When Can Comparing Something to Nazis Actually Make Sense? Research Time, 19/11/2013

Watching American politics over the last five years, I saw a lot of spurious comparisons of Barack Obama to Hitler and his policies to those of Nazi Germany. These comparisons, saying that a marginally social democratic set of domestic policies and doubling down on the surveillance state constituted genuine Nazism, and that his speaking style was Hitlerian, were utterly offensive nonsense that in most cases revealed the underlying racism of the accuser, or at least their woeful ignorance of what actual Nazism was. 

That said, when one actually investigates and explores the governmental structures of totalitarian regimes, then you can make legitimate comparisons to Nazism. Arendt discusses several features of Nazi German politics that have been mentioned in my other research. Focus on these features can, at least semi-plausibly, allow one to describe some facet of modern politics as Nazism and be technically correct.

One aspect of that is Nazi environmental policies and the underlying philosophy. Nazi philosophy conceived of the movement as thoroughly anti-humanist, abandoning the politics of humanitarianism and the need for human welfare (whether that welfare was provided by direct government intervention or through a smoothly functioning marketplace). 

Luc Ferry was minister of education in the government of
Jacques Chirac and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, 2002-4. My distrust
of philosophers who become electoral politicians is borne
out once again.
In its place was a notion that Nazi politics followed, as Arendt terms, “the laws of nature and life.” Practically, these were the race-based eugenics that scientifically justified their horrifying social policies. However, justifying political policy as conforming with nature’s laws does continue today in some facets of the environmentalist movement. The importance of following natural laws ranking above human concerns is a reason why the liberal humanist philosopher Luc Ferry wrote his book, The New Ecological Order in the 1990s about how environmentalism was inevitably fascist, and the environmentalist political movement should be destroyed. His idea was that to say human concerns should be, in many cases, subordinate to the overall health of ecosystems meant that humans would no longer be allowed to choose their paths in life. He thought the politics of ecosystems constituted a zero-sum game between humanity and nature, and that if you were a democrat, you had to side with humanity.

And the Nazi party used rhetoric about following the laws of nature to justify their destruction of democratic processes and ordinary social bonds. They instituted protected species policies, even if those species were only protected because their symbolism was important to their image of a triumphant German race. They certainly ignored those protections when they were losing the war and preparing to destroy all of Germany themselves, part of their own zero-sum politics of total victory or total annihilation. 

But there are key differences between environmentalist politics and Nazism. I can’t believe I actually had to write that sentence, but the mere existence of Ferry’s book means that I have to. The argument exists, can be found and read, and has the credibility of a leading French intellectual and politician having written it. Most adults in power today have the advantage of not having experienced actual totalitarian regimes. It means they’ve probably led less horrifying lives, but it also means that it’s more difficult to understand the true magnitude of totalitarian horror itself, which dwarfs any possibility of legitimate analogy with modern politics.

The most important difference, for me philosophically, is that environmentalism, at least the best environmentalism, doesn’t understand the humanity/nature conflict as a zero-sum game. My own ecophilosophy manuscript finds theorists who think this way, and I join them myself. Choosing, as a society, not to carry out certain activities that are ecologically harmful does not denigrate human freedom. It’s an articulation of human freedom, understanding that we have the power to change our own lives for the better. 

Not only that, but modern science is more effective. The Nazis based their race and natural preservation laws on eugenic theories: the superiority of the Aryan race and its natural springs in the Black Forest. But this is junk science, because race isn’t biological; it’s a social construction that gained political power when it was used to justify European imperialism overseas and the practice of enslaving African people. Social constructions have real effects, but they’re also within human power to change by will. 

When we start to think of race as ‘being racialized,’ being illegitimately treated as if you were defined by a series of stereotypical judgments connected with race, we begin that process of change. Our biological science today is based on the actual processes that constitute life, like metabolism, protein synthesis, DNA recombination, and the chaos mathematics that describe ecological dynamics. Environmentalism that embraces the principles of our much-improved science is a democratic movement. That Ferry’s screed of a book can still be cited as a source to disparage environmentalism as a new Nazism in disguise irks me profoundly.

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