Saturday, February 09, 2008

Liberal Fascism: A Critical Review

The chief value in Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (Doubleday, 2007, 487 pp.) is that it presents a nonpareil history of the origins and ends of American-style statism, a statism many facets of which were admired and emulated by Hitler and Mussolini. This is not a history likely to be required reading in contemporary “social studies” courses in American schools. No member of the NEA or of a teachers union is going to hold up a copy of it to a class, and with a finger tapping the cover with its smiley face and Hitlerian moustache, announce: “We are going to discuss this book all about how the public school system stole you away from your parents, and how it plans to steal your lives, as well, and enlist you into the great organic vitality of society, whether you like it or not, for the greater good.”

Liberal Fascism does not delve as deeply into American political trends as does Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (1982); that is, it does not explicate the philosophical foundations of modern statism. Goldberg covers much the same ground and names the same names as does Peikoff. Peikoff, however, drills far below the surface to the philosophical bedrock of statism; Goldberg probes beneath the tundra but not much further. Goldberg cites the influence of especially German philosophical and political thought brought home by Americans in the period after the Civil War, but not nearly to the extent that Peikoff does.

Nor does Goldberg completely condemn the “good intentions” of American statists. He is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a contributing editor to National Review. In the latter capacity, he cannot question the alleged underpinnings of America’s Judeo-Christian “heritage.” These are what he vainly struggles to defend against the cascading encroachments of a “secular” altruism in politics. I say “vainly” because, at root, he and the conservatives he defends against the charge of fascism share the same “good intentions” as the statists. It is a circle he cannot square.

In spite of National Review’s notorious hostility to Ayn Rand, Goldberg cites her when he discusses the fascist program and spirit of John F. Kennedy:

“Particularly in response to Kennedy’s crackdown on the steel industry, some observers charged that he was making himself into a strongman. The Wall Street Journal and the Chamber of Commerce likened him to a dictator. Ayn Rand explicitly called him a fascist in a 1962 speech, ‘The Fascist New Frontier.’”

Unfortunately, Goldberg does not dwell on this interesting inclusion of Rand, and surprisingly, it is odd that he would invoke her name to help substantiate his correct charge that Kennedy was a fascist (although she is not listed in the book’s index; some of his National Review colleagues helped him edit the book). The text of Rand’s speech has not been included in any recent anthology of her political writings, nor reissued in its original pamphlet form, although excerpts from it can be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, so one wonders where he found it. (Given the nature of today’s political contest, I think the entire speech ought to be reprinted in some form and as widely distributed as possible.) Her inclusion in his book leads one to wonder if he has ever read her other articles, such as “Conservatism: An Obituary,” and “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus.” This is perhaps the first time a prominent conservative writer has called on Ayn Rand, of all thinkers, as a voice of authority. Perhaps this is a measure of her growing influence in the realm of ideas.

I will not reprise my own observations in my commentary “The Left-Wing ‘Conspiracy’ of the Right” (January 22), except to remark that the conservatives have been as leftish as the liberal-left that Goldberg dissects in his book. They have been compelled to partner with the Democrats and statists from default and out of necessity because they have had no credible counter-argument against them. While he masterfully traces the genealogy of American statism, Goldberg soft-pedals, but without excusing it, the “temptation” of conservatives to second the leftists in terms of moral appeal (what he designates “me-too” conservatism). He does not give evidence that he suspects that this is symptomatic of a moral and intellectual bankruptcy as bottomless as that of the left’s. He cannot let go of God and “tradition.” Intellectually, he cannot follow the logic and reach logical conclusions; his faith prevents him and renders him blind to the ominous parallels.

A clue to his inability to follow the path of his thinking to its logical conclusions can be found on page 404, in the chapter “The Tempting of Conservatism”: “Reason alone cannot move men.” In Goldberg, reason stopped when it encountered faith.

Perhaps not so curiously, Goldberg skirts the fundamental religious premises of conservatism, gliding over the subject but never quite alighting on it. Nowhere in his book does he propound that America is a “God-fearing” nation founded on the Ten Commandments. He alludes to it occasionally, but never explicitly expresses it. It is left to the reader to guess what he means. He does not say why the “traditional” values of “hearth, home…and family values” are best. They just are. He does not explain why the alleged conservative “classical liberal” values of private property, free markets, individual liberty, and freedom of conscience are values not to be surrendered to or corrupted by “mommy state” or “God-state” fascism. They just are.

He does not bother to question why indoctrinating American students with a collectivist, multiculturalist perspective on the nature of the U.S., as is being done now, is any worse than indoctrinating them with a religious perspective, which is what most conservatives would prefer. If he had bothered to question it, intellectual honesty would have revealed to him that the non-intellectual nature of both approaches has left Americans defenseless against the self-righteous thuggery and advocacy of force, which is what we are seeing and hearing in virtually every corner of American culture and society. When reason stops moving men, they are fated to succumb to the forces of nature or to the forces of statism. In either case, faith, prayer or earnest wishing will not protect them.

So, this is not an unqualified endorsement of Goldberg’s book. Its chief value is as a guide to just how increasingly statist America has grown for over a century. It does a soldierly job of piecing together the puzzle of today’s political phenomena, such as the rise of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain. One can put aside Goldberg’s conservative identity, which is not as intrusive as one might imagine, and focus on what he has to reveal about the ideological parentage of all the presidential candidates and of our economy and politics. There is just too much relevant information and well-reasoned argumentation in Liberal Fascism to dismiss it entirely as a conservative screed.

Goldberg’s central thesis is that right-wing conservatism has been smeared at least since the 1940’s by liberals and the left-wing as a fascist “reactionary” political phenomenon, when, in fact, it has been a semantic shell game to divert criticism from the liberal-progressive-left of being the true fascists, they having consciously and deliberately subjected the nation to censorship, the regimentation of industry and business, the invasion or abrogation of personal liberties, a looting welfare state, and the arbitrary establishment of a command economy governed by a clique of “experts,” all of it directed by the whims and prejudices of a “leader.” Goldberg does not settle for a single definition of fascism, but all the concretes he includes in his description of fascism can be found in the definition of it employed by Rand in her article, “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus” (from The American College Dictionary (1957):

Fascism – a governmental system with strong centralized power, permitting no opposition or criticism, controlling all affairs of the nation (industrial, commercial, etc.)”

The American Heritage Dictionary (1982) has this more detailed definition:

Fascism – A philosophy or system of government that is marked by stringent social and economic control, a strong centralized government usually headed by a dictator, and often a policy of belligerent nationalism.” The belligerency, I might note, is first directed at a nation’s citizens – to control their diets, their amusements, their work lives, their purposes, and their time – before it is directed outward beyond a nation’s borders.

Goldberg writes in the chapter on Woodrow Wilson’s contribution and application of statism,

“Fascism, at its core, is the view that every nook and cranny of society should work together in spiritual union toward the same goals overseen by the state. ‘Everything in the State, nothing outside the State,’ is how Mussolini defined it. Mussolini coined the word ‘totalitarian’ to describe not a tyrannical society but a humane one in which everyone is taken care of and contributes equally. It was an organic concept where every class, every individual, was part of the larger whole.”

It is the nationalist coloring and content of fascism that is fascinating to see described in Goldberg’s book. “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State” has been the unspoken slogan and goal of ambitious fascists from Woodrow Wilson to Adolf Hitler. Listen to the bland, nattering rhetoric of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain. Their details differ but their fundamental means and end remain the same. As Rand and Peikoff pointed out in their books and articles, statists today no longer rant about socialism, but rather about the imperatives of “change” and a “new direction,” without identifying what change is necessary or which direction to take – which, in practical political terms, they mean that everyone must change and take the direction they decide the nation must go.

The anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical nature of their emotion-based proposals is a confession that the statists’ programs of the past have brought nothing but disastrous consequences; if everyone and everything were overseen and controlled, then their collectivist/altruist programs would work. If every individual was treated as just part of an “organic” whole, and more importantly, if every individual regarded himself as just a cell in that whole, then the “caring” collectivism would work. Of course, Americans would need to be taught that as an unquestioned absolute. Which is why Clinton especially wants to get hold of children. Raise enough of them to be selfless, sacrificing, volunteering manqués, and they will do her bidding without much prodding or persuasion. They will become doctors, nurses, technicians; and some will serve the public in other capacities, to come knocking on one’s door, or breaking it down, if one attempts to exist “outside the state” and impede by word or deed the nation’s “destined progress.”

Rand captures the tone and content of today’s political battle between the statists in “The New Fascism” (p. 210, in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal):

“Today, nobody talks of a planned society in the ‘liberal’ camp; long-range programs, theories, principles, abstractions, and ‘noble ends’ are not fashionable any longer. Modern ‘liberals’ deride any political concern with such large-scale matters as an entire society or an economy as a whole; they concern themselves with single, concrete-bound, range-of-the-moment projects and demands, without regard to cost, context, or consequences. ‘Pragmatic’ – not ‘idealistic’ – is the favorite adjective when they are called upon to justify the ‘stance,’ as they call it, not ‘stand.’ They are militantly opposed to political philosophy; they denounce political concepts as ‘tags,’ ‘labels,’ ‘myths,’ ‘illusions’ – and resist an attempt to ‘label’ – i.e. to identify – their own views. They are belligerently anti-theoretical and – with a faded mantle of intellectuality still clinging to their shoulders – they are anti-intellectual. The only remnant of their former ‘idealism’ is a tired, cynical, ritualistic quoting of shopworn ‘humanitarian’ slogans, when the occasion demands it.”

Not much has changed since Rand made that speech in 1965, except that the voices of the statists have grown louder, more insistent, and shriller in tandem with their ever-shrinking visions of the collectivist good. (From where I sit, they are growing more and more Hitlerian in volume and style.) Listen to any one of the current presidential candidates or to anyone who advocates some kind of control, regulation or abolition, and one will see just how concrete-bound and range-of-the-moment they all are.

Whether the subject is the environment, or smoking, or obesity, or trans-fats, or mandatory nutritional guides in food, or universal health care, or immigration, or subsidized education – the list is long and growing longer – they advocate an identity-less “humanitarian,” all-inclusive, “one for all, and all for one” collectivism. In short, the statists want to control everything, because anyone or anything left “outside the state” would not only be a threat, but a reproach to their vision, marked for suffocation in the crushing embrace of a “caring” tyranny.

Rand writes in “The New Fascism” that “a system in which the government does not nationalize the means of production, but assumes total control over the economy is fascism.” Clinton has already outlined her intentions. Obama has yet to specify his, although his endorsement by Senator Ted Kennedy should telegraph what those will be. McCain will name his particular causes when he and his advisors think of which ones to campaign for and against to assuage Republican suspicions that he is “one of them.”

Goldberg’s book presents ample evidence that the precedents have been set – during Wilson’s administration, in Herbert Hoover’s, and FDR’s – and that what today’s presumptive “leaders” are proposing is nothing new. Under Wilson, the U.S. got its first taste of an idealistically imposed command economy. Federal intervention in the economy precipitated the stock market crash of 1929 and perpetuated the Depression throughout the 1930’s, giving the pragmatist Roosevelt a host of options to establish another command economy under the New Deal.

Goldberg barely mentions the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon, calling those presidents “caretakers of the welfare state.” It was JFK who reanimated the liberal fascist spirit of an “idealistic” leader, much to the delight of morose advocates of federal power, who had been treading water in the relatively placid 1950’s. One of the countless pieces of the puzzle that Goldberg mentions is that Harold Laski, the British socialist, and on whom Ayn Rand modeled her Fountainhead villain, Ellsworth Toohey, was JFK’s professor at Harvard.

Lyndon Johnson launched the “Great Society.” Goldberg glosses over Jimmy Carter’s contributions to the growth of federal power with almost dismissive contempt, devoting barely two pages to his actions, crediting Carter with the creation of the Energy Department. Of Ronald Reagan, he has nothing bad to say. The Clintons come in for very damaging scrutiny, especially Hillary Clinton, to whom he devotes a long chapter, “Brave New Village.”

George W. Bush, also, does not escape Goldberg’s critical eye. Writing about Bush’s social and economic policies and his campaign for “compassionate conservatism,” he notes,

“The very adjective ‘compassionate’ echoes progressive and liberal denunciations of limited government as cruel, selfish, or social Darwinist. In other words, as a marketing slogan alone, it represented a repudiation of the classical liberalism at the core of modern American conservatism because it assumed that limited government, free markets, and personal initiative were somehow ‘uncompassionate.’”

This is consonant with Goldberg’s thesis that Bush “has probably been called a fascist more than any other U.S. president” – and by the leftists and liberals, who have ascribed to Bush in their semantic shell game the very totalitarian measures they themselves wish to impose, but who would characterize their own repressive, extortionate and expropriating actions as “humanitarian.” (It could be called a form of power-envy.) Goldberg cites Bush’s record-busting legacy as a liberal progressive:

“In 2003, he proclaimed that ‘when somebody hurts,’ it’s the government’s responsibility to ‘move.’ And under Bush, it has. A new cabinet agency has been created [the Department of Homeland Security], Medicare has increased nearly 52 percent, and spending on education went up some 165 percent. From 2001 to 2006 antipoverty spending increased 41 percent, and overall spending reached a record $23,289 per household. Federal antipoverty spending has surpassed 3 percent of GDP for the first time ever. Total spending…has grown at triple the rate under Clinton. Moreover, Bush created the largest entitlement since the Great Society (Medicare Part D).”

Goldberg continues:

“…Bush really is a different kind of conservative, one who is strongly sympathetic to progressive-style intrusions into civil society. His faith-based initiative was a well-intentioned attempt to blur the lines between state and private philanthropy.”

Since when is a “well-intentioned attempt to blur the lines between state and private philanthropy” not a conscious attempt to destroy the wall separating church and state in a “compassionate” effort to introduce theocracy? This is an instance of Goldberg gliding over conservatism’s religious foundation and hidden agenda but never quite elaborating on conservatism’s progressive, “Social Gospel” sympathies. If he can castigate Woodrow Wilson for seeing himself as an “instrument of God,” why not condemn the two Presidents Bush for their “good intentions,” as well?

In fact, is not the whole panoply of the welfare state, with its entitlements, redistributed wealth, regulations, selective censorship, and taboos but a gargantuan “faith based initiative” subscribed to and enforced by secular liberals and religious conservatives alike? Do not both liberal fascists and religious fascists act on “faith” or “confidence” and ask the electorate to grant them the same “faith” and “confidence”?

A symbolic pairing which Goldberg overlooked in his effort to excoriate the liberal fascists is the partnering of former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in their globetrotting “humanitarian” campaigns. They were never really political adversaries. True adversaries do not play golf together and call each other “chum.”

With the reservations expressed above, however, I highly recommend Goldberg’s book if only as a means to educate oneself in the historic scope of statism, its inception and growth in the U.S., not to mention its relatively unknown influences on Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Remarking on the timeliness of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, Goldberg writes that the “irony, of course, is that it did happen here.” And continues to, and will continue to until it reaches a point when the smiley face sports a stern, Hitlerian frown – unless Americans rip off those smiley face buttons before it is too late and toss them into the trash, where they belong.

I must credit Goldberg for helping in Liberal Fascism to explode the mystique of statism. But if he is truly concerned about the jeopardy in which free markets, individual liberty, and freedom of speech and thought have been placed, he should subject the conservatives and nascent theocrats to the same merciless examination to which he has subjected the liberal fascists.


Gideon said...

Goldberg is certainly not the first prominent Conservative to call on Ayn Rand as a voice of authority. Two recent other books are: Tom Bethell's The Noblest Triumph and Richard Pipes's Property and Freedom. In both cases Ayn Rand is mentioned with respect as simply another important intellectual and unlike Goldberg's book Ayn Rand is present in their respective indexes.

Charles said...

A couple days ago in a speech columnist/author Mark Steyn mentioned his "good friend Johah Goldberg". Also in his remarks, he defiantly asserted, "I am selfish, . . . aren't we all?," in defense of individuals' seeking their own prosperity and profit. I consider that to be yet another, if only implicit, citation of Rand, by yet another inconsistent conservative unwilling to examine his own premises with the same scrutiny he turns on his political foes.

Gideon said...

Jonah Goldberg comments on Ayn Rand's "Fascist New Frontier" can be found here. The comment shows respect for "Randian analysis" and mentions The Ominous Parallels. I really do find it difficult reconcile comments like that with the continuing NR support for Chambers's trashy review of Atlas.

1776xtwo said...

Compared to Mr. Cline, today's commentators are only so much dandruff.
What should have been mentioned is that the skeletal structure of our present politic's was created and supported by the original conservatives of the early 20th century.e.g., the income tax- the
counter-revolution that was implemented in the Constitution. Without the "power of the purse" given automatic access to our income, the monstrosity we are now subject to could not have been implemented.

Kyle Haight said...

FYI, Rand's essay "The Fascist New Frontier" was included in the expanded edition of The Ayn Rand Column.

Edward Cline said...

I qualified myself with "perhaps" in my remark about AR being cited by a prominent conservative writer. I don't claim to be the Pope, and haven't been able of course to observe the entire scene. Will take a look at the Bethell, Pipes, and the expanded Ayn Rand Column. Thanks for the updates. Ed Cline

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cline,

Thank-you so much for this wonderful piece, which is so much more than a review of Mr. Goldberg's book. It is masterful in every way . . . I'm awed!

Sharpshooter said...

I found it interesting just how many classical-liberal writers Goldberg ignored, such as von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, etc.

As Mr. Cline noted, there were many allusions to the philosophic foundations, but VERY FEW direct quotes. Such would have probably made the tie-in back to the so-called "right" being quite fascistic themselves.