Sunday, September 23, 2012



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

As JG observes, “the core value of original fascism … was its imposition of war values on society”. (p.149) This was not out of some mere primitive blood-lust on the part of the Great Man, but rather “the chief appeal of war to social planners was not death or conquest but mobilization.” (p.149) [italics JG’s; boldface mine]

This profound and vital reality was missed in the brouhaha, certainly, of the late 1960s when “imperialism” and actual war (Vietnam, famously) took center-stage.

JG continues: “Free societies are disorganized; people do their own thing, more or less, and that can be downright inconvenient if you’re trying to plan the entire economy … war brings conformity and unity of purpose … the ordinary rules of behavior are moth-balled … you can get things done … domestic populations were required to ‘do their part’”. (p.149)

Several thoughts flow from his (accurate) assessment.

First, while it’s perfectly true that people in a free society do tend toward ‘doing their own thing’ (and certainly that was going to be a Boomer trade-mark), it is also true that voters – acting as the Citizenry and The People – also tend to think their own thoughts, making (to the extent they can) their own assessments and thus their own judgments on even the most important matters of law and policy. In some ways – to use Lincoln’s image from another context – governing such a society is akin to “shoveling fleas across a barnyard”.

The best solution – the ‘high road of democracy’, you might say – is to a) ensure that as many Citizens are sufficiently educated so as to assess and judge wisely and to b) ensure (especially through a ‘free press’) that they are sufficiently and accurately informed.

But there is still no guarantee that if (a) and (b) are ensured, The People will still approve of whatever it is that their governors and bureaucratic and intellectual ‘elites’ will want to do.

There is thus a ‘low road’: simply reduce the Citizenry to a herd, to be stampeded or herded in whatever direction the trail-bosses think best for them and for the country. For this, (a) and (b) are not only not-necessary but actually would constitute substantial potential and even probable obstructions.

This has been a perennial Western problem. Aquinas tried to deal with it in his “Letter to the Kind of Cyprus” in the 13th century. People, made in the image and likeness of God, thus possess a certain inalienable dignity and thus a right to a say in their political affairs. Yet – Aquinas admits he cannot deny – not all people are equally capable of rising to their dignity and their concomitant responsibility to marshal their abilities in order to participate in the exercise of that governance. Nor can it clearly be seen – in the 13th century – how people might participate in their own self-governance.

The solution, he concludes as he makes his summation to that King, is to treat all of his subjects as if they were – as in a sense they truly are – themselves “kings”.

Ideally, Aquinas had begun the Letter, the best form of governance would be a Benevolent Christian Monarch, so well-versed and competent in and committed to the Will and Wisdom of God’s Rule that the monarch would be able to function pretty much in God’s place on earth in matters temporal (as the Pope ideally functions in matters spiritual). But even Aquinas realizes that such an ideal solution, such an ideal human being, can hardly be expected to come along often enough and reliably enough.

Hobbes, shocked by the mayhem and ruin unleashed by the post-Reformation’s amalgam of political and religious strife that fuelled the religious civil strife and the so-called Wars of Religion of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, could see no other solution to ensure humans’ security from each other’s darknesses than to place all political power in the hands of some Leviathan government that could guarantee swift and immediate punishment for anyone breaking the civil peace. (God, clearly, had demonstrated His far too-indulgent ‘patience’ with human violence and folly in History; so the solution would have to come not from Beyond, from the Multi-plane, but from within human history, from a Leviathan that was itself a creation of human will – though, mysteriously, imbued by common-consent with a Power (if not a Wisdom and Benevolence) that would have to suffice to ensure peace and avoid the stunning and soul-wracking ruin of war and civil-war.)

At his most elevated, the Italian Communist-Leninist thinker Antonio Gramsci, in the very early 20th century, had envisioned vanguard-elites of revolution who would primarily educate the ‘marginalized’ (Gramsci’s own term) so that they would no longer passively submit to ‘dominance’ and ‘hegemony’ (ditto) but rather would have the knowledge and will to move in from the political ‘margins’ to the political ‘center’ and create both their own revolution and their own government with themselves now at that ‘center’.

But as so often in human history and affairs, such a high-road was deemed both too time-consuming and too insufficiently reliable to achieve the envisioned objective. The vanguard-elites soon became – to use a stunning theological image of Luther’s – riders who would ride the masses and through astute but ruthless use of reins and whips ride that herd to the objective. For, but of course, the herd’s own good.

It is in this context that We must assess the ascendancy of totalitarianism in its various forms: socialism, fascism, Nazism, Communism, and Progressivism.

Second, that ‘disorganization’ is itself a reflection of the diversity of opinion and priorities that naturally and ineluctably represent the freedom of individual human beings in their social and political agglomerations. While that ‘disorganization’ certainly reflects varying degrees of insight and competence among the people, it also reflects that legitimate diversity of opinion and priorities.

But there had always been a presumptive societal and cultural consensus on first-principles that would underlie and under-gird all of that diverse-ness (‘diversity’ is now a word too freighted with distractions). That was the ‘Afterglow’ of profound cultural agreement and unity  – to use my term – upon which the Framers counted for some vitally indispensable and fundamental level of unity and consensus even as they created the machinery for a constitutional democracy.

But it was precisely here that Wilson early in his career rejected the Framers in the name of Progressivism and that the Beltway, through the purported ‘philosophy’ justifying Identity Politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s and since, rejected not only any functioning democracy but even the fundamental concepts of any objectivity and rationality and commonality and any concepts of a reliably-conceived truth whatsoever.

Thus third, ‘war’ or some similar ‘emergency’ or ‘crisis’ that creates – to use William James’s term - “the moral equivalent of war”, is necessary to justify any putatively democratic and constitutionally-limited government’s arrogating to itself powers more suitable to a ‘totalitarian’ mode of governance and government.

The Citizenry can be ‘mobilized’ into a uniformity of feeling and purpose, and the ‘crisis’ creates a strong wave of public feeling that simultaneously a) raises a cloud of ‘feeling’ that obstructs rational analysis of what the government is now doing and b) generates an acceptance of the government’s squelching of dissenting or divergent opinions, with as much force and control as may be required.

As JG will say and repeat, this need for a ‘war’ or a ‘crisis’ is endemic to American Progressivism, a need built-into it as it were. After all, in no other way can a robust democracy be converted into a more organized and ‘corporated’ public enterprise.

William James – as JG notes – decently wanted “all the benefits – Dewey’s ‘social possibilities’- of war, without the costs”. (p.149) Thus it has been that wherever it could be managed, American Progressivism has adopted ‘causes’ and generated (the perception of) ‘crises’ in order to Get the Ball Rolling and to Keep The Ball Rolling.

Combined with manufacturing capitalism’s requirement to not only meet ‘needs’ but to create them, the American Progressive strategy has resulted in an unremitting civil and social and cultural agitation, thus to continue the ‘march’ (or slide) toward a more totalitarian polity.

That this lethal fundamental dynamic has been masked by the surface purposes of ‘liberation’ (however defined and conceived) does nothing to reduce the dangerousness of this course.

And even James admitted that “martial virtues must be the enduring cement” of American society … “intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command”. (p.149)

But that was first-wave Progressivism (in my counting). By the third-wave Progressivism of the 1970s, in the service of an even more lethally profound assault upon the ‘dogmas’ of what was spun as a ‘white, male, patriarchal, macho, industrial’ culture, both those (masculine) martial virtues of James’s as well as ‘religion’ and any philosophical reliance upon Virtue at all – or even any acceptance that such a thing as Virtue could exist and be freely embraced by humans – had to be jettisoned and repudiated.

And thus when in his State of the Union Address of 2012 Obama made – stunningly – a wistful call for a more team-oriented and objective-focused American commonality such as is seen in the military … We saw a desperate attempt to summon The People to a Cause that had for so long been ‘deconstructed’, and gleefully so, by the Beltway at the behest of its ‘demographic bases’. All this ‘liberation’ led to a now-engorged Executive (a Great Man?) pleading for the uniformity and unanimity of commitment and purpose that had long before been kicked to the curb by Progressives of every stripe.

But what else could he do? Given the vast abyss of general catastrophe cracked open by the financial crisis that became overt in 2008, not only would it be desperately essential for the government to be able to rely on a certain level of initiative and robust maturity on the part of the long-infantilized and pandered-to population, but it would be essential to ensure such a public restraint in order to prevent – and the possibility is hardly remote – lethal public unrest if the national situation were to get worse – also a hardly remote possibility.

Mussolini had indeed glorified war for itself: he saw it as one of the few ways that the ever-recalcitrant Italians might be whipped into shape, having to face its stern and awful discipline. And it ‘made men’, he no doubt figured, (out of at least some of those who survived it). “War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it”. (p.149)

So too did the Nazi Party, whose early embrace of paramilitary pompery was precisely calibrated to recover World War 1’s “socialism of the trenches”. (p.150) [italics mine]

The Soviets – when they waxed lyrical at all – saw the same advantages accruing to those who embraced the Revolution and its Cause.

Acutely, JG realizes that “with the election of Franklin Roosevelt, the progressives who’d sought to remake American through ‘war socialism’ were back in power … While they professed to eschew ‘dogma’, they couldn’t be more dogmatically convinced that World War 1 had been a successful ‘experiment’”. (p.150)

The more things change …

JG has even discovered Jonathan Alter’s recovered draft of an FDR radio address to the American Legion – the first to be delivered following his inauguration – in which the President “was to instruct the veterans that they should become his own ‘extra-constitutional, private army’” (as Alter put it). FDR was to exhort the veterans that as “a new commander-in-chief under the oath to which you are still bound … I reserve to myself the right to command you in any phase of the situation that now confronts us”. (p.150) The similarity of such an envisioned paramilitary force (let alone the dubiousness of the validity of that assertion that their oath-of-service taken for World War 1 was still in effect) to Hitler’s already-numerous private Party-army, the S.A., is queasy but inescapable. Nor in 1932 was it actual overseas war that FDR could have had in mind.

Political boilerplate and spirit-rousing? Perhaps, but you can certainly see where the general ‘spirit of the times’ in those days was laden with the thick smokes of totalitarianism’s robust and redemptive ‘efficiency’.

Nor – in another queasy similarity – was the National Recovery Administration’s stylized Blue Eagle, now almost completely forgotten in American iconography, anything but reminiscent of Fascist and Nazi eagle-symbols. All Americans – from corporations to housewives – were expected to conform to the NRA’s requirements, display the symbol at the factory and at home, and report those who did not do so. As the Germans would put it: Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz – public/social need takes precedence over private need.

Americans, JG observes, were being transformed as their government and governance were being transformed “into a religious experience”. You were ‘patriotic’ or not as once persons were judged ‘faithful’ or ‘heretic’, ‘believer’ or ‘infidel’. (p.153)

All necessary, as JG continually makes the point, that “the New Deal and its successors would become addicted to crises to maintain power and implement their agendas”. (p.160) He quotes 1930s journalist J.T.Flynn about the New Deal: “It is born in crisis, lives on crises, and cannot survive the era of crisis. By the very law of its nature it must create for itself, if it is to continue, fresh crises from year to year. Mussolini came to power in the postwar crisis and became himself a crisis in Italian life … Hitler’s story is the same. And our future is charted out upon the turbulent road of a permanent crisis”. (p.160)

But in 1934 the opinion was voiced that “The NRA is the beginning of an American Fascism. But unlike Italy and Germany, democratic parliamentarianism has for generations been strong in the Anglo-Saxon world.” And thus “Fascism … is not to be expected in North America”. At least, not in uniforms and jack-boots, but rather as “judicious, black-frocked gentlemen, graduates of the best universities …”. (p.161)

This is a somewhat ambivalent assurance. On the one hand, the American culture is too strongly democratic – almost viscerally and certainly conceptually fundamentally so – for it to be overtaken by totalitarian dynamics. Yet on the other hand, while such totalitarian dynamics shall not stride onto the stage in jackboots and uniforms, those dynamics will come through the well-attired graduates of the most elite universities.

And – of course – it was precisely that American culture that has been so insistently and consistently ‘deconstructed’ under the assorted elite Identity-Politics guises of Gramscian and totalitarian thought for the past 40 Biblical years. Nobody in the 1930s imagined any of that happening: that the federal government itself would embrace the undermining and corrosion of the fundamental democratic and independent ethos of American culture and tradition.

But such came to pass 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.






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