Friday, September 21, 2012



I continue this mini-series on Jonah Goldberg’s 2007 book Liberal Fascism.* (In these Posts, Jonah Goldberg will be shortened to ‘JG’.)

FDR slyly made a virtue out of necessity: not having much of a plan nor actually a deep understanding (few did at the time) as to just what had gone wrong and thus what had to be done to correct it, FDR simply asserted that the government would embrace “action” and “above all, try something”. (p.132)

Making full use of the shallow but catchy American Pragmatist approach popularized by William James (if it works it’s true and has “cash value”; if it doesn’t work then it’s not true), FDR pledged that the government would “take a method and try it … if it fails, admit it frankly and try another … but above all, try something”. (p.132)

This, I would say, was a crucial Moment in American History: something very vital (the economy) had somehow gone wrong; nobody at the time could get a confidently clear grasp on just what had gone wrong, and there was too much danger of public suffering (and consequent unrest) to simply keep on the same course and see what would happen.

It was a genuine Crisis and Emergency (just the type of flood-tide Progressivism and the European totalitarian approaches always require to float their plans over the rocks and shoals which thinking-about would simply slow down the march to ‘progress’). But if the fundamental statist and government-heavy Progressive approach wasn’t threat enough, it would under FDR be wedded to an enthusiastic and thorough-going embrace of the idea that a major government should simply start ‘trying stuff’ to see what might work. This is not the way to handle a great ship or large aircraft that’s in difficulty: Folks, we don’t really know what’s wrong but we’ll be trying whatever we can think of and see if it helps … so buckle up.

(And in the end, it was not FDR’s economic efforts that pulled the country out of the mess, but rather the Crisis and Emergency of world-war. But that left the country’s political classes and even the public expectations of what the government might do – or try – imprinted with the idea that government can sort of just try stuff … and make everybody go along with it.)**

Thus anybody who agreed with the FDR approach was ‘flexible’ and ‘cutting-edge’ and ‘open-minded’, and anybody who didn’t was simply an unimaginative fuddy-duddy wedded to outmoded dogmas and clearly not ready for the bright possibilities (and brutal possibilities) of the 20th century.

JG rightly points out that (genuine) conservatives are always wary of unconsidered change. Much like prudent ship captains and pilots, they are aware of how much is at stake if something goes wrong, and they’d rather not play games with people’s lives and economic livelihood and means of subsistence.***

Ominously, JG notes, there were three Great Events that in 1932 seemed to be bearing great and wonderful fruit and were thus available for trying-out as solutions: the Bolshevik Revolution, Mussolini’s Great-Man fascism in Italy, and Wilson’s own recent ‘war socialism’ of a dozen years or so before. (p.132)

The Soviet method was seen as merely a more robust and ‘bottom-up’ popular version of Bismarck’s ‘top-down socialism’ of the later 1800s in Prussia and Germany. And, in the opinion of the elites here, looking dreamily at the new Soviet state, “it worked”. Lincoln Steffens went so far as to express it this way: there was what he called the “Russian-Italian” method, accurately and acutely capturing the kindred dynamics of both the Soviet and the Fascist efforts. (p.133)

Worse was the induced presumption that since We had won the Great War, then Wilson’s ‘war socialism’ actually ‘worked’ (whatever that might mean) and the further assumption that since Wilson’s Progressive ‘war socialism’ “worked”, then it was and had to be ‘good for’ the country and would produce no fundamentally ill effects or consequences of any sort.

The elite assessment of the postwar years was that the Russians and Italians were beating us at our own game “by continuing their experiments in war socialism while America cut short its project, choosing instead to wallow in the selfish crapulence of the Roaring Twenties”. (p.133) Nor, conveniently, did the Progressive elites care to waste any thought or risk any optimism by considering just how their signature achievement of Prohibition had fueled that admittedly dispiriting decade.  

One commentator in 1932 plaintively whined: “Why should Russians have all the fun of remaking the world?” (p.133) Why indeed?

And here JG connects to a natural human tendency, pronounced in can-do America but also powerfully operative in the younger members of the species: “the important role that boredom and impatience play in the impulse to ‘remake the world’”. (p.133)

Boredom, “sheer, unrelenting ennui with the status quo – served as the oxygen for the fire of progressivism because tedium is the tinder for the flames of mischievousness”. (p.133) And it did so “in much the same way as Romanticism laid many of the intellectual predicates for Nazism”. (p.133) He could have added the genuinely gaga infatuation with Italian Futurism – in Italy and throughout the West – in the very early years of the century.

The world was “clay to be sculpted by human will”, or – in the Futurists’ vision – a great machine whose powers were merely waiting to be harnessed by those with the vision and enthusiasm to toss aside the ‘old’ and embrace the oh-so-very-Modern and up-to-date.****

JG also connects to the “spiritual languor of the age”. (p.133) But this is a far more complex reality than can be envisioned in merely two dimensions, I would say. There is a “spiritual languor” that goes with any age of human existence; it is the result of the inevitable incompleteness of human life and of humanity’s perennial inability to fully realize or actualize even its most cherished ideals.

This is far different from a spiritual-languor that arises like a miasm from a particular cultural Moment or era. The Twenties, the Jazz Age, were certainly an era when material ‘abundance’ was so widely embraced and enjoyed that it blotted out all concern for the more ‘spirit’-based concerns of humanness. That materialist cacophony, of course, ended with the onset of the (first) Great Depression.

And it requires a careful and discerning assessment to distinguish the two types of ‘spiritual languor’: one stems from particular cultural situations, the other from the very nature of what it means to be human (an incomplete, if marvelous being, dwelling in an incomplete world that is simultaneously comprised of the Mono-planar realities of this-world and the Multi-planar intimations of a world/existence Beyond).

Why go to the trouble? Because the this-worldly languor might well be addressed by making adjustments in the this-worldly surround; whereas the existential languor cannot be eliminated by government or social action and rather must be accepted and maturely incorporated into one’s Stance toward life. A government, thus, that took as its writ the elimination of all such languor whatsoever would be increasingly expanding its writ and authority in a this-worldly sense, but remain forever unable to achieve its promised objective.

And no constitutional republic can survive a government authority forever expanding and intensifying but equally forever failing to achieve its visions, and demanding that the nation travel just a while further down the flat road nonetheless.

Thus, “sickened by what they saw as the spiritual languor of the age, members of the avant-garde convinced themselves that the status quo could be easily ripped down like an aging curtain and just as easily replaced with a vibrant new tapestry”. (p.133)

When you are dealing not only with an existential, Multi-planar element of the Beyond and of fundamental incompleteness that is of the essence of the human, but also with making deep changes to profound cultural and societal (and with the Progressives, political) foundations … when you are dealing with all that, there is nothing easy or blithe or simply-glorious about it: the tasks you have undertaken are of a first-order seriousness, and it is immoral (there, I’ve said it) to simply start whacking and hacking away, in the cheeribly sure and certain knowledge that whatever follows – intended or unintended – can only be better and Good.

Thus JG will concur with Richard Pipes’s assertion that Bolshevism and Fascism were each and both “twinned heresies of Marxism. Both sought to impose socialism of one sort or another, erase class differences, and repudiate the decadent democratic-capitalist systems of the West”. (p.139)

I would note here that “democratic-capitalist”: where the two systems, one political and one economic, are so deeply enmeshed, you can’t easily whack away one without doing damage to the other. Which is precisely the ominous reality ignored by socialists and Progressives: in trying to eradicate capitalism, they did grave damage to democracy as well.*****

All of the ‘isms’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were – JG quotes Eric Vogelin – “premised on the idea that men could create utopias through the rearrangement of economic forces and political will”. (p.139) And all that has happened in the more recent era of the past forty years is to add the rearrangement of cultural and social forces and structures as well.

And thus the core Struggle of the past century has been merely one between left-wing and right-wing socialists, with “all camps subscribed to some hybridized version of Marxism, some bastardization of the Rousseauian dream of a society governed by a general will”. (p.139)

And, of course, since there is actually no such thing as the ‘general will’ actually existing on the hoof, then it’s up to somebody – the government, advised by the Progressive-socialists, preferably – to say just what that ‘general will’ is. We see this dynamic at play in the viva voce political ploy: the Chair asks for all the Yeas to say Yea, and for all the Nays to say Nay – but it is the Chair that gets to say which group was, in its own estimation, the loudest. Such democracy.

And JG raises the example of Huey Long, who was so essentially a fascist (in the guise of a populist) because of his “contempt for the rules of democracy” – which Long spun, famously, as a virtue: “The time has come for all good men to rise above principle”. (p.144)

There is a difference, I say again, between outmoded dogmas and principles, especially first principles. The former are approaches erected into standard operating procedures that may – may – have become “inadequate to the stormy present” (to use Lincoln’s phrase). But the latter are vital Grounding and Shaping foundational beliefs that cannot be altered any more easily than you can rip out and replace the keel of a ship at sea or the airframe of an airliner in the air.

To try to rip out the first-principles is not proof of one’s ‘genius’ and ‘transgressive creativity’ but rather is the sign of an almost criminally witless and treacherous imbecility.

Long was also “absolutely convinced that he was the voice of the people”. (p.144) But in the Framing Vision The People don’t need a ‘voice’ in the form of a Great Man or his ‘leadership’ because The People – each of the Citizens – has a voice.

And I think it is precisely to finesse this difficulty that current American ‘liberalism’ places so much rhetorical emphasis on ‘giving [fill in the blank] a voice’. That voice has to be either a Great Man (or Woman) or an organized vanguard-elite ‘advocacy’ or both. But in either case, that ‘voice’ will speak only those lines determined by the Great One or by the party-line of the vanguard advocacy.

Thus neither Fascists nor Communists nor Nazis required ‘democracy’ because their Great One (Mussolini, Lenin/Stalin, Hitler) embodied the ‘voice’ and ‘will’ of the masses.

But whatever that ‘voice’ will say, it will trumpet the “exhaustion” of traditional ideas and first-principles and the structures that they undergird.

And – the carrot – there will always be an oft-voiced concern for “the forgotten man” (or woman) and for “youth”. (p.144)

The scam will be: since you have been victimized and forgotten by the government (especially your Western democratic government) then the Great One – scooping up all the reins of government power and authority – will put government to work for you and give you the recognition you deserve. And the Great One will never become ‘exhausted’; and there will be no need for another revolution “for a thousand years”, to use Hitler’s undying phrase.

Nor will you need intermediaries between you and your government: the Great One will hear and feel you (Hitler actually uses this trope: “I cannot see all of you, but I can feel you and you can feel me” … it must have been as quease-making a comment in Germany of the 1930s as it sounds now … and yet We have seen it and heard it here far more recently.)

So no need for the ‘exhausted’ mechanisms of representative democracy, then.

And even American Communist Norman Thomas observed: to what extent can you expect to have the economics of fascism without its politics? (p.148) Of course, the same goes for his beloved Communism.

Because it will take strong centralized (ideologically as well as administratively) government, interpreting the general will of the masses as it sees fit, to rearrange or redistribute the national economics.

As I have said before, the only interesting twist in recent American politics is that the Beltway indentured itself not only to the Left, but to the Right: the Left was given entitlements and through intensifying regulations and policies various special considerations and the expansion of the illusory ‘wealth’ of credit; the Right – Big Money and Big Capital – was given the increasingly un-regulated opportunity to amass actual wealth for itself.

And here We are.


*Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. Doubleday: New York, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-385-51184-1 (hard cover). It’s also out in paperback.

**Of course, in the era of Identity Revolution, beginning in 1968 or 1972 at the latest, the government took part of FDR’s approach – we are going to be trying a whole lot of odd new stuff – but not the rest of FDR’s approach – if it doesn’t work we’ll stop it and try something else.

Instead, desperately indenturing themselves to fresh political demographics, the Beltway pols intended to continue on their initial path no matter what happened; and when their initial efforts didn’t bear the promised glorious-fruit, they simply doubled-down, decade after decade. While, as I have often said, those same pols increasingly indentured themselves to the Right’s corporatist financial interests.

Thus the country now finds itself lethally bethumped by both a new Leviatha of the Left and the old Leviathan of the Right. And thus, as Scripture saith, our last condition is worse than the first.

***The profound wrack and ruin caused by the Great Depression would have worked in any case toward softening the public’s own sense of prudence, in the desperation engendered by the economic mess. But in the late-1960s and early-1970s the ‘crises’ were far less vital and indeed were possessed of a strong flavor of having been ‘created’ or ‘whomped up’ precisely to generate waves of emotion necessary to float – it was hoped – the Great Ship over the awesome rocks and shoals toward which the ‘cutting edge reforms’ and ‘revolutions’ embraced by the Beltway were taking it.

****Jut recently Slate legal commentator Dahlia Lithwick went down this same path: just as Science and Medicine don’t allow themselves to become trapped in “obsolete” practices, so too Law should not allow itself to be trapped in fuddy-duddy ‘old’ ways of conducting itself or envisioning its purpose and practice. That Law somehow participates in vital national first-principles, and that those principles are not merely ‘stale dogmas’ but are actually the non-material vital animating and structuring ideals that hold the foundations of the American polity and American culture together … this did not detain her for a moment.

And in her you can also hear echoes in the 2010s of Wilson’s blithe but forceful rejection in the 1880s of the Framing Vision embraced back in those “horse and buggy” days of 1776 and 1787.

*****It’s worth repeating myself yet again: when in the Age of Identity (1972 or so and continuing) ‘capitalism’ was joined by racism (however defined) and genderism (ditto) and victimism (ditto), democracy’s chances of surviving such multiple and pervasive ‘reform’ intact were hugely lessened. Indeed, as the radical-feminists, drawing their political philosophy from all the fonts of Marxism, insisted: there’s no use having democracy since most of The People ‘just don’t get it’ in the first place. Which takes Marx and Mussolini and Hitler and Woodrow Wilson and updates them all for the 21st century.

And it’s also stunning that whereas materialist and quasi-Marxist Charles Beard’s ‘economic’ interpretation of the Framers (i.e. they were all rich men looking to lock-out the non-rich from governance under the Constitution of 1787) claimed that democracy was undone by the Framers for ‘economic’ reasons, yet the dynamics of Gender-based political theory will seek to lock out vast swaths of the Citizenry for ‘gender’ reasons.

The neat Beltway solution to this shocker was to quietly a) weaken the ‘white male patriarchal’ Citizenry while both b) turning education into a social-indoctrination into the gender-based ideological formation while also c) embracing as many non-white and thus presumably non-patriarchal new residents (Citizenship not necessarily required) as quickly as possible.

Something for ‘everyone’.



Progressivism, American political history, American political development since the Sixties, contemporary Liberalism, socialism, fascism, Marxism


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