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The Hard Road to Fascism

Today’s antiliberal revolt looks a lot like 1920s Europe.

Abbott Gleason

8 The United States is at a turning point in its history. Some intellectuals and journalists have compared the destruction of Saddam Hussein with the fall of the Berlin Wall or even the collapse of the Soviet Union. Others—looking to the origins of the Cold War rather than its end—have compared the momentous political and economic changes now underway with the period between 1946 and 1948, when the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union broke down.

But current changes seem deeper, more far-reaching, and at the same time less conclusive than either of these analogies suggests. American power today dominates the world in quite a different way than it did even at the end of the Second World War, when the United States and its European allies faced a powerful and implacable enemy across an increasingly polarized Europe and elsewhere around the globe. At the same time, the American Leviathan is only at the beginning of its crusade—the word seems well chosen—to democratize the world and ensure its harmony with American interests.

A more apt (and troubling) comparison is with the 1920s, when an earlier liberal order collapsed and was replaced by imperial and mega-state regimes.

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Traditional conservatives have persistently criticized modern liberalism for its alleged “softness.” After the First World War right-wing German and Italian critics abused the governments of Weimar Germany and pre-Mussolini Italy for their commitment to social welfare, which their critics linked to an unwillingness to use force in international relations. To use Robert Kagan’s expression, the Weimar Republic could only do the dishes, not prepare the feast.

German and Italian critics of liberalism—writers such as Ernst Jünger and Giovanni Gentile—longed for the military spirit that allegedly typified the “front-fighter” generation that had lived through the horrors of trench warfare during World War I. The experience of war, they said, could redeem the anti-national Weimar Republic and the spineless decadence of Italian liberalism by reintroducing them to the necessity of using force—which would mean a much more ready resort to military power and a reorientation of government to promote its use. Both men and nations could thereby reestablish their virility.

Extreme right-wing theoreticians—for example, German jurist and political philosopher Carl Schmitt—believed that the European states in general had to choose between defending the interests of their national communities—at the end of the day by force—and sustaining a debilitating commitment to popular welfare, which more and more absorbed the energies of a weak-kneed liberalism that precariously clung to power in many European states. Schmitt believed that the state existed exclusively to oppose the enemies of the national community and ensure domestic order. Politics, he famously said, is founded on the friend-enemy polarity. Liberals had embarked on a fruitless crusade to escape inevitable political conflict within their societies by expanding the welfare function of the modern state to appease the demands of the masses, and thereby weakening its “executive function.”

The proximate causes of this revulsion against liberalism in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere are not far to seek. And the underlying anti-liberal logic was more cultural than political-economic. After defeat in World War I neither Germany nor Italy was able to advance its interests effectively in Europe. The Italians were widely regarded as pathetic soldiers. “The Italians,” Bismarck said, “have such large appetites and such poor teeth.” Giovanni Gentile, subsequently a Fascist minister for Mussolini, lamented the dolce far niente (“sweet do nothing”) that he found characterized the Italians as a nation. As for the Germans, they had of course lost the war, but they were encouraged to believe that their armies and fighting men had not been defeated on the battlefield but had been betrayed by an unpatriotic cabal of Jews, Francophiles, liberals, and socialists.

So for these men and like-minded others, there was a necessary connection between reviving militarism and imperialism and curtailing the state’s commitment to popular welfare. Only a new political elite—battle-hardened, ruthless, and devoted to authoritarian government—could achieve the reforms needed to restore these states to the ranks of the European powerful. The new governments would not be parliamentary: talk shops never get anything done. In Italy the Fascist elite developed an imperial ideology focusing on Rome; in Germany, too, there was an imperial element—the “Thousand Year Empire”—although we correctly understand the racism of the National Socialists to have been their most memorable contribution to the horrors of the 20th century.

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Mutatis mutandis, we find a similar cultural bond between the Bush administration’s imperial foreign policy and its tax cuts, which not only benefit America’s richest people and institutions but are deliberately aimed at starving the welfare state. The United States has achieved its overwhelming military power at the same time and in close connection with a revolt against liberalism, which is arguably as deep as the one that reached its climax with the establishment of the totalitarian regimes of the 1920s and 1930s. Local crises are emerging at the state level all across the United States. Educational institutions are being starved; benefits to the poor are being cut; the proportion of Americans living in poverty is up, as is inequality; crises in Medicare and Social Security loom. And these results are a product of deliberate policy, promoted through a program of deep tax cuts which promise to erode the financial capacity of the state to undertake any but the most minimal welfare functions.

There are still other parallels with the past. The earlier anti-liberal revolt was marked by an attack on cultural decadence and a demand for a return to religion and order. Culture, according to conservative critics, was becoming trash, and the mess had to be cleaned up, by resolute means. In Italy and Germany, and in a different way in the Soviet Union, far more authoritarian or “totalitarian” government came to prevail as state power swelled. In other nations as well, constitutional guarantees were abolished or weakened: authoritarian and traditionalist governments came to power in Spain, Portugal, Poland, Hungary, and Austria, and a quasi-Fascist government formed in Rumania. Liberals were seen as weak-kneed wimps, unwilling to use force internationally and preoccupied with social welfare internally; local patriotisms prevailed everywhere. Eventually, except on the Iberian peninsula, the “totalitarian nations” took over the indecisive authoritarian disciples they had spawned.

Intellectual isolation was also important. In Germany and Italy, competing intellectual points of view were crowded out, just as had occurred earlier—and even more decisively—in the Soviet Union. Foreign opinion and foreign nations were demonized for being run by the wrong classes, religions, races, or politicians.

Of course, there are differences between the past and present anti-liberal revolts. In the Soviet Union private business was demonized and expropriated; in Germany and Italy it was at least thoroughly dominated by the political elite. By contrast, in the current revolt, embodied by the United States, business is an intimate partner of government, at times seeming almost indistinguishable from it. When Iraq is rebuilt, it appears that most of the contracts will go to such companies as Bechtel and Halliburton, with major ties to Vice President Cheney and other administration figures. The military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us against almost half a century ago is attaining its maturity.

It has been too little noticed what an about-face the Bush administration has made since 9/11. From an indecisive tendency toward isolation and proposals of Rube Goldberg–style schemes for missile defense, the imperial drive for global dominance has within some few months become the all-but-officially proclaimed doctrine of the administration, though it has been more than a decade in the planning. These apparent contrasts between isolation and empire have one important thing in common: It’s all or nothing, but either way we make our own rules.

Historically, people often do not notice the most important social changes because they are part of the everyday reality that is usually not viewed as being historically significant. Events of great moment are much easier to determine retrospectively. But we should make no mistake: nothing comparable to current cultural and political developments has happened since the world of the 20th century took shape in the period following World War I, the end of the long 19th century. <

Abbott Gleason is professor of history at Brown University and author of Totalitarianism (Oxford University Press, 1995).

Originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Boston Review

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