Sunday, 31 October 2010

Fascism: A Very Short Introduction, Kevin Passmore

"Along with liberalism, conservatism, communism, socialism, and democracy, fascism is one of the great political ideologies that shaped the 20th century....  Yet how can we make sense of an ideology that appeals to skinheads and intellectuals; denounces the bourgeoisie while forming alliances with conservatives; adopts a macho style yet attracts many women; calls for a return to tradition and is fascinated by technology; idealizes the people and is contemptuous of mass society; and preaches violence in the name of order?"

For a movement that appears to deal in iron-hard certainties, fascism is notoriously inconsistent and difficult to define.  In this short and interesting study, Kevin Passmore well brings out the unique and protean nature of fascist ideology and politics.  His definition of fascism is quite lengthy and subtle, though its keystone is the primacy of the idea of the nation: fascists sought above all else to create a "mobilized national community".

Passmore looks for the origins of fascism (and its sibling, Nazism) in various diverse places, including the Jacobins of the French Revolution, the Ku Klux Klan, the antisemitic Austrian politician Karl Lueger, Social Darwinism, and nineteenth-century French ultranationalism.  He touches on some of the classic explanations for the rise of fascism, including the Marxist theory that it represented a kind of capitalism on steroids, and Max Weber's view that it was a vehicle for pre-capitalist ruling classes such as rural landowners in Spain and the old Japanese military caste.

Passmore also notes, however, that fascism was closely linked to a particular time and place: Europe between the two World Wars.  Every modern Western political movement of any importance - conservatism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, Christian democracy, nationalism, even feminism - was in place by 1914, and the only two exceptions were environmentalism and fascism.  Fascism, an exotic compound of nationalism and elements of conservatism and socialism, was essentially a product of a continent that had been brutalised and bankrupted by a catastrophic war and was fearful of the prospect of communist revolution.  The links with older movements were tenuous: as Passmore notes, there was no clear link between Nazism and the antisemitic movements of Wilhelmine Germany.  Passmore ends the book with the suggestion that fascism might re-emerge in the future, but this surely goes too far.  While it is unfortunately possible to imagine in general terms the return of authoritarian racist politics in the West, fascism was a very specific phenomenon which has thankfully had its day.

The sheer strangeness of fascism is striking.  Its extreme nationalism and its murderous hostility towards socialism mean that it tends to be placed on the far right of the political spectrum, despite the entertainingly silly efforts of right-wingers like Jonah Goldberg and Daniel Hannan to link it with the left.  But it differed significantly from traditional conservatism.  Unlike conservatives, fascists were prepared to exert state authority over the economy, interfere in private family life, disrespect monarchies and churches, and reshape traditional institutions like the army and the civil service.  In some countries, such as Salazar's Portugal and Baldwin's Britain, orthodox conservative governments sought to suppress the local fascists, and Mussolini's original squadristi were radicals who fought with conservatives and Catholics as well as socialists.  On the other hand, there was in practice more to unite conservatives and fascists than to divide them: fascists generally respected private property (as long it wasn't owned by Jews or other undesirables), and the two movements shared the common reference points of veneration for the nation, the state and the military.  There were good reasons why they both viewed socialism as their mortal enemy.

Passmore rightly rejects the idea that modern parties of the extreme right like the BNP and the French National Front are fascist organisations - their ideal state would be closer to Verwoerd's South Africa than to the Third Reich.  The fortunate truth is that genuine neofascist parties have been confined to the lunatic fringes of politics since 1945 - the one exception being the MSI in postwar Italy, which attracted significant support from right-wingers who were disenchanted with the centrism of the Christian Democrats.  It has since renamed itself and sought to distance itself from its fascist roots.

This is a good little book, well-judged and containing a body of useful information.  It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to inform themselves before using the political f-word.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl

"But the Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies....  [I]f we only begin to carry out the plans, Anti-Semitism would stop at once and for ever."

This, they say, is where it all started.  This little book was the charter of the international Zionist movement - the foundation stone of the State of Israel.

The book was first published in Vienna and Leipzig in 1896, and it was published in English translation in London the same year.  In 1897, the First Zionist Congress was held in Switzerland, and Herzl's movement was off and running.  In 1917 came the Balfour Declaration, and in 1922 Zionism was written into the title deeds of the British Mandate in Palestine.  On 14 May 1948, the Jewish state came into being, just 52 years after The Jewish State had first appeared.  When David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the independence of Israel, he did so underneath the patriarchal gaze of a portrait of Herzl.  Someone who read the book as a young man or woman when it first came out might well have lived to see the fulfilment of the plans contained within it.

Or possibly not.  In many ways, the most striking features of Herzl's book are the differences between his blueprint and what actually happened.

Herzl favoured securing statehood through agreement with the international community, then undertaking gradual, orderly mass immigration into the new state, with the poorest Jews going first.  He even tried to negotiate over Palestine with the Ottoman Sultan.  He predicted that the creation of a Jewish state by gradual immigration into an existing territory would falter because the locals would start to object once their Jewish minority started growing too large, and counselled against this path.  But this is precisely what happened during the days of the British Mandate, and limits on Jewish immigration became a central plank of British colonial policy (interestingly, British policymakers were also debating the merits of a one-state versus a two-state solution by the late 1930s).  The catalyst for the creation of Israel, moreover, was a series of events which Herzl had no inkling of: the mass murder of European Jews, followed by an armed campaign and takeover of the land.

Herzl envisaged that the establishment of the Jewish state would be facilitated by two specific and distinct bodies, the Society of Jews (a political organisation) and the Jewish Company (a commercial organisation, incorporated in London).  He goes into considerable detail on the practical, political and economic steps that would be required to build the new state.  In fact, Herzl arrived slightly late on the scene.  Zionism was not a new movement, and significant Jewish immigration to Palestine had already begun in the 1880s.  The orderly scheme of the Society of Jews and the Jewish Company turned out to be an untidy thicket of interlocking political and commercial organisations: the Zionist Organization, the Zionist Congresses, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Keren Hayesod, Bank Leumi, the Anglo Palestine Company, and the Jewish National Fund.

Herzl envisaged the Jewish state as having an oligarchic constitution (he should have known better in 1896).  What emerged was a parliamentary democracy with quasi-British institutions run, at least initially, by politicians with socialist leanings.  He didn't hold out much hope for a resurrection of Hebrew, which has turned out to be the only language to be successfully revived in modern times.  He thought that the flag should be a white banner (half marks) with seven gold stars to represent the seven-hour working day.

Once the state was established, Herzl thought that Jews who did not wish to be part of the Zionist experiment would remain in their existing countries and simply become Frenchmen, Americans, and so on.  In fact, Israel's fortunes continue to be followed keenly by Jews in other parts of the world, who have by no means lost their ethnic or religious identity.  American policy towards Israel has been a major factor in the development of the state, and is in turn strongly influenced by Jewish Americans and their supporters (albeit perhaps to a lesser extent than some conspiracists would claim).

Strikingly, Herzl didn't think that the new Jewish state had to be located in Palestine.  His other favoured candidate was Argentina, and after writing the book he went on to consider seriously a British proposal for a Jewish homeland in Uganda.  He does not, however, seem to have given much thought to the existing native populations of any of these territories.

Most poignant of all is Herzl's enthusiastic optimism.  Even making allowances for the usual overselling of a grand design, Herzl had tremendously high hopes for the Jewish state.  It is here, most of all, that the reality has fallen tragically short of the expectation.  Whether one believes that the State of Israel is a beacon of democracy which has suffered 60 years of deadly onslaught from armed soldiers and terrorists, or a noble project that has degenerated into right-wing militarism and racism, it can't be denied that Herzl was dead, dead wrong on this score.  Herzl also believed, incidentally, that Jewish emancipation in Europe would not be reversed, and he failed to predict the Holocaust - but then everyone failed to predict the Holocaust.

None of which should detract from the importance of Herzl as an historical figure or the enormous contribution that he made to the Zionist movement.  The above does, however, illustrate that even Jews can sometimes make poor prophets.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Epidemic, Jonathan Engel

The Epidemic, Jonathan Engel
Smithsonian Books

At some point in the first part of the twentieth century, a huntsman in what is now southern Cameroon had an encounter with a chimp.  He may have fought with it and been wounded.  He may have killed it cleanly and then cut himself while butchering it.  A few people think that he had sex with it.  Whatever - the result was that an odd and obscure virus jumped species to homo sapiens, and the seed was planted of the greatest epidemic of our time.

The Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was first publicised and named in the United States.  The existence of the terrifying new disease was formally announced in a low-key article in a routine bureaucratic report in June 1981 (it had been mentioned in print for the first time in a New York gay newspaper the previous month).  The syndrome affected mainly gay men in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where a distinctive and highly sexualised gay culture had developed in the 1970s.  It was not a pleasant way to die.  Alongside the gay victims there emerged an unlikely combination of haemophiliacs, female prostitutes, intravenous drug users - and, rather bafflingly, Haitians.  Meanwhile, doctors in Europe had begun to observe strange, untreatable diseases in a few patients who came from or had worked in sub-Saharan Africa.  They heard reports that their American colleagues had come across something similar and were classifying it as a disease of homosexuals - those crazy Americans, always so obsessed about sex!

But it was mainly a gay disease in America - and increasingly in Britain and Germany too.  It was like something out of a horror movie.  Gay men suddenly found that thousands of their number were infected with a lethal virus which had no known cure.  They reacted with horror and desperation.  The Reagan administration was a prominent target of criticism (something of a flavour of this emerges from Randy Shilts' And The Band Played On and the spinoff HBO film).  There was an upsurge in homophobic incidents. Undergraduates at Dartmouth celebrated Rock Hudson's death with a sorority party.  Health insurers refused to cover male hairdressers and florists.  In the later 1980s, anti-gay sentiment began to enter the mainstream, perhaps catalysed by the 1988 elections.

Some gay activists played a dangerous game, angrily rejecting attempts to change their community's sexual mores.  For the most part, however, the gay community acted resolutely enough to reduce transmission rates significantly by the mid-to-late 1980s, while infections became more prevalent among IV drug users and their (heterosexual) partners - though, of course, the virus's long incubation period meant that this cultural change came too late for many.

The virus was discovered in 1983, and was initially called LAV or HTLV-III, depending on who you asked. Its discovery was either ably assisted or else set back a year by the American celebrity scientist Robert Gallo, and its existence was announced in 1984 by Ronald Reagan's health secretary Margaret Heckler. She predicted that a vaccine would be available within two years.  Within the Reagan administration, there was palpable distaste at dealing with a disease that seemed to affect mainly promiscuous homosexuals and drug abusers - though honourable mention should go to Dr Everett Koop and Admiral James Watkins, two Reagan advisers whose fastidious Christian distaste for such things did not stop them from taking a hard-headed and practical approach to the epidemic.  In Britain, the Thatcher government adopted uncharacteristically liberal AIDS policies, though the Iron Lady did intervene personally to change a reference in a newspaper advert from "anal intercourse" to "back passage intercourse".

Engel notes that AIDS, contrary to many worried predictions, never became a heterosexual pandemic in the West.  In Africa, however, the story was very different.  The virus had originated in Africa, before apparently being transported by Haitian migrants from Zaire to their home country and then brought into the US through gay networks.  The virus was already quite well entrenched in Africa by the first half of the 1980s.  The drivers behind the African epidemic seem to have included the mobility of migrant workers, local cultural attitudes to sexual activity, and a high prevalence of other STDs (which made it easier for HIV to be transmitted).  The epidemic disproportionately affected educated middle-class professionals, a feature that gave it broader social and economic implications.

HIV has a number of biological features that make it a particularly difficult pathogen to treat, and its long incubation period allows it to spread itself widely before it kills its host.  The search for a cure has proceeded steadily, albeit more slowly than Margaret Heckler predicted.  In 1987, the American Food and Drug Administration granted approval to AZT, a drug so feeble that it prolonged life expectancy only by a year and at the same time so toxic that some patients actually preferred AIDS to its side-effects.

By the end of the 1980s, the pharmaceutical arsenal was slowly growing.  In 1996, effective antiretroviral therapies became available.  These were initially primitive and cumbersome, requiring multiple doses at specific times of the day.  Some of the drugs in the cocktail had to be kept refrigerated, while others had to be taken on a full stomach, or on an empty stomach, or with milk.  The side-effects were still a problem.  But antiretrovirals revolutionised the treatment of HIV in the West, and turned it from a death sentence into a serious, chronic but manageable illness.  Thousands of men and women were suddenly confronted with the prospect of living for years or decades longer than they had expected - and, in some cases, of unexpectedly having to pay off enormous debts or having to retire on underfunded pensions.  Meanwhile, millions of HIV-negative people began to let their defences down, or even, unbelievably, to actively court infection.  In the developing world, access to antiretrovirals became a sensitive political and commercial issue, and Engels deals sensitively with the various arguments and pressures surrounding it.

Overall, Engel tells his story well and backs it up with solid research and evidence. He appears to be coming from a moderately conservative perspective.  His judgement on the Reagan White House, for example, is less hostile than that of most AIDS activists at the time, albeit far from laudatory.  He has no time for homophobic conservative responses to the epidemic, but he is not writing from a civil libertarian perspective either.  There are a few mistakes and inaccuracies.  He doesn't say much about the very early history of the virus, and some of what he says is a little inaccurate (and slightly out of date by now - the book was published in 2006).  In all, however, this is a serious and impressive work of medical and social history, and a respectable addition to the HIV/AIDS literature.