November 29, 2005

Utopia and Fascism

Ellen Willis' essay, arguing that the world needs more "utopian thinking," is very much worth a read. She's right that utopian thinking has gotten a bad rap ever since Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin argued that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany came about all because people rejected "liberal pluralism" in favor of a "monolithic ideology." As a quick aside, I agree, monolithic ideology's bad news, but the idea that fascism came about because of "utopian thinking" has always seemed incorrect to me. Robert Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism made this point nicely:
Fascist regimes functioned like an epoxy: an amalgam of two very different agents, fascist dynamism and conservative order, bonded by shared enmity toward liberalism and the Left, and a shared willingness to stop at nothing to destroy common enemies.
Mind you, this isn't the only way to think about fascism; it all depends, I suppose, on whether it's seen as a revolutionary movement, or a counterrevolutionary one. Paxton believes the latter, and his argument rests on the fact that while fascist movements may have been ideological—although hardly very philosophically coherent—they only actually came to power in Germany and Italy, in places where the conservative elite feared the rise of the left. (In Romania and Austria, fascist movements were crushed by conservatives.)

And once in power, the two fascist regimes didn't really have a coherent philosophy of governing, apart from a drive towards national and social domination—and, in the Nazi case, racial purity (one could call the Holocaust a "utopian" project, although I don't know how much that clarifies). Neither pursued a utopian political order as such: both Hitler and Mussolini pretty much used existing state institutions as needed, in an ad hoc fashion. There was no philosopher of fascism, or system builder, except for maybe Carl Schmitt—though it would be hard to call him utopian. So I don't know, the idea that fascism is a brand of "utopian thinking" doesn't seem quite right.
-- Brad Plumer 7:36 PM || ||