Monday, November 7, 2005
David Neiwert on pseudo fascism.
As I've been thinking about my own resistance to Davidson Loehr's argument that we Americans are living under a fascist regime, I've spent some time reading and rereading David Neiwert, whose arguments I find more compelling. Neiwert is a journalist and expert on the militia movements in the Pacific Northwest, where neo-fascism has definitely been on display. In October 2004 he wrote a series of essays on the emergence of fascist themes in mainstream conservative rhetoric. (You can find all seven in the left-hand sidebar on his site.) In February 2005 he revised these into one long essay entitled "The Rise of Pseudo-Fascism" [pdf].
A few distinctions between Loehr and Neiwert's approaches:
Loehr relies on an overly general, 14-point taxonomy of fascism by Lawrence Britt. Neiwert draws instead on Robert Paxton's book The Anatomy of Fascism, which describes nine features of the political psychology of fascism. (Neiwert outlines Paxton's nine characteristics in part 6 of his 2004 essay series.) Neiwert concludes that:
All told, of the nine "passions," the presence [in the conservative movement since 2000] of five of them is strong and clear, and in the case of two of these there are not even any mitigating factors. In two instances, the presence is mixed and mitigated somewhat, and in two others the similarity is not particularly strong.
In other words, although several key elements of historical fascism can be found in contemporary U.S. conservatism, the differences are important, too. Conservatives are playing with fire, to be sure, but we aren't — as Loehr would say — "living under fascism." Niewert is also explicit about the fact that he is describing a style of politics that has become prominent on the right recently; he is not describing "conservatism" in general — which is how Loehr can be read.
In "The Rise of Pseudo Fascism," Niewert observes that the way conservatives have gone about cultivating political power has made their movement susceptible to several profoundly illiberal impulses:
It was almost as though the "conservative movement," in its final drive to not merely obtain power but to cement it permanently, transformed itself into a simulacrum, or a hologram, of fascism: structurally almost identical, particularly in the kind of appeal it presented as a perverse form of populism, but lacking in the genuinely black core of violence and seething hatred that is, in the end, what makes fascism fascism.
It was a decidedly new phenomenon related to fascism, which meant that there needed to be a term to describe it: something that looks and talks and sounds like fascism, even when it is decidedly not fascism. I had [a] long evening conversations and a few e-mail discussions with friends who have been following this train of thought with me, and we turned over many ways of describing the phenomenon: - proto-fascism? (nah; already in use to describe genuinely fascist but decidedly germinative movements) - quasi-fascism? (not quite, but close); - happy-face fascism? - friendly fascism? - postmodern fascism? Para-fascism came close, but it didn't quite express clearly enough the sense that this was not genuine fascism.
I finally settled on "pseudo fascism," because I thought it both made clear both the resemblance to fascism and the lack of genuineness to it. Even, then it's a flawed way of putting it, since it implies an intent to deceive, a covering up of an intended purpose.
Niewert is suggesting that the conservative movement has in many ways unwittingly stumbled onto a species of fascism. This is an important observation not simply because many people who sound (to jittery lefties) like fascists would be astonished that anyone could think that about their politics, but especially because a revitalized liberalism in the U.S. can't be built simply by aggravating the paranoia of an embattled left. We actually must demonstrate to non-ideological Americans that much that they hold dear depends on the foundation of a liberal society.
Analytically, it's important to keep in mind that fascism has always been a right-wing phenomenon — a conservative form of totalitarianism — no matter what sophistry Anne Coulter and Jonah Goldberg cook up. And it's important to be able to recognize where such political impulses are being activated or cultivated in the United States. Hence Neiwert's analytic term "pseudo fascism." But politically and culturally, the word is too incendiary; it can't seem to function persuasively unless you're already predisposed to see deliberate evil in your political adversaries.
What we need, I think, is persuasive ways to talk about the corruption and cynicism and fear-mongering of parts of the conservative movement that don't veer off into apocalyptic categories. Others are doing a bang-up job of encouraging the left to develop Rovean strategies, but I'm not willing to join that parade.
Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 7 November 2005 at 8:03 AM