Thursday, June 24, 2010

What Was Fascism?

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

As Karl Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation, a prescient book published in 1944, the very breadth and intensity of fascist movements after the Great Depression means that none can be reduced entirely to local causes. Rather, the collapse of market economies ushered such movements into a variety of states, with only a few succeeding. The collapse of the market image of society in the Depression amplified regional and local resentments already there. As Polanyi says, “It was in the third period–after 1929–that the true significance of fascism became apparent...Until then fascism had been hardly more than a trait in Italy’s authoritarian government...It now emerged as an alternative solution of the problem of industrial society. Germany took the lead in a revolution of European scope...” (p. 252). 
While containing a few socialist ideas at first fascism in power retained capitalist ownership, created a one party system, defined Jews, homosexuals, the Romani, social democrats, Bolsheviks, the incapacitated, and “degenerate” artists as constituencies to be excluded, placed in concentration camps or exterminated, and mobilized the general populace for internal repression and external aggression. Its success grew out of resonances back and forth between local, church, gestapo, neighborhood, police and military interventions, in which local resentments were linked to the larger condition of economic failure.
Fascism is extreme and scary. So today the Right must not allow it to be remembered as a reaction to the failure of unfettered marketeerism. Thus publicists such as Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism now redefine it to mean any large intervention of the state into the economy, even if it is to reduce poverty, respond to recession, regulate capital more carefully, or respond to global warming. Keynesianism, the New Deal, anti poverty programs, are now placed under the umbrella of “liberal fascism”, even though these developments in the thirties actually helped to ward off the fascist potential simmering in several states. Goldberg is the most literate of a band of media talking heads such as Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity who identify the large state as such with the drive to fascism. But why ignore its one party character?  That fact must be avoided to push the equation between state size and fascist tendency. Okay, Why insist that a large state is key? 
That claim allows the contemporary Right to ignore or deny how market failure spurred  fascist reactions the first time around and to insist that a minimally regulated economy is the only way to avoid the danger now. To the extent an underregulated market allows inequality, global warming, and a extreme boom/bust cycle, to that extent all social movements and state actions designed to ward off those effects can now be deemed irrational and counterproductive. Hence the need to evade how unfettered capitalism promotes global warming.
This rewriting of the history of fascism is dangerous partly because of the neoliberal fantasy it protects, partly because of the state repression of minorities it sanctions, and partly because of the orientation to the future it adopts. It is thus also pertinent to see that the Goldberg/Beck revisionism is not exactly new. Its roots are located in academic neoliberals, starting as early as middle nineteen thirties. As Michel Foucault has shown in The Birth of Biopolitics, in the middle thirties a group of German and French neoliberals began to redefine classic market theory: first, to claim that its collapse was not a major source of the fascist reactions; second, to redefine the ideal itself so that rather than the state leaving the market alone (the laissez faire model) the state must now become an active, meticulous supporter of social arrangements to fit workers, consumers, and schools to the dictates of market society; and, third, to claim that an unfettered market provided the best possible organization of society. Friedrich Hayek offered a moderate version of this view in The Road to Serfdom, and others pushed it even more actively.
Thus the story told by Goldberg et al is a radicalization and simplification of a long term neoliberal theme that has now gained hegemony on Fox News, financial TV Shows, numerous right wing think tanks, the corporate right, and a large section of the white middle class. 
It is easy to see why the corporate/financial right supports this historical revisionism and the neoliberal imaginary. It vindicates the extreme rewards to which they feel extremely entitled. But why does a large section of the white middle class buy into the neoliberal fantasy while also supporting anti-minority, nationalizing drives that actually foment a large, active, aggressive state? Perhaps it is partly because that myth is the only story currently available that allows those caught in the pressure cooker of contemporary life to imagine individual ways to escape the binds they are in (by winning a lottery, starting a small business, becoming a great athlete or a beautiful model, etc), while it also allows them to vent their dissaffection on those below them. Whatever the sources--and we must come to understand them better–the result a dangerous constellation of forces and ideas.

So, then, a few “talking points”:
1) Fascism, the first time around, emerged as a response in several countries to the failure of unfettered market economies.

2) Social democrats stood heroically against its consolidation in Hitler’s Germany. But Jews, Communists, homosexuals, the Romani and other minorities were not able to act politically against it(to say the least), while several other sections either pursued or silently accepted consolidation of the fascist state.

3)A fascist state is not any large state. Contemporary states shaped by neoliberal ideology are themselves large–-a fact many seek to explain away. A fascist state is a large, one party, bellicose nationalizing state built around an ideal of purity (racist or religious) that feeds on war and the violent repression of minorities.

4) The right wing redefinition of fascism ignores the historical failure of the neoliberal imaginary as well as deflecting attention from the distinctive character of a fascist state.

5) The intensity of the desire to deny or evade the historical connection between the collapse of the pure market ideal and the rise of fascist movements reflects an imperious sense of special entitlement among the corporate right (not all corporate figures are on the right) and an insistent response by a large section of the white middle class to real binds facing it. 
It may be incumbent upon the democratic left to publicize these points as we encourage the white middle class to redefine the sources of its grievances and the actual remedies for them. The complicated task is to identify the dangers reactionary social movements promote while speaking sympathetically to the binds that usher them into being.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Obama, bipartisanship, and patriotism

 Steven Johnston, University of South Florida

Barack Obama has a thing for bipartisanship. It might reflect a certain political timidity, more specifically, unwillingness, even inability to articulate a strong political vision or take principled stands on specific issues and defend them against inevitable assault. It might reflect political calculation, namely, the belief that the most effective way to bring promised change to the United States requires seeking and reaching a modus vivendi with adversaries, no matter how dogmatic, reckless, irresponsible, and indifferent to overture they might be. It might also reflect a patriotic reflex rooted in the conviction that we as Americans share a common life, common interests, and common values and that political crisis affords the country an opportunity to bridge any nominal differences, salve old wounds, come together, and forge affective bonds in the face of that crisis. No doubt Obama’s bipartisan instincts reflect all three (and more). Whatever its origins, Obama’s bipartisan imperative carries a serious price tag, one that affects not only policy and legislation but also the very character of the American democracy. Obama’s penchant for bipartisanism entails a rejection of a more critical, agonistic approach that might broaden political discourse, expand the range of viable possibilities, introduce a healthy enmity and accountability into the public domain, and energize the citizenry. That Obama is willing to pay these prices suggests that, in the end, patriotism shapes Obama’s political style. Patriots are too often ready, willing, and able to sacrifice the country for their vision of it and (what they take to be) its greater good. For they seek an ethereal end, unity, rather than the production of a new majority assemblage.
Let’s start with Obama’s economic stimulus plan, chock full of gratuitous tax cuts to solicit Republican support. Not only did he misread the realigned Republican Party following the 2008 elections, he sacrificed the short- and long-term well being of millions of Americans in an effort to pass a bill that was poorly designed, too small to succeed. Obama should have focused exclusively on stimulus spending, including on infrastructure and aid to states for education and unemployment benefits, and let Republicans propose tax cuts, which they deem the solution to everything. The people would have been presented with clear and distinct alternatives. Obama refused to play “politics” and it cost the county dearly—or at least part of it. Democrats may pay a high political price in 2010 midterm elections and beyond—and rightly so. Unemployment and foreclosure rates remain intolerably high and will remain high for years to come, according to the Administration’s own estimates. Obama’s malfeasance comes as no surprise, of course, since Obama’s economic team stars financial players who played key intellectual and policy roles in landing the country in near financial ruin in the first place. Thus the banking and financial sectors were protected, even rewarded, and predatory parasites like Goldman Sachs once again pay billions in bonuses for the very same behavior that initially led to near collapse. Obama made it a point of pride that he incorporated ideas from Republicans, as if to perform the bipartisanship he was refused. In his patriot mind, we were one, even if we were not.
 Obama likewise bungled health care reform and the question of medical justice. Any serious effort to guarantee reasonable access and reduce costs rested with a robust public option. Obama himself once challenged, even mocked, those who objected to it due to free-market fundamentalism, bemused by the idea that a business culture that celebrates its competitive greatness would fear a little competition from the federal government. Once well-positioned members of the Senate let it be known they would never support a public option, including health insurance lackeys like Joe Lieberman, Obama retreated as if on cue and assured opponents of reform that everything was negotiable and that a public option would not be a deal-breaker. Add a pre-cut arrangement with the pharmaceutical industry about drug prices and Senate refusal to consider raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans who have been enjoying revenue bonanzas going back to the Reagan tax cuts to pay for reform and it was effectively dead. A health care billed eventually passed, and the best that could be said of it by friendly critics was that it was better than nothing. Each effort to forge a bipartisan consensus on health care reform met with predictable results. Republicans have always been willing to sacrifice the good of the country for whatever they deem their latest sacred cause.
Obama’s bipartisan predilection finds its most disconcerting expression in foreign and national security policies. He continues the essential elements of the Bush-Cheney doctrine, which includes considering the Iraq War a retroactive success. Obama signaled his Constitutional betrayal in the campaign when he insisted that, regarding the Bush regime, he preferred to look forward rather back, as if the two were incompatible, as if the president actually had a choice. This patriotic gesture of munificence (we don’t punish our own who kill to protect the country) conveniently ignored the Constitutional duty to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute and imprison any and all who committed crimes both Constitutional and international. Wars of choice and torture, among other things, don’t pass moral, legal, or political muster.
Obama stained his own hands from the get-go. His well-publicized issuance of executive orders his first days in office allegedly correcting some of the worst abuses of the Bush gang amounted to a publicity stunt. The day he announced the closing of secret overseas C.I.A. prisons, a ban on torture, and the closure of Guantanamo, the practice of extraordinary rendition was not included, effectively gutting the other orders. Obama also claims the power of indefinite detention, the right arbitrarily to assassinate United States citizens abroad, and defends the state secrets privilege. The unitary executive lives.
 As if this weren’t enough, upon taking office Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan by deploying additional troops, signaling long-term American commitment. After a long delay, designed to give the appearance of deliberation and thoughtfulness, Obama decided to stay the course in Afghanistan. Republicans let it be known that no other option would be tolerated. It’s not just that the patriotic outcry (surrender, weakness, betrayal, etc.) from warmongers like John McCain would plague his administration and alienate an electorate that loves to alternate between support for displays of macho excess and expressions of abject fear (the two, of course, mutually support one another). Obama expressed veritable nostalgia for the oneness that America experienced when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Not surprisingly, Obama’s rationale for staying the course insults the intelligence. Most of Al Qaeda fled the country long ago, looking for safer and more productive havens, as National Security Adviser James Jones argues. Fighting the Taliban, moreover, cannot justify the United States presence, let alone ground war, in Afghanistan. Obama, of course, insists on tightly linking the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but his timetable for American withdrawal, given the corrupt, incompetent nature of Afghan political officials and security forces, cannot be met and he knows it. America’s commitment to Afghanistan is open-ended. It’s as if Obama learned nothing from LBJ and Vietnam, except perhaps that Johnson might have won a second full term if he had run. Promise peace, wage war: it’s an unbeatable combination. As Garry Wills argued, if Obama were to make the decision to end a war lost long ago by George Bush, it would likely render him a one-term president. That is the kind of sacrifice, saving rather than spending lives, patriots cannot make.
Deeming military service the greatest commitment a citizen can make, Obama’s patriotism wraps itself in death, which also means it revolves around the hostility to politics at which Republicans excel. Republicans know opposition and dissent exist and they cannot abide either one. Obama pretends opposition, in the end, isn’t real so he ignores it and crafts what he takes to be bipartisan positions and policies. We are one whether some know it or not. Having refused to pursue the Bush-Cheney gang for its crimes in Iraq, which led to failure in Afghanistan, Obama can’t reverse course in Afghanistan either. The refusal to expose high crimes and misdemeanors in the one, ironically, fosters refusal to concede the irreversible consequences of gross incompetence and dereliction in the other. Obama’s bipartisan fixation, a product of his patriotic imaginary of unity, precludes challenging the perverse idea that we prove our love of country through a willingness to kill and be killed. No doubt the problem extends well beyond Obama himself, who has not yet learned the truth about patriotism. Perhaps too many of his supporters continue to entertain a conception of patriotism that stifles and contains the pressures they are prepared to apply to him and his priorities.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Ugly Stalemate: the Gaza Flotilla and Israel’s Conservative Adventurism

Daniel J. Levine, Colgate University
Daniel Bertrand Monk, Colgate University

Israel’s raid on the relief flotilla bound for Gaza has generated a media firestorm, but one familiar in its broad outlines.  The English-language press has engaged wise elder statesmen to discuss the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; the finer points of international law are parsed in accordance with this narrative or that (here and here); videos of preparations to repel Israeli commandos by ‘terrorists’ on the Mavi Marmara are juxtaposed against images of despoiled relief supplies at the Israeli port of Ashdod.  
A perfect storm is also brewing in diplomatic circles.  Turkey has recalled its ambassador to Israel and PM Erdogan has strongly condemned Israel’s actions; the Arab League, the UN Security Council and Human Rights Commission are calling for enquiries; Israeli diplomats in Egypt, Jordan, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Ireland, Norway, Spain and Greece were summoned for clarifications or protests.  US reactions have been muted, but the additional burden to an already strained relationship is apparent. This latest imbroglio seems to suggest that Israeli tone-deafness now spans the full spectrum of force: from botched covert operations like the recent assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, to high-tempo catastrophes like Operation ‘Cast Lead’ (the 2008/9 Gaza war), to the settlement expansions in East Jerusalem announced during the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden.  
 Indeed, Israel’s apparent and severe indifference to international opinion is now itself a recurring theme: policymakers, pundits and the blogosphere seem not to know what to make of it.   Looking at the extent to which the Netanyahu government is prepared to go to enforce the Gaza blockade – despite the risk of alienating allies on whom Israel has an enormous strategic dependence – observers struggle to make sense of a state that seems intent on meeting allies and enemies alike with a mix of intransigence and incoherence. 

Yet debates over the ‘rationality’ of policymakers turn naturally to the competing interests against which questions of state policy are hashed out.  In earlier essays, we suggested that both sympathetic observers of Israel, and professional policymakers, viewed domestic Israeli political developments through an outdated conceptual framework.  The Israeli state, we argued, was in full-blown retreat.  With its dissolution, the familiar dichotomy of a dovish ‘left’ and a hawkish ‘right’ had dissolved as well.  The larger consensus that had tempered Israel’s fractious politics in the 1980s and early 1990s – one in which both ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ were united in their larger vision of Israel as a secular-national state, and divided primarily over those compromises that should be made to the Palestinian national movement – no longer exists.  To be sure, those old voices still exist, and many in the Israeli political establishment continue to treat them as the defining fault lines of domestic politics.  Yet they no longer combine to represent a critical mass of political views.

Rather, we suggested, one needed to think of Israeli politics in terms of ‘statists’ and ‘radicals’: between those who see the Israeli state as a political solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ in its nineteenth-century variant (the problem of Jewish statelessness and vulnerability in an era of nationalism), and those who see that state in broader, transcendental terms: as a stepping-stone toward some variation of a "Third Kingdom of Israel,” whether parsed through explicitly Messianic terms, or ostensibly secular ones.  The latter routinely threaten the use force to introduce an alternative form of governance if parliamentary democracy fails to serve their agenda:  by way of example, consider recent Rabbinical rulings calling on religious soldiers to disobey orders that involve the ‘uprooting’ of West Bank settlements.
In the midst of that challenge, statists from both the old ‘left’ and ‘right’ have had to band together. Labor and Likud seem to have converged to keep the essential institutions of the Israeli state – the Defense and Finance Ministries, the military, the courts and the central bank – out of the hands of the radicals.  The statists continue to govern, but they pay for the privilege.  First, by outright political bribery: rewarding junior ministries to the radicals, and showering their educational, social and political institutions with state resources even as public libraries and schools must take up their begging-bowls.  Second, and more importantly, by their inaction: by conceding the power to make substantive political decisions on foreign and security policy.  To remain in power, they temporize: showing intransigence to the Palestinians and the Syrians; by deferring difficult constitutive questions about Israel’s identity as a democratic society and the role of minorities within it; by staving off US and regional peace initiatives, without rejecting them outright.  An ugly, delicate stalemate between statists and radicals is thus – just barely – preserved. 

Israel’s actions on the Mavi Marmara need to be understood In light of this ‘ugly stalemate,’ which has its own political logic and pays its own kinds of political rewards. The statists need to preserve their coalition, lest another election depress their representation in Knesset and the government still further. Increasingly, the state and the coalition have been thus conflated with one another out of brute necessity. Unable to make a deal on Palestine – and under some pressure externally to do so – the statists can only govern by resort to what appears, from the outside, to be rank adventurism.   Yet it is adventurism of a peculiar kind, for it is not revisionist, but conservative: it represents the only possible path for maintaining some façade of statist predominance (and perhaps someday restoring its substance), in the face of challenges that would otherwise force statist into open and perhaps violent confrontation for hegemony with radicals.

Consider here debates within the Israeli cabinet immediately following the assault on the Turkish flotilla.  Israel’s Channel One reported a disagreement within the government: between Justice Minister Ya’akov Ne’eman and the Prime Minister, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Yvette Liberman.  What should be done with those 50 or so of the detained Turks who were suspected of links to terrorist organizations?  Should they be tried in Israel or deported?  Ne’eman called for trials, the others for immediate deportation.  One interpretation of this debate suggests a principled defense of the rule of law in Ne’eman’s position and political expediency in that of the PM and his allies.  Yet the Minister of Justice was not seeking to defend the rule of law; he was acting in the name of those sectors of Israeli society which reject rapprochement with the Arab and Muslim worlds.  To try the 50 detainees would perpetuate a crisis which – while detrimental to the interests of Israeli-statist notions of realpolitik, plays directly into the Manichean worldview of its radicals.  Ne’eman, for his part, has been on record advocating for the incorporation of Jewish religious law into the state legal system: the Jewish equivalent of a Sharia state that would transcend the limits of statist realpolitik.  Netanyahu, Barak and Liberman – who in this instance, has shown a Putin-like ability to move between statesmanlike resolve and political thuggery – rushed in to assure deportation.  Only by reserving for themselves the right to abrogate the rule of law could they preserve the statist-radical stalemate – even if doing so ultimately undermined the very ‘statist’ values they were ostensibly defending. 
Israel’s allies misunderstand the starkness of this “ugly stalemate.”  Reading it as simply a moment in Israeli politics where the political ‘right’s’ star is in the ascent, they have chosen to moderate their criticism of the Netanyahu government: why bring down what the Israeli electorate will simply vote back into office?  This is why, in the midst of their condemnation, US leaders are tempering their displeasure with reaffirmations of “Israel’s right to defend itself.” But in fact the problem runs deeper: the left and the right have dissolved into one another, and survive only by eating their political seed corn.  In failing to understand and address this reality, Israel’s allies and well-wishers abroad actually perpetuate it. So do those concerned with the Palestinian cause who understand Israeli adventurism as born of late imperial hubris, rather than weakness.

In the meantime, the statists keep up their end of the “ugly stalemate” only by actions which endanger their long-term political viability.  In the short term, the ‘conservative adventurism’ of the Mavi Marmara raid – like earlier Israeli adventures in Gaza and Lebanon – has garnered considerable domestic support (See poll data here and here.  But viewed over the longer term, there seems little doubt that it is unsustainable.  Consider a comparable imbroglio from Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister: in 1997, the Mossad attempted the poisoning of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, then in Amman.  The operation went awry: Meshaal’s bodyguards wrested him away from his would-be assassins, who were later captured by Jordanian officials.  Meshaal clung to life in hospital.  The late King Hussein demanded that Israeli deliver the antidote to the poison administered to him; failing that, the Mossad agents would be hanged and Israel-Jordan relations cut.  Netanyahu temporized, but ultimately handed over the antidote.  To smooth over official relations, he then releases some twenty Hamas prisoners (including the movement’s then-leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin) held in Israeli jails. 
Then as now, Israeli journalists decried the government’s ad hoc approach to major foreign policy decisions and its maladroit handling of the international press.  Then as now, humanists decried the state’s misuse of power.  Then as now, Netanyahu (“Israel’s serial bungler,” as the Economist would call him) was pilloried in the world media.  Then as now, there were calls for a State Commission of Inquiry. 

Yet then as now, too, Bibi’s ‘bungling’ did not fundamentally endanger him politically.  His parliamentary coalition – composed of statist right-wingers and religious and nationalist radicals – remained sound.  Calls for an independent Commission of Inquiry were staved off.  The Prime Minister instead appointed a ‘clarifications committee’ lacking formal judicial powers or independence, which duly cleared him of wrongdoing.

What ultimately did bring an end to Netanyahu’s government was instructive: not executive ‘bungling,’ but a betrayal of the burgeoning radical-statist status quo.  In October 1998, Netanyahu signed the Wye River Agreement, which promised to transfer some 13% of the territory of the West Bank to the full or partial control of the Palestinian National Authority.  His coalition swiftly abandoned him.  Then as now: Israel’s radicals can abide incompetence.  What they cannot accept are violations of the territorial and political status quo.
Between the attempted assassination of Meshaal in 1997 and the present Marmara crisis, the costs of the ugly embrace between the former left and right wings of Israeli politics have increased in direct proportion to its perceived necessity.  In 1999, ‘new Labour’ leader Ehud Barak was elected; his government would already be in crisis by 2000, and a new era of ‘zigzags’ among Likud, Labor and Kadima – itself a symptom of statist collapse – was inaugurated.   It was here that the old right and left began to dissolve into one another, in response to new political formations arising out of rapidly ‘nationalizing’ ultra-orthodox constituencies, elements within the traditional ‘right’ and immigrant and settler blocs. (This is the political soup out of which the radical camp would emerge).  The old political orders and movements had, by that point, long realized that they were caught in a new kind of political struggle: Shimon Peres, a paragon of old-school statism, explained his failed electoral bid for Prime Minister in 1996 as the “Jews” defeating the “Israelis.”  Moshe Feiglin – founder of the radical settler movement Zo Arzteinu [‘this is our land’] – agreed.  Both understood that what was at stake was not Israel and Palestine, but Israel and a new Judaea. 
The only question was what shape the new political structures and alliances would take: the statist-radical ‘ugly compromise’ was at that point only one of a number of emergent possibilities.  In the late 1990s, it still seemed to statists that a single magnificent burst of political resolve and parliamentary skill could save them, and defeat the radicals.  They are no longer under any such illusions; their weakness is – for now, at least – beyond dispute.  Indeed, in their own scramble to remain politically relevant, the statists have helped perpetuate it.  Today, the resort to ‘conservative adventurism’ represents, however paradoxical this may seem, a desperate effort on the part of the statists to maintain the institutions of liberal democracy.  For the idea of Israel upon which their actions rest – one in which the state is its own end – now only resonates clearly through military action. 

We thank Sara Lipton, Jonathan Rose and Alexander Barder for many of the sources cited in this essay.