Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Ideological Foundations of the Obama Phenomenon

There is great concern among many that the Barack Obama phenomenon represents some type of crypto-religious millenarian movement. More often than not, the phenomenon is characterized as proto-fascist.

Oh, Great One

An excellent general example along these lines is found in Arthur Silber's post, "It's the 1930s, and You Are There," which includes this:

People had better wake the hell up, and they had better study some history very damned fast. I have sometimes remarked, and I repeat the warning here, that the twentieth century was a nonstop train of horrors -- yet in one sense, the most terrible and horrifying aspect of the twentieth century is that we learned absolutely nothing from it.

Among the horrors of the twentieth century were several notable leaders who initiated events that led to slaughter and destruction on an ungraspably monumental scale. These charismatic leaders evoked a response from their followers almost identical to that called forth by Obama. These leaders specialized in "personal stories of political conversion." Doesn't anyone see the connection? Doesn't anyone remember any of this?
Silber's post is illustrated with fabulous personal stories of conversion among Obama's growing following, but what's noteworthy is that he doesn't suggest that Obama represents a fascist movement - only that similar national phenomena toward millenarian totatitarianism marked the interwar years.

Of course, there are only two alternative choices: Nazism (fascism) and Marxism-Leninism.

Probably because of the Jewish Holocaust, Nazism generates the most powerful recoil as a political epithet, but in terms of sheer numbers, more people died under Joseph Stalin's Soviet totalitarianism in the 1930s, and the scale of evil in Stalin's personality cult was a culmination of long process of growing annihilationist ideological development starting in the late 19th century. The classic work on this is Hannah Arendt's, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which combines an analysis of extreme ideology on both the left and right into a single unifying theme explaining the conditions and growth of the totalitarian state.

I'll have more on this, but I'll say right now that I don't see Obama's movement as fascist. As I've written before ("
Should Revolutionaries Feel Good About Obama?"), I see Obama as more in the Leninist mode of a "vanguard" leader, who has the charismatic oratorical power to shape the emergence of a new ideological regime; and that program is decidedly Marxist-Leninist in its essential foundations.

Jesse Taylor at Pandagon's got no time to work through some of these details: He just erupts in frustration to denounce claims that "Barack Obama is leading a crypto-messianic, quasi-fascist movement." Taylor piles on the anger by denouncing Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism, as "a complete f**king idiot."

I haven't read Goldberg's book, but it's on my list. I am reading two works of great relevance currently, Saul Friedlander's,
The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945, and Robert Paxton's, The Anatomy of Fascism.

Suffice to say, that the origins of Barack Obama's great successes, as well as the nature of his crypto-religious phenomenology, are not in the same league as the crises that swept the states of Europe following World War I. These for a most part included the breakdown of the old regime and the emergence of mass political demands before the consolidation of democratic constitutionalism. In this environment, authoritarian, paternalist, racist and anti-Semitic, and anti-rational ideologies were allowed to foment and coalesce under strong personalist leadership.

The circumstances are greatly different in the United States today, with the most important factor being the deep system of constitutional order that is the basis for legitimate power in the U.S.

President George Bush is no more fascist than is Barack Obama or a potential Obama adminstration. Further, an Obama administration will hardly resemble Joseph Stalin's totalitarian regime.

We are seeing something wierdly ethereal in Barack Obama's groundswell of support. People have seen some kind of messianism in this, and that's to be understood in the combination of Obama's great skills and in his fundamental difference from what's come before him in our national leaders.

I can speak with more authority on this after I've read Goldberg's book, but one of Paxton's main points is that the emergence of fascism is fundamentally un-ideological. There's little record of written doctrinal statements in the history of fascist movements, particularly in Italy. These groups just adapt opportunistically, grasping on to the will of the people, often with militaristic and anti-industrial appeals.

More on this later. I think Arthur Silber's right to note similarities between the current election and trends in the 1930s. It's the exact shape of those trends that are at issue, and understanding them will take a lot more work than Jesse Taylor's unhinged rants at Jonah Goldberg.