Sunday, February 15, 2009

Enemies and friends

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'
Alice Through The Looking Glass

Or, to put it another way:
Let's make no mistake, that is what the word 'totalitarianism' should describe...
Peter Ryley

This is a review of a review by Peter Ryley of a review by Nick Cohen of Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism. It's also a belated addition to the debate I had last year with Peter on the meaning of the word 'totalitarian'.

Peter criticises Cohen for giving "qualified praise to a book that was written to oppose everything he has ever stood for". That's a strange and revealing criticism. The book is bad not because its arguments are flawed, but because it contradicts a previously held position. The first casualty of political partisanship is the ability to consider arguments on their merits; this is not a partisan point, conservatives and libertarians are just as guilty of this as socialists.

That he has not read the book does not prevent him from characterising it as "an attempt to justify a conservative ideological position by the use of some dubious, anachronistic history". This is justified in terms of context:
the theme of a close relationship between fascism and socialism is a familiar one, especially if you have any knowledge of right libertarian thinking. This discourse, in its modern form, originates from Hayek's assumption that state planning and collectivism are steps on the road to totalitarianism. However, some of the literature extends this further and suggests that social democracy is in itself totalitarian. I have engaged in debates before on what I see as the over-extension of the term here and here.
Hayek in fact argued that collectivism is totalitarian, not that it tends towards it:
The various kinds of collectivism, communism, fascism, etc, differ between themselves... But they all differ from liberalism and individualism in wanting to organise the whole of society and all its resources for this unitary end, and in refusing to recognise autonomous spheres in which the ends of the individual are supreme. In short, they are totalitarian in the true sense of this new word which we have adopted to describe the unexpected but nevertheless inseparable manifestations of what in theory we call collectivism.
(The Road to Serfdom)
That Peter resists this definition does not mean Hayek did not suggest it.There are great problems with another definition, in this debate, that of the word 'liberal'. When Peter wrote:
I would always approach a book that links two mutually contradictory terms, such as liberal and fascism, with extreme suspicion. Liberalism is not fascism and fascists are not liberals.
He was using the word in a way that is not incompatible with a definition given last month, during a speech in Oxford, by Samuel Brittan:
A liberal is someone who attaches special value to personal freedom, just as a socialist or social democrat does to equality and a conservative does to authority.
But this is not what Goldberg means by 'liberal'; he means socialist or social democrat. Goldberg is, of course, suggesting that socialism and fascism are linked. Peter acknowledges that they are:
There is a perfectly respectable school of thought that sees fascism emerging from the early socialist movement and even, at a stretch, being a malign form of socialism. This position can be maintained in that fascism shares a statist, anti-capitalist, collectivism with some parts of the socialist movement.

However, common roots do not make a common ideology.
Hayek would have agreed with that last sentence - see the quotation above: "The various kinds of collectivism, communism, fascism, etc, differ between themselves". If we are able to lay to one side political tribalism (rather as Cohen did in his review) we can see there is far less disagreement than might seem to be the case at first sight. But it will not get lain to one side by Peter. He considers the claim that Woodrow Wilson used the First World War as an excuse to impose:
a militarised state... arrest dissidents, close newspapers and recruit tens of thousands of neighbourhood spies. Wilson began the overlap between progressive and fascistic politics, which continued for the rest of the 20th century.
And seems to think it is sufficient rebuttal merely to say that "this is a persistent trope amongst American conservatives".

Then he goes entirely off the rails. Cohen had written:
It is undeniable that the best way to have avoided complicity in the horrors of the last century would have been to have adopted the politics of Jonah Goldberg. Much can be said against moderate conservatives, but it has to be admitted that their wariness of grand designs and their willingness to place limits on the over-mighty state give them a clean record others cannot share.
The rebuttal of this runs as follows:
Actually, most of the horrors of the last century could have been avoided if almost anyone else had been in power other than Hitler and Stalin.
The idea that history is determined by the characteristics of individuals is absurdly simplistic; it is the nursery school "Kings and battles" view of history. The twentieth century is more reasonably viewed as the aftermath of the First World War, the unravelling of the world as it had been during roughly the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries: the collapse of empires and challenges to rigid social and sexual demarcation.
However, in history we can't deal with ifs. Hitler came to power and it actually was conservatives of Goldberg's stamp who formed the governments of the Western democracies and who had to deal with him. What did they come up with? Isolationism and appeasement. Neither can be described as a howling success.
Goldberg, a supporter of military intervention overseas, is neither an appeaser nor an isolationist. More importantly, it was not conservatives of any stamp that came to power in Germany, it was those (not just Hitler) whose ideology forms part of the many-branched river of socialism. It was not conservatives who took power in Russia and China. That's the fundamental here. To argue that the failings of opposition to horror are worse than the failings of those who produced the horror is just bizarre. Yet even these criticisms of conservative opposition to socialism are unbalanced. Isolationism is a conservative fault, but not exclusively so. Appeasement was embraced by all sides of the political divide.
What about more recently? The colossal failings in former Yugoslavia was one of theirs, as was the decision to allow Saddam to stay in power and murderously crush the risings against him after the first Gulf War. They are also the ones who would leave the Afghans in the hands of the Taliban.
There was significant support for Serbia and opposition to intervention on the left, a legacy of Yugoslavia's communist past. Conservatives were also at fault, but to blame them entirely is partisan to the point of absurdity. Saddam was left in power after the first Gulf War because some members of the coalition, especially the Gulf States, vetoed what would have boiled down to an American invasion of an Arab country. The "anti-war" movement is overwhelmingly of the hard left. They would leave the Taliban in power, in fact some of them have actually allied with Taliban-like clerical fascists, and their intellectual justification derives from the hard-left rationalisations of cultural relativists. Isolationist conservatives would also leave the Afghans to their fate. Both are at fault, but the heavy lifting has been carried out by the left, not the right.
Nick, they have produced the journalism of Simon Jenkins.
Not journalism! Not someone earnestly writing things with which Peter disagrees! The horror of that certainly ranks alongside that of the schoolgirl-beheading Taliban.

It just continues in this vein. Conservatives had nothing to do with the defeat of fascism. Post War democracy has had nothing to do with conservatives:
Let's get the relationship between social democracy and fascism right. It didn't borrow from it, it defeated it. It defeated it militarily, economically, socially and morally. Fascism only re-emerges where social democracy is diminished. Social democracy is the success story of the 20th Century. Nick, comrade, we do not need "a plea of mitigation" for "the undoubted crimes of the left". We need to celebrate the success of the democratic left in reconstructing the post-war world and to resist the dismantling of its achievements.
There is absolutely no attempt to justify any of these assertions. Fascism is resurgent in Britain today, from the BNP's disturbing electoral improvements to the Let's Have Another Holocaust demonstrators on the streets of London. This is true after more than a decade of social democratic government. It's less true of the USA, after a long run of conservative government. Personally, I think the contemporary rise of fascism has little to do with either conservatism or social democracy, and it is opposed by an odd coalition drawn from both schools of thought. I think Peter Ryley and I, along with Nick Cohen and Jonah Goldberg, all stand on the same side of this divide. Tribalism of the kind displayed by Peter in his post can only undermine this coalition.

He said something similar in a post about totalitarianism:
If we were ever faced by an existential threat from a totalitarian state waging total war against our imperfect democracy, I think that Peter [Risdon], Harry [Barnes] and myself might find ourselves puffing and panting away in the Home Guard, 'doing our bit', however futile. We would be comrades because we would understand the threat posed to our fragile liberties and the horror that would be unleashed by defeat. I don't think then we would be calling each other totalitarians. We would be facing the real thing.
But, as I was trying very hard to explain, I wasn't name-calling when I wrote about totalitarianism. I was making the point that any and every political idea that claims sovereignty over the totality of citizens is totalitarian, even if it means well, even if it wants to use those powers to reduce oppression and improve equality. Totalitarianism isn't a measure of niceness; you don't have to be a totalitarian to torture, murder or invade. What's more, as I argued some time ago, even those who do murder, torture and invade are well-meaning, that is they do not consider themselves to be monsters and feel driven by greater moral imperatives.

In his recent Oxford speech, Samuel Brittan made a similar argument:
The substantive point is that if I cannot afford to fly to Greece, it is one sort of evil; and if my Government forbids me to travel there irrespective of whether I can afford to or not, it is another sort of evil. That is an act of coercion. Indeed one way of distinguishing between a liberal and a social democrat is that the liberal accepts the force of this distinction.
Socialism and social democracy are totalitarian. They are related to fascism. Jonah Goldberg drew out the links. As Nick Cohen put it:
[Woodrow] Wilson began the overlap between progressive and fascistic politics, which continued for the rest of the 20th century. Avant-garde Nazi philosophers - Heidegger, Paul de Man, Carl Schmitt - are venerated by nominal leftists in the postmodern universities, who love their contempt for traditional morality and standards of truth. Nazism was the first example of modern identity politics. All that mattered was whether you were German, Slav or Jew.

Beginning with the Black Panthers, multiculturalism has also placed racial and religious identity above all else and beyond the reach of rational argument. Fascism was a pagan movement, whose mystic tropes are repeated by new age healers, vegetarians and greens.
Peter made no attempt to address any of these arguments. Cohen also points out where he thinks Goldberg goes too far, or is otherwise unconvincing:
By the end, I began to weary not of his argument, but of his habit of protesting too much. Repeatedly he insists that he does not want to allege that, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s admittedly sinister desire for the state to take the place of the family makes her a totalitarian, merely that her ideas come from the totalitarian movement.

But he clearly does want to be able to accuse the Clintons of fascism and his disavowals lack conviction. Like the leftists who abuse him, he is in danger of shouting “fascist” so often that he will miss the real thing when it appears. And miss, too, the better side of his enemies. I dug out George Clooney’s full quote - which Goldberg doesn’t give - and discovered that the reason he thought that liberals had been on “the right side” was that they had “thought that blacks should be allowed to sit at the front of the bus and women should be able to vote, McCarthy was wrong, Vietnam was a mistake”. For all the undoubted crimes of the left, is that not at least a plea of mitigation?
Clooney there was using 'liberal' in its classical form, not as a synonym for socialism. Martin Luther King was a Republican; women's suffrage was a triumph, in the English speaking world, for the Women's Christian Temperance movement, which was not a hotbed of socialism. In fact, it wasn't especially liberal either. It's hard to find consistent patterns, and that's because conservatism and socialism are broad churches that include both liberal and illiberal strands.

Cohen wrote a balanced appraisal of a book that seems to have strayed sometimes into overstatement while making what is a fundamentally accurate case. Ryley simply protested that this was disloyal to the socialist movement. But tribalism is a debased and harmful type of loyalty.


Anonymous said...

I think that old Sam is wrong here: " a conservative [attaches special value] to authority".
It ain't, at least in Britain, "authority"; it's "traditions" or "habits" or "customs". That's why I've met quite a few liberals who called themselves Conservatives - the British traditions that they wished to conserve included liberal ones. Whereas damn few of my leftie acquaintances have much that's liberal about them - their argument against authority is just that it isn't them who's exercising it. Since I'd have said just the same thing a dozen years ago, you can treat the New Labour years as a test of my account. Triumphantly vindicated, I'd say.

Anonymous said...

P.S. that means that very different sorts of outlook could characterise "conservatives" in different cultures. Not so for "liberals", but of course there tend to be gey few of them in cultures without a British (or Dutch?) template; eh, mes amis?

Peter Risdon said...

I stubbed my toe on "authority" too. Having said that, tradition, customs, habits can be seen as forms of authority.

Unknown said...

"Clooney there was using 'liberal' in its classical form"

I doubt Clooney knows the classical definition, because it has not been the working definition here since the socialists began calling themselves and their programs "liberal" before WW2. He was merely spouting another talking point that is false, that "liberals" supported the civil rights movement, and conservatives opposed it.

Peter Risdon said...

Yes, that's true. I phrased it clumsily.

bob said...

I think that some of the other Peter's analogies are spurious, but I think some of yours are too. Martin Luther King a Republican? Maybe, but he moved closer and closer to socialism through his life (see, e.g. this passage).

And, surely, there have been at least as many blurry spaces between conservatism and fascism as between fascism and liberalism. (Springing to mind are Enoch Powell and the Monday Club on this side of the pond, and on t'other Pat Buchanan and the whole paleo-libertarian scene.) Surely, just as those blurry spaces don't define conservatism, the blurry spaces Jonah G delves into don't define liberalism.

More to come on this!