Saturday, March 1, 2008

Liberal Fascism

Not long after I started to become politically aware I noticed that anyone who was conservative was often called a fascist or a neo-nazi by the left. To sit on the right on the ideological spectrum was to be a fascist, and fascism, as everyone knew, was evil, ergo conservatives were evil. This struck me as arrant nonsense then, and Jonah Goldberg explains in his best-seller Liberal Fascism why it should strike us all as arrant nonsense today.

Fascism, as Goldberg points out over 400 pages of impressive historical scholarship, so far from being an ideology of the right, is in fact the incubator out of which the modern political left has emerged.

Fascism arose in the second decade of the 20th century in Italy, Germany and the United States pretty much contemporaneously, and in each country it took on a hue unique to the personality of the nation. Nevertheless, despite the differences, all fascist movements shared certain traits in common. These include a predilection for economic socialism, a fervent nationalism, anti-Christian secularism, totalitarianism, militarism, egalitarianism, tribalism, subordination of the family and individual to the state, and so on.

In the U.S. all of these traits were found among the progressives of the first quarter of the 20th century, particularly among those who served in the Wilson administration (and later in FDR's administration) and, indeed, to some extent in Woodrow Wilson himself. Progressivism gradually morphed into contemporary liberalism which still exhibits many, though perhaps not all, of the fascist traits of its earlier forebears.

Goldberg explores the similarities and differences between the fascism of Wilson, Mussolini, Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. At first, the reader thinks the author must surely be overstating his case, but it needs be borne in mind that he's not arguing that Wilson, FDR or Mrs. Clinton are of the same ilk as Adolf Hitler, only that their politics and policies are all drawn from the same ideological well. We tend to assume that fascism is, in Orwell's phrase, "a boot stamping on a human face, forever", but Goldberg persuades us that that's a myth. Much American fascism is actually "smiley face" fascism, and the book's cover features a smiley face with a Hitlerian moustache.

Nor does Goldberg think that everything about liberal fascism is bad, though much of it is. Rather his purpose is to instruct us in the history of this political ideology and to show that those on the left who hurl the charge of fascism at conservatives really don't know what they're talking about.

It's often thought, too, that modern liberalism is closer to communism than to fascism, but communism and fascism are actually fraternal twins. The main difference between them is that communism tends to be an international version of socialism whereas fascism is a nationalistic brand of socialism. Fascists are also usually content to allow business to remain in private hands provided that owners and managers use their enterprises to promote the ends of the state. In fascist polities government controls business without actually expropriating it. For this reason 20th century fascists often saw themselves as promoting a "third way" between total state ownership and laissez faire capitalism.

Perhaps the best way to picture ideological relationships is to visualize a divided line. At the far right of the line is libertarianism, the view that individuals should be as free of government interference as possible. Moving toward the center we encounter conservatism which shares the libertarian desire for individual freedom but which sees a more significant role for government than libertarians do. As we cross the center of the line we find socialism or statism, the view that government should own or control all important elements of the economy and society. Statists believe that the rights of the individual should be subordinated to the welfare of the collective. The individual lives to serve the state.

Socialism comes in two forms, totalitarian and democratic. Many moderate liberals are democratic socialists. It's among the totalitarian socialists that we find communists and fascists, and it is here that many of the modern left find their home. They don't usually call themselves communists or fascists, of course, preferring instead to identify themselves as progressives or leftists, but their sympathies with the goals and methods of the totalitarians make the label they apply to themselves moot.

It is, of course, impossible to do a 400 page book justice or to summarize its argument in a single post, but anyone who wishes to read more about it can visit the Liberal Fascism site at National Review Online. If you can't read the entire book, which, despite its scholarship, is very accessible, reading just the introduction would be of considerable benefit. Goldberg has written an excellent tutorial, and his work should be on the reading list of anyone studying, or interested in, politics and political ideology.