Fascist Dictator Mussolini adopting typically grandiose posture
After the scrapping of Clause 4, the section of the Labour party’s constitution committing it to nationalisation, Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ government was hailed by many as the expression of the new pragmatism in politics. With ministers drawn from outside as well within the Labour party itself, New Labour was celebrated for its empirical approach to politics. Instead of following the dictates of ideology, the party was instead formulating policies and appointing personnel according to what worked. Just as Francis Fukuyama described the new political era ushered in by the Fall of Communism as the ‘end of history’, so there was a tendency to describe Blair’s government almost as the ‘end of ideology’. This type of rhetoric resembled some of the attitudes adopted by Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship when it seized power in the 1920s.
19th and early 20th century Reformist Social Democrat politicians had believed that society and history proceeded by fixed laws, laws that were leading to the inevitable triumph of socialism. In their defence and advancements of socialism, the British Fabians, for example, who strenuously rejected Marx’s doctrine of the Class War, argued that Socialism was merely the continuation and expansion of existing government policies interfering with and regulating the economy. Sidney Webb, who with his wife, Beatrice, was one of the founders and leading Fabian intellectuals, wrote
The practical man, oblivious or contemptuous of any theory of the social organism or general principles of social organisation, has been forced, by the necessities of the time, into an ever-deepening collectivist channel. Socialism, of course, he still rejects and despises. The individualist town councillor will walk along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas, and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water, and seeing, by the municipal clock in the municipal market, that he is too early to meet his children coming from the municipal school, hard by the county lunatic asylum and municipal hospital, will use the national telegraph system to tell them not to walk through the municipal park, but come by the municipal tramway, to meet him in the municipal reading-room, by the municipal art gallery, museum, and library, where he intends to consult some of the national publications in order to prepare his next speech in the municipal town hall, in favour of the nationalisation of canals and the increase of Government control over the railway system. ‘Socialism, Sir,’ he will say, ‘Don’t waste the time of a practical man by your fantastic absurdities. Self-help, Sir, individual self-help, that’s what’s made our city what it is’.
Sydney Webb, Socialism in England, quoted in E.C. Midwinter, Victorian Social Reform (Longman: Harlow 1968) p. 94.
This idea of slow progress leading to the gradual victory of Socialism seemed to be shattered by the reality of the First World War. This seemed to show that all such ideologies of historical laws of gradual progress were wrong. To the activists and intellectuals that formed part of Mussolini’s Fascists, the War instead showed that history was made through will. As a result, Fascism vigorously promoted itself as the first movement that was no constrained by ideology or values. Some non-Fascist Italian intellectuals were initially favourable to them because of this. It seemed to look past the political stalemates that had occurred in the Italian parliament through the conflicts between the different political groups.
Adrian Lyttleton in his book The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929(London: George Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd 1987, describes the situation thus
The interventionist intellectuals conceived of the war as an assertion of will and energy in defiance of the supposed ‘laws’ of historical development. ‘The world war has destroyed the ideology of progress as a slow ordered succession of events and institutions … it has destroyed the bourgeois, reformist, evolutionist conception.’ In the postwar period, activism ceased to be merely an intellectual fashion and became a widespread state of mind. The confusion and dissatisfaction with all existing ideologies had become acute. While other parties appeared to deny the existence of a crisis of values, Fascism not only recognized by glorified it. Mussolini’s attitude of tough-minded pragmatism, his claim to have seen through and ‘transcended’ the old ideologies, appeal to may intellectuals. They celebrated Fascism as the end of ideology, as the first realistic political movement free from both moral and intellectual preconceptions, one in which practice would precede and form values instead of the other way round. Fascism taught the value of Negative Thinking. There were echoes here of Nietzsche’s ‘transvaluation of values’; the Fascist felt himself to be the superman freed from conventional moral restraints, and this helped him to act with confidence and ruthlessness. (p. 367).
Regardless of the rhetoric surrounding Blair’s government as indicating the end of ideology, Blair was not, unlike the Fascists, a moral nihilist. He did not reject all systems of morality nor celebrate force and violence. Indeed, he was always keen to promote some kind of moral reason for his actions and policies, some of which, like the invasion of Iraq, were indeed highly questionable. Nor can the Blair regime be seen as inaugurating the ‘end of ideology’. Blair’s New Labour did not reject ideology – it just rejected traditional socialism in favour of Neo-Liberalism. They still retained some belief in social justice and state interference in the economy for the good of society, but this was to be kept at a minimum. Following Thatcher, who gave her official endorsement of Blair when she met him at 10 Downing Street after his election, private enterprise was regarded as the foremost solution to the problems of the economy and society. This attitude has continued to inform politics after Blair’s departure. It underlies Brown’s management of the economy, and now, in a far purer and more extreme form, that of the Coalition.
I don’t, however, believe that the Neo-Liberal consensus has meant the end of ideology. The vast majority of the population, for example, do not want the privatisation of the NHS. Nor did they wish for the privatisation of the Post Office when this was mooted by New labour. Furthermore, as Mike has pointed out, there is considerable support for the renationalization of the railways and the utilities. What has changed is not so much the opinions of the electorate, but that of the governing political elites. And this is leading to a crisis of faith in politics. Increasing numbers are not voting, because they see little difference between the parties. These particularly include the young, the poor, the unemployed and disabled, who believe that there is no point in voting, as none of the parties are interesting in doing anything for them. This has not led to a revolt, whether of the Left, like the Communists, or the Right, like the Fascists. But it is corroding democracy in this country. If we are not careful, it will lead to the emergence of a managerial, technocratic elite, who govern without a mandate and whose policies do not reflect the will of the electorate, even more so than the Coalition at present.