Sunday, April 17, 2016

In 2016 Can we Learn from the Ideologies of the 20th Century?

Fascism in the 1930s...other versions exist today.
This semester I am teaching a course on 20th century European history.  I suggest to students that one way of understanding much of our content is through a growing series of claims for different kinds of rights by Europeans and people living in European empires in Africa and Asia.  Connected to that framework is the idea that we can understand the 20th century in part through the rise and fall or the ebb and flow of various ideologies which appealed to different people at different times in different places.  Proponents of each of these ideologies had strikingly different things to say about the best balance between citizen and state, individual and society.   
One of these ideologies that is central for understanding the 20th century is liberalism.  In common parlance in the U.S., "liberalism" tends to be a broad and ultimately fairly meaningless term used to characterize ideas of the center and left which offer wildly varying prescriptions for the organization of societies and economies.  As a Europeanist I understand liberalism to mean something fairly particular (although not necessarily coherent), with origins in the 19th century.  
Europeans in the 19th century understood liberalism to signify support for the growth of a broadly secular state, for the expansion of particular civic rights (including the right to vote), and for an economy based on the captivating fiction of the "free market."  The role of the state was to protect a global free market.  In liberal “practice” that meant forcing markets in Asia and Latin America open to prevent local industrialization that would compete with European products and to begin a deluge of European-produced goods into these consumer markets, simultaneously extracting raw materials necessary for the production of those and other goods.  Although liberal states made forays into "law and order" and urban reform, liberals regarded their state's primary purpose as promoting the national interest through a strong military, and rigging global markets for new industrial and financial elites (which they described as the “free market”).
Liberalism gained adherents at the expense of older conservative philosophies about economy and society that had persisted in states where power and wealth were derived from land.  New financial and industrial elites replaced the landed aristocracy in many positions of power, and created a new narrative about the power of liberal ideas to transform lives and livelihoods.  
But large numbers of Europeans living in urban and connected settings developed greater expectations of their state as they saw the benefits of industrialization spread unevenly across society.  Workers increasingly banded together to promote safer working conditions, better compensation and representation, and shorter working hours.
A third 19th century ideology, communism, proved appealing to the working classes that were beginning to dominate numerically in more industrialized European states.  In strong contrast to liberalism, communists tended to emphasize class rather than national solidarity.  They envisioned a transformative role for the working class rather than the middle class.  Crucially, communists advocated a state dominated by the interests of the working class that did not shrink from managing or intervening in the economy.  Indeed, the economy and society were to be engineered to benefit society as a whole rather than those individuals who seemed marked as virtuous by their wealth in liberal society.  And the core industries associated with industrial wealth were to be brought under collective control to ensure that the wealth they generated flowed to the population as a whole rather than accumulating in the hands of the few.
Between the wars, communism represented a strong alternative to liberalism
Communism was extremely alluring throughout the 19th century, although it was not until the early 20th century that it became associated with a state.  Most European states until 1917 could be associated with liberalism or conservatism.  Recognizing the threat that Communism posed to its ideological dominance in industrialized states, some liberals modified their attachment to the free market, and argued for reform.  They also came to promote, both from fear and conviction, the piecemeal development of programs to alleviate the worst of the hardships associated with modern life in an industrialized world.  These "new liberals" sought to finish off the landed aristocracy, and also took key positions in countries like Britain during the First World War when they attempted to harness the powers of the state in the service of an abstract national cause that sent millions of their citizens to die in trenches across Western and Eastern Europe.
After the First World War, however, both liberals and conservatives in government retreated from the deployment of state power in the service of state aims, and broadly reoriented themselves toward the liberal view of the economy and the liberal view of government.  Europeans and others wondered why, if the state could successfully manage a war-time economy to pursue national goals, it could not do the same in peace-time to secure gains for the working and middle class.
Economic tumult shook Europe in the early 1920s, and returned with a vengeance in 1929.  In the face of depression and political violence, liberalism looked frail globally, and liberals looked incomprehensibly dogmatic and dangerous in refusing to acknowledge that there was a role for a strong state in addressing the extraordinary hardship that came to define many people’s lives.
The basic immorality of liberal economics and the dismal failure of the liberal imagination at a moment of economic crisis provided an opening for two other ideologies to enter the scene in the interwar years.
The dysfunctional nature of the Russian government during the First World War, plus a host of historical factors, helped to set the stage for the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which suddenly placed Communism more visibly on the map of European states.  Soviet governments varied in their toleration of market instruments, but in spite of the increasing brutality of that state in the later 1920s and 1930s, it became a model to which some Western Europeans and Americans looked because of the increasing frailty of liberalism during the interwar years.  
Liberalism has proved a pervasive ideology in the 20th century.
The Soviet Union pursued ambitions policies of industrialization and growth, coupled with new modes of social organization that shielded much of the population from the worst of the 1930s.  While the U.S. and Western Europe appeared to crumble in the face of Depression, the Soviet Union looked like a slick, modern, technological state that didn’t shrink from intervening forcefully on behalf of its population.  Western observers often failed to see the spectacular and violent excesses of that state, because at a time when their own populations were subjected to massive, liberal structural violence, their gaze was focused on how the USSR provided a political and economic alternative.
Fascism first grasped state power in Italy during the 1920s, and cast itself as a vital and energetic ideology, better suited to mastering the complexities of a violent and uncertain modern world that seemed plagued by political instability and economic depression.  It emerged in Germany because the crushing effects of depression were coupled with a punitive peace settlement that had blamed Germany for starting the First World War.  Fascists deployed populist rhetoric, but largely allied themselves with "big business."  Fascism deplored liberal and communist cosmopolitanism, attacked the internationalism of the 1920s, and relentlessly promoted the ethnically and linguistically defined Nation as the core unit of social organization.  The rights of individuals were subordinated to the needs of the state.
Fascists used rearmament and the construction of gigantic militaries to lower unemployment numbers, simultaneously stripping others of citizen rights.  They stoked a sense of grievance, encouraging their citizens and subjects to see themselves as surrounded by a threatening world full of lesser people.  They promised to make the racially-defined people “great again” through war and violence, both against the wider world and against groups at home who were defined as subversives.
Fascist states drew the world into a second global conflict in 1939, which led to their defeat.
But in Europe in particular (and the U.S. to a lesser degree), peoples and states realized that the tools of liberalism were unsuited for both war and peace, and that there was a need for developing a new kind of state.  
The growth of social democracy represented perhaps the final real ideological innovation of twentieth century Europe.  Social Democrats cast their ideology as an alternative to both communism and liberalism.  It would preserve the liberal respect for individual civil rights, while marking a sharp break from the glorification of the free market and a non-interventionist state.  It would simultaneously learn from communists’ protections of social and economic rights, while avoiding efforts to extirpate markets altogether.
Social democracies varied across Europe, but they held in common a commitment to an integrated welfare state which in many instances provided a full complement of services relating to health, education, income, and family support to all members of society, free at the point of access, and supported by progressive taxation.  This marked a sharp break from the liberal pursuit of piecemeal social programs that tended to mark those who used them as irresponsible deviants.  In social democratic states, welfare services were universal, and provided points of solidarity and even national pride.
Social democratic states have not avoided social strife or economic uncertainty.  But their fibre has routinely proved far more robust than liberal states.  They might see less growth, but that is coupled by far greater security and far more widespread prosperity.  They have inspired far more trust in their citizens, and the strength of their welfare institutions have been far less vulnerable in moments of global and national volatility.
Social democracy has proved far better equipped to handle the challenges of the 20th century.
As we contemplate our candidates for the presidency in 2016, U.S. citizens are confronted by individuals who represent a few of these twentieth century ideologies.  Since the 1970s, the U.S. has been dominated by a broadly liberal consensus, involving most Republicans and Democrats.  Elected officials from those two parties have shared a general commitment to a state that sees its primary mission as strong national defense (which has led to the growth of a rogue national security state...a story for another post); to the creation and maintenance of a range of poorly funded, piecemeal social programs that carry with them strong stigmas for the poor; to a reluctance to develop cohesive welfare programs; and to a fantasy that balancing a budget is a virtuous end in itself, rather than a highly political process that determines the fate of 300 million people.
To be sure, the Republican Party was less committed to those social programs than the Democrats, and its members tended to be more evangelical on the question of “free markets”, brandishing the word like some fetish to ward off the realities of the unequal world they had created.
The right-ward shift and more open racism of the Republican Party over the past eight years has generated candidates like Donald Trump.  He maintains a commitment to the basic immorality and inconsistency of liberal “free market” economics, but combines it with rhetorical populism (which he in turn entirely ignores in his tax plans).  He also adds an intense nationalism, xenophobia, and attack on a failed political consensus of which he was part and from which he benefited.  In this respect, he and most of the Republican party are shifting towards a variant of fascism.
This is unsurprising given the damage liberal economics have done to our country over the past decades, and the economic uncertainty we have faced.  While social democratic Europe largely committed itself to a full employment economy, the U.S. embraced the liberal terror of inflation and accepted as a fact of life that large numbers of people can be unemployed, often attacking the unemployed as morally depraved.
If Trump and Cruz represent the rise of fascism at a moment of liberal frailty, Hillary Clinton represents that liberalism.  She recognizes the problems of untethered liberal economics, but her remedy is a series of disconnected social programs that are designed to treat the symptom rather than the disease.  Partly because of socialization, and partly out of conviction, Clinton refuses to contemplate the benefits of social democracy, even dismissing them as un-American when it comes to higher education.
Bernie Sanders represents an imperfect and moderate version of social democracy, asking us to create a new kind of state.  His politics would put him on the right-wing of most European social democratic parties, but he represents a radical break for the U.S.  He is arguing for a small version of the kind of package of interlinked programs that transformed destitute European states in the 1940s and 1950s and dramatically enhanced the lives of their citizens.
The 1930s were a moment when the weaknesses of liberalism were exposed, and when people who were fearful and angry with their dysfunctional states turned to extreme ideologies like fascism.  The creation of social democratic welfare states in the 1940s and 1950s was designed to give people another kind of state: a stronger, more accountable, more responsive state that was respectful of economic rights as well as civil rights.  

We never had that moment in the U.S., and today we again find our liberal state inadequate to the task.  People here are now tempted by the hatred and substanceless populism of Republican fascism.  We should confront that fascism wherever we find it.  But we should also be aware that the half-measures of liberalism do not represent the only alternative, and that there are historical precedents and existing examples of alternative--better--states that people have created to address the pressing desires and needs of their citizens.  

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