Liberal Fascism

Keeping up the Debate

I’m in Dallas. I had a lovely time at the home of a friend of the National Center for Policy Analysis tonight. I don’t want to out anyone.

Anyway, this came in from an academic in Beirut earlier today. He cc’d it to Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias and David Neiwert. I responded with a somewhat snarky note to the guy, but I’ve since thought better of it. And, since I won’t be able to blog much tomorrow and because it at least makes an effort to be serious, I thought I should respond, even though he hasn’t read the book. As it’s late and all that, please just consider them short answers, as opposed to complete ones (the whole post is endlessly long). He’s in italics, I’m not.

Dear Jonah,

You’ve mentioned that you’d appreciate constructive criticism and thoughtful engagement from liberals, so I decided that I’d drop you a note. I’ve got a few points (some more important than others) that I’d like to make:

1. On your blog, you often disparage comments by liberals who haven’t yet read your book in its entirety; however, you’ve put up several positive notes from presumably conservative correspondents who have also not read the book. Doesn’t this seem a little contradictory to you?

I have? For the most part I’ve put up positive comments from people who’ve either read the book, are reading the book or who’ve long waited for a book like this to come out. Comments from people about buying it in stores doesn’t strike me as good evidence of what you’re insinuating.

2. Your book isn’t on sale in Beirut, where I live, so I can’t give it a look. This means that in order to give your argument a fair shake, I’m limited to your blog, the Salon interview, the book’s jacket and your Heritage talk. I suppose in order for me to fully understand your book, I’d have to know, at a bare minimum, exactly how you define fascism and liberalism. This is an important point, and perhaps if you were to explicitly state the definitions you’re basing your argument off of, people would have a better time engaging it. As it is, the way you talk about liberalism and fascism seems fairly fuzzy. (You might just say, “read the book,” and fair enough, but if you’re truly interested in engaging people who may not have the time or inclination to read 500 pages of your argument, this might be a good way to get the ball rolling.)

Uh huh.

3. In the Salon interview, you state, “you have environmental groups giving out kits and instructions about how to have environmentally conscious sex. You don’t have conservative groups talking about what kind of condoms you should use or what positions you can be in. That kind of thing doesn’t really go on.” This seems exactly backwards to me. I’ve never heard of any liberal groups in the US trying to codify sexual behavior. On the contrary, the liberal position has been that the government should stay out of the bedroom. On the other hand, conservative groups, particularly religious ones, have traditionally supported laws like the anti-sodomy law that was ruled unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas.

I’m sorry it seems exactly backward to you. I was simply giving one of by now countless examples of the personal being political. This is a phrase championed by liberals and leftists for almost half a century now. I don’t think it’s really necessary for me to run through the full parade of horribles from the Nanny State (anti-smoking, transfats, speech codes, etc etc) for reasonable people to concede this point.

As for sex in particular. I oppose sodomy laws, but I believe they are probably constitutional. In fact, that is generally the argument conservatives make about them; that local communities can regulate life as they see fit. Obviously there are inconsistencies and hypocrisies to be aimed rightward (say, the drug war and interstate commerce) and there are countless intellectually defensible objections one can make to federalism, localism and other forms of subsidiarity. But the relevant point is that conservatives believe in subsidiarity (and in the idea that the constitution has a written meaning immune to progressive prestidigitation). This may be a bad position (it was when it came to Jim Crow). But it is most emphatically not the fascistic position. Fascists were statists and centralizers. As I argue relentlessly in my book, the central impulse to fascism is the cult of unity, the need to coordinate all of society (the Nazis called this policy the gleichschaltung Conservatives, as I argue here, are comfortable with contradiction.

The Nazis were also, one might point out, decidedly not pro-lifers. The sexual regulation that most offends the left is the one that stands opposed to the Party of Death positions laid out in Ramesh’s book. One can certainly defend the pro-choice position on various moral and intellectual grounds. But the descendants of Margaret Sanger and the defenders of Peter Singer have a lot of chutzpah to say that the right is more akin to Nazis or Fascists because of their views in this sphere of life.

4. I listened to your Heritage talk, and your comment near the beginning struck me: “Except for the murder, bigotry and genocide, what is it exactly that you don’t like about Nazism?” I think that this is the heart of the issue, but perhaps not in the way you might believe it is. What made the Nazis terrible wasn’t their views on animal rights, vegetarianism or even economic policy; it was precisely the “murder, bigotry and genocide.” Unless you’re arguing for a causal relationship between things like vegetarianism and genocide, I’m not really sure I understand why it’s important that Hitler didn’t eat meat. The things you mention in your talk and Salon interview, and presumably in your book, seem to me to be neither here nor there. Consequently, due to their (at most) tangential relationship to what makes fascism historically important, none of these things is mentioned in the definitions of fascism that I’m familiar with.

For example, Walter Laqueur, in his book Fascism (p. 22), states, “Fascism was, above all, nationalist, elitist, and antiliberal. It was militarist, and whenever the country it occupied was sufficiently strong, it advocated imperialism and territorial expansion.” Earlier, he says it would be hard to improve on Roger Griffon’s definition, which states that fascism is a “genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of popular ultra nationalism.” In his books Fascists and The Dark Side of Democracy, Michael Mann, for his part, defines fascism as “essentially a movement committed to extreme organic nationalism and statism, claiming to transcend social conflict, especially class conflict, by using paramiliary and state violence to ‘knock both their heads [labor and capital] together.’” None of these conceptions of the fundamental essence of fascism include views on animal rights or whole foods. That’s because, ideologically, vegetarianism was not a very important part of Nazi doctrine. On the other hand, Mann finds four essential features of fascism: a cleansing form of nationalism, statism, a class transcendence, and paramileratism. The second and fourth features can apply to nearly any ideology (in the case of statism, depending on what sphere is controlled by the state: economic, social, personal, etc.) of the right or left, whereas the third is diametrically opposed to socialist thinking. Finally, the first (and arguably most important) feature is markedly absent from liberal thought but usually a large part of contemporary conservative thought.

Again, you really need to read my book. I make a very hard and serious distinction between the “hard” fascism of the mid-twentieth century and what we’re talking about today. Indeed, I think it is simply amazing that so many liberals who are cavalier about calling conservatives fascists are suddenly willing to become so doctrinaire about what fascism is. It’s like Naomi Wolf insisting that we are literally living in early 1930s Germany. This is paranoid and cartoonish thinking. But, somehow, it’s a criticism of my position that I’m not doing the same thing from the right.

Anyway, HG Wells’ liberal fascism was globalist, not nationalist. Though it is frankly absurd to discount the intense, imperialist and racist nationalism of the very progressives today’s liberals invoke constantly. Nor will it do to claim that liberals today are not linked to the progressives. They call themselves progressives all of the time. They seek to recreate a new progressive era. Hillary even rejects the label “liberal” in favor of “progressive.”

Also, the idea that today’s liberals reject nationalism strikes me as unsustainable. They reject the word nationalism, not the sentiment behind it. John Kerry whined about fire houses being closed here while being opened in Baghdad, John Edwards says if elected president he will be an economic nationalist.

I agree the most important things about Nazism — MORALLY — are the Holocaust, racism and war. But none of those things apply nearly so cleanly to various other fascist regimes, starting with Mussolini’s Italy, but also Franco’s Spain and other “lesser” fascist movements or governments. Meanwhile, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, North Korea et al were all genocidal and some were genocidally racist. So using genocide and racism as your criteria to distinguish fascism doesn’t hold much water objectively.

Using genocide to define fascism as “rightwing” is even more absurd, considering many more people were murdered in the name of socialism than in the name of fascism. Again: it simply will not do to reserve the label “rightwing” for all bad things.

Indeed, I don’t think you appreciate the slander inherent in the suggestion that these are the only things that distinguish fascism and, at the same time, it’s right to call American conservatives fascists in anyway. There is no argument I am of aware of that warrants calling American conservatives genocidal bigots.

I could go on and on here, but that should suffice for question #4.

5. If, as Arendt has shown, both the left and right can lead to different incarnations of totalitarianism, it seems disingenuous to imply that all instances of state control are equal, and equally totalitarian. I don’t think you’d argue that banning the use of iPods while crossing the street is as pernicious as, say, suspending habeas corpus and reserving the right of the executive branch to use “coercive interrogation techniques” on people being indefinitely detained without access to a court of law. All state interventions into the lives of the citizenship are not equivalent.

First Arendt didn’t “show” that left and right can lead to totalitarianism, she argued it. And there are plenty of people who think she didn’t argue it that persuasively. Yes, there is much to admire in her work. I learned a lot from The Origins of Totalitarianism. But as John Lukacs and others have demonstrated Arendt’s scholarship was iffy when it came to the Nazis. Moreover, it’s my own opinion, that she was just wrong about totalitarianisms of the right and left meeting each other. I’ll say it again, fascism and Bolshevism were, in the words of Daniel Pipes, both heresies of socialism.

I agree entirely that all state interventions are not equivalent. I never, ever, said otherwise. But you might also agree that simply, say, suspending habeas corpus doesn’t make one a fascist (if it did, then what say you about Abraham Lincoln?). Governments have certain powers to defend the public. Always have, always will. A government can exert its lawful and just police powers – even abuse them – without being fascist. It may be wrong, unjust even authoritarian. But that doesn’t necessarily make them fascist.

The difference between what Bush has done – and even what he’s been accused of doing – and the millions of minor “reforms” perpetrated by the bureaucratic progressives is that Bush’s motives and aims in the war on terror are simply not totalitarian. Maybe – maybe! – for the sake or argument they are authoritarian, autocratic or despotic. But they have nothing to do with offering a holistic or totalitarian vision of how everyone should live.

(Compassionate conservatism, however, is a different conversation entirely. As readers of my book know, I consider it a weak rightwing progressivism and I don’t like it. )

I should also note that habeas corpus hasn’t been suspended in the United States anymore than the right to private property was “suspended” by eminent domain decisions like Kelo.

6. Finally, you make it a point of stressing that you’re not accusing liberals of being fascists; but if that’s not what you’re doing, then I suppose I don’t really understand what the point of your book is. If someone lists the points that I have in common with a serial killer, it’s not really important unless those traits lead to killing people. If Jeffrey Dahmer and I both enjoyed chocolate ice cream and preferred spy novels to period fiction, it doesn’t hold that I would share, in any way shape or form, the features that make Dahmer exceptional: being a cannibalistic murderer. To list our shared interests, then, is either to imply that I might share in his murderous tendency or to merely make a list of useless trivia. Neither seems very intellectually serious or interesting to me.

I love this criticism!

Correcting arguably the biggest and most slanderous spin of the 20th century – that fascism and national socialism are somehow related to classical liberalism — strikes me as a pretty worthwhile subject for a book.

How is it that every allegedly racist sin committed by any Republican going back 50 years is relevant to today’s politics (so says Paul Krugman et al), but the eugenic and fascistic foundation of American progressivism – and hence American liberalism – amounts to intellectually unserious and uninteresting “trivia”?

Why is it relevant? One answer might be that because people such as yourself are constantly looking in the wrong direction for the fascist peril, you won’t spot it when it arrives.

Also, you are again condoning the slander of conservatives in this formulation because you have no condemnation for liberals who use the f-word against conservatives and, like so many other liberals, you only now suddenly think it’s unfair – and trivial!!! — when the arrow is more turned in your own (and more accurate) direction.

(Though I grant I’m using you as a stand-in for others, you may have spent your days in Beirut denouncing Namoi Wolf, Christopher Hedges and the legions of other liberals who have accused today’s conservatives of being Nazis and Fascists, including Ezra Klein just last week).

You assert that Fascism is synonymous with bigotry, murder and genocide and yet you don’t offer even the slightest concession that American conservatives aren’t fascists, you just suggest that connection of liberals with fascism is “trivial” so long as I’m not calling liberals Nazis.

Meanwhile, I don’t share your definition of Fascism and never would use it in that way against liberals. But, I’m the slanderer according to so many of my critics.

Your Jeffrey Dahmer metaphor is interesting. Dahmer was a damaged person. He was raised wrong. He learned the wrong lessons. And horrible things resulted. Well, lots of people are damaged, raised wrong and taught the wrong lessons but don’t turn out to be serial killers. They just lead sad lives in one way or another, often causing serious harms that admittedly don’t rise to the level of a cannibalistic serial killer. You suggest my book is pointless because so long as liberals aren’t like Nazis, there’s nothing worth saying about them with regard to progressivism’s “elective affinity,” (historian Peter Vogt’s words) for fascist methods and philosophy. Meanwhile, I’m saying that there are still plenty of bad things that don’t rise nearly to the level of Nazism’s badness which still warrant attention and concern. You and other critics claim that you believe Nazism was the maximum evil of the 20th century, but the argument you employ actually suggests it was more like a minimum. It’s like you’re saying, so long as damaged people don’t become flesh-eating serial killers, why get worked u? As long as the problems with liberalism don’t reach the level of Nazism or the Holocaust, well, then who cares?

I do, that’s who.

Looking forward to your response,



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