Yale Magrass and Charles Derber’s latest book is called Glorious Causes: The Irrationality of Capitalism, War, and Politics. I hope people are reading it. I worry, because after Mom, apple pie, and shopping, what are more popular than capitalism, war, and politics? Probably not . . . oh, I don’t know . . . analyses of the similarities between the histories of Nazi Germany and the United States. Those are in this book too, and are probably the most interesting parts of it.
In the book’s defense, it is part of a series called “Universalizing Resistance,” and it focuses a lot on the same cultural divide between educated, rational cosmopolitans and traditional, irrational racists that the Democrats spent a fair amount of time blaming after the last time they nominated the least popular presidential candidate they could find.
Yet, I’m sorry to say, Magrass and Derber don’t stop with excuses for neoliberal corporatists but point out those politicians’ double failure, their “irrational rationality.” That is, if you’re not going to offer people religion or racism or patriotism or genocide, and you’re ALSO not going to actually deliver for them a higher standard of living, a cleaner environment, better schools and healthcare, a safer retirement, or peace, then people’s support for you is going to be weak and wavering.
Magrass and Derber look at Reconstruction following the U.S. Civil War, the cultural divide of Weimar Germany in the 1920s, the Denazification of Germany after WWII, and the cultural split in the United States of the 1960-70s and today. The Union occupation of the U.S. South did not undo the culture of slavery, in part because there was no significant anti-racist culture in the South to be supported. In contrast, there were latent and fearful anti-Nazi tendencies in Germany that expanded greatly upon Nazi defeat in the war. I might add that the U.S. never tried to turn the South against war, only to reintegrate it into an expanding empire, whereas the imposition of laws against war on Germany and Japan became proudly owned parts of the local culture. (I do wish the authors had not included Afghanistan with Vietnam and Iraq as an example of an occupation-imposed government falling as soon as the occupation ended, since the occupation of Afghanistan — like that of Germany and Japan — has not yet ended.)
Hitler’s rhetoric and politics opposed modernity, free thought, and equal rights, preferring throwbacks to feudalism and the glory of war. The Nuremberg prosecutions claimed to take the opposite view, even as the U.S. government devoted itself to the glory of world domination. The U.S. public was divided over the question of war during the war on Vietnam, and eventually the movement against the war on Vietnam was divided over the question of violence, with advocates for violence not understanding the extent to which they were supporting the other side. Some — of course, not all — of the complexities and variations in these stories can be found in the book, but the authors do not shy away from generally unacceptable broad-brush comparisons:
“Just as German elites turned to Hitler to crush the Weimar Left, American elites embraced Reagan in the hope that he would bring traditionalists to accept their diminished standard of living and make cosmopolitan Leftists and hippies irrelevant.”
The use of militarism, war, and other destructive public policies to distract from unpleasant domestic situations is well-known to peace activists as one of numerous factors leading to war, factors that include bases, weapons, profits, resource extraction, electoral calculations, lusts for power, media influence, corruption, and that little concept in this book’s title: glory.
Trump is more blatant than Ronald Reagan, more narcissistic, more anti-intellectual, more openly hateful and fascistic, but he builds on steps laid down for him by Reagan, as well as by the Bushes, not to mention Clinton, Obama, and the U.S. media and public. Magrass and Derber argue that Reagan holds a special place as the key step toward Trump, and highlight their similarities: their claiming of the glorious cause of white “civilization,” their cynical allegiance to evangelical Christians, their super-power militarism, their oligarchic Wall Street capitalism, and their role as Great Leader. Among the many differences, of which the authors are aware, of course, is that the establishment opposition to Trump has been hyper-militarist and has dishonestly depicted him as anti-war. Thus, four years of Trump ends with widespread disgust for plutocracy, corruption, racism, sexism, nepotism, sadism, and incompetence, but greater identification of modern advancement with, not just science, but also authority and warmongering.
While Derber and Magrass conclude the introduction to their book with the advice that the left should appeal to people’s emotions, not just to their material needs, the authors not only recognize in the book that the left has managed to appeal to neither of the two, but also conclude the book with a chapter on the potential of a New Deal or Green New Deal program to bring people, not only away from hateful, provincial traditionalism, but also to an anti-militarism not often advocated for by most of the progressive politicians and organizations who support a Green New Deal.
The authors’ case that Europe has moved to peace through socialism is, I think, weakened by Europe’s support for NATO and wars. Italy just flew fighter jets over Assisi to honor St. Francis for f— sake. Here is the full list of European nations that have ratified the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons: Austria, Ireland, Liechtenstein, The Vatican, Malta. But there can be no doubt that shifting U.S. public resources and energy and emotions from endless war to sustainable infrastructure would make us all safer and in many ways make it easier to continue that process further in the same direction.
I agree with Magrass and Derber that the peace movement is key, but worry about how fast it can grow. The chief hurdle is not public attraction to retrograde glory but government corruption, and the absence of public attraction to an enlightened vision of lasting peace and prosperity. Unless we build a passionate fact-based and emotion-based movement to abolish war, we’re unlikely to overcome the cycling back and forth between the empowerment of pathetic neoliberals and that of increasingly audacious neoconservatives.