Friday, November 7, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Five

“The Ancestry of Fascism,” pages 63-81

The dominant tenor of a country is influenced by political ideas of an earlier era; Soviet Russia, for instance, draws upon The Communist Manifesto of 1848. But for the ideas to be applied, they must meet a conducive environment, one prepared by economic and political events.

Newton’s revolution in the sciences brought hope that a similar deductive approach – often forgotten is the century of data collection that preceded Newton – could solve social and political problems. This hyper-rationalism reached its zenith with the Rights of Man doctrine popular at the time of the American and French revolutions. But by then, Hume had already laid the groundwork for undermining the deductive, ratiocinative method. Hume employed induction and empirical observation, while recognizing that induction could scarcely be scientific – and hence that science itself had unfirm foundations, rendering it as irrational as theology.

Nonetheless, Hume’s skeptical view towards science was for mental, not practical, consumption. For making our way in this world, science is our best bet.

Neither the continental nor the British followers of Hume were prepared to accept his agnosticism. “European thought has never recovered its previous wholeheartedness; among all the successors of Hume, sanity has meant superficiality, and profundity has meant some degree of madness [p. 65].”

Kant was driven to believe in things like God and causality which was not made easy in the shadow of Hume. So Kant resorted to inventing a distinction between pure and practical reason, where the lion’s share of living fell into the practical camp. But practical reason was just a blind for Kant’s own prejudices, not any logical truths. [Kant never seems to come off too well in Russell’s recounting.]

With no successful refutation of Hume in sight, we must admit that there is no clear demarcation between what constitutes reason and what constitutes unreason. But the embrace of reason tends to involve three features: a reliance upon persuasion and not force; a sincere presentation of arguments, an avoidance of disingenuousness; an eschewal of intuition when data and deduction are available. The Inquisition, political propaganda, and an appeal to the will of the gods are anti-reason, then.

Basing your arguments upon reason is an approach that generally assumes that you and your audience have shared interests. Despite the example of Mrs. Bond, you do not reason with those you intend to ingest. When the political class consisted of a small number of aristocrats, they could reason among their more-or-less equal selves. Diffusion of political power implies fewer shared starting points, and hence less matter for reason to work upon. The result is appeals to intuition; but intuitions differ, and conflict is likely.

The history of the world is replete with revolts against reason and the adoption of superstitions – as well as revolutions in the pro-reason direction. There is always an uneasy balance between the forces of reason and unreason; unreason has been growing since the 1860s. The new wave of unreason is distinguished from those of earlier epochs in that power, not salvation, is its aim. The camp of unreason can claim Carlyle and Nietzsche and Kipling; so far, Hitler is the culmination. In the opposite camp are socialists and utilitarians: “both are cosmopolitan, both are democratic, both appeal to economic self-interest [p. 68].”

Nietzsche provides a good account of what the fascists hope to achieve – a goal that rejects Bentham both with respect to happiness and with respect to being inclusive. [Bentham would have included all sentient beings in aggregating happiness or freedom from suffering – RBR.] That goal is to produce exceptional individuals, at the cost of the sacrifice of most of mankind. Goals, whether Nietzsche’s revolting one or more pleasant alternatives, cannot be said to be irrational: rationality involves matching means to given ends. Nonetheless, goals such as Nietzsche’s are closely connected to irrationality, as they all but imply a lack of impartiality. A goal that focuses on the creation and burnishing of great men is adopted by those who believe that they are great men.

The ideological parents of fascism share certain characteristics. In particular, will, power, and force take pride of place, as opposed to reason and happiness. A Spartan asceticism is advocated, with the goal of dominating others, not of building inner virtue. The proto-fascists adopt social Darwinism, where the units of struggle are races, not individuals, and where the winners are viewed as superior.

Fichte has received less than his due share of credit for inaugurating this great movement [p. 70].”  Fichte starts with the reflexive relation “I am I,” and decides that this declaration is an act of self creation; already, will is central to the story. Later, he declares that Germans are superior, based on the purity of their language. For Germans to maintain their purity, they must employ education to corral the freedom of the individual will. Germans should be economically self-sufficient, and universal military service should be mandatory, with patriotism, not defense, as the aim. Noble people will embrace such a self-sacrifice, and the ignoble must sacrifice, too – they do not count in themselves, and only are serfs meant to serve the noble. Democracy, which is the political twin of Bentham’s utilitarianism (and of Christianity, wherein every human being contains a soul), has no place in Fichte’s worldview.

So Fichte, like Marx’s communism, designates an elect, and those who adopt such views believe that they are the elect. But who are Fichte’s nobles? “There is no objective criterion of ‘nobility’ except success in war; therefore war is the necessary outcome of this creed [p. 72].”

Carlyle drew upon Fiche but added a sort of socialism that itself was not based so much on love for the proletariat as it was on a dislike of industrialization and newly-wealthy industrialists. Actual socialists are still sometimes taken in by Carlyle and his paeans to heroism, though those whom he views as heroic generally are brutal ruffians. There is little in Carlyle that would be objectionable to Nazis.

Mazzini, alternatively, identified the nation, not the individual, as the unit of heroism, and ranked Italy highest. But he shared with Carlyle the idea that duty is more important than individual or collective happiness. Democratic majorities have no moral significance, while people possess ingrained, intuitive, and correct notions of morality. But people have differing views on morality, so what Mazzini was proclaiming in practice was the superiority of his own moral views over the general will of the people.

The most recent addition to the intellectual underpinnings of fascism is racism, where certain races are declared to be superior for faux-Darwinian reasons. (Nietzsche supported breeding super-men, but their superiority did not lie in their race or nationality.) “About race, if politics were not involved it would be enough to say that nothing politically important is known [p. 74].” As far as we can tell, environment trumps genetics. We have no rational reasons for judging one race or nationality as superior to another. “The whole movement, from Fichte onwards, is a method of bolstering up self-esteem and lust for power by means of beliefs which have nothing in their favour except that they are flattering [p. 75].” Men become lunatics when their self-esteem is annihilated, so those who impose the annihilation shouldn’t be surprised when lunacy follows.

The seeds of anti-rationality ideologies abound, but only occasionally do they fall on fertile ground. The major strands of anti-rationalism – the emphasis on will and power, and the acceptance of intuitively-held propositions that could not withstand scientific scrutiny – hold appeal to industrially-oriented minds and to those whose loss of power is befuddling. War and industrialization, therefore, have prepared the ground for fascism. The large numbers of dispossessed (that is, those dispossessed of their former privileges) are used by the militarists and industrialists to adopt an ideology that embraces modern industry and war, but looks backwards in other matters.

The adoption of a fascist ideology by the industrialists is rational, in that such an ideology, in power, could well serve their interests; the dispossessed will not recover their lost glories, however, so that their embrace of fascism is irrational. Emotion overcomes the reason of the dispossessed, and the fascist leaders dole out irrational claims that feed this emotion. The militarists’ gain will involve untold human suffering, so while rational, it is deeply immoral.

The leading German industrialist Fritz Thyssen supports the Nazis because he thinks, incorrectly, that his economic interests will be served by Nazi policies, and socialism will be eradicated. “It is necessary for him to stir up German self-confidence and nationalist feeling to a dangerous degree, and unsuccessful war is the most probable outcome [p. 77].”  [Recall that In Praise of Idleness was published in 1935.] The Germans might have early success in a military confrontation, but they won’t prevail in the long run: the Germans are repeating their mistake from the Great War, that of ignoring America.

Protestantism (with its rebellious spirit) might seem to be an ally of the Nazi movement. Certainly the proto-fascist thinkers, including Fichte, Carlyle, and Mazzini, had Calvinist or Lutheran leanings. But Protestantism shares many elements with Catholicism, and along these dimensions, Protestants cannot easily be reconciled to the Nazis. Perhaps organized Christianity can keep the Nazi menace at bay.

Christianity involves an ingrained respect for truth that is anathema to the Nazis. Galileo was persecuted on the grounds that his ideas were false; the Nazis reject relativity because its discoverer is Jewish, and truth is not even part of the argument. When objective truth leaves the field, the question of what to believe will be answered by might, not right.

Another force that promotes unreason is that many people of ability lack an alternative outlet for their love of power. Suburbs offer little in the way of public life. Suburb dwellers who commute to their white-collar work in a great metropolis have no role in governing, while at work, they take orders from their bosses. They would be prone towards socialist doctrines if snobbery did not keep them from associating with the working classes. An active spirit in these conditions would find fascism to offer a hopeful alternative.

Anti-reason, therefore, grows in politics on both the demand and the supply side. The demand comes from people whose current circumstances do not offer sufficient prospects, but they are unwilling to connect to a socialist movement that puts the working class in the vanguard. The supply comes from intelligent, wealthy men whose own interests are served by swelling certain types of hysteria. “Anti-Communism, fear of foreign armaments, and hatred of foreign competition, are the most important bogeys [p. 80].” These notions are not irrational per se, but they are used to hinder intelligent discussion of practical affairs.

Socialism and peace are what the world needs, but these do not conduce to the wellbeing of the powerful. Movements towards socialism and peace can be made to appear detrimental to large classes of society, and this appearance can be fostered by fomenting hysteria. Economic hardship eases the job of the merchants of unreason.

The rise of nationalism and class tension brings a plethora of “truths,” those of the English and those of the French, those of the wage earners and those of the capitalists. With the turn to unreason, these competing truths cannot encounter each other in rational discourse, leaving ongoing strife and war as the available fora. Reason appeals to universal standards, whereas unreason draws from private passions. Cooperative agreements are harder to come by when reason is swept away. Reason always is needed for human flourishing. The need is strongest when an impersonal rationality is “despised and rejected as the vain dream of men who lack the virility to kill where they cannot agree [p. 81].”

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