Sunday, May 18, 2014

Liberal Fascism, by Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism shows that, contrary to the accepted viewpoint, fascism came from the left, not the right. Starting a calm discussion about fascism is not an easy task. Most of the time when people use the terms nazi or fascist, the only content is an indication of opprobrium, and this is common enough that it wouldn't be a surprise if most who hear the term don't know much about those who originally adopted the term.

Goldberg shows that the rhetoric of people who called themselves fascists in Europe and the U.S. was quite similar to that of socialists and progressives of the time. The policies that were promoted (if you omit the genocide and racism that were unique to the Nazis, and stick to the political program that was common to Mussolini, Franco, and the Americans who were friendly to the fascist proposals) were socialized medicine, a government retirement program, nationalization of industry to whatever extent required, and letting the government lead.

The term was first turned into a general purpose epithet by the communists, who were upset about the competition they were getting from people with a very similar program to their own. Both were on the left, and urging more government power in service to the common people. The Soviet communists used the term to brand all their opponents regardless of their point of view as "too far right". After the west joined together to fight the Nazis in World War II, it was hard for anyone to defend fascism, even those who were pushing for the same ideas (the progressive ends, not the genocidal one, for the most part.)

Since the press is largely of the left, the public discourse gradually accepted the idea that the fascists were extremists on the right, though their policy goals were not actually much different from those of the communists or progressives.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm pushing this book because it bashes the left. I'm a libertarian, and don't feel more sympathy for the programs of either the modern left or right. See the Advocates for Self Governments' WSPQ to learn more about my ideas if you aren't familiar with them. The point of the book, and the reason it's worth talking about is simply to understand the historical context of modern political discourse.

Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Hitler, and Mussolini used leftist, progressive rhetoric to gain and wield power. I could only find a few examples of dictators who should reasonably be called extreme right-wingers (Pinochet, Papadopoulos, Syngman Rhee). There are many others whose rhetoric was anti-communist, and possibly even pro-business, but their actual rule is usually absolutist, kleptocratic, nepotistic (confiscating businesses and allowing family or friends to run them for their own benefit), but not any more friendly to private enterprise than the leftist dictators.

A large part of the rhetoric of fascism is the idea that the people are unified behind the leaders' favorite program, and that the leaders' main goal is to give the people what they want. A favorite tactic of fascists is to continually manufacture new crises, because these often work to bring people together in support of their goals. Unfortunately, this tactic has been co-opted by leaders from all parties, as our own unending wars on poverty, drugs, cancer, and terrorism show.

Goldberg describes the fascist bargain with business this way:

The state says to the industrialist, "You may stay in business and own your factories. In the spirit of cooperation and unity, we will even guarantee you profits and a lack of serious competition. In exchange, we expect you to agree with—and help implement—our political agenda." The moral and economic content of the agenda depends on the nature of the regime. [...] It's fine to say that incestuous relationships between corporations and governments are fascistic. The problem comes when you claim that such arrangements are inherently right-wing.

American presidents on the left and right have been making this kind of offer to business for at least several decades. It's more visible with the current president's handling of the health care law, but past administrations of all stripes have made the same kinds of deals with telecomm, banking, and transportation industries. Communists tend to nationalise businesses, while fascists and progressives co-opt them. The latter isn't more right wing than the former.

There's a lot of meat in Liberal Fascism, as long as you won't have an aversive reaction to a calm discussion of the commonalities between the programs of communists and of historical and modern progressives.