bay is just one of many small, useful, inexpensive items from Bellow’s New Pamphleteers project, and reading through it gives you a bit of a feel for the sheer pragmatism of military work, the grunt-level issues like dust, poor visibility, bad food, or obtuse bureaucrats that become part of daily, grudgingly accepted discourse. And “going Green Lantern,” I’m pleased to report, means using night vision.
•World War IV by Norman Podhoretz, who coined that phrase to describe the ongoing conflict with Islamic terror and tyranny (World War III correctly, in my opinion, being reserved for the unfulfilled worst-case-scenario in the Cold War), is about as good a case for the neocon position on military matters as one could ask for — and it stops to dispel many little anti-Bush, antiwar myths along the way — but I am still left with the nagging feeling, as many (especially post-Boomer) readers might be, that this is an older generation’s World War II-forged model of conflict overlain on a much messier, more protracted, more cultural problem. Podhoretz’s dedication mentions the hope that his grandchildren will see the day of our “victory” in World War IV, but such sentiments just make me all the more painfully aware that there is no Global Terrorist Headquarters to be decisively blown up in this conflict, no Hitler-in-his-bunker moment that will end things with any clarity. The enemy is indeed evil and irrational and must be fought, but at the same time I think we’re going to have to wait for the gradual erosion of totalitarian thinking into commercial thinking in the Middle East, perhaps over generations, before we’re safe — if we last that long.
•Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again by David Frum is another inadvertently heartbreaking book, about how Republicans can win America back after numerous terrible missteps (of course, while Frum is very smart and writes well, if you take his advice on how to rebuild the GOP, you’re taking advice from the same guy who declared Bush The Right Man in 2003, ten years after he pronounced the conservative movement electorally dead in his 1993 book Dead Right — one year before the GOP took over Congress).
Frum counsels his fellow conservatives not to engage in nostalgia for fights rooted in the 60s, the days of Reagan, or past fights over the size of government, since America has plainly moved on and wants its current, more mundane, everyday problems solved: healthcare, education, job anxiety, etc. We should also, though, push the idea that Republicans defend America as a nation, its pivotal role abroad, and its integrity in the face of runaway illegal immigration, always reminding people that Democrats are less patriotic and nationalist — even though Frum’s own stats underscore the fact that half the population doesn’t much care about nationalism or militarism anymore. (This is not to say that he doesn’t encourage mostly market-friendly, specific programmatic reforms, but the big picture still ends up being a patriotic message.)
Frum is a lot more convincing when he cites polls suggesting that rising Generation Y is the least-Republican generation in the history of polling, I’m afraid. Yet I’m not convinced that his effort to craft a Republican program that addresses people’s concerns as stated in polls is really the answer anyway. Wasn’t it chasing after focus groups that got us to the mushy, unprincipled place we are now? Might not a dash of popularity-be-damned radicalism attract attention and respect in the long run? (I’m reminded again of the speech by pollster Frank Luntz I heard in which he said libertarians could become popular as long as they stopped using scary words like “privatize” and “capitalism” — though I’m not sure you can win anything more than a Pyrrhic victory if you have to disguise your message that much.) There’s something odd, I must also note, about a Canadian writer seeing U.S. nationalism as a practical, broadly appealing solution to everyday problems like schooling and healthcare — but Frum’s way may end up being the next Republican blueprint anyway, so it’s well worth familiarizing oneself with it.
And Finally, a Solution
•If all this talk about fascism, war, and nationalism is getting you down, though, economist Donald Boudreaux may have the solution, with his new book, Globalization, which describes the ongoing emergence of exactly the sort of peace-making, life-enhancing commercial world order that seemed to be peeking out between the lines of Chua’s book, described above. Bourdreaux’s book is $55, so globalization is not without its costs, but at least you’ll have ample ammunition, stats and all, against the next person — whether Nazi, hippie, or Canadian — who tells you that the decline of the nation-state and spread of global capitalism is a bad thing. It’s the best thing, and the sooner government (left, right, or Islamic) gets out of the way of it all, the better.