Alberto Mingardi  

Towards a descriptive use of the term "national socialism"?

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Anne Applebaum has written a very important piece, a few days ago on The Washington Post. Building on the recent Austrian presidential election, won by the Green candidate with a handful of votes against the "far right" one, she wonders how the latter should be described and points out that a fair description would actually be: national socialist.

The term has been used in a very - let's say - derogatory sense since 1945. But Applebaum is too smart and sensible to mean that Mr Hofer, the "far right" candidate, is an epigone of Adolf Hitler.

By national socialism I don't mean Hitler, and I'm not talking about the Holocaust. I don't even mean fascism, although of course we could eventually get there. I'm talking instead about a political philosophy which combines "nationalism" -- a strong belief in the significance or even superiority of one's own ethnic group or nation-state -- with "socialism," the belief that the state should intervene very heavily in the national economy, and maybe in other realms, too.
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More often than not, these candidates are called "populist", or "far right wingers". I sense that Applebaum fears that this is an easy game, on the part of left-wing commentators, to associate those people with "neoliberalism" (the bogeyman of the day, though the word is very ambiguous and I for one never quite understand what it is meant by it). But the likes of Mr Hofer or Marine Le Pen in France or Matteo Salvini in Italy actually despise neoliberalism, in the broad sense of reforms aiming at opening the economy, free trade, liberalisations.

Applebaum observes:

For most of the past half-century, hard nationalism and state-dominated economics were not linked. No longer: All across Europe, the parties that used to be known as "far right" are rapidly remodeling themselves, adopting policy and language that once would have sounded Marxist. Marine Le Pen's National Front party now holds annual rallies on May 1, the old international socialists' holiday. At these events, she also attacks "neoliberal" policies and "globalized elites." In their place, she wants a "muscular state," which taxes imports, advocates protectionism and nationalizes foreign companies and banks.

I think the same is actually true on the left side of the political spectrum. Relatively free movement of capital makes the work of the welfare-regulatory state all the more difficult, calling for international cooperation to effectively ban or regulate some business practices. Relatively free movement of people, on the other hand, weakens the legitimacy of the welfare state. Europeans (but I would guess Americans, too) tend to grow suspicious of giving away the same kind of welfare benefits they enjoy to new comers in their own country. People tend to think immigration fluxes are bigger than they are, sure, but in this way they tend to develop a genuine fear over the financial sustainability of welfare arrangements. In most of Europe, demography is what makes the welfare state all the more demanding, in terms of tax contributions. But the fact that people who do not belong to "our" national community may benefit from it, is what makes it look all the more "unfair" in the eyes of many.

I don't want to suggest that these concerns are necessarily well pondered: but they are there. Left wing parties are currently torn apart between the ambition of integrating immigrants in the current welfare system, aiming to make them "welfare dependents" and therefore in theory more disciplined voters, and the need to keep their ideology totem, the welfare state, in shape. Calls for "global social justice" seems to have very little appeal for people. If you look at it sympathetically, this is a political transposition of sentiment Adam Smith pointed our long time again: we tend to care more about people we know and we identify with, than about people we do not perceive as similar to us.

One possible criticism of Applebaum is that, in practical political choices, in the past the "right" has never quite abandoned nationalism that sharply. But indeed, if you think about their rhetoric, we have had many examples of parties that, though upholding "national values" or favouring, for example, a strong military (a kind of natural consequence of nationalism), at least paid lip service to an open economy. Now no longer.

So, the nationalists are going to be more socialist, because they want to vindicate the power of the nation state in taking control of the national economy, and the socialists are going to be more nationalist, because strengthening regulation and advancing redistribution is all the more difficult in supranational arrangements, where a cooperative understanding is seldom reached.

I think the diagnosis is fair; I couldn't make a prognosis. But I fear there is a symmetric problem for libertarians. If we take Applebaum's points seriously, as we should, we are put in a very awkward position: which is defending the status quo, made of relatively free international trade plus relatively weak supranational institutions, as the least bad of all possible worlds. And yet libertarians are highly critical of the status quo and won't feel well in the company of the current global elites.

At any rate, it is useful to call things by their proper name. "National socialism", in this case.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Scott Sumner writes:

Excellent post!

J Mann writes:

Here's Kevin Williamson on that point last year.

http://www.nationalreview.com/article/421369/bernie-sanders-national-socialism

JBinNH writes:

What bugs me particularly is that these movements are being called "far right" (e.g. by "The Economist"). That's historically blind. The real "far right" would be quite different. Consider the "Throne and Altar" supporters of the old monarchies, for example.

Le Pen and the others are not 'far right' and it is misleading to call them by that term.

Miguel Madeira writes:

«What bugs me particularly is that these movements are being called "far right" (e.g. by "The Economist"). That's historically blind. The real "far right" would be quite different. Consider the "Throne and Altar" supporters of the old monarchies, for example.»

It will? I think that, today, "throne and altar" monarchists are much different - look to the Movement pour la France, of the Viscount Philipe de Villier; in these points it is not much different from the FN: it is also protectionist in economics, anti-immigration, eurosceptic, etc.

Miguel Madeira writes:

«I think that, today, "throne and altar" monarchists are much different»

Correction: «I think that, today, "throne and altar" monarchists are not much different»

ThaomasH writes:

There are many sensible things here, but Mingardi had to throw in a canard.

Left wing parties are currently torn apart between the ambition of integrating immigrants in the current welfare system, aiming to make them "welfare dependents" and therefore in theory more disciplined voters, and the need to keep their ideology totem, the welfare state, in shape.

The aim of non-xenophobes in integrating immigrants is so they can contribute to society economically and in other ways, a win-win. It is Right that see immigration as a zero -sum game.

That making recipients of assistance "welfare dependants" is an aim of the "Left" is a figment of the Right's imagination. fruit, I suppose, of never having had a conversation with anyone from the "Left." Now it is possible that a guy from the "Right" and a gal from the "Left" may have different estimates of the difference in the change in labor force participation resulting from a particular kind of assistance and the guy from the right may think that the result of measure x will be less labor force participation and more "dependency," that the "Leftist" does, but that does not mean that the "Left's" AIM is to reduce labor force participation.

Robert writes:

"libertarians. If we take Applebaum's points seriously, as we should, we are put in a very awkward position: which is defending the status quo, made of relatively free international trade plus relatively weak supranational institutions, as the least bad of all possible worlds."

Exactly! And this is why I'll be voting for the UK to remain in the EU in two weeks' time, despite recognising the great many problems there are with the EU.

Ralph Musgrave writes:

The author of the above article does not need to apologise for allegedly not understanding what “neoliberalism” means. As the author rightly points out, the word is the “bogeyman of the day”. That’s it. Apart from that, the word is almost meaningless. To be more exact, lefties just love long important sounding words, and repeating them ad nausiam.

Floccina writes:
«What bugs me particularly is that these movements are being called "far right"

They should be called stern authoritarians and the left charitable authoritarians.

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