Liberal Fascism

Is Neoconservatism Fascist?

Jon Taplin offers a welcome civil response to the book, agreeing in some places and disagreeing in others. He uses my book to make the case that neoconservative foreign policy and economic policy combine to form a fascistic neo-corporatist system. He writes:

I agree with Jonah that President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the war “to make the world safe for democracy” set in motion a kind of messianic foreign policy of American Exceptionalism, which echoes in the righteous speeches of President Bush today. As Henry Kissinger once observed, “It is to the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that American foreign policy has marched since his watershed presidency, and continues to march to this day.” I also agree that the Palmer Raids, Wilson set off against the Left were fascistic. Today similar degradations of our civil liberties are taking place under the guise of war. Although contemporary politicians have used the shattering events of September 2001 to explain that everything has changed, their neoconservative mentors know the real story. “America did not change on September 11,” Robert Kagan wrote. “It only became more itself.” He went on to note that “over the last six decades, it is an objective fact that Americans have been expanding their power and influence in ever widening arcs.”

What I will argue is that contemporary neoconservatism is the direct descendant of the path Wilson put us on–a path we must now reexamine. The effective result of Wilsonian thought was a permanent militarization of American policy in a way that now puts us in peril economically and culturally. This peril really increased since 1980. Can anyone honestly not believe that the corporate “cartels” of Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Media, Big Insurance and Big Banking have had more influence on the deregulatory direction of America since Reagan’s election? Since that time the American political ruling ideology has been based on the twin poles of the Neoconservative philosophy first elucidated by Irving Kristol in The Public Interest in 1965: in domestic affairs the national government should shrink its revenue base (by cutting taxes and business regulations) and in foreign affairs the government should grow its budget (by becoming the world’s sole military superpower). This philosophy has brought us to the present crisis in Iraq which is part and parcel with the present economic crisis in America.

Me: While I greatly appreciate the civility and good faith of Taplin’s argument, I think it’s flawed on several fronts. Some points in no particular order.

1. Taplin writes: “I also agree that the Palmer Raids, Wilson set off against the Left were fascistic. Today similar degradations of our civil liberties are taking place under the guise of war.” This falls somewhere between the purest nonsense and grotesque exaggeration. Whatever may or may not be happening to civil liberties during the Bush years, the notion that “similar degradations” to Wilson’s are occurring is entirely indefensible.    

2. I think Taplin is projecting a great number of things onto Irving Kristol (and by extension neoconservatism) Kristol did not believe. I don’t believe Kristol said very much about foreign policy in The Public Interest in 1965, never mind elucidated the foreign policy Taplin suggests even when he turned to foreign policy. Indeed,  The Public Interest was utterly silent on foreign policy. It was a humble domestic policy journal which argued, time and again, that everything was more complicated than it seems, that unintended consequences was a “law” of social policymaking and that Romantic and utopian impulses invariably led to folly. In every way, shape and form this is the opposite of a fascistic political orientation. It wasn’t rabidly ideological on foreign affairs (again, it was silent on them) and it was hardly corporatist in domestic policy. In the first issue, the editors proclaimed that “theaim of The Public Interest is at once modest and presumptuous. It is to help all of us, when we discuss issues of public policy, to know a little better what we are talking about–and preferably in time to make such knowledge effective.”

If Taplin can provide anything like a citation from Kristol or the PI from back then that lays out these two poles of “Neoconservative philosophy” I’d be keen to see them. I think he’s taking the cartoonish version of what neoconservatism today is supposed to be and retroactively applying it where it does not belong. Indeed, there was no such thing as a neoconservative philosophy in 1965, in name or otherwise (more on all that later).

3. I agree — though my agreement is limited — with Taplin that there are elements in what today passes for neoconservative foreign policy of Wilsonian messianism as well as (Teddy) Rooseveltian nationalism. The “national greatness” fad of the 1990s had the stink of Progressive era nostalgia upon it. And Bush’s rhetoric, particularly in his second inaugural, surely conjures Wilsonian rhetoric. But there are important differences. Wilson often bragged that World War One was not in our interest. “There is not a single selfish element, so far as I can see, in the cause we are fighting for,” he declared in a typical proclamation. President Bush may spin idealistic gossamer from time to time, but I don’t believe any fair observer could charge that Bush believes — or has ever said — that the war on terror isn’t in our national interest. That strikes me as an enormously important distinction.

4. Taplin misstates what corporatism is in the context of fascism (as we’ve discussed around here a few times). The “corporations” that define fascist corporatism are not simply the equivalent of Exxon-Mobil, Enron and Haliburton. The corporations of fascist corporatism include, labor unions trade guilds and the like. The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry Taplin himself links to says corporatism is a system “in which power is given to civic assemblies that represent economic, industrial, agrarian, social, cultural, and professional groups.” It’s not helpful to link to that definition while simultaneously hewing to the quasi-Marxist distortion of corporatism as simply “rule by big business.” Taplin is right to emphasize cartels rather than individual corporations, but I’m unaware of any strong argument on the right in general or among self-declared neoconservatives in particular in favor of anything like increased cartelization of the economy. I am open to correction on that. 

4. Taplin writes:

Goldberg believes his faith in free markets is “anti-corporatism”, but I respectfully disagree. Everyone of the big cartels has gotten the Republican led congress to do their bidding by removing all corporate regulation since the Contract for [sic] America was signed.[emphasis mine]

Really? “All corporate regulation” has been removed since the Contract with America was signed? All of it?

5. Taplin is surely taking rhetorical license here. But even so, he misses the point entirely. Free-markets are anti-corporatist precisely because laissez-faire demands that the government not pick winners and losers in economic realm. Corporatism is all — all! — about reducing competition in society. It’s aim is to bring blessed unity and comity between business and labor, industry and government, civil society and the state. This is simply not the conservative or neoconservative vision. 

6. Now he  or others might respond that the result of the war has bred a de facto corporatism. I am more  than open to evidence on this front as the history of war in America is also in large part the history of economic and political centralization. That was true of Wilson’s war socialism, FDR’s New Deal (which Taplin neglects to mention), and even Truman’s seizure of the steel mills. But is it the story of the Iraq war? I’m sure the case can be made at the margins, but you can only hang so much on Halliburton, particularly when you strip away much of the left’s propaganda. The “no bid” contracts Halliburton has had with the government under the Bush administration were pretty much the same ones it had with the Pentagon under Bill Clinton. I sincerely doubt historians looking back on the last 20 years will find anything but continuity in this area. And, whatever they find, I bet they’ll be hard pressed to lay the blame for it on the “neocons.”

7. The point I try to make in my book about corporatism is that it is the natural result of economic regulation. When profits are ultimately determined by the government, not the market, then businesses will spend their time investing in government policies. That’s what we’re seeing from GE in response to global warming mania. That’s what we see from the health care and pharmaceutical  industries as progressives increasingly try to promote either socialized medicine or corporatist “public-private partnerships.” I am the first to agree that Republican politicians fall short of conservative principles. It’s worth noting, however, that they are  usually the more liberal and moderate ones who win accolades from the left. But it’s worth pointing out that when Republicans and conservatives cave-in to the popular demand for increased corporatism and socialism, they are betraying their principles. When liberals pander to that popular demand, they are living up to their principles. That is an enormous distinction.

8. And so here’s my last point and a dire prediction. I would argue — in fact I do argue –  that conservative dogma is the great bulwark against fascism or fascistic policies in part because it breaks the historic linkage between activist foreign policy abroad and totalitarian impulses at home. The progressives didn’t become fascistic at home because of the war. They were fascistic already and used the war as an excuse and means to pursue their collectivist agenda. I think I demonstrate this at length in my Wilson chapter. 

Liberals, meanwhile, are still obsessed with the Jamesian “moral equivalents of war.” Indeed, after 9/11, a host of liberals insisted  that war requires big government.  Chuck Schumer  argued that the war on terror meant we need a “new New Deal.”  The folks at Tapped like the idea of a draft, not because it will help fight a war — yuck! — but because it will deliver the “social possibilities” of war. So here’s my prediction. If Hillary or Obama are president when/if  we have another major 9/11 style attack or if hostilities with Iran or some other nation turn to war, you will see arguments for corporatism, new New Deals, and war socialism (by a different name) explode forth from all of the usual liberal voices. Conservatives will in all likelihood support military action, but oppose the rising tide of collectivism that liberals will want to marry it to. And that’s why conservative — including neoconservative — free market and limited government dogma will remain the greatest bulwark against fascism. 

Sorry for such a long post, but I’m just thinking out loud — which also means I may have more to add (or subtract!) later.  

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