Monday, June 29, 2009

Why Iranian Events are Relevant to Your Life

Interesting short article by Iran specialist Gary Sick. Relevant paragraph:

This is a formula for the kind of militarized and nationalist corporate state under a single controlling ideology that is not dissimilar to fascist rule in an earlier day. Like fascism, it defines itself not only in terms of its own objectives but even moreso by what it opposes: liberalism, individualism, unfettered capitalism, etc. There is no need to push the definition too far, since fascism tended to be specific to a particular time and set of historical circumstances. But the resemblance in nature and practice seems to justify use of the term.

I like that he includes those caveats. I like this as a thought experiment. I don't like that it gives less scrupulous people, some of whom have motives that are more admirable than others', the excuse to start throwing around the f-bomb. But I'm increasingly coming around to this viewpoint, that fascism is specific to a certain time and place (and level of technological development--not to say that Twitter is necessarily teh bomb). I'm not sure if that's just because I'm a historian instead of a political scientist, but it has something to do with it.

Now that Iran coverage is entering the hangover stage, and I'm starting to think about it more philosophically, I think that everyone's interest in these kinds of events is probably structurally similar to that of the neocons: we're all just trying to grasp a moment of global redemption which seems so much closer in revolutions than in ordinary times, and trying to read the signs to see how the final liberating revolution might come about. It's like trying to read the mind of god. Revolution is a spiritual need. It's no accident that the neocons are descended from Jewish Marxists who thought they found salvation in America (or Israel, but let's leave that aside for now). It's also no accident that the Iranian revolution was made by a coalition of Marxists and messianic Islamists. So when an analyst says "this revolution threatens the Islamic Republic," which seems too radical a statement to be merely a prediction that the Islamic Republic will evolve in a more democratic direction, am I supposed to read it instead as a neocon prediction that American-style secular democracy is coming to Iran? This seems unlikely, especially when one notes that the Jewish-American intellectual tradition might be particularly unsuited for analyzing an Islamic revolution--or is it? How else can I read that statement, given the inherent unpredictability of revolutions? This seems to me to be an urgent question, but one that's incredibly distracting when one is trying to write a dissertation. On fascism.

This is all just to say that obviously Walter Benjamin invented the way neocons think about the world, and the way we all think about fascism, and that everyone needs to go back and read the Theses on the Philosophy of History again.


Dr Nuffin said...

You're the expert on this stuff, not me, but to me the passage you quote misses the essence of fascism. Fascism isn't really - or only - about bringing about certain outcomes, but rather - or also - about adopting a certain identity or way of being in the world. It's about projecting strength and masculinity and fearlessness; it's about accomplishing things through force and will (and force of will) and violence, rather than through lily-livered compromise and consensus; it's about waging war for the sake of war, and because in struggle we find meaning and truth. Sure, this means that fascists oppose certain types of governments and admire others, valorize certain forms of political engagement and detest (and repress) others, but to view the fascist ideology as an essentially instrumental one seems a bit mistaken.

For all these reasons, of course, the neo-cons resemble fascists much more closely than they'd care to admit.

As to historical specificity, I'm not sure about fascism, but I suspect Americans' (and, in a skightly different sense, Europeans') interest in Iran has to do with the place of Revolution in our own national mythology. We like to see people doing things that we imagine we once did - after all, our decision to revolt against British tyranny placed us forever on the side of the angels in these matters. Never mind that our understanding of Revolution is pretty one-dimensional - we tend to imagine a monolithic and essentially good "people" rising up, en masse, against a monolithic and essentially evil "tyrant" - we still see anything that looks like Revolution within the framework of our own creation myth.

Jared said...

Hi, Mark. Yes, I agree with most of what you say. GS's definition is loose, as he admits, and I think the difference between his "instrumental" definition and yours and the one I'm trying to develop (but don't lay out here) is the difference between a political scientist and two historians. I was once told that economists simplify where historians complicate, and this is why economists get paid more.

I have this crazy theory that fascism WAS actually incredibly instrumental, it's just that the ultimate goal all along was (unconsciously?) the dramatic destruction of itself. Like, Hitler was such a big fan of Wagner that he set out to create his own Gotterdamerung. This theory may have come about while thinking about the movie Downfall. Actually, now it seems to me less of a theory than a Freudian just-so story that relies heavily on the idea of the death instinct.

As for the connection between neocons and fascists, I don't want to overstate that. (If you're interested in that question, you might want to read Richard Wolin's chapter in Labyrinths comparing Benjamin with Carl Schmitt.) Neocons actually do see the struggle as being for something instrumental, namely the American way. But this is namely because of the lazy thinking about the creation myth that you note.