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"Populism" or "Neo-Fascism"?: Rectification of Names Blogging

Il Quarto Stato

The highlight of last week's JEF-APARC Conference at Stanford https://www.jef.or.jp for me was getting to sit next to Frank Fukuyama https://fukuyama.stanford.edu, whom I had never met before.

Frank is a former Deputy Director of Policy planning at the State Department, author of the extremely good books on political order The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution http://amzn.to/2sEt4AI and Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy http://amzn.to/2sU0WZP, and a very sharp guy.

He has also been smart and lucky enough to have a truly singular achievement in his career. Prince Otto von Bismarck said that the highest excellence of a statesman "is to hear God's footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past..." For an intellectual, there is an equivalent and analogous excellence: to recognize what the powerful historical forces of the next generation will be, to grab onto their coattails, and so write an article that provides an incisive and valuable interpretive framework that makes sense not of the generation past so much as of the generation to come.

John Maynard Keynes, I think, accomplished this in 1919 with his Economic Consequences of the Peace http://amzn.to/2sTZdn7. George Orwell's Road http://amzn.to/2sgiUZO and Homage http://amzn.to/2s4RK8h, I think, accomplished this in the mid-1930s. George Kennan's "Long Telegram"—published as "Sources of Soviet Conduct" http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/coldwar/documents/episode-1/kennan.htm certainly ccomplished this in 1946. Perhaps Karl Polanyi accomplished this with his brilliant but annoyingly flawed 1944 The Great Transformation http://amzn.to/2rMsPDq. I really cannot think of anybody else.

And, of course, Frank Fukuyama accomplished this with his 1989 article: "The End of History?" http://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm. (If you doubt that, go read the brilliant Ralf Dahrendorf's brutal commentary on Fukuyama in his Reflections on the Revolution in Europe http://amzn.to/2sTXfTE: Fukuyama definitely struck a powerful nerve, and Dahrendorf's animus springs not from Fukuyama's shortcomings but rather from his insights.)

This is, for an intellectual, something that requires extreme luck and extreme intelligence. It is a righteously awesome accomplishment. And Frank Fukuyama did it.

I spent my time sitting next to Frank attempting to irritate him with respect to what he and many others call "populism", for I do not like to hear it called "populism".

The original American populists were reality-based small farmers and others, who accurately saw railroad monopolies, agricultural price deflation, and high interest rates as crippling their ability to lead the good life. They sought policies—sensible, rational policies in the main—to neutralize these three historical forces. They were not Volkisch nativists distracted from a politics that would have made their lives better by the shiny gewgaws of ethnic hatred and nativism The rise of those forces—of Jim Crowe and the renewed and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan and so forth—were not the expression of but rather the breaking of populism in America.

The post-WWII Latin American populists were also people who correctly thought that their ability to lead the good life was being sharply hindered by a system rigged against him. The problem with post-WWII Latin American populism was that the policies that it was offered by its political leaders were—while materially beneficial for the base in the short run—economic disasters in the long: price controls, fiscal expansion ending in unsustainable that burdens, and high tariffs were especially poisonous and false remedies because it could look, for the first five or so years, before they crash came, like they were working.

But what is going on today, whatever it is properly called, is not offering sensible policies people oppressed by monopolies and by a creditor friendly and unemployment causing monetary system. It is not even offering them policy cures that are apparently efficacious in the short run even though disastrous in the long. What Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, Teresa May, and Donald Trump have to offer is (a) redistribution of wealth to family and friends, (b) a further upward leap in income and wealth inequality via cutbacks in social insurance programs coupled with further erosion of progressive taxation, and, most of all, (c) the permission to hate people who look different from you—plus permission to hate rootless cosmopolites who are, somehow, against all principles of natural justice, both doing better than you and offering you insufficient respect.

That is neither the post-WWII Latin American nor the pre-WWI North American form of "populism". I do not think we are well served by naming it such.

What should we name it instead?

There is an obvious candidate, after all.

When Fukuyama wrote his "The End of History?"—note the question mark at the end—his principal aims were twofold:

  1. To advance a Hegelian, or a Kojeveian reinterpretation of Hegelianism, as pointing out that history was ultimately driven by the evolution of ideas of what a good society would be like and consequent attempts to realize them: through Republican, Imperial, Christian, feudal, Renaissance, Enlightenment, rule of law, democratic, socialist, and fascist formulations, the world's conceptions of a good society unfold and develop.

  2. To point out that it now appears—or appeared in 1989—that this Hegelian process of conceptual development had come to an end with the liberal democratic capitalist state and economy: private property rights and market exchange guaranteed by a government controlled by one person-one vote now had no serious challengers, and so this process of historical development—what Fukuyama called History-with-a-capital-H—had come to an end.

Most of Fukuyama's "The End of History" is concerned with the crashing and burning of the idea that the Marxist diagnosis that private property was an inescapably poisoned institution implemented by a Leninist cadre that then set up a Stalinist command economy offered a possible way forward toward a good and free society of associated producers—an alternative to the system that was the reinforcing institutional triad of liberalism, democracy, and capitalism. But there was another challenger for much of the twentieth century: fascism. In Fukuyama's words:

[Fascism] saw the political weakness, materialism, anomie, and lack of community of the West as fundamental contradictions in liberal societies that could only be resolved by a strong state that forged a new 'people' on the basis of national exclusiveness... [an] organized ultra nationalist movement with universalistic pretensions... with regard to the movement's belief in its right to rule other people...

And, in Fukuyama's judgment, fascism:

was destroyed as a living ideology by World War II. This was a defeat, of course, on a very material level, but it amounted to a defeat of the idea as well...

But is the current International—that of Kaczyński, Orban, Le Pen, May, and Trump—usefully conceptualized as "fascist". Perhaps we should say "neo-fascist", to be politically correct. It certainly believes in the right of its Volkisch core to rule other people within the boundaries of the nation state—or to expel them. It certainly believes that international politics is overwhelmingly a zero-sum contest with winners and losers. It has negative tolerance for rootless cosmopolites and others who see an international community of win-win interactions. A strong leader and a strong state who will tell people what to do? Check. An ethnic nation of blood-and-soil rather than an elected nation of those who choose to live within its boundaries and pledge their allegiance to it? Check. Denunciations of lack of community, anomie, and weakness? Check. The only things missing are (a) denunciations of materialism, and (b) commitments to imperial expansion.

Fukuyama made it clear last week that he greatly prefers "populism" to "neo-fascism" as a term describing what is going on. A fascist movement, he wrote back in 1989, has to be expansionist rather than simply seeking the advantage of the Volkisch national community. There have to be:

universalistic pretensions... with regard to the movement's belief in its right to rule other people. Hence Imperial Japan would qualify as fascist while former strongman Stoessner's Paraguay or Pinochet's Chile would not...

And this test is one that Kaczyński, Orban, Le Pen, May, and Trump's International fails.

But is Fukuyama right? I am unconvinced. I suspect that calling the movement "populist"—whether with reference either to the pre-WWI United States or post-WWII Latin America—misleads it. I suspect that conceptualizing it as "neo-fascist" might well lead to insights...