BOOK REVIEW: Liberal Fascism, by Jonah Goldberg

The first half of Liberal Fascism is brilliant — insightful, informative, interesting and disturbingly accurate in its portrayal of early 20th century politics. Fundamentally, there is very little difference between the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy and the progressive leftism of Wilson and FDR. While Hitler adds dogmatic anti-Semitism to the mix, the Nazi’s also aren’t far different. it is disturbingly difficult to tell the difference between left-progressive quotes and fascist quotes.

While the industrial socialists of the Soviet Union nationalised land and industry, the fascists and progressives instead aimed to nationalise the people by tying all life to the state. Private property and business could continue, but only if it played by political rules in the service of “the community”. As Mussolini says on behalf of all leftists: “everything in the State; nothing outside the State”.

When we move closer to today, the book starts to become weaker. Goldberg makes a good case that modern leftists are totalitarian (in the Mussolini sense of wanting the government involved in the totality of your life), but I think he downplays the important distinctions between different sorts of statism and so too quickly throws them all in together. Goldberg does draw a distinction between “daddy-dystopias” (perhaps more correctly called fascist) and “maternal misery” (modern leftism). I think he should have extended this distinction and recognise that the anti-war, civil liberties, internationalist left is a different beast to the eugenics-practicing, white-supremacist, militaristic and nationalist left of 100 years ago.

Though I admit it’s hard to find an appropriate name for the modern version of left-totalitarianism. Perhaps the “welfare state” or the “welfare/corporatist state” or just the “modern left”?

Modern green socialism is probably worth identifying as another beast as well. It has most similarities with Nazism with a holistic animal-rights environmentalist agenda, support of the welfare/corporatist state, race-hate (though this time against whites) and anti-internationalism (anti-trade, anti-immigration). But it differs from fascism and modern leftism in one important respect — green socialism is against progress, technology and human prosperity (see Clive Hamilton). It is perhaps simply an anti-human form of fascism.

Goldberg mostly ignores right-wing sins, though he does briefly touch on George W. Bush as running a statist administration (which I would call “conservative statism” or “right-wing socialism”). Goldberg tries to suggest that such an agenda is “not really conservative” but I think that semantic game has already been lost. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people on the left and the right, the idea that the government shouldn’t run our life (classical liberalism) has already been forgotten. And it is in this regard that, as Goldberg says, “we are all fascists now”.

Then right at the end, Goldberg leaves the reservation and attempts an unnecessary (and embarrassing) defence of christianity and traditional values. While I (like Goldberg) will happily defend the equal freedoms of christians, traditionalists and bigots, Goldberg goes past this and turns his politics book into a moral lecture. Sex is bad. Gays are up to no good. If you doubt christianity, you might be a fascist. Hollywood is a conspiracy. Militarism is bad, unless you do it for good reasons. He half-heartedly says he will tolerate the weirdos of the world, but warns that they could be dangerous.

There was no need for the moral lecture, and it is a disappointing end to an otherwise valuable book.

17 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Liberal Fascism, by Jonah Goldberg

  1. I still do not agree with you on the issue of sematics though, I do think that the majority of people who classify themselves as conservatives, on the economy at least, hold quite compatible views with libertarians. Which is why the conservative movement in the US, particularly in the latter years of his presidency, were very very much against what GWD was doing.

  2. Tim — I think that may be more true for America than Australia, where you have been deprived the use of the word “liberal”.

    I think you would find the majority of Liberal-supporters, Liberal parliamentarians, and self-described Australian conservatives would all support a socialist government-monopoly basic health system (ie Medicare). And government provided “free” schools. And maintaining the current tariffs, and industry policy, and a government-run postal system, and the pension (indeed… pension increases), and government licencing & regulation, not to mention lifestyle regulations.

    Indeed, at least in Australia, I don’t think that “conservative” is a coherent political philosophy. It either means “I don’t like taking risks in my own life” (which isn’t a political philosophy), or it means “I don’t want to change things much” (which isn’t a political philosophy) or “I want to impose my traditionalist values on other people” (which is a political philosophy — but it’s right-wing socialism, not liberalism).

    In his book, Tony Abbott proudly says that conservatives don’t really believe in anything, excepting “getting the job done”. Spoken like a true fascist. But even that is too generous. It’s more like they don’t believe in anything except “getting elected”.

  3. Yes but you’d also find a lot of self-described conservatives who wouldn’t.
    I agree with you it’s problematic, but I think the conservative label is still salvageable, and allows people who aren’t libertarian but share our economic views, to link with people like Thatcher etc who do use the label.

    Abbott’s views I find rather distasteful though, to put it mildly.

  4. John

    I really can’t believe how you continually browbeat the Libs. They are nowhere near as socialist as the present Labor party that brought us re-regulated labor markets, $300 billion deficits, Rudd bank, Fuel Watch, Grocery Watch, unlimited guarantee in the banking system, Conroy webwatch

    From a libertarian perspective the libs aren’t like us, but for lord’s sake look at what we have now and compare.

    For all his faults, Abbott has recently done the right thing and said labor market reform has be to revisited if they gained power.

    He’d score my vote on that alone.

  5. I think the conservatives have a strong element of traditionalism in both Aus and US.
    Although, I think the Aus Labour party has some traditionalist philosophy as well.

    I think that at least Tony Abott is honest and aware of the Liberal party’s philosophical basis being pragmatism. (I only read the title in yesterday’s Australian).
    Rudd says the same about the Labour party and uses this pragmatic philosophy as a way to reject extremism per se. He then rejects capitalism saying it’s extreme. He’s playing a word game really.

    I agree with John that it can be hard to swallow sometimes listening to criticisms from right wing commentators aimed at the left or vice versa. I think of the proverb about throwing rocks and living in a glass house. Still, some criticisms are perfectly valid.
    But a bit of painful introspection is probably necessary for both the Republicans and the Liberal party at the moment – it’s my impression that both are highly unpopular right now.

  6. jc… this book review is about an American book, considering American liberals. This has nothing to do with the Liberal Party of Australia. I just brought them up as a representative sample of “conservatives” in this country.

    But as for the Liberals being very different to Labor, that’s not true. The Liberals are supporting an ETS. And they have said that they support 90% of the debt that the ALP is building up. The fuel watch and grocery watch were stupid, but harmless, and now gone. The Liberals had their share of stupid policies too.

    I prefer the Liberals to Labor at the moment, but it makes no sense for a libertarian to be too excited about either. And it has nothing to do with the topic we were discussing.

  7. John

    Unless I’m mistaken you mentioned the Australian scene in an earlier comment, didn’t you?

  8. Then right at the end, Goldberg leaves the reservation and attempts an unnecessary (and embarrassing) defence of christianity and traditional values.

    I think this stems from the idea that a universal moral system with a clear foundational worldview promoting virtue but reserving the right of freedom to choose is healthy to foster civil society and self reliance. The American Founders embraced this, and is part of what Thomas Jefferson meant by, “the government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.” That personal discipline, or voluntarily governing oneself by laws not written in the constitution but by a superior law giver the government could not impose its will on, is what made the USA unique in the West.

  9. Thomas Jefferson was a deist. I’m not sure how much into “traditional Christian values” he would have been. Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about him.

    You make a sound point that they did believe people have the ability to make moral judgements for themselves, but I don’t think this needs to be based on any Christian/Biblical morality.

    If we’re to use the Bible as our moral foundation (which apparently means cherry picking OT passages that denounce homosexuality), we’re going to have to start stoning to death our stubborn and rebellious sons and all that other fun stuff.

  10. If we’re to use the Bible as our moral foundation

    Why the word ‘we’? That is not I. Or you. ‘We’ can be a dangerous term, a form of groupthink. It can develop politically and head down a slippery slope. You are not thinking free!

  11. Further on the point Daniel, the USA in their Supreme Court have a collection of all the law givers throughout history. This is a telling point – it’s not restricted to a single Christian denomination or specific set of beliefs.

    And on that, Muslims are not too happy how there is a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in there….

  12. You’ve addressed an insignificant linguistic trait without actually addressing anything at all.

    Replace “we” with “people”. I use “we” because those who espouse the use of the Bible as a moral foundation claim that we should all do that.

    I’m not sure I understand your second point.

  13. I’m not sure I understand your second point.

    I was giving examples of how the American Founders were acknowledging all the law givers and that in a free society, as long as one didn’t go around violating other people’s rights, such freedom of religion could flourish – in reference to my point on personal discipline government should not address.

    I use “we” because those who espouse the use of the Bible as a moral foundation claim that we should all do that.

    Obviously the American Founders did not think this way, and one can’t deny that the 56 men who risked the gallows standing against the biggest empire of that time were not outright Christians or had strong religious and cultural sympathies leaning in that direction. And beyond that, there are determinists who believe this denies a universe with free will of all stripes in both science and religion, it’s everywhere. I fear the alliance of science and politics and the citizens who listen to their case for government action just as much as those who want to blur the separation of church and state.

  14. Do not assume! Hammurabi, Charlemagne, John of England and Napoleon are not exactly gods, but are acknowledged as part of the historical process leading to functioning free societies under law.

    And in my books Ferris Bueller is a law giver.

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