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Aug 13, 2015

The Politics of Modernism

We can best understand modern America by looking at the ways fascism and socialism are kin.

As a political phenomenon, modernism is the worship of the state, though it is actually something more than that. It is the worship of a particular kind of state, the state reimagined as the absolute embodiment of the people and the nation, the Hegelian idea of the state as a spiritual force that alone gives meaning to an individual’s life—in Hegel’s words, “the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.” Even communism, ostensibly eager to usher in a borderless international brotherhood of workers, succumbed to modernist nationalism upon ascending to political power around the world during the twentieth century.

During the first Republican primary debate, Mike Huckabee complained, “We’ve decimated our military.” Other candidates made similar statements, apparently scandalized by the supposed lack of resources dedicated to the military apparatus and eager to paint Obama as a dove: weak on defense and inviting hostility from enemies of the United States. Never disposed to allow mere facts to stand in the way of their bombast, politicians have little compunction about simply making things up or omitting key and even dispositive pieces of information. They are similarly unmoved by the banausic questions of who will pay for their spendthrift habits or whether there is in fact a rational connection between the perpetuation of American empire and the safety or wellbeing of an ordinary American. George Orwell’s keen insight, from his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” bears repeating, “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The military and its destructive, world-destabilizing activities are a favorite subject of political lies.

Notwithstanding the perfidy of our political class, U.S. military spending swelled rapidly following the attacks of September 11, with no shortage of politically connected rent-seekers eyeing and exploiting the opportunities thus afforded them. Whatever the circuitous oratory employed to rouse support for ever more expensive imperial adventurism—unfailingly couched in the language of security and defense—we are left with the staggering, ineffaceable fact that military spending totaled about $610 billion last year. That such a massive figure is unsatisfactory to the majority of the Republican field is perhaps unsurprising. Conservatives of the Huckabee mold tend to treat the military-industrial complex—a phrase coined by no less a moderate, respected military man than Dwight Eisenhower—as sui generis, as somehow unrelated to the more general problems they associate (in their rhetoric, at least) with bureaucratic big government. Big government, then, becomes tolerable, indeed admirable, to the extent that the discussion is confined to the consecrated sphere of military and “defense” expenditures. It probably hasn’t occurred to most such conservatives that the warfare state simply is the welfare state, that these twin aspects of the federal leviathan, which consume the lion’s share of American tax dollars, developed together as features of a new kind of polity, the modern nation-state.

Several libertarian thinkers have attempted to show that the modern American state is essentially fascist, not a form of “outright socialism” and certainly not a consistently (classical) liberal republic.1 Naturally, the American political and intellectual establishment, firmly grounded in the ideas of progressivism, sought to distance itself historically and ideologically from Nazism, to treat it not as simply another iteration of modernist welfare statism, but as something else, an aberration or regression. Academic literature long endured painful contradictions and contortions to situate the parturition of the Nazi creed outside of modernism’s bounds, to challenge the legitimacy of the birth, as it were. Thus were the myriad similarities and resemblances between, for example, American progressivism and Nazism, nervously explained away—among them, a bizarre fascination with the racist pseudo-science of eugenics, an obsession with ordering and planning every aspect of society through technocratic government, an erroneous conflation of society and the state. Indeed, there is no shortage of characteristics that demonstrate the common pedigree of all forms of twentieth century political modernism; to revise the record required a certain boldness. Paul Betts, an expert on modern German history, observes that in even the very recent past, identifying fascism and Nazism as examples of modernism was considered “reckless and even repugnant.” Despite the obviousness of the ideological links and the profusion of evidence, historians largely insisted on the distinctiveness of the Nazi state. Donna Harsch notes the historian Detlev Peukert’s “major reinterpretation” of Nazism’s place in twentieth century history, which “argued that welfare, modernity, and National Socialism were immanently related to each other.” Rather than seeing Nazism as curiously anachronistic and anti-modern, a brief recrudescence of reactionary traditionalism in the modern age, Peukert correctly recognizes Nazi Germany as the fulfillment of “the inherent tendencies of the modern welfare project.”

Here, we should take care to note that the question of whether Nazism ought to be classed with progressivism and other variants of political modernism is distinct from that of Nazism’s place on the left-right political spectrum. While certainly related, the latter question is less important inasmuch as right and left designations are subjective and indeterminate. Nazism’s kinship with socialism, for instance, will not suffice to place it definitively on the political left, for there are both more authoritarian and more libertarian forms of socialism. It is more accurate to say that political modernism of the kind exemplified by Italian fascism, American progressivism, and German Nazism contains elements of the left and the right, if we are to retain these categories at all. In Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal, Murray Rothbard advanced this reasoning, arguing that twentieth century state socialism belongs “in the middle of the ideological spectrum,” while classical liberalism fits on the far left as a radical vindication of individual liberty. Such arguments stand in sharp contrast to those of Jonah Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism, which contends that Nazism “is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left.” Whether the Nazis were right-wingers, left-wingers, or centrists, both Rothbard and Goldberg agree that fascism is not the opposite of totalitarian communism, but its close ideological relative. Both are examples of modernism, attempts at absolute, centralized political control and rationalization of society. 

Just as the historical literature, until rather recently, tended to exclude fascism generally and Nazism specifically from discussions of modernist politics, so too has it deemphasized the connections between the welfare and warfare components of the modern state. Historian David L. Hoffmann observes that the British progressive politician and eugenicist William Beveridge coined “welfare state” deliberately as a contrast to Nazi Germany’s warfare state. Hoffman, however, notes that in fact “welfare and warfare were intimately connected” in the modern state, “particularly during the interwar period.” In the United States, the mainstream political conversation has retained the problematic tendency to partition the welfare and warfare aspects of the state, the right being associated with the state as father, the left with the state as mother.2 And while these emphases undoubtedly yield measurable (if marginal) differences in public policy proposals, the entire American political domain is nevertheless thoroughly modernist. Neither major political party submits a challenge to the fundamentals of political modernism, secured during the Progressive and New Deal eras and annealed during a century of continuous war. In the United States, wartime centralization and consolidation of government power were the necessary preconditions for the ambitious social and economic changes of the welfare state. And as Kirkpatrick Sale notes in his decentralist manifesto Human Scale, confronted with the mounting expenses of an expanding welfare complex, the state will “naturally seek to increase its sphere of influence, and to enlarge its take of spoils, through warfare.” Inherently coercive and debasing, both the welfare and the warfare facets of the modern state share a disdain for individual rights and view the individual person as dispensible. The state is the reality, the individual a mere instrumentality.

In 1944, in his book Omnipotent Government, Ludwig von Mises argued that even while they fought the German National Socialists, the progressive establishments of the United Kingdom and the United States were eager to abandon any vestiges of a market economy, “step by step, adopting the German pattern of socialism.” The liberalism that Mises contrasted with nationalist progressivism stressed the likeness and natural equality of human beings all over the world, and in turn regarded free trade and commerce as the best means to achieving the welfare of all people. Nationalist progressivism, on the other hand, was not really progressive at all; rather, it was in principle a return to the kind of unsophisticated economic thinking that placed the people of different nations in inescapable, zero-sum conflict, each nation attempting to use protectionist and martial tactics—as against peaceful exchange—to generate domestic prosperity.

Regardless of which side won either World War, then, liberal values were the preordained losers. Like it or not, we’re all modernists and, in very concrete ways, fascists now. Each arm of the American political establishment would perhaps like to adjust the ratio slightly in one or the other direction, Republicans desiring a bit more of the warfare ingredient, and Democrats a bit more of the welfare side. But their shared assumptions and values are far more remarkable than their apparent disagreements. Libertarians see the modern state for what it is, a dangerous force that, gathering all power into its hands, reduces citizens to dependents and suffocates the beneficial spontaneity of a free society. During the last century, the state’s war machines extinguished the lives of untold millions. Its welfare apparatuses subject society’s most vulnerable to degrading, humiliating control, failing to apprehend the underlying battle between the ideas and policies that lead to poverty and those that lead to prosperity—thus always tightening the grip of the former. Now that we have dispensed with the taboo of properly identifying Nazism as a modernist welfare state like any other, perhaps we can begin to reassess the legacy of America’s own brand of fascism, progressivism, grasping just how illiberal it really is.


  1. See, for example, Robert Higgs’s article “Once More, with Feeling: Our System Is Not Socialism, but Participatory Fascism.”
  2. See, for example, David Paul Kuhn’s article, “The Enduring Mommy-Daddy Political Divide.”