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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Fascism, Communism, Totalitarianism

This post on Volokh is very interesting to me (as are the comments on it). I think the rise of totalitarianism in the world is very troubling. The specter of totalitarianism is weak but gaining strength in Russia, China, and South America. Meanwhile a more fascist movement is growing the Middle East. Personally, I've never seen that much of a difference between fascism and communism. In both cases, the government controls almost every facet of society, while giving the power to different organizations, putting the priorities on different things, and fighting different "problems" from the bourgeouis to the Jews. In other words, I've always seen the continuum as totalitarianism and anarchy (with me quite close to the anarchic wing). And it seems to me that the problem of the day is not terrorism, which is just a tool for fascist sentiment that is growing in the Middle East. Personally, I think the fight is most likely to be won as we have less rather than more government. Unfortunately, I believe that (on both the right and the left), the trend is to (as always) solve the world's problems with the coercive power of government. (Although I do believe that national defense is one of the few areas where the government is the only reasonable supplier.) However, I think we are (as always) much more vigilent towards and distrustful of the influence of fascism (as currently defined), or increased governmental control on civil liberties to aid national defense, than we are to the still growing government control to aid socialist aims.


I'd charaterize what (I think) you refer to as "socialist aims" (presumably social security, need-based educational financial aid, medicaid, medicare, progressive taxation, etc?) as provisions to secure certain types of positive liberty, which is to be distinguished from negative, libertarian-style liberty. While that probably isn't particularly compatible with a Nozickian night-watchman-style state, it certainly doesn't necessitate a command economy or the abolition of private property. Even Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom"--which I believe Jonah Goldberg called one half of the canon of modern conservativism--acknowledges the value of government regulation/legislation, denigrates blind adherence to the principle of laissez faire, and leaves room within bounds for many "socialist aims." My sub-points here being that "socialist aims" don't have to entail a command economy or the end of democracy and, in addition, that government regulation isn't (or needn't be) necessarily anathema to conservatives.

While fascism today is frequently equated with totalitarianism, my understanding of fascism is bound up in my understanding of Germany's Third Reich and, to a lesser extent, some incomplete and second-hand knowledge about its ideological roots. I understand it to entail rabid patriotism, fervent nationalism, and self-identification to some degree I don't understand with one's nation (which includes "people") or state (with this last factor being part of the true ideological base of fascism)--more than mere totalitarianism.

My larger point is that "socialism" and "fascism" are understood by different people to mean different things, and I think people end up dodging real issues by equating them both with "totalitarianism." For example, we avoid a discussion of the relative values of positive and negative liberty and the degree it's possible to achieve the former without abdicating too much of the latter, and we lose the nuance of a deeper meaning of fascism. I'm not trying to defend socialism or fascism with this comment; I just want to point out that sometimes the real issues get lost in the (oversimplified) labels. I'm not sure how useful the totalitarianism/anarchy continuum is--adding additional dimensions/factors or evaluating things along multiple continua (continuums?) might give us more complete insight.
What I was trying to get at in the post was to say that the aims don't really matter. I would certainly not deny that Fascism and Socialism hate each other, mostly because of their radically different values. Fascists do indeed prize rabid nationalism, etc. Socialists prize equality. But the actual reality of both systems are very similar. Fascists want the state to be strong, and their country to dominate, so they nationalize industry, centralize power, etc. Socialists want people to be equal, and socialism to dominate, but it is not possible except by nationalizing industry and centralizing power. Both are, I believe, inherently repressive and totalitarian systems. And that was my point.

Your point about positive and negative liberty is a bit of a red herring, I think. Liberty is a negative concept. When you say positive liberty, I think you're talking about a sort of freedom of ends, so to speak. For example, people free from hunger, disease, the cares of old age, exploitation at work, etc. Unfortunately, for these "positive" liberties, "negative" liberties must be given up. "Negative" liberties, as I think you're talking about, is what I call liberty, and it's a liberty of beginnings. It's a freedom to pursue happiness, not free happiness. Because positive and negative liberties, as you define them, are tradeoffs. And I prize the latter.

And also, I think you may have mischaracterized Hayek a little bit. One of the chief differences between the Austrians and the Chicago school was their belief in how much government is necessary. The Austrians (for the most part), believed that some government was necessary to protect the market (I think few would argue), but that it must be at an absolute minimum, unlike the Chicago school, who are more in favor of the Fed, for example. Hayek was not dismissive of socialist aims, but he thought they were unattainable in many cases, and he believed that government intervention should be kept for a minimum.
My point is that I think you're oversimplifying, and it's preventing real discussion.

For example, while I don't really want to debate positive and negative liberty here, debates like that are ignored if you dismiss certain suggestions because they're socialist, which in turn inexorably entails a command economy and government control over all aspects of life.

For many programs I'd guess you might consider "socialist aims", I don't think the connection between the aim and socialism or the aim and a command economy and totalitarianism is tight enough to write it off without more discussion.
I don't disagree that there might be some oversimplification here. But I do think that it makes some level of debate possible. I'll leave debating the intricacies of some small grey area at the end of philosphical political science to academia. However, I think that for the most part socialist aims are only put in to practice, and indeed, can only be put in to practice through government control and some measure of totalitarianism. Whether you like the trade-off, you still have to recognize that it exists. And I think there are strong links. If I want equality in my economy, that's not socialist unless I want a governmental agency to do it. If I want more equality and I want society to do it on its own, I'm just a capitalist, with a different idea of what markets should value. I think government control is inherent in most socialist ideas. Because government control is usually inherently totalitarian, a system with a large socialist system falls into the totalitarian category.
So you'd admit you're over-simplifying, but you don't care and you won't try to have a real conversation. Meanwhile, people with open minds are wondering how need-based, government subsidized student loans have created/will create a Stalinist regime just because someone decides to call it socialism.
First, this will probably be my last post, because this post is getting old. But, I admit I'm oversimplifying a bit, because this is a blog, and in depth academic economic and political discussions are a little difficult to conduct in this medium. You're actually the one who avoiding debate, and using over-generalizations. I never said that the need-based student loans would lead to the gulags. However, for the student loans to come into being, some liberty must have been given up. I'm not making a slippery slope argument. I'm saying that as a country has more and more of these programs, it becomes more and more totalitarian (although I'm not saying a little, or in my opinion, a very little totalitarianism is a totally bad thing).
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