Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Liberal Fascism and the "Who Cares?" Objection

Goldberg has several times in the book and on the book's blog (here, here, and here) handled the objection that says, "Who cares if contemporary liberalism has fascist antecedents? The books doesn't really prove that liberalism itself is fascistic. Or if it does prove that, it has to back-peddle with this qualification that liberalism is 'nice' fascism. So, at most the book is a trivial historical footnote."

Goldberg seems most concerned with exposing the hypocrisy and ignorance underlying the frequent claims of liberal that conservatives are fascists. He also puts his finger on the heart of the matter here, though he doesn't go far enough:

Moreover, a major point of the book is that we are constantly looking in the wrong direction for incipient fascism or totalitarianism or whatever you want to call it. Fascism was popular. It was seen as the wave of the future. The totalitarian temptation endures in every human heart, but we are trained to believe it can never come from "the good guys" (i.e. liberals and progressives). It must only come from the shiny-booted villaims[sic] of the right. Not only is this childish and ahistorical, it is very dangerous.

Here is where I think Goldberg is close to the mark but doesn't quite get the force of his book's analysis "liberalism" and "fascism," He should have said this:

Liberalism is a form of fascism. Fascism is evil. Therefore, liberalism is evil.

By "evil" I mean that, whether liberals realize it or not, if they had the political system they wanted people would be much less able to live good lives than they would in a conservative society. Of course, to say that liberalism is evil sounds unhinged. We've all been semantically hoodwinked, in the ways that I've pointed out in the last few posts. But when you consider that the book shows that liberalism is a form of fascism and fascism is evil, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion. As for "nice," this is window-dressing. There are flavors of fascism (Nazism, Bolshevism, the "nice" kind), but not degrees. This is because totalitarianism doesn't come in degrees.

Let's go into some detail here. This is a key point.

I claim that, thanks to Liberal Fascism, there is a interesting philosophical analysis of liberalism in the offing: liberalism is evil because it is a form of fascism and fascism is evil.

Let's take a closer look at the criticism of this analysis: the "So What" argument. This is the argument that, although the premises - the history presented by the book - are true, the conclusion follows from them only in a weak and uninteresting sense. Liberalism has fascist roots only in the sense that it shares with fascism the goal of a large, powerful, and omnipresent welfare state in which all subjects of the state attain freedom and happiness. (Etc. See the "vision of fascism" and the definition of fascism in posts below.) Liberal fascism is a kind of fascism that renounces the violence, brutality and oppression of the kinds that the term "fascism" usually connotes. So, Goldberg's book shows that "fascism" can be analyzed into (a.) liberalism and (b.) the evil kind. It's a true but arcane piece of history, nothing more. It's not interesting, because it shows precisely that liberalism isn't the evil kind but the "nice" kind. Then, for Goldberg to trumpet his thesis as interesting shows only that he doesn't even understand it himself. Furthermore, the fact that he defends it against this criticism so often by saying that at least the book takes to task those liberals who call conservatives fascist proves that even he knows there is no philosophical substance in the book but only a correction of the historical record. Okay, so liberals have to eat crow on this point. So what? There is no philosophically or politically interesting sense of "liberal fascism" but only a modestly interesting historical point to it.

There is the criticism. It's a good one. A inchoate version of it may be found here, where Arnold Kling has assessed Goldberg as a troll as much as anything else. A succinct statement may also be found in Goldberg's mailbag (already linked above.)

The problem with the criticism is simple and direct:

The evil of fascism lies not in its accidental violence and brutality. It lies in its essential totalitarianism.

Brutality, murder, and incarceration are evils. But they are common and not unique to fascism. And any American not smitten by liberalism or cowardice is willing to suffer them, rather than endure totalitarianism. Let's put it this way. Totalitarianism is the far greater evil than brutality because unlike the present and finite instances of brutality it may or may not use to achieve a stronghold, it stretches far into the indefinite future, making possible incalculably many instances of future brutality and preventing even those lives that it does not brutalize - which are many more in number - from being good lives. Fascism is evil because it eliminates the conditions of the pursuit of happiness. Do we really need to prove this to ourselves? No, let us count it as another sure premise in Goldberg's argument.

So, the criticism from "So what?" turns out to be a red herring. It attempts to divert our scrutiny of the evil of fascism from fascism's essential evil to the accidental evils of the violent form of fascism. "Liberal fascism" therefore stands as a term with deeply philosophically and politically interesting meaning, which it takes Goldberg 400 pages to flesh out. The analysis that Goldberg has in the offing - he hasn't said whether he agrees with it - is sound. In my view it is the reason the book is a momentous work.