Monday, October 31, 2005

The ultimate Newspeak

Newspeak, you may recall, has a special quality: It combines two ideas that, conventionally speaking, are virtual (if not precise) opposites, and presents them as identical -- thereby nullifying the meaning contained in each word: "War is Peace." "Ignorance is Strength." "Freedom is Slavery."
Newspeak serves two functions:

1) It deflates the opposition by nullifying its defining issues, and throws the nominal logic of the public debate into disarray.
2) It provides rhetorical and ontological cover for its speakers' own activities and agenda.

Via Atrios, we learn that none other than Jonah Goldberg has emerged with perhaps the most crystalline example of Newspeak possible, one that projects the right's own totalitarian impulses onto its opponents: Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton.

According to the Amazon synopsis:
LIBERAL FASCISM offers a startling new perspective on the theories and practices that define fascist politics. Replacing conveniently manufactured myths with surprising and enlightening research, Jonah Goldberg shows that the original fascists were really on the Left and that liberals, from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to Hillary Clinton, have advocated policies and principles remarkably similar to those of Hitler’s National Socialism.

Goldberg draws striking parallels between historic fascism and contemporary liberal doctrines. He argues that “political correctness” on campuses and calls for campaign finance reform echo the Nazis' suppression of free speech; and that liberals, like their fascist forebears, dismiss the democratic process when it yields results they dislike, insist on the centralization of economic decision-making, and seek to insert the authority of the state in our private lives–from bans on smoking to gun control. Covering such hot issues as morality, anti-Semitism, science versus religion, health care, and cultural values, he boldly illustrates the resemblances between the opinions advanced by Hitler and Mussolini and the current views of the Left.

Of course, as I just got done explaining a little bit ago, the conservative charge that fascism was a leftist phenomenon is a rightist attempt at David Irvingesque historical revisionism. There is not a single serious historian of either fascism or World War II who does not consider it a right-wing phenomenon: its anti-liberalism and anti-socialism were its defining characteristics, regardless of the rhetoric adopted by early adherents and leaders. Remember Robert Paxton's description of the political space that the fascists occupied in obtaining power:
In sum, fascists offered a new recipe for governing with popular support but without any sharing of power with the Left, and without any threat to conservative social and economic privileges and political dominance. The conservatives, for their part, held the keys to the doors of power.

The key historical fact underlining this debate is that fascism never was just a European phenomenon. It may have originated in America (Paxton identifies the Ku Klux Klan as the first real iteration of fascism in the era of mass politics), and certainly there were fascists in America in the 1920s and '30s (see, e.g., not just the Klan but also the Silvershirts), all of whom were aligned to the right, sometimes (as in the case of the America First Committee and Charles Lindbergh) with mainstream conservatives.

For that matter, of course, there are still genuine fascists and proto-fascists with us today. They go by such names as the Aryan Nations, Christian Identity, or National Socialist Movement. And they're all aligned, politically, to the far right. Their spinoffs, such as the Patriot/militia movement, were all right-leaning movements with substantial interaction with mainstream conservatism, as I've documented at length. Indeed, the militia movement's own bastard brainchild -- the Minutemen -- is now being ardently adopted by a variety of supposedly mainstream Republicans.

This was underscored by a couple of recent forays in the realm of a serious discussion of fascism. First, from an outsider's perspective, there was this piece by Paul Bigioni, a relatively little-known Canadian attorney, which takes a meta-structural approach to observing fascism's creep in the United States.

He does this first by examining the economic and political structures that led to fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, and concludes:
Even this brief historical sketch shows how fascism did the bidding of big business. The fact that Hitler called his party the "National Socialist Party" did not change the reactionary nature of his policies. The connection between the fascist dictatorships and monopoly capital was obvious to the US Department of Justice in 1939. As of 2005, however, it is all but forgotten.

It is always dangerous to forget the lessons of history. It is particularly perilous to forget about the economic origins of fascism in our modern era of deregulation. Most Western liberal democracies are currently held in the thrall of what some call market fundamentalism. Few nowadays question the flawed assumption that state intervention in the marketplace is inherently bad. As in Italy and Germany in the 20's and 30's, business associations clamor for more deregulation and deeper tax cuts. The gradual erosion of antitrust legislation, especially in the United States, has encouraged consolidation in many sectors of the economy by way of mergers and acquisitions. The North American economy has become more monopolistic than at any time in the post-WWII period. Fewer, larger competitors dominate all economic activity, and their political will is expressed with the millions of dollars they spend lobbying politicians and funding policy formulation in the many right-wing institutes which now limit public discourse to the question of how best to serve the interests of business. The consolidation of the economy, and the resulting perversion of public policy are themselves fascistic. I am quite certain, however, that President Clinton was not worrying about fascism when he repealed federal antitrust laws that had been enacted in the 1930's. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives is similarly unworried about fascism when it lobbies the Canadian government to water down our Federal Competition Act. (The Competition Act regulates monopolies, among other things, and itself represents a watering down of Canada's previous antitrust laws. It was essentially written by industry and handed to the Mulroney Government to be enacted.)

At present, monopolies are regulated on purely economic grounds to ensure the efficient allocation of goods. If we are to protect ourselves from the growing political influence of big business, then our antitrust laws must be reconceived in a way which recognizes the political danger of monopolistic conditions. Antitrust laws do not just protect the marketplace, they protect democracy.

Our collective forgetfulness about the economic nature of fascism is also dangerous at a more philosophical level. As contradictory as it may seem, fascist dictatorship was made possible because of the flawed notion of freedom which held sway during the era of laissez-faire capitalism in the early twentieth century. It was the liberals of that era that clamored for unfettered personal and economic freedom, no matter what the cost to society. Such untrammeled freedom is not suitable to civilized humans. It is the freedom of the jungle. In other words, the strong have more of it than the weak. It is a notion of freedom which is inherently violent, because it is enjoyed at the expense of others. Such a notion of freedom legitimizes each and every increase in the wealth and power of those who are already powerful, regardless of the misery that will be suffered by others as a result. The use of the state to limit such "freedom" was denounced by the laissez-faire liberals of the early twentieth century. The use of the state to protect such "freedom" was fascism. Just as monopoly is the ruin of the free market, fascism is the ultimate degradation of liberal capitalism.

Certain to get more attention is a piece that Lewis Lapham published this week in Harpers titled "On Message," which springboards off an old FDR quote:
"But I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, then Fascism and Communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory Republicanism, will grow in strength in our land." -Franklin D. Roosevelt, November 4, 1938

In 1938 the word "fascism" hadn't yet been transferred into an abridged metaphor for all the world's unspeakable evil and monstrous crime, and on coming across President Roosevelt's prescient remark in one of Umberto Eco's essays, I could read it as prose instead of poetry -- a reference not to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or the pit of Hell but to the political theories that regard individual citizens as the property of the government, happy villagers glad to wave the flags and wage the wars, grateful for the good fortune that placed them in the care of a sublime leader. Or, more emphatically, as Benito Mussolini liked to say, "Everything in the state. Nothing outside the state. Nothing against the state."

[Hat tip to Carolyn Kay at Make Them Accountable]

The Eco essay that caught his attention was "Ur-Fascism," which I've discussed at length previously. Lapham goes on to notice, as did I, to what a large extent the fascist themes that Eco identifies are operative in 21st-century American politics, and then proceeds, somewhat whimsically, to proclaim:
Eco published his essay ten years ago, when it wasn't as easy as it has since become to see the hallmarks of fascist sentiment in the character of an American government. Roosevelt probably wouldn't have been surprised.

He'd encountered enough opposition to both the New Deal and to his belief in such a thing as a United Nations to judge the force of America's racist passions and the ferocity of its anti-intellectual prejudice. As he may have guessed, so it happened. The American democracy won the battles for Normandy and Iwo Jima, but the victories abroad didn't stem the retreat of democracy at home, after 1968 no longer moving "forward as a living force, seeking day and night to better the lot" of its own citizens, and now that sixty years have passed since the bomb fell on Hiroshima, it doesn't take much talent for reading a cashier's scale at Wal-Mart to know that it is fascism, not democracy, that won the heart and mind of America's "Greatest Generation," added to its weight and strength on America's shining seas and fruited plains.

... As set forth in Eco's list, the fascist terms of political endearment are refreshingly straightforward and mercifully simple, many of them already accepted and understood by a gratifyingly large number of our most forward-thinking fellow citizens, multitasking and safe with Jesus. It does no good to ask the weakling's pointless question, "Is America a fascist state?" We must ask instead, in a major rather than a minor key, "Can we make America the best damned fascist state the world has ever seen," an authoritarian paradise deserving the admiration of the international capital markets, worthy of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind"? I wish to be the first to say we can. We're Americans; we have the money and the know-how to succeed where Hitler failed, and history has favored us with advantages not given to the early pioneers.

Lapham also later describes the ways that modern American politics resemble fascism:
I don't say that over the last thirty years we haven't made brave strides forward. By matching Eco's list of fascist commandments against our record of achievement, we can see how well we've begun the new project for the next millennium -- the notion of absolute and eternal truth embraced by the evangelical Christians and embodied in the strict constructions of the Constitution; our national identity provided by anonymous Arabs; Darwin's theory of evolution rescinded by the fiat of "intelligent design"; a state of perpetual war and a government administering, in generous and daily doses, the drug of fear; two presidential elections stolen with little or no objection on the part of a complacent populace; the nation's congressional districts gerrymandered to defend the White House for the next fifty years against the intrusion of a liberal-minded president; the news media devoted to the arts of iconography, busily minting images of corporate executives like those of the emperor heroes on the coins of ancient Rome.

An impressive beginning, in line with what the world has come to expect from the innovative Americans, but we can do better. The early twentieth-century fascisms didn't enter their golden age until the proletariat in the countries that gave them birth had been reduced to abject poverty. The music and the marching songs rose with the cry of eagles from the wreckage of the domestic economy. On the evidence of the wonderful work currently being done by the Bush Administration with respect to the trade deficit and the national debt -- to say nothing of expanding the markets for global terrorism -- I think we can look forward with confidence to character-building bankruptcies, picturesque bread riots, thrilling cavalcades of splendidly costumed motorcycle police.

The underlying premise of Lapham's satire is the notion that we are already fully subsumed by fascism, given how immersed we are in Eco's description.

But Eco's essay is by no means definitive. Many other scholars have attempted similarly to describe and explain and define fascism, as I've explained previously; the difficulty, as always, lies in the fact that fascism is not an ideology based on a core ideology, manifesto, or text. Eco's methodology is similar to that of others, notably Stanley Payne, who have attempted a descriptive approach to fascism:
Payne's approach is useful, in the same way that Eco's is -- it contains important descriptive information that helps us get a sense of the multifaceted phenomenon that fascism in fact is. (Payne's typology is also a good deal more systematic and logically coherent than Eco's.) But these approaches share a similar flaw -- that is, a number of the traits described in these systems also can clearly describe not only communism, which is by its nature the ideological opposite to fascism, as well as other political ideologies. In that sense, it's clear these traits tend to be endemic to totalitarianism broadly -- they're going to be woven into what is fascist, but they won’t be unique to it.

Much wrangling has ensued (Payne's Fascism: Comparison and Definition was published in 1980). The long and short of it is that the consensus (and debate) since the early 1990s has tended to revolve around the work of Oxford professor Roger Griffin, who lectures on the History of Ideas at the school. His 1991 text, The Nature of Fascism, is considered by many to be the definitive work on the subject.

Griffin has essentially managed to boil fascism down to a basic core he calls palingenetic ultranationalist populism. (Palingenesis is the concept of mythic rebirth from the ashes, embodied by the Phoenix.)

Our understanding of fascism, as I went on to explain, has continued to expand with more scholarly work, including that of Robert O. Paxton, whose book The Anatomy of Fascism is something of a landmark in the field, as I've gone on to explore elsewhere. Paxton, similarly, identifies nine "mobilizing passions" that are constant through all stages and forms of fascism, but notes general principle that is also a constant:
... [E]ach national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy, as we shall see, not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity. Religion, for example, would certainly play a much larger role in an authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms, which were pagan for contingent historical reasons.

My reading of Paxton suggests that while we are indeed swimming in fascist impulses, the defining characteristics of genuine fascism -- the violence, the charismatic leadership, the eliminationism -- are generally lacking, though not altogether.

So I think Lapham, even if whimsically, has leapt to the wrong conclusion -- that we are so deeply in the grip of fascist impulses that there seems no turning back. I think there's still a chance at redemption -- but liberals need to wake up to what they're up against.

Jonah Goldberg's new book represents both a special problem, as well as a special opportunity, because of the Newspeak that its title -- "Liberal Fascism" -- represents. Goldberg, in the Newspeak tradition, is not just negating the meaning of both "liberal" and "fascism", but he's providing cover for a conservative movement that, evidently, is intent on adopting fascism as the essence of its agenda.

This is what makes his book the ultimate Newspeak: Newspeak is one of the earmarks of the budding fascist -- and what better way to bud further than to accuse your opponent of engaging in precisely the politics you intend to pursue?

And yet. And yet: What better way, really, to expose the nature of the conservative beast than to let conservatives bring up the subject of fascism?

In a lot of ways, I welcome the opportunity to discuss this. Because it's an opportunity for everyone to understand better just what fascism really is. Let's hope other liberals don't shy away.

Propagandists like Goldberg always flourish in a vacuum of public ignorance. If liberals try to pretend he doesn't exist in the hope this meme will just go away ... it may be a fatal mistake.

When it comes to fascism, fighting back is the only option. But first, we need to see the nature of the beast we're fighting.

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