Friday, January 11, 2008

That definition of fascism

-- by Dave

While awaiting Jonah's response to my review, I should note, via John Holbo via Ezra, that Spencer Ackerman observes a passage that does in fact seem to be a kind of attempt at a definition of fascism, to wit:
Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve that common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the "problem" and therefore defined as the enemy. (My emphasis.)

I said in my review:
he makes use of that confusion to ramble on for pages about the disagreements without ever providing readers with a clear definition of fascism beyond Orwell's quip.

So this is not exactly correct -- he does indeed give us a definition of fascism, of sorts. But it's so stunningly inadequate, and so nearly completely misses the essence of fascism, that it's anything but clear.

As Ackerman says:
It's no accident, as the Marxists/fascists used to say, that Goldberg started out by shrugging at how difficult it is to define fascism. What he offers isn't a very serviceable definition, but rather one that can offer about 40 feet of bridge to cross the 50 feet of chasm between liberalism and fascism, in an attempt to get the reader to continue on into a Wile E. Coyote-esque act of intellectual gravity-defiance. Fascist regimes do not impose their wills by force "or" through regulation and social pressure. They systematize violence. There isn't anything at all fascist about a neighborhood noise ordinance, and nothing at all fascist about scrunching up your noise in discomfort when someone lights a cigarette. But this is how distinctions between statism and fascism collapse, a necessary move when redefining fascism to include liberalism. If Goldberg wants to posit that statism is fascism, then he'd really better aim his Glock at George W. Bush, champion of massively expanded state power. (Though, as we'll see, Goldberg is rather soft on fascism-qua-fascism for a determined enemy of liberal fascism.)

More to the point, Goldberg's definition does not fit fascism specifically. One could use nearly the same terms and ideas to define Leninist Marxism, or a totalitarian state of any kind. That's because what his definition describes is not fascism specifically, but totalitarianism (or authoritarianism, if you will) generally.

Fascism is a specific species of totalitarianism, and it's best understood not by the things it has in common with other forms of this phenomenon, but what distinguishes it from those other forms. This is why the academic debate has raged for some years over the "fascist minimum", for which Roger Griffin, at least has provided a worthy start by defining fascism as "palingenetic ultranationalist populism." You'll note that all three of these traits are in fact unique to fascism.

But there are other traits common and in many cases unique to fascism as well, and Goldberg overlooks these as well -- while such scholars as Robert Paxton, Stanley Payne, and Umberto Eco, all of whom Goldberg cites in his book, in fact emphasize them. For example, see Paxton's nine "mobilizing passions" of fascism:
-- -- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;

-- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it;

-- the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external;

-- dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;

-- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;

-- the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny;

-- the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason;

-- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success;

-- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle.

Griffin has also offered a more detailed definition of fascism:
Fascism: modern political ideology that seeks to regenerate the social, economic, and cultural life of a country by basing it on a heightened sense of national belonging or ethnic identity. Fascism rejects liberal ideas such as freedom and individual rights, and often presses for the destruction of elections, legislatures, and other elements of democracy. Despite the idealistic goals of fascism, attempts to build fascist societies have led to wars and persecutions that caused millions of deaths. As a result, fascism is strongly associated with right-wing fanaticism, racism, totalitarianism, and violence.

Note that none of these aspects of fascism appear in Goldberg's "definition." In fact, he seems to studiously avoid discussing them as essential to fascism because they are so plainly antiliberal.

Goldberg's "definition" can't be taken seriously because it's so clearly meant to enhance his thesis, while omitting the facets of the term he seeks to define that undermine or in fact destroy his thesis.

It would have been fine, really, if Goldberg had chosen to write about "Liberal Totalitarianism" or "Liberal Authoritarianism." I have no doubt that there is such a thing, and examining it might even make an interesting book and subsequent discussion.

But "Liberal Fascism" is, as I said, beyond being an oxymoron. It's Newspeak.

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