Several weeks ago, in a comment on my post about David Bentley Hart's essay on American religion in The New Criterion , Rob G mentioned another TNC piece, this one by William Gairdner, called "Getting Used to the F-Word," saying it was "even better" than Hart's. I had read it when it came out, and not been especially struck by it. But at Rob's recommendation I read it again, and it's been on my mind a good deal since. My opinion of it is mixed, but its main point is one that seems increasingly accurate, and has been supported by certain events of the past week or two.
The f-word referred to in the title is not the one you think, and the subject is not obscenity and crudeness in entertainment and everyday life. The f-word is fascism, and the subject is the increasingly tight regulation of our lives by the state.
One reason for my lukewarm initial reaction was that use of the term "fascism" has been more or less mindless for a long time, so much so as to often seem a joke in itself. For the most part none but the most inflamed political partisans use it seriously, and when they do they're likely to be scoffed at. (Variants like "Islamofascism" still have a bit of life in them.) As early as 1945 George Orwell had observed that 'almost any English person would accept "bully" as a synonym for "Fascist".' In recent years it has even seemed that the word had become so exhausted that it might fall back into application only in the fairly narrow literal sense, referring to the specific Italian political movement and its close relatives, a development which would have cheered many who like for words to have clear and stable meanings.
I do think that as a matter of rhetoric Gairdner was unwise to use the word "fascism" for the phenomenon he discusses. Once, perhaps, we generally reacted with alarm to it; now many of us don't take it seriously, and take even less seriously those who bandy it in reference to current political developments. But he might ask "What better word is there?" and it's true that there is not a ready and convenient alternative. "Totalitarianism" comes closest, but it's somewhat clumsy.
Use of the f-word is not the only thing about the essay that I find somewhat unsatisfactory. I don't think all his arguments and examples are persuasive. And there are some key points on which I don't clearly understand him. And yet: I keep coming back to what seems the essential correctness of his essential point. He discusses what he calls "macrofascism," meaning the brutally violent, aggressive, and repressive movements in Germany and Italy that produced World War II and were destroyed by it. He emphasizes not so much their violence per se but the rationale for the violence, which was to bring everything in the life of a nation (and eventually the world) into conformity with a single will and purpose.
These recent forms of Macro-fascism, whether French, Italian, German, or Russian, have always been collectivist, secular, and militant, striving through the fearsome top-down powers of the State to draw all things into the ambit of a single pattern of national -- or in the case of Communism, international -- Will, or centralized choosing, a Will always expressed by the subjugation and assimilation by force of things spontaneous, private, and natural, to artificial and unnatural public designs.
Some will object to the inclusion of Russia and communism in that list, but it's always seemed to me that communism and fascism are far more alike than different, and in the sense that Gairdner is using the term "fascism" it certainly applies (though the inevitable argument about that is, to return to my first objection, one of the problems with the usage.) The European varieties of macro-fascism were throughly discredited and abominated by and after WWII, and there seems little risk of their being revived in anything much like their original form. Communism is no longer much of a political force, though in a vaguer form it has maintained its hold on a great many intellectuals. But the desire for control, to bring everything into order by the power of the state, remains as strong as ever.
In liberal democracies the desire is very self-consciously benevolent, and imposes itself gently, in the gradual construction of a web of laws and regulations which grows ever finer and tighter, but is hardly noticed unless or until one tries to move out of it. Since these are always directed toward making someone better off, not to repression, they don't require violence and aren't resisted very strongly. And even those who are penalized or restricted in the process are generally the beneficiaries of some other manifestation of it, so that they complain only about what specifically burdens them, and are no more interested than anyone else in trying to weaken the web as a whole. This, I think, is what Gairdner calls micro-fascism:
So it seems that in a pragmatic response to the dark failures of the Macro form, a softer Micro-fascism, also rooted in a much earlier intellectual tradition, has emerged slowly in the second half of the twentieth century, and is now in full bloom as our most pervasive and therefore most invisible political religion. It has produced an historically unprecedented type of polity characterized by a radically individualistic and autonomist ethic that nevertheless, and rather ironically seeks to organize itself as a national inventory of common public orthodoxies expressed, not as a collective triumph of the Will over nature, as in the past, but instead as the triumph of the Will of each and every individual over his or her own individual nature.
I'm with him up to the second half of the second sentence, beginning with "and rather...". I'm not 100% sure what he means by "a national inventory of common public orthodoxies"; I suppose it refers to various liberal (in the non-classical sense) doctrines concerning sex, race, secularism, and so forth. And I'm not convinced that these doctrines represent primarily "the triumph of the Will of each and every individual over his or her own individual nature." At least I wouldn't put it that way; his preceding mention of the "radically individualist and autonomist ethic" is clearer and, I think, more significant.
But, as I noted in the beginning, I do think that this urge to bring everything under the control of one central government, for the good of all, is the predominant note of what we call liberalism or progressivism. The benevolent intention is genuine, and that makes it very easy for liberals to believe that opposition to their ideas can only be motivated by anti-benevolence. (I think the left in general is more morally confident than the right; conservatives are easily put on the defensive, liberals less so.)
Well, if most people benefit in some way, and no one is being executed or tortured or sent to a concentration camp, where's the harm?--a shallow question with a deep answer that isn't generally taken seriously by those who ask the question. The resolution of the seeming paradox that Gairdner notes--increasing control at the service of increasing freedom--is in the fact that the presumption of absolute personal autonomy, the rule of the imperial self, prevails only in certain respects, above all in sexual freedom, which seems to be the real religion of a great many influential people. More importantly, it's a religion favored by the state, at least when liberals are in power, and when that religion begins to conflict with others we can see the seriously oppressive potential of the net of laws.
Which brings me to those recent events I mentioned, the main one being the Obama administration's move to require that Catholic institutions provide insurance covering contraception and sterilization to their employees. Among other things, this points up the folly of trying to impose a rigidly uniform and detailed health care system on a very diverse nation. (What, you thought diversity was supposed to be a good thing? Yes, but not the kind that leaves people free to do what progressives do not wish them to do.)
More fundamentally, what we see stirring here is the old enemy of the Church, Caesar, insisting again that he is the real God, the one you really have to obey in the end. You can have your rites and superstitions, he says; you can do what you like in your private worship. But you must acknowledge that Caesar is supreme. In this matter, as in the movement to establish rights for homosexuality at the expense of religious freedom, we're seeing the beginning of a real effort to subjugate the Church. Whether or not one thinks "microfascism" is a good word to describe the machinery in operation here, it's an ominous development, and ought to be recognized for what it is.
As for Obama: I didn't vote for him in 2008 but I respected him. I no longer do. His conciliatory and unifying rhetoric was hot air. Or rather, what he seems to have meant is that conciliation and unity are to be achieved by our doing as he wishes--which does, after all, have more than a hint of fascism about it.