The Second World War, Fascism and Social Learning

The Second World War is an anomalous war insofar as it doesn’t easily fit into any standard international relations theory explanation. To explain the Second World War the most obvious tact is to turn to social psychology. Explanations about security or territorial gain make less sense than the idea that an entire nation was made a cult to a single man, Adolf Hitler. The problem to which the Allies set themselves and for which warfare was the solution was to destroy the madman and disabuse the citizenry of the captivated nation of their enthusiasm for him.

It is anomalous in that it is a war whose circumstances are unlikely to be repeated and hence the study of the large issues of the war offer few lessons to future generations. Looking forward from the war to today one finds little of use by way of general principle, but looking backward from the war is another story. One can see a number of modern developments converging to a nexus and culmination in the Second World War. The emergence of the nation-state, the view of the ruler as embodiment of the will and the wellbeing of the nation, the rise of mass communication and its opposite, the mass audience, the emergence of the mass movement.

Graham Robb in his recent and acclaimed The Discovery of France puts a pleasant, sentimental face on the story of how in Nineteenth Century, France underwent the transformation from parochial to mass society. One does not tell a similar story of Germany with the same quaint geniality. There it’s all Bismarck and blood and iron and Prussian militarism. The record of the Terror, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the words of The Marseillaise should give Francophiles pause.

The Second World War came about owing to the naivety of people in the face of the developments of mass society. The motivating ideas were still new and, at least from the standpoint of the majority, unblemished. With little experience with them, they could be embraced with great élan. And people accustomed to a more simple, intimate world were enchanted with technology and the scale of society. Their enthusiasm carried them away.

But nations learn and peoples have a historical memory. Around a historical experience a society will build a series of institutions, both official and unofficial or informal, they compose narratives that emphasize certain experiences or perspectives or ideal types over others and whose telling passes on certain values. The most outstanding example is that the First and Second World Wars seem to have legitimately taught the Western world something about the nature of industrialized great power war. One finds very little of that vitalist dialog about war being the health of the state or of soldiering as a proving ground and refinement of the manly virtues of honor, bravery, uprightness, et cetera, so common before those wars.

Another outstanding, if smaller scale example is peoples’ constant evolving immunity to new marketing strategies. It’s well observed within the advertising sector that a new advertising strategy has a shelf-life, after which people start to see through, tune out or even hate the particular tact on display. When the iTunes commercials, each featuring a really great song, first hit the airways I loved them. I downloaded each song and listened to it to death like I had been commanded by the group unconscious. And being so featured could make an upcoming artist. But as of Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song” in the ad for cable radio, I find it annoying. I’m still totally addicted to the song, but I have identified the tactic as a tactic and it has grown a little long in the tooth. I imagine that soon enough only the downscale marketers will use the tactic and rather than being a leg up for an artist, will be the kiss of death. Call it the anti-Thomas Frank thesis a la The Conquest of Cool: rather than giving the capitalist marketing machine an in, the nomadic nature of cool prevents it from ever getting too firm a foothold.

And so one of the positive outcomes of the Second World War is that people in the Western world have inoculated themselves against the tendencies of modernism that were once so captivating and allowed the likes of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini to transfix nations.

Everyone can smell propaganda when we’re exposed to it and the clumsiness of the grey-hairs in government and corporate bureaucracy tires us. Jokes to disarm any propaganda spring up almost immediately. Think here of how much humor was spawned by the “This is your brain on drugs” campaign. For us, new technologies are an entitlement: we’re not overawed by them, we expect them. And we’re all adept at using them so no one is about to get an asymmetric advantage. In fact, the early adopters tend to be subversives, with the bureaucracies of management only catching on too late. Some denigrate the internet as nothing but a medium for juvenile jokes, but juvenile jokes serve a public good: they cut down all the tall poppies. Witness the frustrations of the anti-war movement: we find the spectacle of mass demonstrations to be a snoozer today. Monumental architecture can impress, but we’re all familiar with big buildings by now and to some extent architecture has taken to making a mockery of itself. Increasingly monuments are seen not as reputation-enhancing but as another opportunity for a busybody clusterfuck.

The speed with which we denounce one another for fascist tendencies is perhaps not indicative of rhetorical laziness so much as a society in a heightened state of guard against fascist tendencies. And we are all policing each other every day, hoisting our widely accepted norm upon all minor deviations. Social satirists may refer to Goodwin’s law, Jonah Goldberg may decry the speed with which people (liberals in his book) reach for the fascist epithet and national greatness conservatives like David Brooks may decry what they call the coarsening of political debate, but cynicism, anti-joinership, a disinclination to take ideas seriously, obsession with the trivial (e.g. Hollywood) and a lack of civic capital are quite possibly the antibodies that our society has developed as an immunity against future fascism.

Which is not to say that we’ve got the authoritarian tendency beat. Our bulwarks against fascism were not intelligently designed. They are the result of a large number of experiments carried out by the disparate groups of society without any overarching design or intelligent coordination. A writer decides upon his next book, a teacher chooses a lesson plan, a producer chooses this script over that, coworkers at the water cooler opt for a particular rhetorical strategy in a political discussion. Through meme evolution in an environment shaped by the widespread encounter with fascism, some tendencies survive, strengthen and multiply, others wither. But the process is blind.

And just as people’s resistance to authoritarianism is learning and evolving, so the tactics of would-be authoritarians is evolving as well. They’re shouted down and humiliated in debates and, smarting, go home to hit the books and refine their rhetoric. Or having learned from numerous failed frontal assaults on the citadel, the tactic of a feint or a Trojan horse is adopted. Or the experiential environment shifts in the face of great events.

In some ways the very characteristics that inoculate us against fascism threaten to become the ones that could enable a renewed authoritarianism, more savvy to Twenty-First Century society. For instance, the widespread obsession with the trivial has allowed the Bush administration to fly beneath the radar on a lot of its authoritarian power grabs such as the abnegation of the Geneva Conventions, the attacks on the writ of habeas corpus, the advancement of the theory of the unitary executive, the proliferation of presidential signing statements and the packing of the Supreme Court with Article II worshiping justices. Media balkanization has allowed each team to have its own set of admissible facts and has enabled the return of the big lie, this time on a new foundation.

And so at least for now, in part owing to out knee-jerk tendency to resort to ad homonym attacks on anything bearing even a superficial resemblance to authoritarianism, we occupy a polity with a widespread and severely anti-authoritarian norm.