By which I mean in the literal and technical sense of adhering to the philosophy of facism, rather than simply as a pejorative. Glenn Greenwald writes this piece critiquing an Op Ed in the Wall St. J. by Harvey Mansfield. Greenwald chooses to focus his analysis and ire on Mansfield. In doing so, he misses the far greater danger — the reemergence of the philosophy of facism as a political force in the United States.
My analysis below . . .
I will confess, my first thoughts on reading Mansfield’s column were dismissive. Indeed, they remind me of nothing so much as Saurman’s speech to Gandalf on imprisoning him in Fellowship of the Ring. But reflections on history, and the history of facist movements, gives me considerable pause.
I feel I must stress again that I am using “facist” here in its actual sense as a political philosophy — one which at one time enjoyed considerable following and respectability. Although it has now widely become an empty pejorative meaning a police state of some kind, facism represents a well developed political philosophy. Prior to WWII, facism enjoyed the same respect as a political philosophy as socialism, liberal democracy, anarchism, syndaclisim and a host of other -isms that define a developed theory of government and the relationship between the individual and the state. Facist governments in Germany, Italy and Spain were not called that by enemies because they were evil and generally anti-Democratic. To the countrary, the leaders of facist regimes and facist movements in many countries (including the United States) embraced this label and argued that — as a matter of political theory and economic philosophy — facism provided a superior form of government and economic organization to liberal democracy.
As a political theory, facism in its various flavors shares a set of common attributes. On the one hand, society as a whole demands that individual liberties must be sacrificed for the greater good. At the same time, however, a single individual residing at the apex of the political organization must make the necessary decisions for the well being of society as a whole. Only by essentially channeling the power to act into a single individual can a society move with the necessary centrality of purpose and certainty to achieve the greater good.
How the proper individual leader is selected and how that leader achieves the necessary wisdom and accumulated knowledge to act varies considerably among facist theorists. Hitler, for example, relied on a semi-mystical volksgeit unique to Aryan people that allowed the Fhurer (leader) to essentially channel the will of the people. But whatever the selection mechanism, the end result is the same: the rights of the individual are subordinated to the needs of the state, while the leader must remain free to act outside the constraints of law in order to achieve the greater good. Even if the leader is mistaken in specific instances, it is better to permit a leader unfettered discretion to act than to protect some small number of indivuals from accidental harm. While such a result is lamentable, it is a necessary sacrifice by individuals to achieve the universal benefits that flow to society as a whole.
Again, it should be noted that the facist regime is not lawless, nor bereft of the usual mechanisms of law and justice. To the countrary, facist philosophy asserts that such mechanisms are necessary to assure the peace and propserity that belong to the facist society by right. Rather, the ruler must have the freedom to suspend the law or act outside it in order to achieve the greatest good in any specific situation, since law is necessarily a set of general rules that may not produce the best result in a specific situation. Further, to confer the widest and greatest benefits to all, the individual interest in the rule of law and in reliance on the rule of law must yield where the leader determines it necessary.
This is, essentially, Mansfield’s argument for unlimited power to the Bush administration. While the rule of law is generally useful in ensuring a just and prosperous society for the greater good, it must yield where necessary so that a single man can bring proper “energy” (his word) to safeguard the state (and the people therin) in times of crisis. Unsurprisingly, Mansfield argues that the current “war on terror” is just such an emergency requiring that the President have freedom to suspend civil liberties. While this might result in individual injustices, argues MAnsfield, this is a lamentable but necessary cost of safeguarding society as a whole.
I would like to believe that Mansfield is an outlier or radical. Unfortunately no. Last night’s Colbert Report (since heaven forfend we should see actual discussion of such things on our “real” news) included essentially the same sort of peroration from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). As recorded on C-Span (and replayed by Colbert), Rohrbacher beleives that if we accidentally kidnap and torture 10 innocent people, but as a result of the same system capture and torture 90 people that were intent on atatcking us “I’m afraid that’s the price we pay in a real world.” (You may see a video of Rorhbacher’s entire statement here. As an aside, I am rather sorry protestors cut Rorhbacher off. His own words condemn him far better than an excoriation from others would.)
To the extent anyone has focused on this (other than Colbert), it has been for Rorhbacher’s statement to “anyone who feels otherwise” that he hopes “it’s your family that suffers the consequences.” But this later sentiment is merely a cheap rhetorical trick. To my mind, it is the willingness to embrace the kidnapping and torturing of innocents as a necessary evil to ensure that we capture potential terrorists that is truly destructive, and truly facist in the technical sense of the word.
Again, Rohrbacher is but one example. But his is not that uncommon a view on any specific violation of law committed by the Administration in the name of our national security. And indeed, while defenders of the Administration’s actions in violation of law have usually argued either that the actions did not violate the law, or that it was unclear it violated the law until a court resolved the matter, there are a substantial number of Bush supporters willing to argue that even if such actions violate the law we need a strong leader who can set such “red tape” and “legal niceties” aside when necessary to protect our physical safety. While few even of these have articulated so clear and comprehensive a vision as Mansfield, he hardly stands alone or even as part of a fringe. Rather, he is the chief architect and spokesman for a framing of a facist political theory within the context of our existing Constitution.
This is hardly the first time when we as a nation in time of fear or economic uncertainty have felt the pull of facism. The United States boasted a strong facist movement before WWII, when it was a respectable political philosophy. Indeed, we may find arguments for such a system of government as old as systems of government. We may even find systems like the old Roman Republic, under which the Senate voted to give power to a dictator for a crisis and the dictator would step down when the crisis past . As the story of Cincinatus shows, such systems do not always end in tyranny (at least not in the short run).
But it is this very tendency, the deep attractiveness of the facist philosophy, that should make us doubly wary when it raises its head. This is more than panic of the moment after 9/11. Nor is it dismissable as the grandios schemes of comic opera dictators in nations far away, or some comfortingly unrealistic secrete conspiracy or cabal a la X-Files or Oliver Stone. It is a well developed philosophy of government and political theory that competes with our established system of representative democracy and checks and balances in the same way that imported kudzu competes with native grass — occupying the same ecosystem and potentially displacing the native species entirely. It provides workable government, and has attracted billions of adherents throughout human history who gladly embrace it.
When I was a wee lad, the cliche I learned to describe our system of justice and due process was “better a thousand guilty men should go free than an innocent man should be condemned.” That’s as much errant nonesense as excusing the unbridled excess of law enforcement on the grounds that we “can’t make an omlet without breaking a few eggs.” But it does demonstrate what our ideals were, and how they are changing.
Stay tuned . . . .