Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Not A Sermon: Thoughts on National Socialism

Note: This blog is my own. What I post here is my own, and does not represent the opinion or position of the church I serve. I imagine there may be strong disagreement with what I write here. Good. A healthy democracy requires vigorous debate, and questions raised.

The 45th President of the United States has been promising a combination of full employment, restricted markets, and concentrated capitalism, all under the stern direction of the executive power of the national government. The closest historical comparison that I can think of is National Socialism. This, of course, should be troubling. Allow me to review the comparison, and then at the end to touch on the President’s privileging of a nationalistic version of Christianity, which is also troubling.

During his campaign and into his first weeks in office we have watched the 45th President appeal to the fearful middle class by promising to bring back jobs, especially in the industrial sectors. We heard him promise to restrict the freedom of the market by enacting tariffs and protections and by subsidizing corporations that are friendly to the White House (and bullying those that are not). We saw him prove his loyalty to capitalism by populating his economic team with Goldman Sachs executives. We hear him repeat “America First” and “Make America Great Again.” The combination of strong nationalism with centralized capitalism, controlled markets, and full employment was tried before in the National Socialism (Nazism) of Germany. It was advocated elsewhere, as in the Netherlands, which had its own National Socialist party, the NSB.

National Socialism was not typical socialism. Unlike true socialism, the Nazi version allowed the means of production to remain private, in the hands of capitalist corporations. But these were corporations with close ties to the government. The market was free for them but not for everyone. What made the system seem socialist was that workers were promised employment, free enterprise was limited, and the production of the economy was directed by the government towards its centralized goals. And these goals were extremely nationalistic, while true socialism is typically internationalist.

Notice that I am putting aside all those personal comparisons of the 45th President to Adolf Hitler, not to mention racist ideology. I’m also putting aside those perhaps more telling comparisons of the 45th President to Orban of Hungary or Erdogan of Turkey or even Berlusconi of Italy. I’m rather looking at a new political-economic paradigm for the United States. I’m also putting aside the question of whether there are sufficient legal, political, and structural economic constraints on the 45th President’s policies eventually to frustrate his intentions.

I have friends who are correspondents in the US for foreign newspapers. I read some of their reports after the election. What stood out in the German reports was that the 45th President threatens the breakdown of the economic and political structures that had served both Europe and North America so well since the end of the Second World War. I’m thinking of Bretton Woods, the World Bank, the IMF, and NATO. These political and economic structures have been considered essential for the unprecedented prosperity and relative peace of the North Atlantic world.

Of course these structures have evolved, of course these structures maintained and even caused great exploitation, injustice, oppression, and destruction in other parts of the world, and of course these structures were intended to oppose and exclude the Communist nations. When the Soviet Union cast off its Communism, it looked like Russia might participate in the structures along with the other former Warsaw Pact nations. But ultimately Russia has worked against them. Is this the mutual appeal of the 45th President and Vladimir Putin to each other—that they provide each other allies not only against ISIS and China, but also against the post-War order?

In this Putinesque new president’s inaugural speech, he talked about other countries stealing our jobs. This falsehood would be absurd if it were not designed to divert attention from the real culprit. At best it’s like blaming the mistress for the infidelity of the husband, or worse, blaming the victim for being raped. It was the executives of our own corporations who moved their production to other countries for purely free-market reasons. The iron hand is what caused the underemployment and economic malaise that Hillary Clinton seemed deaf to but which the winner exploited to get to the White House. But as National Socialism requires the connivance of big corporations, it’s best to blame a scapegoat.

Capitalists prefer free markets. But free markets are not absolutely necessary to capitalists, not if the sovereign state offers a crony-capitalism of the kind that was practiced by the Nazis. It can work if the government compensates for the loss of free enterprise, for example, by funding an increase in arms production alongside consumer goods, and if the required resources can continually be secured (which is one of the reasons the Germans felt forced to go to war).

Should Christians be loyal to the post-War economic system that is now breaking down? Not necessarily, although the Putinesque alternative might be worse. Is National Socialism worse than Free-Market Capitalism? For that we need some input from voices from the Global South who know about the cruel damage our system has done outside of Europe and North America. I’m assuming that we should be against National Socialism if it requires a great increase in armaments production, but let’s not be hypocritical about the armaments production we’ve been doing all along.

Is National Socialism intrinsically illiberal? Racist? Propagandist? Totalitarian? Or was that only Hitlerian circumstance? Does it automatically co-opt religion? Can it hide behind the American prosperity gospel so favored by the 45th President? It is remarkable how openly the President privileges Christianity as the true American religion, and how eagerly this is welcomed by so many Evangelicals. I am mindful of how the Protestant churches of Germany accepted the Nazi scheme of German Christianity. Will Christians who erect American flags as sacred symbols in their Sunday sanctuaries oppose new laws against free speech and free expression? What all comes along with National Socialism?

A month before the November election my wife and I had a strange experience. We had secured a home equity loan, and a notary came to our apartment to do the closing. His name was Russian and his accent suggested that he was a recent immigrant. He conversed with us during the very long process of signing the staggering pile of documents that are generated by real estate transactions in New York. It naturally came out that my wife and I are both employed as pastors.

When we had finished signing, the notary advised us—as pastors—to vote against Hillary Clinton, because, if she won, she would outlaw religion and leave us unemployed. We tried to answer back, and he was adamant. He said that he knew the reality of socialism and we didn’t. He had lived under it, and he knew first hand. He told us that in just a few years Mrs. Clinton would take away our freedom of religion. As he got more heated in his admonitions we invited him to leave.

Not all socialism is the same. My immigrant grandfather was a Calvinist socialist from Amsterdam who loved Abraham Kuyper but who also joined a labor union in Paterson, New Jersey. There are Christian Socialist parties in Europe. I don’t consider Bernie Sanders a socialist---I think it’s more accurate to call him a social democrat. The Canadian NDP is a social democratic party, and its strongest root is Christian. I suspect that the historic internationalism of classic socialism feels congenial to one kind of Christian, and National Socialism feels more congenial to another. The jury is out. But judging by all that was said at the inauguration about God and God’s special relationship to America, to this kind of Christian, at least, the National Socialism of the 45th President is not very good news.

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