(In)frequent commentary on American history, contemporary politics, and culture

The End of the American World System

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The End of the American World System 

The American World-System, inaugarated in the aftermath of World War II, is on its last legs. America remains a superpower - the biggest superpower - and will continue to do so, at least into the near-term future. However, the system of Pax Americana, or American hegemony, or the American World System is close to finished. Why, and why should we care? I'll explain below.

Firstly, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and America's ensuing War on Terror mark a significant break with America's traditional strategic partners. This break has been ratified by Bush's recent reelection. Simply put, very few people outside this country's borders view the post-9/11 world through lenses similar to even the Democratic Party's or garden variety liberals, to say nothing of the American right. No longer do European or East Asian nations - to say nothing of the "global south" - view America's primary global concerns as their own. And this is highly unlikely to change. But why should this matter, many in this country ask?

Well, the US currently has a choice (or at least it had one, I don't know if it does anymore). It can maintain the world system it created in the aftermath of World War II, which succesfully integrated Western Europe, East Asia, and a significant number of third world client states into its sphere of influence. Although there were frequent grumblings and in some cases, challenges, to this US-instituted system, the peoples of these nations broadly looked to the United States for political, moral, economic, and military leadership, if for no other reason than that the Soviet alternative was unpalatable. And indeed, many nations gained much from this arrangement. The "Euro zone," Great Britain, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and some others profited greatly from a globalized world constructed under the watchful eye of the American aegis. This was termed by its American proponents the "American century," a phrase coined by Time/Life magnate Henry Luce during World War II, imagining the potential postwar world order.

It is no accident that the neoconservative thinkers and policy makers term their recent project the "Project for the New American Century," because they want to maintain and perpetuate this American aegis, albeit through different means than the earlier American century. However, there are major, fatal flaws with their vision, even getting beyond moral or leftist critiques about the desirability of American hegemony. Firstly, when Luce's American Century was formed the United States was truly unrivaled in terms of its power. Sure, the American military retains the kind of advantage (or even a larger advantage) vis-a-vis the rest of the world than it did in 1945. But this is perhaps more an indication of the fundamental weakness of America's global position, not its strength. Indeed, the US represented an astonishing 50% of global productivity in 1945. Today, it represents 30%. 30% is still a lot, and it is enough to make the United States's economy the largest in the world (depending on how you configure the European Community), but it faces a series of significant and growing economic rivals, most notably China and the EU (and potentially, India). Simply put, these economic powers do not need the US in the way that the rest of the world needed the US in 1945. But also, the Soviet/communism threat was real and existential to many of these regions in the postwar period in a way that the rag-tag gang of Islamic nihilists we face simply do not, no matter how hard the righty editorialists and thinkers exclaim.

This is why the "project for the new American century's" desire to create a new American world system outside the older systems insitiutions and rules - like the UN, which were instituted to enhance, not reduce American power, economic, military, and moral - will not succeed, and will probably only work to facilitate the very American system's decline they hope to perpetuate. Because the EU and China and Japan and series of other nations can operate with a degree of economic autonomy not possible during the formative years of the post-World War II order and because they simply don't interpret terrorism as the kind of threat many in the US do, there is no need to follow the US. Increasingly, then, the rest of the world looks at the US with incomprehension and sometimes fear, worrying its rash and uber-hawkish behavior is doing more harm than good to the proper functioning of the global economy. To use an anology, the US is like an alcoholic who in his early stages of his disease, was the life of the party, but in his terminal stages, becomes dangerously anti-social. This is the view of this country from abroad, and it is not a view simply held by those traditionally hostile to the projection of US power - i.e. the leftists who opposed the US during the Cold War around the world. This is mainstream. In some ways, this antipathy becomes a mutually reinforcing cycle, as the US's moral and economic power declines, Americans - particularly American rightists like thos currently in power - become more and more inclined to flex their one real advantage, this country's extraodinary military power. This does not gain the US economic and moral legitimacy, however, but rather facilitates a further erosion of not only the United States's moral credibility, but also its economic power, as the global capitalist cast no longer feels it can trust a United States literally drunk on its own delusions of grandeur and unsustainable consumption levels. Thus, global capitalists begin to sink their money into sources outside the US.

This week, the Economist - a vital publication for understanding the fundamental mind of the global capitalist cast - published a frankly extraordinary article about this very process, ostensibly about the current decline of the dollar. Below I quote from these articles at length:

The dollar's share of global foreign-exchange reserves has already fallen from 80% in the mid-1970s to around 65% today. And yet does the dollar really risk losing its status as the world's main currency? The same question was asked in the early 1990s after the dollar's previous long slide, but the dollar's pre-eminence survived. Then, however, there was no alternative to the dollar. Today the euro exists, and could yet emerge as a rival to the greenback.

The requirements of a reserve currency are a large economy, open and deep financial markets, low inflation and confidence in the value of the currency. At current exchange rates the euro area's economy is not that much smaller than America's; the euro area is also the world's biggest exporter; and since the creation of the single currency, European financial markets have become deeper and more liquid. It is true that the euro area has had slower real GDP growth than America. But in dollar terms the euro area's economic weight has actually grown relative to America's over the past five years.

Where the dollar has failed is as a store of value. Since 1960 the dollar has fallen by around two-thirds against the euro (using Germany's currency as a proxy before 1999) and the yen (see chart 1). The euro area, unlike America, is a net creditor. Never before has the guardian of the world's main reserve currency been its biggest net debtor. And a debtor may be tempted to use devaluation to reduce its external deficit--hardly a desirable property for a reserve currency.

Those bearish on the dollar are asking why investors will want to hold the assets of a country that has, by its own actions, jeopardised its reserve-currency position. And, they point out, without the intervention of central banks, which have been huge net buyers of dollars, the dollar would already be lower. If those same central banks were to begin to sell some of their $2.3 trillion dollar assets, then there would be a risk of a collapse in the dollar. However you look at it, America is likely to find it increasingly hard to finance its huge current-account deficit. . . .In 1913, at the height of its empire, Britain was the world's biggest creditor. Within 40 years, after two costly world wars and economic mismanagement, it became a net debtor and the dollar usurped sterling's role. Dislodging an incumbent currency can take years. Sterling maintained a central international role for at least half a century after America's GDP overtook Britain's at the end of the 19th century. But it did eventually lose that status.

If America continues on its current profligate path, the dollar is likely to suffer a similar fate. But in future no one currency, such as the euro, is likely to take over. Instead, the world might drift towards a multiple reserve-currency system shared among the dollar, the euro and the yen (or indeed the yuan at some time in the future).

Yesterday, the Financial Times weighed in with another astonishing article, that Josh Marshall quotes:

Oil exporters have sharply reduced their exposure to the US dollar over the past three years, according to data from the Bank for International Settlements.

Members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries have cut the proportion of deposits held in dollars from 75 per cent in the third quarter of 2001 to 61.5 per cent.

Middle Eastern central banks have reportedly switched reserves from dollars to euros and sterling to avoid incurring losses as the dollar has fallen and prepare for a shift away from pricing oil exports in dollars alone.

Private Middle East investors are believed to be worried about the prospect of US-held assets being frozen as part of the war on terror, leading to accelerated dollar-selling after the re-election of President George W. Bush.

Frankly, I was not aware of these trends, but they tend to reconfirm what I argue above and what I have felt for a long time. (The Economist posts some fascinating graphs demonstrating that the American economy's relative decline is not simply a short term aberration, but is systematic and long-standing. It only receives attention during particularly acute periods of decline like that experienced during the second half of the 1970s, the late 1980s, and today. But it has always been there. Unfortunately, I can't seem to cut and paste these charts. But go look for yourself.). Needless to say, what this all means is that we are moving towards a world without one dominant global hegemon, but towards a return to a world system predicated on a "balance of powers."

For all his faults, Tony Blair understands this and has made the point repeatedly in speeches. Hence, his staunch support for the US, which is most of all an attempt to rebind the United States to its traditional post World War II role of responsible consensus-building. Unfortunately for Tony Blair, he is swimming against powerful currents - in his own country, in American, in Europe, everywhere, that no longer want, need, or desire the old America.

Any Democratic critique of Bush's foreign policy must start from this truly global perspective. That is why the whole Beinert debate is kind of tedious to me and fundamentally misses the point, or loses the forest in the trees to use an analogy. It is too focused on the Middle East and terrorism - both very important issues, no doubt - without seeing the broader context. Its focus, is, how should I say, fundamentally American, and in important ways completely misses how the US's concerns and their relative importance relate to the functioning of a succesful world system. Simply put, to be a global leader, you have to be able to understand what those who would conceivably follow you think about you and how you are leading. If your leadership loses its credibility or importance, it is no longer leadership no matter what you may think or how many stealth bombers you have. In this sense the Bush foreign policy direction has become a classic pursuit of national interest. It is not "internationalist," nor are many of its opponents "isolationist." The "isolationist" epithet - used to denigrate those who question the American policy in Iraq - is thus a lazy canard played by lazy and ignorant folks too stuck in their own assumptions to see the big picture. Now this "national interest" turn may be fine, and you may (and many would perceive it as) conceive it as necessary or most desirable. But don't try to pretend you have the moral high ground or get fooled by Bush's cod-Wilsonian rhetorical gloss.
| Peter Beinert, liberalism, and terrorism

Friday, December 03, 2004

Peter Beinert, liberalism, and terrorism 

Peter Beinert's recent piece in the New Republic arguing for a more "serious" liberal approach to the war on terrorism is good, if only because of the discussion it has provoked. He makes a number of good points, but his analysis is also full of faulty assumptions and sophmoric historical analogies.

Firstly, I'd like to say is that the fact that Islamic terrorism is a threat is to state the bleeding obvious. At the very least, the world/we need to minimize and marginalize its relevence. But I definetly take issuse with all of these half assed WW II and even Cold War analogies that completely overestimate the power of Bin Ladin and his minions. Even if 10 9/11s happen - God forbid - in the next year, it still doesn't change the fact that Al Qaeda and its fellow travellers has no chance of achieving anything substantive outside of the Islamic World. That it could take over, say, Saudii Arabia or Pakistan is a big worry, but invading Iraq does nothing to solve this problem. I don't think the Iraq venture has been as big a disaster as some, but I also think at best it will be a net wash for the US's interests, with a strong likelihood of it being somewhat a net negative.

The most likely outcome at this point is the election of a "Aytollah-lite" government with the continuation of weak security, crappy infrasturcture, and a low level civil war with the potential of Iraq to dissolve into several nations within 5 years. Iraq isn't going to be any kind of model. There are already a number of quasi-democracies in the Middle East - Iran, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine - of which Iraq is soon to join. The whole Germany/Japan analogy is laughable, and ignores the massive differences between the several societies.

How this works in terms of politics is frankly irrelevent to me. If the Dems continue to lose, so be it. Eventually, an alternative to the GOP will rise and claim power, probably sooner than some think. Beinert's article is symptomatic of this whole Carville/Begala/Shrum thinking that only considers the next election, triage through triangulation, if you will. And this is what makes Beinert's proposal, in part, smell bad. Because its ultimately more about poltiics than principle. The Americans know the Rs stand on principle, and this is large measure why they win more than tthey lose. The Ds, on the other hand, don't. We need to offer a serious and practical vision to deal with terrorism/Islamism and many of the other threats and challenges besides. But we need to stand on principle, at least in the short term. Our policies and our compromises flow from there. And these principles don't include believing that Al Qaeda is somehow akin to a modern-day Nazism or Communism in any serious analysis of its geopolitical strength and potentiality. Ideologically speaking, the Cold War/WW II analogy is fine. Geopolitically speaking, it is absurd. And this ultimately the difference between liberals and conservatives.
| On Dean, the Left, and the Anglo-American Political Tradition

Thursday, December 02, 2004

On Dean, the Left, and the Anglo-American Political Tradition 

So it now appears that the New Republic has fired a shot across the bow of the "Dean for DNC" groundsell. Much of their criticism of Dean appears predicated on the fact that Dean would represent a "move left." This disappoints me. Not that I was or am a big Dean person. Because I didn't support him for President. But Dean appeals to me, but not because he is "a man of the left." Its much more complicated than that.

From what I can glean, Dean's appeal in 2003 was twofold. Firstly, and more simply - what folks like those at the TNR and the more clueless members of the "liberal establishment" like Nick Kristoff at the NYT or Richard Cohen at the WaPo see when they see Dean - is his opposition to the Iraq War. To these folks, they see Dean as the return to liberalism's "McGovernite" impulse. Many of these folks came of age politically during the 1960s and 1970s, and view liberalism's problems primarily through a Vietnam War prism. However, I think this fundamentally misses Dean's appeal and the fervor he attracted. Sure, part of Dean's support came from what can be termed rather crudely (and perhaps unfairly) the "Michael Moore" left, who sees the fundamental problem in the world today as America. However, if this were really his appeal, why would these folks have backed Dean, and not, say, Dennis Kucinich? After all, Kucinich was the most "McGovernite" candidate in the field.

No, what Dean represents is a one of what I view to be two of the crucial missing pieces of a renewed and ascendant liberalism. Dean represented a creative approach to American politics and to liberalism more specifically, a liberalism that remembers that "big government" is not an end in and of itself, but only exists as a "necessary evil" sometimes to protect against the ways in which unchecked corporate power can be just as destructive of liberty as government oppression. When Herbert Croly founded the (aformentioned) New Republic in 1912, designed to be American progressivism's leading journal, he understood this. His intellectual goal was for the American left to achieve "Jeffersonian ends through Hamiltonian means."   Sometime in the 1960s, the reason why liberals supported government imposition was forgotten and the programs - and defense of New Deal programs - themselves became the ends, not the means to a greater good - the Democratic Party became too much a party of both Hamiltonian ends and means. This is what the Reagan revolution took advantage of - it promised to achieve Jeffersonian ends through Jeffersonian means. But the current GOP has come adrift from this message - it now wants to achieve Hamiltonian ends through Jeffersonian mean.

This represents a key and troubling departure for the GOP, one that offers liberals a golden opportunity. But we have to seize it, however. We can't continue as what I term the "prescription drug benefit" party if we are to fully seize the moment.. Its not that a "prescirption drug benefit" wouldn't be a good thing, and I think most Americans know this. But, too often, it seems that when Democrats suggest or propose programs like these, it just seems like politics, another way to get into office, to get the American people dependent on a kind of federal patronage. Rather than being proposed for reasons of liberty or freedom or morality, it is simply proposed as a pragmatic (read bureaucratic) solution. In his own funny way, I think Dean gets this. The most successful Democratic candidates do - Clinton, Carter, Obama. But the Democratic Party and many of its leading lights do not.

This lead me to my second point. The moral dimension of politics. Now when I say "moral politics," I'm not talking about George Lakoff. Rather, I'm talking about a venerable tradition of the Anglo-American left. This tradition is especially clear in Britain. From Gladstone in the 19th century to the Labour Party in the 20th, the British left has been Britain's "moral conscience." Indeed, as late as the 1960s, 50% of Labour's Parliamentary MPs were religious non--conformists (read Methodists, Baptists, Quakers) who have traditionally been the well-spring of British reformism and social democracy. Indeed, one could argue that the decline of religiousity in Britain in the last 50 years has cost the British left dearly.

 That the same cannot be said of the American left in all its guises is scandolous, particularly in a country still as pious as the United States. Why is it that the aforementioned Clinton, Carter, and Obama have been some are leading lights in the last quarter century? Because they live and deeply undersand this "moral politics" that in Britain would be known as "Christian socialism." Its not because they're from the South, its not because they're "moderate," its not because they're favored by the DLC. No, its because they speak the language of moral politics. At the end of the day, Christianity is utopic as is (and should be) the left.

The left has simply forgotten these things. It has forgotten how to be the strongest proponent of human freedom in this country. It has forgotten to speak to the utopic desires inherent in humanity. It has forgotten to speak of the Christian Brotherhood of Man. It needs to remember these things.

| Return of the King

Return of the King 

Well, not quite. I've finally got a little bit of time to dedicate to this enterprise, as well as a more coherent idea of what my blog should be. In other words, a place for random essays encapsulating my thinking on world affairs, academia, history, and politics. For those interested in participating, the comment section could be a place for earnest philosophical discussion - a cyber-salon, if you will. DKos, for example, although great, is not entirely the best place for this ambition. Mydd isn't bad, but I can't count on all my posts getting frontpaged by the indemoninable Chris Bowers. So, benpiggot.blogpsot.com it is.
| Conservatism vs. "Conservatism"

Friday, March 26, 2004

Conservatism vs. "Conservatism" 

"I am a conservative because I'm for change" - Senator Roger Jespen of Iowa, as quoted in Godfrey Hodgson's "The World Turned Right Side Up"

conservative / adj / 1 a adverse to change; b (of views, taste, etc) moderate; avoding extremes

Now by the dictionary definition, I am a conservative. I distrust radical change, and believe more often than not, radical change does more harm than good. I distrust "populism" and think that referendums are often a recipe for disaster, as the voting public does not have the necessary information to make informed decisions on a lot of issues. I mean, as recently as a year ago, more than 50% of the public (in some polls) still believed Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks. I want this public to make complex decisions on tax issues?

On the canard that the Republican Party is conservative. This is essentially conventional wisdom - ie "conservative Republican George Bush." The truth is that the Republican Party is not a conservative party, or at least is not anymore. It is a right-wing populist party. The modern Republican Party is more the Party of George Wallace than it is the Party of Barry Goldwater, to say nothing of Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln.

As a side note, I implore you all to read Godfrey Hodgson's "The World Turned Right Side Up." It is easily the best account of "how we got here" politically I've ever read. Not insignificantly, Hodgson is British. I'll return to why the British context matters in my next post.

Ben P

| The Missile "Defense" Gap

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Missile "Defense" Gap 

Now that Richard Clarke is making headlines across the country about the Bush administration's failure to view terrorism as an urgent national priority, I thought it would be instructive to revisit the summer of 2001.

Now, I'm not talking about Gary Condit and shark attacks here. Rather, what was the big Bush administration foreign policy story during the summer? As I recall, it was the administration's desire to abandon the 1972 ABM treaty and go forward with a missile defense shield that caused the biggest stir. Clarke's testimony - and I gather, his book - makes this point, stating that Russia, Iraq, and Missile Defense were the new administration's highest priorities once they came into office.

I remember thinking at the time - and hearing another of media types and beltway "experts" say - that missile defense was not the appropriate approach to take considering what were potentially the biggest threats to American security at the time - terrorist attacks by groups like Al Qaeda. What good is a missile defense shield against what seemed to me a far more likely threat - that a group like Al Qaeda would smuggle in a nuclear device on a ship? Of course, Al Qaeda didn't go the dirty-bomb-in-a-cargo-container route, but the fact of the matter is that the 9/11 highjacking/suicide mission could not have been prevented by missile defense. Nor is it likely that any future attack by a group like Al Qaeda would be deterred or prevented by missile defense. Madrid, Bali, Israel, Istambul, etc. are further evidence of this. As an analogy - if you are trying to keep snakes off your property, you don't put up a barbed-wire fence designed to keep cattle away.

The obsession with missile defense seems to me to get to the heart of what is wrong with the whole Bush administration counter-terrorism strategy. They are trying to shoehorn the current enemy into a Cold War framework - the weapons, the ideology, the focus on nation-states are all relics of a prior era. Not surprising, considering most of Bush's foreign policy advisers earned their chops as hardline Cold Warriors during the Reagan administration. As Bush said occasionally after 9/11 this is "a new kind of war." Too bad his policies don't address this reality.

| Warren Susman and American Politics

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Warren Susman and American Politics 

I just began reading Warren Susman's classic work, "Culture as History," really a collection of Susman's essays that have shaped a generation of American historical scholarship. This piece's reputation is well-founded, as I found 2 pages in, where one of his paragraph's struck me right between the eyes. Its not often that I read a passage that makes me get up and walk around, too stimulated to continue reading immediately, but this was one of them.

"Simply put, one of the fundamental conflicts of 20th century America is between two cultures - an older culture, often loosely labeled Puritan-republican, producer-capitalist culture, and a newly emerging culture of abundance. If 20th century American politics rarely carries the burden of ideological conflict, there was nonetheless a significant and profound clash between different moral orders. The battle was between rival perceptions of the world, different visions of life. It was cultural and social, never merely or centrally political." - Warren Susman, "Culture as History: The Transformation of American Politics in the 20th Century, 2003 edition" (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2003), xx.

Now, superficially, Susman's passage can be taken as describing the "culture wars" that have swept across the landscape since the 1960s and have revolved around issues like gay rights, feminism, drugs, urbanity, and such. Really, these kind of conflicts existed to at least as great an extent throughout the 20th century, with issues like prohibition, Catholicism, and immigration serving as flashpoints earlier in the century. But I think more essential to Susman's argument is the idea that this cultural and social conflict has not primarily been political. In truth, the "culture of abundance" does not have a party to carry its standard. Important segments of the Republican and Democratic Party are quite hostile to this "culture of abundance." Witness the city of Portland, Oregon, essentially a 21st century New England town. If one goes to Portland, one is struck by the degree to which Portland is haven for what I term "secular Puritanism." That people wait at traffic lights even when cars aren't coming is perhaps the most exemplerary manifestation of this "secular Puritanism." Why? How absurd, my east coast self thinks. Also, the "healthy lifestyle" self-righteousness strikes me as another manifestation - all the "outdoor sports," hiking, camping, vegetarianism just strike me as a rejection of rampant consumerism and cosmpolitanism that in reality, are the defining features of modern American (European? East Asian?) life.

Thus, "Puritanism" cuts across the left and right - the right has Focus on the Family, while the left has, well, Portland, Oregon. It strikes me that the current political landscape is so volatile and polarized partially because of the internal contradictions that exist within both major parties. Both are strongly influenced by both parts of the cultural divide Susman identifies.
| Offside?


I've long believed the fact that soccer isn't popular in the US, but in most other countries is by far the most popular sport is kind of synectodote for the way the US perceives the world. Even America's amongst America's strongest world allies - Great Britain and Israel - soccer is easily the most popular sport. (on a side note, the nature of Israeli culture - at least at it exists in Tel Aviv and Haifa - would probably shock some of its strongest supporters in the US, but this a topic for another post).

There's actually a book on this topic, called "Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism," which is worth reading, but still doesn't really get to the heart of the matter, IMO. Also interesting is that every time the World Cup rolls around, we as Americans are greeted by an outpouring of bile about how "soccer sucks" and the rest of the world is somehow crazy for thinking its great. I remember reading a story in - surprise - the National Review on this topic several years ago.

Of course, I was born in England and used to cry when Manchester United lost - which they did a lot more when I was a kid, the Alex Ferguson renaissance didn't begin until the early 90s - and half of my extended family lives in England.
| The Christian Left?

The Christian Left? 

One of the themes that will be a recurring part of my blog is the role of religion in politics, as well as issues of spirituality and morality more generally.

Many of those who consider themselves "nonreligious" acquire a false idea about the role religion plays in constructing the worldview of Americans, particularly politically aware Americans. The "So-Called Liberal Media" (hereafter referred to in my blog as the SCLM) does a particularly poor job in this department, depicting Christians as a bunch of modern day William Jennings Bryans. This actually is an area where the idea of the "liberal media" does pass muster, as it is true that the national media is very secular in comparison to the American population as a whole. But on a whole host of other issues, the media "center" is quite conservative. But this is for another post. The media - and with them, America's secular warriors - frequently assume that all evangelical Christians are Pat Robertson clones. False. The reality is much more complicated - not by any means are they a monolithic group of right wing "yahoos." Here I think to an article from the American Prospect that fleshes this out clearly - http://www.prospect.org/print/V15/4/mcgarvey-a.html

Also, for those interested, take a look at Sojourners magazine, online at www.sojo.org

And, I would also recommend viewing the documentary, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," which does a very good job of showing how evangelical Christianity is expereinced. For my money, Jim and Tammy Faye come across as true Christians, whereas Jerry Falwell comes across as a power hungry Machiavelli, using Chrisitianity to further his own personal power trip. I'll comment more on this at a future date.

| Proto-Fascism in America - Could it really "happen" here?

Monday, March 22, 2004

Proto-Fascism in America - Could it really "happen" here? 

I have long been dismissive of those who equate Bush to Hitler, viewing such people as engaging in reckless hyperbole. Now, I still DO NOT think that Bush and co represent fascism. However, after reading Dave Niewert's piece (Neiwert wrote a book on the militia movement about 5 years ago, entitled "In God's Country," on the subject) at http://www.cursor.org/stories/fascismi.php, I do believe that groups like the freerepublic and individuals like Ann Coulter and Michael Savage, and to a lesser extent Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and David Horowitz do suggest a very dangerous, proto-fascist tendancy in American society. Call this a bit of a wake-up call.

To elaborate, I think that the American political center has been pushed so far to the right that groups and people like this are seen to present legitimate "conservative" opinion, while viewpoints that are merely "conservative" (in historical and intellectual terms), like the Washington Post and the Economist become "centrist," "moderate," or even "liberal" by comparison. While Bush does not represent fascism, his election does allow for truly proto-fascist voices to gain a hearing. It allows the debate to shift further in a direction favorable to their views.

For a more specific explanation, I reference Umberto Eco's essay on what he terms "Ur-Fascist," the fascist tendancy and worldview that exists independently of a political party or political power. Read Eco's points, and you will be scared the degree to which people like Savage and Coulter fit them:

Eternal Fascism:
Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt

By Umberto Eco

Writing in New York Review of Books, 22 June 1995, pp.12-15. Excerpted in Utne Reader, November-December 1995, pp. 57-59.

The following version follows the text and formatting of the Utne Reader article, and in addition, makes the first sentence of each numbered point a statement in bold type. Italics are in the original.

For the full article, consult the New York Review of Books, purchase the full article online; or purchase Eco's new collection of essays: Five Moral Pieces.

In spite of some fuzziness regarding the difference between various historical forms of fascism, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

* * *

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition.

Traditionalism is of course much older than fascism. Not only was it typical of counterrevolutionary Catholic thought after the French revolution, but is was born in the late Hellenistic era, as a reaction to classical Greek rationalism. In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of the faiths indulgently accepted by the Roman pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages -- in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little-known religions of Asia.

This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, "the combination of different forms of belief or practice;" such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a sliver of wisdom, and although they seem to say different or incompatible things, they all are nevertheless alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.

As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.

If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge -- that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism.

Both Fascists and Nazis worshipped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon blood and earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life. The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action's sake.

Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Hermann Goering's fondness for a phrase from a Hanns Johst play ("When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun") to the frequent use of such expressions as "degenerate intellectuals," "eggheads," "effete snobs," and "universities are nests of reds." The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.

In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity.

Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.

That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old "proletarians" are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.

This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the United States, a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson's The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.

When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers of Ur-Fascism must also be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.

Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such "final solutions" implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.

Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people in the world, the members or the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians. In fact, the Leader, knowing that his power was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero.

In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Spanish Falangists was Viva la Muerte ("Long Live Death!"). In nonfascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters.

This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons -- doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.

In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view -- one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

Because of its qualitative populism, Ur-Fascism must be against "rotten" parliamentary governments. Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, as the official language of what he called Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

* * *

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, "I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares." Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances -- every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt's words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: "If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land." Freedom and liberation are an unending task.

Umberto Eco (c) 1995

Return to Eco's Writings

This is really scary stuff.

| Show me the money!

Show me the money! 

Two great sites that allow you to view how much individuals have donated to various candidates:

Firstly, the better and less well known site: http://herndon1-sdrdc.com/fecimg/norindsea.html (disclaimer: I am currently an html idiot, so I don't think this will appear as hypertext. However, I'll try to learn a bit more now that I have a blog)

Secondly: http://www.fundrace.org - do a "neighborhood" search, that allows you to search individuals by name and by zip code (if you're interested in the people donating to various candidates from your surrounding neighborhood). The one drawback to the fundrace site is that it only tracks contributions for the 2004 presidential election, whereas the herndon site goes back several cycles, and tracks contributions to congressional, state, and local races.

To get you (all 2 of you? am I being optimistic?) excited, I'll show you a bit of what I've turned up on my own:

Sean "P Diddy" Combs - $2000 to Al Sharpton
Ben Affleck - $2000 to Wes Clark, $1000 to Dennis Kucinich
Jeffrey Lurie, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles - $2000 to GWB
Alex "A Rod" Rodriguez - $2000 to GWB
Rupert Murdoch - $2000 to GWB, although in the past, he has given to a number of Democrats (interesting)
Troy Aikman - $2000 to GWB
Jeb Bush - only $1000 to his brother
Ralph Lauren - $2000 to John Kerry
Michael Eisner - $2000 to John Kerry

And so on. One really grasped how important the entertainment industry is to Democratic fundraising. The IT sector tends to split between the R and Ds, with a slight edge to the Rs. Lawyers tend to be split as well. Mid sized businesses give overwhelmingly to Rs, as does the real estate and energy industry. For more, do some searches for your self.

Ben P
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