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The Uses and Abuses of Political Philosophy: On Michael Ledeen’s “We are All Fascists Now”

Michael Ledeen’s “We are All Fascists Now” is an argument I sort of like, peppered with a generous helping of potential theoretical discussion. The argument is roughly: spending this $800 billion involves the state to an ever-increasing degree in corporations. A “third way” between between capitalism and communism has developed because of this “too big to fail” notion.

But is this political philosophy? There are many who I think would say “yes, and if not, it’s at least the beginnings of it.” Points in their favor:

  • He addresses history seriously, and uses a term the exact literal way it was meant to shed light on phenomena now
  • He doesn’t just mention Tocqueville or Arendt, but cites more specific elements of their thought for the sake of diagnosing a condition

There was a time when I’d be thrilled to read stuff like this post over and over. Those days are gone, even though I like the interpretation of events somewhat and the attempt to get us to look more closely at terms and ideas.

Those days are gone primarily because ideology of the political Right can be summarized in bullet points nowadays. I had to stop reading “First Things” because every article was “here’s why Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche are wrong about everything, and Aquinas and Augustine are exactly right and show up in modern thought when it is exactly right.” The invocation of Tocqueville by many is similarly an attempt to divide the history of thought into good guys and bad guys in order to score quick, cheap points about one piece of legislation or another. (Re: Ledeen – Part II of his piece could be far better than average articles of this sort, since he’s taken a decent amount of time to just set up questions. That’s always a good thing. Edit: Part II, and it is highly recommended.)

What Ledeen is doing at best, since we’re getting intellectual about it, is “history,” which for Aristotle was a task of the highest order. Only a good historian could make a serious determination about what was justly done, not merely effective.

Genuine political philosophy is stranger than all of this. For example, it can foster a disdain for political mechanisms that make much of the Constitutional debates look stupid: Who really cares if the power to ratify treaties lies in the Senate alone? Similarly piety and history can get pushed by the wayside, seen sometimes only as ways of keeping order and a sense of continuity.

Normally, there is no need to do political philosophy: all you’re doing in it is justifying the pursuit of radical what is questions that may or may not be helpful.

But right now, independent of Ledeen’s fine piece, the tone of much of what’s out there is hysterical. And Ledeen’s telling of what was and what will be shouldn’t have to sound like prophecy: it should be something we can reasonably debate.

Of course the fact is we can’t do that. He used the term “fascist” in the title: the Left loaded that term however they liked, and now the Right will gladly turn the tables. It doesn’t matter how reasonable his writing is, the point is, it is situated within a context not meant to be deliberative in the least. Case in point: if Tocqueville and Arendt didn’t talk about tyranny and totalitarianism, they wouldn’t have been brought up when discussing the stimulus bill at all.

Tocqueville’s worries about the “tyranny of the majority” aren’t tied to massive pieces of legislation that are obviously problematic because 1) we can’t afford them and 2) only exist to bribe members of the political party that won. The “tyranny of the majority” is at once more everyday and more hidden than that.

What makes political philosophy strange aren’t the sentiments that animate it which raise working hypotheses that replace dogma, nor the conclusions it reaches that sound like some New Age metaphor and are utterly uncommunicable to anyone who’s more practical in the least. What makes it strange is that it never, ever takes learning for granted at any time, and it is constantly looking for the best question. We’re always asking “what are the true consequences of such-and-such,” and that kind of question is typically a quick way to lose sight of what’s important: it gets loaded with what we already think, and ends up conflating the great with the small and vice versa.

5 Comments

  1. Great post. So what’s political philosophy again? Haha, I think I’m kidding, I’m just not sure…

    I should have been a sports science major

    I understand how both sides could confer stuff like Tocqueville (or whoever it happens to be) in a cheap way, but I’m still not sure how Constitutional debates end up not mattering..

  2. @ thag: The older notion of practical (pragmata, governed by prudence – phronesis) vs. theoretical (note the “theo”) is one way to approach the issue.

  3. What makes political philosophy strange aren’t the sentiments that animate it which raise working hypotheses that replace dogma, nor the conclusions it reaches that sound like some New Age metaphor and are utterly uncommunicable to anyone who’s more practical in the least. What makes it strange is that it never, ever takes learning for granted at any time, and it is constantly looking for the best question. We’re always asking “what are the true consequences of such-and-such,” and that kind of question is typically a quick way to lose sight of what’s important: it gets loaded with what we already think, and ends up conflating the great with the small and vice versa.
    Or if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance… Baffle them with B.S.??

  4. Consequence-based resolution ends up seemingly histrionic BUT ignoring consequences results in irresponsibility and imprudence. I appreciate Leeden’s insightful exposure of the “smothering” and “seductive” compassionate fascist agenda–which “helps” by removing individual responsibility–and gorges itself until the individual has no purpose except to build the state.

    The question we should be asking those who love the state is, “How can individual responsibility benefit the state? (At least it is a start) This question eludes the histrionics of focusing on the consequences while building a positive structure based on prudence and responsibility. But it does (still) begin with the assumption that individual responsibility is important…and I’m not sure whether that thought fits anywhere in fascist philosophy…

  5. I really like this, despite the fact that I can’t really see the basis for even your very qualified praise of Ledeen’s article.

    I mean, sure, in Part II he rightly suggests that his coinage ‘economic fascism’ is not meant to be equivalent to’political fascism’, but I can’t see how his argument that if something is neither pure capitalism nor communism than it must be fascism makes any sense at all; but Ledeen rides this one as confidently as if he had a surfboard made of Euclidean axioms and Madison, Hamilton and Jay yelling “Cowabunga” at him to indicate the oncoming wave.

    Also, as you say, the quotes from Tocqueville are appallingly opportunistic:

    Tocqueville certainly isn’t talking about ‘economic fascism’ (which Ledeen surely knows), he’s talking about tyranny ‘democratic style’, which might indeed be relevant if we were talking about ‘political fascism’ as a regime emerging from a democracy sufficiently enervated not to be able to stop therise of a demagogic tyrant, but it seems ludicrously tenuous if we’re in fact talking about Ledeen’s coinage and his unjustified assumption that the stimulus package puts the U.S. three quarters of the way down the ‘road to serfdom’. Your point about the tyranny of the majority being more everyday and more hidden is spot on.

    For me, this post was a great example of the enormous gulf between “Rethink” and the blogs of people whom I can’t (sorry!) help thinking of as interchangeable right-wing apparatchiks. This even though you obviously don’t quite share my assessment of the likes of Ledeen.

    Here’s to blogs whose readership is more diverse than the ranks of the already converted.

    Salut!

    -Mal.

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