Friday, May 08, 2020

Of Discourses About Fascism

I do not have a high opinion of Jason Stanley's work -- any of it at all, I'm afraid; one tries to be openminded but this sort of thing happens nonetheless -- and much of his recent work on fascism seems to me largely to be repackaged and warmed over work by other people, mangled into strained shapes by analogies in his head rather than serious analysis. (It all reminds me a bit, actually, of Peter Singer's book, The President of Good and Evil, which was not so much a book as a grift, reassuring partisans of a particular type that, yes, they are the insightful and intelligent ones, and see more deeply than their opponents, and in the process both fleecing them and putting himself in a convenient spotlight for his career. The book is, unsurprisingly, of very poor quality; if you've never read Singer's reflections on passages in the speeches of George W. Bush, you have done better at avoiding pages and pages of bad analysis and meandering argument than I have.) But I did find this New Yorker profile on his classes interesting, although in part because it captures very clearly a common desire among the intellectually inclined: to see the current events of any given moment in terms of an identifiable pattern of past action that gives them deep insight into the course of history. The same desire, I think, is why academics have a very bad track record on political questions; the desire creates the temptation to think that they already know what is going on. But the patterns of history, while they do exist, do not fall so neatly or easily into our laps. In reality, there is no more sense to seeing fascism in every bit of bullying, corruption, and abuse of power one sees in a political opponent than to seeing Marxism in the same; fascism is a kind of programmatic policy, namely one of unifying all forces in the control of the state, not a specimen-collection of political wrongdoings and corrupt rhetorical appeals. The mistake seems to be quite common across the board, though, as the "it's-not-big-enough" critics show; 'fascism' is not a name for a size of badness. Gentile was not a Fascist because he did horribly bad things; he was a Fascist because he thought politics should extend through the whole realm of human thought. And one sees a similar problem when people speak as if not regarding every abuse of power as fascism would be somehow not to regard it as an abuse.

We should be skeptical of this label-slapping, for one of the perennial reasons why we should consider whether to be skeptical: it tempts us to think we understand more than we do. We recently had a situation in which a bunch of well-placed academics were discovered by the broader public to be fomenting against homeschooling; they thought it unacceptable that parents could educate their parents without thorough regulation by the state and one in particular even stated that families only exist because they are legally recognized by the state. Now, it is entirely reasonable to think of this as advocating a step toward totalitarianism; it is exactly the sort of view of education that fascists historically have had. Would we learn anything from calling it fascism? All we would actually be doing is shortcircuiting understanding, substituting a pre-determined classification for an actual causal analysis. Of course, one does this for polemical purposes, or to express disapproval; that's fine, I suppose, but it's not an actual understanding of the situation.

Or take another example, from the Singer book I mentioned above. Singer, responding to Bushian comments about giving taxpayers back their money, puts forward the theory, common among a certain set of academics, that it's not their money; that since all pay depends on government distribution, taxation is not taking from people what they already own. Setting aside the fact that this theory is inconsistent with how almost every tax system in the world is actually set up, this is also quite clearly inconsistent with every serious account of labor's right to pay; it posits that the state has a non-obvious totality of authority in economic transactions, and it is exactly the kind of view of taxation that is consistent with a fascist view of the state. Have we actually understood the underlying situation giving rise to this view if we call it fascist? Do we really know how it will unfold? We do not. That can't be done by a classification.

Fascism, again, is not a collection of bad things; it is a policy of unified states governing 'totalitarianly'. One opposes actual fascism by supporting the rational pluralism of societies, that is, the actively and practically implemented view that human beings are members not merely of one society but of many distinct societies -- family, church, profession, civil society, humanity -- each of which has claims on them that must be respected, and none of which has the right to treat itself as the sole society; that these societies are not mere instruments of the state but that membership in these multiple societies constitutes the power and freedom of the person; that a society appropriate to a human being is one negotiating peace with these other societies, so that no one society has supremacy over everything. Human good is too vast a thing for any one society wholly to capture. The great political evil is the all-devouring maw.

We lose sight of this if we try to identify fascism by collecting specimens of corruption and failure. Anyone who knows human nature can see exactly where such an approach will lead: there will be plenty of cases of pareidolia, seeing things that aren't there due to vaguely similar shapes from one particular perspective; there will be plenty of cases of putting the fascist-color lens on the camera to make one's political opponents seem a little more fascist-like; there will be a lot of caricature-versions of fascism blended with caricature-versions of current events; and there will, of course, be lots of genuine evils that will be misclassified on the principle that if it is this or that it must be fascism. You'll get the kinds of the things you got from some Marxists in the Cold War, in which every corruption and failing of the Western powers was a sign that those powers were fascist. What will certainly not happen is that anyone will have a genuinely better understanding of the situation at large, or even, in many cases, the specimens. And what will even more certainly not happen is anything that would actually stand in the way of anything like fascism.

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