Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Are We Fascists Yet?

Brian Leiter links--rightly with some reservation--to this article trying to make a sober case for taking the threat of fascism, today, seriously. Her conclusion:
"We are now parked on the exact spot where our best experts tell us full-blown fascism is born. Every day that the conservatives in Congress, the right-wing talking heads, and their noisy minions are allowed to hold up our ability to govern the country is another day we're slowly creeping across the final line beyond which, history tells us, no country has ever been able to return."
And after reading truly deranged and psychotic stuff like this:
"There is a remote, although gaining, possibility America's military will intervene as a last resort to resolve the Obama problem. Don't dismiss it as unrealistic.

America isn't the Third World. If a military coup does occur here it will be civilized. That it has never happened doesn't mean it wont."
it's no wonder that otherwise sane people really begin to wonder. Nonetheless, to suppose that we are actually flirting with fascism itself flirts with crazy; sober and silly are not mutually exclusive. I don't claim that we are definitely not anywhere near fascism, but I do claim that the entire exercise is misguided.

Discussions of this sort presume that Fascism is some sort of natural kind, and that there are antecedent conditions which, when met, will lead in a lawful or law-like manner to a fascist state. I'm willing to set aside the issue of whether or not it is appropriate at all to apply the concept of law to social and political phenomena. Let's assume that social and political phenomena exhibit regularities that, if not strictly lawful, are nonetheless sufficiently law-like. In either case, it's pretty standard to accept that lawful or law-like relations must be consistent over two variations:

1) Generalization: a lawful relation must obtain among a significant number of instances. Just because you caught the flu after getting a new pair of glasses does not mean that your glasses and the flu are in any way related. Similarly, just because Athens won the battle of Marathon after the Spartans failed to show up doesn't mean that in general battles go well when allies fail to appear. For there to be a relevant relation here, there would have to be lots of instances of armies succeeding after allies have failed to show.

2) Counterfactual Variation: Not only must a lawful relation obtain among a number of actual instances, that same relation must obtain over relevant counterfactual variations. So, it happened to be the case that Bismark was able to unify Germany by exploiting a mercurial French emperor. But knowing this doesn't mean that you could have inferred, in say 1866, from Napoleon III's mercurial nature to the likelihood of German unification. Chances are, Bismark would have been equally adept at manipulating a conservative and rigid Emperor of France, just as he successfully exploited Franz Josef. For Napoleon III's mercurial nature to have been causally and lawfully related to the unification of Germany, it would have to shown that had Napoleon III not been mercurial, Germany would not have been unified, along with many such other variations.

So let's ask, are there any relations that can survive these conditions applied to fascism? I don't think so. Most discussions I've had or read on the subject, from Robert Paxton's informative essay to Jonah Goldberg's silly book, get stuck on the generalization condition. Immediately there are problems that arise from trying to decide just what counts as the reference class for 'Fascist Regimes'. There's almost no way to answer this without begging the question. Hitler and Mussolini both represented movements angry about the loss of a purer past, whereas Stalin's USSR rejected the past for the sake of a communist future. So, is worry over a lost, organic past necessary to qualify as fascist? There seems no way to answer this without begging the question: if you really want to include Stalin among the fascists, then no, but if you don't mind dropping him from the list, then sure. No essence or natural kind is going to get in your way whatever you decide.

But what really makes predictions about fascism problematic is the second condition. There are probably no necessary conditions leading to any of the historically fascist states without which we could say with any credibility that fascism would not have emerged anyway. So Hitler's and Mussolini's fascisms were weirdly pagan, whereas Franco's was wed to the Catholic Church. But I see no reason why, mutatis mutandis, an ultramontane fascism could not have emerged out of conservative elements in Germany, nor why some charismatic anarchist leader could not have taken control of the Republicans in Spain and created a secular fascist state. The point is that there are simply no truly insightful comparisons, only superficially insightful ones. What we really mean by fascism is just 'tyranny,' or 'evil'--and so let's worry straightaway about whether any given regime is acting tyrannical or evilly, and not about whether they are rehearsing fascism's encore.

I guess the conclusion I would like to make, after this unintentionally long post, is two-fold:
1) Forget Fascism. It's not a useful concept. Instead of fretting over whether teabaggers represent an incipient fascism, let's just say that these people are really weird, willfully irrational, a little bit scary, and completely unsuitable as dinner guests.
2) More broadly, I think it's time to start a movement: I call on a MORATORIUM FOR ALL WWII REFERENCES. No longer will it be acceptable to think through any truly pressing political problem as if it were just a replay of the 1930's.

1 comment:

  1. I've been meaning to comment on this, but my friend Steve has it pretty well: