The Nation, 2 February 2015

Art by Doug Chayka

Several interesting things in the 2 February edition of The Nation magazine.

Gary Younge predicts that the January 2015 massacres in Paris will strengthen France’s far right Front National.  I suspect that the opposite will in fact be the case.  The way I read opinion surveys like this one, France is like other Western European countries in that about a third of the electorate wants to alter immigration policy radically, either to stop immigration altogether or to eliminate all restrictions on it, while about two thirds of the electorate wants some or other kind of reform that will welcome a steady flow of law-abiding skilled immigrants, encourage immigrants to assimilate to the established norms of society, and keep as many criminals and other troublesome individuals outside the borders as possible.  These have long been the familiar goals of immigration policy everywhere, and I very much doubt that the mainstream parties will have any real difficulty finding ways to promote them once it becomes clear that the alternative is to start losing important elections to the Front National. Once the mainstream parties come up with something helpful to say about immigration, law and order, and similar issues, the Front’s level of support will recede, leaving its core of chronic sore-heads high and dry.

Stuart Klawans reviews a number of recent films, including The Interview.  I myself will never forgive actor Seth Rogen for the 2011 Green Hornet movie, but Mr Klawans praises Mr Rogen’s character in The Interview as the embodiment of what the world most likes about the USA:

The Interview is about a gossipy TV talk-show and the universal contempt that adheres to its host and producer, both of whom imagine that they will become respectable if they can secure an interview with Kim Jong-un. Being half-wits at best (the host’s capacity is perhaps closer to one-quarter), the characters fail to understand that Kim grants them an interview precisely because they’re imbeciles, whom he can easily manipulate. The CIA recruits them to assassinate Kim for pretty much the same reason—because they’re expendable dopes, who might as well be sent to their deaths.

At no point in the movie do James Franco (as the host) and Rogen (as the producer) violate this premise by winking at the audience or appealing for sympathy, even when they achieve their unlikely triumph. All they do is invite derision—buckets and buckets of it—for being professionally blinkered, emptily ambitious, chronically intoxicated, crudely chauvinistic, indiscriminately horny.

And you mock them for it—hypocrite voyeur, leur semblable, leur frère! Who do you think we are, a nation of Leon Wieseltiers? If we were, let me tell you, the world would not love us as it does. On that point, The Interview is absolutely clear and correct. We are indeed hated, as reflected in the anti-American ditty that begins the film, with lyrics that no venerable journal of opinion could reprint. But we are also adored, as the real Kim Jong-un adores Dennis Rodman, for the exact same lavish vulgarity that Franco and Rogen embody, and that can be preferable to the stern, manly virtues (I refer you to American Sniper) that so often win us the enmity of other people.

As Brody wrote, The Interview confronts the possibility that Americans might need to use deadly force, perhaps even pre-emptively, in their own defense. But the film does more. At a time when respect for military professionalism has become almost worshipful, The Interview might remind us that our army used to make do with grousing, goldbricking conscripts—people whom we are now pleased to call the Greatest Generation, but who were disdained in wartime England as “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

Let us never forget that Hitler was defeated by the likes of James Franco and Seth Rogen. That’s the best laugh of all.

I’m sure the conscript soldiers of the allied forces in World War Two did their share of grousing and goldbricking, though if they hadn’t from time to time risen to “the stern, manly virtues” of which their officers and NCOs so fondly dreamed them capable the world would be a much drearier place today.

Anyway, Hitler is a bit miscast in his cameo appearance at the end.  For all that he preached the stern, manly virtues, Hitler himself rarely exemplified them.  Between his time lounging about the streets of Vienna under the rather ludicrous delusion that he was a budding artiste and his latter days sleeping into the afternoon and sitting up through the night watching movies in his private screening room while others fought in his name, virtually the only time Hitler practiced the demanding code he would so famously preach was when he was himself a conscript soldier in the trenches in the First World War.  And that service, though it earned him two Iron Crosses (one of them First Class,) had its match and more than its match in the service of many hundreds of thousands of other common soldiers in the armies of that planetary conflict.

Indeed, it may have been precisely Hitler’s ordinariness that made his political career such an extraordinary success.  A man somewhat below average height, tending to overweight, a face utterly forgettable except for a most unfortunate mustache, originating from the middlemost of the middle classes, a failure in every youthful pursuit, devoid of originality in any avenue of thought, Hitler had no notable characteristic that would distinguish him from anyone else.  As a cipher, he was the perfect choice to symbolize a whole generation.  As Wolfgang Schivelbusch suggests in his book The Culture of Defeat (Picador, 2004, pages 235-239,) Germans in the period following the First World War had an urgent need for such a symbolic figure. The nations that sent their young men to the trenches were wracked with guilt at the slaughter.  Nothing about Hitler prevented Germans from identifying him with the war dead collectively and individually.  While most families, looking at a man with a truly impressive war record like Hermann Goering or Benito Mussolini or Oswald Mosley, or later on Leon Degrelle, might find it hard to believe that their own dead son or brother had acted so heroically, Hitler’s achievements as a regimental dispatch runner were a drama that would plausible with virtually any able-bodied soldier in the leading role. His lack of any dashing qualities made Hitler not only a blank screen, but a sacramental object.  Channeling their guilt through the figure of Hitler, the Germans developed a civic religion that made it possible for them to accept the horrific realities of the industrial age as they were revealed in the mass killing on the Western Front.

As it turned out, devotion to Hitler was not an altogether successful means of purging Germany of national guilt.  Since 1945, the usual theme of German efforts to work through the guilt that is Hitler’s legacy has been ostentatious renunciation of the stern, manly virtues.  Germans and other Europeans who sympathize with those efforts make up a sizable percentage of the people whose enmity Americans might earn by occasionally celebrating those virtues.  This civic religion has gone seventy years without starting a world war or committing genocide, so it must be ranked higher than its immediate predecessor, but “preferable to Naziism” is rather a low standard to meet.

Ancient Regime

Shortly before the stock markets closed yesterday afternoon, the US Supreme Court announced a ruling on the so-called “Affordable Care Act” (also known as ACA.)  Health care stocks generally rose on the news of the ruling, in some cases sharply, while shares in health insurers showed a mixed reaction.  Today, the trend has been slightly downward across the board.

A majority of the US Supreme Court held that the US government does have the power to compel citizens and other residents of the USA to buy health insurance.  While the court rejected the Obama administration’s argument that this power, the core of the law, was within the scope of the authority the Constitution grants the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, it concluded that, because the law is to be enforced by the Internal Revenue Service in the process of collecting taxes, it is supported by the government’s authority to levy taxes.

In effect, the law establishes a tax that will be paid directly to health insurance companies.  US residents who refuse to pay this tax will be assessed an alternative tax, one paid to the treasury.  As written, the statute did not include the word “tax,” speaking instead of “premiums” and “penalties.”  These words are euphemisms.  This is clear not only from the Supreme Court’s legal reasoning, but also from the most basic economic logic.  A law which directs people to dispose of their wealth in a particular way to advance a particular set of policy objectives is a tax, whatever label marketing-minded politicians may choose to give it.

Many opponents of the ACA have spoken out against the idea of a tax directly payable to private citizens.  For example, today on the Counterpunch website Dr Clark Newhall complains that the bipartisan Supreme majority represents “Corporatists United.”  Dr Newhall denounces the statute and the ruling in strong terms.  I would like to make three quotes from Dr Newhall’s piece abd add my own comments to them:

In an eagerly anticipated opinion on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as “Obamacare’, an unusual alignment of justices upheld the Act nearly entirely.  The crucial part of the decision found the ‘odd bedfellows’ combination of Chief Justice Roberts joining the four ‘liberal’ justices to uphold the ‘individual mandate’, the section of the law requiring all Americans to buy health insurance from private health insurance companies…

Many supporters of the ACA object to the term “Obamacare.”  The law was crafted on the model of a regime of health insurance regulations and subsidies enacted in Massachusetts in 2006.  That regime is widely known as “Romneycare,” in honor of Willard M. Romney (alias “Mitt,”) who, as Massachusetts’ governor at the time, had been its chief advocate.  So calling the federal version “Obamacare” is simply a matter of continuing to follow the Massachusetts model.  Now, of course, Mr Romney is the Republican Party’s choice to oppose Mr Obama in this year’s presidential election.  Therefore Mr Romney and his surrogates are creating much merriment for political observers by trying to attack the president’s most widely-known legislative achievement, which as it so happens is identical to Mr Romney’s most widely-known legislative achievement.

Dr Newhall goes on:

Those who make, interpret and enforce the laws no longer lie on the ‘left-right’ political continuum. Instead, they are in effect at ‘right angles’ to that continuum.  The ideology that drives the Supreme Court, the political administration and the Congress is not Conservative or Liberal but can best be described as “Corporatist.”  This is the ideology that affirms that “corporations are citizens, my friends.”  it is the ideology that drove the Roberts Court to the odious Citizens United decision.  it is the ideology behind a bailout for banks that are ‘too big to fail.’  And it is the ideology that allows Congress to pass a law like the ACA that is essentially written by a favored industry…

It seems to me very clear what Dr Newhall means to evoke in these sentences is the spectre of fascism.  During the 1930’s, fascists in Italy, Britain, Belgium, and several other countries used the words “fascism” and “corporatism” interchangeably, and economic historians still cite Mussolini’s Italy, and to a lesser extent Hitler’s Germany, as examples of corporatist economics in practice.  The American diplomat-turned-economist-turned-journalist-turned-pariah Lawrence Dennis argued in a series of books in the 1930’s that laissez-faire capitalism was doomed, that state ownership of industry was a dead end, and that the economic future of the developed world belonged to a system in which the state coordinated and subsidized the operations of privately-owned corporations.  The most famous of the books in which Dennis endorsed this system was titled The Coming American Fascism.

Not only the word “corporatism,” but also the image of a ruling elite “at right angles” to the old left/right politics might well remind readers of fascism.  The fascists continually claimed to represent a new politics that was neither left nor right; while such anticapitalist fascist tendencies as il fascismo della sinistra or Germany’s Strasserites were not markedly successful in the intra-party politics of fascist movements,* all fascist parties used anticapitalist rhetoric from time to time (think of the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party,” and of Joseph Goebbels’ definition of revolution as a process by which the right adopts the language and tactics of the left.)  Moreover, the image of “left” and “right” suggests that political opinions form a continuum that stretches from one extreme to another, with any number of points in between.  That in turn suggests that people who disagree may have enough in common with each other that their conflicts may be productive.  Fascism, on the other hand, demands a one-party state in which a single ideology is imposed on everyone.  Fascism finds nothing of value in political conflict, and strives to annihilate disagreement.  I think that’s what the late Seymour Martin Lipset was driving at in his book Political Man when he placed most fascist movements, including the Italian fascists and German Nazis, not on the far right, but in the “Radical Center.”

Counterpunch is edited by Alexander Cockburn, who recently declared that the United States of America has completed its transition to fascism.  So it would not be surprising if by these remarks Dr Newhall were insinuating that the ACA is fascist in its substance.  I would demur from such an assessment.  Before I can explain why, permit me to quote one more paragraph from Dr Newhall’s piece:

Why does Corporatism favor Obamacare?  Because Obamacare is nothing more than a huge bailout for another failing industry — the health insurance industry.  No health insurer could continue to raise premiums at the rate of two to three times inflation, as they have done for at least a decade.  No health insurer could continue to pay 200 million dollar plus bonuses to top executives, as they have done repeatedly.  No health insurer could continue to restrict Americans’ access to decent health care, in effect creating slow and silent ‘death panels.’  No health insurer could do those things and survive.  But with the Obamacare act now firmly in place, health insurers will see a HUGE multibillion dollar windfall in the form of 40 million or more new health insurance customers whose premiums are paid largely by government subsidies.  That is the explanation for the numerous expansions and mergers you have seen in the health care industry in the past couple of years.  You will see more of the same, and if you are a stock bettor, you would do well to buy stock in smaller health insurers, because they will be snapped up in a wave of consolidation that dwarfs anything yet seen in this country.

Certainly the health insurance industry was in trouble in 2009, and the ACA is an attempt to enable that industry to continue business more or less as usual.  In that sense, it is a bailout.  Indeed, the health insurance companies are extremely influential in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and there can be little doubt that whichever of those parties won the 2008 elections would have enacted similar legislation.  Had Mr Romney been successful in his 2008 presidential campaign, doubtless he would have signed the same bill that Mr Obama in fact signed.  The loyal  Democrats who today defend the ACA as a great boon to working-class Americans would then be denouncing it in terms like those Dr Newhall employs, while the loyal Republicans who today denounce the ACA as a threat to the “free-enterprise system” that they fondly imagine to characterize American economic life would then defend it on some equally fanciful basis.

In a deeper sense, however, I disagree with Dr Newhall’s assessment quite thoroughly.  A moment ago, I defined taxation as any law that requires people to dispose of their wealth in particular ways to advance particular policy objectives.  If we think about that definition for a moment, we can see that the United States’ entire health insurance industry exists to receive taxes.  In the USA, wages paid to employees are subject to a rather heavy tax called FICA.  Premiums that are paid for employees’ health insurance policies are not subject to FICA, and so employers have an incentive to put a significant fraction of their employees’ compensation packages into health insurance premiums.  Since the health insurers have been collecting taxes all along, it is quite misleading to call the ACA a bailout.  It is, rather, a tax increase.

Now, as to the question of fascism, certainly fascist regimes did blur the line between the public and private sectors.  The most extreme case of this was of course the assignment of concentration camp inmates as slave labor for I. G. Farben and other cartels organized under the supervision of the Nazi state.  So it would not have been much of a stretch for fascists to grant corporations the power to collect taxes.  Even if they had done so, however, fascists could hardly claim to have made an innovation.  Tax farming, the collection of taxes by private-sector groups in pursuit of profit, was the norm in Persia by the sixth century BC, and spread rapidly throughout the ancient world.  In ancient Rome under the later Republic, tax farming proved itself to be a highly efficient means of organizing tax collection. So the fact that tax farming is one of the principal aspects of the US economy is not evidence that the USA is a fascist or a proto-fascist regime.  Indeed, the fact that the Supreme Court seriously considered a case that would have challenged the legitimacy of tax farming is an encouraging sign, however unedifying the opinions that the court issued as a result of that consideration might be.

Of course, in the ancient world tax farmers bid competitively for the right to collect taxes, and the winners put their bids into the public treasury.  In the USA, there is no such bidding, and no such payment.  Instead, wealthy individuals and interest groups buy politicians by financing their campaigns and their retirements.  Perhaps we would be better off to adopt the ancient system.

At any rate, “fascism” seems a misnomer for our economic system, almost as misleading as “free enterprise” or as anachronistic as “capitalism.”  A more accurate term, at least as regards the components that are dominated by tax farming, would be neo-feudalist.  The US political class is increasingly an hereditary class; Mr Obama defeated the wife of a former president to win his party’s nomination to succeed the son of a former president, and now faces the son of a former presidential candidate in his campaign for a second term.  This hereditary nobility will now sit atop a system in which the non-rich are legally obligated to pay tribute or provide service to those in power in the land, who will in turn honor certain obligations to them.

*Fascism being what it was, “not markedly successful in intra-party politics” often meant “shot several times in the head and dismembered,” as happened to Gregor Strasser.

Chronicles, December 2010

Lawrence Dennis and his foster mother circa 1908, when he toured England as "the boy evangelist"

I never quite finished my notes on the December 2010 issue of far-right Chronicles magazine, but it includes several notable pieces.  So I’ll mention them now, months late though I may be.

Justin Raimondo brings up one of his favorite writers, Lawrence Dennis.  Dennis is also one of my favorites, though I think it is rather stretching matters for Raimondo to call Dennis an “African-American intellectual.”  Certainly Dennis’ background was African-American; when the 12 year old Dennis toured England as “the boy evangelist” in 1908, his ethnicity gave him an exotic appeal.  And he was undoubtedly an intellectual.  When he was on trial for sedition in 1944, government witness Hermann Rauschning startled the prosecutor by testifying that Dennis was not a tool of the Nazis, but was a thinker fit to be compared with Oswald Spengler.  Dennis was conducting his own defense; when time came for him to cross-examine Rauschning, he rose and thanked him.   Yet Dennis was hardly the spokesman for the African American experience that we’ve come to expect when we hear the phrase “African American intellectual.”  He said little about the African American experience, and never presented himself as a representative of African Americans.  Indeed, the only book-length study of Dennis is titled The Color of Fascism: Lawrence Dennis, Racial Passing, and the Rise of Right Wing Extremism in the United States, and interprets Dennis’ writings and political behavior as symptoms of a life spent passing for white.  As Robert Nedelkoff put it in a sympathetic piece about Dennis that he contributed to issue #13 of The Baffler (published in October 1999,) “when he spoke of race relations he made no reference to his being of a particular race” (page 99.)  Nedelkoff’s piece, covering pages 93-100 in that issue of The Baffler, was the second place I’d read of Dennis; the first was the chapter on Dennis in Ronald Radosh’s 1975 book Prophets on the Right.  Between them, these pieces convinced me that Dennis was more interesting than his onetime embrace of the label “fascist” would indicate.  In a series of books published between 1933 and 1941, Dennis predicted that the USA would eventually adopt an economic system similar to those prevailing in Italy and Germany at that time; that this new system would be promoted as a triumph of America’s traditional system; and that he himself would be prosecuted for sedition for saying that free speech was obsolete.  Looking back in his final book, Operational Thinking for Survival (1969,) Dennis concluded that all of his predictions had been vindicated.

Chilton Williamson shares fond memories of the time when he and the late Joseph Sobran worked together at National Review.   I always looked forward to Sobran’s columns because of the witty remarks that so often appeared there, though I can’t say I ever found a well-constructed argument in any of them.  I must mention a grievance I have against Sobran.  One of the statements he made that got him fired from National Review and driven to the fringes of society was praise for the magazine Instauration.  Because I found much to admire in Sobran’s work, I looked for Instauration.  When the magazine became available online, I read several issues.  I’d expected an intellectual magazine marked by a hard-headed conservatism, with some pieces that crossed the line into racial prejudice.  In other words, I was braced for something rather like Chronicles, only more extreme.  Imagine my disappointment when instead I found a racist tract containing article after article dismissing the Holocaust as a hoax (in the first issue the editors express great satisfaction in putting the word “Holohoax” into print.)

George McCartney reviews the movie The Social Network, by Aaron Sorkin.  Sorkin’s grand project seems to be showing groups of aggressive, self-indulgent people clashing with each other in the course of work that creates a benign product.  The difficulty with such works as The Social Network and The West Wing is that the real-life counterparts of Sorkin’s characters seem to be far more quietly efficient and their products far more problematic than he allows.  So Mark Zuckerberg is rumored to be rather a pleasant sort of chap; Facebook has unnerving features that lead me to call its administrators “the Zuckforce.”  Actual staffers in the White House probably spend less time dashing about the corridors and snarling at each other than they do showing friendliness and good manners; but the US presidency, as they help to constitute it, may well be the single most destructive institution in the world today.  Someone like Lawrence Dennis, were he to see a society with a surveillance network like Facebook and a political leader who starts a war every year or two, would likely show little interest in whether the people administering that network and staffing that leader observed the social graces.  In the popularity of Facebook, he might see a people who had become so thoroughly inured to surveillance that they can enjoy themselves only in an environment structured to record their every move; in The West Wing, a people so inured to war that they expect to enjoy a cozy relationship with the chief warlord.