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Sam Smith: Why We Need History

Why We Need History


By Prorev.com Editor Sam Smith

Now that Frances Fukuyama has rediscovered history, the Nation Magazine's Katrina Vanden Heuvel would like to put it to bed again. In the best tradition of the establishment's view of "civil discourse" - i.e. avoiding the real issues - Vanden Heuvel suggested in the Washington Post that we "stop equating our opponents with famous dictators, their chief executioners, police apparatus or ideologies."

I'm all for learning from history, but times are hard enough in American politics - with war, threats to national security, the greatest divide between rich and poor in our history and deep cultural divisions. Present differences deserve to be described in contemporary terms. The purpose of public speech is not just to restate anger but to clarify the principles and evidence that fuel it -- in ways that invite discussion, not inhibit it."

Vanden Heuvel is dead wrong. The reason people get away with bad historical analogies is because we don't discuss history enough. We are left with an assortment of myths, stereotypes, and trite metaphors. Our present state is in no small part the result of not understanding and discussing our past. For example:

Have we always been so publicly callous about torture before?

Why have we passed more laws in the past 30 years than we did in our first two hundred?

Whatever happened to the Tenth Amendment?

Have corporations always been granted the status of individuals in our society?

The list is endless, but let's just consider the aspect of history that Vanden Heuvel doesn't want us to mention: similarities between present day American politicians and politics and some unpleasant precedents.

Her examples remind us that people can make these analogies crudely, wrongly, or for nefarious purposes. But if Vanden Heuvel felt more at home with history she would realize that this is part of a great American tradition: putting up with a certain amount of nonsense in order to preserve our freedoms including that of speech.

But what if we ignore Vanden Heuvel's advice and ask ourselves, for example: how close are we to Hitler's Germany? What can we learn from even a cursory consideration of history?

In the first place, one needs to separate Hitler, Nazism and fascism. Conflating these leads the unwary to assume easily that all three are inevitably characterized by anti-Semitism, when in fact only the first two are. By avoiding this distinction we don't have to face the fact that America is closer to fascism than it has ever been in its history.

To understand why, one needs to look not at Hitler but at the founder of fascism, Mussolini. What Mussolini founded was the estato corporativo - the corporative state or corporatism. Writing in Economic Affairs in the mid 1970s, R.E. Pahl and J. T. Winkler described corporatism as a system under which government guides privately owned businesses towards order, unity, nationalism and success. They were quite clear as to what this system amounted to: "Let us not mince words. Corporatism is fascism with a human face. . . An acceptable face of fascism, indeed, a masked version of it, because so far the more repugnant political and social aspects of the German and Italian regimes are absent or only present in diluted forms."

Thus, although the model generally cited in defense of organized capitalism is that of the contemporary Japanese, the most effective original practitioners of a corporative economy were the Italians. Unlike today's Japanese, but like contemporary America, their economy was a war economy.

Adrian Lyttelton, describing the rise of Italian fascism in The Seizure of Power, writes: "A good example of Mussolini's new views is provided by his inaugural speech to the National Exports Institute on 8 July 1926. . . Industry was ordered to form 'a common front' in dealing with foreigners, to avoid 'ruinous competition,' and to eliminate inefficient enterprises. . . The values of competition were to be replaced by those of organization: Italian industry would be reshaped and modernized by the cartel and trust. . .There was a new philosophy here of state intervention for the technical modernization of the economy serving the ultimate political objectives of military strength and self-sufficiency; it was a return to the authoritarian and interventionist war economy."

Lyttelton writes that "fascism can be viewed as a product of the transition from the market capitalism of the independent producer to the organized capitalism of the oligopoly." It was a point that Orwell had noted when he described fascism as being but an extension of capitalism. Lyttelton quoted Nationalist theorist Affredo Rocco: "The Fascist economy is. . . an organized economy. It is organized by the producers themselves, under the supreme direction and control of the State."

The Germans had their own word for it: wehrwirtschaft. It was not an entirely new idea there. As William Shirer points out in the Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich, 18th and 19th century Prussia had devoted some five-sevenths of its revenue on the Army and "that nation's whole economy was always regarded as primarily an instrument not of the people's welfare but of military policy." Has "civil discourse" been harmed by knowing the foregoing and the uncomfortable similarities it bears with what is happening to our country today?

Another more complex example is Adolph Hitler. On many grounds, the analogy does not serve us well:

Germany's willingness to accept Hitler was the product of many cultural characteristics specific to that country, to the anger and frustrations in the wake of the World War I defeat, to extraordinary inflation and particular dumb reactions to it, and, of course, to the appeal of anti-Semitism. Still, consideration of the Weimar Republic that preceded Hitler does us no harm. Bearing in mind all the foregoing, there was also:

- A collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.

- The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs, and rising property taxes. Many of the actions were taken in the name of efficiency, an improved economy and the "rationalization of production." There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a hyped version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.

- The Nazis as the first modern political party. As University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Childers explains, the Nazis discovered the importance of campaigning not just during campaigns but between elections when the other parties folded their tents. With this "perpetual campaigning" they spread themselves like a virus, considering the public reaction to everything right down to the colors used for posters and rally backgrounds. Knowing this, one can not watch the manic manipulations of public moments by the Bush regime without a sense of déjà vu.

- The use of negative campaigning, a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi campaigns argued what was wrong with their opponents and ignored stating their own policies.

- The Nazis as the inventors of modern political propaganda. Every modern American political campaign and the types of arguments used to support them owes much to the ideas of the Nazis.

- The suddenness of the Nazi rise. The party went from less than 3% of the vote to being the largest party in the country in four years.

- The collapse of the country's self image. Childers points out that Germany had had been a world leader in education, industry, science, and literacy. Much of the madness that we see today stems from attempts to compensate for our battered self-image.

So while many of the behaviors that would come to be associated with Nazis and Hitler - from physical attacks on political opponents to the death camps - seem far removed from our present concerns, there is still much to learn from their history.

We are clearly in a post-constitutional era; the end of the First American Republic. Depending on what day it is we think of its replacement variously - ranging from an adhocracy to proto-fascism. But one does not need to know the end of the story to know that we headed at a rapid pace away from the extraordinary principles of American democracy towards the dark hole of power with impunity, to the sort of world in which, as Rudolph Giuliani has calmly asserted, "freedom is about authority."

If we describe present differences only in contemporary terms then we have nothing to guide us but what happened yesterday.

George Bush and his capos have capitalized on this disinterest in history to rewrite the Constitution and other things. He's not the first.

For example, Article 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic stated, "In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights described in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153, partially or entirely. The Reich President must inform the Reichstag immediately about all measures undertaken . . . The measures must be suspended immediately if the Reichstag so demands."

It was this article that Hitler used to peacefully establish his dictatorship. And why was it so peaceful and easy? Because, according to Childers, the 'democratic" Weimar Republic had already used it 57 times prior to Hitler's ascendancy.

There are eerie similarities between Article 48 and George Bush's approach. When you add to this the remarkable incompetence of the current regime, the collapse of both traditional liberal and conservative politics, and the economic crises, it feels like a new Weimar Republic setting the stage for awful things we can not at this point even imagine. It may be that history has something to tell us after all.

HISTORY OF HITLER'S EMPIRE by Thomas Childers

*************

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