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No Cheers for Authoritarianism
Remind me what it was, exactly ....
A few months ago, when readership of this site was a fraction of what it is now, I wrote something about “authority” and the current distrust of it. Briefly, I argued that the word (coming from the same root as “author” by the way) meant in effect a person or source who could be relied on for correct and useful knowledge and advice. It was thus a useful concept.
It should logically follow, then, that an “authoritarian” political system is one in which those who have the “authority” that comes from ability, knowledge or experience should be in positions of power. And indeed historically, from the “virtuous ruler” of Confucian tradition and the fantasy-rule of Plato’s Guardians up to almost the present day, the idea that ruling is difficult and you need highly qualified and skilled people to do it, has been deeply entrenched. (Indeed, you can argue that a debased form of this is pretty much the unacknowledged mindset of the western political class and the PMC even today.)
But I want to explore a slightly different topic today. From “authority” has come the word “authoritarian,” which is generally seen to refer a bad thing. But that term itself poses certain difficulties. First, as is normal with today’s political vocabulary, no two pundits can agree what it means, nor which countries and which figures should be described as “authoritarian.” Second, and perhaps more interestingly, no state and no political leader that I am aware of claims this title for themselves. An “authoritarian system” (usually a “régime”) is one which is described as such by western politicians and pundits, usually without explaining what they mean by the word.
But it gets more intriguing when these states or political figures that we describe as “authoritarian” are then placed in opposition to”democracy,” sometimes to “liberal democracy” or even to “freedom.” And I’ve lost track of the number of articles I’ve glanced at recently that present the great political competition of the twenty-first century as between “authoritarian” and “democratic” states. (I’d just add that if that is really the competition, then it’s pretty much over already, and the “democratic” states have lost.) The Ukraine crisis has given extra life to this meme: the increasing political isolation of the Global West, together with its economic weakness, have created the idea that there is somehow a cohesive “authoritarian” bloc out there, of states and rulers who Don’t Like the West, and with which the West is necessarily in conflict. Now as I’ve pointed out before, such attempts to divide the world neatly into friends and enemies are hopelessly naive as a statement of how things actually work. There is nothing particularly bringing Russia, China, India and Iran together, expect that they fear the power and the objectives of the West, and that the West dislikes and distrusts them. Countries that see a common threat have a tendency to band together to protect their collective self-interest, and that’s what we’re seeing here.
But why make an ideological issue out of it? Why lead people to suppose that there is an Authoritarian International somewhere, with annual meetings and ideological strategy sessions, when there is no “authoritarian” ideology in the first place, but only a series of convergent (but not identical) interests? Why not simply accept that countries that the West dislikes and has tried to hurt will feel a natural common interest in getting together? I suspect we are back to the old Them and Us routine.
I suggested last week, inter alia, that it was unhelpful to follow Carl Schmitt’s suggestion that the basic political question is “who is my enemy?” But it is true nonetheless that, at the international level, this is a question which is very frequently asked: not necessarily in the formal, bellicose, sense, but rather in the sense of “Who do I define myself against?” and “Whose interests conflict with mine?” For many (if by no means all) political systems, Them and Us is the fundamental international dynamic. You can’t understand the break-up of Yugoslavia, for example, without understanding the historical Serb belief that We Are the Victims of History, with the whole world against us, we are always on the losing side. Likewise, the Croats defined themselves by not really being part of the Balkans at all, but symbolically, as one diplomat from the region said to me “about a thousand kilometres to the north-west.” Them and Us.
Then there are countries for whom much, or even the whole of the outside world is essentially a threat. Prussia, for example, had no natural frontiers and could be overwhelmed by a coordinated attack from East and West. Russia had a history of looking to the West with justified fear and suspicion. China, the “kingdom in the middle of the world” was historically afraid of barbarian invasions from all quarters. But whilst nationalism, and fear of, and a sense of superiority towards, foreigners, are still very much alive and well, that’s clearly not the whole of the issue, and it doesn’t really explain why our opinion-formers are so keen to divide the world into Us Democrats and Them Authoritarians. The answer, I think, has essentially to do with ideology, but not in the sense you might expect.
Them and Us has historically often been an ideology based on race (Aryans vs. Slavs for example), but these days the idea of irreconcilable racial differences is pretty much limited to some university departments in western countries, and parts of the PMC media. In general, what we are talking about here is the tendency to divide the world into irreconcilable groups (usually two) based on acceptance or rejection of a particular ideology. In the beginning, these ideologies were religious, and it can be plausibly argued that Christianity was the first ideology to divide people in this way (Judaism was originally polytheistic, but claimed a special relationship with only one god, which is a slightly different thing). Bart Ehrman haș plausibly argued that Christianity made such progress in the Roman Empire because it told a single coherent story of creation, death, heaven and hell which applied to everyone, whether they wanted it or not, and promised an apocalyptic ending to history in the near future. You couldn’t agree to differ with a Christian, and say “you worship your god I’ll worship mine”, because Christianity was a totalising (one might say authoritarian) system of belief.
The same is true, of course, of all monotheistic religions, or for that matter all universalising philosophies. We see it in the early Islamic jurisprudential distinction between the Dar-al-Islam (the “Abode of Islam”) and the Dar-al-Harb (the “Abode of War.”) Although these distinctions were greatly nuanced and qualified with the passing of the centuries, modern Islamic fundamentalism has in effect revived them, in a particularly stark form.
And of course such religions did not remain unitary for very long. Christianity and Islam were both plagued with doctrinal disputes from the beginning, often linked to political ambitions and the sheer difficulty of holding together a complex system of religious belief over an extended territory (the Roman and Greek Orthodox Churches are the best-known example.) But the corollary of a religion based on doctrine rather than on ritual (as in principle all previous ones had been) is that there was only one correct doctrine, and anyone who differed from you was not simply your enemy but God’s as well. In the case of Christianity, this led ultimately to the Reformation, which rivals the French Revolution as the event of the last millennium with the farthest-reaching implications, some of which are still being felt today.
The Reformation wasn’t at bottom a doctrinal dispute or a philosophical debate; it was an existential choice upon which depended the eternal souls of millions of people. Either God was right, or God was right. Either the Bible was correct or the Bible was correct. Everything depended on interpretation. Either the Catholic Church had been established by God or it hadn’t. There were no half-measures and no compromises possible. For all the cynicism and opportunism of the Thirty Years’ War, the conflict itself was animated by a stark, fundamental, zero-sum clash of ideas: choose the right side and you would go to Heaven, choose the wrong one and you would go to Hell. Intellectuals like John Donne (born a Catholic) agonised for years before converting, as did Gerard Manley Hopkins (born a Protestant) more than two centuries later. Even today, in a world of formal unbelief, everybody understands the difference between a country that is “culturally Catholic” and one that is “culturally Protestant.”
In principle, though, any universalising system of thought is subject to these problems. The great intellectual edifice of Soviet Marxist-Leninism is not much studied today, which is a shame, because it has exactly the all-embracing, dualistic, teleological components typical of religions. It had a complex and detailed materialist interpretation of history, which was alleged to be objectively true, and a clear understanding of how the world would, eventually and ineluctably, finally develop. Although in the West we are more familiar with the diffuse ideology of anti-Communism, in fact the Us and Them ideology, of a world split into two antagonistic and irreconcilable camps, was a great deal stronger and more influential in Moscow. (Which reminds us, of course, that Communism had its schisms as well.)
Liberalism, as I have pointed out many times, is a universalising philosophy, or at least a philosophy with pretensions to be universal. The problem is that it has very little real intellectual content, and within that content very little real consistency. Compared to Christianity or Islam, or for that matter to Marxism, there is very little organised and coherent thought, and there are many divergent currents of opinion as well, some of which would not recognise others as “liberal” at all. Now it could be argued that neither the monotheistic religions nor Marxism are exempt from this difficulty, and that’s true, but their fundamental validity is not affected by, for example, logical difficulties with the doctrine of the Trinity, nor with the Dialectical Triad. Religion claims to be based on revelation, which by its very nature cannot be challenged, and Marxism claims validation by scientific principles. Likewise, other systems of structuring society, like Confucianism, claim validity from a long tradition, and also from working in harmony with the rules of the universe.
Liberalism by definition cannot do this. It is, in its essence, a set of a priori assumptions about radical economic and social freedom, which tautologically can only apply to the individual. The term “liberal society” is not exactly an oxymoron, since you can have quite large numbers of individual liberals in a society, but it is quite close to it. This is unsurprising, when we consider that economic liberalism began as a movement among the new middle classes to take power and liberate themselves from regulation by the government, and social liberalism began as a movement among privileged middle-class youth to free themselves from regulation by their parents. You cannot, by definition, construct a society on that basis, although you can come quite close to destroying one, as all these individual freedoms come into conflict with each other and the most powerful individuals and groups get their way. And it’s pretty hard to get people to die for a society built on such ideas.
Those leaders who seek sacrifices to defend, let’s say, Our Religion, Our Way of Life, Our Nation, Our King, or an ideology like Socialism or Communism, can at least tell a coherent story. Here are a set of things we are trying to defend. Here are another set of things we promise to do if we win. In certain cases also, as in the defence of the Spanish Republic between 1936-39, it was clear to most people which values were being defended and which values the enemy were seeking to impose. It’s not an accident that both the Beveridge Report in Britain, and the National Resistance Council programme in France set out ambitious social and economic reform goals to be implemented after the war, for which the combatants against Nazism could feel that they were actively fighting. It’s instructive to try to imagine for what concrete objectives Liberals could ask people to fight today: tax incentives for Crypto millionaires, perhaps, or compulsory ethnic quotas for symphony orchestras? Good luck getting people to die for that.
What are Liberal states and leaders actually asking for people to fight for, or at leat support, at the moment? Well, as it happens, the indispensable Naked Capitalism site of a couple of days ago had some links which provide a few indications. Here, for example, is Mr Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, whose speechwriters have him tweeting that Russia and China “do not share our values” of democracy and freedom, and want a different world order, presumably of un-freedom and un-democracy, so we should view them as enemies. And then we find a link to an article in the left-wing magazine Jacobin, excoriating a faction of the US Republican Party of which I hadn’t previously heard, known as the Freedom Caucus, who “deserve every decent person’s scorn.”
So we are fighting to defend freedom, but only sort of. A cynic would argue that it’s the usual hypocrisy: you can have freedom as long as you adhere to our definition of it, and you can have democracy so long as it provides the results we want. There’s an element of truth in that, I’m sure, because hypocrisy is a feature of all political systems. But there’s more going on as well, I think, and it has to do with the essential emptiness of Liberalism, whose ideology, such as it is, is largely a collection of slogans, with no coherence at the level of actual content. When Philip Mirowski suggested in 2017 that “(n)o one is more pathetic than a contemporary American trying to explain what it means to be a ‘liberal’ these days” he might just as well have put “westerner” instead.
Liberalism cannot appeal to groups, families and society, because it sets out to destroy them, and replace them with autonomous economic actors. It cannot appeal to national sentiment and history, because it seeks to abolish them. It cannot appeal to traditional culture, religion or social values, because these are all superstitions from the past, to be destroyed. Indeed, Liberalism faces the fundamental problem that a doctrine based on the absolute primacy of the individual is almost impossible to use as a way of motivating people to act collectively. There is, for example, no Liberal principle by which you can ask someone with money to use less electricity and petrol to mumble Putin mumble Russia mumble Economy. In a Liberal society, such injunctions merely seem absurd.
It would be a difficult task indeed for Mr Stoltenberg’s speechwriters to provide a full-dress defence of democracy and liberty against the presumed counter-examples of Russia and China, given that Liberal thinking on such issues is highly confused and contradictory, and largely impossible to systematise. The Liberal concept of democracy, for example, is, and always has been, frankly elitist. It amounts to letting the voting population choose at intervals between different teams drawn from the political class, to form a government. Other, unelected, parts of the wider PMC, such as judges, the media and NGOs, then seek to influence the policies these governments pursue, and help to ensure that the people do not accidentally elect a government with the wrong ideas. As we might expect from its origins in Contract Law, Liberal democratic theory is obsessed with documents, and with correctness of formal procedures. At no point does the concept of democracy as the expression of the popular will appear: democracy is a technical process by which PMC elites, who claim authority recursively because they consider that they are elites, allow us a limited choice between personalities, if not necessarily between policies. It’s hard to get people to make sacrifices for that.
Likewise with freedom. Now just as there are very few states in the world that do not claim to be democracies, so there are few states that do not claim to be “free.” After all, Hobbes was able to argue that people are “free”, even if they have given all their rights way to a Sovereign, so long as that entity doesn’t actually interfere too much with their daily lives. By this argument, you could have a state with limitless, tyrannical, powers, whose citizens were “free,” because the site used these powers seldom, if at all. Liberalism, of course, takes exactly the opposite view: it’s documents, laws and procedures, not behaviour, that determine freedom.
And of course it’s always been recognised that not everybody can have perfect freedom of action at all times. One solution to the obvious problem that, in the great Socialist thinker RH Tawney’s famous phrase, “freedom for the pike is death to the minnow” is the kind of common-sense position advocated by John Stuart Mill, that people should be free to do what they want, unless by doing so they harm others. Now it’s fair to say that, for a century or more, Mill’s Liberty Principle did provide a pragmatic basis for dealing with these questions. But of course the Principle relies on some sort of a consensus on what “harm” means, and how to judge it. These days, Liberals have so expanded the meaning of harm (“something that upsets me”) as to make the definition useless, and to turn it into a weapon of control. Indeed, Liberal society seems to be moving further and further away from “freedom” as any kind of overall objective, even if nobody seems to have told Mr Stoltenberg’s speech writers so.
I say this not to mock, although that temptation is hard to resist, but rather to underline the fact that it is impossible, once you get beyond the level of slogans, to explain to people what the “democracy” and “freedom” which we are apparently struggling for mean, at any useful level of detail, and so why we should make sacrifices to struggle for them. And there is a limit to the sacrifices that people are ready to make for slogans.
This makes mobilisation against non-Liberal states a tricky policy to pursue. It’s hard to get people from outside the elites to defend an elite doctrine, and even more problematic to get them to make sacrifices for it. In the past, appeals to society and tradition, to national solidarity and history, to (genuinely) widely shared ethical ideas drawn from religion or to simple common interest, were often effective. And my parents’ generation needed no persuading of the real menace from Hitler: he wasn’t threatening their “values”, he was threatening their country. The sense of common identity forged by history and culture was much stronger then, of course, even if it was subject to all sorts of criticisms: but Orwell’s characterisation of England in 1940 as a family with the wrong members in control was fair enough at the time, even if it would be an impossible argument to make now.
So how do you actually motivate a modern disenchanted, fractured, fractious nation with little sense of community, identity or history, to support political, economic and perhaps military struggles against countries far away of which they know nothing? This has been a problem for Liberalism since the beginning, subsisting as it does in a world of vague normative concepts which everyone sort-of shares but no-one can actually define. Liberalism lacks the vocabulary and the concepts to demand sacrifice, or even to explain why it should be necessary In practice, Liberalism has to resort to demonisation, fear and crude propaganda, as well as group-think and collective shaming of those who do not say the right things. (Remember that actual Liberal political behaviour is essentially performative, rather than effective.)
There are, perhaps, three genuine problems that Liberal elites have with China, Russia and other “authoritarian” states of the moment. One is related to the Liberal fear of the state as an institution, and the belief that states should be as weak as possible, consistent with protecting private property and upholding contract law. Everything else should be left to the private sector. Against the appalling shambles of the western state response to Covid, the greater capacity of the Chinese state for example, is an embarrassment that has to be wiped away somehow. Another is the relationship between government and business: both China and Russia have managed, to varying degrees, to tame and direct the wealthy and powerful in their societies in a way that would be unthinkable in ours. And finally, many of these societies (one could add Iran, for example) are animated by ideas, ideologies and plain old-fashioned patriotism, that Liberalism is incapable of understanding. It’s not clear that the rest of us have the same problems.
There is an influential tendency in Liberalism for which any state “interference” in the economy is by definition a form of tyranny. But it isn’t influential among ordinary people. For the most part, ordinary people look to the government to do more, other than less, to protect them. They look to the government to regulate what needs regulating, and to try to ensure as far as possible a fair outcome for all. People also look to the government to respond to their needs and wishes, and become despondent and angry when the political process is co-opted by rival teams of professional politicians hitting each other over the head with tweets.
So a defensive discourse is needed. The demand for accountability and active government is rechristened “populism.” A government that acts firmly and with decision is dismissed as “authoritarian.” (Yes, I know:“authoritarian” usually means “telling other people what to do”, whereas “populist” usually means “doing what the people want.” You were expecting consistency, or something?)
It’s often forgotten that, even at the height of the Cold War, there was very little popular antipathy to Communism, and attempts to stir it up generally failed. (Ironically, the real ideological disputes tended to be on the Left, between Marxist and non-Marxist Socialists.) People sort-of went along with the idea that there was a Soviet Threat, without worrying very much about it: indeed, in most countries, the fear of nuclear escalation was actually more powerful than the fear of Communism. But the general prosperity and stability of the era, which only started to break down seriously in the 1980s, meant that people had their minds on other things.
Liberal elites in the Cold War nonetheless saw themselves involved in a satisfyingly Manichean struggle between light and darkness, which structured their thinking and their lives. In many ways, these elites have never recovered from the shock of the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and have spent thirty years looking for an alternative enemy. For a while they thought they had found it in Islam, but that tradition is too diverse and too divided to serve as a counter-model, as well as being intrinsically hard for westerners to understand. “Authoritarianism” sounds bad, even if we have trouble defining it, and acts as a convenient collective label for grouping together states which have little in common other than that western elites dislike them. (That there are genuinely dislikable things about, say, Iran, is not in question, but they are not necessarily any more dislikable than practices in Saudi Arabia, which is not typically included in a list of “authoritarian” states.)
So I don’t think this latest initiative will work. People can bring themselves to die for noble causes: the end of the slavery system, for example, or the defence of the Spanish Republic, but Mr Stoltenberg’s speechwriters are going to have to do more than that to persuade western publics that “democracy” and “freedom” versus “authoritarianism” is the great political and ideological conflict of the twenty-first century.