Tuesday, December 20, 2016

On The Appropriateness Of Weimar Metaphors

The rise of Donald Trump has raised questions over whether we are seeing the rebirth of fascism. (A friend wrote a fairly convincing case.) Scholars who study authoritarian regimes, whether in the past or present, have been especially alarmed by Trump's actions, seeing in them echoes of 1930s Europe and post-communist Uzbekistan. A lot of folks on the radical Left have resisted these comparisons. For example, a recent article in Jacobin questioned the use of Weimar analogies.

While I agreed with the larger point of the article, which was to resist the bad temptation to meet the challenge of Trumpism by reducing democracy in the name of saving society, I disagreed with the notion that we need to chuck Weimar metaphors altogether. The authors, Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg, are not convincing when they say that, for example, Trump does not truck in "blood and soil" rhetoric. This is a man who started his campaign with an attack on Hispanic immigrants (blood) and a call to build a wall on the border (soil). He began his political career by questioning Barack Obama's citizenship, an assertion that was implicitly grounded in blood and soil conceptions of national belonging. They also say that he rarely praises war, but this is a man who has called for aggressive military action against ISIS, expropriating oil from conquered lands (a la a certain nation's behavior in WWII) and executing the families of supposed terrorists. Last, they say that Trump does not attack democratic and electoral institutions, but he would not pledge to abide by the results of the election, and even after winning questioned its legitimacy and claiming "millions" of people voted illegally.

No historical analogy ever fits perfectly, of course. America in 2016 is a very different place from Germany in 1933. I have tended to avoid Weimar metaphors because for most people Nazis are detached from any kind of historical context. The are simply bogeymen and pure evil, and once the accusation that someone today resembles Nazis gets made it dominates the conversation. I'm also well aware of Godwin's Law.

All that being said, I am profoundly disturbed by the fact that Trump and the movement around him most certainly adheres to the core attribute of fascism: regenerative nationalism. Trump has promised to make the nation "great again" both by purging people from it and by engaging in military action abroad. The nation's ills are blamed on immigrants and a stab in the back from those who signed "bad trade deals." Perhaps, as Bessner and Greenberg argue, it might be best to combat this without resorting to historical analogies, but those analogies do help illustrate the stakes for the uncommitted.

I see historical precedent for the current political winds in the world, and I do locate it in the 1930s, but without necessarily seeing a total one-for-one similarity with Weimar in particular. The world today is being swept by authoritarian nationalism, which our press erroneously calls "populism." In the US, Poland, Hungary, India, China, the Philippines, Russia, and in other places we are seeing new regimes that are restricting free speech rights while promising national redemption. While Italy and Germany established the most well-known authoritarian regimes in the 1930s, they were the more extreme edge of a broader authoritarian sweep. After the Great War the world was supposed to be "safe for democracy," but by World War II there were hardly any democracies left in Europe. After France and Britain sold out Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938, none of the newly formed democracies in Eastern Europe had survived. These regimes were conservative and nationalist in character without the revolutionary intentions of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, but were certainly reactionary and repressive. Also think of Franco's Spain. While the fascist Falange supported Franco, he and his regime were more reactionary than revolutionary.

Of course, in the 1930s the reactionaries were motivated in large part by fear of communism. Today, by contrast, the left in the West (and in some other places) is extremely feeble. In America in particular the labor movement's power has been broken, and without a strong labor movement I think a broad-based Left is impossible.  Easy credit and the culture industry have cushioned the blows of wealth inequality and this country's heritage of white racism continues to inhibit class-based political action. Back in the 1930s the United States bucked many of the trends in Europe by choosing social democracy in the form of the New Deal. With the United States falling under the nationalist authoritarian wave, I wonder if we are about to live out an alternate timeline from the past. A timeline with a very different ending.

I am a social democrat but I am disturbed by the deeper motivations behind the rejection of Weimar analogies from those on the left. There is an obsession these days in those corners with attacking liberals, and acknowledging the stakes of the new regimes would force the left to take a popular front strategy that many seem to be rejecting. Those folks are under the delusion that the current situation is creating an opportunity. If you look back at the 1930s, the refusal of different leftist and progressive groups to unify inevitably led them to be crushed on the anvil of rightist authoritarianism. In America, where the radical CIO unions formed an alliance with New Dealers, it was the right that was marginalized. Or look to the popular front in France, which put Socialist Leon Blum in power, despite the fact that his opponents would say "better Hitler than Blum."

Liberals, progressives, social democrats, and radicals surely have points of disagreement that can't be resolved, but we need to be focusing our energies on creating a united front and to reverse the nationalist tide. If not, it will surely drown us all.

No comments: