I just checked out Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism from the library again–every now and then I’ll pick it up and read whatever chapter or two grab my interest at the time.
One theme in the introduction is that “fascism” is difficult to define, and a simple, universally recognized definition doesn’t exist. He puts together a usable understanding, but I noticed something about each of the eras and events he discussed that might lead us to see a clear sign of fascism: it always implies force.
Although this is not a complete picture of fascism, I think the presence of coercion is a major trait that must be recognized to spot and prevent it. Fascism, then, is not necessarily a political ideology (although, as in the case of Italy’s Mussolini, especially, it can be) so much as it is a means of promoting an ideology.
On the left, fascism, seen in this way, classically manifests itself in communist governments: the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, North Korea, etc. The use of (indeed, reverence for) centralized, collectivized, government control is a key danger of a leftist government run amok.
The biggest myth about fascism (and Goldberg spends a great deal of time analyzing this one) is that it’s also a feature of an extreme, hard right government. Actually, the logical warping of conservatism wouldn’t be fascism, it would be anarchy; fascism of the right would be less common, particularly in the west, not because it is inherently more virtuous, but because an emphasis on limited government would naturally have the effect of decreasing the opportunities for and acceptance of fascist tactics. However, that is not to say that it doesn’t exist. The best examples of conservative fascism that I can think of are all theocracies: Iran, ancient Egypt, Puritan New England, etc. The reverence for tradition and order can be so elevated that it becomes primary even over freedom itself.
So what’s the warning here for America? Are we in danger of socialist-dictator fascism or theocratic fascism? I suppose the potential for both exists, though one silver lining of a country so polarized down the middle is that neither half would let the other get that out of control.
One observation, though, about a hybrid danger we might term “liberal theocratic fascism:” when religion enters the debate, it’s common to hear the left say that Christianity espouses charity and the machinery of government simply puts that into effect (I heard this yet again from a self-identified liberal caller on Sean Hannity two days ago), while the right would counter that such values should remain the domain of private citizenry and enterprise.
The right would say that none of the counsels about charity in the Bible specifically apply to civil government. The left would say that they don’t necessarily not apply to civil government. The proper applications of Jesus’s teachings are not delineated in detail. To this point, both sides have a valid argument.
However, there’s something disconcerting about the left’s stance here: usually, the left in America makes a big deal about separation of church and state, especially when combating the values-driven voting patterns of conservatives, but when arguing for their social welfare agenda, they become the would-be paragons of Christian virtue in action. The very concept of legislating charity should be creepy enough to give anyone pause, and at the very least seems to be a convenient double standard for the part-time Christian, part-time militantly secular left. When the argument is made so often that the social welfare safety net (including, now, universal health care) is a manifestation of Christian charity, how can the left not see that this, at least in embryo, is the beginning of a liberal theocracy, enforcing certain sectarian values by government fiat?
The left might say here that their mandates to build such social infrastructures are given by the voters who put them in office; thus, there is no such fascistic force in play. However, the danger of abusing civil power is always present, and the left should carefully keep themselves in check so as not to fall victim to it. After all, Hitler and Mussolini themselves also started out as more or less democratically elected leaders, who then became civil saviors to their people, and from there it’s a short step to fascism.
This interpretation of fascism is very idiosyncratic, I know, and hardly holds up as a holistic insight into it, but the lessons it provides as we see an increasing tolerance of rhetoric, propaganda, excessive legislative force, and, most disturbingly, physical coercion, should send up tell-tale red flags for us all.