As much as I admired them, I always stayed at arm’s length from German philosophers like Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer because of their efforts to create theoretical constructs or systems that could explain everything. I once wrote a major paper on how Schopenhauer had accidentally identified a force in nature best described by DNA but that actual science had rendered most of what he had to say about it a little ridiculous. He was born too soon.
I am suspicious of political ideologies that suffer from similar sins of ambition, but I’m beginning to suspect that we’re all suffering from the opposite, which is to say that we have a bunch of pieces that are clearly related in some way, and we’re not figuring out what ties them all together.
Matthew Continetti makes a step in that direction with a new piece in the Washington Free Beacon. I find it alarming that the right is further along in this than anyone on the mainstream left. I suspect it’s because they’re less debilitated by taboos and orthodoxy than we are, but it’s also because the right too easily flocks to pat answers that confirm their preexisting prejudices. It’s not that they’ve arrived at the right answer; it’s more that they’ve been willing to walk further into the hall of mirrors and look around.
Or, maybe, it’s just more urgent to explain how you’ve been hijacked than to figure out why you’ve been defeated.
There are some answers people don’t want. The fascist movement in Europe may have been a response to real failures of our political elites, and it may have enjoyed broad popular support, but after we shed so much blood and treasure to crush the movement, and after the movement manifested itself in extermination camps and unlimited warfare, few people were willing to grant it any legitimacy or to waste time holding themselves accountable for wars they did not start and atrocities they did not commit.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the political elites didn’t screw up and didn’t in some sense bring the rise of fascism on themselves.
In our current crisis, there are things that have been done which people ought to have anticipated would lead to both a right-wing nationalistic enthno-religious backlash and an erosion in popular support for Western political arrangements and institutions.
“What binds globalism and identity politics together,” says Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown, “is the judgment that national sovereignty is not the final word on how to order collective life. This judgment against national sovereignty—let us state that matter boldly—was the animating principle of the post-1989 world order, an order that is now collapsing before our eyes.” When the Cold War ended, Mitchell writes, victorious elites in Washington, London, and Brussels began constructing a world where attachments to national identity would be attenuated or even severed. One would belong to a group above the nation—be a “citizen of the world,” an employee of a multinational corporation or NGO, a partisan of Davos, a subject of the E.U.—or to a hyphenated group below it. Capital, goods, and people would flow across borders in search of the highest return. The immense power of the United States would police this new world order and enforce the responsibility of states to protect their citizens.
Part of the New World Order, particularly in Europe, was a certain ceding of sovereign political power that made it harder for citizens to hold their representatives accountable.
But there was a price. “The separation of political power from the political community,” writes editor Julius Krein, “naturally follows from this separation of ownership and control” in the global economy.
Increasingly, power is shifted away from individuals elected to represent the political community toward unelected officials qualified to hold the positions responsible for administering the government—that is, providing for consumption. Like all managers, they derive their power from the administrative expertise and credentials that qualify them for office rather than from democratic legitimacy. They are accountable, that is, not to the political community but to the other managers that define their qualifications.
We haven’t been immune to this here at home, and similar concerns (from both right and the left) animated the movement to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But we’ve also lost the ability to vote out the representatives we still elect. In fact, in two of our last five presidential elections, the popular vote loser won the contest, and our congresspeople increasing select their voters (through gerrymandering) rather than the other way around.
When the neoconservatives were busy ginning up their invasions of Afghanistan and particularly Iraq, they didn’t anticipate that it would result in a flood of Muslim asylum seekers in Europe, nor that they’d be arriving in a stagnating economic situation where austerity was being cruelly imposed by the central bankers on the southern tier nations most impacted by the refugee crisis.
We’ve had our own immigration problem, however exaggerated its threats may be. An inability to do sensible comprehensive immigration reform left us open for a populist backlash even if a smaller backlash explained our inability to act proactively.
The left tried it’s own populist uprising against lack of accountability on Wall Street for the financial collapse of 2008, but the Occupy Movement fizzled in large part because the Democrats had a president to defend and a positive agenda to pursue. That created the opening that Trump ambled into, and it explains why the populist uprising was ultimately right-wing fascist in character.
And it is fascist.
Take a look at how Continetti concludes his essay:
There are some conservatives who seem to believe that there is no such thing as the American people, only an American idea. But this gets it backward. Without the people, there would be no idea. Americans may come from all over the world, we may profess every religion, but we are bound together not just by our founding documents but by those mystic chords of memory of which Lincoln spoke, by our love of the land, its natural beauty, its inhabitants, its history, by what our people have achieved, what they have lost, what they have endured.
What’s uncomfortable is often necessary. That is the case today. Reducing illegal immigration, reforming legal immigration to prioritize skilled workers and would-be citizens, asserting national prerogatives in trade negotiations, spending on the military and defense research, “betting on ideas” rather than on social insurance, bureaucracy, and rent-seeking, saving the idea of national community through the promulgation of our shared language, literature, art, film, television, music—this is the beginning of a nationalist agenda. But only the beginning.
This language is Volkish, to put it mildly. It touches on the same mystic chords as National Socialism. It’s weak insistence that we come from all over the world is undermined by it’s uncritical endorsement of mass deportation and limits on the wrong kind of legal immigration. This shows who the real American people are and to whom the land and history belongs.
There is the opposition to “communist” ideals of basic economic justice, characterized derogatorily as “social insurance” and “rent-seeking.” Independent art is defunded and put in the service of a “national community” and a “nationalist agenda.” There is, of course, a massive increase in defense spending and a general arms buildup. Meanwhile, Europe is coerced into doing the same under the pretext of paying their fair share.
So far, a good part of the left’s response to this is to blame our institutions for failing without, at the same time, insisting that what we have deserves defense against this alternative.
At the extremes, you see a defense of Putin. He was put-upon by NATO expansion. His interference in Ukraine was purely defensive in nature. Our country has interfered in elections, too. Or the European Union is so flawed why not have Brexit? Why not rip it to shreds? Fuck the German bankers; they deserve their comeuppance.
What you don’t see enough is a recognition that Putin is leading a transnational ethno-religious movement against the West. And this is an attack on the pearl of postwar progressive achievement, which is a Europe where nationalism and militarism is tamped down and human rights and social justice are emphasized.
A commenter recently asked me what I feared from Putin. Did I expect Putin to take over our nuclear triad and take it out for a spin?
He asked this in all sincerity as if Putin hadn’t just intervened to elect a downright moron as our president. And as if that moron weren’t saying that the West is morally equivalent to Putin’s Russia. As if he wasn’t encouraging Brexit and the breakup of the European Union. As if he weren’t saying that NATO is obsolete. As if he hadn’t recommended abandoning our allies in Syria to Putin’s mercies. And as if Russia were not working overtime to help elect more right-wing ethno-religious leaders in Europe.
There’s a place for self-loathing criticism, especially if it can productively help counteract this fascist movement while there is still some time and some hope. Personally, I think it’s too late for pointing fingers at each other. The left is too weak to engage in a lot of recrimination. Our mosques are already burning and our Jewish centers are already under attack. In Europe, Merkel may soon be out and LePen in.
This is the context I see, and it’s why I find efforts to defend Russia and call this all some kind of second phase McCarthyism so misguided. It reminds me more of the folks who defended Stalin until it was no longer possible in good conscience to do so.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t take the speck out of our own eyes before we criticize others. We have to understand what we did wrong that made this virulent political pathogen so deadly. But that doesn’t legitimize the pathogen or make it any less necessary that we rise to defeat it.
So, one way to go at this is to continue to highlight the appalling historic parallels. But, another is to recognize that there is a common theme running through all of this, and it’s largely about a lack of political accountability for our elites. I wrote recently that the left is protesting calmly and peacefully for now, but may not remain so docile once they realize how nearly impossible it will be to take power away from the Senate or House Republicans regardless of what they do. But, really, the riot has already started.
For Continetti, the answer is Trumpism and Putinism, even if he’d never agree that that is what he’s arguing. But that absolutely cannot be the answer.