Talk about a lighting rod – people instantly become alert and defensive when they hear it. The word, of course, is “fascism” – not “liberal” (although that raises hackles enough among many who suspect it is being directed at them).
So, let’s begin by normalizing the word “fascism” a bit. The author of this brilliantly written book, Jonah Goldberg, argues that it has come to mean whatever liberals choose to define as bad. For example, anyone the liberal elite believes is antagonistic to its agenda might be tarred as a fascist, and in the modern political dialogue in America, the label would stand a good chance of sticking.
Goldberg, while noting that there is no single definition accepted by scholars for the term, dedicates a good part of this book to explaining why this application, as he argues is used by liberals, has come into being, and why it is wrong.
He has his own definition: “Fascism is a religion of the state.” This is closer to the one I use. To me, fascism is the cultural impulse for each member of a society to submerge his or her distinct individuality into the collective identity of the state.
But the author also says this about it:
The lethality of a poison depends on the dosage, and a little fascism, like a little nationalism or a little paternalism, is something we can live with—indeed, it may even be considered normal.”
Looked at another way, anything that isn’t even generally viewed as toxic can become so if taken to the extreme. So, if we wish to really understand the term “fascism,” we might want to try to view its development before it picked up its politically volatile baggage. And much of this book provides a fascinating and revealing look at that development, upon which it then builds its main argument.
But one thing most of us can agree upon is that fascism, however neutrally descriptive we may come to see the word, does suggest a submissive passivity on the part of the average individual that we wouldn’t want to accept as normal in a modern, vibrant, healthy society.
Now, here’s why I was attracted to this book: One of my deep concerns about the way leadership is being taught by the modern leadership movement is the presence in it of a powerful school that promotes something that I find equally objectionable. This is the argument that leadership takes the form of a directive authority emanating from an individual of exalted ability and character at the top, which then radiates downward and outward throughout an organization composed of specially cultivated “followers.”
Recall that one prominent and influential guru actually argues that the very organization should be so structured as to give the most effective expression possible to the “musings” of its leader. Anything ringing a bell here? How might we describe such a corporate culture, were it a regular society, wherein people submerge their individual abilities into a collective spirit of “followership” in order to express the “leader’s” ineffable genius?
So, I read the book. And I’m glad I did. I was delighted to find that it is not merely an extraordinarily enlightening read (for example, whatever your political or ideological affinities, you will find yourself repopulating some cherished pantheons), but an engaging, gripping – even a rousing – one, as well. I am confident that you will enjoy it also.
Note that it is essentially about modern cultural and political history, not management or business. But you will find much to stir your thinking about those latter topics, if you only pause during your reading now and then, and reflect a moment about the goings on in your workplace.
Let’s take a look at some excerpts from the book. You may recognize this one from our own series here entitled Socratic Genius:
The experts and scientists know what to do, we are told; therefore the time for debate is over.”
This is the poisonous pressure to cow people into submission with the notional possession of superior expertise – attained by people living off the largess of the excess capacity of a thriving economy, most members of which themselves lack the time and resources to dedicate to the personal acquisition of it. So, while they underwrite it, they run the risk as well of becoming overrun by it.
Here’s another one you may recognize:
. . . historians tend to forgive the powerful for transgressions they would never condone by the weak.”
We’ve talked here about the tendency of those who celebrate great leaders to pick and choose among those who were successful or not, and even among the experiences of those who were both, although they all exhibited the promoted leadership characteristics. It is worth noting, certainly, that this is a common vice among hero-worshipers of all kinds.
But Goldberg is talking about something rather more sinister, here: in the context of that quote, he notes that Lord Acton‘s admonition that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely was directed not at the powerful themselves, but at their chroniclers. We who fall in thrall to the mighty glory of such individuals lose our clarity of perception and analysis. We see what that power has conditioned us to see, and that is what we record as its true nature.
But it is not its true nature – it is a destructive corruption of it. My argument is that something much like this has happened to our ability to understand and use the concept of leadership in the modern world. Would that I had Goldberg’s power of expression in elaborating my thinking in that regard; although, with or without it, as mentioned yesterday, we will be giving that effort another go.
But having returned to the business/management realm, consider this, one of my favorite bits from this energizing book:
Debates about economics these days generally enjoy a climate of bipartisan asininity. Democrats want to “rein in” corporations, while Republicans claim to be “pro-business.” The problem is that being “pro-business” is hardly the same thing as being pro–free market, while “reining in” corporations breeds precisely the climate liberals decry as fascistic.”
“Bipartisan asininity.” How can you resist a book with gritty, sharp-edged gems like that? And note the relentless drive past rhetoric to the underlying principles, to ensure that we know what is – or is not – really being said. This is another vitally incisive section of the book, helping to make it altogether an irresistable must-read.
Please do pick up your own copy of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Whatever your personal political inclinations, you will learn a good bit about Western European and American politics and culture, arguing tightly from first principles, and even – if you are alert to it – leadership. Enjoy!
Today’s tip: Speaking of counter-intuitive thinking, please stop over to see this excellent piece on why not to get an MBA, at Young Go Getter.
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