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)
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’”.
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.
Labels: American political development since the Sixties, American political history, contemporary liberalism, fascism, Marxism, Progressivism, socialism