The Corner

Politics & Policy

Mussolini and Misinterpretations

Benito Mussolini (Office of War Information/Library of Congress)

I know this is now old news, but I feel like I should throw in my two cents on this one.

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) tweeted the following quote from Mussolini:

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pounced (along with a lot of other people):

Now, I think that the way Cornyn quoted Mussolini without making it clear that he wasn’t endorsing Mussolini — which he didn’t and doesn’t  — was a mild mistake given the way Twitter encourages stupid misinterpretations. But that doesn’t mean the stupid misinterpretations are any less stupid.

There are a bunch of things that come to mind. In no particular order:

First, there’s the irony that Mussolini was in favor of a minimum wage.  The Fasci Italiani di Combattimento founded by Mussolini called for a minimum wage and he boasted of his support for it in his autobiography.

Second, the Nazi Party supported minimum wages (and later, maximum wages too).

Third, both the Nazis and the Italian Fascists supported all sorts of economic policies that resemble aspects of the Green New Deal, from the nationalization of various industries to heavy regulation of finance and even the appropriation of “unearned” wealth.

Fourth, Mussolini, a huge fan of William James and the idea of a “Moral Equivalent of War,”  shared with AOC and others the idea that society should be organized along the lines of war mobilization to address domestic needs (Hence Mussolini’s various “Battle of the Grains” campaigns and whatnot).

Fifth, the 1930s saw new deals in America, Germany, and Italy alike. This contention is far, far, more controversial in 2019 than it was in the 1930s. If you’re interested in this topic, I suggest you read Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Three New Deals. Or you could read my first book. Or you can do what I did in the course of writing that book and read what prominent New Dealers were saying in the 1930s. Rexford Guy Tugwell, a prominent member of FDR’s Brain Trust, said of Italian Fascism, “It’s the cleanest, neatest most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen. It makes me envious.” “We are trying out the economics of Fascism without having suffered all its social or political ravages,” proclaimed the New Republic’s editor George Soule, an enthusiastic supporter of the FDR administration.

I could go on at book length about all of this (again), but I’d like to make one last point. The quote from Mussolini is garbage. And I’m not simply referring to Mussolini’s false claim that the Italian Fascists “were the first to assert that the more complicated the forms assumed by civilization, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become.” This idea had wide currency long before Mussolini embraced the Fascist label (he became famous as a leader of socialists, fwiw). The 19th and early 20th century debates about the “social question” in Europe and the U.S. asserted this idea all of the time. It was widely believed by intellectuals that the disorganized individualism of the 19th century had to give way to collective forms of governance. “Now men are free,” Walter Rauschenbusch the leading Social Gospel progressive declared in 1896, “but it is often the freedom of grains of sand that are whirled up in a cloud and then dropped in a heap, but neither cloud nor sand-heap have any coherence.” To remedy this, Rauschenbusch insisted,  “New forms of association must be created. Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life.”

No, the real reason that quote is trash is that it’s not true. Individual freedom is the product of civilizational advancement. The division of labor, essential to the free market, and the division of meaning, essential to human liberty, are the result of society becoming more “complicated.” Fascism, like socialism, was reactionary, precisely because it sought to restore the ancient human impulses of tribalism and authoritarianism. The cult of unity is simple, freedom is complex.

Mussolini was just one of thousands of intellectuals who thought that economic planning, nationalism, socialism, and collectivism generally were more sophisticated and advanced ideas. He was wrongand so are the people who make the exact same claims today.

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