“Nazis” & “Socialists” as the New “Kings” & “Tyrants”

FDR Press release image

FDR; click to enlarge.

Although the modern far right is more angry, violent, and visible, thanks to cable news, America has never lacked for hyperbolic, cartoonish criticism. At the outset we shared with the Romans an eagnerness to style our opponents as kings, tyrants, monarchs, despots, or emperors, evoking potent memories of past injustices.

Monarchs were an understandably sore spot for early Americans: they’d suffered under the caprices of one within living memory, and struggled with mind and body to first expel and then ensure against the return of the same. For decades, any political deed carried with it the fear of kingship. America’s first experiment with federal government, the Articles of Confederation, failed because we were too suspicious of central authority, but understandably so. George Washington painstakingly crafted himself into an exemplar of democratic authority, first surrendering his military commission, to prove that America’s liberator would not, in fact, turn into a modern Pompey/Cromwell/Napoleon; then ensuring a civil title for the President, bereft of the trappings of monarchy; and, finally, resigning, to cut short any expectation of lifetime rule.

jefferson as monarchist

Jefferson; click to enlarge.

Modern political namecalling, for better or worse, has evolved significantly. By the 1950s, our domestic political opponents began to take the names of our foreign opponents — those inclined to state power, and those who opposed the sitting President, became “Communists.” It was Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-WI) who began to sever the term from its dictionary meaning: opposing the Senator was enough to make you a Communist, regardless of your opinion of international socialism. Although a few commentators still employ the traditional slurs (“monarchist”), modern epithets — like “Nazi,” “Socialist,” and “Communist” — now occupy the field, carrying with them McCarthy’s definitional disconnect. Lest we forget, socialism requires state ownership (not regulation!!) of the means of production; communism requires that plus the abolition of private property; and Nazism requires a similar command economy, plus the brutal repression of all political dissent. None have happened here, and none will happen here, either.

If this is to be the mode of modern American namecalling, though, I fear we’ve lost something special. The style of calling our opponents “monarchists” had the ring of history and classicism to it. Cries of “monarchism” embodied a uniquely American approach to state power, to so hate monarchy as to make it the prime evil, and while I don’t doubt that Communism and Nazism are in fact greater evils, when it comes to archnemeses, you never forget your first. The weight of history keeps the “monarch” insult well grounded, too, while overuse has unmoored and devalued the evil inherent in, say, the “Nazi” label. If we are to better honor our history, and the victims of modern atrocities like Nazism, it might be best to return to the old style of namecalling. If we can’t civilize our political discourse, at least we might civilise it.

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13 comments

  1. I must say, as someone who lives in a modern monarchy, I can highly recommend it. As long as the basic freedoms of speech, liberty, and representation are there, it is generally okay.

  2. Constitutional monarchies are very different beasts… Unrestrained kings suck ass. That said, get the right guy and it’s great for most of the population. Philosopher kingship could work if you had the right guy/gal, and they never died. Unfortunately, Augustus usually leads to Tiberius

    1. Unrestrained anything suck ass. That is why we have elections, it is a good way to keep them in check. Only problem is if you are not allowed an election, or at least one that is fair.

      Back on to the topic of socialism, does any one really care who owns the gas company so long as the bills are small enough to be able to be paid? For a long time our power companies were state owned and if the prices raised too much, the government got voted out. Now we have private companies with “competition” (they all charge the same amount) and I have no one to take it out on, I just have to pay the bill, like it or leave it. The only people effected by government ownership of certain utilities are people that aspire to own them.

      1. Back on to the topic of socialism, does any one really care who owns the gas company so long as the bills are small enough to be able to be paid?

        The argument of free-market-advocates is generally more on the lines of state ownership always being corrupt and inefficient. To which I would reply that if you have public control of a company, you can screw up or you do not, depending on your goals and the quality of political leadership; if you have private ownership, the goal is always profit, to the exclusion of all others, and often this is in direct conflict with public interest (in, say, affordable public transport, health care, education, whatnot).

        1. I (and I think you are too) am referring to things in which natural monopolies form any way. In which case government ownership or heavy government regulation is going to have to come into play any way. I guess unless you are happy to have a monopoly constantly pushing prices through the roof in any economic system as small amount of “socialism” (read anything but pure laissez-faire) is going to be required.

          1. Hear, hear! The government of my home country has spent the last years pushing for the privatization of the rail system. Now I can understand how a company can work privately that is putting carriages onto the rails, no problem, although you can ask any German you like and you will find that prices have escalated and service and punctuality have deteriorated amazingly ever since the privatization process started. (When I was a child, there was a saying “pünktlich wie die Eisenbahn” – nobody is using that anymore, the company has rather become synonymous with delays.)

            But the point is, why do they think that privatizing the actual track system is a good idea? How could you conceivably have a market economy there? Have three companies lay parallel tracks from Hamburg to Frankfurt, or what? Just as you say, in these cases privatization is the worst case scenario, as it will be a monopoly anyway. But once somebody has convinced themselves that private enterprise is better, always, everywhere, under all circumstances, they become as impervious to logic as every other ideologue.

  3. Lest we forget, socialism requires state ownership (not regulation!!) of the means of production; communism requires that plus the abolition of private property; and Nazism requires a similar command economy, plus the brutal repression of all political dissent.

    I am frequently amazed at how different people can define these terms. I’d say socialist is the intention to minimize social inequalities, one of the strategies usually being state intervention into the economy. Everything more specific depends on the sub-movement, so to say. Communists could be defined as that sub-movement that set their stakes in state ownership, command economy and, in practice if not in theory, a dictatorship.

    Where you (and some other Americans, apparently) get the idea that fascism has anything to do with command economy is completely beyond me. Be it Europe in the 1930ies or Latin America in the 1960/70ies, it is in its most general terms basically nothing more than a right-wing (and thus usually private ownership of the economy) dictatorship, often specifically installed to crush socialist movements. Of course, the Nazis had elements of command economy, but that was simply because they conducted a total war; similar state intervention happens every time a government need to assure that war production runs smoothly, independent of their ideological outlook, even libertarians would have to do that for practical reasons. If your very survival hinges on churning out enough ammo and tanks, you just cannot let the market decide whether the resources were not better allocated as sports cars or whatever…

    1. “Command economy” may be a little strong, but fascism does have a strong element of government intervention in the economy. As you rightly point out, Nazi Germany is a bit of an outlier because of the re-militarisation and later the total war economy, but you find similar approaches in Mussolini’s and Franco’s policies.

      Generally, fascism was founded as a reaction not just to communism, but also to capitalism, and a free market economy was seen as alien to the ideal of society as a united organism. Usually, you’d see a corporatist or syndicalist attitude instead.

      1. Usually, you’d see a corporatist or syndicalist attitude instead.

        Syndicalism definitively not, no. Corporatism, maybe. Maybe you are confusing the issue as being market vs. non-market, but it is about power and distribution of wealth. The business cronies of a dictator keeping all their power and possessions untouched while the state assures that labour movements are destroyed and protectionism implemented is not so much free market, but still something quite different from the state taking over the economy, is it not?

        I would yet have to be made aware of a fascist dictator who actually worked against the interests of big money / industry / land owners instead of for them. Point is, if he did that, he would by definition be a socialist dictator, not a fascist one any more.

        1. As far as I am aware both Communist and Fascist oppose a free market, but to different ends. In a true free market with no barriers to entry, all participants should have equal opportunity to participate. Under communism the government enters the market to sure up the position of the workers, often with collectively or state owned companies. Under fascism the government enterers the market to sure up the position of the corporate heads, usually by increasing barriers of entry to prevent smaller operators entering the market and preventing unionism to reduce the ability for workers to negotiate wages.

          Authoritarians at both ends of the scale dislike a free market as they can’t control who gets the money, and as the old adage goes money is power.

        2. I certainly am feeling slightly confused, since I don’t quite see how a political movement’s attitude to the market would not be the primary consideration when discussing its economic policies.

          Anyway, corporatism and national syndicalism was certainly a core part of the policies of both the Italian fascists, the Spanish Falangists and Mosley’s BUF. Generally, they would use extensive dirigisme and protectinism to achieve an autarkic economy that, while not state-owned, was subservient to the state interests to a large degree. Whether or not such policies promotes the interests of “big money” in either the short or long run is debatable, but it is certainly a form of state intervention.

          1. I certainly am feeling slightly confused, since I don’t quite see how a political movement’s attitude to the market would not be the primary consideration when discussing its economic policies.

            If somebody thinks the world of ideas consists of “market economy” on one side and “everything else, which is basically the same because it is not a free market” on the other side, then this would make sense, yes. However, life is more complicated and economic policies are more diverse than that.

            Clearly fascist states have government intervention into the economy. So do the US or Singapore, for that matter. If you do not intervene in the market, it breaks down instantly. Believe it or not, but things like backing the money, defining measures and weights, forbidding cartels or keeping an industrialist from poisoning the water supply to save money are all interventions, and that is not even mentioning bailout programs.

            The important point here is that a fascist dictatorship has completely different goals than a socialist one, and different economic strategies follow. When the Nazis took over my country, they were supported by big finance and industry, they immediately arrested the commies (significantly, everybody else later), they destroyed the free trade unions, and they soon gave “de-jewed” companies and foreign enterprises in the conquered areas to privately owned and purely profit-oriented German companies. The Bolivian military dictator Banzer, as a more recent example, basically sunk his country into the debt trap by splurging a lot of prestige projects which at the same time turned his crones into rich entrepreneurs. A socialist dictator, on the other hand, will intervene to minimize inequalities and poverty, and this is only possible if you work against the big money of your own country, because they will not want to share; if push comes to shove, you may have to socialize their companies. If this is not the difference between fascism and socialism, what is it then?

            My original issue here, though, was that the blog post implied socialist – communist – Nazi to be a kind of escalation into the same direction, which is not only a very weird, one-dimensional view of politics, but also empirically wrong. There are many dimensions to politics, and commies/socialists are on the opposite ends of one socioeconomic axis.

            Btw, I have taken care to look up Syndicalism on WikiPedia to see if the word is defined differently in English than how I know it. No, definitely nothing to do with the top-down labour organization found in fascist states that is merely meant to suppress any free articulation of workers’ interests.

          2. Ah, that should read “commies/socialists and fascists are on the opposite ends of one socioeconomic axis”, obviously. Damn.

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