Jonah Goldberg's recently-published tome, Liberal Fascism, has, as one might imagine given the incendiary title, generated much controversy, much of which can be digested, albeit from its author's perspective, over at the liberal fascism blog at National Review Online. Intrigued by the authorial intention of disclosing the affinities of certain strands of progressivism with darker ideological shades, not to mention the essential leftism of fascist ideology, a theme dear to the heart of every conservative who has ever assimilated Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn's Leftism Revisited, I purchased a copy with every intention of settling in for a painstaking reading, provided only that initial impressions did not confirm my suspicions.
Alas, reading the dust jacket and perusing the contents and index, followed by a spell or two of unsystematic browsing, only confirmed my initial suspicions: Goldberg employs, not merely a generic typology of fascism, but a typology so diffuse, indistinct, and indiscriminate that the apparent operational logic associates things with fascism merely because real, historical fascists may have said/done/advocated/liked similar things. No end of analytical mischief results from such imprecision; illustrative of the dynamic might be the association of organic foods and vegetarianism with fascism, merely on the grounds that actual fascists occasionally manifested an interest in such things. That things possess a distinct essence or nature, and that these things can be situated in radically different social and theoretical contexts, depending upon the narrative framework within which they acquire collective meaning, are considerations altogether too nuanced for Goldberg's labours. Those labours indeed seem to involve piling together a veritable mountain of things of which the author disapproves, on the basis of a few superficial resemblances - not even family resemblances, necessarily - which suggests the conclusion that they are substantively similar - except that Goldberg often shrinks from this conclusion. He'll intimate that something is hinky, aver that he's not really saying that anything is hinky, and leave the reader with the nonrational sense that that something is just off. A shrewd rhetorical performance, to be certain, though not a style commensurate with the gravity of the subject matter.
Apropos of this methodological inadequacy, James Poulos, following upon Austin Bramwell's decimating review of Liberal Fascism, suggests that Goldberg is engaged in a thoroughly postmodern performance, one that threatens to evacuate authority from the conversation:
This is rich coming from someone who claims that liberals “do not just engage in identity politics, but are ushering in ‘a Nietzschean world where power decides important questions rather than reason.’” The impression one gets from reading Bramwell’s review, and the impression I got instantly upon seeing and reading the cover of Liberal Fascism, is that Goldberg wants to practice what we ‘real’ pomos term representational force — I, not liking you and wanting to change your identity and behavior, rhetorically present you to yourself and the world as whatever it is I think might best cause you and everyone else to agree that in fact you really are what I’d rather you be. The rhetorical frame in which ‘movement conservatives’ seek to socially construct liberals as limp-wristed statists became a commonplace long before Goldberg, Bramwell, or I started talking about it.
But indeed, Liberal Limp-Wristed Statism is not a title that moves units, and it is not lurid or profitable or powerfully violent enough a charge for Goldberg. Indeed, the whole prospect of ‘movement conservatism’ has been devoted to the notion that knowledge is worthless without at least a little power, and power is at least a little important because, without it, the liberals will ruin America. Whether or not you agree with such a stark calculus, it at least has logical plausibility going for it. During the Cold War that logic had some extra oomph, and it’s no surprise that conservatism as a movement succeeded decisively on its anticommunist terms. Yet even the Manichean formulation of High Reaganism was rooted unalterably in the conviction that not all knowledge was simply power, or about power. In danger of dropping out of the conversation that Goldberg would draw Bramwell and the rest of us into is the inheritance without which conservatism is not conservatism — the wisdom that the that the content of the universe is not exhausted by knowledge and power, science and politics, ‘facts’ and ‘values’, method and madness.
Suddenly, the exaggerated umbrage taken by Goldberg at Rod Dreher's neo-traditionalist crunchy conservatism, not to mention other expressions of conservative deviationism, becomes more comprehensible; he is desirous that his readers perceive these ideas as vaguely disquieting and somehow tainted, and to reject them on that basis. This is not a discourse of truth and falsity, but of appearances, associations, imagery - the irrational. It is, of course, the irrational pressed into service of Goldberg's construction of mainstream conservatism, as though he were drawing a medieval map, with Ye Hallowed Land of Conservatism in the center, and the territory beyond distinguished by the caption, "Here be Fascists and other Strange Folks." Stated differently, it the sort of discourse in which one engages when one has presupposed the rightness of one's answers, not deigning to argue for them directly, but only indirectly, by means of the opprobrium one casts at different answers. It is a discourse that rejects authority, properly conceived, for if there is to be authority, things must have natures, and the 'science of truth', as it were, is the recognition and explication of these.
Without any concept in popular conservatism of authority properly understood, nothing in the universe ever will exist beside knowledge and power. I’d argue that a true postmodern conservatism, acknowledging Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault, and the rest, has no illusions about the way that intersubjective power relations can corrupt and distort social and political life, yet retains the precious inheritance of authority properly understood — the understanding, deeper than knowledge, of what is not to be done though we are capable of doing anything to one another and ourselves.
Any sort of study of essences, or, in this case, political forms, must reveal the inadequacy of the methodology behind Liberal Fascism; but then, the intractable identities of different political movements and actors will resist attempts to deface them by means of semantic violence, and what good is that when you have a consensus to police against dissent?
In other words, if you wish to understand fascism, you could do no better than to read Stanley Payne and Roger Griffin; and if you'd like one interesting, if occasionally idiosyncratic, conservative perspective on fascism as a variety of leftism, you could read Kuehnelt-Leddihn. Fascism, like liberalism, is a form of political modernism; it does not follow that they are substantively similar, beyond a handful of formal similarities, such as the valorization of progress and the negation of an historical inheritance.