Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Learning from the Radical Right of an Earlier Era: What Lessons Does it Hold for Us?

Eran Kaplan
(University of Wisconsin Press 2005)

Today, as we look around, radical right wing politics is a force to be reckoned with in Russia, Israel, Romania, Hungary, France, Britain, and elsewhere, including, it now appears, the United States. In Britain they just voted for Brexit. In the United States one of our two main parties, the Republicans, are about to nominate Donald Trump as their candidate for president.

An examination of Donald Trump's claims in 2015 revealed that he lacks any regard for truth.  Of 181 claims fact-checked by Politifact, 76% were mostly false, false, or outrageously false. Trump is not alone in his cavalier attitude towards the truth. A willingness to play fast and loose with theory and facts is one of the most infuriating traits of the political right. And it's not just politicians. It extends to media personas (see, e.g. Fox News generally, see e.g. Rush Limbaugh). 

Obama remarked on this phenomenon in his commencement speech at Rutgers this past May:  “Facts, evidence, reason, logic, and understanding of science… these are good things," said Obama. "These are qualities you want in people making policy. That might seem obvious. We traditionally have valued those things, but if you were listening to today’s political debate you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from. In politics and in life," he added, "ignorance is not a virtue."

In his book, The Jewish Radical Right, Eran Kaplan shows us where this strain of anti-intellectualism comes from. It comes from the fever swamps of the European radical right in the the 1920's and 30's. Kaplan's book focuses on revisionist (far right) Zionism in Israel. He immersed himself in revisionist newspapers and publications of the inter-war period, and studied the writings of prominent figures--intellectuals, visionaries, and political activists. But the book serves as a primer of radical right wing politics more broadly. As we read, it becomes clear that with the radical right, rejection of rationality is not a bug, it's a feature. Irrationality is a virtue for the radical right.

The Monism of Ernst Haeckel

Radical right wing politics in the 20's and 30's, says Kaplan, was a reaction to modernity. Donald Trump and his supporters are still reacting against modernity today.  What lessons can we learn? 

Radical right politics at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a revolt against rationalism, individualism, materialism, and the heritage and values of the Enlightenment and French revolution in general, says Kaplan. Disillusioned that rationality and humanist values could lead us to a utopia, the radical right sought to fall back on human instinct, to unfetter basic human desires, and to free us of all artificial moral or rational categories. 

In context, the radical right was looking at the excesses of the French revolution, which were not so pretty, and they were fighting for hearts and minds with communism, and they acted in an era of political upheaval, hyperinflation, and crumbling economies in the wake of World War I.  Today, our economies are stronger, but we have problems of inequality, and large portions of the population are fearful that their economic prospects are dimming in light of globalization, not getting brighter. 

The intellectuals of the radical right sought to unleash and give voice to the authentic power that would allow nations to live virtuous and glorious lives. They would have related to "Make America Great Again." Take Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), a German zoologist, philosopher, writer and artist. Among many accomplishments, he was responsible for naming hundreds of new species and he helped to propagate Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. But he also had peculiar ideas about the relative ordering of human races (primitive to noble) according to language groups, and he assumed an attitude of natural selection among the races. It is a dog-eat-dog sort of world and some races are naturally destined for extinction (at the hands of the more noble and advanced races). He talked about the social sciences and history as problems in "applied biology." 

In 1909 Haeckel formed the Monist League. The Monist League set out to replace a Christian world view with one based in natural science. He attempted to unite science and religion by making human instincts and sentiments, usually expressed in art and myth, paramount in political action. Haeckel's evolutionary monism rejected any limitations on the power of individuals through constructs like morality, rationality, and equality. Such concepts are alien to nature, he claimed.

The purpose of life can't be found in utopian social systems built on rationality, or sissy concepts like equality or morality; rather, the purpose of life is to submit to the irrational forces and will of nature itself. The measure of a nation is not in its respect for universal moral principles, but in its heroic action, in the seizing of life. Think of Rome at the height of its power. In order for a nation to properly seize life--to come out on top of the evolutionary heap--Haeckel called for racial purity, national purpose, and for the nation to embrace the irrational brute forces of nature. Nations, in order to be successful, must denounce any teachings that try to limit and control their powers. Hard laws of evolution rule societies and nature alike, said Haeckel, and nature confers upon the favored races the right to dominate others.

Are there echoes of this in "Make America Great Again?" 

Spengler and the Life of Nations

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) was a German historian and philosopher who wrote the influential book The Decline of the West.  Spengler posited civilization as a super-organism with limited and predictable life spans. He associated the decline of nations with moral decline (think liberalizing of sexual mores, gay rights, women's rights, modern "degenerate" art), with money and materialism dominating society, with the (liberal) cities having a pre-dominant influence over the (conservative and traditional) countryside, with the emphasis of society on quantity in the manufacture of goods over quality, and with the questioning of social hierarchies. 

Much of our culture wars these past decades has resonated with Spengler's ideas.  Pat Buchanan would say, "yes, unless we reverse these liberalizing trends we are doomed." It has been the message of the Republican party for a half century. 

A nation's vitality, said Spengler, comes from its independence, its unity of purpose, and its unrestrained will to exercise power. This includes waging war. [It was a theme at the GOP convention in Cleveland tonight] War is part of nature. Peace is the result of preaching by intellectuals (think Obama, Republican speakers said at the podium tonight). Such weakness holds the nation back. It is a sign of decline. Strong and vital nations are not pacifists, said Spengler, but they embrace war and the violence that marks an emerging or dominant culture. 

Think about this in context of Trump declaring world war three in response to the truck mayhem in Nice. 

National (White) Unity

The radical right of the '20's and '30's also preached that true liberty could not be realized in individuals's attaining personal goals; individuals had to give up their subjectivity in order to become part of a greater subject, the nation state. Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Zionist radical right, reports Kaplan, believed that "the greatest achievement of a free mass of people is the ability to operate together, all as one, with the absolute precision of a machine...." 

Does this resonate today? "In Mississippi, Florida and elsewhere," reported Der Spiegel last month, "Donald Trump asked his supporters to raise their right hands and pledge their allegiance to his cause: 'I do solemnly swear that I, no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, ... will vote ... for Donald J. Trump for President.'" In a show of unity, the report goes on: "Tens of thousands raised their right arms and repeated the oath after him."

In a USA 2013 radical right video (published in November 25, 2013) Pat Buchanan says that the culture wars have split the country. "We are two countries now," he said. "Two countries--morally, and socially, and culturally, and theologically--and cultural wars do not lend themselves to peaceful coexistence. This side prevails, or the other side prevails," intoned Buchanan.  [At first two minutes in linked video] This feature length movie has been watched 600,000 times on You Tube. Presumably these watchers are disaffected white, Christian Trump voters. If we are to take Buchanan at his word, then Trump is running not for president of the United States, but for president of a disaffected white, Christian minority. It is that minority that is seeking its unity in the candidacy of Donald Trump. This is the audience Trump is addressing as he channels the radical right European demons of the 20's and 30's. 

Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Zionist radical right was greatly influenced by the Italian criminologist Enrico Ferri (1856-1929) says Kaplan. Ferri also attempted to explain human history through natural laws and evolutionary science. In accord with Ferri, Jabotinsky argued that a nation must have particular racial characteristics. Only the common ties of blood, history, and language can bring people together. Human rights, civil equality, and political reality can't bring people together, they said. Nationalism, said Jabotinsky at the 17th Zionist Congress in Basel, is not by any means related to citizenship. Humans are not defined by political/legal states, he argued, but rather by their national and racial affiliations. Make America White Again. 

The radical Zionists focused on achieving a Jewish majority in the land of Palestine to build their state. They expelled half the Palestinian population in the Nakba (the catastrophe as Palestinians call it) in order to accomplish this. Their fundamental objective was to built a Jewish state, as opposed to a state of its citizens. They sought to imprint the Jewish character of the nation on the land, and to build an iron wall between the Arabs and Jews. Arabs would be allowed to prosper, but they could never be part of the Israeli nation. Pat Buchanan and his white Christian country are looking to follow this model in the United States. The same liberal Enlightenment values are at stake. 

Trump is seeking to be president of a white European, Christian colonial settler nation. The rest of us want to continue to live in a multi-cultural liberal democracy. 

The radical right of the 20's and 30's says Kaplan, opposed the liberal view of society as a gathering of individuals who start from a point of sharing nothing but their dignity and rational capabilities as human beings. The radical right opposed Marxism for being international and for being universal in nature. They opposed it for dividing society along class lines, and for reducing society to material factors. They viewed individuals as spiritual beings who are members of a particular nation and race, with a particular history. It's not about individual will, desires, rational reasoning, or material status alone; nationhood, said these thinkers is much more about cultural, national, and racial heritage. 

Make America white again; make America great again.

Embracing the Irrational, Subconscious, and Irrational

The German Jewish culture critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) noted that the radical right sought to rally around authority, discipline, solidarity, and self-sacrifice.... 

And they glorified violence, says Kaplan. Violence, for the radical right, possessed a positive and therapeutic value. Just ask yourself how it could have come about that a small handful of civilized and prosperous societies embarked on an orgy of killing that left ~ 80 million people dead over two world wars. 

The radical right of the 20's and 30's says Kaplan, embraced the irrational, the subconscious, and the primordial. And as I watch Donald Trump and his GOP supporters I think to myself, is this the new radical right? 

"Money is overthrown and abolished only by blood," said Spengler. Was this an anti-Semitic trope? Life, race, and the triumph of the will to power are what matter.  Think of Leni Riefenstahl's film, and think how modern, how "normal" this film looks. It is not "the victory of truth, discoveries, or money that signifies," said Spengler. It's the will to power. 

The celebration of life the radical right is seeking is expressed aesthetically, not rationally. Terry Eagelton, the British theater critic, said about post-modernists: (for them) "the truth value of a proposition is entirely a matter of its social function, a reflex of the power interests it promotes."  Jean Francois Lyotard (1924-1998), a French post-modernist philosopher, spoke about culture not being bound by any objective criteria, but being in an arena of power struggles among groups and individuals. [The two nations of the culture wars that Buchanan mentions?] He also spoke of the process of liberating signs and language from the tyranny of rationality by creating systems of representation (myths & ideology) that are not judged by their ability to provide a true depiction of the world but by their ability to maximize the human spirit and to carry it to greater heights. 

Along these lines, says Kaplan, the radical right eschewed the objective sciences (think climate change denial today) and eschewed adherence to ethical rules that suppress humans' true nature. Instead, the radical right sought to organize and use signs (political talk?) in a way that would transcend accepted morality and reveal the true masculine force of humanity. Maurice Barres (1862-1923), the French novelist, journalist, right wing nationalist and anti-Drefusard, per Kaplan, said that "words do not signify objects but are powerful entities that can evoke great powers. Words are not separate from nature, but part of it." 

Instead of concepts of natural rights and morality (empty words), the radical right sought to provide myths, symbols, and signs that would allow society to express its desires and wants without regard to rational or moral limitations. Today, we say politicians are using "dog-whistles." Trump is dog-whistling to his disenchanted white followers when he says he will "Make America Great Again" that he will "build a beautiful wall, and make the Mexicans pay for it," that he will "put America first again and only make Great Deals!"  Rationality has nothing to do with it. That's not the point. Its about race, aesthetics, and the myths of ancient traditions. Art is free of moral restrictions, and in the hands of the radical right, so is politics. 

No comments:

Post a Comment