Am I a Fascist?

Jonah Goldberg thinks so - or at least he thinks my politics are significantly rooted in the fascist movements and governments of yesteryear. Goldberg makes his case in his newly published book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. I have not (and will not) read Golberg's book so I can't offer a review. But I have been following the flame wars and other internet drama surrounding Liberal Fascism since it was announced as an upcoming book on Amazon long, long ago.

If Goldberg were simply arguing that elements of European corporatism or corporativismo influenced the New Deal, his argument would be fairly uncontroversial. In fact, he would be surveying ground already covered by Marxists and other radical critics of corporate liberalism. But Goldberg sets himself to the more ambitious project of demonstrating that fascism is actually a phenomenon of the left, and that American liberals (and leftists) are, in some way, heirs to this fascist tradition.

As usual, political terminology muddles and complicates this entire discussion. To the consternation of our comrades abroad, American political discourse (and the administrators of Facebook) collapse ‘liberalism’ with the ‘left.’ Goldberg places everyone from Woodrow Wilson, to 1960s radicals to Hillary Clinton in the camp of liberal quasi-fascists. Leaving the central accusation aside, it’s hard to find a unifying political thread running this group of indicted parties. Do Arthur Schlesinger, Angela Davis and Irving Howe really belong in the same box? Is Noam Chomsky like Howard Dean, only more so? Is Hillary Clinton simply a more conservative Assata Shakur? This is nonsense. The politics of these different personalities are ideologically distinct, they cannot be represented by horizontal gradations on an imaginary political spectrum.

When conservatives pin fascism on the left, they generally resort to a statist vs.anti-statist conception of the left and right. In this view, the political right stands for the Hayekian values of minimal government, individual rights, free enterprise, etc. whereas on the leftward end of the spectrum, politics becomes progressively statist and authoritarian, developing a nasty penchant for social engineering and utopian experimentation at the leftmost fringe.

I accept that, within its own terms, this schema puts fascism on the left. After all, who could deny that fascists love the state? But if right-wingers like Jonah Goldberg are going to define the political spectrum along these lines, the we must insist that they do so consistently. Despite its anti-government rhetoric, really existing American conservatism is deeply and enthusiastically statist. Our conservative friends love their flags, anthems and other nationalist displays. They defend the state’s vast prison system and they love its wars and its gargantuan military apparatus. They take every opportunity to expand the state’s power over women’s bodies, sexual behavior and family structure. And as far as the economy is concerned, forget the “free market,” corporate America loves the many protections, privileges, subsidies and crony contracts that are the pillars of American corporate capitalism.

Is the American right fascist? No – with the exception of a few persons and small groups, it is not. Different arguments for why the Bush administration is fascist or crypto-fascist have been coming from all sorts of political quarters in recent years. The pro-impeachment group, World Can’t Wait (a front organization for the Bob Avakian Maoists) claims that Bush is a “Christian fascist.” Anti-war right-wingers and “libertarians” have been been calling Bush a fascist for some time.

I believe we can only meaningfully define fascism in terms of the common features of fascist movements, past and present.* Fascism can come in various flavors, but it has traditionally been based on a mirepoix of revanchist nationalism, revolutionary economic populism, opposition to multi-party democracy, militarism and a preoccupation with a perceived decline in national culture and folkways. Today we have some of the ingredients for fascism within the American right, but the elements have not congealed into anything properly recognizable as fascism (yet). For the time being, American conservatism is quite at home in our bourgeois democracy, which has, after all, served it very well.

* For the exact opposite view, read this.

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