Tuesday, October 09, 2012


I continue this mini-series on Jonah Goldberg’s 2007 book Liberal Fascism.* (In these Posts, Jonah Goldberg will be shortened to ‘JG’.)
Having given an overview of JG’s thoughts, in this Post I’d like to select some particular points of interest. In several subsequent Posts I’ll deal with some of the numerous and eye-opening quotations from historical figures in American and/or socialist and Progressive history, from the young Woodrow Wilson up through LBJ.
JG observes that “war socialism under Wilson was an entirely progressive project and long after the war it remained the liberal ideal”. (p.119) Indeed, as has been said, the ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ of that war provided the lubricating ‘justification’ for such a stunning expansion of federal power.** And with the exception of Harding and Coolidge and possibly Herbert Hoover, every President since Wilson has been committed to the Progressive Stance – which is to say: not only its good intentions but also its methods and its presumptions about the incapacity of The People to govern themselves well and the consequent necessity for giving power to the elites who do indeed know what to do and ‘get it’.
Progressivism and war, therefore, are joined at the hip; you can’t have the former without some form of the latter (whether actual shooting war or ‘cold war’ or some version of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, multiple variants of which were unleashed upon the country during the past few decades since 1970 or so).
Indeed, JG observes that since militarization of government and citizens and the official valorization of martial values under the pretexts of nationalism and patriotism are considered marquis indicators of “classic fascism”, “it is very difficult to understand how the Progressive Era was not also the Fascist Era”.
Which is a proposition that is sure to function as a broom-stick in the bicycle spokes of conventional – and especially American – received wisdom. But this is so to a great extent because of the  1940s wartime success of the Progressive/liberals in dissociating themselves from the European variants of totalizing-government by emphasizing the Hitlerian military aggression and the Holocaust.***
After all, JG notes, Progressivism shares so many characteristics generally attributed to totalizing fascism by historians of the phenomenon: “largely a middle-class movement equally opposed to runaway capitalism above and radical-Marxism below … [by seeking] what the fascists called ‘the Third Way’, or what Richard Ely, mentor to both Wilson and [Teddy] Roosevelt, called ‘the golden mean’ between laissez-faire individualism and Marxist socialism … [with the] chief desire being to impose a unifying, totalitarian moral order that regulated the individual inside his home and out”. (p.119) [italics mine]
And surely the radical and revolutionary Marxist element was consciously and deliberately introduced in third-wave Progressive/’liberal’ political agendas after 1972 here, although spun vigorously as ‘liberation’ and nothing more.
It was much much more.
After World War 1, “the country slowly regained its sanity … but many liberals remained enamored of war socialism, believing that a peacetime militarization of society was still necessary”. (p.127) With the Progressives having discovered how The People might be turned into a herd whose brute and lumpish power might be harnessed by the government and its elites, then We have to wonder if at that point – and so very ominously – the toothpaste was out of the tube in terms of American political development. Josephus Daniels, religious evangelical and dedicated Progressive, “wondered if the country might need to ‘become a super-Prussia’” in order to effectively achieve a new world-wide moral Order. (p.127) [italics mine]
And in the Year of Grace Two Thousand and Twelve, and of the Independence of the United States the Two-Hundred-and-Thirty-Sixth, might it be asked Is that working for Us?
Consequently, the administration plumped for a peacetime draft and a new peacetime Sedition law – but was rebuffed.
But almost immediately a “Red Scare” was suddenly unleashed upon the nation, as the government ‘discovered’ the threat of Communist infiltrators and agents migrating from newly-established Soviet Russia to work lethal mischief here. (And J. Edgar Hoover was quick to avail himself of the bureaucratic and career opportunities thus afforded, taking over government efforts to root out not only Communists but ‘sympathizers’ – even among the Citizens. ‘Sympathizers’ was widely defined, to include labor organizers and many who simply didn’t want to see the country go down the militarized and aggressive route of a “super-Prussia”.)
No wonder, then, JG observes, “Harding’s campaign slogan had been ‘A Return to Normalcy’”. (p.127) The country had been, in the Progressive Wilson years, subjected to a steady drumbeat of abnormality, derangements, and deformities – and all of them imposed by the government itself.
(As a child I had always been unimpressed by Harding’s choice of campaign slogan: it seemed so bland and unimaginative. But the more you look at the record of the Progressive Wilson years, the more you realize just what the country had been put through.**** But even a half-century and more ago, when the Great War was ‘only’ a half-century back in the nation’s past, it was conventionally accepted as a glorious if secondary chapter in America’s march to Greatness, the first revelation of her power that would be so vividly deployed in the Second World War and the Cold War that was so eloquently limned by JFK in his Inaugural Address and so masterfully implemented by LBJ with his Great Society and the – at that point – impressive demonstration of the country’s abiding military prowess in Vietnam.)
When FDR came to office, he was temperamentally unsuited for deep and sustained thought, and (like JFK would do with his youthful inexperience compared to Ike and Nixon) made a virtue of necessity by insisting that the government needed not to ‘think’ but to ‘act’. And, building on that theme, he insisted that the government would ‘try’ this and that, and what worked it would keep doing and what didn’t work it would discard and try something else.
He was not committed enough to any ideology for the radical reform/revolution-minded Progressives, and he wasn’t securely anchored enough in any principles for the conservatives.
But – marvelously – he made a virtue of that too: he was ‘flexible’ and ‘open’ to ‘innovation’ and he was not chained to ‘dogmas’ and ‘old thoughts and ways’.
Terrified by their economic situation and by Herbert Hoover’s solid and somewhat staid equanimity and sober engineer’s balance in the face of so shocking an emergency, and enamored of FDR’s marvelous presence (amplified by radio and his willingness to occasionally take a new-fangled aeroplane rather than the ‘old-fashioned’ train), folks were happy to cut him some slack. Maybe at such a lethal and critical juncture, you needed a President willing to try new approaches – since the old ones clearly didn’t seem to be working. Go with the flow and try not to overthink things … that might do the trick.
But as JG puts it nicely: FDR “planted his flag atop a buoy at sea, permanently bobbing with the currents … unfortunately the currents tended to push him in only one direction: statism.” (p.129)
But contrary to those even today who point dramatically back to “the Roosevelt legacy”, JG asserts that even at the time and among his own advisers there was no Plan. He quotes Raymond Moley, a significant adviser to FDR: “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator”. (pp.129-130)
A remarkably imaginative yet acutely apt way of saying that the country had slipped and slid along the Progressive path like a speeding car driven by an average driver that has suddenly hit a large and extended patch of ice.
Said another New Deal adviser in 1940, in response to a question as to “whether the basic principle of the New Deal was economically sound”: “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is”. (p.130) Of course, in 1940 things were already looking up – finally – with the approach of what would become World War Two. In typical American fashion, you could treat even the immediate past as ‘past’ and therefore as of no further relevance; there were Good Times dawning and why look back?
Why indeed.
When his own Presidency arrived, former New Dealer and FDR-protégé LBJ, referring to a piece of Great Society legislation, insisted: “Just pass the damned thing – we can always amend it later”.
Not the wisest or most prudent or sober governing policy, but as long as you have a productive and victorious war to ‘demonstrate the success’ of your plans, then who cares really?
Who indeed.
As JG points out, neither Mussolini nor Hitler really let themselves get distracted by “economic theory”. As Mussolini liked to put it: “Our program is to govern” – and beyond that, well, trust us. (p.130)
(You get the impression that Mussolini was in some ways the source of conceptual inspiration for both FDR and Hitler.)
But JG then acutely reflects that while ‘the middle way’ sounded innocuous and moderate, “un-ideological and free-thinking”, yet “philosophically the Third Way is not mere difference-splitting; it is utopian and authoritarian”, inalterably antagonistic to the quintessential political requirement for trade-offs. (p.130) You can make a very good case that there really is no such thing as a totalitarian “politics” since there is no difference between putative ‘equals’, no dissent is tolerated, and – of course – since the elites have already concluded that in Great Matters they so profoundly and totally ‘get it’ and everybody else so profoundly and totally ‘just doesn’t get it’ – then compromise would be nothing short of treason to (their version of) ‘truth’ and ‘reality’.
Worse, JG continues, such Third-Way types insist that “there are no false choices”: there is, rather, the One Way (their Way) and they will not accept that there are alternatives that need to be considered or obstructions to be respected or – oy! – any possible downsides to the consequences of their agendas and plans and visions. Rather, they can have it all: nationalism and socialism, capitalism and Marxism, individual liberty and an imposed total communal unity.
Thus, JG continues, there is a stunning similarity between totalitarian utopians and “heretical Christian movements” in that they all “assume that with just the right arrangement of policies, all contradictions can be rectified” (or ‘aligned’). (p.130)
But history is imperfect because life is imperfect because human beings are imperfect. And that imperfection manifests itself in unpredictable ways. To give individuals ‘liberty’ is to sign-on for a roller-coaster ride combined with a labyrinth trek. That, as the Framers realized – and not without some serious trepidation – goes with the territory if you are going to allow The People to be the governors of their own government.
And it is a circle that can never fully be squared in this life.
And if you are going to insist – as the Progressives and the other totalizers do – that your elites know what they’re doing and do what’s best, then you are going to get authoritarianism because those elites are going to ‘logically’ feel authorized and commissioned to use government power to impose their visions.
And thus – I would say – Progressivism, like the other total-isms, is inherently imperialistic as well. Because once you have imposed your vision of perfection on your own country, then you are going to want to and you are going to need to go out and impose that New Order on other countries and peoples as well. Wouldn’t it be treason to your vision not to? Wouldn’t it be failing in your duty to humanity not to impose your vision on everybody? Why be selfish and keep your light under the bushel-basket of abstractions like the putative ‘sovereignty’ of other nations and governments if you have the Key that will make the life of all peoples so very much better?
Why indeed.
FDR ran into objections from Progressives who felt he wasn’t being radical enough, and ‘conservatives’ who were merely Progressives who thought he was heading toward “the wrong kind of socialism”; in other words, objections from what JG calls “utopians” and “non-utopians”.
But the key similarity between what JG calls “both the German and American New Deals” was “that the state should be allowed to get away with anything, so long as it is for good reasons”. (p.131)  [italics his]
Nor should there be any “dogmatic” boundaries – or first-principles of any sort – that can be allowed to obstruct whatever the state and its Correct elites (who, of course, ‘get it’) see as necessary. And years before 9/11 this ‘political philosophy’ had been put forth as a Plan by radical-feminism here, and the Beltway had bought it all, since it neatly erased any boundaries that would interfere with their ‘flexibility’ in giving the various cadres of the various Identities of the various Revolutions and the various lobbyists of the various special-interests of finance capitalism whatever they demanded. You can’t violate principles if there are no principles. (And you can’t commit crimes if no laws apply.) Neat.
And then JG goes a bit philosophical – and not wrongly so – himself. “The leader and his [or her] anointed cadres are decision makers above and beyond political or democratic imperatives. They invoke with divine reverence ‘science’ and the laws of economics the way temple priests once read the entrails of goats, but because they have blinded themselves to their own leaps of faith, they cannot see that morals and values cannot be derived from science”. (p.131)
Just so.
Science can only offer the principles of the Scientific Method, which is a process for logically and rationally determining the truth of some scientific hypothesis.
But you can’t use science to get at the principles of morality because those principles don’t stem from the material realm, from Matter, but rather from some non-material realm of the human spirit (perhaps in touch with an even Higher realm of Spirit) where the laws of gravity and thermodynamics and geology don’t apply. Nor can you use the sort-of ‘sciences’ such as psychology or even advanced neurobiology, since there is some life-principle in humans that is not accessible to scientific study, no matter how carefully and honestly conducted. A human being is simultaneously both apple and orange, and ‘science’ can only work on the apple.
*Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. Doubleday: New York, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-385-51184-1 (hard cover). It’s also out in paperback.
**I would note here too that there is a profound difference between, say, Jefferson’s Executive acquisition of the territories included in the Louisiana Purchase on the one hand, and Progressive expansions of government and Executive power on the other.
To be sure, Jefferson went beyond the law: he bought first and asked Congress later (both to ratify and to pay-for his Purchase). Further, Jefferson defended himself with an iffy analogy: he considered himself, in the matter of the Purchase, to be acting as a “guardian” for the citizens, who as his “wards” might not yet see the wisdom of his expenditure of ‘their’ money; but at some point, Jefferson was confident, he could face the public squarely and say that he had done it “for your own good” – much as a conscientious legal guardian might say to a ward who becomes old enough to now manage his own affairs.
That’s easily a candidate for the ‘slippery slope’ attitude which less than a century later would fuel the cocksure Progressive eagerness to do for the public what the public was clearly (to the Progressive eye) incapable of doing for itself.
But Jefferson merely provided huge tracts of land – which became an opportunity for States and Citizens to exercise their rights and freedoms. He did not seek to expand the ordinary-power of the government or the Executive.
This must be contrasted to the agenda of the Progressives a century later: whereas Teddy Roosevelt supported both commercial expansion (enabled by military action) and the substantial increase of government regulatory power over corporations in order to provide for the safety of the products manufactured and marketed to the Citizenry by the corporations, Wilson was the first of the Progressive Executives to take matters to a whole new level: following a host of prewar changes (the direct election of Senators, the constitutionally-questionable creation of the Federal Reserve, the even more constitutionally questionable extension of the legal authority to prosecute the entire civil criminal code to the military justice system), Wilson’s objectives during World War 1 comprised the control of the Citizenry through surveillance, criminal prosecution and expanded government investigation (J. Edgar Hoover got his start right here); the manipulation of public opinion by what had to be the planet’s first dedicated Propaganda Office/Ministry; and by numerous other initiatives the mobilization of the emotions and resources and capacities of the Citizenry in the service of the government and its elite-Progressive illuminations, excitements, schemes and purposes.
***Might it here be asked if the post-1972 Gender element of the Culture War (Kulturkampf) is not classifiable as a variant version of the Hitlerian campaign against the Jewish people, with ‘men’ and their ‘macho patriarchy’ now classified as the targeted evil presence from which the Volk and the Kultur must now be cleansed? A campaign – it might be said – to make American culture and society ‘Mannerrein’ (translated as ‘cleansed of men’)?
As “the Jews” somehow infected culture and society by their mere presence, ‘men’ constitute a similar infection through their hegemonic, dominant, sexually-violent marginalizing of the culture and the people. Which – Correctly – must be eliminated, and in the service of that objective no ‘fetishization’ of ‘abstractions’ such as law or the rule of law or the Constitution must be allowed to stand in the way as an ‘obstruction’.
****And, of course, one might consider the extent to which Wilson’s new-fangled Federal Reserve – whereby Congress yielded effective control of the national currency and money supply and financial strategies to a private congeries of bankers and other ‘experts’ – helped bring on the Great Depression through the stock-market crash of 1929, the awful social consequences of which gave Hitler the opening he needed to mount his final (and successful) push to political power in Germany.
But even if so, Progressivism proved itself a mightily resourceful weed, and in the effort to crush Hitler, it further engorged and embedded itself in America’s politics and political thought.

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