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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

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Clyde Grubbs:

November 7, 2005 09:00 AM | Permalink for this comment

The anti fascist Left of the 1930s defined fascism as an open terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary elements of corporate capitialism. The suppression of the labor movement was done with police and thugs. The rounding up of political opponents was done without the courts.

A right wing Parliamentary democracy was, (and is) possible in which goals are accomplished though parliament, and with the approval of courts.

Why is it important to make the distinction? The form of struggle against fascism necessarily involves extra parliamentary means (armed resistance, mass strikes by underground unions, massive non violent resistance ala Denmark.) The form of struggle against a right wing parliamentary regime involves an opposition party that has a broad program.

To call this fascism will derail the work that progressives must do, I witnessed folks going off into ultra left fantasies in the late 60s and early 70s. It only isolated what was a broad progressive coalition and contributed to the present situation.

Loehr's analysis isn't simply "interesting" but mistaken, if it leads to a problematic struggle orientation, its misleading.

Clyde Grubbs:

November 7, 2005 12:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

I should have said "outlaw" police and thugs....

fascism suspends civil liberties wholesale....we can find plenty of examples in an ordinary class based racially divided democratic republic of police being used legally and semi legally to repress labor and cultural/racial oppressed peoples but the cover of law is maintained.

Bill Baar:

November 7, 2005 05:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

We have to debate who's a fascist here in the US, but in Europe the fascists proudly wear the label still. Sadly, in another repeat of Nazi Communist pact of 1939, the peace movement and far right are making common cause. Read Harry's place on the George Galloway's Red Brown coalition.

Kevin McCulloch:

November 7, 2005 07:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

First, if you want to read an illuminating, even-handed and not-paranoid analysis of the right wing in America, I recommend The Right Nation by Adrian Woodridge and John Micklethwaite, two U.S. editors of The Economist. Being British and, therefore, outside the whole debate, they write with a great deal of objectivity and an awareness of the deep differences between American conservatism and the European variety that actually led to fascism. One of their most relevant points is that America is virtually alone among modern industrial nations in never having had a totalitarian government of either the right or the left. There are deep reasons for this in which we should all take comfort.

Second, David Neiwart's essay is more subtle than Davidson Loehr's writings but just as flawed. His essential mistake is to treat the "conservative movement" as a monolith. It is in fact a fragile coalition of unlikely allies (chiefly libertarians and social conservatives) that Karl Rove and other activists have held together with spit and glue. It is already showing cracks and will be quite vulnerable to wedge issue politics should the Democrats ever get their act together. By drawing indiscriminately from different voices on the right to illustrate his themes he creates the impression of a sinister conspiracy where the truth is far more complicated. His rhetorical style alone ("conservatives say this," "conservatives do that") should be enough to give any thinking person pause.

Third, and most importantly, your observation that "many people who sound (to jittery lefties) like fascists would be astonished that anyone could think that about their politics" cuts both ways. Few on the left seem to realize or care that many of the largest protests against the Iraq war were organized by International A.N.S.W.E.R., an outgrowth of the Workers' World Party which is itself an avowedly Stalinist organization that broke with the Socialist Workers Party to support the Soviet Union's 1956 invasion of Hungary. I nearly fell off my chair when I first learned this on the eve of the war, and I cannot begin to describe how upset it makes me to this day.

A.N.S.W.E.R. styles itself as an "anti-imperialist" organization, but marching with Stalinists against imperialism is like marching with Klansmen for civil rights: it's a moral obscenity. I was deeply opposed to the Iraq war for the same reasons as the rest of my UU friends, but for the exact same reasons I could not march with A.N.S.W.E.R. You do not fight evil by aligning yourself with a categorically greater evil, yet that is exactly what the anti-war movement has done. (How many of you good people are "astonished" that I could think this of your politics?)

This is why liberals' use of the word "fascist" drives me absolutely bananas. You guys see fascists under every bush, and yet you countenance avowed Stalinists!!?? What on Earth is wrong with you? I am far angrier with the left over its stance toward the war than I am with the right. Never having considered myself a conservative, I've never left my right flank exposed to the feelings of abandonment and betrayal that I now feel toward the left. (I'm quite serious: my thorough disgust over this has taken a terrible toll on my friendships, my comfort among other UUs, and my sense of self.) All I can say -- regrettably, pleadingly -- is that those of you who marched with A.N.S.W.E.R. need to take a long, hard look at yourselves. If you're so deeply incapable of telling right from wrong, what else are you wrong about?

Dudley Jones:

November 7, 2005 08:02 PM | Permalink for this comment


UUs have no enemies on the left - just get used to it and move on. It is painful for me to accept that, but the UU movement has so many wonderful other features that I put up with it.


November 7, 2005 10:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

Amen to everything Kevin said. Back during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, I criticized liberals who looked the other way about International ANSWER here (1.17.03), here (1.23.03), here (2.11.03), and more indirectly here (3.29.03).

I'd disagree with Dudley: Religious liberals most definitely have "enemies to the left." (I'd say this is true both theologically/philosophically and politically, in forms of antireligious secularism, reductive scientism, and antidemocratic and antihumanist totalitarianism, but in most cases the real issues are cultural and don't take such strongly ideological forms.)

We may feel too small to pick fights; we may believe that the number of ideologues to our left is even smaller and even less likely to effect any real change; we may be overly polite; we may think that we can only draw new members from the political left and may fear the center. But mostly we've tended to duck and hope that nobody takes us seriously enough to care who we're allied with.

And then there's the fact that "enemy" is always a scary word when it's applied to "people like us" -- but if religious liberals wonder why people like Kevin and me have broken with certain aspects of the political left, consider how indulgently many liberals tolerate or look the other way or quietly agree with outrageous statements and causes in our churches and larger religious movement. Why do we do this? How do we believe it's helping to strengthen liberal religion?

Tom Stites:

November 8, 2005 08:23 AM | Permalink for this comment

This is a fascinating string. Having read it, I am drawn even more tightly to Charles Derber's well articulated concern that our nation's right is headed toward what he calls "Fascism Lite" -- fascist-like policies carried out by government acting behind the scrim of democratic processes. Derber explores this in his new book "Hidden Power: What You Need to Know to Save Our Democracy."


November 8, 2005 10:15 AM | Permalink for this comment

Here, by the way, is Tom's review of Derber's book and Loehr's collection. And here is Charles Derber's November 2 blog entry at his publisher's blog entitled "Emergency Powers, the Corporate Agenda, and Neofascism."

Davidson Loehr:

November 8, 2005 04:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

I want to offer just a couple comments, on David Neiwert's take on this, and definition of terms. The fact that we're both convinced that the word "fascism" belongs in the discussion is more important, I think, than how we parse it. I disagree strongly, however, that it is "violence and seething hatred" that are the core here -- though they are increasingly present.

And as for the right adjective, I'd suggest we're in American Fascism. Not pseudo, not lite, etc. Each culture's style is different. The core of our fascism is plutocracy, combined with imperialism and the consequent need for a command-and-control government that weakens unions and government regulations of big profit-seekers. This wasn't the core of Germany's form of fascism. I think it's pretty clear that our style of government has become one in which big business and the very rich buy/influence the laws, judges, politicians who write the laws and spin the media to divert ever more money, power and possibility to them, and away from the earners: from the bottom 95% or so to the top 1% or less. The command-and-control style is needed because most people won't keep working harder to get less to reward ever fewer people if they have choices and effective voices. The imperialism comes from several motives -- some just want America to rule the world. But the motive that overlaps with the plutocracy is the need for more markets to milk and the control of essential resources and ever-cheaper labor.

And fundamentalism is such an easy ally for these agendas -- witness the Christian Coalition saying that rich people shouldn't be taxed, for one of many examples.

Perhaps there were clever plans to link the three forces we now see: plutocracy, imperialism and fundamentalism. Perhaps they largely came about at the same time through part planning and part coincidence. Either way, they have formed a kind of "perfect storm" that has ended the experiment with democracy. For me, it's unwise to get very distracted with precisely what to call it. It's far more important to call it wrong, call it dangerous, and gather the visions, words, courage and political/social avenues to call it to a halt.

Kevin McCulloch:

November 8, 2005 04:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

Wait... our nation's 200+ year experiment with democracy is over? Jeez, Davidson, I wish you'd told me before I wasted time voting this morning!

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