22 February 2023
In an online venue I’ve had involvement with in recent years, an essayist addressing one of the world’s more terrifying current cases of official oppression of a people group within borders wrote something that’s been a little bit under my skin since. Can we expect now, the writer asks, a response to these extraordinary state crimes in some way like the response the 1940s saw, when major powers came together to meet the threat of fascism and stopped its spread? I’m paraphrasing rather than quoting; it isn’t my aim to draw attention to the piece or fault its author (someone I know and appreciate) harshly. I begin here with reference to it because it illustrates something we’re all so used to, something so likely to be passed over as unremarkable. It’s the unremarkableness I’m going to try to attend to.
No 1940s community of nations united in high purpose to counter fascism’s 1930s surge. It didn’t happen. To say so isn’t remotely a matter of real controversy. One alone (unless you want to count short-lived Republican Spain) of the post-Great-War world’s big powers, the new Soviet imperial conglomerate state, was in even bare formal terms antifascist, and that strange mass-murdering political beast at turn of the decade was notoriously hand in hand, joined in purpose, with Europe’s leading formally fascist state, Nazi Germany — alliance Germany, not the Soviets, took initiative to undo in June 1941 more notoriously still. Only after the fact, building their war programs, did the states taking the part of Russia’s new alternate allies of necessity, concerned principally to contain a Germany gone nuts gazing on its own cartoon pressed-Prussian image in the glass, stitch together semi-coherent notional antifascistic patriotisms of parts scavenged from their labor-left opposition movements. Checking the rise of fascism was never the point, never of value in its own right, for them — that is, for us. It’s clear on any straightforward review of the basic history. Yet what the writer of the article I refer to above — a left-identifying liberal with more than sufficient education to know the basic history — says today on the 1940s Allies’ behalf, few of us in usual reading mode will pause to think twice about.
One of the things I want to see if we can’t set this in some relation to, another essay, pretty awful, stumbled on on Twitter a few months back, represents well — given, as run on Unherd, the absurd title ‘Stop Talking about American “Fascism”.’ (It had received praise from Brookings’ Shadi Hamid, if I remember right, and then been in turn on perhaps little more than that basis presented for ridicule by another follow, I don’t recall who.) Forgive me for feeding you Unherd’s clickbait. But I am here, in one respect, just to say: very improbable, fellas and gals, that cool aloofness on the subject of American fascism will be the mood to look for on this site as long as it remains up. I would wish to be talking about American fascism much more indeed than I manage to. Hardly anything that I think about doing with this site more.
A perfectly sensible reason not to talk about American fascism is that it’s as if to be nursing a headache and step accidentally into a room with raucous party going on. The noise level on fascism has always in reality of course been up, and lately it’s deafening.
For that, I don’t guess I have any relief to suggest. I want very much to think also about all this noise, rather, just as about the peculiar quietude in our habituation to retold fictions of a world risen up in my grandparents’ day to stop fascism, the world that never quite was.
The inclination I’m going to try to take as starting point is toward, in a manner of speaking, what one ought to find unthinkable: fascism ‘normalized.’ In much that’s become common in globally shared moral language of the civilizational since that catastrophe of great-powers conflict in the 1940s, it’s obviously true, an assumed principle of unthinkability, of outrageous out-of-bounds-ness, now serves to blunt fascism’s potential to regain something like the face-value acceptability beginning to be realized for it roughly a century ago. But this is a fact secondary to and at some odds with the original fact of fascism in our history, I want to say. To get to a place where fascism becomes really unapproachable on all fronts in our own ordinary social and political life, there’s undoubtedly a great deal of primary de-normalizing yet to be undergone. Our moment — a ‘moment’ that I don’t think is going to be past in my lifetime — is one of ongoing confusion in this respect, it seems to me. And yeah, to be talking, to keep stirring the constant talk, about a situation of seemingly intractable, somehow self-perpetuating confusion is tedious. This can’t be denied. Cutting the talk, on the other hand, if it were possible — responding to this tedious talk with social censures, our immature moral terms for putting fascism down inflated beyond their substance — isn’t going to do much either to bring confusion of this kind to an end. The way to the unthinkability we’ve learned more or less rightly to believe in is into and through the scene of present confusion.
Readers may recognize elements of left-specific mistrust of the liberal in my stance here. I certainly have adopted views from anarchistic and democratic-socialist sorts of sources, increasingly so in perhaps the last five or six years. There is that color in my way of placing the fascistic ideologically. A basic compatibility of the fascist with the liberal is indeed one of the subjects, or problems, I want to think out loud about.
I don’t have a left identity to speak of, though; my background’s the U.S. right. I approach the liberal idea having had to wrestle first and hardest with the terms of an altogether differently cultivated mistrust, the way of naive Reagan-adoring militant evangelicalism and (behind it) broader post-War North-Atlantic social anticommunism. My path to a somewhat more literate appreciation of the vast liberal thing, often referred to today vaguely but not unmeaningfully as tradition, has conservative religious underpinnings and proceeds more ‘post-liberally’ than leftist, considered as inner map of significant personal experiences at least.
Today then it’s just as liberal-by-default that I identify, really, though the positions I take in respect to a widening range of concerns align with those of people who’d much prefer to be regarded as left than as liberal, as in past they’ve aligned with those of people who’d prefer (internal consistency be damned) to be thought conservative. I see myself as liberal sort of the way I see myself as English-speaker. It’s not so much a question of choice. The mistrustfulness I participate in, moreover, whatever it comes to or from whatever it might arise, I can’t see anymore as alienation fundamentally. It’s just part of how I know my own varied experience of liberal-society existence, somehow.
I don’t refuse being placed on the left. Identify me that way if it works for you. It wouldn’t be wrong. But wild mischaracterization of ourselves and our history we’ve proven so prone to notwithstanding, the best way to see for what it is what I call above the original fact of fascism remains a critical liberalism, a self-critiquing acknowledged liberalism, which postures legitimate to the left can be a spur to but of themselves won’t always advance. This work liberals have to do as liberals.
Seeing fascism for what it is is what I’m interested in. This isn’t the interest of intellectual curiosity in any primary way. Fascistic renewal is for me cause for serious anxiety. We’ve done great, great harm. I’m saying it again: it isn’t just an arch-criminal set, those buried Nazis and their associates and convenient counterparts, however you enumerate them, who’ve called forth the Devil among us in the last century. And careless, unwatchful, we stand poised — all too thinkably — to do more astonishing evil yet. Climate-change pressures in particular (I’m hardly alone in recognizing) push us toward the brink.
I like, perversely, a contrary usage of ‘post-liberal’ for what I’m driving at here. I have no wish however to be lumped in with those from my own near past now eagerly, foolishly promoting stuff like knucklehead New York impresario Sohrab Ahmari’s magazine or that ruling-party-funded institute for deliverance from the wokes in Budapest. ‘Post-liberal’ has a lot of potential to open up space for discussion, I feel like. I can let it go, though.
There’s no tortured idiosyncratic definition of fascism forthcoming, but my intention is to explore further in some fashion, picking up again more concertedly, maybe, the thread I come to at times in past posts, e.g. this a few years ago. I’ve been shorthanding it ‘notes on fascism’ to myself for a while. ‘Notes on the liberal’ sort of fits too, evidently. Just don’t mistake me for types who want to blur the two things into each other, please.