by: Michael Lerner on March 15th, 2016 | 5 Comments »
It would be silly to imagine that neo-Nazism or fascism is about to sweep through the U.S. in the 1990s. But the candidacies of David Duke and Patrick Buchanan for the Republican presidential nomination are likely to give new publicity and respectability to only barely disguised racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic ideas in American politics. Right-wing extremists are creating a poisonous tendency in American political discourse, as they seek to establish a pseudo-community among the white middle class by mobilizing anger against the poor, the homeless, welfare recipients, immigrants, Blacks, gays, Jews, or the Japanese, and by rallying around talk about “America first” (the slogan of the pro-Nazi isolationists in the 1930s). The social conditions that allowed David Duke to capture 55 percent of Louisiana’s white vote are likely to be more rather than less prevalent in the US. over the next generation, and the type of politics Duke and Buchanan represent will likely command a large audience nationwide. So this article is not particularly concerned with this year’s election – we think it unlikely that either Duke or Buchanan will win the nomination – but with the social movements that they will be mobilizing in the years ahead.
The Dukes and Buchanans get some of their support from hard-core right-wingers, racists, and fascists whose character structures and ideological commitments attract them to racism, hatred, and violence. But to move beyond their hard core to the much larger constituency that voted for Duke or that is listening to Buchanan, the ultrarightists have learned how to appeal to many decent Americans by speaking to real and legitimate needs, to acknowledge the pain in their lives, and to give them the sense that they are being recognized and respected. Because our goal is to find ways to dislodge this sector of the population from the Right, we need to understand what these legitimate needs are and to speak to them in a way that separates the legitimate recognition of their pain from the illegitimate expression of that pain in racist or xenophobic directions.
The problem is that liberals and progressives rarely understand this issue, rarely ask what legitimate needs are being spoken to when the fascists start to gain a mass audience, and hence are often unable to develop an effective strategy to prevent the David Dukes and Patrick Buchanans of this world from reaching power. Similarly, if we turn to the way that most people have been taught to think about the triumph of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, we find that few of the analyses of this critical episode in history provide us with serious answers to the question we are raising.
Instead, conventional answers to this question tended to fit the agendas of those seeking to justify various post-World War II political alignments. Western countries were anxious to rehabilitate former Nazis and to gain popular support in Germany. A West German state, they reasoned, could face down the ideological appeal of communism and withstand the potential military threat of the Red Army. But to secure German loyalty, Nazism could not be portrayed as arising out of something deep and abiding in the situation of the German people or its culture. Instead, it became popular in the West to absolve most Germans of any responsibility for what had happened by thinking of Nazism as some kind of collective that had magically descended on the German people in 1933, and magically disappeared in 1945. This consciousness reached its fullest expression in President Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery in which former SS officers were buried along with other former soldiers of the Nazi army, and in the West’s celebration of the reunification of Germany. We need only witness neo-Nazi skinhead attacks on immigrants to see how premature this reunification really was.
Soviet explanations of the Holocaust, meanwhile, were equally tailored to the Soviets’ need to mobilize the East German population into the cold war. What caused Nazism, the communists argued, was capitalist imperialism itself. The industrialists, preoccupied with the imminent threat of communist rule as the worldwide depression deepened, used the Nazis to keep the workers in line. In the version popularized by Bertolt Brecht in his playThe Remarkable Rise of Arturo Uithe industrialists hired a gangster, but the gangster eventually turned on his employers and took on a life of his own, becoming in the process something far more ugly and sinister than the hired thug he was at the play’s outset. The solution, then, was simple: Eliminate the gangsters first; then uproot the capitalist system that had created them. The Soviets went even further than the West in ignoring the complicity of the German population in all this. Soviet propagandists were desperate to recruit a German population that had long been warned of the horrors of Soviet rule – and that had shown a great deal of enthusiasm for the Nazis.
Both of these accounts were remarkably superficial. Both denied the important role of anti-Semitism and of the deep needs that Nazi ideology was able to exploit. And both conscientiously avoided dealing with the growing numbers of Germans who voluntarily and eagerly joined the Nazi party in the late 19205 and early 19305, and who formed an electoral majority for the Nazis in 1932.
Unlike these cold war interpretations, the typical Zionist account had the advantage of acknowledging the popular support for fascism in Germany, even though it then conjured up another magical concept: the supposed inevitability of gentile hatred of the Jews. Zionists quite correctly drew upon the long history of anti-Semitism in the West to show that Nazism was not an aberration, solely the product of its social background or historical moment. Rather, it was a full expression of the Jew-hating in which Western politics and culture had been steeped for centuries.
But many Zionists tended to essentialize anti-Semitism as a permanent fact in the consciousness of the goyim. Jews could deal with this ugly fact either by making clever deals with ruling elites who might control and suppress it among the masses, or by assuming that it might reemerge at any moment, leaving nothing to be done but secure a strong military for the Jewish State. By essentializing anti-Semitism as the perennial irrational hatred of Jews, the Zionists avoided the question of what could be done to combat its rise. Rather, the only relevant question became: What do we do to give strength to the State of Israel, a place to which the victims can escape?
If escape is one extreme, based on a pessimistic assessment of the fundamental stupidity or evil of those attracted to the Right, the other extreme was taken up in the twenties and thirties by the communist Left in Germany. The CP correctly noted that German capitalism required imperialism. Since the world’s markets were already dominated by the U.S., England, and France, German capitalists had only two choices: either allow the current depression to continue, with the inevitable radicalization of the population in ways that might lead to socialist revolution; or resist the ruinous program of reparations and trade restrictions the victorious powers imposed on Germany after World War I, in which case an aggressive German nationalism would have to be restored to its former prestige. The CP concluded that since the aggressive nationalism was the inevitable outcome of capitalist rule, the only solution was to preach immediate revolution. And since Germany’s large Social Democratic party did not favor such a revolution, the Social Democrats, and not the Nazis, were deemed the real enemy: In blocking a revolution they were condemning Germany to a capitalist regime that would necessarily lead the country into fascism.
However, both the Social Democrats and the Communists failed to understand that Hitler was growing in popularity not only because of Germany’s desperate economic situation, but also because he spoke to a set ofotherneeds that the socialists could not begin to understand. After all, if it were solely economic issues that motivated Hitler’s supporters, the Communist program had as much to offer as the fascist one did. In fact, the fascists put themselves forward as national socialists – that is, as a force that, like the Left, would combat the power of the capitalist class. Once they took power and consolidated their hold on government and society, the Nazis also became reconciled with Germany’s industrialists. Nonetheless, the Nazis drew some of their mass appeal from their image as enemies of Germany’s business elite.
But the fascists added to the economic picture an understanding of the deep humiliation and sense of powerlessness that most people were feeling as they faced the unemployment and inflation of the post-World War I years. These economic humiliations were coupled with a deep spiritual and ethical crisis that characterized German society under the Weimar Republic. The values of the feudal past had collapsed rapidly, but what seemed to be replacing them was an ethos of extreme self-interest, profligate sexuality, moral relativism, and family collapse. The older communities that formerly gave mooring and direction to life were rapidly disintegrating, or perceived themselves to be under unrelenting attack. To be sure, some of the resistance to the cultural revolution of the 1920s was based on a reactionary longing for a past that was oppressive to most or for the security that patriarchy offered. But not all of this resistance was simply reactionary. Some of it was based on a correct assessment that the new society emerging in Germany was oppressive in a different way. Those who still felt some allegiance to precapitalist values sensed that Weimar society provided little opportunity for many people to feel good about themselves, or to feel confident that what they bad managed to achieve for themselves in their work, family life, and community was likely to survive the winds of change.
In these circumstances, the fascist Right has developed a formula that wins it considerable mass appeal, and that, under some conditions, allows it to gain power. First, it validates these concerns. Second, it proposes that people can overcome the alienation they experience in daily life by becoming part of a fantasized community – the powerful Nation. But in fact, the experience of being part of the Nation doesn’t work for very long, because after the parades and the song-fests and spectacles, people return to the alienating workplaces and oppressive family relations that shape their daily lives. The Nation, in other words, is a fantasized community – provided as analternativeto changing the oppressive institutions of daily life. So, when people’s pain and alienation returns, we go to part three of the fascist program: the identification of an Enemy, who has somehow insinuated itself into the daily life of the nation and undermined the experience of solidarity and mutual caring that supposedly would have been there otherwise. This Enemy is typically the Jew or the Communist, but also, in the case of David Duke’s American brand of protofascism, the Blacks (now carefully identified in speeches with such coded references as “welfare cheats” or “beneficiaries of wasteful government programs”). Whichever identity this Enemy assumes, it must be rooted out if the people of the nation are to achieve the human satisfactions and community that they seek.
An intelligent Left in Germany would have started by acknowledging that the experiences of pain and powerlessness and under-confirmation of people’s being was real. And instead of simply talking about economic solutions and political revolution, leaders of this Left would have tried to create programs that immediately spoke to the pain, frustration, alienation, and under-confirmation that people were experiencing.
George Mosse, the renowned historian of fascism, suggests in his book Masses and Man (Wayne State University Press, 1987) that the Left may also need to consider ways to develop a progressive and humane nationalism. Certainly one might argue that progressive forces could have legitimately affirmed some elements of German national culture. Certainly the communist internationalism that the Left envisioned as the only alternative to German nationalism was itself already dominated by Stalinist totalitarianism and thus presented, at best, a dubious substitute for a progressive version of a usable German past.
But this analysis raises a host of more basic, theoretical questions. What, first of all, would a progressive nationalism look like? It would, of course, have to move beyond the fantasy nature of reactionary nationalisms. By validating the humane, life-affirming, and morally sensitive aspects of the tradition and culture in which it is rooted, it would also directly challenge racist and national chauvinist accounts of the pain and powerlesness in people’s lives by providing alternative explanations. Progressive nationalists would identify the current structures of the competitive marketplace and of patriarchal society most responsible for making daily life unfulfilling and alienating.
There are real risks in identifying withanynationalism – and you can see grim testimony to those risks in the other pieces in this special section of the magazine. Thus we might consider addressing some of the same concerns in another form. For example, I’ve suggested that the American Left adopt a progressive profamily program that would substantially address the same issues of alienation, powerlessness, and self-blame that a progressive nationalism would seek to address – and yet avoid some of the problematic features of nationalism (though I acknowledge that much of my argument could also be used to support an attempt to develop a progressive appropriation of national symbols of history). Once again, we start by acknowledging that people are correct to feel that there is a real problem in family life and that people’s desire for long-term loving and committed relationships is a legitimate desire. We then try to separate these legitimate concerns from the reactionary elements of family life that the Right has appealed to – the oppressive patriarchal order, the insistence on only one “correct” form of family life, the attempt to stigmatize gays and feminists.
A progressive profamily program would include gay families and single-parent families. And rather than idealize the pathologies that afflict many existing families, it would acknowledge the pain and stress that often distorts family life, and would then help people understand this pain as part of a larger set of competitive, market-dominated social relations. People are rewarded in the marketplace precisely because they succeed in manipulating and controlling others. Yet these very qualities, embodied in the “smooth operators” and “cool people” who “make it” in the competitive marketplace create narcissistic personalities: precisely the character types that are unable to make long-term loving commitments in family life, or even in friendships. Even when they genuinely wish to achieve intimacy, they don’t know how to stop manipulating and attempting to control the very people they wish to have as lovers or friends. And the stress that people experience in the world of work – a direct function of the way that work gives people little opportunity to fulfill their capacities for creativity, intelligence, cooperation, and self-determination – is brought home into family life. There it often erupts in irritability, depression, insensitivity, or a general lack of energy and awareness, each of which works to undermine loving relationships. This is just one realm – albeit an extremely important one – in which the Left could develop what I call a politics of meaning. This isn’t a question merely of providing a set of economic benefits to families or to provide family rights (though I think we shouldalsodevelop a Bill of Rights for workers and for families). Rather, it’s a question of helping people understand why it’s so hard to build loving relationships, acknowledging their pain, helping them to stop blaming themselves, and allowing them to see that some personal problems are rooted in societal pathologies. Once the Left begins to address the pains of daily life, it can provide many deeper and ultimately more fulfilling ways for people to understand what is actually bothering them.
The exact way the Left might have applied this kind of thinking to the Europe of the late twenties and early thirties might be debated. But what I have been arguing is that this whole way of thinking – this entire confrontation with the question of what was hurting people’s daily lives and how that pain was transformed into rage at “the Other” – was absent and as a result, the Left had no plausible way to fight the ascent of fascism.
That same error has emerged in the Left’s response to the growth of the radical Right in the seventies and eighties in the U.S., and to the growth of Duke-style fascism in the nineties. If current trends continue, many of this country’s leading industrial corporations will move manufacturing jobs out of the US. The huge debts generated by the reckless military Spending of the Reagan and Bush years will thwart the development of an economic and educational infrastructure that could give the U.S. a competitive advantage in the emerging scientific and technological revolutions in production. As a result, the standing of the U.S. in the international capitalist market will continue to slip. Growing unemployment and inflation will produce a sense of general despair about the future. One plausible Left response to such conditions would be to push for a worldwide system of rational planning – both to deal with the ecological crisis that threatens to destroy the entire world, and to prevent a new clash between rival nationalisms. A progressive approach to international planning would require both a refined ecological sensitivity and a fair allocation of the world’s resources and productive capacities, advantaging countries equally, taking into account the needs of the Third World as well as of the advanced industrial societies. Without such an international plan, we are likely to face a twenty-first century plagued by ecological disasters and competing economic nationalisms. And it is not unthinkable that the U.S., unable to rely on its waning superiority in science, engineering, and productive technology, would be tempted to turn to the one arena where ithascommitted its resources: military superiority. Justifying a new aggressive nationalism would require some kind of popular movement – and here theDuke-type forces, perhaps shielded by the Republican party’s right wing, would play an important role.
An alternative economic solution that requiredinternational planning and rational use of the world’s resources would benefit everyone, and might save the world from ecological disaster. But such a solution will be impossible to implement as long as the U.S. government is dominated by a corporate elite more interested in its own freedom to maximize profits than in the long-term well-being of the society as a whole. For some corporate leaders, the possibility of moving their capital to more productive countries is an adequate solution; for others, the possibility of using American military power to back their corporate interests provides the necessary insurance. But few corporate leaders are willing to use America’s current strength to push the other capitalist countries into any plan of long-term cooperation.
If we want the U.S. government to use its power to help mold an international plan, we need to found a popular social movement to challenge the entrenched powers that serve the interests of the corporations. The promise of this kind of movement has always been what lies behind the appeal of the populists, those who tried to articulate popular resentments against the entrenched interests.
Our task in the U.S. is to create a populism that does not appeal to the racism, sexism, and national chauvinism that have disfigured right-wing and fascistic forms of populism. To do this, we need to address thecrisisin meaning: the forces that cause people to feel alienated, devoid of meaning and purpose, lacking in community, and unrecognized. Listening to some of the in-depth interviews that Were done with people who voted for David Duke in 1991, we hear over and over again variations of one theme: “I am here, I count, and David Duke made me feel that he was the only one who noticed that.” Underlying this assertion is the pain of people who feel that their cares and concerns are receiving little validation or attention.
Of course, liberals, progressives, and many of the community-relations professionals of the Jewish world respond to this critique by saying something like this: “Sure, there is underlying pain, but that pain is deeply embedded in racism and anti-Semitism, and we can’t make any compromises with those kinds of feelings.” But this misses the point. To validate the pain isnotto validate the racism, but to try instead to drive a wedge between the legitimate pains and illegitimate racist and fascist solutions, precisely in order todefeatracism and anti-Semitism.
The liberal and progressive responses typically lead to one of two strategies: eliminate the economic problems and we will eliminate the potential for fascism; or outlaw racism and coerce those who practice it with economic or political pressure. But both strategies are unlikely to work. America’s economic problems cannot be solved in the long run unless we talk about limiting the freedom of the marketplace and creating real international cooperation and planning. Yet at the same time, liberal Democrats and corporate leaders will be represented prominently in any antifascist coalition. They will totally oppose this direction, and can be expected to use their considerable power to prevent anyone from making it part of the antifascist strategy. So instead we will be treated to a variety of stop-gap economic spending programs that may temporarily reduce unemployment, but will not work to reverse the larger trend of American economic decline. And ironically, conservatives will cite the failure of these measures as further proof that any governmental program will necessarily fail, and hence convince people that what we need is less planning rather than more.
On the other hand, the second set of liberal remedies – legal constraints to punish racist and discriminatory practices – won’t work. We live in a democracy; and the more racist ideas are able to win popular support, the more we will have right-wing judges and legislators dismantling the programs that had served previously as constraints on both racism and fascism.
Given this dead end in traditional liberal politics, there’s no real alternative but to win popular support for a progressive populist program. To do so, progressive populism must go far beyond visionary plans for an international planned economy, and directly address the pain of daily life. A progressive profamily program, a progressive approach to the world of work, and a progressive nationalism may all be elements in such a populism. And a serious antifascist program must show people that we care about their lives, not just that we believe in some abstract sense in their “rights” or “equal opportunity.” We must speak concretely to what is actually happening in their family lives, and to the sense of loss that afflicts the communities they inhabit. We will be successful when we can help people understand the pain they experience in their daily lives. This pain takes many forms: the sense of abandonment the elderly feel when they are denied respect, caring, and gratitude from their children or when they sense their children have rejected wholesome values and have become selfish and insensitive. Or it surfaces again in the feelings that haunt many of our personal relations: the sense that we have fewer friendships that we can count on, or that our marriages and families are likely to collapse. Or it could be the painful realization that work has proved to be a “dead end” and feels dull and alienating. We must begin to acknowledge the central importance of all these pains in our political life. And we must clearly convey that we understand and care about such pain, and have ideas about how it can be alleviated.
Ultimately, the struggle against fascism is a struggle for the minds and hearts of the American people. To win, we need to acknowledge that the moral relativism and spiritual deadness of the contemporary world is indeed something that needs to be fought – and that these ills are products of the reductionist logic of capitalist materialism. Similarly, we must work to create thousands of consciousness-raising groups in workplaces and communities that will encourage people to understand their personal pain in its full social context. The Left must also redesign and adopt the technologies of individual transformation, so well utilized both by the twelve-step programs of the therapeutic recovery movement, and by many organizations on the Right to empower and mobilize people to a different kind of politics. The Left can also appropriate national symbols and national mythology in public events that reflect a progressive program of social change. Imagine, for example, public events in every community in the U.S. to celebrate the Bill of Rights, and to encourage communities to develop their conceptions of a fuller sense of human rights applicable to the twenty-first century. In the 1980s, we at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health developed a Family Day for the city of Oakland, which thousands of people attended. Imagine a similar yearly event in every major U.S. city aimed at helping people recognize that many of the problems they face in family life are actually rooted in larger social ills that a progressive program was designed to change.
These consciousness-raising aspects of a politics of meaning would find concrete applications in a set of programs aimed at reshaping our society so that daily life would enhance our abilities to be loving, creative, and caring human beings. These changes would include democratization of the world of work, a government re-structured to emphasize person-to-person caring activities over the workings of an impersonal bureaucracy, and schools that teach values and nurture spiritual and ethical sensitivities. The economy, meanwhile, should be restructured toward cooperative and caring behavior. That such a society would be more likely to be productive and competitive in the international market of the twenty-first century is an important by-product, but not the major goal, of a transformative and compassionate politics of meaning. And a progressive politics that showed this kind of caring for the American people wouldwin. The Left could then be in a position to push for international economic planning that could reverse the steady decline of the economic wellbeing into the next century. Unlike the right-wing and fascist programs that can only provide a fantasized community, the democratic restructuring that our program calls for would actually create a less alienated and more fulfilling daily life. Yet only our willingness to recognize people’s pain, and to help them overcome self-blaming, could possibly put us in a position where we would have the power to restructure the society in a humane way.
Call this approach a mass of compassion. But it isnotthe liberal compassion that merely doles out to the most economically oppressed a set of economic entitlements. On the contrary, this kind of compassion starts from a recognition that the same kind of pain that afflicts those attracted to the Right also afflicts the rest of us. Indeed, those on the Left are often in as much trouble and pain as those on the Right. Liberals and progressives have developed their own ways of dealing with that pain, e.g. psychotherapy, recreational drugs, sexual “acting out.” Such solutions may be, on the whole, less socially destructive than the fascist counterparts that emerge on the Right, but the fact is that we arenoton a different planet or in a different universe than those who ended up voting for David Duke. Recognizing this fact would be the first step toward a politics of compassion: If we could allow ourselves to really understand this, we would not project the elitist image that so infuriates the people whom we allegedly wish to reach. Yet this may be the hardest point of all for liberals and leftists to accept: They are so addicted to their sense of moral superiority that they often prefer it to political victory. Yet in fighting the potential fascisms of the coming decades, we cannot afford this self-indulgence. Morality yes, superiority no. The best way to avoid this temptation is to confront our own lives deeply, acknowledge our own pain, frustration, and vulnerability, and begin to understand the ways that these feelings are similar to the pains of many who describe their experiences in right-wing language.
A united front against fascism, then, must be based on a real alternative to fascism – not just an analysis of why fascism is bad or what it has led to in the past, but a substantive view of how to reorder our society in ways that relieve the pain that leads people to embrace fascism in the first place. It was not inevitable that the fascists would win in 1928 in Europe. Their ascent could have been blocked, had people developed a compassionate strategy that addressed the kinds of concerns I’ve outlined here. And while the Dukes of the world are inevitably going to be part of the political discourse of the 1990s, their victories are by no means inevitable. Establishment rightists such as Bush will not be able to fight off the threat of a resurgent domestic fascism, since they appeal to the same dynamics but only draw the line at more external enemies. That’s why it’s not unfair to link Bush and Duke – the entire American Right uses the same basic strategy that has paved the way for the legitimation of a fascist and anti-Semitic character like David Duke. And liberals and progressives who refuse to take seriously the psychological and spiritual crisis of contemporary society will prove no more effective in the antifascist struggle. They will hold assemblies, perhaps mobilize mass demonstrations, certainly sign petitions. But they won’t look at the pain, anger, and frustration that this society has engendered – because doing this would force them to ask questions about the need for a radical restructuring and to see how much they have in common with the people they love to disdain – the people who are drawn to racist, anti-Semitic, and aggressive nationalist ideologies. It is urgent, then, for a united front against fascism to concentrate on a politics of meaning and a mass of compassion in order to resist the destructive possibilities of the coming decades.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor ofTikkun Magazine, chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, www.spiritualprogressives.org and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He is the author of 11 books, including two national best sellers – The Left Hand of GodandJewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation.