Sunday, May 04, 2008

The New Deal reconsidered: Liberal fascism

PRE-POSTSCRIPT: Here's a podcast interview with Jonah Goldberg.
Up there on Amazon's best-seller lists for months now has been Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. The book has brought back a debate that should be at the forefront of our politics, but rarely is. One of Goldberg's goals is to lay to rest a mythology that has been central to the American left and more mainstream liberals since the 1930s, that Anglo-American conservatism is somehow "fascist"; and more generally the misuse of fascism to describe the free-market and individualist right. It's only become "right" because the left foisted this mythology on us all those decades ago, that leftism and fascism are mutually exclusive and exhaustive poles of politics. Having the slightest familiarity with modern political history, especially from a European perspective, no one educated person could have fallen for this. But in our age of media-induced amnesia, it's helpful to now and then wake up and read some real history for once. It's history that's not hidden, just forgotten, sometimes deliberately so. Readers of Hayek's 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom, will recognize the essentials.

Most of what is called "conservative" in the English-speaking world in the last 80 years is really a blend of what 19th- or 18th-century educated people would have correctly called "liberal" (meaning limited government and individualist) and "conservative" (meaning traditionalist). The two are still in tension (we think of "conservative" versus "libertarian," for example), but they were also in tension then. In the generation before the First World War, a new force, not answering to either label, arose in opposition to the older limited-government liberal ideal. It went under various names: "reform" liberalism, the "new" liberalism (as opposed to the "old"), "progressivism." Influenced by Marxist and socialist doctrines, they came to dominate American politics in the teens and then again during the Great Depression and the New Deal. It's the basis today of what is conventionally and very misleadingly called "liberalism" in the US and more correctly called "social democracy" or "welfare liberalism" in the rest of the world. We're all familiar from our history classes what this meant: in democratic societies, a much larger and more powerful government; far more overt political involvement in social and economic decisions; the state (to an extent) taking over once-private or familial functions (education, old age and sickness insurance), and so on. The political values associated with classical liberalism largely remained, but its economic and social values were transformed into a form of democratic statism.

But in countries with weaker or non-existent democratic traditions, while it meant all those things, it also meant something else: a comprehensive alternative to liberal democracy altogether. In reconstituted empires like the Russian and Chinese, it was the fantastic and deadly fake, coercive utopia of communism. In countries with old cultural identities but recent and weak political unification (Italy, Germany, Japan), the new collectivism and statism were merged with a post-nationalist imperial chauvinism, eventually christened "fascism" by Mussolini. He named his idea and movement after the Roman fasces, the bundled sticks that represented the supersession of individuals going about their business by a concentrated unity of purpose embodied in the person of the dictator. Hitler and Nazism then did it all better by adding a mystical romantic racism and a Teutonic thoroughness the Italian model lacked.

The non-democratic forms of 20th-century collectivism, rather than being opposites, are best viewed as rival siblings. They were born at around the same time and answered similar needs. The career of Mussolini illustrates their entangled origins: born to radical parents (who named him Benito after the Mexican revolutionary Benito Juarez), drifting through Marxism (too German-pedantic) and anarchism (fit the Latin temperament better), then to the realization that he could really make a big splash if he fused the two rivals, chauvinistic nationalism and socialism. The epiphany came to him, as it did to many, during the first modern "total" war. World War One demonstrated the apparent practicality of nationalized economies, centralized control, and total unity, with the hope that they could be carried over permanently into peacetime.

There were parallels in various countries and between democratic and non-democratic forms. Progressivist Woodrow Wilson viewed the limited government paradigm of the American founders as obsolete, to be replaced by an organic system, with the President as the "head" of the body politic. His younger colleague, Franklin Roosevelt, later succeeded where Wilson failed. H. G. Wells coined the term "liberal fascism" in a 1931 speech in which he called for a synthesis of the older "liberal" (what we now misleadingly call "conservative") political values with state manipulation and control of society and economy. Wells wasn't thinking of Soviet Russia, but of Fascist Italy, where Mussolini had done more than make the trains run on time. Wells had seen this apparent "wave of the future," and it seemed to work. After 1918 and especially after the onset of the Great Depression, liberal democracy, free societies, and free economies seemed passé. All of this was of course deliberately forgotten after 1945. From then on, "liberalism" and "fascism" were supposed to be opposites.*

But Goldberg arrives to tell us otherwise, exhumes this repressed history, and updates it with the distinctive excesses of the 1960s New Left, its eroticized cult of violence and worship of exotic foreign dictators, both reminiscent of fascism and its 30s fellow-travellers in democratic countries. In certain ways, Goldberg exaggerates: the tragedy of American liberalism since Wilson is not that it is fascism (it isn't), but that it tries to combine what cannot be: unlimited government in the service of liberal goals. It has led modern liberals to one predictable disaster after another.
* We also can't ignore the effect of the Popular Front period (1936-39), when Stalin and Soviet-oriented zombies worldwide tried to manipulate the democratic left and liberal middle-class parties with a common program in opposition to fascism. The real controlling factor was Soviet policy towards Germany, which zigzagged from neutrality, to hostility, to friendship, all in a few years. In Europe, the PF program made at least superficial sense. In the US, there wasn't much to oppose really - except, strangely, the New Deal itself, which had multiple features in direct and conscious imitation of Mussolini's system. The emotionalistic use of "fascist" as an empty epithet to label anyone not with this program started in the Popular Front era, then reappeared in the 60s.

The Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 brought the Popular Front to an end, although the crude manipulation of gullible non-communists to serve Soviet foreign policy goals was already evident before then. And the illusions of the Popular Front survived long after the Popular Front itself.

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