Friday, February 08, 2008
Obama, fascist Everyman
He seems to come close to saying it, but then backs away. So I will.
One of Barack Obama's major campaign themes is the promise that he will "unite" America. Obama is an incredibly skillfull campaigner, so I must assume that he wouldn't be pushing this trope unless there were good reason to believe that it works. Of course, Obama is far from the only politician to promise unity. Remember when George W. Bush promised that he would be a "uniter, not a divider"? That was a fairly successful campaign theme too.
This emphasis on unity for its own sake seems misplaced. After all, unity is really valuable only if we are united in doing the right thing. Being united in doing the wrong thing is surely worse than being divided, if only because division reduces the
likelihood of the harmful policies being enacted. And even if the policies proposed by the would-be "uniter" really are beneficial, it's not clear why broad unity in support of them is preferable to just having enough votes to get them passed.
I think it works because most people have a fascist streak. (I actually believe "people have a fascist streak"; "most" is just a weasel word. If you're insistent on claiming that you have no fascist impulses, feel free to exclude yourself from the rest of society, you enemy of the state.)
Before we go any further, let's carefully define fascism. Wikipedia defines Fascism as:
As a more general definition (so we can move beyond the purely political spheres), I'll define fascism (note change in capitalization) as
the belief that the individual is subordinate to the interests of the collective.
I think you can see how wiki's definition of Fascism is just my defintion of fascism applied to the political sphere.
Even though I'm a libertarian, I can conceive of situations where the collective should trump the individual, actions during the heat of battle being the most prominent example with any situation which is significantly complex and dependent on coordinated action potentially being an attractive candidate for fascism.
Even though individualism (which I'll define as the opposite of fascism - the interests of the individual should trump the interests of the collective) is a core value of the US (and people in general), so is fascism. The notion that the individual is subordinate to the collective has occured throughout US history even at our inception (see "United we stand, divided we fall." which was a fascist argument applied to the states) and obviously occuring during times of war. This also occurs in boardrooms where great value is placed on "reaching a consensus" and a lot in our every day life (see team sports and family activities). And of course it occurs in the political realm as well ("We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good" or the various implied sentiments of if you don't do X you're not a patriot/the terrorists will win). While those last two examples may not be indicative of the value of fascism, there are so many situations where the fascist belief is beneficial because coordinated action is actually preferable to individual action that I think it's reasonable to assume that a predisposition towards fascism has been bred into us from fascist tribes outbreeding / killing off individualistic tribes.
So what's the deal with fascism then? Why is it such a loaded word that I'm certain Godwin's law will hold in the comments? In my mind, fascism only works when its degree and implementation are properly tailored to the spheres in which it is being applied/considered and when this isn't done, really bad things happen.
To consider when fascism might make sense, I think one should address the following issues:
- How much more is consensus valued over individualism (valuing the individual over the collective)? There's benefits and costs associated with both.
- To what spheres of life should this principle apply?
- What to do with those who oppose consensus?
- At what level of consensus does unity become more valuable than individualism?
On implementation/degree issues with fascisms, consider various past mechanisms for dealing with those who oppose consensus. Execution is certainly used, but is almost always excessive (I think that execution can make sense on a battlefield when it's literally a matter of life or death) as well as ostracism (which was more severe when actual ostraka were used). I'm a big believer in the value of shame (or "churching" to a Baptist) so I at least think there are situations and mechanisms acceptable for enforcing community over individual. Of course there's excessive situations and mechanisms as well (think pogroms or most cliqueish behavior). So a key problem of fascism is that enforcement mechanisms need to be carefully tailored so the value of unity is not outweighed by the costs incurred by punishing those who deviate from the community.
Imperfect information is also a problem. By this I'm generally referring to situations where it is difficult to assess if the person being punished actually worked against the collective will. Imperfect information strongly impacts the efficacy of enforcement as erroneously assigning punishments can outweigh the fascist benefits and can even break down the entire collective if done erroneously enough (oddly enough, this was a topic in my dissertation, but as applied to punishment schemes to get individual radios to act in the interests of the network). Imperfect information is a key reason why we discourage vigilantism. As the world is always a noisy imperfect place, it is important to ensure that punishment is appropriately matched to the scenario (e.g., battlefield versus wearing the right clothes to school) and to the level of certainty.
Likewise there are certain spheres where it's just impossible to apply fascist enforcement mechanisms in a way that don't outweigh the benefits and spheres where consensus holds no intrinsic value. For instance, I think the fascist calculus is impossible in the economic sphere as people's utility functions are time-varying and not well known to themselves and there's just way to many interactions to manage and too much highly localized information. This is why collective decisions about the economy inevitably underperform individual decisions - the sphere simply does not have enough quality information to make intelligent decisions that the entire populace should conform to.
An example of a sphere where consensus holds no intrinsic value is science where what should matter is what models/theories make verifiably correct predictions, not how many people believe X to be true. (This is why I'm am completely unpersuaded by "consensus" in the AGW debate. FYI, we've come down from having much more sea ice than normal and have about leveled out at the average line for the last few weeks. Also note that there's no particular value to individualism either in science.) You can quickly conceive of numerous other places where unity holds little to no particular value (e.g., dress, sexual mores) where the default position should be one of individualism (actually I think the default position should always be individualism barring a very compelling case for fascism, but then again, I'm a libertarian).
So when Obama makes calls for unity, it is not surprising that it resonates with people because at its heart its a call for fascism (unity over division; collective over individual) and we're all fascists and there's lots of situations where fascism makes sense. Conservatives are fascists; liberals are fascists; and to a certain extent so are libertarians. Pretty much only anarcho-capitalists are not fascists - but even them I'm not so certain as the ones I've met have seemed at the least cliqueish. So we all exhibit certain fascist sympathies though the spheres of application and mechanisms for implementation vary from person to person.
However, as Ilya points out, Obama is not unusual in his calls for unity, so why has he been so successful in his calls for unity? In my opinion, Obama's relative success, is due in part (he's also a hell of a speaker) to his lack of specifics (at least on the stump). By avoiding specifics, each person assumes that the unity being called for is the specific unity they crave in the sphere in which they hold fascist tendencies and that this unity will be enforced via the mechanisms they think are appropriate. Because of this, Obama is a fascist Everyman while the remaining candidates are just fascists.