Some passages from Neither Right nor Left

June 14, 2012

Neither Right nor Left by Zeev Sternhell excavates the intellectual history of fascism from a counter-intuitive site: late 19th Century France. This is a long book about a very specific topic, and I didn’t go through it very carefully, but I found a lot of interesting passages in my reading. Here are a few I’ve transcribed.

According to Sternhell, the roots of fascist ideology travelled under many names, in dissident right-wing and left-wing circles, in which a variety of positions were expounded upon. This succeeded in incubating certain unifying beliefs that would find their historical opportunity after the first world war.

Thus different schools of thought all shared the same rejection of the liberal order, constituting a kind of outer circle around the hard core of fascist thought. This was the real importance of fascist ideology. Its widespread dissemination and influence were possible only because of the channels of transmission provided by the nonconformist milieu. In these groups, one may have hated the totalitarian state, but one could not avoid identifying oneself with the fascist criticism of bourgeois society, liberalism, and democracy and it was because it was not onlythe bourgeois world that was attacked but a number of universal principles readily associated with the bourgeoisie that the harsh criticisms of the regime brought their full weight to bear. These criticisms, in fact, were directed less against a system of government that, in a divided society, considerably weakened the executive authority than against democracy itself. The obsession with decadence and the sense of participating in the collapse of an individualistic and basely materialistic civilization were the common elements in this way of thinking.

One of the most important groups combined syndicalists and monarchists — the Cercle Proudhon, named after the famous anarchist and foil of Marx. You may remember Proudhon’s famous couplet deriving from the title of one of his books: “What is property? Property is theft!” A few months ago I tried (and failed) to read that book, but I did get through the translator’s introduction, which lamented the fact that Marx’s critique was so comprehensive that people didn’t think Proudhon worth reading any more, even though the translator also admitted Marx was right about everything. The appeal of Proudhon to the French proto-fascists were his anti-Marxism, his syndicalism, his dislike of democracy, his anti-Semitism, and his nationality (one critique of Marxism from these quarters was that it was too German for France). The Cercle

wished to create a new world — virile, heroic, pessimistic, and puritanical — based on a sense of duty and sacrifice: a world where a morality of warriors and monks would prevail. They wanted a society dominated by a powerful avant-garde, a proletarian elite, an aristocracy of producers, joined in alliance against the decadent bourgeoisie with an intellectual youth avid for action. When the time came, it would not be difficult for a synthesis of this kind to take on the name of fascism.

What is sometimes forgotten is that fascism envisioned itself as a kind of socialism, explicitly anti-Marxist. This socialism was “conceived of in ethical terms” (Marx famously avoided ethical prescriptions), promoting “universal values, independent of concrete historical circumstances, a conception of socialism in vitalist, intuitive, Nietzschean, and Bergsonian terms.” It was about the feelings and the energy of the moment, against a historical materialist understanding of context. Georges Sorel, one of the most important proto-fascist thinkers engaged in “a leftist, voluntarist, and vitalist form of revision” of Marxism. According to Sternhell, “In many respects, the history of fascism can be described as a continuous attempt to revise Marxism and create a national form of socialism,” nationalism having apparently proven itself “up to the task” of mobilizing the masses to fight and die in WWI more effectively than the Marxism of the Second International. These people desperately wanted a revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie, and were searching for the means to carry it out.

The apparent failures of Marxism meant that the proletariat was to blame as well — for the proto-fascists,  it was no longer the revolutionary class. “The socialism of these people required the proletariat only to a limited degree.” In its place came elitist strands of thought that opposed any democratic control over more adventurist segments:

Pouget declared that the methods of action of action of a confederal organization could not be based on the “vulgar democratic ideas; they do not express the consent of the majority arrived at through universal suffrage.” Pouget believed that if democratic procedures were adopted in labor circles, “the lack of will of the unconscious and nonsyndicalist majority would paralyze all action. But the minority is not willing to abandon its demands and aspirations before the inertia of a mass that the spirit of revolt has not yet animated and enlightened. Consequently, the conscious minority has an obligation to act, without reckoning with the refractory mass.” No one, he claimed, has the right “to recriminate against the disinterested initiative of the minority,” least of all “the unconscious” who, compared to militants, are no more than “human zeros.”

Sternhell extensively describes the idiosyncratic thought of a number of these figures, but he keeps coming back to what united them — and by implication, which beliefs are completely hostile to fascist appropriation: Marxism, democracy, and materialism.

The value of this book is, I hope, obvious. Here we have an extensive description of beliefs that, while not always explicitly fascist, or even right-wing, enabled fascist takeovers. Often enough this stuff came from authors who conceived of themselves as leftists. There’s probably more than enough accusations of “FASCIST” being hurled in lefty quarters, but as we reckon with all manner of idiosyncratic “left” philosophy and theory emerging today (non-Marxist or pseudo-Marxist “communism” is one weird one), and we need to know precisely which avenues of thought led to terrible consequences so we can isolate them quickly and critique them fully.

Comparative Travel Advisories

June 13, 2010

So I’ve been in Mexico City for a week, and will be here for at least seven or eight more, something I haven’t written about, because, well, why should I have anything interesting to say about Mexico City? I just got here and I don’t know anybody. Ideally this will change. I spent a large portion of that week listening to people with more interesting things to say at Postopolis!DF in between bouts of delicious food.

As a conscientious traveler, I took advantage of the concerns of my government and read the State Department Travel Advisory for Mexico. It’s a terrifying and salacious document, full of narco-terror, resort rape, taxi kidnappings, prison torture, natural disasters, rehab cons and killer hotel pools. Nothing like the State Department to make a country seem like a land of corruption, violence, and crime, as if American news media didn’t already do that enough.

Of course, the tables can be turned, since foreign ministries issue their own travel reports about the good ol’ U.S. of A. These reveal as much, if not more, about the country issuing the warnings, a fascinating look at cultural norms. A friend forwarded me the travel advisory from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the U.S. — a Google-translated synopsis follows below.

First of all is the obligatory warning about terrorist attacks, with a helpful link to the terror alert system, which apparently still exists.

With that out of the way, the ministry takes care to outline the particular neighborhoods to avoid in major U.S. cities. Specifically, the ones where black and hispanic people live. And helpful maps!

Watch out -- minorities live here!

  • “Boston traffic on foot and at night should be avoided in the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.”
  • “Do not go alone in Harlem, the Bronx and Central Park at night.” Not sure how Brooklyn didn’t get a shout out here.
  • “Washington: avoid areas northeast and southeast, and the bus station and train station ‘Union Station’ at night.” Apparently the French haven’t been alerted to the district’s newest nightlife branding effort. There’s even a shuttle so you can avoid the prolish bus system! Well, it’s probably better to declare half the city off-limits at night. Don’t forget, “The Anacostia neighborhood is not recommended day and night,” so the French will have to forgo Nation of Islam bean pies on their visit.

    Minorities are also in these places!

  • “Philadelphia: avoid frequent the northern districts except group.”
  • “Baltimore is considered a dangerous city except downtown.”
  • “Chicago: avoid the West Side and south of the city after 59th Street.” This was a sop for Hyde Park, so feel free to explore the wonderlands of State and 35th!
  • Some of the sharpest words are reserved for our most French of cities. “New Orleans: do away from tourist areas that are the old square (French Quarter) or the Garden District, including that day. At nightfall, walk out, whatever the area, including Garden District would take a risk statistically significant (with the exception of the busiestcentral streets of the old square). Also, do not walk around with bags or equipment visible value (cameras), even in broad daylight in the busiest areas. Do not hesitate to take a taxi, even for a short distance. … In general, it should always be on guard, not to stop when you are arrested, not to resist in case of aggression or racketeering: possession of weapons at an attacker is common.”
  • “Los Angeles: Large areas should be avoided in particular neighborhoods east, south and south-east as Watts, Inglewood and Florence.” I have no idea why tourists would go to these places, unless their itinerary has been shaped by Dr. Dre songs. But better to exercise caution.

After that embarassing show and the cursory warnings of natural disasters, we move on to some rather interesting cultural differences.

  • “Medical infrastructure is excellent, but expensive. There is no social security agreement covering the health insurance between our two countries. In an emergency, an ambulance only provides a priority upon arrival in the emergency department of the hospital (conditional admission to a financial guarantee).” Yes, other countries warn their citizens of our fucked-up health care system!
  • As in any good militarized nation, “Americans are generally very respectful of the law, respect is expected of tourists who are required to comply strictly with the regulations.” And don’t forget that in a police state, your ass could be beaten for any suspected insubordination: “In case of contact with the police, it is imperative that we do not raise your voice, make no sudden movements or aggressive and not make false statements.” Ne me taze pas, l’homme!
  • And then of course the legendary romantic inclinations of the French must be attenuated to: “Remarks, attitudes or jokes, harmless in the Latin countries, can lead to court. Complaints of sexual harassment may also be filed against the minors.” And a good note to end on: “Having or attempting to have sex with a minor constitutes a crime punishable by law. The law severely punishes all forms of use, encouragement, persuasion or coercion of minors in the production and dissemination of explicit sexual images, using traditional or electronic.” Sometimes we find out a little bit more than we expected!

Monokinis also forbidden -- how the mighty have fallen

I haven’t spent any time looking up other nations’ travel advisories, but I can only hope they are as revealing and entertaining as these.