Friday, August 19, 2005

Are you a Fascist?

Are you a fascist?

Well, obviously not. Fascists are bad, like Mussilini and Franco and Hitler. If you're not like them, then you're not a fascist. Or...?

We most of us go by the automatic assumption that fascism is a bad thing, and that fascists are bad people. A look through the archives here will show that that isn't necessarily true. Fascism has some positive aspects, totally so for many if not most people on Earth throughout most of history, including today. So, before we claim we are not fascists let's take a short peek at at least a little bit of what fascism is.

Below are excerpts from a book review on postmodernism as fascism. Rather than read a book you can look at the review. Or in this case, part of a review. It's better than nothing if this sort of thing interests you.

25 October 2004

Are post modernists fascists?

George Crowder, Flinders University

Richard Wolin The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2004
One of the marvels of social and political thought over the past twenty years has been the alliance between left-wing politics and postmodernist philosophy, or anti-philosophy. Thinkers like Foucault and Derrida have been enshrined as intellectual authorities in the cause of oppressed groups of many kinds: indigenous and colonised peoples, women, the gay community, refugees, and others. Yet little thought is required to raise serious doubts about how far progressive causes are really assisted by the kind of thinking that these writers have promoted.
Notoriously, Heidegger was a member of the Nazi Party and, as Rector of Freiburg University, an enthusiastic propagandist for the regime. After the War, he tried to play down his complicity, giving the impression that this was a temporary aberration. But in the 1980s it emerged that he had been far more deeply implicated in Nazi affairs than he claimed, remaining an active informant on friends and colleagues until the end of the War (Farias 1989).
To infer that postmodernists must be fascists simply because some postmodernists have been fascists in the past would be as silly as concluding that all liberals must be in favour of slavery because Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner. Wolin is, indeed, aware of the dangers of simply claiming 'guilt by association' (xiv). His task is to show not just that some forerunners of postmodernism were, as it happens, fascists or fascist sympathisers, but that their politics emerged directly out of, or at least fitted naturally with, their underlying philosophy.

The source of that philosophy was Counter-Enlightenment opposition to the liberal and republican ideals of the French revolution. For thinkers like Joseph de Maistre, the upheavals of the revolution demonstrated the evils of the Enlightenment faith in humanism, universal reason, and the possibility of social and political improvement based on the values of liberalism and democracy. The fundamental message of the Counter-Enlightenment was the very opposite of all this: reason and universality should be rejected as social guides, and the claims of instinct and local tradition reasserted. Human nature is flawed and unreliable, needing to be constrained by received institutions exemplified by the unquestioned, mystical authority of the king, the priest and the executioner....

The central point is the rejection of reason, and nowhere was this more enthusiastically embraced than in nineteenth-century Germany. As Wolin puts it, the doctrine of the Counter-Enlightenment became, essentially, 'the German Ideology'.... What Foucault, Derrida and others take from Nietzsche is his 'perspectivism', his claim to have unmasked 'reason' and 'morality' as mere vehicles of the will to power. What they conveniently ignore is Nietzsche's reassertion, on this basis, of the aristocratic values of heroic society, and consequently of a 'Great Politics' in which the mass of humanity is a mere instrument for an elite. Reducing Nietzsche to his relativism, cleansed of his substantial moral and political message, postmodernist Nietzscheanism makes possible 'a stance of uncompromising philosophical radicalism while avoiding all questions of direct moral or political commitment' (p. 34).

[T]wo more German gurus, whose post-War domestication conceals a less than savoury intellectual background. Carl Jung, the darling of New Agers, flourished under the Third Reich, having created a form of psychoanalysis that, unlike Freud's Enlightenment-oriented view, meshed comfortably with Nazi ideology. For Jung, the key to mental health was liberation from the rational ego and access to the mythic archetypes of the collective unconscious—a process that he believed was easier for Aryans than for Jews. Hans-Georg Gadamer is today celebrated by sensitive communitarians like Charles Taylor as the father of 'hermeneutics', a view that emphasises the local, situated character of all interpretation. But Wolin points out the strong affinity between Gadamer's hermeneutics and that staple of the Counter-Enlightenment, the uncritical acceptance of tradition—in his own words the celebration of 'prejudice'. In the 1930s the tradition Gadamer valued most was that of German cultural superiority. The acceptability of his views enabled him to advance his career at the expense of Jewish colleagues, and during the war he made himself useful to the regime by lecturing on the propaganda circuit. After the war he quietly dropped the theme of German superiority in favour of an apparently more neutral cultural relativism. But his use of relativism to defend the Soviet Union exhibited, as Wolin aptly puts it, 'a failure to learn' (pp. 120-21).

Indeed, the enemy was really modernity as a whole.... The Counter-Enlightenment celebrated a different set of values that seemed to have been lost in modern times but might yet be recovered: vitality and manliness, ritual rather than reflection, the mythic or mystical dimension of experience in contrast with the scientific, self-assertion through violent conflict, and above all the rejection of reason in favour of action and instinct. These were the themes of Nietzsche—and they became the themes of fascism. These values attracted Heidegger, appealing to his philosophical emphasis on the authenticity of 'being' in contrast with reason and the pursuit of truth.

Among those French intellectuals who took the same path, Wolin singles out two as especially significant. Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot sang the praises of fascism in the 1930s, retreating into 'inner emigration' during the War only when it became clear what fascism looked like at close quarters. Their significance, for Wolin, lies in their influence on Foucault, Derrida and their supporters. From Bataille the postmodernists take their condemnation of reason as 'homogenising' and suppressive of 'difference', without acknowledging that the difference Bataille is principally concerned to reassert includes anti-democratic authoritarianism and gratuitous ('transgressive') violence. From Blanchot the postmodernists inherit a suspicion of language as an insuperable barrier between thought and reality, ignoring the origins of this view as a rationalisation of Blanchot's prudent wartime 'silence'.

These themes—the 'impossibility' of language, and the homogeneity of reason and democracy—come together in the work of Derrida in particular. For Derrida, language can never generate the stable meaning presupposed by notions of objective truth, and the generality of legal rules necessarily impedes 'justice', which is always peculiar to concrete cases. In short, the notion of objective truth is incoherent, and the rule of law unjust. As Wolin points out, the first of these conclusions is itself incoherent, since it presupposes the objectivity it purports to deny. The second is typical of the postmodernist penchant for ludicrous overstatement and for striking radical postures that have no sane implications for political action. Justice, obviously enough, calls for both particularity and generality: attention to the particularity of cases, and general rules to prevent bias and special pleading. The silliness of Derrida's pronouncements on the injustice of law is nicely brought out by Wolin though the story of the philosopher's arrest in Czechoslovakia in 1981. Suddenly subject to a genuinely arbitrary decision process, Derrida found himself impelled towards the thought that humanist norms like the rule of law might have some value after all. Undaunted and with 'great lucidity', however, he rationalised this odd experience by positing a new philosophical category in which contradictory thoughts confront each other without 'intersecting': 'the intellectual baroque'.
Both extreme right and extreme left looked forward to utopias that either did not materialise or did not last. After that, where is there to go (for the unapologetic) but inward, into a position of extreme cynicism in which all norms are equally spent and all politics equally suspect?

It's our position here that most people in the West who are fascists are so by default. Most decent and well-intentioned people are unwitting fascists only because everyone around them is fascist. Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to look closely into their own assumptions. They leave it to the expertice of professionals to decide the intellectual norm, to create and disseminate the meme. Israel is bad because most people say Israel is bad. If our moral leaders say so, then it must be so. And if our moral leaders heard it from someone who knows, that must be the true case. Who really knows? Maybe we are fascists after all. La-de-dah. Look at my shoes.

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