Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Roots of Liberal Fascism by Chip Berlet

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates (PRA), is co-author of Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. His most recent study for PRA is titled Toxic to Democracy, and his article on the Tea Party protests appears as the cover story in the February 2010 issue of the Progressive magazine.

The Tea Party Patriots and Town Hall Criers are alerting us to the coming totalitarian apocalypse provoked by liberal misfeasance, nonfeasance, malfeasance, and just plain treason. In a nutshell, this mirrors the basic theme in Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg. The specific looming threat, according to Goldberg and the tea-partiers, is that liberals and their closet commie/fascist friends are pushing America onto a slippery slope toward tyranny that begins with government social planning.

Other scholars in this series have explained the weakness of Goldberg’s analysis of the nature of fascism. I will explore the roots of the idea of “liberal fascism” as emerging from right-wing ideologues at very specific historic moments.

According to Goldberg, “Today we still live under the fundamentally fascistic economic system established by Wilson and FDR. We do live in an ‘unconscious civilization’ of fascism, albeit of a friendly sort infinitely more benign that that of Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, or FDRs America” (p. 330).

Up until the early 1900s in the United States it was widely believed that a healthy economy and, indeed, democracy itself relied on the “Invisible Hand” of the “Free Market” which stroked the members of the benevolent elites so that wealth trickled down the social ladder to their social inferiors. The government merely played the role of a “Night Watchman,” identifying trash heaps containing criminals and political dissidents to be hauled off to jail or simply deported, as in the 1919-1920 Palmer Raids.

Just after the nation crashed into the Great Depression, the 1932 presidential campaign focused on whether or not the government should directly develop policies and programs promoting economic fairness, and social justice. Unions and most working people backed this concept and thus the candidacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR faced the incumbent President, Herbert Hoover, whose 1928 campaign speech on "Rugged Individualism" left no doubt where he stood on the question.

According to Hoover, during World War I, in order to ensure the "preservation of the State the Government became a centralized despotism." After the war the nation was faced "with the choice of the American system 'rugged individualism' or the choice of a European system of diametrically opposed doctrines—doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas meant the destruction of self-government through centralization of government." Hoover argued that the proposals of Franklin D. Roosevelt would "wreck our democracy" and weaken the "foundations of social and spiritual progress in America."

After his inauguration in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt slapped Laissez Faire elites in the face with a clearly visible hand when, as President, he launched a number of massive and controversial federal government programs to restore the economy. The conservative elites and their ideologues slapped back, handing out over the next two decades millions of dollars in pamphlets, advertisements, movies, and books equating the defense of democracy and the “American Way of Life” with restoring “Free Market” government policies. Ringleaders included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), but they were hardly alone. This broad propaganda campaign was recently documented in the excellent book Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal by Kim Phillips-Fein.

Conservative ideologues in both the United States and Europe began to bemoan creeping socialism, and in 1935 Austrian School economist Friedrich A. Hayek edited a volume on Collectivist Economic Planning: Critical Studies on the Possibilities of Socialism. In the U.S., the anti-socialist crusade built to oppose the policies of FDR forged an alliance between the ideological Free Marketeers and the theologues of the Christian Right. The latter worried that big government and big labor union “collectivism” threatened the social contract, the radical individualism of unrefined Calvinism, and the proper relationship between the Godly individual and both church and state. Max Weber studied the roots of this tendency in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

While publicly praising civic participation, many of these same conservative & libertarian ideologues tried to curtail or crush labor unions as a form of “collectivism” just as detrimental to democracy as those “European” collectivist schemes: socialism and national socialism aka Nazism. Thus today President Obama is said to be both a socialist and a fascist—both Hitler and Stalin. Back in the 1930s FDR was also tarred by conservatives for bringing socialist and fascist ideas into the political economy of the U.S.

In 1944 Hayek warned about the dangers to freedom inherent in social planning in his classic book, The Road to Serfdom. Hayek argued that the practical needs of coordination and efficiency inherent in government central planning tended to create totalitarian systems of social control. In his foreword, Hayek claimed that “economic planning” in Britain under a Labour government was “despotism exercised by a thoroughly conscientious and honest bureaucracy for what they sincerely believe is the good of the country.” Hayek penned chapters on “The Socialist Roots of Nazism,” and “The Totalitarians in our Midst.”

No serious scholar of fascism disputes the fact that Italian Fascism and German Nazism borrowed themes and personnel from existing socialist movements. Writing in 1944, Hayek had three disadvantages. First, the analytical work of Hannah Arendt on the nature of totalitarianism did not appear until the early 1950s. Second, the serious scholarly study of fascism was still in its early stages. Third, the book Road to Serfdom was written as a polemic and was not (and never intended to be) a serious study of fascism reflecting the academic disciplines of economics, political science, or history.

Fascism, Nazism, Communism, the Roosevelt administration, and the modern Welfare State share degrees of government intervention in the economy. They are not equivalent, and there is no evidence that government planning leads to totalitarianism any more than drinking tea leads to opium addiction. This is a classic logical error. Arendt detailed how it was the totalitarianism shared by Hitler and Stalin that created similarities in terms of ruthless government repression.

There is a problem, then, for Goldberg to adopt outdated and repudiated ideas from the 1930s and 1940s—skip over 50 years of scholarship—and then helicopter in to claim we in the now live under a regime of “liberal fascism.” Goldberg is not alone in his beliefs, however, as the Tea Party and town hall movement rhetoric demonstrates.

Back in 1944, two other right-wing books were published on related themes: John Flynn’s As We Go Marching, and Ludwig von Mises’ Omnipotent Government, the Rise of the Total State and Total War. The books of Hayek, Flynn, and von Mises became sacred texts to generations of right-wing libertarians… often shelved next to the idiosyncratic Gnostic gospels of Ayn Rand and Albert Jay Nock.

Staring in the mid 1940s, von Mises was the main torch bearer for anti-collectivism. He worked for the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and was appointed to a NAM commission on economics. In addition to writing for the FEE journal The Freeman, von Mises also wrote for Christian Economics published by the right-wing Christian Freedom Foundation; National Review captained by conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. (his father gave him books by Nock); The Intercollegiate Review from the ultraconservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute; Faith and Freedom, published by the Christian Right group Spiritual Mobilization; and American Opinion, published by the John Birch Society. This is the same Birch Society that Buckley once urged serious conservatives to shun as too kooky.

In our book Right-Wing Populism in America, Matthew N. Lyons and I traced how these anti-statist, anti-collectivist ideas were brought into the Republican Party by members and allies of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, many of whom had worked on the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. Many other authors have noted the influence of the JBS on the contemporary Republican Party, including Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, which highlights the JBS as a player in Christian Right circles.

It is worth noting that the founder of the Society, Robert Welch, worked as a researcher for the anti-collectivist NAM before setting up the JBS. In 1964 the masthead of the JBS magazine American Opinion read like a Who’s Who of ultraconservatism: Editorial Advisory Committee, Clarence Manion, Ludwig Von Mises, J. Howard Pew, and Robert W. Stoddard; Associate Editors Revilo P. Oliver and E. Merrill Root; Contributing Editors Medford Evans and Hans Sennholz.

Anti-collectivism then went mainstream. While working on an investigative article in the early 1980s, a harried Reagan White House switchboard operator mistook who I was and plugged me into the office of presidential adviser and ultra-conservative guru Morton Blackwell. We had a marvelous discussion about how important the John Birch Society literature was for training young conservatives; how he had shelves full of JBS material in his office; how he shared the JBS books with the White House Staff; and how he was trying to see if JBS and similar literature could be sent to U.S. embassy libraries around the world. Marginal ideas? Not.

Jonah Goldberg does not list the John Birch Society as a major source, but he should have, since his book is like a compendium of JBS articles published over the last fifty years. These ideas are now ubiquitous among right-wing populists in the Tea Party movement. Am I suggesting that Birchers, the Christian Right, and right-wing libertarians have taken over the Republican Party? Yes, although old-fashioned conservatives and political pragmatists are putting up a splendid fight for control of the Party. Do I think right-wing TV, radio, and print media are awash with right-wing conspiracy theories pioneered by the Birchers? Yes, that’s what my research shows.

A younger generation now carries the torch of anti-collectivism forward. It was young acolytes of right-wing fanatic Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr. who created those Town Hall protest placard images of Obama morphed into a Hitler avatar with a little extra mustache and hair. The irony here is that LaRouche is an actual neofascist who has spent his career calling everyone he despises a fascist. LaRouche has more pages of content on Wikipedia than most U.S. Presidents; and fanatic fans spent years trying to keep the term “fascist” off of LaRouche’s main entry.

All over Wikipedia there is an ongoing struggle to amplify and defend the ideas of arch anti-collectivist libertarians like Goldberg. There have been repeated attempts to change the name of the Wikipedia entry “Nazism” to “National Socialism” as part of a larger effort to redefine all forms of collective effort by governments as an example of tyranny. Some pages have become virtual shrines to the anti-collectivists, especially the pages on Ludwig von Mises, and the von Mises Institute. I finally gave up editing on Wikipedia—I spent more time in “mediations” with abusive fanatics than editing entries. Wikipedia still has yet to solve this type of problem, and too many of its entries remain biased because bullies of all political stripes are seldom effectively sanctioned.

Editing Wikipedia entries led me to agree with Goldberg on one point with which he opens his book: Most liberals (and others on the Political Left) have no coherent and accurate definition of what fascism is. The most popular idea on the Left is that fascism is when corporations run the government. Thousands of Internet pages sport this passage attributed to Mussolini discussing his Italian Fascist movement: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power." Hit the delete button! So far no scholar I know has been able to find the original source of this quote. It’s not in the 1932 Enciclopedia Italiana as widely claimed. (If you have a print copy of the quote from the 1930s, please let me know, otherwise please refrain from e-mails saying you found it on the internet). The apparent hoax quote also contradicts everything else Mussolini wrote on the subject.

Right-wing libertarians and their right-wing populist cousins have a First Amendment protection to believe what they want and say what they think about fascism, socialism, collectivism, and the Obama administration. Why worry about the bad history and worse analysis in Liberal Fascism? I worry because in civil society, democracy is based on informed consent. We don’t have it here.

Today, I see a growing mass base of angry people who have good reasons to be mad at the government, but who are demonizing opponents and scapegoating social and economic problems on immigrants, people of color, and Muslims. I see people across the political spectrum picking up rhetoric about the “banksters,” “plutocrats,” “secret elites,” and “finance capitalists” without considering that antisemites and fascists have used this language for decades to scapegoat Jewish bankers for economic woes. Just search two words, “Jew” and “bankster” on the Internet and read a few horrifying websites.

If activists running economic justice campaigns had a better understanding of the relationship between right-wing populism and fascism, they would make it clear they renounce bigoted interpretations of their reform movements and be more careful in building coalitions with or praising the work of people carrying the baggage of prejudice or conspiracism and into the debate.

This is a time when a clear-headed understanding of the relationship between right-wing populism and fascism could play an important role in helping Democrats and Republicans to develop electoral slogans and strategies that encouraged actual debate rather than glib demonization that exacerbates the tensions in an increasingly polarized population.

We now know that fascism is the most militant and violent form of right-wing populism. Alas, far too many people eschew serious contemporary theories of fascism for ideas found in books like Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism—ideas being embraced by an audience that ironically could build an actual mass base for fascism. Already we see ultra-right and neofascist ideologues in the U.S. trying to organize the right-wing populist movement of Tea Party protesters further to the Right toward aggression and violence. It could happen here, but it probably won’t.

Most right-wing populist movements never become full blown fascist movements; and most fascist movements fail to gain state power. Yet both movements have historically used demonization and scapegoating woven into conspiracy theories and apocalyptic calls for action “now before it is too late.” This creates a dynamic that is toxic to democracy, as the named scapegoats suffer the consequences and are attacked first verbally, then physically. This is what I am hearing as I interview immigrant-rights and anti-racist organizers across the American heartland. There are already too many victims.

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