The Dangerous Rise of the Conservative Revolutionaries: A Conversation with Tom Palmer
The modern right draws its ideas from the most notorious early 20th Century thinkers
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to ReImagining Liberty, a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. I'm Aaron Ross Powell.
There’s something different about the contemporary right. Classical liberal rhetoric has been replaced with something much uglier and more reactionary, keen to carve the world into us and them, and celebrate the use and abuse of power. Today’s conversation is about this turn, or as my guest explains, this return to ideologies a century old or more, but now gaining prominence and attacking the very idea of liberalism. To discuss that, I’m joined by Tom Palmer. He is executive vice president for international programs at Atlas Network where he holds the George M. Yeager Chair for Advancing Liberty, and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
Let me very briefly mention that ReImagining Liberty is a listener supported show. If you enjoy these discussions and want to get early access to new episodes, you can become a supporter by heading to reimaginingliberty.com. With that, let's turn to my conversation with Tom Palmer.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: It often seems that a lot of the far-right movements and ideologies that we see, not just emerging right now, but ascending to dominance in a lot of countries among a lot of intellectuals, have really striking parallels to the thinking of far-right, sometimes fascist, sometimes proto-fascist movements and ideologies in the 1930s. Am I correct in seeing some sort of parallels there?
Tom Palmer: Not merely parallels, there are direct lines of descent in many cases, because you find certain authors and thinkers whose ideas have persisted sometimes in an underground way that have re-emerged and are extremely influential. Just to take one thinker, Carl Schmitt, there's been quite a Carl Schmitt revival on both the far-right and the far-left, I should point out. He posited that what was characteristic of politics, a distinguishing feature, was the conflict between the friend and the enemy, that that distinction between friend and enemy was foundational. Of course, that's very congenial to people who like to see the world in those terms, that there's the enemy of the people versus the people. That comes in left-wing and right-wing flavors. He himself was a right-wing collectivist. He became a very enthusiastic member of the National Socialist Party and participated in the purging of Jews and “Jewish thoughts” —whatever that means—from the German universities and the persecution of Jews. He was a quite robust anti-Semite. There are many others as well.
There's a trend that goes back not just to the 1930s, it has earlier roots, really the 1920s coming out of World War I, which was such a cataclysm for European civilization. Many people rejected liberalism entirely. The experience of having been soldiers at the front created a collectivism of spirit that continued on. They called it the “front experience” in Germany. There were many philosophers, typically ones who did not undergo the front experience, like Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger, who became rhapsodic about it and praised this as the highest of human experience.
Now these thoughts are very much back. Not only these authors, these texts, but all the key themes, what is called “decisionism,” what matters is the decision. Not that there are values that we should decide to support, but because we decided, they became values. It's an extreme form of nihilism, if you will. The denigration of democratic deliberation, the idea that we should discuss things, instead it's action for its own sake. We find this in all of these movements, including in the United States with Trump, as he said in his inauguration, "No more meaningless talk. The hour of action has arrived." There are so many parallels, and we do find a very clear line of descent from the thinkers who articulated these ideas in the '20s and '30s.
“There's a trend that goes back not just to the 1930s, it has earlier roots, really the 1920s coming out of World War I, which was such a cataclysm for European civilization. Many people rejected liberalism entirely. The experience of having been soldiers at the front created a collectivism of spirit that continued on. … Now these thoughts are very much back.”
Aaron: One thing that stands out about these ideas and is picked up in some of what you just said is, so I guess let me add it this way. When we compare it to say Marxism, the other ideology that was, it had already gained dominance in Russia, but like one of the big other competing ideologies, Marxism is very much a system of ideas and arguments. We can say like, we think those arguments don't work. Those ideas are mistaken and so on, but it's a philosophical system. What you're describing and a lot of these movements and ideas on the far right present themselves as philosophy, but they don't quite seem to be that. They seem to be more just impulses and attitudes and tastes. I want this rapid decision. I don't like these people. I like the pageantry of this guy taking on the mantle of the herrenvolk and so on. It seems more like it's just base urges than given an intellectual gloss versus a philosophical system argued and built for. I think we see a lot of that today as well, that I don't like those weirdos on the coasts doing their strange cosmopolitan stuff. I just want things to be the way that they always were and so on. Is that a fair characterization of a lot of this or am I discounting some argumentative heft?
Tom: I disagree fundamentally with your diagnosis with all due respect. I do think that many of these thinkers had a coherent set of ideas that if you grant some of their premises, they do fit together. One distinction from Marxism is Karl Marx was one guy who suffered from a great deal of logorrhea. He wrote enormous amounts of material. As [Ludwig von] Mises put it very neatly, Karl Marx had the ability to take a simple idea and express it in a mere 400 pages. There's a huge body of material covering many different disciplines written by Karl Marx. We call that Marxism. Then many people came along and they interpreted these sacred texts and, it's a low-budget Talmudic exercise to go through the works of Marx. There isn't anyone like that for this right-wing intellectual movement, this right-wing collectivism. There are many different thinkers, but there are certain coherent principles.
We, I think, are misled by the historical interpretation of fascism as a movement of thugs. Indeed, there are a lot of thugs in fascist movements. They're the ones who would beat people up in the stormtroopers and the black shirts in Italy and so on. They like to motivate people that we could describe as thugs, often not very educated and violent people. As a consequence, people thought, well, that's what fascism is. This is a terrible mistake. The leaders of these movements are often highly educated persons. They're multilingual, they're very well-read, and they're intellectuals. They wrote books, they wrote articles, they dominated much of the intellectual life of the countries in which their movements came to power.
I think it's a mistake to see this as just a dressing up of some sort of ugly impulses, like I don't like those people across the street. Instead, I think this is a movement that is deeply nihilistic in certain ways. They want to smash all existing institutions. They are revolutionary. The interesting point in Germany, there was this movement known as the conservative revolution. I think the first one to use that term was Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an Austrian poet and intellectual, but it was later articulated by many others. Their view was not conservative as we normally think of the term, namely that we want incremental change or a great deal of caution in making changes and, conserving things that work. To the extent there is that conservatism, I think there's much wisdom in it. I wouldn't call myself a conservative, but I see the wisdom in that approach, and we find that in Edmund Burke and many other thinkers along those lines.
This isn't like that at all. They wanted to smash everything. They had nothing around them that they wanted to conserve. What they wanted instead was certain values, which they often associated with martial values. They were anti-bourgeois. They didn't like the bourgeois values at all of toleration, of measure in life, of commerce, of incremental improvement, of conversation, and discussion. They believed in things like valor, courage, perseverance, self-sacrifice, self-denial, suffering, and so on. They wanted to smash the existing world order and all the institutions around them and build new ones that would embody what they considered to be the values they had chosen. Those institutions they would then want to preserve or conserve.
It's really a profoundly revolutionary view, and we do find this among contemporary ten-cent intellectuals like Steve Bannon, who describes himself as a Leninist, who's going to smash all the institutions. This is not what most people think of as a conservative mentality. It's a highly revolutionary mentality. The people who articulate this are intellectuals. The difference with Marxism is there wasn't just one person. We don't call it Schmittism or Heideggerianism or whatever. Those people were parts of a generalized movement. They had a great deal in common. There wasn't one figure that created a cult like Marxism became.
“It's really a profoundly revolutionary view, and we do find this among contemporary ten-cent intellectuals like Steve Bannon, who describes himself as a Leninist, who's going to smash all the institutions. This is not what most people think of as a conservative mentality. It's a highly revolutionary mentality.”
Aaron: Granting that there isn't a single figure, and that might complicate the question that I'm about to ask—when we think of revolutionary ideologies, one way to think about them is that these people have a clear picture of the world as they think it ought to be, which is different from the world as it is right now. They want to affect radical change to get it from where it is to that clear vision of a better world. For these far-right ideologies, you've mentioned values. You've said they want to instantiate institutions that will embody and enforce and reinforce those values. Can you give us a sense, I guess, more concretely of if these guys could snap their fingers and create the world of their dreams, what just on the ground, structurally, culturally, socially, and so on, does that world look like?
Tom: It's a bit scary. I'll tell you one reason that I find that idea terrifying is that all of these movements would, in the course of time, turn on each other. Ultra-nationalisms are ultimately incompatible with each other. Because if you're a Hungarian nationalist and I'm a Slovak nationalist, you refer to me as a monkey and I refer to you as some other sort of insult, those two forms of nationalism are opposed to each other. Hungarian nationalists and Slovak nationalists don't like each other. There's a large Hungarian minority in Slovakia. The real hardcore Slovak nationalists hate them, just as Hungarian nationalists don't like Romanians. Romanian nationalists don't like Hungarians. All of them are nationalists. They're opposed to liberal cosmopolitanism. They're opposed to a “live and let live” mentality. Once they dispense with all of us who would like to live together in peace, they will turn on each other. That's one of the scary things about these trends is that they advocate unlimited state power. They advocate state power that is based ultimately on the exertion of will, not on any attempt to gather objective truths about the world, about what works better, what's more efficacious, and so on. Those wills may come into conflict. The consequence is that this “illiberal internationale” is international only in the sense that it's opposed to liberalism. French nationalists and German nationalists, for the last 200 years, have had a lot of disagreements among themselves. Although they all disagree more fundamentally with the ideas of liberalism, freedom of trade, freedom of movement, and all the other fundamental liberal values, they hate each other.
“That's one of the scary things about these trends is that they advocate unlimited state power. They advocate state power that is based ultimately on the exertion of will, not on any attempt to gather objective truths about the world, about what works better, what's more efficacious, and so on. Those wills may come into conflict. The consequence is that this “illiberal internationale” is international only in the sense that it's opposed to liberalism. French nationalists and German nationalists, for the last 200 years, have had a lot of disagreements among themselves. Although they all disagree more fundamentally with the ideas of liberalism.”
A world that would be realized by the members of these movements would be a world of violence. I'll point out one other element in this. They're fine with that. Because violence is, in their view, an instantiation of a set of virtues that have been occluded or suppressed by liberalism. Deirdre McCloskey in her books on the bourgeois society, she talks of bourgeois dignity, bourgeois values, and so on. Other kinds of virtues, the virtue of the Homeric warrior, for example. You don't get to realize that very much in a free, open society.
We're all slaughtering people and massacring them, stealing their stuff. It's not surprising that some of the more outré or weird theorists of this movement use names like Bronze Age Pervert, the notion of the Bronze Age. That was when men were really men, before we had iron, when people were killing each other with bronze swords and marching in phalanxes and so on. That was their vision is a world in which conflict is valorized. They love it.
Indeed, to go back to Carl Schmitt, the foundation of politics is the confrontation of enemies. That means one fighting collectivity is willing to destroy another. This has been also stated in aesthetic form many, many times. I'm trying to find in front of me the book of one of the most important intellectual leaders of this conservative revolution in Germany, a man named Ernst Jünger. Ernst Jünger was a very brilliant artist. He wrote novels and was quite an interesting person. In his discussion of World War I and his role as a stormtrooper in it, in a book called The Storm of Steel In Stahlgewittern, he said, "If it be objected that we belong to a time of crude force, our answer is, we stood with our feet in mud and blood, yet our faces were turned to things of exalted worth. Not one of that countless number fell, and our attacks fell for nothing. Each one fulfilled his destiny." He says, "It is not every generation that is so favored." In other words, that this was glorious to be in the trenches and to stab your bayonet into the guts of another man and disembowel him. That was to be in the most favored generation. I find this repulsive in the extreme.
I'll mention one other thing on the literary front—two competing books that came out of World War I. World War I had many, many important literary works that came out of it. Two in German were Ernst Jünger's book The Storm of Steel. Then Erich Maria Remarque's book, Im Westen nichts Neues, All Quiet on the Western Front. These two books presented two different views of the war. The one that right-wing collectivists like is the one of Jünger. That the war was a great experience, at least for those who survived.
Aaron: I think that's an important point to highlight is how much of these movements are ultimately aesthetic. A vision of something that is glorious and beautiful in this perverse way that we can participate in. It makes me wonder how much of this is a search for or a longing for meaning. A critique that liberalism doesn't give us meaning in the way that we are either naturally predisposed to seek it or the way that is the most elevated. That participation in war, being one of those soldiers in the mud, among many soldiers in the mud, fighting and dying for a cause is a way to give very concretely a sense of meaning to your life. Whereas what liberalism does is liberalism doesn't say there is no meaning. It just says basically we, the State, the volk, the people aren't going to give it to you. You have to go out and find it on your own, find it voluntarily. There's going to be a lot of different ways to approach it. That is more challenging in a lot of ways.
I'm thinking of, there's the poet John Berryman. There's a poem that my parents used to quote occasionally when I was growing up. One of the lines in it, he says, “ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources.” It seems like a lot of this is essentially like boredom in a liberal society, that it's not giving me these dramatic things to be a part of. What I want then is this great man making decisions that I can cheer on and then leading me in combat against the enemy so that I'm no longer bored in my comfortable, liberal existence where I don't really know what to do every day?
Tom: Yes, I think this aesthetic dimension is extremely important and this sense of meaning. They see the life of free and open society as ultimately pointless. Someone who's involved in commerce makes the buttons you put on shirts boring and pointless and that is that when you could be in the trenches fighting, experiencing the blood lust, the surge of adrenaline, whoever gets a big adrenaline surge from inventing a new button to hold up your trousers. They hate productive society in effect, that all the things that make life worthwhile are considered by them to be less significant. They don't like what they consider to be the alienation of modern society, so they share this in common with Marxists. There's a lot in common with Marxism, by the way. Marxist texts had a big influence on this set of thinkers, their hatred of market relations and trade and so on as a common feature.
They find it difficult to imagine having a life of meaning through family, through your work, your profession, through art, through poetry, through the other things that people do. They ultimately see a warrior elite as the only carriers of the true meaning and all the rest of us are going to be there to serve them, leading meaningless lives, producing stuff for ultimately the highest life, which is this life of the warrior. That's the more extreme form of this right-wing collectivism. You find elements of this, there was an interesting book a couple of years ago by Sebastian Junger called Tribes, and it reflected some of this view in a contemporary setting. I think that's an important element of it.
Anytime someone talks about an aesthetics of politics, I immediately get a little bit of an unpleasant shiver down my spine, something bad is going to come from that. I think that what we need is a politics of process, rules, governed orders that allow people to coordinate themselves. I should point out what a big fan I am of David Schmidtz's most recent book on ethics, I think it's called Living Together. It's a wonderful book, and it's about navigating our differences so that we can live together and we can find meaning in the things that we do in life, and yours might be different from mine. There we go, we're two different people. Again, the collectivists view is no, we have to have a collective meaning, that that's ultimately the only meaning that is worth having.
“Anytime someone talks about an aesthetics of politics, I immediately get a little bit of an unpleasant shiver down my spine, something bad is going to come from that. I think that what we need is a politics of process, rules, governed orders that allow people to coordinate themselves.”
Aaron: Yes, as you were making the point about buttons, I actually made a note about alienation of labor, thinking about the Marxist parallel too, because it seems like the problem is not making buttons, for them. Because if you were, maybe you don't get, you're not lucky enough to be on the front, in the trenches, firing the artillery. If you're at home making buttons for those soldiers' uniforms, that's a sense of meaning. The problem is not that you're making buttons, the problem is that in a liberal society, you're making buttons for some merchant somewhere, or some kid's, pageant dress for a church group or something like that. It doesn't have that, you're part of this bigger thing. That seems to present a real problem for us as liberals addressing these movements.
Because when we argue, so if we're arguing say with a progressive, or we're arguing with a Marxist, we can say to them, that a lot of that argument can be, you want to achieve prosperity and equality and so on and so forth, but the things that you want to do, the way you want to use the government to achieve this and so on, doesn't work. It's not going to achieve the ends that you have in mind. The socialist calculation problem means that your grand designs for the economy won't achieve the fruits that you hope for, et cetera.
If we're talking with people who, their fundamental problem with liberalism is that it doesn't give us this grand collective sense of meaning, forged and refined and given aesthetic weight by violence and conflict, our response to that has to be, you're right. Liberalism doesn't give that thing. In fact, one of the great things about liberalism is that it short-circuits the process by which those sources of meaning become a dominant and ongoing part of everyone's lives. It's less about arguing on the merits of or the effectiveness of the things they want to do in politics and more just saying like, your values are bad and corrupt and our values are better. That seems like a much more challenging, someone who just has those bad and corrupt values, if we're trying to defend liberalism to them, that feels like a pretty big uphill battle.
Tom: I think it's a fundamentally different conception of freedom. I should point out that left-wing collectivism also has this, certainly in its more virulent forms, and I don't mean American progressives, but Leon Trotsky certainly hated free society and every possible manifestation. He wanted society to be organized like the army. There would be industrial armies and actually, there would be scientific breeding of humans. He wouldn't have this old-fashioned, you meet someone and like that person and you fall in love and you get married and you have kids. That's unscientific. It would all be planned and we'd have a breeding program. He was obsessed with breeding chickens, for example, and he wanted to breed humans roughly the same way and organize everything like the army. It's not the case that Marxists were just saying, "Well, we have a better way to produce a more commodious life." Liberals say, "Well, we disagree about your means." That's true of some people, of course, but real hardcore Marxist collectivists reject liberalism in its entirety, including this idea of individual freedom.
Marx is very clear in “On the Jewish Question,” one of the most bitterly vicious anti-Semitic books ever written. He truly hated Jews. He argued that man was a species being, that freedom was only realized in this collective form and collective freedom is also a theme on the far right, namely that what matters is us deciding who we are, not you deciding who you are or how you want to live. They turned liberal language against liberals by saying, "Well, we're for freedom. Who are you to say that we in Iran can't stone people to death because a woman showed her hair? You're violating our freedom." Of course, this language is picked up by all of the totalitarian regimes around the world. They say, "Well, you're picking on us if you criticize us for beating a woman to death for showing her hair. What about our freedom?" That is exactly the theme that was picked up by these conservative revolutionary thinkers in Germany and also their allies in France and elsewhere.
Now we see it in someone like Yoram Hazony, who's a nationalist, a conservative nationalist or a national conservative, who talks about, well, the important freedom is this collective freedom and it's about freedom to decide who we are. Martin Heidegger put it very neatly in a series of lectures in, I think, 1934. He said then, liberalism was the “I time” and now that the National Socialists had taken power, now is the “we time” because we know who we are and we, Heidegger argued, we are Germans, and German means not a Jew. The Jews are to be purged out of, we know ultimately what happened, purged out of German society as an alien, un-German presence. This notion of collective freedom is very important to them. They turn it on its head, and Hazony does this most powerfully.
They talk about liberal imperialism. If you say that Iran, the Iranian state, is acting unjustly and you have the temerity to criticize them for beating women to death because they let their hair be shown in public, then you're an imperialist. That's imperialism. You want to tell them how to live. Then he suggests, based on the grotesque distortion of texts by classical liberals, that what liberals want is a “super state” that will run around the world invading people and forcing them to not beat women to death. Of course, that doesn't follow. You can argue that you shouldn't beat a woman to death for showing her hair, as you and I certainly believe you should not do that. It would not follow from that there should be a global state that should invade any part of the world where that happens and plunge the world into war. There are certainly other ways to undo that horror. For this right-wing collectivist view, well, that's just their freedom. It's their freedom to do that. It's imperialistic if you dare to be critical of them. Ultimately, their position collapses into incoherence, in my opinion. There we have it.
“You can argue that you shouldn't beat a woman to death for showing her hair, as you and I certainly believe you should not do that. It would not follow from that there should be a global state that should invade any part of the world where that happens and plunge the world into war. There are certainly other ways to undo that horror. For this right-wing collectivist view, well, that's just their freedom. It's their freedom to do that. It's imperialistic if you dare to be critical of them. Ultimately, their position collapses into incoherence.”
Aaron: How do they, either the historical versions of these arguments or the contemporary ones, the National Conservatives and Hazony and so on, define or delineate the “we”? Because maybe the “we,” they say the we in Iran believes that this is the way we're exercising our freedom by behaving in these ways, but that we clearly doesn't include the who are being stoned to death because it's not the world and the set of rules and values that they want. If you're a Hungarian nationalist, there are a lot of people who were born and raised in Hungary and consider themselves to be Hungarian who don't share those values or cultural and social preferences. Is there a, I guess, non-cynical way that they define that we, a way that isn't just we as people, is whoever shares my particular preferences and if you don't share my particular preferences, then you're not part of the we that matters? Is there a more intellectually plausible way that they carve that out?
Tom: Hazony, in his approach, argues that it's the nation-state and that the nation-state has some dominant nation. There might be minorities in it, but one group is dominant. The others, well, they just have to put up with that, namely put up with being dominated. There are other views that see societies as organic. Typically, these don't use the term society, which is a term more associated with liberalism.
What's interesting, Hazony stretches himself into pretzels, arguing, well, Hitler and National Socialism weren't nationalistic, which is a very puzzling view. His argument was, well, they invaded other countries, and if you're a nationalist, you wouldn't do that. That's a very puzzling view. They did it because they believed their nation was the ruling nation, was the dominant nation, was the one that was superior, and should be able to invade and conquer and subjugate others. This is what's happening in Russia right now, this notion that the Russian people are somehow special, unique, and superior, and all the other peoples of Eurasia should be subordinated to them, and if they don't agree to it, should be exterminated, which is what they're attempting to do in Ukraine.
“Hazony stretches himself into pretzels, arguing, well, Hitler and National Socialism weren't nationalistic, which is a very puzzling view. His argument was, well, they invaded other countries, and if you're a nationalist, you wouldn't do that. That's a very puzzling view. They did it because they believed their nation was the ruling nation, was the dominant nation, was the one that was superior, and should be able to invade and conquer and subjugate others. This is what's happening in Russia right now.”
This view, you can start with, well, there you have the existing nation-states, and within them, they're the dominant nation. It's a little hard to understand how that fits in with countries like Switzerland. They have a Swiss identity, even though people speak German, or French, or Italian, or Romanch, small minority. Hazony's view, you just take the basic currently existing nation-states, and they have some dominant nation. The United States, that's a interesting question. What does it mean? What would be the dominant nation in the United States? It's quite clear, it's some sort of Protestant, Anglo, whatever combination. The U.S. is looking less like that every day. The society is changing. Definitions of groups are changing along the way.
I don't think that his view would even provide any clear or unambiguous guidance in these cases. The more organic view, which you found with National Socialism and others, was that there was an organically existing folk and that it had an existence, a being that was prior to that of the individuals that might be associated with it. That's also a feature we find in some of the contemporary extreme forms of postmodern discourse. You don't really exist. You, an individual, you're just a phantasm. You're merely the intersection of forces of domination, class, race, gender, and so on. That the individual human being is epiphenomenal. This doesn't really exist at all. It's just actually forces that exist, which I think is a case of really misplaced concreteness in understanding social reality. Who gets to be the one that decides who we are? Ultimately, what it means is some of us will decide for the others. It's not us deciding who we are. It's some of us deciding who the other people are.
My last point in this regard is there's a trend that is common to all of this, which is the populist mentality, that we can divide the population into the true people and the enemies of the people. Ernesto Laclau, in his book On Populist Reason, it's a really unreadable, boring, turgid, badly written mass of words. Once you struggle through it, his point is that the leader, he calls the empty signifier, that's Mussolini and Juan Perón and Hitler and Putin and so on, the leader will create the people. The way that you create the people is by designating the enemies of the people. You build an identity. The nation or the people ultimately is a construct of power.
Aaron: It was pretty common in the second Bush administration for people on the left to refer to Bush and Bush-style Republicans and then Paul Ryan-style Republicans and before that Reagan-style conservatives as fascists. To throw that term around is just a general condemnation of political ideas that we didn't like. Obviously, as we've discussed for the last nearly 40 minutes, these movements that we're seeing in ascendance right now are fundamentally different from that kind of conservatism, no matter what objections we as liberals might have had to that sort of conservatism.
At the same time, it seems like so many elites in the media, in academia, in the public intellectual space still want to talk about these contemporary movements as within that same ballpark, right? That Trumpism doesn't represent something radically new at the heights of the American political scene. I say that because these beliefs have always been present in the American political scene. They weren't just birthed suddenly, as we've been discussing. Rather as just, this is just like a more extreme version of what came before, maybe a little bit more radical version.
I guess my question is, why does there seem to be this inability to recognize not just how fundamentally different these views are, but how fundamentally and profoundly dangerous they are and what can we do about that? Because fighting back against this stuff begins with taking it really seriously. There seems to be an aversion to taking it seriously or a real desire to like explain it away as just some people getting carried away.
Tom: I think it's one of the more puzzling features of political discourse. If you think that, whatever, Mitt Romney is a fascist or something, wait until you meet an actual fascist. I think that language is despicable and it's not because I'm a big Romney fan or anything like that, it's just absurd. Going back to 1946, George Orwell in his wonderful essay, Politics and the English Language, said the word fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies something not desirable. The term fascist just became this term that if you didn't like something you called it fascist. Grossly unfair in most cases. The problem is that when you meet real fascists you have no vocabulary to describe them. Real hyper-nationalists like Le Pen or some of the people in the European fascist movements or the Trumpists basically are waging war on liberal democracy. What do you call them? First off, I'd like to retire the term fascism as a term of contemporary discourse that's just become so degraded. I think right-wing collectivism is more helpful.
Now if you look at so-called American conservatives, they have differed from European conservatives in lots of important ways. Typically, I can't speak in a way that would describe everyone who had this term, they thought they were conserving something. Typically it meant the Constitution and what they saw as the American way of life. What did they see as the American way of life? It meant that you respect your neighbors and you have freedom of religion and you follow the Constitution and you have the First Amendment and people can disagree without killing each other. Those are basically liberal values. They were conservative insofar as they wanted to protect more or less a set of liberal institutions. Some of them dragged their heels when it came to getting rid of illiberal, monstrous, unconstitutional institutions but by the way, not all of them. There are many people who were later called conservatives who had been in the civil rights movement because they saw those things as un-American. In a certain sense, that's a conservatism that is essentially a branch of liberalism. As the real illiberals understand, people like Patrick Deneen and so on, they understand this very clearly.
Now we have though a movement, or I should say a set of movements, a whole constellation of ideas that really are opposed to liberalism. They're sometimes called conservatism but it's not clear what they want to conserve. As I mentioned, they want to smash everything. They're alienated from our contemporary social life. They hate it. They see the world is in a period of decline. There's another common theme, this declinism. Usually, they have cyclical theories of history of one weird sort or another. Steve Bannon is obsessed by this rubbish and nonsense. He's influenced by the Italian ultra-hyper-fascist Julius Evola, who said we're in the [Hindu conception] of the Kal Yug, the period of decline of civilization. They want to smash it all to pieces and then instantiate these values that they see as transcendent, as beautiful, and they are the values typically of the warrior. Then on faith, they're going to create some new state that will instantiate these. That didn't turn out too well when it was tried before and it won't turn out better in the future. If they get their way, the future of humanity will be one of unending violence and warfare, degradation, and poverty.
“Now we have though a movement, or I should say a set of movements, a whole constellation of ideas that really are opposed to liberalism. … They want to smash it all to pieces and then instantiate these values that they see as transcendent, as beautiful, and they are the values typically of the warrior. Then on faith, they're going to create some new state that will instantiate these. That didn't turn out too well when it was tried before and it won't turn out better in the future. If they get their way, the future of humanity will be one of unending violence and warfare, degradation, and poverty.”
Aaron: Thank you for listening to ReImagining Liberty. If you like the show and want to support it, head to reimaginingliberty.com to learn more. You'll get early access to all my essays as well as be able to join the Reimagining Liberty Discord community and book club. That's reimaginingliberty.com or look for the link in the show notes. Talk to you soon.
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