February 8, 2009

I dunno about you, but I blame Jonah Goldberg for Friday's exchange between dueling wingnuts Laura Ingraham and Glenn Beck -- in which Ingraham came off looking really sane in comparison:

Beck: We are really, truly, stepping beyond socialism and we're starting to look at fascism. We are putting business and government together!

Ingraham: Glenn, you're throwing a lot of terms around, and I'm going to play devil's advocate, because this is fair and balanced. Now, moving from socialism to communism, that's, that's a pretty big leap -- socialism, obviously, the economic system, communism the political system. How are we right now moving toward state ownership of all, for instance, heavy industry?

Beck: Let me first of all just explain first what happened in Nazi Germany. It was National -- Socialism. We're talking now about nationalizing the banks, and socialized programs. National. Socialism.

At first in Nazi Germany, everybody was so panicked, they were so freaked. Remember -- don't take anytime to think about it, we've just got to do, do, do. At first all the big companies and the big capitalists in Germany said, 'Oh thank goodness there's a savior! OK, great! We'll do that, yes!' It didn't take too long before -- like here in America, now Goldman Sachs. They've started to see the writing on the wall and went, 'Whoa, whoa whoa! You guys are getting out of control here. What are you guys doing?' And they couldn't get out of it fast enough.

Unfortunately, for those in Germany, you could never go back. I don't know if this is the system that we're headed towards or not, where they're not going to let you out, but let me tell you something, I don't want to play this game. This is becoming extraordinarily dangerous.

What a doughy pantload.

Can you tell whether they're talking about fascism, socialism, or communism? Or are these all just basically one big mushy concept to Beck? This kind of incoherence-unto-meaninglessness is indeed the hallmark of Goldberg's work on these subjects. As with Goldberg, it renders all these terms into so much Newspeak.

Beyond just the obvious, comical incoherence of this, Beck is babbling ahistorical nonsense seemingly fabricated from whole cloth. I have no idea where in the world Beck is obtaining his information -- John Wayne WWII movies, perhaps? Sgt. Fury comics? -- but as political history, this is just a smattering of facts mangled into pure gobbledygook.

First, the National Socialists, aka Nazis, were "Socialists" in roughly the same way that the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" was run by Republicans. It was a marketing term that reflected more the fascists' real roots in the radical ferment around socialism, but there is little question (beyond Goldberg's fanboy cult) that fascism generically and Nazism specifically were right-wing phenomena.

The citations available on this subject are numerous, but probably the clearest explanation comes from Robert O. Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism, who explains that fascism for all its rhetoric was in practice closely aligned with and allied with capitalists and conservatives -- some of whom, years down the road, came to regret the association, but the vast majority of whom approved enthusiastically up through the war years. (Think Krupp.) They were also decidedly -- violently, murderously -- anti-socialist.

Another supposed essential character of fascism is its anticapitalist, antibourgeois animus. Early fascist movements flaunted their contempt for bourgeois values and for those who wanted only "to earn money, money, filthy money." They attacked "international finance capitalism" almost as loudly as they attacked socialists. They even promised to expropriate department-store owners in favor of patriotic artisans, and large landowners in favor of peasants.

Whenever fascist parties acquired power, however, they did nothing to carry out these anticapitalist threats. By contrast, they enforced with the utmost violence and thoroughness their threats against socialism. Street fights over turf with young communists were among their most powerful propaganda images. Once in power, fascist regimes banned strikes, dissolved independent labor unions, lowered wage earners' purchasing power, and showered money on armaments industries, to the immense satisfaction of employers.

The meaning of "National Socialism" was essentially part of the Nazis' vision of Germany under siege from outside forces -- namely, the Jews. They intended to apply the principles of state ownership only to those businesses and industries -- i.e., international banking -- that were not specifically German; meanwhile, German-owned capitalist enterprises were given special preferences. As Paxton explains:

It turned out in practice that fascists' anticapitalism was highly selective. Even at their most radical, the socialism that the fascists wanted was a "national socialism": one that denied only foreign or enemy property rights (including that of internal enemies). They cherished national producers. Above all, it was by offering an effective remedy against socialist revolution that fascism turned out in practice to find a space. If Mussolini retained some lingering hopes in 1919 of founding an alternative socialism rather than an antisocialism, he was soon disabused of those notions by observing what worked and what didn't work in Italian politics. His dismal electoral results with a Left-nationalist program in Milan in November 1919 surely hammered that lesson home.

The pragmatic choices of Mussolini and Hitler were driven by their urge for success and power. Not all fascist leaders had such ambitions. Some of them preferred to keep their movements "pure," even at the cost of remaining marginal.

Finally, a word about being on the track to "socialism": I'm not an expert on the theoretical aspects of all this, but my understanding of America's economic nature is roughly as follows (and I'm sure if I' mistaken I'll be corrected):

The United States has always been an essentially capitalist economic system. However, we have experienced periods in our history where this system has seriously malfunctioned, and we've made adjustments accordingly that have largely worked well making things better.

One of those dysfunctional periods came at about the turn of the last century, when McKinley was president, corrupt robber barons ran Congress, and the latter-day version of "strict constructionists" ruled the courts. "Laissez faire" capitalism ruled, and America was functionally an oligarchy.

Squeezed out were the working people: the average workweek was 80 hours, there were no weekends, no vacation, only a few holidays, and the barest minimum of pay. Benefits and health care were unheard of. Child labor was the rule.


What happened between then and now? "Socialists" began agitating for better working conditions, and began organizing as labor unions. After a long period of violent repression, these reforms gradually became government policy -- especially in the 1930s under FDR. Americans began getting 40-hour work weeks with weekends off, paid vacations and benefits.

Probably the most significant and lasting legacy of this period of "socialist" innovation was the progressive tax code. It has been a feature of the income tax since its institution in 1916. Who was one of its original champions? Theodore Roosevelt.

The fact is that the United States -- like nearly every single Western capitalist democracy -- is a variable blend of socialism and capitalism, free-enterprise economies with regulatory restraints and income redistribution. What right-wingers like Beck and Ingraham hysterically label "going down the road to socialism" sounds a lot like following FDR's path to American prosperity.

The result of those "socialist" reforms was the birth of the great American middle class and the quality of life we have enjoyed so long we've forgotten what it was like not to have it. People like Glenn Beck seem never even to have learned.

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