Tuesday, January 22, 2008

It's About Neo-Fascism not Liberal Fascism

Jonah Goldberg, author of the provocative new book Liberal Fascism is upset at how his book has been received. He believes most critics are missing his main point which is:

[T]o the extent that fascism of any kind will come to America, it will do so in the guise of something "progressive." Indeed, American progressives, particularly before Hitler arrived on the scene in the 1930s, were openly sympathetic to Italian fascism. This isn't to say they copied it (or the fascism of Soviet Russia), as many claim. But rather that the ideas that gave birth to and fueled American progressivism -- philosophical pragmatism, Bismarckian "top-down socialism," Marxism, eugenics and more -- share common intellectual sources and impulses with those that gave us both socialism and fascism.

Mainly Goldberg just seems pissed off that “fascism” has come to be applied nearly exclusively to politicians and ideas on the right/Republican side of the spectrum. He wants to show that the roots of fascism can be traced to leftist ideology. Great. Fine. Except, as Callimachus at Done With Mirrors points out in an excellent essay on the subject, Goldberg’s whole premise rests on a faulty notion of the political spectrum and lacks a workable definition of fascism.

The political alignment of the mid-20th century called fascism was primarily a reaction to communism. Unsurprisingly, the two most prominent targets of communists, capitalists and religious figures, made up the initial fascists. What transformed fascism from a reactionary position into a political movement was the addition of other more complex concepts and urges involving cults of personality and notions of cultural purity.

In Italy, a hubristic nationalism took hold. In Germany, anti-Semitism and Aryan primacy became prominent. Both nations also undertook expansionist agendas which had as much to do with Europe’s historical power struggles as with the fascist ideology. These aspects, more so than the anti-communist base of fascism, are why “fascist” became synonymous with evil. The tag ultimately became associated with the political right because fascism was erroneously seen as the opposite of communism.

The problem with all this is, the words fascist and fascism have lost any clear definition. Those on the left hurl it at those on the right most often to mean “policies which suppress individual freedom for the advancement of the military/industrial/religious complex.” Fascism has come to be associated with anything that helps the powerful stay in power or even anything that helps the Republicans win elections.

However, if we strip fascism of historical context and see it as an action rather than an ideology, we could give it a contemporary meaning such as: any political policy which suppresses personal liberty in order to achieve a higher cultural, nationalistic or societal goal. Neither liberalism nor conservativism as practiced in America are inherently suppressive. However, I could easily identify neo-fascist elements on both sides from hate-speech laws to warrantless wiretapping, from gun control to abortion restrictions.

In this definition, fascist does not have to mean evil or even wrong – but it is still worthy of great suspicion. A fascist policy is one that restrains the liberty of the individual. Whether that restraint is acceptable is a case-by-case debate. But the more a nation suppresses individual liberty the more fascist it becomes so that, ultimately, fascism would be nothing more than an intellectually complex justification for authoritarianism.

A truly fascinating book might examine the historical context of fascism and then explore how the neo-fascist elements of our society are affecting our concepts and practice of freedom. One could get a lot of licks in at both the right and the left. Unfortunately, Goldberg seems more inclined to focus exclusively on delegitimizing the left. He shouldn’t wonder why he’s received such a harsh reaction. The book is positioned as an attack piece and whatever honest scholarship certainly exists is washed away by the book’s overall presumption that liberalism is to blame for a historically destructive ideology.

There’s a lot of good reasons to discuss fascism in both a historical and contemporary context. Goldberg’s book doesn’t seem up to the task but maybe it’ll still spur some great debates.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are missing a big point here...

You said fascism could be: "any political policy which suppresses personal liberty in order to achieve a higher cultural, nationalistic or societal goal. "

I would say that you have instead identified authoritarianism, not fascism, as communist governments also "suppress personal liberty to achieve a higher goal" (ostensibly), and communist governments are most certainly not fascist.

I would go back to Mussolini's definition, which was that fascism is "the merging of corporate and state power".

Basically, I see fascism as government colluding with capital, rather than the opposite (communism) where government colludes with labor.

Either way is authoritarian and ugly in my opinion, but I think it's important to make the fundamental distinctions clear.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


Authoritarianism supresses personal liberty to achieve power for the rulers. It's not concerned with higher goals outside of authority.

As to whether communism is not fascism -- are you sure? Certainly the Marxist ideal is not fascist (there is no state or institutions in that ideal) but communism as practiced is almost certainly fascist in many ways.

Of course, if you want the definition of fascism include a state collusion with capitalism, then you have a point (although the state-corporate collusion in China is mighty high). My point here is to give fascism a more useful definition.

As I say, I'm not defining neo-fascism as a ideology but rather an action. It's certainly all very open for debate.

4:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Authoritarianism supresses personal liberty to achieve power for the rulers. It's not concerned with higher goals outside of authority."

I would disagree strongly with that. Most authoritarian movements justify their authoritarianism by appealing to some benefit (in the US, currently, we accept some mild authoritarianism for the sake of "security"). Look at the conservative defense of Pinochet's authoritarian practices, or the common notion that "Saddam was probably the best thing to keep Iraqis from killing each other", etc...

Also, regarding China... it's strayed quite far from it's pure-communist roots, and has definitely become some wierd hybrid contradiction (which is no surprise if you know Chinese history... it's always been the land of contradictions).

5:04 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

I think when it comes to defining authoritarianism, it's a matter more of result than cause. A lot of countries end up in authoritarian regimes having begun with a different set of goals. A ruler or a party eventually used those goals to justify taking away liberties until the original goal no longer mattered. ("Peace and security" is the usual justification for authoritarianism although the communists used equality and justice for the worker as their initial goal). Ultimately, once authoritarianism is established, it's much more about retaining power than anything else.

Now, as for neo-fascism (in my nascent definition), it could very well result in authoritarianism. But only in the extreme. I'm more interested in the minutae, the restrictions on personal liberty created by our controlling institutions (state, religion, educational) in order to achieve a preceived higher goal.

Neo-fascism is a means to an end unlike historical fascism, which was an end in-and-of itself. One would use neo-fascist means -- one wouldn't be a neo-fascist.

I'm playing with an idea here, so I appologize if I'm talking in circles a bit.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan -

Have you read Goldberg's book or article in the National Review?

I think the more interesting point is that the right gets tagged as "fascist" so easily by the left and mainstream press with little in the way of challenges an no hard look in the mirror. To your credit you briefly touch on it though - hate speech laws for one. How ironic that the colleges and universities, once the bastions of free speech and though are now the incubators of tomorrow's fascism - no free through, no free speech, all in the name of political correctness. Should we now say "Sig Heil PC"?

6:01 AM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

I think the right does unfairly get tagged fascist and I think the left does tend to unfairly avoid such labels when it pushes liberty-sapping restrictions. If Goldberg's premise was merely that fascist aspects exist throughout the spectrum, that'd be one thing. But he seems more focused on portraying the whole fascist phenomenon as springing from leftist ideology.

It's not that he doesn't have some nuance or decent scholarship -- I'm talking more about how the book is positioned and how he's selling it.

9:09 AM  

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