Michael Howard’s Liberation or Catastrophe (Reflections on the History of the Twentieth Century) is bracing. I find myself disagreeing with the thrust of his political interpretation but edified by his historical perspective, which reflects a broad reading of philosophical and literary texts.
Xenophobia, an inclination to violence, a pleasure in humiliating others, the desire to find security from a hostile world in one’s own group or tribe or gang with its own initiation processes and symbols and necessary enemies, all these are features common to all mankind (though not of corse womankind) as schoolboys know very well. We are all born Fascists, and have to be expensively educated out of it. And when all the structures of civil society painfully built up over generations disintegrate, whether through sudden catastrophe or gradual erosion, it is to these habits that we naturally return.
It’s difficult to disagree, though hard to accept, Howard’s ‘born Fascist’ theme. His analysis of the roots of Fascism and the challenges posed by a modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society is excellent.
As for the West, we know our situation far too well to believe that the Enlightenment has yet solved the problems it has created and that history for us has come to the end. Andre Gidé said something to the effect that ‘to free oneself is only a beginning. The real problem is to know how to live in liberty’; a discovery being made today by the populations of the former communist countries. A prison is also a kind of home. In the West, intellectuals may have become used to living in the godless world explored by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in the last century, Heidegger and Sartre is this. But the social effects are only now beginning to be widely felt, of a world in which people are left entirely free to create and live by their own values, with neither traditional authority nor religious beliefs to guide them. We do now worry too much so long as, for most of the population, liberal capitalism continues quite literally to deliver the goods, in quantities and of a quality undreamed of by our forbears. But it liberal capitalism were to fail, as has its rival communism, we know what would be the likely alternative.