Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fascism and the Future, Part Three: Weimar America

The discussion on fascism that’s taken up the last two weekly essays here on The Archdruid Report, and will finish up in this week’s post, has gone in directions that will very likely have surprised and dismayed many of my readers. Some of you, in fact, may even be jumping up and down by this point shouting, “Okay, but what about fascism? We’ve heard more than enough about Depression-era European dictators in funny uniforms, and that’s all very well and good, but what about real fascism, the kind we have in America today?”
If this is what’s going through your head just now, dear reader, you’re in interesting company. It’s a curious detail that in the last years of the Weimar Republic, a large number of avant-garde intellectuals and cultural figures were convinced that they already lived in a fascist country. They pointed, as many Americans point today, to the blatant influence of big business on the political process, to civil rights violations perpetrated by the administration in power or by state and local governments, and to the other abuses of power  common to any centralized political system, and they insisted that this amounted to fascism, since their concept of fascism—like the one standard in today’s America—assumed as a matter of course that fascism must by definition defend and support the economic and political status quo.

In point of fact, as Walter Laqueur showed in his capable survey Weimar: A Cultural History, denouncing the Weimar Republic as a fascist regime was quite the lively industry in Germany in the very late 1920s and early 1930s. Unfortunately for those who made this claim, history has a wicked sense of humor.  A good many of the people who liked to insist that Weimar Germany was a fascist state got to find out—in many cases, at the cost of their lives—that there really is a difference between a troubled, dysfunctional, and failing representative democracy and a totalitarian state, and that a movement that promises to overturn a broken status quo, and succeeds in doing so, is perfectly capable of making things much, much worse.

It’s entirely possible that we could end up on the receiving end of a similar dose of history’s gallows humor. To an embarrassing degree, after all, political thought in modern America has degenerated into the kind of reflexive venting of rage George Orwell parodied in 1984 in the Two Minutes Hate. Instead of pouring out their hatred at a cinematic image of marching Eurasian soldiers juxtaposed with the sniveling face of Goldstein, the traitorous leader of the Brotherhood, the inhabitants of our contemporary Oceania have their choice of options neatly stapled to the insides of their brains. For Democrats, the standard target until recently was an image of George W. Bush dressed up as Heinrich Himmler, lighting a bonfire using the Constitution as tinder and then tossing endangered species into the flames; for Republicans right now, it’s usually a picture of Barack Obama dressed up as Ho Chi Minh, having sex with their daughters and then walking off with their gun collections. Either way, the effect is the same.

I wish I were joking. I know people who, during Dubya’s presidency, were incapable of passing a picture of the man without screaming obscenities at it, and I know other people who have the identical kneejerk reaction these days to pictures of the White House’s current inmate.  I’ve commented here before how our political demonology stands in the way of any response to the converging crises of our time. The same sort of denunciatory frenzy was all the rage, in any sense of that word you care to choose, in Germany during the Weimar Republic—and its most important consequence was that it blinded far too many people to the difference between ordinary political dysfunction and the far grimmer realities that were waiting in the wings.

To explore the way that unfolded, let’s engage in a little thought experiment. Imagine, then, that sometime this spring, when you visit some outdoor public place, you encounter a half dozen young people dressed identically in bright green T-shirts, surplus black BDU trousers, and army-style boots.  They’re clean-cut, bright, and enthusiastic, and they want to interest you in a new political movement called the American Peoples Party. You’re not interested, and walk on by.

A couple of months later you run across another dozen or so of them, just as bright and clean and enthusiastic as the first bunch.  Now the movement is called the National Progressive American Peoples Party, NPAPP for short, and it’s got a twenty-five-point program focused on the troubled economy. You take a flyer, mostly because the young person who hands it to you is kind of cute. The twenty-five points don’t seem especially original, but they make more sense than what either Obama or the Republicans are offering. What’s more, the flyer says that the economy’s a mess and peak oil and climate change are real problem that aren’t going away, and this impresses you.

Over the months to come you see more and more of them, handing out flyers, going door to door to invite people to local caucus meetings, and doing all the other things that political parties used to do back when they were serious about grassroots organizing. A news website you follow shows a picture of the party’s chairman, a man named Fred Halliot;* he’s an earnest-looking guy in his thirties, an Army vet who did three tours in Afghanistan and earned a Silver Star for courage under fire. You glance at his face and then go look at something more interesting.

(*Yes, it’s an anagram. Work it out yourself.)

Meanwhile, the economy’s getting worse in the same slow uneven way it’s been doing for years. Two of your friends lose their jobs, and the price of gasoline spikes up to $5.69 a gallon, plunges, and finds a new stable point again well above $4. Obama insists that the recovery is already here and people just need to be patient and wait for prosperity to get to them. The Republicans insist that the only reason the economy hasn’t recovered yet is that the rich still have to pay taxes. The media are full of cheery stories about how the 2014 holiday season is going to be so big a hit that stores may run out of toys and electronic gewgaws to sell; there are record crowds on Black Friday, or that’s what the TV says, but nobody you know has the spare money to buy much this year. Not until midway through January 2015 does the media admit that the shopping season was a disaster and that two big-box chains have just gone broke.

Through all this, the new party keeps building momentum. As spring comes, Halliot begins a nationwide speaking tour. He travels in a school bus painted green and black, the NPAPP colors, and a Celtic tree-of-life symbol, the party’s new emblem.  The bus goes from town to town, and the crowds start to build. A handful of media pundits start talking about Halliot and the NPPAP, making wistful noises about how nice it is to see young idealists in politics again; a few others fling denunciations, though they don’t seem to have any clear sense what exactly they’re denouncing.  Both mainstream parties, as well as the Libertarians and the Greens, launch youth organizations with their own t-shirts and slogans, but their lack of anything approaching new ideas or credible responses to the economic mess make these efforts a waste of time.

The speaking tour ends in Washington DC with a huge rally, and things get out of hand. Exactly what happened is hard to tell afterwards, with wildly different stories coming from the feds, the mass media, the internet, and the NPAPP headquarters in St. Louis. The upshot, though, is that Halliot and two of his chief aides are arrested on federal conspiracy charges.  The trial is a media circus. Halliot gives an impassioned speech justifying his actions on the grounds that the nation and the world are in deep trouble, radical change is needed to keep things from getting much worse, and civil disobedience is justified for that reason.  He gets sentenced to four years in prison, and the other political parties breathe a huge collective sigh of relief, convinced that the NPAPP is a flash in the pan.

They’re wrong. The NPAPP weathers the crisis easily, and publicity from the trial gives Halliot and his party a major boost. Candidates from the new party enter races across the country in the 2016 elections, seizing much of the limelight from the frankly dreary presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Haley Barbour.  When the votes are counted, the new party has more than three hundred city and county positions, forty-three seats in state legislatures, and two seats in the House of Representatives. The major parties try every trick in the book to overturn the results of each race, and succeed mostly in making themselves look corrupt and scared.

Then Halliot gets released from prison, having served only nine months of his sentence.  (Word on the internet has it that the whole point of locking him up was to keep him out of the way during the election—but is that simply a NPAPP talking point?  Nobody’s sure.) It turns out that he put the time to good use, and has written a book, A Struggle for the Soul of America, which hits the bookstalls the same week President Barbour is inaugurated. You leaf through a copy at the public library; it’s not exactly a great work of literature, and it’s written in a folksy, rambling style you find irritating, but it’s full of the kind of political notions that Americans swap over beers and pizza: the kind, in other words, that no mainstream party will touch.

The book has an edge that wasn’t in NPAPP literature before Halliot’s prison term, though. The government of the parties, he insists, must be replaced by a government of the people, guided by a new values consensus that goes beyond the broken politics of greed and special interests to do what has to be done to cope with the disintegrating economy, the challenge of peak oil, and the impacts of climate change. Time is short, he insists, and half measures aren’t enough to avoid catastrophe; a complete transformation of every aspect of American life, a Great Turning, is the only option left.  Edgy though his language and ideas have become, you note, he’s still the only person in national politics who takes the economic, energy, and climate crises seriously.

The next autumn, as if on cue, the economic troubles go into overdrive.  Petroleum prices spike again—you start commuting via public transit when the price of gasoline breaks $8 a gallon—and a big Wall Street investment bank that had huge derivative bets the other direction goes messily broke. Attempts to get a bailout through Congress freeze up in a flurry of partisan bickering. Over the next two months, despite frantic efforts by the Barbour administration, the stock market plunges and the credit markets seize up.  Job losses snowball. Through the fall and winter, NPAPP people are everywhere, leafleting the crowds, staffing impromptu soup kitchens, marching in the streets. You would pay less attention, but by spring you’re out of a job, too.

The following years are a blur of grim headlines, hungry crowds at soup kitchens, and marching crowds in green and black. In the 2018 election,  there are rumors, never proved, of NPAPP squads keeping opposition voters away from the polls in critical districts.  One way or another, though, Halliot’s party seats six senators and 185 representatives in Congress, and takes control of the governments of a dozen states. The three-way split in the House makes it all but impossible to get anything done there, not that the Democrats or Republicans have any idea what to do, and the administration copies its last two predecessors by flailing and fumbling to no noticeable effect. One thing of importance does happen; to get NPAPP support to push a stopgap budget through the House in 2019, President Barbour is forced to grant a full federal pardon to Halliot, removing the last legal barrier to the latter’s presidential ambitions.

Fast forward to the 2020 elections, which are fought out bitterly in a flurry of marches, protests, beatings, riots, and charges and countercharges of vote fraud. When the dust has settled, it turns out that no party has a majority in the electoral college. The election goes to the House, and since neither of the major parties is willing to vote for the other major party’s candidate, Halliot ends up winning by a whisker-thin majority on the forty-second ballot. He is inaugurated on a bitterly cold day, surrounded by NPAPP banners and greeted by marching files of party faithful in green and black.  He announces that he’s about to call a constitutional convention to replace the government of the parties with a government of the people, get the country back on its feet, and sweep away everything that stands in the way of the Great Turning that will lead America and the world to a bright new future. The crowd roars its approval.

Later that year, the crowds go wilder still when the old constitution is scrapped and the new one enacted. Those with old-fashioned ideas find some aspects of the new constitution objectionable, as it lacks such minor details as checks and balances, not to mention meaningful and enforceable guarantees of due process and civil rights. The media doesn’t mention that, though, because the “new values consensus” is enforced by Party officials—the capital letter becomes standard usage very quickly—and those who criticized the new constitution too forcefully, well, let’s just say that nobody’s quite sure where they are now, and most people know better than to ask.

And you, dear reader? At what point along that trajectory would you have decided that for all its seeming promise, for all the youth and enthusiasm and earnestness that surround it, the National Socialist German Workers Party and the folksy, charismatic veteran who led it were likely to be worse—potentially much, much worse—than the weary, dreary, dysfunctional mess of a political system they were attempting to replace?  Or would you end up as part of the cheering crowds in that last scene?  You don’t have to tell me the answer, but in the silence of your own mind, take the time to think it through and face the question honestly.

What almost always gets forgotten about the fascist movements of Europe between the wars is just how much promise they seemed to hold, and how many people of good will saw them as the best hope of the future.  Their leaders were young—Hitler was 43 when he became chancellor of Germany, the same age as John F. Kennedy at his inauguration, and Mussolini was only 39 when he became prime minister of Italy—and most of the rank and file of both men’s followers were younger still. Hitler’s party, for example, had a huge success among German college students long before it had a mass following anywhere else. Both parties also drew to a very great extent on the avant-garde culture and popular ideas of their time. How many people even remember nowadays that before the Second World War, the swastika was seen as a pagan symbol of life, redolent of ancient roots and primal vitality, with much the same cultural ambience that the NPAPP’s Celtic tree-of-life emblem might have in America today?

The fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s were thus closely attuned to the hopes and fears of the masses, far more so than either the mainstream parties or the established radical groups of their respective countries. Unlike the imagined “fascism” of modern radical rhetoric, they were an alternative to business as usual, an alternative that positioned itself squarely in the abandoned center of the political discourse of their eras.  In terms of that discourse, in the context of their own times and places, the talking points of the fascist parties weren’t anything like so extreme as they appear to most people nowadays—and we forget that at our deadly peril.

That’s the thing I tried to duplicate in the thought experiment above, by changing certain details of  German national socialism so I could give the National Progressive American Peoples Party a contemporary slant—one that that calls up the same reactions its earlier equivalent got in its own place and time. Antisemitism and overt militarism were socially acceptable in Germany between the wars; they aren’t socially acceptable in today’s United States, and so they won’t play a role in a neofascist movement of any importance in the American future. What will play such roles, of course, are the tropes and buzzwords that appeal to Americans today, and those may very well include the tropes and buzzwords that appeal most to you.

There’s a deeper issue I’ve tried to raise here, too.  It’s easy, comfortable, and (for the manufacturers and distributors of partisan pablum) highly profitable to approach every political conflict in the simplistic terms of good versus evil. The habit of seeing political strife in those terms becomes a reliable source of problems when the conflict in question is actually between the good and the perfect—that is, between a flawed but viable option that’s within reach, and a supposedly flawless one that isn’t. The hardest of all political choices, though, comes when the conflict lies between the bad and the much, much worse—as in the example just sketched out, between a crippled, dysfunctional, failing democratic system riddled with graft and abuses of power, on the one hand, and a shiny new tyranny on the other.

It may be that there are no easy answers to that conundrum. Unless Americans can find some way to step back from the obsessive partisan hatreds that bedevil our political life, though, it’s probably a safe bet that there will be no answers at all—not, quite possibly, until the long and ugly list of the world’s totalitarian regimes gets another entry, complete with the usual complement of prison camps and mass graves. As long as the word “fascism” retains its current status as a meaningless snarl word that’s normally flung at the status quo, certainly, that last possibility seems far more likely than any of the alternatives.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Fascism and the Future, Part Two: The Totalitarian Center

As the first part of this series pointed out last week, there’s an odd mismatch between the modern use of “fascism” as an all-purpose political snarl word, on the one hand, and the mediocrity of the regime that put the term into general use, on the other. All things considered, as tyrants go, Benito Mussolini simply wasn’t that impressive, and while the regime he cobbled together out of a bucket of spare ideological parts had many objectionable features, it cuts a pretty poor figure in the rogue’s gallery of authoritarian states. Let’s face it, as an archetype of tyranny, Italian Fascismo just doesn’t cut it.  
For that matter, it’s far from obvious that there’s enough common ground among the various European totalitarian movements between the wars to justify the use of a single label for them—much less to make that label apply to tyrants and tyrannies around the world and throughout time. Historians in Europe and elsewhere thus spent a good deal of time in recent decades arguing about whether there’s any such thing as fascism in general, and some very thoughtful writers ended up insisting that there isn’t—that more general words such as “dictatorship” cover the ground quite adequately, and the word “fascism” properly belongs to Mussolini’s regime and that alone.

On the other side of the equation were those who argued that a certain kind of authoritarian movement in Europe between the wars was sufficiently distinct from other kinds of tyranny that it deserves its own label. One of those was Ernst Nolte, whose 1968 book Die Krise des liberalen Systems und die faschistischen Bewegungen (The Crisis of the Liberal System and the Fascist Movements) played a central role in launching the debate just mentioned. Nolte was careful enough not to propose a hard and fast definition of fascism, and offered instead a list of six features that any movement had to have to count as fascist. The first three of them are organizational features: a cult of charismatic leadership, a uniformed Party militia, and the goal of totalitarianism.

That last word has been bandied around so freely over the years since then that it’s probably necessary to stop here and discuss what it means. A totalitarian political system is one in which the party in power claims the right to rule every sphere of life: political, religious, artistic, scientific, sexual, and so on through all the normally distinct dimensions of human existence. There are plenty of dictatorships that aren’t totalitarian—in fact, it’s fairly common for dictators to spare themselves a lot of extra work by focusing purely on the political sphere, and letting people do what they want in other spheres of life so long as their activities don’t stray into politics—and there are also totalitarian systems that aren’t dictatorships: there are plenty of religious communities, some of them more or less democratic in terms of governance, that claim totalitarian authority over every aspect of the life of the faithful.

The totalitarian dimension, though, is central to those movements and regimes that count as fascist by Nolte’s criteria, and it’s a crucial distinction. The charismatic leaders and party militias of between-the-wars European fascist parties presented themselves, and in at least some cases honestly saw themselves, as trying to overturn not merely a political system but an entire civilization they believed was rotten to the core. Crusades against “degenerate” art and literature thus weren’t simply the product of the individual vagaries of fascist leaders; they were part and parcel of an attempt to reshape an entire society from the ground up, and the cult of leadership and the party militia very often served mostly as vehicles for the broader totalitarian agenda.

A good deal of the discussion that followed the publication of Nolte’s book focused on whether the three organizational features just discussed were sufficiently unique to fascist movements to serve as touchstones, whether there were more features that might usefully be added to the list, and so on.  The other three features in Nolte’s description, by contrast, were broadly accepted by scholars. This is all the more interesting in that one of them is almost always rejected out of hand on the rare occasions it slips outside the charmed circle where professional historians practice their craft. These three features are the things that fascist movements and regimes consistently rejected. The first is Marxism, the second liberalism, and the third—the hot-button one—is conservatism.

Mention this to anyone in the contemporary American left, and you can expect blank incomprehension. Try to push past that, and if you get anywhere at all you can normally count on seeing the blank look replaced by flat rejection or incandescent rage. It’s one of the standard credos of current political folklore that fascism belongs to the conservative side of the political spectrum.  More specifically, it’s supposed to be the far end of that side of the spectrum, the thing that’s more conservative than the conservatives, just as—to the contemporary American right—Communism is the far end of the left side of the spectrum, the thing that’s more liberal than the liberals.

I mentioned in last week’s post the way that the riotous complexity of political thought in the early 20th century got flattened out into a Hobson’s choice between representative-democracy-plus-capitalism (the ideology of the American empire) and bureaucratic state socialism (the ideology of the Soviet empire) in the course of the Cold War. The same flattening process also affected domestic politics in the United States, though in a somewhat different way. Communism and fascism have long been the most overheated labels in our political culture’s demonology, and Republicans and Democrats eagerly applied these labels to each other.  Since Republicans and Democrats are themselves simply very minor variations on a common theme, it worked well thereafter to apply those labels to anyone who strayed too far from the midpoint between the two.  This allowed the parties to squabble about peripheral issues while maintaining perfect unanimity on core values such as maintaining America’s empire, say, or supporting the systemic imbalances in financial and resource flows that keep that empire in business.

One of the consequences of that strategy was the elimination of conservatism, in anything like the old meaning of that word, from the vocabulary of American politics. The Anglo-American tradition of conservatism—continental Europe has its own somewhat different form—has its roots in the writings of Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France became a lightning rod for generations of thinkers who found the hubris of the radical Enlightenment too much to swallow. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex tradition, conservatism was based on the recognition that human beings aren’t as smart as they like to think. As a result, when intellectuals convince themselves that they know how to make a perfect human society, they’re wrong, and the consequences of trying to enact their fantasies in the real world normally range from the humiliating to the horrific.

To the conservative mind, the existing order of society has one great advantage that the arbitrary inventions of would-be world-reformers can’t match: it has actually been shown to work in practice. Conservatives thus used to insist that changes to the existing order of society ought to be made only when there was very good reason to think the changes will turn out to be improvements. The besetting vice of old-fashioned conservatism, as generations of radicals loved to point out, was thus that it tended to defend and excuse traditional injustices; among its great virtues was that it defended traditional liberties against the not always covert authoritarianism of would-be reformers.

In America before the Cold War, conservatives thus called for limitations on federal power, denounced the nation’s moves toward global empire, demanded balanced budgets and fiscal prudence, and upheld local and regional cultures and governments against the centralizing reach of Washington DC.  In the South, that reasoning was inevitably used to defend segregation, but it’s a distortion of history to claim that American conservatism was never anything more than a polite label for Jim Crow.  Like every political movement in the real world, it was a complex thing, and combined high ideals and base motives in roughly the same proportions as its rivals.

Whatever its faults or its virtues, though, it died a miserable death during the 20th century, as both parties and most of the competing power centers that form America’s governing classes joined eagerly in the rush to empire, and vied to see who could come up with more excuses for centralizing power in the executive branch of the federal government. As part of that process, the old conservatism was gutted, stuffed, and left to rot in cold storage, except for very occasional moments of pro forma display for the benefit of the dwindling few who hadn’t gotten the memo.

In Europe between 1919 and 1945, though, the European version of old-fashioned conservatism was still a major power, and Nolte was quite correct to say that one of the core themes of fascism was the rejection of conservative ideas. Where conservatives saw themselves as the defenders of the old order of Europe—Christian, aristocratic, agrarian, and committed to local custom and local autonomy—fascists wanted to impose a New Order (one of Hitler’s favorite phrases) in which traditional social hierarchies would dissolve in the orgiastic abandon of “one leader, one party, one people.” Fascists by and large hated and despised the conservatives, and the conservatives returned the compliment; it’s a matter of historical fact that the most diehard resistance Hitler’s regime faced, and the conspiracies that came closest to blowing Hitler himself to smithereens, all came straight out of the hardline aristocratic right wing of German society.

The bitter divide between fascists and conservatives, in fact, goes straight back to the origins of both movements. In a teasingly titled book, Hitler as Philosophe, Lawrence Birken showed in detail that the entire vocabulary of political ideas used by Hitler and the other ideologues of German national socialism came straight out of the same radical side of the Enlightenment that Edmund Burke critiqued so trenchantly.  When Hitler ranted about the will of das Volk, for example, he was simply borrowing Rousseau’s notion of the general will of the people, which both men believed ought to be free from the pettifogging hindrance of mere laws and institutions. Examples could be multiplied almost endlessly, and matched nearly word for word out of Mussolini’s speeches.  Despite the trope that fascism was a reversion to the Middle Ages, Hitler, Mussolini, and their fellow fascists were thoroughly modern figures pursuing some of the most avant-garde, cutting-edge ideas of their time.

Point this out to most people nowadays, though, and you’re likely to get pushback along two lines. The first is the claim that fascism equals racial bigotry, and racial bigotry is a right-wing habit, thus fascism must be a right-wing movement. That argument gets what force it has from the astonishing levels of historical ignorance found in the United States these days, but it’s common, and needs to be addressed.

Old-fashioned conservatism in the United States, as noted above, unquestionably had its racist side. South of the Mason-Dixon line, in particular, talk about local autonomy and resistance to edicts from Washington DC normally included a subtext favoring segregation and other policies meant to disadvantage Americans of African descent. That’s one consequence of the tangled and bitter history of race in America. It’s conveniently forgotten, however, that well into the twentieth century, the labor movement in the US was as heavily committed to racial exclusion as any collection of Southern good ol’ boys—keeping African-Americans out of the skilled trades, for example, was seen by many labor activists as essential to boosting the wages of white laborers.  With embarrassingly few exceptions, racial prejudice was widely accepted straight across the American political scene until the convulsions of the 1960s finally pushed it into its present state of slow disintegration.

Elsewhere in the world, the notion that racial bigotry is purely a right-wing habit has even less support. Even to the extent that labels such as “left” and “right” apply to the n-dimensional continuum of competing political and economic viewpoints in the pre-Cold War era, racial prejudice, racial tolerance, and relative apathy on the subject were more or less evenly distributed among them. Fascist parties are a good sample of the whole. Some fascist regimes, such as Hitler’s, were violently racist. Others were not—Mussolini’s regime in Italy, for example, was no more racist or antisemitic than the democratic government it replaced, until Germany imposed its race laws on its ally at gunpoint. The easy equation of fascism with racism, and racism with contemporary American (pseudo)conservatism, is yet another example of the way that the complexities of politics and history get flattened out into a caricature in what passes for modern political discourse.

That’s the first standard argument for fascism as a right-wing movement.  The second is the claim that German national socialism was bought and paid for by big business, and therefore all fascism everywhere has to have been a right-wing movement. That’s an extremely common claim; you’ll find it splashed all over the internet, and in plenty of less evanescent media as well, as though it was a matter of proven fact. The only problem with this easy consensus is that it doesn’t happen to be true.

There have been two excellent scholarly studies of the issue, Pool and Pool’s Who Financed Hitler? (1978) and Turner’s German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (1985). Both studies showed conclusively that the National Socialist German Workers Party got the vast majority of its financing from its own middle-class membership until the last year or two before it took power, and only then came in for handouts from business because most German businesses decided that given a choice between the two rising powers in the final crisis of the Weimar regime—the Nazis and the Communists—they would settle for the Nazis. In point of fact—and this can be found detailed in any social history of Germany between the wars—German big business by and large distrusted Hitler’s party, and bitterly resented the new regime’s policy of gleichschaltung, “coordination,” which subjected even the largest firms to oversight and regulation by Party officials.

So where did the claim that fascism is always a puppet of big business come from? Like the use of “fascism” as a generic label for regimes liberals don’t like, it’s a third-hand borrowing from the Soviet propaganda of an earlier day. In the political theology of Marxism, remember, everything boils down to the struggle between capitalists and the proletariat, the two contending forces of the Marxist cosmos. Everything and everyone that doesn’t support the interests of the proletariat as defined by Marxist theory is therefore by definition a tool of the capitalist ruling class, and any political movement that opposes Marxism thus has to be composed of capitalist lackeys and running dogs.  QED! 

More broadly, communist parties have generally pitched themselves to the public by insisting that all other political movements work out in practice to a vote for the existing order of society. A useful bit of marketing in any context, it became a necessity once Stalin’s regime demonstrated just how unpleasant a communist regime could be in practice.  Insisting that fascism is simply another name for what we’ve already got, though, had an enduring downside—it convinced a great many people, in the teeth of the evidence, that fascism by definition defends the status quo. The fact that Italian Fascism and German national socialism both rose to power promising radical change in their respective societies and delivered on that promise has been completely erased from the modern political imagination.

For that matter, the flattening out of American political thought into a linear spectrum from “the left” (the Democratic party, and the Communists who are presumed to be lurking in its leftward fringe) to “the right” (the Republican party, and the fascists who are presumed to have a similar hideout in the GOP’s rightward fringe) helps feed the same belief. Once all political thought has been forced onto that Procrustean bed of ideology, after all, if the fascists aren’t hiding out somewhere on the far end of the Republican half of the spectrum, where else could they be?

It’s at this point that we approach the most explosive dimension of the history of fascism, because the unthinking acceptance of the linear model of politics presupposed by that question isn’t merely a problem in some abstract sense. It also obscures some of the most important dimensions of contemporary political life, in the United States and elsewhere.  According to that model, the point in the middle of the spectrum—where “left” and “right” fade into one another—is the common ground of politics, the middle of the road, where most people either are or ought to be.  The further you get from that midpoint, the closer you are to “extremism.”  (Think about that last word for a moment.) What happens, though, if the common ground where the two major parties meet and shake hands is far removed from the actual beliefs and opinions of the majority?

That’s the situation we’re in today in America, of course. Americans may not agree about much, but a remarkably large number of them agree that neither political party is listening to them, or offering policies that Americans in general find appealing or even acceptable. Where the two major parties can reach a consensus—for example, in giving bankers a de facto amnesty for even the most egregious and damaging acts of financial fraud—there’s normally a substantial gap between that consensus and the policies that most Americans support. Where the parties remain at loggerheads, there are normally three positions: the Democratic position, the Republican position, and the position most Americans favor, which never gets brought up in the political arena at all.

That’s one of the pervasive occupational hazards of democratic systems under strain. In Italy before and during the First World War, and in Germany after it, democratic institutions froze up around a series of problems that the political systems in question were unwilling to confront and therefore were unable to address. Every mainstream political party was committed to maintaining the status quo in the face of a rising spiral of crisis that made it brutally clear that the status quo no longer worked.  One government after another took office, promising to make things better by continuing the same policies that were making things worse, while the opposition breathed fire and brimstone, promising fierce resistance to the party in power on every issue except those that mattered—and so, in both countries, a figure from outside the political mainstream who was willing to break with the failed consensus won the support of enough of the voters to shoulder his way into power.

When fascism succeeds in seizing power, in other words, it’s not a right-wing movement, or for that matter a left-wing one. It seizes the abandoned middle ground of politics, takes up the popular causes that all other parties refuse to touch, and imposes a totalitarianism of the center. That’s the secret of fascism’s popularity—and it’s the reason why an outbreak of full-blown fascism is a real and frightening possibility as America stumbles blindly into an unwelcome future. We’ll talk about that next week.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fascism and the Future, Part One: Up From Newspeak

Over the nearly eight years that I’ve been posting these weekly essays on the shape of the deindustrial future, I’ve found that certain questions come up as reliably as daffodils in April or airport food on a rough flight. Some of those fixate on topics I’ve discussed here recently, such as the vaporware du jour that’s allegedly certain to save industrial civilization and the cataclysm du jour that’s just as allegedly certain to annihilate it. Still, I’m glad to say that not all the recurring questions are as useless as these.
One of these latter deserves a good deal more attention than I’ve given it so far:  whether the Long Descent of industrial society will be troubled by a revival of fascism. It’s a reasonable question to ask, since the fascist movements of the not so distant past were given their shot at power by the political failure and economic implosion of Europe after the First World War, and “political failure and economic implosion” is a tolerably good description of the current state of affairs in the United States and much of Europe these days. For that matter, movements uncomfortably close to the fascist parties of the 1920s and 1930s already exist in a number of European countries.  Those who dismiss them as a political irrelevancy might want to take a closer look at history, for that same mistake was made quite regularly by politicians and pundits most of a century ago, too.

Nonetheless, with one exception—a critique some years back of talk in the peak oil scene about the so-called “feudal-fascist” society the rich were supposedly planning to ram down our throats—I’ve done my best to avoid the issue so far. This isn’t because it’s not important.  It’s because the entire subject is so cluttered with doubletalk and distortions of historical fact that communication on the subject has become all but impossible. It’s going to take an entire post just to shovel away some of the manure that’s piled up in this Augean stable of our collective imagination, and even then I’m confident that many of the people who read this will manage to misunderstand every single word I say.

There’s a massive irony in that situation. When George Orwell wrote his tremendous satire on totalitarian politics, 1984, one of the core themes he explored was the debasement of language for political advantage. That habit found its lasting emblem in Orwell’s invented language Newspeak, which was deliberately designed to get in the way of clear thinking.  Newspeak remains fictional—well, more or less—but the entire subject of fascism, and indeed the word itself, has gotten tangled up in a net of debased language and incoherent thinking as extreme as anything Orwell put in his novel.

These days, to be more precise, the word “fascism” mostly functions as what S.I. Hayakawa used to call a snarl word—a content-free verbal noise that expresses angry emotions and nothing else. One of my readers last week commented that for all practical purposes, the word “fascism” could be replaced in everyday use with “Oogyboogymanism,” and of course he’s quite correct; Aldous Huxley pointed out many years ago that already in his time, the word “fascism” meant no more than “something of which one ought to disapprove.”  When activists on the leftward end of today’s political spectrum insist that the current US government is a fascist regime, they thus mean exactly what their equivalents on the rightward end of the same spectrum mean when they call the current US government a socialist regime: “I hate you.” It’s a fine example of the way that political discourse nowadays has largely collapsed into verbal noises linked to heated emotional states that drowns out any more useful form of communication.

The debasement of our political language quite often goes to absurd lengths. Back in the 1990s, for example, when I lived in Seattle, somebody unknown to me went around spraypainting “(expletive) FACISM” on an assortment of walls in a couple of Seattle’s hip neighborhoods. My wife and I used to while away spare time at bus stops discussing just what “facism” might be. (Her theory was that it’s the prejudice that makes businessmen think that employees in front office jobs should be hired for their pretty faces rather than their job skills; mine, recalling the self-righteous declaration of a vegetarian cousin that she would never eat anything with a face, was that it’s the belief that the moral value of a living thing depends on whether it has a face humans recognize as such.) Beyond such amusements, though, lay a real question:  what on earth did the graffitist think he was accomplishing by splashing that phrase around oh-so-liberal Seattle? Did he perhaps think that members of the American Fascist Party who happened to be goose-stepping through town would see the slogan and quail?

To get past such stupidities, it’s going to be necessary to take the time to rise up out of the swamp of Newspeak that surrounds the subject of fascism—to reconnect words with their meanings, and political movements with their historical contexts. Let’s start in the obvious place. What exactly does the word “fascism” mean, and how did it get from there to its current status as a snarl word?

That takes us back to southern Italy in 1893. In that year, a socialist movement among peasant farmers took to rioting and other extralegal actions to try to break the hold of the old feudal gentry on the economy of the region; the armed groups fielded by this movement were called fasci, which might best be translated “group” or “band.” Various other groups in the troubled Italian political scene borrowed the label thereafter, and it was also used for special units of shock troops in the First World War—Fasci di Combattimento, “combat groups,” were the exact equivalent of the Imperial German Army’s Sturmabteilungen, “storm troops.”

After the war, in 1919, an army veteran and former Socialist newspaperman named Benito Mussolini borrowed the label Fasci di Combattimento for his new political movement, about the same time that another veteran on the other side of the Alps was borrowing the term Sturmabteilung for his party’s brown-shirted bullies. The movement quickly morphed into a political party and adapted its name accordingly, becoming the Fascist Party, and the near-total paralysis of the Italian political system allowed Mussolini to seize power with the March on Rome in 1922.  The secondhand ideology Mussolini’s aides cobbled together for their new regime accordingly became known as Fascism—“Groupism,” again, is a decent translation, and yes, it was about as coherent as that sounds. Later on, in an attempt to hijack the prestige of the Roman Empire, Mussolini identified Fascism with another meaning of the word fasci—the bundle of sticks around an axe that Roman lictors carried as an emblem of their authority—and that became the emblem of the Fascist Party in its latter years.

Of all the totalitarian regimes of 20th century Europe, it has to be said, Mussolini’s was far from the most bloodthirsty. The Fascist regime in Italy carried out maybe two thousand political executions in its entire lifespan; Hitler’s regime committed that many political killings, on average, every single day the Twelve-Year Reich was in power, and when it comes to political murder, Hitler was a piker compared to Josef Stalin or Mao Zedong.  For that matter, political killings in some officially democratic regimes exceed Italian Fascism’s total quite handily.  Why, then, is “fascist” the buzzword of choice to this day for anybody who wants to denounce a political system?  More to the point, why do most Americans say “fascist,” mean “Nazi,” and then display the most invincible ignorance about both movements?

There’s a reason for that, and it comes out of the twists of radical politics in 1920s and 1930s Europe.

The founding of the Third International in Moscow in 1919 forced radical parties elsewhere in Europe to take sides for or against the Soviet regime. Those parties that joined the International were expected to obey Moscow’s orders without question, even when those orders clearly had much more to do with Russia’s expansionist foreign policy than they did with the glorious cause of proletarian revolution; at the same time, many idealists still thought the Soviet regime, for all its flaws, was the best hope for the future. The result in most countries was the emergence of competing Marxist parties, a Communist party obedient to Moscow and a Socialist party independent of it.

In the bare-knuckle propaganda brawl that followed, Mussolini’s regime was a godsend to Moscow. Since Mussolini was a former socialist who had abandoned Marx in the course of his rise to power, parties that belonged to the Third International came to use the label “fascist” for those parties that refused to join it; that was their way of claiming that the latter weren’t really socialist, and could be counted on to sell out the proletariat as Mussolini was accused of doing. Later on, when the Soviet Union ended up on the same side of the Second World War as its longtime enemies Britain and the United States, the habit of using “fascist” as an all-purpose term of abuse spread throughout the left in the latter two countries. From there, its current status as a universal snarl word was a very short step.

What made “fascist” so useful long after the collapse of Mussolini’s regime was the sheer emptiness of the word. Even in Italian, “Groupism” doesn’t mean much, and in other languages, it’s just a noise; this facilitated its evolution into an epithet that could be applied to anybody.  The term “Nazi” had most of the same advantages: in most languages, it sounds nasty and doesn’t mean a thing, so it can be flung freely at any target without risk of embarrassment.  The same can’t be said about the actual name of the German political movement headed by Adolf Hitler, which is one reason why next to nobody outside of specialist historical works ever mentions national socialism by its proper name.

That name isn’t simply a buzzword coined by Hitler’s flacks, by the way.  The first national socialist party I’ve been able to trace was founded in 1898 in what’s now the Czech Republic, and the second was launched in France in 1903. National socialism was a recognized position in the political and economic controversies of early 20th century Europe. Fail to grasp that and it’s impossible to make any sense of why fascism appealed to so many people in the bitter years between the wars.  To grasp that, though, it’s necessary to get out from under one of the enduring intellectual burdens of the Cold War.

After 1945, as the United States and the Soviet Union circled each other like rival dogs contending for the same bone, it was in the interest of both sides to prevent anyone from setting up a third option. Some of the nastier details of postwar politics unfolded from that shared interest, and so did certain lasting impacts on political and economic thought. Up to that point, political economy in the western world embraced many schools of thought.  Afterwards, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the existence of alternatives to representative-democracy-plus-capitalism, on the one hand, and bureaucratic state socialism on the other, became a taboo subject, and remains so in America to this day.

You can gain some sense of what was erased by learning a little bit about the politics in European countries between the wars, when the diversity of ideas was at its height. Then as now, most political parties existed to support the interests of specific social classes, but in those days nobody pretended otherwise. Conservative parties, for example, promoted the interests of the old aristocracy and rural landowners; they supported trade barriers, low property taxes, and an economy biased toward agriculture.  Liberal parties furthered the interests of the bourgeoisie—that is, the urban industrial and managerial classes; they supported free trade, high property taxes, military spending, and colonial expansion, because those were the policies that increased bourgeios wealth and power. 

The working classes had their choice of several political movements. There were syndicalist parties, which sought to give workers direct ownership of the firms for which they worked; depending on local taste, that might involve anything from stock ownership programs for employees to cooperatives and other worker-owned enterprises.  Syndicalism was also called corporatism; “corporation” and its cognates in most European languages could refer to any organization with a government charter, including craft guilds and cooperatives.  It was in that sense that Mussolini’s regime, which borrowed some syndicalist elements for its eclectic ideology, liked to refer to itself as a corporatist system. (Those radicals who insist that this meant fascism was a tool of big corporations in the modern sense are thus hopelessly misinformed—a point I’ll cover in much more detail next week.)

There were also socialist parties, which generally sought to place firms under government control; this might amount to anything from government regulation, through stock purchases giving the state a controlling interest in big firms, to outright expropriation and bureaucratic management. Standing apart from the socialist parties were communist parties, which (after 1919) spouted whatever Moscow’s party line happened to be that week; and there were a variety of other, smaller movements—distributism, social credit, and many more—all of which had their own followings and their own proposed answers to the political and economic problems of the day.

The tendency of most of these parties to further the interests of a single class became a matter of concern by the end of the 19th century, and one result was the emergence of parties that pursued, or claimed to pursue, policies of benefit to the entire nation. Many of them tacked the adjective “national” onto their moniker to indicate this shift in orientation. Thus national conservative parties argued that trade barriers and economic policies focused on the agricultural sector would benefit everyone; national liberal parties argued that free trade and colonial expansion was the best option for everyone; national syndicalist parties argued that giving workers a stake in the firms for which they worked would benefit everyone, and so on. There were no national communist parties, because Moscow’s party line didn’t allow it, but there were national bolshevist parties—in Europe between the wars, a bolshevist was someone who supported the Russian Revolution but insisted that Lenin and Stalin had betrayed it in order to impose a personal dictatorship—which argued that violent revolution against the existing order really was in everyone’s best interests.

National socialism was another position along the same lines. National socialist parties argued that business firms should be made subject to government regulation and coordination in order to keep them from acting against the interests of society as a whole, and that the working classes ought to receive a range of government benefits paid for by taxes on corporate income and the well-to-do. Those points were central to the program of the National Socialist German Workers Party from the time it got that name—it was founded as the German Workers Party, and got the rest of the moniker at the urging of a little man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache who became the party’s leader not long after its founding—and those were the policies that the same party enacted when it took power in Germany in 1933.

If those policies sound familiar, dear reader, they should. That’s the other reason why next to nobody outside of specialist historical works mentions national socialism by name: the Western nations that defeated national socialism in Germany promptly adopted its core economic policies, the main source of its mass appeal, to forestall any attempt to revive it in the postwar world.   Strictly speaking, in terms of the meaning that the phrase had before the beginning of the Second World War, national socialism is one of the two standard political flavors of political economy nowadays. The other is liberalism, and it’s another irony of history that in the United States, the party that hates the word “liberal” is a picture-perfect example of a liberal party, as that term was understood back in the day.

Now of course when people think of the National Socialist German Workers Party nowadays, they don’t think of government regulation of industry and free vacations for factory workers, even though those were significant factors in German public life after 1933.  They think of such other habits of Hitler’s regime as declaring war on most of the world, slaughtering political opponents en masse, and exterminating whole ethnic groups. Those are realities, and they need to be recalled.  It’s crucial, though, to remember that when Germany’s National Socialists were out there canvassing for votes in the years before 1933, they weren’t marching proudly behind banners saying VOTE FOR HITLER SO FIFTY MILLION WILL DIE!  When those same National Socialists trotted out their antisemitic rhetoric, for that matter, they weren’t saying anything the average German found offensive or even unusual; to borrow a highly useful German word, antisemitism in those days was salonfähig, “the kind of thing you can bring into the living room.” (To be fair, it was just as socially acceptable in England, the United States, and the rest of the western world at that same time.)

For that matter, when people talked about fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, unless they were doctrinaire Marxists,  they didn’t use it as a snarl word.  It was the official title of Italy’s ruling party, and a great many people—including people of good will—were impressed by some of the programs enacted by Mussolini’s regime, and hoped to see similar policies put in place in their own countries. Fascism was salonfähig in most industrial countries.  It didn’t lose that status until the Second World War and the Cold War reshaped the political landscape of the western world—and when that happened, the complex reality of early 20th century authoritarian politics vanished behind a vast and distorted shadow that could be, and was, cast subsequently onto anything you care to name.

The downsides to this distortion aren’t limited to a failure of historical understanding.  If a full-blown fascist movement of what was once the standard type were to appear in America today, it’s a safe bet that nobody except a few historians would recognize it for what it is. What’s more, it’s just as safe a bet that many of those people who think they oppose fascism—even, or especially, those who think they’ve achieved something by spraypainting “(expletive) FACISM” on a concrete wall—would be among the first to cheer on such a movement and fall in line behind its banners. How and why that could happen will be the subject of the next two posts.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Steampunk Future

For those of us who’ve been watching the course of industrial civilization’s decline and fall, the last few weeks have been a bit of a wild ride.  To begin with, as noted in last week’s post, the specter of peak oil has once again risen from the tomb to which the mass media keeps trying to consign it, and stalks the shadows of contemporary life, scaring the bejesus out of everyone who wants to believe that infinite economic growth on a finite planet isn’t a self-defeating absurdity.

Then, of course, it started seeping out into the media that the big petroleum companies have lost a very large amount of money in recent quarters, and a significant part of those losses were due to their heavy investments in the fracking boom in the United States—you know, the fracking boom that was certain to bring us renewed prosperity and limitless cheap fuel into the foreseeable future?  That turned out to a speculative bubble, as readers of this blog were warned a year ago. The overseas investors whose misspent funds kept the whole circus going are now bailing out, and the bubble has nowhere to go but down. How far down? That's a very good question that very few people want to answer.

The fracking bubble is not, however, the only thing that's falling. What the financial press likes to call “emerging markets”—I suspect that “submerging markets” might be a better label at the moment—have had a very bad time of late, with stock markets all over the Third World racking up impressive losses, and some nasty downside action spilled over onto Wall Street, Tokyo and the big European exchanges as well. Meanwhile, the financial world has been roiled by the apparent suicides of four important bankers. If any of them left notes behind, nobody's saying what those notes might contain; speculation, in several senses of that word, abounds.

Thus it's probably worth being aware of the possibility that in the weeks and months ahead, we'll see another crash like the one that hit in 2008-2009: another milestone passed on the road down from the summits of industrial civilization to the deindustrial dark ages of the future. No doubt, if we get such a crash, it'll be accompanied by a flurry of predictions that the whole global economy will come to a sudden stop. There were plenty of predictions along those lines during the 2008-2009 crash; they were wrong then, and they'll be wrong this time, too, but it'll be few months before that becomes apparent.

In the meantime, while we wait to see whether the market crashes and another round of fast-crash predictions follows suit, I'd like to talk about something many of my readers may find whimsical, even irrelevant. It's neither, but that, too, may not become apparent for a while.

Toward the middle of last month, as regular readers will recall, I posted an essay here suggesting seven sustainable technologies that could be taken up, practiced, and passed down to the societies that will emerge out of the wreckage of ours. One of those was computer-free mathematics, using slide rules and the other tools people used to crunch numbers before they handed over that chunk of their mental capacity to machines. In the discussion that followed, one of my readers—a college professor in the green-technology end of things—commented with some amusement on the horrified response he’d likely get if he suggested to his students that they use a slide rule for their number-crunching activities.

Not at all, I replied; all he needed to do was stand in front of them, brandish the slide rule in front of their beady eyes, and say, “This, my friends, is a steampunk calculator.”

It occurs to me that those of my readers who don’t track the contemporary avant-garde may have no idea what that next to last word means;  like so many labels these days, it contains too much history to have a transparent meaning. Doubtless, though, all my readers have at least heard of punk rock.  During the 1980s, a mostly forgettable literary movement in science fiction got labeled “cyberpunk;” the first half of the moniker referenced the way it fetishized the behavioral tics of 1980s hacker culture, and the second was given it because it made a great show, as punk rockers did, of being brash and belligerent.  The phrase caught on, and during the next decade or so, every subset of science fiction that hadn’t been around since Heinleins roamed the earth got labeled fill-in-the-blankpunk by somebody or other.

Steampunk got its moniker during those years, and that’s where the “-punk” came from. The “steam” is another matter. There was an alternative-history novel, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, set in a world in which Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage launched the cybernetic revolution a century in advance with steam-powered mechanical computers. There was also a roleplaying game called Space 1889—take a second look at those numbers if you think that has anything to do with the 1970s TV show about Moonbase Alpha—that had Thomas Edison devising a means of spaceflight, and putting the Victorian earth in contact with alternate versions of Mars, Venus and the Moon straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs-era space fantasy.

Those and a few other sources of inspiration like them got artists, craftspeople, writers, and the like thinking about what an advanced technology might look like if the revolutions triggered by petroleum and electronics had never happened, and Victorian steam-powered technology had evolved along its own course.  The result is steampunk:  part esthetic pose, part artistic and literary movement, part subculture, part excuse for roleplaying and assorted dress-up games, and part—though I’m far from sure how widespread this latter dimension is, or how conscious—a collection of sweeping questions about some of the most basic presuppositions undergirding modern technology and the modern world.

It’s very nearly an article of faith in contemporary industrial society that any advanced technology—at least until it gets so advanced that it zooms off into pure fantasy—must by definition look much like ours. I’m thinking here of such otherwise impressive works of alternate history as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. Novels of this kind portray the scientific and industrial revolution happening somewhere other than western Europe, but inevitably it’s the same scientific and industrial revolution, producing much the same technologies and many of the same social and cultural changes. This reflects the same myopia of the imagination that insists on seeing societies that don’t use industrial technologies as “stuck in the Middle Ages” or “still in the Stone Age,” or what have you:  the insistence that all human history is a straight line of progress that leads unstoppably to us.

Steampunk challenges that on at least two fronts. First, by asking what technology would look like if the petroleum and electronics revolutions had never happened, it undercuts the common triumphalist notion that of course an advanced technology must look like ours, function like ours, and—ahem—support the same poorly concealed economic, political, and cultural agendas hardwired into the technology we currently happen to have. Despite such thoughtful works as John Ellis’ The Social History of the Machine Gun, the role of such agendas in defining what counts for progress remains a taboo subject, and the idea that shifts in historical happenstance might have given rise to wholly different “advanced technologies” rarely finds its way even into the wilder ends of speculative fiction.

If I may be permitted a personal reflection here, this is something I watched during the four years when my novel Star’s Reach was appearing as a monthly blog post. 25th-century Meriga—yes, that’s “America” after four centuries—doesn’t fit anywhere on that imaginary line of progress running from the caves to the stars; it’s got its own cultural forms, its own bricolage of old and new technologies, and its own way of understanding history in which, with some deliberate irony, I assigned today’s industrial civilization most of the same straw-man roles that we assign to the societies of the preindustrial past.

As I wrote the monthly episodes of Star’s Reach, though, I fielded any number of suggestions about what I should do with the story and the setting, and a good any of those amounted to requests that I decrease the distance separating 25th-century Meriga from the modern world, or from some corner of the known past.  Some insisted that some bit of modern technology had to find a place in Merigan society, some urged me to find room somewhere in the 25th-century world for enclaves where a modern industrial society had survived, some objected to a plot twist that required the disproof of a core element of today’s scientific worldview—well, the list is long, and I think my readers will already have gotten the point.

C.S. Lewis was once asked by a reporter whether he thought he’d influenced the writings of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. If I recall correctly, he said, “Influence Tolkien? You might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.” While I wouldn’t dream of claiming to be Tolkien’s equal as a writer, I share with him—and with bandersnatches, for that matter—a certain resistance to external pressures, and so Meriga succeeded to some extent in keeping its distance from more familiar futures. The manuscript’s now at the publisher, and I hope to have a release date to announce before too long; what kind of reception the book will get when it’s published is another question and, at least to me, an interesting one.

Outside of the realms of imaginative fiction, though, it’s rare to see any mention of the possibility that the technology we ended up with might not be the inevitable outcome of a scientific revolution. The boldest step in that direction I’ve seen so far comes from a school of historians who pointed out that the scientific revolution depended, in a very real sense, on the weather in the English Channel during a few weeks in 1688.  It so happened that the winds in those weeks kept the English fleet stuck in port while William of Orange carried out the last successful invasion (so far) of England by a foreign army. 

As a direct result, the reign of James II gave way to that of William III, and Britain dodged the absolute monarchy, religious intolerance, and technological stasis that Louis XIV was imposing in France just then, a model which most of the rest of Europe promptly copied. Because Britain took a different path—a path defined by limited monarchy, broad religious and intellectual tolerance, and the emergence of a new class of proto-industrial magnates whose wealth was not promptly siphoned off into the existing order, but accumulated the masses of capital needed to build the world’s first industrial economy—the scientific revolution of the late 17th and early 18th century was not simply a flash in the pan. Had James II remained on the throne, it’s argued, none of those things would have happened.

It shows just how thoroughly the mythology of progress has its claws buried in our imaginations that many people respond to that suggestion in an utterly predictable way—by insisting that the scientific and industrial revolutions would surely have taken place somewhere else, and given rise to some close equivalent of today’s technology anyway. (As previously noted, that’s the underlying assumption of the Kim Stanley Robinson novel cited above, and many other works along the same lines.)  At most, those who get past this notion of industrial society’s Manifest Destiny imagine a world in which the industrial revolution never happened:  where, say, European technology peaked around 1700 with waterwheels, windmills, square-rigged ships, and muskets, and Europe went from there to follow the same sort of historical trajectory as the Roman Empire or T’ang-dynasty China.

Further extrapolations along those lines can be left to the writers of alternative history. The point being made by the writers, craftspeople, and fans of steampunk, though, cuts in a different direction. What the partly imaginary neo-Victorian tech of steampunk suggests is that another kind of advanced technology is possible: one that depends on steam and mechanics instead of petroleum and electronics, that accomplishes some of the same things our technology does by different means, and that also does different things—things that our technologies don’t do, and in some cases quite possibly can’t do.

It’s here that steampunk levels its second and arguably more serious challenge against the ideology that sees modern industrial society as the zenith, so far, of the march of progress. While it drew its original inspiration from science fiction and roleplaying games, what shaped steampunk as an esthetic and cultural movement was a sense of the difference between the elegant craftsmanship of the Victorian era and the shoddy plastic junk that fills today’s supposedly more advanced culture. It’s a sense that was already clear to social critics such as Theodore Roszak many decades ago. Here’s Roszak’s cold vision of the future awaiting industrial society, from his must-read book Where the Wasteland Ends:

“Glowing advertisements of undiminished progress will continue to rain down upon us from official quarters; there will always be well-researched predictions of light at the end of every tunnel. There will be dazzling forecasts of limitless affluence; there will even be much real affluence. But nothing will ever quite work the way the salesmen promised; the abundance will be mired in organizational confusion and bureaucratic malaise, constant environmental emergency, off-schedule policy, a chaos of crossed circuits, clogged pipelines, breakdowns in communication, overburdened social services. The data banks will become a jungle of misinformation, the computers will suffer from chronic electropsychosis. The scene will be indefinably sad and shoddy despite the veneer of orthodox optimism. It will be rather like a world’s fair in its final days, when things start to sag and disintegrate behind the futuristic façades, when the rubble begins to accumulate in the corners, the chromium to grow tarnished, the neon lights to burn out, all the switches and buttons to stop working. Everything will take on that vile tackiness which only plastic can assume, the look of things decaying that were never supposed to grow old, or stop gleaming, never to cease being gay and sleek and perfect.”

As prophecies go, you must admit, this one was square on the mark.  Roszak’s nightmare vision has duly become the advanced, progressive, cutting-edge modern society in which we live today.  That’s what the steampunk movement is rejecting in its own way, by pointing out the difference between the handcrafted gorgeousness of an older generation of technology and the “vile tackiness which only plastic can assume” that dominates contemporary products and, indeed, contemporary life. It’s an increasingly widespread recognition, and helps explain why so many people these days are into some form of reenactment.

Whether it’s the new Middle Ages of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the frontier culture of buckskinners and the rendezvous scene, the military-reenactment groups recreating the technologies and ambience of any number of of long-ago wars, the primitive-technology enthusiasts getting together to make flint arrowheads and compete at throwing spears with atlatls, or what have you:  has any other society seen so many people turn their backs on the latest modern conveniences to take pleasure in the technologies and habits of earlier times? Behind this interest in bygone technologies, I suggest, lies a concept that’s even more unmentionable in polite company than the one I discussed above: the recognition that most of the time, these days, progress no longer means improvement.

By and large, the latest new, advanced, cutting-edge products of modern industrial society are shoddier, flimsier, and more thickly frosted with bugs, problems, and unwanted side effects than whatever they replaced. It’s becoming painfully clear that we’re no longer progressing toward some shiny Jetsons future, if we ever were, nor are we progressing over a cliff into a bigger and brighter apocalypse than anyone ever had before. Instead, we’re progressing steadily along the downward curve of Roszak’s dystopia of slow failure, into a crumbling and dilapidated world of spiraling dysfunctions hurriedly patched over, of systems that don’t really work any more but are never quite allowed to fail, in which more and more people every year find themselves shut out of a narrowing circle of paper prosperity but in which no public figure ever has the courage to mention that fact.

Set beside that bleak prospect, it’s not surprising that the gritty but honest hands-on technologies and lifeways of earlier times have a significant appeal.  There’s also a distinct sense of security that comes from the discovery that one can actually get by, and even manage some degree of comfort, without having a gargantuan fossil-fueled technostructure on hand to meet one’s every need. What intrigues me about the steampunk movement, though, is that it’s gone beyond that kind of retro-tech to think about a different way in which technology could have developed—and in the process, it’s thrown open the door to a reevaluation of the technologies we’ve got, and thus to the political, economic, and cultural agendas which the technologies we’ve got embody, and thus inevitably further.

Well, that’s part of my interest, at any rate. Another part is based on the recognition that Victorian technology functioned quite effectively on a very small fraction of the energy that today’s industrial societies consume. Estimates vary, but even the most industrialized countries in the world in 1860 got by on something like ten per cent of the energy per capita that’s thrown around in industrial nations today.  The possibility therefore exists that something like a Victorian technology, or even something like the neo-Victorian extrapolations of the steampunk scene, might be viable in a future on the far side of peak oil, when the much more diffuse, intermittent, and limited energy available from renewable sources will be what we have left to work with for the rest of our species’ time on this planet.

For the time being, I want to let that suggestion percolate through the crawlspaces of my readers’ imaginations.  Those who want to pick up a steampunk calculator and start learning how to crunch numbers with it—hint:  it’s easy to learn, useful in practice, and slide rules come cheap these days—may just have a head start on the future, but that’s a theme for a later series of posts. Well before we get to that, it’s important to consider a far less pleasant kind of blast from the past, one that bids fair to play a significant role in the future immediately ahead.

That is to say, it’s time to talk about the role of fascism in the deindustrial future. We’ll begin that discussion next week.