Wednesday, September 19, 2012



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

It thus bordered on the oxymoronic to refer to “Progressive democracy”: Progressives had no confidence whatsoever in the ability of the demos – the Citizenry and The People – to govern itself, especially in the brave new modernity facing the country with the dawn of the 20th century. And thus too We see that Progressivism and totalitarianism seem to circle around and meet each other behind the political curtains.**

JG puts it nicely: “Bismarck’s motive was to forestall demands for more democracy by giving the people the sort of thing they might ask for at the polls.” (p.96) And thus in this sense “his top-down socialism was a Machiavellian masterstroke because it made the middle-class dependent upon the state”. (p.96)

And he pinpoints the consequences acutely: “The middle-class took away from this the lesson that enlightened government was not the product of democracy but an alternative to it”. (p.96) [italics JG’s; boldface mine]

I can’t imagine a more lethally insidious presumption that could be introduced into the political bloodstream of a constitutional and democratic republic.

Granted the Democratic ‘machine politics’ of the cities of the Gilded Age left a great deal to be desired – gravid with the possibilities of merely creating client-populations of voters who would support whatever they were told to by their political patrons. But those ‘clients’ were at the same time busily engaged in making their way in a society and culture that offered them both avenues for self-improvement and advancement and also invited them to join that common society and culture and become part of a worthwhile Project. (Which is hell and gone from more recent immigrants, who are precisely urged not to embrace a morally tainted and bankrupt culture but rather to simply place themselves at the putatively benevolent mercies of the government and its checks and entitlements.)

JG further points out that it is insufficient to say that such ideas were “in the air” at the end of the 19th century, and any similarities between Progressivism and fascism merely “a common set of responses to a common atmosphere of social, economic, and political change”. (p.99) Indeed, he says, that insight would form part of his entire argument: Despite the cultural differences that created surface differences between American Progressivism and European fascism, yet they shared the same idolatrous fascination with “experimentation”, part of “the great utopian aspirations of what Jane Addams burbled at the Progressive Party Convention was a “world-wide movement”. (p.99)

JG – and rightly, I would say – sees this ‘movement’ as “a religious awakening afoot in the West as progressives of all stripes saw man snatching the reins of history from God’s hands”. (p.100) Which rightly brings up the admonitory awareness that We are somehow dealing with the dynamics of religious Awakening in all of this. America had already seen a few in its day by 1890.

And it was here, as We shall continue to see, that American ‘liberal’ Protestantism saw a way to hitch itself to a star (the Star of Bethlehem not, apparently, being sufficient unto the ‘new day’) by insisting that God Himself had delivered the reins to His enlightened and Progressive believers, that they might control the reins of government and usher in the New Age.

“Science – or what they believed to be science – was the new scripture; and one could only perform science by ‘experimenting’”. (p.100) This entirely accurate fact was rendered a mere factoid, I would say, by its gross misapplication to the first-principles of democracy upon which the Framers had so acutely constructed the Framing Vision and the machinery of the Constitution.

‘Experiments’ are properly done in laboratories under tightly-controlled conditions, and only after some very careful and serious labor has been expended in thinking in order to come up with a viable hypothesis which the experiments could test. What the Progressives were doing was presuming that the entire country could be turned into a ‘lab’, and that ‘experiments’ could be enthusiastically multiplied with heedless abandon, and that somehow – and without doubt – it would all turn out good.

Yet ‘the country’ was a fully-freighted and working culture and society, burthened with so very many souls. So the Progressives were pretty much announcing to the passengers that the ship was going to become ‘experimental’ out there in the middle of Life’s vast ocean, and they were going to sweep away all that had they had been told about how to sail it and how to handle it, and yet nobody was to worry because History couldn’t build the ocean that could sink so marvelously conceived and run a ship. No wonder the wreck of the Titanic in 1912 (on her maiden voyage, no less) was such a profound cultural shock.

On top of all that, since only scientists know how to conduct a good experiment, then it’s only ‘logical’ that only scientific experts should run the government – or at least advise it and its Great Man. (p.100) But it would be ‘logical’ only if the analogy between material science and the political realities of humans and their social and cultural and political arrangements was a valid analogy.

It was in this era that the term ‘political science’ gained elite credence: the knowledge elites were justified in invading the political realm because ‘politics’ was just as much a field for their ‘political science’ as the material realms of figuring out and harnessing the physical laws of energy and matter were clearly a realm for ‘scientists’. There were, it was presumed, ‘laws’ that governed politics with the same undeniable clarity and authority as Newton’s laws governed the material realm.

But no to worry, the Progressives assured everyone. “This is far from the frozen dictatorship of Russian Tsardom” and “it may work out in a new democratic direction”, said the noted (and Progressive) historian Charles Beard about Mussolini’s early efforts. (p.100) Note the subjunctive ‘may’ there; just in case.

For Beard, Mussolini’s efforts were “an amazing experiment”, “an experiment in reconciling individualism, politics and technology”. (p.100)  And if politics was a science, then of what use were the horse-and-buggy Framers and their 18th-century ‘science’ and knowledge? Times had changed – it was 1900! Why in 1787 they barely had steam engines, had no electric lights, no railroads and not even any of Mr. Bell’s telephones – let alone the horseless carriage and the mighty steamship. Of what conceivable use or value were documents composed with a quill pen under candle-light?

In the event, today this country imprisons more of its Citizens than not only the Tsar but Stalin himself. Such progress.

And – neatly  – JG then points out that Woodrow Wilson’s “revolutionary rhetoric” (alarming all by itself in terms of its dismissal of the Framers and the Framing Vision) seemed to be confirmed by the forces of history” as the Soviets launched their revolution – against the democratic government of Kerensky, put in place by the Russian people’s revolution that actually toppled the Tsar. (p.101) As Lenin saw, and apparently American Progressives agreed, no ‘people’ could be trusted with their own revolution.

And – indicating the role of the media as it would evolve throughout the 20th century – “a wave of crusading journalists went to Moscow to chronicle the revolution and convince American liberals that history was on the march in Russia”. (p.101) Which was the last thing American Progressives or liberals needed to hear. Alas.

One Wilson appointee, Arthur Bullard – “a former writer for the radical journal The Masses and an acquaintance of Lenin’s” – pretty much Americanized the Leninist idea of ‘revolutionary truth’ (i.e. whatever is good for the revolution is ‘true’, and whatever isn’t, isn’t) by insisting that “the state must whip the people up into a patriotic fervor if America as ever to achieve the ‘transvaluation’ that the progressives craved”. (p.110) You may recognize Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” here; Nietzsche had insisted that the Ubermensch must rid himself (or herself) of the ‘slave mentality’ values of Christianity and the West and embrace one’s inner barbarian.

The state, Bullard insisted, must “electrify public opinion”. I don’t consider it rhetorically excessive here to suggest that ‘electrocute’ might be more accurate, given what he sought to achieve.

And JG rightly notes the resemblance to the thought of 19th-century French radical Georges Sorel and his doctrine of “the vital lie … truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms … there are lifeless truths and vital lies … the force of an idea lies in its inspirational value … it matters very little if it is true or false”. (p.111) You can read precisely the same stuff presented as (and masquerading as) cutting-edge philosophy in Catharine MacKinnon’s 1989 radical-feminist summa Toward A Feminist Theory of the State. Let’s all embrace ‘vital lies’ and knock off any fuddy-duddy old (and patriarchal) loyalty to “lifeless truths”. Yeah, let’s all do that.

And has that been working for Us?

And Progressivism was not simply aiming itself at adults. In another eerie and queasy foreshadowing of much more recent trends, the “children” became “a special concern of the government’s, as is always the case in totalitarian systems”. (p.111) After all, if you want to go for total control of somebody’s life, then you want to get at them as early as possible. In a generation or two, you can raise up whole broods of happy little totalitarians (whether they know it or not) who see the omnipresence of the government in their lives as ‘totally natural’. (At which point, of course, the sooner you give them the vote, the better. And before long, they may not even see the need for a vote at all.)

Wilson’s “war socialism” was thoroughly and completely a “Progressive project” – with its "economic dictatorship”, its censorship, its mass mobilization against ‘internal enemies’ and against anybody who gave rise in any way to the suspicion that he didn’t embrace “100 percent Americanism” (the Politically Correct position of its day), and the dispatch of tens of thousands of special government agents to police the public mind and heart.

Which – JG nicely points out about Wilson’s “shockingly bloodthirsty” war-supporters – “didn’t make them right-wingers; it made them shockingly blood-thirsty and jingoistic left-wingers”. (p.118)

He offers several quotations. The famous activist for “Americanist socialism”, Mother Jones: “Perhaps I was as much opposed to the war as anyone in the nation, but when we get into a fight I am one of those who intend to clean hell out of the other fellow”. Pro-war socialist Charles Russell: his former colleagues should be “driven from the country”. Another who said that any “antiwar socialists should be taken out and shot without delay”. (all, p.118)

Their primary desire “was to impose a unifying totalitarian moral order that regulated the individual inside his home and out”. (p.119) Theretofore, it had been religion that was primarily responsible for the moral order of the Citizenry; here you can see Progressivism’s innate urge to replace religion (at least, any religion that didn’t join with it and assume a subsidiary position). It seems to me that the Catholic Church  was bound to wind up in Progressivism’s sights some day; the roots of a Left Secularism ran deep in the Progressive world-view.

Nor did first-wave Progressivism tolerate class-differences. As George Creel, Wilson’s (and the world’s) first propaganda chief, declared: there was to be “no dividing line between the rich and the poor and no class distinctions to breed mean envies”. (p.119)

Which, JG points out, “was precisely the social mission and appeal of fascism and Nazism”. (p.119) And among many adherents of those European movements, regardless of whether they succeeded, “the appeal of such a goal was profound and the intent sincere”. (p.119) But clearly in history Good Intentions are not ever enough. You have to give some serious, careful, and deliberate thought to what it is you are trying to achieve and how you intend to get there.

When his own turn came, Wilsons’ former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR, sought to cloak an even more executive-directed Progressivism in the form of a “middle way” (between ‘traditional’ American governance and the totalitarian governance of Mussolini’s Italy. (p.130)

His approach to “middle-way politics was a carefully crafted appeal to the middle-class’s entirely justifiable fear of the Red menace” (as Mussolini did and as Hitler – just coming to power – would do): that “if the New Deal failed, what would come next would be far more radical”. (p.131)

What constituted the fascist appeal (the carrot offered with the stick of the Red menace) was “homegrown socialism, orderly socialism, socialism with a German or Italian face, as opposed to the nasty ‘foreign’ socialism in much the same way that Wilson’s ‘100 percent Americanism’ had been America’s counteroffer to Bolshevism”. (p.131)

JG will discuss at length how FDR cobbled-together his New Deal programs (largely ineffective as economics; America was not raised out of the economic doldrums until World War 2). But he will make a vital point: “The German and American New Deals may have been merely what Hitler and FDR thought they could get away with. But therein lies the common principle: the state should be allowed to get away with anything, so long as it is for ‘good reasons’. This is the common principle among fascism, Nazism, Progressivism, and what we today call liberalism.” (p.131) [italics JG’s; boldface mine]

We see here the continuing pressure for The People – the governors of their government in the Framing Vision – to yield their authority to make judgments – to ‘be judgmental’ – in regard to the government’s actions and policies. They aren’t told that in the opinion of the knowledge elites (of the 1910s, 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, or subsequently) The People are simply ignorant masses who can’t be trusted with the authority of ultimate governance because they haven’t got the brains for it. But that is precisely the presumption. And I think We can see today where that road has now led Us.

And it was in FDR’s time that ‘Progressives’ suddenly became ‘liberals’ as the preferred-label. (p.132) As Theodore Lowi outlined it in his 1995 book The End of the Republican Era, FDR did a marvelous job of re-spinning and re-branding both the Democrats and the Republicans. He branded the classically Liberal Republicanism of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, as ‘conservatism’; and he branded the formerly Progressive and even socialist Democrats as ‘liberals’. There was no attention paid to the profound antithesis between classical Liberalism and the ‘liberalism’ that at heart was actually Progressivism/socialism (tending, as We have been seeing, toward ‘totalitarianism’).

Here JG observes acutely that ‘liberals’ have never been able (or willing) to define (and thus boundary) the agenda of Progressivism/liberalism, “beyond the conviction that the federal government should use its power to do nice things wherever and whenever it can”. (p.132) If discussion of New Deal-era government action might seem rather ‘historical’ to some readers today, the developments since the 1960s – in the Age of Identity Politics – should sharpen the historical sense by bringing these matters into far more recent and current focus.

And whereas in Wilson’s era and FDR’s era there were wars and that (first) Great Depression, in the late 1960s the ‘crisis’ – and Progressivism/liberalism always needs a war or a ‘crisis’ to lubricate its operations – had to be more or less manufactured. Once the first phase of the (black) civil-rights movement under King’s unitive and truly redemptive aegis ended with King being kicked to the curb by his own folk, the Beltway had to step in and place its own formidable manipulative resources into fanning the sense of crisis in order to lubricate its further plans for placating a new demographic by whatever means necessary. And then to further extend this ‘top-down revolution’ dynamic to ever-increasing Identity groups.

And as I have pointed out often in essays on this site, the radical-feminist Identity – once embraced by the Beltway – quickly provided voluminous ‘justifications’ for everything by drawing ‘richly and diversely’ upon the long-standing thought and agendas of European Leninism and Maoism and all the other variants and mutations of totalitiarian thought and praxis. Which by this point have become almost ‘naturalized’ as Correct ‘liberal’ thinking of the most cutting-edge and yet natively American sort.

JG clearly demonstrates the actual nature and genesis of this stuff.

Worse – and socio-political thinker Theodore Lowi noticed this (but didn’t delve into it) as early as 1967 – modern American ‘liberalism’ conforms and has always conformed to Wilsonian Progressive Herbert Croly’s (co-founder of The New Republic magazine in 1914) insistence, defending Mussolini in the 1920s, that the Italian Great Man did not violate liberal principles because “If there are any abstract liberal principles, we do not know how to formulate them. Nor if they are formulated by others do we recognize their authority. Liberalism, as we understand it, is an activity”. (p.132) [italics mine]

In other words, we Progressives/liberals have no principles. Lowi saw this in 1967 and was alarmed by it: no principles meant that there was no standard by which The People were to judge any ‘liberal’ government (and, Right or Left, Republican or Democrat, all administrations have been essentially Progressive/liberal since FDR). Nor, to the ominous convenience of the Beltway, were there any afore-stated principles to which the pols had to adhere; thus giving them unfettered license to concoct whatever policies and laws and regulations that they needed to in order to placate and pander-to their embraced demographic Identities.

Nor, Lowi realized, would the Rule of Law long survive such a ‘philosophy’ of no-standards and of ‘pure activity’ and action.

One need only look around this country today to see that those ominous possibilities have matured to bear their poisonous fruit in matters foreign and domestic, reaching even to Constitutional law and praxis.

And – to return to a point – one can find Croly’s 1920s “abstractions” raised to the status of a Gender-philosophical axiom by such radical-feminist lights as Catharine MacKinnon in 1989: men think ‘abstractly’ and ‘in abstractions’ whereas women (she declares) think intuitively and with feelings; whereas men ‘step back’ from a situation (in order, I would say, to follow the Western tradition of distancing the mind from the emotions the way astronomical telescopes are sited away from city-lights in order to get a clearer view), women do their figuring from ‘within the situation’ (a neat way to spin exactly the opposite philosophical stance: working from the emotions and the feelings and sidestepping rationality altogether).

American Progressivism spent a frustrated 1920s as the country gave itself over to the orgiastics of the Jazz Age; but Prohibition – that queasy but viral amalgam of Progressive and populist thought – was in full operation, wreaking that stunningly profound damage which saw mid-Western temperance women and big-city gangsters both lined up firmly in favor of its continuation, and legions of federal agents invasively scouring the countrysides and hidden valleys and farms as well as the warehouses and dark streets of Chicago and New York for stills and bootleg booze. And politicians and law-enforcement simultaneously engorging their writ of authority while (so very often) taking their weekly or monthly envelopes from the racketeers.

But Progressives here could distract themselves from the glaring (and ominous) failure of their at that point greatest achievement by looking across the sea. To Mussolini and to Lenin.

That was their ‘faith’. “Liberalism is what liberals do … faith without deeds is dead … pragmatic liberals internalized this while protesting that they have no faith … And this was at the core of what German historian Peter Vogt called the progressives’ ‘elective affinity’ for fascism.” (p.132)

“Married to no preconceptions”, as FDR nicely spun it, the Progressive/liberals became – I would say – pure viscera with no skeletal structure to give their thing any Shape. It made the whole Project much more ‘flexible’ and ‘responsive’, but the biological realities of not-having a core skeletal structure of principles would eventually reveal themselves.

It would happen when the government finally made such a hash of great national matters (and finances) that the Oz-like curtain of its authority began to be rent in two at the very heart of the Progressive/liberal temple 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.

**Giving an ominous political meaning to Kipling’s contemporaneous observation that “the Colonel’s lady and Rosie O’Grady are sisters under the skin”.



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