Thursday, December 30, 2010

Liberal Fascism: A Brief Review

A short time ago, I had a discussion with my department head who was thoroughly depressed that the republicans were going to win the midterm elections and stifle Obama's plans for the country. Since he is a liberal, he was frustrated that his hopes for political change were going to be unrealized. His ultimate complaint was that the American system was itself to blame and the solution was to give the president full governmental power and dissolve the legislative branch. His argument was based Robert Kaplan and Fareed Zakaria's observations that authoritarian capitalist states are outperforming democratic states and, to stay competitive economically, we needed a smart president who would have unlimited power to create policies that would address our country's weaknesses. Ironically, my department head teaches American National Government and believes himself to be a progressive who is willing to destroy democracy to make the U.S. competitive internationally. He would never desire this transformation if there were a republican president; he believes that an intelligent liberal should be empowered to save our country.

I was surprised at this encounter, but this suggestion is consistent with the patterns in U.S. and world history. My department head wanted a liberal authoritarian leader who would dissolve our government and gain power to create a new system where one person is empowered to make all decisions for our state. The transition to an authoritarian government would be guided by ideology and use liberal, progressive principles to justify it. Every time a fascist regime has emerged in the past, it has come from the political left and, conveniently, the right has received the historical blame. Conservatives have no historical legacy in Europe of destroying democratic governments and establishing authoritarian or fascist ones.

One common misunderstanding is that fascism arose through right-wing political groups, but anyone examining the historical record would see that fascist regimes emerge from the left in the name of progress. Jonah Goldberg published Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (2008) to examine this historical record and show that fascism emerged from left-wing political groups that sought to modernize and de-Christianize society in the name of progress. Goldberg traces the emergence of these authoritarian governments and shows that the first fascist regime did not emerge in Europe but in the United States under the Wilson administration. The Espionage and Sedition Laws of 1917-8 curtailed free speech and made it a crime to oppose the administration and this justified the arrest of thousands, the expulsion of aliens without due process, and gave scores of local brown shirts the legal protection to beat up and intimidate anyone who apposed the government. The idea that links Wilson to the Italian and German manifestation was the tie to pragmatic transformation and a shared political understanding of the world. In fact, it was Wilson who created the first propaganda ministry. Ironically, Mussolini learned much from Wilson and made several gestures to acknowledge that he was continuing the progressive policies he inherited from the United States. This movement lasted only through WWI in the United States as the public was much less tolerant of fascist policies during peace time. There was a brief re-emergence under FDR, but again this was a temporary curtailment of political liberty during a major war. The U.S. public seems to recover and defend their freedom after a war ends.

A secondary strength of Goldberg's book is the examination of policies endorsed by fascist regimes. The policies seek to expand governmental power in all areas of public life and to further secularize or move towards paganism as the state assumes responsibilities that require businesses, families, and religious communities to defer to the favored ideological program. Fascist regimes move governmental structures in ways favored by the political left and these changes are clear evidence for Goldberg's thesis that fascism is a leftist phenomenon. In its attempt to help children, these regimes destroy families. As fascist regimes seek to establish tolerance, Christianity is silenced and then attempts are made to destroy faith in everything but the state and its ideology. Fascists adopt a progressive ideology that re-makes society but destroys its most vital elements: the Church, the family, and businesses. These policy programs are inherently linked to the left and it is a mistake to identify fascist regimes with conservatives.

Jonah Goldberg provides a convincing historical account of the rise of fascist regimes in Europe and North America but he fails to explain the authoritarian right-wing regimes that emerged in Latin America in the 1980s. While the political positions of these repressive regimes cannot be linked to the progressive ideology, there is an institutional connection between fascist regimes of Spain, Italy, and Germany and authoritarian governments of Latin America. The University of Chicago actually sent economists to Chile to advise the military government on its policies toward businesses and unions. These regimes did not emerge in Europe, but it is difficult to dismiss them as unimportant in the literature of fascism. Unfortunately, authoritarian governments evolve and can take elements from the right or left. In either case, state power grows and the end result is more governmental intervention in citizens' daily lives.

Liberal Fascism does not explain the policies of the Bush administration after September 11th where freedom of speech declined and governmental power grew. Hannah Arendt has observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism that foreign military engagements, such as the intervention in Iraq, eventually result in a changed political reality in the invading country. Although the Iraq War has spanned republican and democratic administrations, one constant component is the decreasing freedom we see domestically in the United States. If Arendt is correct, the Iraq War would increase governmental power regardless of which party is in control. To suggest that the growth of governmental power took place at a time of leftist governments in the past does not preclude the possibility of equally repressive regimes originating at the hands of the political right. One confounding element was that the United States had democratic presidents during WWI and WWII, but does this mean that republican presidents would have been less willing to deepen state power? As one examines the Bush administration policies, it is difficult to imagine that the right would have been much different. Although Wilson and FDR were progressive, it was a great war that gave them the ability to remove political power. A Republican president would likely have acted in a similar manner, but may have justified his action through different language. In other words, the reality Goldberg describes is historically accurate but ultimately rests on evidence that occurred at a specific moment in history. I believe that his warning about fascism as a historically leftist movement is correct, but this position does not adequately describe the equal threat to liberty originating at the hands of the political right.

Liberalism’s Greatest Failure? - By Jonah Goldberg - The Corner - National Review Online

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