After the turmoil of the Trump inauguration, I’ve gone back to reading Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg, and have encountered in it a plausible explanation of why, in America at least, “liberal” no longer means “liberal”.
Liberal intellectuals and activists insisted during the 1920s that [Woodrow] Wilson’s war socialism had been a smashing success and its failures a result of insufficient zeal. “We planned in war” became their slogan. Alas, they couldn’t convince the yokels in the voting booths. As a result, they came more and more to admire the Bismarckian approach of top-down socialism. They also looked to Russia and Italy, where “men of action” were creating utopias with the bulldozer and the slide rule. The Marxist emphasis on scientific socialism and social engineering infected American Progressivism. And since science isn’t open to democratic debate, an arrogant literal-mindedness took over Progressivism.
It was also around this time that through a dexterous sleight of hand, Progressivism came to be renamed “liberalism.” In the past, liberalism had referred to political and economic liberty as understood by Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith. For them the ultimate desideratum was maximum individual freedom under the benign protection of a minimalist state. The progressives, led by Dewey, subtly changed the meaning of this term, importing the Prussian vision of liberalism as the alleviation of material and educational poverty, and liberation from old dogmas and old faiths. For progressives liberty no longer meant freedom from tyranny, but freedom from want, freedom to be a ‘constructive’ citizen, the Rousseauian and Hegelian “freedom” of living in accord with the state and the general will. Classical liberals were now routinely called conservatives, while devotees of social control were dubbed liberals. Thus in 1938 John Dewey would write in Liberalism and Social Action that activist government in the name of the economically disadvantaged and social reconstruction had “virtually come to define the meaning of liberal faith.”
Given this worldview, it shouldn’t be surprising that so many liberals believed the Soviet Union was the freest place on earth… (p. 221)
Or, to put it another way, liberal now meant illiberal. Language had been turned on its head.
I must say I am inclined to think that much same thing has happened to the word “progress”, which now seems to mean more like “regress”, or going backwards, rather than going forwards. These words need to have their meanings restored. There are far too many of them, which now mean the opposite of what they used to mean: I would not be surprised to learn that “prisons” have now become “holiday camps.”
But I have my own ideas of what freedom means. In Idle Theory, freedom isn’t any sort of abstraction: freedom is free time or idle time, and it is measured in hours. It is as concrete a thing as a roll of cotton, measured in yards. It’s what people experience, very broadly, at weekends, or outside working hours, or briefly during lunch breaks. Historically, this freedom was experienced on the sabbath, or the day of rest. It was something holy.
Aside from this illumination of the tribulations suffered by the word “liberal”, Liberal Fascism also cast a little light on the word “fascism”:
The desire to destroy is a natural outgrowth of the cult of action. After all, if you are totally committed to revolutionary change, any boundaries you run into – the courts, the police, the rule of law – must be either converted, co-opted, or destroyed. All fascists are members of the cult of action. Fascism’s appeal was that it would get things done. Make the trains run on time, put people to work, get the nation on the move: these are sentiments sewn into the fiber of every fascist movement. The fascist state of mind can best be described as “Enough talk, more action!” Close the books, get out of the library, get moving. Take action! What kind of action? Direct action! Social action! Revolutionary action! Action, action, action.
Communists loved action too. That’s not surprising considering the family bonds between communism and fascism. But fascists valued action more. Communism had a playbook. Fascism had a hurry-up offense, calling its plays on the field… (p. 177)
Idle Theorists like me are, if anything, devotees of a cult of inaction: the sublime inaction of sitting in a pub with a pint of beer and a cigarette, gazing idly out of the window at the busy streets, vaguely thinking about nothing in particular. The fascistic antismokers who want to close down pubs, and stop people drinking and smoking, or gazing idly out of windows, are trying to rouse people to action, trying to get them to Do Something. So also the health and fitness fanatics with their jogging and their marathons and their satanic exercise machines: they are all trying to rouse people to action. Everyone must do something, even if what is being done is pointless and futile and self-destructive.
For if I have any vision of what is meant by progress, it is towards a free and easy and idle world, in which everyone is doing the things that they want to, rather than what some blustering bullying busybody wants them to do.