Fascism: it ain’t what it used to be

Jonah Goldberg makes some salient points about the left’s authoritarian tendencies today — but his use of the ‘f-word’ is no more convincing than when it was used by Sixties dropouts.

Guy Rundle

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With its cover, a smiley-face with a Hitler moustache, and its tag line – ‘the secret history of the American left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning’ – Liberal Fascism has become something of a cause célèbre in the six months since it was published in the US.

Its author, Jonah Goldberg, a former editor of the online version of the conservative magazine National Review, was hitherto famous as the man who sacked Ann Coulter in the wake of the World Trade Center attack – for her call to invade and Christianise the Islamic World – thus launching a cartoonish icon of the right on to the world market. The sacking suggested to many that Goldberg was part of the more rational tradition on the US right, a species somewhat under threat. The current book has been taken by many of those as a sign that they were wrong.

From the Financial Times through the American Conservative and to the left, Goldberg’s thesis – that fascism is almost entirely a left-wing movement, and that current examples of it can be found in everything from the French Revolution to the Whole Foods organic grocery chain – has been met with widespread ridicule. Even its supporters have hedged their bets with the ‘like it or loathe it… provocative’ sort of jacket quotes that people usually supply to friends they think have gone nuts. Stung, Goldberg has insisted that his argument has been misunderstood, read through the usual filters etc. He is right, but the fault is his, not his critics’.

Goldberg has made an argument about the fascist character of everyday life as it is expressed in cultural rather than nakedly coercive forms. It is less original than he thinks, and it falls into the same traps as did earlier proponents of the view, but it draws together a range of current cultural trends. The book fails because the author lacks the courage to let his insights transform his own political categories, or to lead him into the more substantial rethinking of a received politics that the material he examines demands.

The best way to give an account of the book is to separate out the good faith from the bad faith elements of the text, something barely done in the actual text. The good faith argument is that the left-right dichotomy that is the received interpretation of the twentieth century has frozen our view of it in a misunderstanding, grouping Fascism and Nazism together with liberal capitalism on the right, with social democracy, communism, and US progressivism (ie, New Deal liberalism) on the left.

This simple categorisation has been created by events such as the Second World War and obscures the fluid relationships between populism, progessivism and Fascism between the 1890s and that conflict, and the way in which the themes and priorities of each cross-fertilised each other. Notions of collective will, of heroic efforts by the state, military metaphors for social programmes, coupled with campaigns around public health and social engineering, swapped back and forth between such movements in a manner that their contemporaries – such as HG Wells, who called for a ‘liberal fascism’ – did not baulk at.

Because Fascism and Nazism were defeated in the Second World War, and acquired a character of radical evil due to the Holocaust, it was widely assumed that their values and methods had left the stage. In fact, because they were carried by an unbowed progressivism/liberalism, they carried on, to resurface in Sixties radicalism, environmentalism, social engineering and a culture of aestheticised rebelliousness. Small-f fascisms pervade everyday life, argues Goldberg, but we are incapable of recognising them as such because of ossified interpretive frameworks.

Goldberg is correct in saying that few in the US recognise the fluidity of political movements and themes, given the manner in which the New Deal paradoxically changed the meaning of ‘liberalism’ to be a form of statism. Yet such analysis is hardly new. The Marxist left has maintained a critique of nationalist social democracy, and its shadings into fascism, since the left split between nationalist and internationalist forms during the First World War, not to mention the ‘liberal imperialism’ that animated events such as the US invasion of the Phillipines in 1902. Reich and Adorno noted the affinities of certain aspects of postwar culture with the hard-bodied futurismo of the Mussolini era, and many have noted the unsettling similarities between the exuberant certainties of the Sixties Yippies and ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’.

The raw material for such a critique has increased rather than decreased in recent years. The hardbody culture of the gym, its combination of narcissism and power worship, the ritualised collective celebration of scorn and contempt in shows like Pop Idol, the Brown government’s engineering of a sense of ‘Britishness’ combined with its ever-extended attempt to reshape social desires, the unpeopling of the obese and smokers – who doesn’t have the odd moment of wondering whether the Nazis in fact won the war?

Yet despite the abundance of evidence that something that could not unfairly be called fascistic pervades contemporary life, Goldberg’s attempt to use the f-word this way is no more convincing than it was when it became a generalised notion in the Sixties and came from the New Left. Why would that be?

Part of the reason is the bad faith element intertwined with the more astute analysis of the repressive character of the administrations of liberal heroes such as Woodrow Wilson and FDR. The account of Fascism proper’s origins is so staggeringly misconstructed as to beggar belief. Italian fascism, it is true, emerged from the left, and its initial 1919 programme was an aggressively socialist one. But this was abandoned long before the 1922 March on Rome put Mussolini in power of a capitalist economy with a few corporatist and redistributive bells and whistles, and unashamedly identified nation as a form of unity over and beyond class. The Nazi Party may have had the word ‘socialist’ in its name, and a few motley self-styled ‘National Bolsheviks’ at its founding, but its entwinement with business ran all the way up to the privately-run work/death camps of IG Farben. Indeed, one of the reasons it lost the war was that Albert Speer could never bring the economy under control to the same degree as Britain’s totally re-organised ‘war socialism’ had done – as late as 1943, Nazi Germany was still being run as a private consumer economy.

You don’t have to subscribe to a vulgar Marxist take on Fascism to point out that the actual affiliations matter, or that accumulating features common to all modern regimes – the use of propaganda, the summoning of collective unity through concrete symbols, celebration of technology, and/or of the local and organic – demonstrates nothing. Fascism as constituted drew from left Progressivism, but shaped itself around transcendental nationalism, with varying degrees of racialism, and the explicit denial of class as a determining factor in social being and of a universalist humanism as an ultimate end. Mussolini and Hitler both baited the ‘bourgeois’ in their speeches and writings, but they did so as armed bohemians, disdainful of mundane life. They were happy to leave them in place, running the economy. The fundamental division of class politics in left and right, and the understanding that people at the time had of that division, matters if one’s analysis is not to be absurd. By Goldberg’s account, the Spanish Civil War was a mostly intra-left affair.

Why can’t Goldberg acknowledge this key dimension of Fascism? Because that would mean taking his analysis of the present in ways he doesn’t want it to go. For it is not the campaigns against obesity, the nasty TV, the dumb movies per se that sometimes give one the feel of having woken up in a dystopia – it is the fact that these are the complement, especially in America, of a militarism that hides its lethal and murderous character from itself by recourse to the domestic notions of purity and the ‘organic’ that Goldberg alludes to.

Watching Good Morning America this week, the dystopian moment was generated not by the gleaming teeth or the ab-tastic ads in the break – it was that these were combined with a chatty interview with Hillary Clinton in which she mentioned that she would happily ‘obliterate’ Iran if necessary. What might tempt one to use the f-word (and I am not convinced of its usefulness) is the sense of a culture in which a calculated violence – the wars, the death penalty, the penal system – lives cheek by jowl with a shiny futurismo, gleaming bodies and machines, together with the indulgence of the organic and authentic, the natural fabrics and raw milk yoghurt. It’s the whole mix which suggests Goldberg’s paranoid picture, if anything does.

Indeed, you couldn’t really get a better analogue for the ‘liberal imperialist’ US annexation of the Philippines than the war in Iraq, even though the former was conceived in exuberant confidence and the latter in an attempt to recreate some of that. The Philippines occupation ultimately left a million dead after a counter-insurgency campaign, and the missionaries and social reformers came in on the back of the army. In Iraq, the first decree of the US expert drafted in to run the occupied country’s health system was to institute an anti-smoking campaign. Now that’s what I call liberal fascism!

Goldberg can’t use these juicy examples, because he won’t admit that the particular form of US militarism fits his liberal fascist thesis to a tee. That lack is particularly obvious in his chapter on Hillary Clinton (yes, of course she gets a whole chapter – this is a book from the US right), for she personifies the combination of lethal chaos abroad and coercive social engineering at home.

Indeed, the book is hobbled by the very motives that led to its creation. By his own account, Goldberg was irritated by the louche use of ‘fascist’ by the American left to describe everything done by the Bush administration; it can get pretty irritating. Goldberg’s response has been to identify it as a left-wing creature instead, and then find it practically everywhere. This is where he claims to be misinterpreted, more recently arguing that he is effectively using the term as a descriptive one, saying ‘not all fascism is bad. Autobahns are fascist, but highways aren’t bad.’

Yet the only reason to use the term ‘fascist’ outside of its actual historical context is to make a moral point. Goldberg made a deliberate confusion between necessary and sufficient conditions. Fascism involves mass action, collective will, a focus on conflict and rebellion – therefore everything containing those elements is fascist, from the French Revolution to the plot of the film Dead Poets Society to the organic grocery chain Whole Foods – but ‘I shop there myself frequently’, says Goldberg. Some of my best friends are juices. This switcharound is how the complex and multiple movements of the Sixties get ground down to a single idea of fascism, perhaps the most asinine piece of analysis in the book.

In Liberal Fascism, Goldberg has spotted something going on in US life, which writers for spiked have been analysing for some time – a form of social coercion that cannot be usefully explained by references simply to ‘big government’ or the ‘nanny state’ and which is the expression of complex socio-cultural changes which attempt to constitute meaning and mitigate atomisation and its effects. Goldberg isn’t big on the politics of meaning (it’s fas… you guessed it), but the book is an example of it, as indicated by the afterword, in which he relates in highly emotional terms the upset at the assault on his political tradition by easy-fascist namecalling, and in particular on his father-figure, William F Buckley. Goldberg’s suggestion that Buckley had no use for populism is ludicrous, but let that pass – the point is that Goldberg couldn’t step outside his tradition to try and think through transformed circumstances. He’s genuinely spotted something going on, but the tribal instinct of US politics draws him back into a conventional analysis rendered novel only by its extremism.

Curiously, finding fascism everywhere, the writers Goldberg bears most resemblance to are the European ‘power’ post-structuralists of the 1970s and 80s, such as Foucault, who saw fields of power vibrating everywhere. A page of Goldberg is not unlike a page of Deleuze and Guattari, who saw reality itself and the unified subject as effectively fascist. It was a sign of a wrong turning then, and it is now.

Whatever people understand as what fascism feels like, this ain’t it. Which leaves Goldberg sounding less like Winston Smith of Nineteen Eighty-Four than Neil the hippy from The Young Ones.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and is covering the US election campaign for the independent online media service Crikey.

Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, by Jonah Goldberg is published by Doubleday. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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