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The decline of the ‘state effect’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/12/2020 - 10:37pm in

In the space of four years, the institutions of British liberalism suffered a triple-whammy which may ultimately turn out to be fatal. The 2016 referendum was a full-on assault on the democratic credentials and constitutional pre-eminence of parliament. The resulting wreckage produced the conditions for the Johnson leadership, that would have been scarcely thinkable under any different circumstances. Then, almost as if the Gods wished to teach Britain some brutal lesson about the consequences of sacrificing competence for entertainment, a pandemic arrived.

To grasp how much has changed in this short historical window, consider it as follows. A core driver of that 2016 rupture was a profound, and in many ways understandable, alienation from the democratic and bureaucratic institutions that make up the British state, though this was cynically reframed by the right-wing press and prominent Brexiteers as a cultural failing of specific ‘elites’. Either way, it is now clear (and should have been much earlier) that large swathes of British, and especially English, society felt unrepresented and lied to.

A little over four years later, however, and the problem is quite different. A mentality of suspicion and disillusionment, that once would have been witnessed amongst those furthest from power, is now being expressed by the ‘liberal elites’ themselves. The worry that the ‘official’ version of events conceals something else altogether is no longer the preserve of the disenfranchised or the conspiracy theorist, but is spreading amongst those in positions of influence and cultural privilege. The infamous tweet that appeared briefly on the official civil service account in May, asking “can you imagine working with these truth twisters?” spoke of how the crisis of credibility was now internal to the machinery of government, rather than external.

Permanent Secretaries have departed their posts, as it becomes clear that their political independence is no longer accepted. City Mayors and MPs have been aghast to discover that lockdown plans for the regions they represent are disseminated anonymously to journalists, before being discussed with political representatives. Anecdotally, I’ve been struck by how many people – who would never entertain typical conspiracy theories – refuse to download the NHS COVID-19 app, on the basis that it isn’t all that it seems. The way the NHS brand is being instrumentalised (a tactic that Vote Leave pioneered with impunity) is indicative of how people’s trust and solidarity is being used against them. This isn’t a process that can be simply reversed.

For the many people, on both the left and the right, who never felt duped by the integrity of liberalism in the first place, these developments might appear like a healthy disillusionment. What, after all, are people really trusting when they place trust in ‘the state’? The pandemic has cast a fresh and unforgiving light on Britain’s vast and lucrative out-sourcing industry, but the reach of Serco et al is far from new. It was back in the early 1990s that many social scientists proposed that ‘the state’ was merely a metaphor or effect, that concealed a web of interlocking contracts and providers. One of the leading scholars in this regard was political scientist Rod Rhodes, author of a 1996 paper with the prescient subtitle, “governing without government”.

Be that as it may, the mass confidence that there is such a thing as a ‘nation state’, with generally recognised legitimacy, is a powerful illusion that allows us to be governed as we do. Antonio Gramsci’s notion of ‘hegemony’ implies that the modern state will seek to govern via consent as much as possible, which is established with the aid of the media, civil society and a socially acceptable form of economic regulation. What we’re witnessing in Britain today is the disintegration of ‘the state’ as we previously imagined it (not least, in a geographic sense, as policies splinter region by region) and a crumbling of the conditions of any possible hegemony. For better or worse (and many of us fear the latter), this will alter how power works.

How has the Brexit, Boris, Covid triple-whammy combined to achieve this? When Rhodes and others were analysing decentralised networks of ‘governance’ in the 1990s, this coincided with the surge of public sector marketization that was built on the foundations laid by Margaret Thatcher. PFI, outsourcing and targets permeated the public sector with a logic of efficiency and return on investment. The ideology known as ‘neoliberalism’ sees politics (its rhetoric, modes of judgement, rituals and so on) ousted by economics. But in its ecstatic refusal of any economic rationality, Brexit punctured the credibility of this programme.

With the addition of the Johnson-Cummings leadership, government is now just as reliant on the private sector as it ever was, only now without that veneer of economic rationality or justification. It is almost as if, following thirty years of rampant de-politicisation of public service delivery, we are now seeing a sudden jolt of re-politicisation, but with the requisite politics being fidelity to Brexit and Downing Street. As the neoliberal mantra of ‘transparency’ (typically meaning value for money assessments) collapses, we increasingly fall back on our own personal suspicions, especially those of us who are paying close attention.

Then take the extraordinary political challenge presented by the coronavirus itself, which is one vast collective action problem. Nation states can be understood as solutions to such problems, to the extent that they achieve peace within their borders and mobilise people en masse towards war. To the great surprise of many behaviorists advising the government, this residual power of state enforcement and national mobilisation was witnessed over the spring, as people dutifully put their lives on hold for weeks on end. The state ‘effect’ had one last hurrah.

But as details have emerged regarding individual restrictions and policy measures, suspicions have flourished. Where exactly is the evidence for why certain parts of the country are suffering stricter rules than others? What does it mean, that certain cultural pass-times or venues are rescued, while others are abandoned or forced to close? What has been the public benefit of all the money thrown at Nightingale Hospitals, PPE and ventilator contracts and data analysis? Johnson is left making half-hearted appeals to a spirit of national solidarity, while being one of the major reasons collective action is breaking down.

Unable to govern via consent, Johnson will inevitably become more reliant on force and secretive decision-making instead. But perhaps the biggest factor in that relates back to Johnson’s lifelong weakness: the lure of tomorrow’s newspaper headline. The thread running through this generalised crisis of trust is a political coterie that believes all problems can be solved by storytelling and distraction, regardless of consistency. Rather than using the media to manufacture consent (as the title of the famous Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky book had it), Johnson uses it to manufacture confusion – an effective way of getting through the day, but a disastrous way of getting through the winter.

Thatcherism has long been accused of weakening the bonds of society through shrinking the state. Johnsonism could produced further fragmentation, but via different means. It’s not the size of the state that is shrinking (certainly not as a proportion of GDP), but its integrity and credibility in the eyes of the public. And a state that no longer appears like a single unified entity, but rather a set of private contractors, anonymous briefings and political strategies, is no longer an effective modern state at all.

Originally drafted 16th October 2020

The post The decline of the ‘state effect’ appeared first on Political Economy Research Centre.

PERC Podcast: Mark Blyth on the political economy of anger

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/12/2020 - 3:43am in

Will Davies spoke to Prof Mark Blyth, Brown University. They discussed Blyth’s book Angrynomics (co-authored with Eric Lonergan), the impact of the pandemic on American politics and the recent US election.

Read on:

 

PERC Goldsmiths · PERC Podcast with Mark Blyth – Angrynomics

The post PERC Podcast: Mark Blyth on the political economy of anger appeared first on Political Economy Research Centre.

Book Review: Anti-System Politics: The Crisis of Market Liberalism in Rich Democracies by Jonathan Hopkin

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 30/11/2020 - 10:54pm in

In Anti-System Politics: The Crisis of Market Liberalism in Rich Democracies, Jonathan Hopkin studies the political counter-movements that have arisen on the Left and the Right since the 2008 financial crisis, positioning these as forms of ‘anti-system politics’ that are a response to the failures of neoliberal orthodoxy. Scott Timcke finds this book one of the most compelling reads of 2020, deserving of serious engagement and discussion by anyone interested in politics, philosophy and economics.

If you are interested in this book, you can listen to a podcast of author Dr Jonathan Hopkin speaking at an LSE event on ‘Anti-System Politics in Europe’, recorded on 30 May 2019. 

Anti-System Politics: The Crisis of Market Liberalism in Rich Democracies. Jonathan Hopkin. Oxford University Press. 2020.

Joining books like Mark Blyth’s Austerity and Yanis Varoufakis’s And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, Jonathan Hopkin’s Anti-System Politics adds to the constellation of contemporary literature covering the fallout from the 2008 Great Recession to confidence in the capitalist political economy. Like others, Hopkin readily admits that during the recession he was swept up in the belief that the ‘neoliberal consensus had met its demise’ (ix), but he concedes this assessment was premature considering the subsequent European austerity programmes that followed. ‘We should have expected years of rising inequality and a massive financial crisis to produce a political backlash’ (50), Hopkin writes.

It is with this background that Hopkin studies the resultant counter-movements to the long, steady transformation of liberal democracy into ‘neoliberal democracy’ (5) that generated the recession in the first place. His aim is to produce ‘a basic theory to explain political instability after the financial crisis’ (83). Through compelling case studies of political developments in the US (Chapter Three), the UK (Chapter Four) and well as Southern European and Northern European countries (Chapters Five to Seven), Hopkin labels these counter-movements as ‘anti-system politics’. He argues that they primarily reject the so-called settled debate over the appropriate role of the market and government and the general downplaying of the contradictions between capitalism and democracy.

Effectively, anti-system movements are a forceful response to ‘cartel politics’ (39) where major neoliberal political parties had decided not to ‘interfere too much with the workings of markets’ (39). Hopkin’s analysis identifies a nationalist-authoritarian anti-system Right and an egalitarian interventionist anti-system Left. Brexit and Trumpism are examples of the former, while political parties like Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos are examples of the latter.

Conceptualising these political figures, parties and movements as responses to the failures of neoliberal orthodoxy, Hopkin is adamant that these are a predictable rejection given that during the 2008 Great Recession, rich democracies prioritised safeguarding the wealth of shareholders over the general interests of citizens. ‘Anti-system politics is born out of the failings of our political institutions to represent popular demands’ (6), Hopkin writes. Indeed, ‘the upheavals of the second decade of the twenty-first century stem from the failure of neoliberalism to deliver widely shared economic prosperity and democratic accountability’ (250). Hopkin displays considerable empathy for these movements: ‘banking bailouts and austerity were po­litical choices, and citizens could not be expected to be indifferent to their consequences’ (14). If, as Dan Drezner argues in The System Worked, bailouts blunted the full extent of economic catastrophe, then the subsequent austerity quickly called this conclusion into doubt.

Pound coin being squeezed between a nutcracker

Certainly, dissatisfaction with neoliberal democracy pre-dates the 2008 Great Recession. For example, Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to become the Italian Prime Minister in 1994 through the formation of Forza Italia — a political party less than a year old that placed first in that year’s general election — was both a ‘political earthquake’ and an early indicator of ‘the vulnera­bility of our political institutions to a hostile takeover [showing that] even in wealthy, con­solidated democracies, the political system could be captured by anti-system forces’ (2). But this precursor is a point in favour of Hopkin’s thesis, for it makes his argument less dependent on the characteristics of a single event and more on the building pressure of markets narrowing political options over decades. The most powerful expressions of anti-system politics are ‘where inequality is highest, and where the social and economic effects of the Global Financial Crisis have been most severe’ (3) as well as where ‘political institutions have been least able to address [these] consequences’ (14).

Hopkin, quite rightly in my view, is pretty clear that ‘rather than dismissing anti-system politics as ‘‘populism,’’ driven by racial hatred, nebulous foreign conspiracies, or an irrational belief in ‘‘fake news,’’ we need to start by understanding what has gone wrong in the rich democracies to alienate so many citizens from those who govern them’ (3-4). If the goal is to explain ‘why anti-system politics is on the march, and why different forms of anti-system politics prosper in different places and among different types of voters’ (3), then Hopkin argues it is necessary to also look at the transformation of institutions during the neoliberal era. In brief, one tendency was delegating the management of markets to experts and their spreadsheets, while concurrently politics increasingly devolved into which party offered better administrative competency.

Yet these parties’ platforms of ‘’scientifically grounded technical fixes’ (43) rarely raised issues of (re)distribution and so were unable to sufficiently address the ‘slow deterioration of democratic health’ (249), class decomposition, stalled wages, precarity, downward social mobility and the myriad of similar issues that stem from the ordinary operation of markets and the vast inequalities they produce. If these matters all relate to the social question, then as the 2008 Great Recession showed so concretely, neoliberal democratic parties were no longer seen as credible leaders able to provide a suitable answer. In this credibility gap, anti-system politics and the critique they presented were able to prosper by calling attention to the moral betrayal by elites of their fellow citizens. The key demand has been for a fundamental overhaul of the political economy by introducing forms of governance whereby responsive representatives self-consciously act in accordance with traditions of popular sovereignty.

Adjacent to Hopkin’s argument is the ‘cultural backlash thesis’. From this perspective, reactionary white supremacists are reasserting themselves to police de facto citizenship in their polities, and in doing so reveal the depth of racist, nativist attitudes. Certainly, the Far Right with its xenophobia and racism is a threat to democracy, but Hopkin observes that the anti-system Left seeks to expand social protections for migrants and minorities to further realise democratic values across the full social terrain. Indeed, the latter’s critique is predicated upon how ‘unregulated markets’ starve governments of the resources to undertake service delivery and otherwise implement social welfare programmes that provide adequate protection against market forces. Accordingly:

To reduce anti-system politics to cultural unease, the anxiety of the ‘‘left behind’’ or the ‘‘places that don’t matter,’’ or the revival of national sentiment misrepresents the phenomenon. At a very basic level, anti-system politics is about reasserting the power of politics over markets and money (16).

It is not that the evidence for the cultural backlash is threadbare, but rather that it is incomplete and insufficiently comparative.

In this regard, Hopkin situates the ‘fundamental changes to the political economy’ (248) and the emergence of anti-system politics within a Polanyian double movement, which, as a reminder, demonstrated that capitalist development gave rise to organised opposition where people demanded protection against the effects of the market on their fragile societies. Hopkin keeps pointing to the similarities between the inter-war years in which Karl Polanyi was writing The Great Transformation and the 2008 Great Recession, highlighting the stakes of this conjuncture. ‘Greece or the United States in the 2010s are certainly not Germany in the early 1930s,’ he writes. ‘But it is hard to dispute that citizens’ expectations that their democratically elected governments would help the whole of society participate in rising living standards have been disappointed’ (15). Thankfully, the key difference is that improvements in living standards provide something of a cushion compared to the conditions of the 1930s. However, as the last remaining social protections are eroded by neoliberal democracy and the austerity it brings, so the difficulties of the inter-war years loom large.

Finally, Hopkin provides an explanation for the character of anti-system politics in different countries. Generally, ‘the nature of party politics and the development of economic and social policies’ are key ‘variables [that] explain why some countries have been far better equipped to survive globalization and its attendant economic shocks than others’ (14). But more specifically, support for anti-system parties turns on the logic and mechanisms by which benefits and burdens are shared. ‘Anti-system politics is stronger in countries that are structur­ally prone to run trade deficits, have weak or badly designed welfare states, and have electoral rules that artificially suppress the range of political options voters can choose from’ (17), Hopkin writes. This model is predictive insofar as right-wing anti-system politics finds success in creditor countries where citizens fear an erosion of existing welfare systems. Left-wing anti-system politics tends to find success in debtor countries where highly educated young populations face the prospect of not enjoying the same social protections that older populations experienced.

By placing anti-system politics within the larger history of the open antagonism between capitalism and democracy, Hopkin focuses on the ‘fundamentally unstable relationship that produces regular political upheavals’ (16). He concludes that the current purchase of anti-system politics tells how the free-market model cannot deliver prosperity and security. If this is to change, political authority must be asserted over the market; and that authority must be legitimated by ‘meaningful mass participation in political decision-making over whatever matters society thinks are important’ (257). In summary, Hopkin has produced one of the most compelling reads of 2020, a book deserving of serious engagement and discussion by anyone interested in politics, philosophy and economics.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Banner Image Credit: (theilr CC BY SA 2.0).

In-Text Image Credit: (Howard Lake CC BY SA 2.0).

 


Mini-Trumps in the Wilderness

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/11/2020 - 8:00am in

Photo Credit: Kapa1966 / Shutterstock.com Joe Biden’s election as president of the United States has seriously weakened authoritarian and populist...

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Unsanitized, Election Edition: Nobody Knows Anything

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/11/2020 - 5:04am in

There’s no single narrative throughline that cleanly explains last night. It’s time to throw FiveThirtyEight and the polling-analysis-industrial complex into the ocean, but if you’re grasping for a story to reinforce your priors, you’re unlikely to find it. Continue reading

The post Unsanitized, Election Edition: Nobody Knows Anything appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

War Without, Rot Within: The Collapse of Australian Party Politics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 27/10/2020 - 8:43pm in

In the past six months, Australia has seen one of the more startling and significant episodes of rapid political change in its recent history. In short order, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted first a degree of lassitude and disbelief, and then a rapid mobilisation that saw the development of a new entity—the National Cabinet, combining federal and state leaders. The need to respond to an emergency, and the desire to avoid the mass death and chaos that had gripped the United Kingdom and the United States, briefly concentrated the minds of leaders of both the Coalition and Labor. A degree of intergovernmental collegiality ruled, and disaster was avoided. It’s a measure of how successful this was that the flare-up in Victoria, resulting in a few hundred extra deaths in a population of six million—a drop in the dark ocean for the United Kingdom and United States—has been treated as a tragedy and a disaster. 

But beneath the surface of cooperation a categorical shift in Australian politics and society was taking place, some of it prompted by the economic changes created by COVID. The Morrison government went on the political warpath, using a selective structuring of the grand COVID package to starve the arts and culture industries of money, thus undermining them, while goading Labor to defend ‘the elites’. It also denied any form of JobKeeper or similar to the universities, which were further undermined by the denial of support funds to international students. Melbourne and Sydney’s reputation as a study destination was trashed overnight. The ABC review was delivered and a series of further cuts was made to the broadcaster, whose public-service function has been increasingly under attack from within by its management. With plummeting ad revenues, News Corp Australia took the opportunity to shut down many dozens of local newspapers that it had bought up over the past decade or so to consolidate local news into an output model, delivered from centralised newsrooms. The government did nothing to stop it, even though it was within its power to do so. 

On the other side of the despatch box, Labor was engaged in a war of its own. The fallout from the predictable but, to many in Labor, surprising 2019 election loss was a factional war in which sections of the Labor Right rearranged themselves as a pro–fossil fuel outfit known as the ‘Otis group’, which sought to shift the party away from a focus on renewables to full-throated support for coal mines. In Victoria, startling secret tapes exposed a campaign of branch-stacking by hitherto minor micro-faction leader Adem Somyurek, who had used networks of ethnic communities to create a force equal to that of union factions, and likely to have a socially conservative rather than progressive lean. Meanwhile, new leader Anthony Albanese ditched his larrikin style and ‘I fight Tories’ politics to adopt a set of centre-right policies that went after the Morrison government for wasting money on incorrect JobKeeper payments rather than standing up for the many social groups excluded from JobKeeper altogether. Believing that it needed to rebuild support in the suburbs by distancing itself from the new ‘elites’, Labor made a less than fully enthusiastic defence of the humanities, the universities, and arts and culture. More importantly, it was careful not to bundle these together with pushback against attacks on the poor and excluded. In other words, the broad liberal social-democratic idea that had sustained such parties for more than half a century—that left parties see improving the lot of the powerless as complementary to the advance of social sectors devoted to the pursuit of enlightenment, learning and culture, independent of the market—as concluded. In Australia, although this had its roots in the Curtin-Chifley ‘reconstruction’ ideal, it was a Whitlamite package. 

It was cruelly ironic that the remnants of that were being undone by the Coalition nationally, and policy-wise within Labor, in the weeks when the John Kerr–Palace letters in relation to the 1975 Dismissal finally saw the light of day, thanks to years of struggle by historian Jenny Hocking. The letters revealed the degree to which the sacking of an elected majority government had been a wilful and unnecessary act by a governor-general, influenced by multiple exterior forces, and outside of all protocol. The Coalition, with renewed confidence, was advancing culture-social war to a degree unpractised even in the Howard years. Labor was resetting its politics to a period ‘prior’ to Whitlam et al.’s creation of a grand, progressive coalition of the working class and a new sector of intellectually trained progressives. Daily, it seemed during this period, came more news that something was decisively over. By regulation, the Morrison government quietly suspended the locally produced drama content rules for free-to-air broadcast, something such networks have been pushing for relentlessly. The ABC’s Boyer lectures were given to Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, evangelical Christian mining magnate and scion of a West Australian colonialist family, who combined morally improving lectures to Aboriginal communities with no-holds-barred lawsuits to limit their claims on mining royalties. And on it went.  

Full-throated resistance in the public sphere was limited by the fact that the former Fairfax papers, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, were now owned by the Nine Network, whose chair was former Coalition-government treasurer Peter Costello, and they were drifting steadily to the right. The line of ‘resistance’ to any of these measures requiring legislation consisted of the inner cross-bench of One Nation, the two-member Centre Alliance, and Jacqui Lambie. One Nation were of the Right, the Centre Alliance was a Nick Xenophon–created party drawing on South Australia’s independent liberal and Catholic ‘family’ tradition, and Lambie is a populist who combines specific causes of the contemporary excluded—psychological trauma and addiction, violence against women—with a right-wing anti-‘elitism’. It further splintered when Senator Rex Patrick, a former Liberal staffer, quit the group to run as an independent. De facto, the inner cross-bench is the right populist-nationalist vote, lacking an overarching party, and its power can be seen as arising from the rightward drift of some Labor voters, whose extra seats they have taken—a further confirmation of the nationalist, rightward drift. 

Thus it could be said that there has been a double collapse of possibility within the political framework. The first has been of the residual progressive politics that was in place in Australia for half a century, held in place—even through the Howard years—by a mix of cultural and social intersections that put limits on the scope of action of right-wing governments. The second collapse has been that of the most basic political propriety in the conduct of both government and internal party management. The government allows a media tycoon such as Kerry Stokes to bypass quarantine while re-entering Australia; it passes money to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Sports as a direct subsidy-grant for the broadcasting of sport while the ABC has its funds cut; it pays a third of a million dollars to a reality-TV ‘tradie’, ‘Scotty Cam’, to, well, no one really knew, but he didn’t do any of it; it failed to put in place any limits on dividend payouts from JobKeeper-recipient companies, so taxpayers subsidised shareholders. On it went—that is merely a greatest-hits selection—gaining from a jaded public only a deepening of a psychologically protective cynicism. 

There is nothing new about the Australian Right being narrow, philistine, politics led, and driven by mere corporate goals. Nor is it new for Labor and other centre-left institutions to offer less than full-bore resistance to such. But the full force of this onslaught suggested that something fundamental had shifted beneath the surface of conventional politics. Much of the conventional liberal Left, such as it remains, pointed to it as merely more of the same: more culture wars, more Murdochracy—which is no doubt true. The logic of that position was that Morrison was no different from Howard, was no different from Abbott. One could detect, in places where the liberal Left gather, such as Schwartz publications The Monthly and The Saturday Paper, a hatred of Morrison, Abbott and Howard—all seen as essentially the same person—leaching into a disdain for the general public, who continued to, narrowly, vote them into office. The propaganda model, focused on Murdoch, Stokes and the increasingly right-shifted ‘Nine’ papers gets you only so far. Left-wing disdain for the citizenry—the old feeling that the public was failing the public—cannot help but creep in if there is no analysis of the structural shifts in a society that suddenly make something new possible. The Right had changed, and there was a qualitative difference between the Howard era and now, which many on the liberal Left did not want to admit because of their personal dislike of John Howard. But there was also a failure to reflect on the changed socio-cultural circumstances that meant that there was no real resistance to the Right—circumstances that the COVID pandemic had laid bare, for those with eyes to see it. 

Thus, the appearance of the Kerr–Palace letters acted as a time tunnel of sorts to a moment when, win or lose, such moves were contested by mass movements, of an organised working class in a class alliance with progressives. This was what many on the liberal Left harked back to, prompting a brief resurgence of republican feeling, and a focus on the aspect of the Dismissal most expressive of a hidebound British establishment stifling a rising country. By seeing a continuity with that moment carrying through the Howard years, the analysis stayed at the level of the political and did not examine the deeper socio-cultural changes thereunder. This is a persistent characteristic of left-liberal thinking in our time—indeed, it is almost its defining characteristic. There is a double effect. First, it overestimates the power of the Right, which is largely constituted by a projection of an imaginary silent majority—‘quiet Australians’, in the congruent phrase invented, no doubt, by some twenty-something Nixon fan in Scott Morrison’s office—onto the atomised Australian present, and then it constitutes Labor’s failure to respond to such with a synthesised ‘neo-Whitlamite’ program as a series of individual betrayals by key leading figures. 

The alternative account would be that, beneath the visible institutions of the political, the basic constitution of social life that made an older style of politics possible had shifted and dissolved to such a degree that not only was there no ground on which to plant a flag of one’s movement, but also the very sort of act that planting a flag serves as an image for was becoming unimaginable to an ever-wider section of the population. Thus the Whitlam period, a very different time, had seen actual class contestation. But even in the Howard period, socio-cultural battles were fought with caution as regards residual left political forces, and there were limits to the ‘nihilistic imagination’ of the Right as to just how much of consensual civil society could be dissolved, attacked, misrepresented and abolished. Between then and now, multiple forces have come into play, from the further spread of a deeply embedded neoliberalism to the remorseless wearing down of the material conditions of working people (more in the United Kingdom and United States than here, though Australian prosperity is highly selective) to the transformative effects of the virtually simultaneous smartphone and social-media revolutions that began in 2005–06 but exploded into life a decade later, as the generation raised with them reached early adulthood and began to determine the velocity of the culture. Thus current movements that correspond to older movements—such as the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn waves—have been generated from the top down by charismatic (of a certain type) leaders, and the Black Lives Matter renewal that occurred around the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota flared as a sudden wave that went around the country and across the world. These events are more ‘ungrounded’ than was the Occupy movement of a decade ago, which was, in turn, even more atomised than the global anticapitalist movement of the turn of the millennium. 

In Australia, currently as somnolent as it has ever been, one has to look at machine and process politics to see evidence of the wearing away of a degree of the social ground. Thus, the rise of a figure such as Adem Somyurek in Labor is significant because Somyurek, a trained sociologist and no dummy, had relied on non-Anglo ethnic networks to build the core of a new faction within Labor—in the knowledge that there was no great countervailing power in the form of class or political affiliation that would provide an opposition to him (the Four Corners report echoed this incomprehension by portraying him as a ‘taxi driver’ who put himself through uni—rather than as a graduate of the Monash University Labor political subculture who used his skills to build a power base in Melbourne’s multiethnic south-east). Hitherto, such ethnic groups had been used to buttress existing factions that had a basis in class politics. The novelty of Somyurek’s grouping was that it was based on the distinctive features of the ethnic groups, themselves of particular immigrant and immigrant-descended Australians—Turks, Lebanese, Egyptians, and then further alliances with Indians and Africans—whose social and kinship solidarity was greater than that of Anglos. It was a factional move made from the use of residual connection in an atomised world. 

The mirror to this in the Coalition has been the gradual transformation of the Liberal Party and its attached think tanks from parties and organisations anchored in branches and civic life into client organisations of conglomerations of capital and rich individuals. In the Liberal Party, this has been a sedimentation effect, as an increasing number of large bequests has allowed the party to operate without the mid-level fundraising and branch participation that was built into its architecture at its founding, following the collapse of the parliamentary UAP grouping. The flood of ungrounded money made the branches irrelevant; potential younger recruits (that is, those aged under sixty) were dissuaded, and the vacancies were filled by ideological rightists tending towards Ayn Randism, and conservative Christian and Mormon groupings performing party entrism and takeover. Their think tanks, such as the Institute of Public Affairs, which were once modest outfits relying on broad membership and subscriptions, are now funded through their de facto lobbying work for major corporations, and large donations by right-wing super-rich individuals such as Gina Rinehart. Consequently, they have become a focus for libertarian rather than liberal politics, combined with a heavy national-security slant, sometimes verging on Anglo ethno-nationalism, bitcoin freakery and conspiracy theories. 

Such a shift is one side of the explanation for the politics of pure political-social war that the Coalition is pursuing—the Liberal Party especially is now little more than a set of alliances between different enthusiasts of political extremes, guided by operatives of the ruthless campaign consultancies who were once employed only for elections, and who now provide permanent political staff. The other side is that they operate in an open field, because the features of social life that might once have constituted an inherent resistance to such moves at a national level have now been worn away by multilevelled, global economic, cultural and technological forces. 

Part of the inability of the constituent parts of what was once ‘the Left’ to respond to such has been those groups’ unwillingness to acknowledge the degree to which society has shifted so as to make their previous and longed-for countervailing power—the worker–progressive alliance noted above—a nostalgic aim. The perpetual hope of its revival makes impossible a clear-eyed assessment of the current political terrain. Not only has anything resembling a unified working class been decomposed by wild differentials of reward, conditions and life chances but also the physical frameworks—abiding workplaces, unchanging neighbourhoods—have been dissolved, leaving the very notion of such a class increasingly ungrounded and abstract. At the same time, the values of the intellectually trained, who now form a substantial and self-identifying knowledge class, have developed a set of autonomous values—around questions of race, national history, gender identity, sexuality and the like—that in their intensity and demand for commitment depart, as a whole, from the values of just about everyone else, as a whole (whatever the great political differences of the latter group on economic, political or other grounds). In the old worker–progressive alliance in place in Western societies from the 1960s to the 1990s, the numerical weakness of the progressives meant a subordination of their social and cultural goals to a movement that contained many socially conservative working people (and such progressives were less abstracted out from a broader mainstream in their values and world view). 

Now, as a self-defined knowledge class at the centre of economic and political life, such values have become non-negotiable, and socio-cultural identity concerns have become the prior, if not exclusive, point of political affiliation for many. Since such people also tend to occupy most offices of importance in the union movement and in organising groups such as the Unemployed Workers Union, vast strata of society who once had a role in politics now do not represent themselves in the polity but are represented. 

In the United States, United Kingdom and Europe, this gap has been filled by right-wing populism whose results are now famous and a mark of the era. But it is noticeable that the political operatives of such groupings remain drawn from elite circles. The central political fact of our time—one playing itself out in the series of body blows suffered by Australian progressivism enumerated at the start of this piece—is the total de-representation of whole sectors of the population from the polity, or from any notion of a social whole, on a staggering and unprecedented scale. This is both large sections of the new knowledge class—who see politics and social-moral imperatives as largely confined to questions of self-identity and the morality of textual/image representation and exchange—and the wider group, for whom the polity and society as a graspable whole have disappeared into the middle distance, broken up by the global forces that have put a radical, progressive, unified notion of ‘Australia’ out of reach for the present moment. 

The first step to a politics in this new period is to understand and assimilate the degree to which this radical breach has occurred—no easy task, and one avoided and sublimated by those caught in the melancholy of mourning (such as residual far-left groups) by urgings to redouble efforts, provide better leadership and so forth. The extremes of such a situation may produce, elsewhere and here, sudden radical eruptions—which would not be easily classed as either left or right—but equally, looking for such may be a lingering habit of the old politics. This applies to foreboding concerning an organisational populist right revival as much as anything on the Left. For some time we have been waiting to see if the global wave of right populism would eventually find an expression in Australia that is not the shambolic personality psychopolitics of One Nation—expecting that sooner or later it would find an effective leader and organisational form. But it may be that this has not occurred in time for such an organisation to ride that wave. Right populism itself appears to be faltering across the world. Yet this must be taken as a sign of the faltering of ‘politics’ itself, not of any right version per se. Though sections of the Left were keen to hang the ‘fascist’ tag on movements such as Trump and Brexit, it was clear that, degrees of corruption and institutional shadiness aside, they lacked something even vaguely comparable to the will of a fascist or energetic right populist movement—most particularly as regards the failure to create, or even attempt to create, a revived national economy of non-specialist industrial jobs (‘good jobs’, in the lexicon of Middle America and the Midlands alike) such as could anchor independent and self-respecting communities of working-class and middle-class people outside the finance/knowledge/culture metropolis. One suspects that this failure—more than his racism, anti-democratic tactics or COVID mismanagement—has eaten away at Trump’s support in the rust-belt states (Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania) that narrowly elected him, and that this has gone unnoticed because so little reporting is done on what people there actually say and think. This disillusionment will surely come too for the Boris Johnson voters who defected from Labour’s ‘red wall’ in the United Kingdom, believing that the Right’s idea of independence matched their desire for a lost world of self-reliance and work-centred communities. 

No right populist movement has had the courage, or would have the intent, to starkly put to a national working-middle class ‘the deal’ that would deliver them the society they seek. That would involve a form of economic corporatism in which capital controls, tariff walls and directed private and direct state investment would rebuild a multilevelled economy of self-reliance in industry, construction, food and non-specialist pharmaceuticals. But the price of that would be a shift in disposable incomes and prices so as to limit or remove most cheap goods and service luxuries—nights out, affordable stuff, ‘trinkets’ in an expanded sense—and thus change the texture and character of everyday life. Right populism relies on a fantasy of combining the revival of a national economic core akin to the post–Second World War era with the expanded consumer choices arising from a globalised economy, and historically unprecedented levels of unevenness within a shared industrial sphere. Trump’s trade war with China will already be being felt by the working and precarious poor in the aisles of Walmart: its extraordinarily cheap prices usually allow them a narrow measure of non-penurious life. 

Yet if even this wave of right populism proves also to be a simulacrum of ‘politics’ in a post-political era, if there is no measure of decline in genuine class self-representation, life conditions, social wholeness and promise that does not draw out a sustained organised political response, if the circles of politics on the one hand, and the vast suburban and regional working-middle class on the other are now Venn diagrams that do not overlap, what then? Is it, in a dialectical manner, the prelude to a more total refusal and rejection, at a future moment when this wholly separated system exposes itself as utterly unable to perform the most basic steering functions of government: as an enabler of life? Or will this system reproduce itself with a degree of stability until such a point as nature’s knife—of which COVID can be seen as the very advanced micro-thin leading edge—cuts through all categories via some form of natural or technological catastrophe at a planetary level? Australia could be mistaken for a nation suffering from a bad case of backwardness. But with its hybrid national character—half Sweden, half Alabama of the Pacific—a country where there is not much beneath the surface of a recently imposed modernity, we may be the advance guard, a laboratory for observing what occurs when modernity thoroughly exhausts itself of claims to answering the pressing questions of national and global life. That tentative conclusion suggests as a strategy a willing and careful attentiveness to the appearance of new—what? New occurrences, phenomena that do not fit the pattern of the politics of modernity, and a willingness to challenge one’s own projection of old frames onto current reality, which cannot be overcome by a single act of thought. That may not be much compared to the enumerated depredations of national life that began this essay. But let’s face it: such a strategy suggests itself because there is nothing even remotely resembling a countervailing social force that could make resistance to such any more than its current manifestation: noble protest that registers one’s dissent from the impossibility of the present. 

Book Review: Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy by Nadia Urbinati

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 20/10/2020 - 10:28pm in

In Me the People: How Populism Transforms DemocracyNadia Urbinati examines populism as a form – and deformation – of representative democracy. This is a rich work, brimming with ideas about the nature of representative government, how we conceive of it and how populism interacts with these, writes Ben Margulies, and is recommended to university students and scholars seeking to learn more about democratic and populist theory.

Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy. Nadia Urbinati. Harvard University Press. 2019.

Populism is more than an ideology or an object of study; it is the news. So it is not surprising that scholars writing about populism face a problem common to journalists: trying to find a new angle on a topic everyone is talking about. For political scientists and other academics, this may be more challenging now that definitions of populism are starting to converge around the importance of the conflict between ‘the [good] people’ and ‘the [illegitimate] elite’. Some academics focus on defining populism as an ideology, like Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser; others, like Benjamin Moffitt, talk about the populist style of communication; while Catherine Fieschi talks about populist epistemology, the ways populists decide what is authentic knowledge.

Nadia Urbinati, who holds a chair in political theory at Columbia University, finds her own perspective in Me The People: How Populism Transforms Democracy. Urbinati examines populism as a form – and perversion – of representative democracy. Her work is an examination of populism as political theory, comparing it to the (idealised) theory of representative democracy that we associate with the ideal democracies of the late-twentieth-century West. Though some of her observations are echoed by other authors, her work stands out for its explanation of democratic theory and the ways populism both fits into and deforms our representative systems.

Urbinati devotes the heart of the book to explaining how representative democracy is meant to work and the political theory that underpins it. Urbinati evokes ‘an interpretation of democracy that has political liberty and pluralism at its core’ (91). In a true democracy, the idea of the ‘sovereign people’, the community of citizens who hold ultimate power and legitimating authority, is a fictio iuris [a legal fiction] (88). The actual body of citizens is an assembly of multiple interests engaged in permanent contestation. Majority rule is a decision-making process that grants one particular constellation of interests the power to govern (which is not the same as sovereignty) for a set period of time, but not forever. Democracy must permit the possibility of a loyal opposition and new, different majorities. Citing Hans Kelsen, Urbinati writes that:

In order for majority rule to avoid violating political autonomy, all citizens must be equal before the law and must have an equal right to determine the politics of the commonwealth and be heard […] they cannot be frozen in any specific social determination, such as ‘‘the few’’ and ‘‘the many’’ (89).

Urbinati distinguishes between deliberation and decision-making in representative democracy. She separates ‘will’ (voting) and ‘opinion’ (assessment and judgment) (7). This is necessary, because it allows the majority to change its shape and change its mind. ‘Representative democracy has an endogenous disposition to generate dissent and conflict along partisan lines; voting regulates this dissent and conflict, but it never resolves it’ (166). In this arena, most actors claim to speak in the name of the people, but they rarely claim that only they can speak for the people, or that they are the people. This would rob democracy of its open-endedness, its ‘indeterminacy’ (92) – ‘the people’ is a symbol that sanctions majority decisions, but has no permanent identity.

Populism is dangerous because it denies and attacks this pluralism. In populism, the majority is no longer a way to make temporary decisions in a diverse society. Rather, the majority becomes the people itself. Urbinati cites Aristotle, who distinguished between majority rule – a way to make decisions – and ‘the regime of the majority’, in which the majority simple governs and ‘does not tolerate opposition and tries to conceal it as much as it can, when it does not liquidate it altogether’ (98). Populists claim that the majority is the people, including the legal sovereign.

This majority is by definition not identical with everyone in the polity. Rather, the majoritarian people are the ‘good’ people who are worthy of holding sovereignty. This is a point Jan-Werner Müller makes in What is Populism?, speaking of distilling a sort of pure people from the body of citizens or nationals. As Urbinati argues, populism ‘makes politics consist in a part that declares itself, as such […] to be at the center of state power, and to claim that it is the “good part” entitled to rule’ (151). Furthermore, populism rules solely in its own interest, ‘pars pro parte’  [‘the part acting for the part’, as opposed to for the whole] (152), and not for all society (also an argument Müller advances).

To summarise, Me the People depicts populism as a machine for collapsing the distinctions that make representative democracy work. It annexes the abstract sovereign to the voting majority, getting rid of deliberation and opposition. It merges the space of opinion and the space of decision, which leaves the people nowhere to gather and assess what the leader is doing. That new demos merges with its leader, and then this composite juggernaut absorbs the state. This also means the erasure of ‘the distinction between ordinary political and constitutional politics’ (133), since the sovereign is the only possible actor.

Urbinati has some interesting arguments and observations about the nature of populist leadership. She rejects Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser’s claim that populism does not necessarily require a charismatic leader. Instead, she aligns with the camp that argues that populism needs a single leader to embody the homogenous people (120). Furthermore, that leader must never seem like part of the establishment, the elite. Populists are installing new elites, but must never appear to be doing so. Populist leaders avoid this through an unremitting campaign against the never-quite-vanquished elites (124-25).

More intriguingly, Urbinati proposes that populist leaders take advantage of their roles as merely an instrument of the people. Since the leader is just the people incarnated, ‘the leader is never truly responsible, for better or worse’ (128). (Urbinati could have gone on to say that the people, being sovereign, cannot be held responsible either.)

Where did populism come from? Urbinati tends to blame two developments. The first is the erosion of the middle class, again citing Aristotle (102). The other is the rise of what Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair (1995) called cartel parties  (see also Mair (2013)). Katz and Mair described how parties sidelined their already declining mass memberships to become professional organisations dependent on state funding in the late twentieth century. Partly because parties had grown weaker, electorates became fragmented assemblies of interest and identity groups and parties had to construct majorities ad hoc through media appeals and attractive leaders. This created an opening for populists, who construct their electorates in similar ways

Me the People is primarily a work of theory, and as such it does not engage deeply with political science literature about specific parties or electoral patterns. This is not a fatal flaw, but it does create some problems. In talking about populism as a largely theoretical construct, Urbinati has no space to really examine one of its most worrying features, which is its tendency to unite with radical right ideologies. In Europe and much of the rest of the world, the populist radical right is often dominant, with its ethnonationalism and authoritarianism. Although Urbinati does discuss the distinction between fascism and populism, we do not see any examination of the broader relationship between populism and radical-right ideology.

Me the People does examine the internal mechanisms of populist parties in some detail, choosing The Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain as examples due to her interest in how these parties try to combine internet-based direct participation and competent electoral leadership, which in practice centralises authority in the leadership. However, these examples are not really representative of populist parties or electorates in Europe. The Five Star Movement lacks any clear ideological grounding, while Podemos is left-wing. Many, if not most, populist parties in Europe are radical right and far less concerned with democratic internal procedures.

Occasionally, Urbinati’s definitions feel slightly confused. On the one hand, she describes populism as a mutation or ‘disfigurement’ of democracy. But she also argues that ‘a democracy that infringes basic political rights – especially the rights crucial for forming opinions and judgments, expressing dissents, and changing views – and that systematically precludes the possibility of the formation of new majorities is not democracy at all’ (8). So is populism the negation of democracy or merely its disfigurement? This is not entirely clear and may not be a fully resolvable question.

Me the People is a rich work, one brimming with ideas about the nature of representative government, how we conceive it and how populism interacts with these. Close students of populism will recognise some of these ideas in other works, but this presentation is novel. Unlike What is Populism?, this is not a book aimed at general audiences. But for university students and scholars, Me the People is a good tool for learning about democratic and populist theory, especially if theory is not your area of expertise. I have not been able to summarise all of Urbinati’s thinking here, so if you are intrigued, read the book.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay.

 


Theories of authoritarian personality

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 15/10/2020 - 4:33am in

A key problem faced today by liberal democracies throughout the world is the fact that millions of citizens in those democracies seem to support parties and candidates who are fundamentally anti-democratic. The authoritarian tendencies of Prime Minister Modi of India, President Erdoğan of Turkey, and President Trump of the United States are evident in their speeches and their actions, in varying ways and degrees. And each of these national leaders is supported by millions of citizens in their countries, who apparently endorse and support their inclination towards authoritarian rule and the suppression of the rights of minorities and critics. What explains the willingness of ordinary citizens to support these populist strongmen in their open contempt for the norms, values, and institutions of constitutional democracy?

John Dean and Bob Altemeyer have offered a summary of a theory of authoritarian psychology that has long roots in the discipline of personality psychology, extending back to efforts by psychologists to understand popular support for fascism and Nazi dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s. Their book Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers summarizes these theories and offers a warning: Trumpism will survive the presidency of Donald Trump. They argue that a very large number of supporters of Trump's variety of populist authoritarianism score high on psychological measures for intolerance (racism, xenophobia) and support for authoritarian leaders, and that these psychological characteristics account for the fervent and unwavering support that the President gains from his base. In a word, many men and women in Trump's base continue to support him because they appreciate his impulses towards authoritarian language and action, and they approve of his apparent comfort with white supremacy and racism. Dean and Altemeyer propose a psychological theory of Trump's base and the base that supports other right-wing xenophobic populists in other countries as well: a certain percentage of citizens have been subject to social, cultural, and familial circumstances that enhanced features of intolerance, hierarchy, and authoritarianism in their personality structure, and these individuals constitute ready ground for supporters of xenophobic authoritarian populism. And, very importantly, Dean and Altemeyer were able to make use of a highly reputable survey research organization (the Monmouth University Polling Institute Survey, Autumn 2019) to measure personality characteristics of a sample of voters (link). The surveys found that Trump supporters do indeed show high levels of intolerance and prejudice, and high levels of authoritarian attitudes.

There is an extensive field of research on the topic of personality characteristics of "liberals" and "conservatives". Carney, Jost, Gosling, and Potter (2008) review this literature and current developments in the field (link). They affirm that there are persistent differences in the personality characteristics of conservatives and liberals, writing that:

We obtained consistent and converging evidence that personality differences between liberals and conservatives are robust, replicable, and behaviorally significant, especially with respect to social (vs. economic) dimensions of ideology. In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized. (808)

And they quote an important conclusion by Jost et al. (2003) (link):

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear.... Although resistance to change and support for inequality are conceptually distinguishable, we have argued that they are psychologically interrelated, in part because motives pertaining to uncertainty and threat are interrelated.... (814)

The analysis offered in Authoritarian Nightmare is based on two distinct psychometric measures developed by different traditions of social psychologists that have been used and refined over several decades. The first is a scale measuring "social dominance orientation" (SDO) and the second is a scale measuring "right-wing authoritarianism" (RWA). Social dominance orientation is the psychological characteristic of expecting and valuing inequalities of worth and status in society, manifest for example in racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-homosexual attitudes, and anti-Muslim bigotry. The psychological characteristic identified in the measure of RWA is a willingness to accept a political system based on domination and one-person or one-party rule, without institutional protections of the rights of minorities.

Bob Altemeyer is a respected and accomplished academic psychologist who is one of the founders of RWA theory. He spent his career (in Canada) studying the emotional and motivational characteristics of authoritarian citizens, and was the author of Right-Wing Authoritarianism in 1986. Through his research Altemeyer developed an instrument for measuring an individual's propensity for authoritarian thoughts and actions. This is the RWA scale, and the method has received widespread adoption and use. Saunders and Ngo provide a brief explanation of Altemeyer's construction of the scale in "The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale" in Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences (link).

The right-wing authoritarianism scale measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities, show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression, and support traditional values endorsed by authorities. (1)

Saunders and Ngo note that this line of research derived from studies of "the authoritarian personality" initiated by Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is their summary of the RWA scale:

Right-wing authoritarianism, as currently measured by the RWA scale (Altemeyer 1981, 1988, 2006), is an individual difference variable that assesses attitudes concerning three covarying facets derived from Adorno et al.’s (1950) nine original dimensions: Authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism. In other words, RWA measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities (i.e., authoritarian submission), show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression (i.e., authoritarian aggression), and support traditional values, particularly those endorsed by authorities (i.e., conventionalism). (2)

The "social dominance orientation" (SDO) scale was introduced by James Sidanius and colleagues in the 1990s, and is presented in a research article entitled "Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes" (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, Malle, 1994; link). Here is the abstract to the article:

Social dominance orientation (SDO), one's degree of preference for inequality among social groups, is introduced. On the basis of social dominance theory, it is shown that (a) men are more social dominance-oriented than women, (b) high-SDO people seek hierarchy-enhancing professional roles and low-SDO people seek hierarchy-attenuating roles, (c) SDO was related to beliefs in a large number of social and political ideologies that support group-based hierarchy (e.g., meritocracy and racism) and to support for policies that have implications for intergroup relations (e.g., war, civil rights, and social programs), including new policies. SDO was distinguished from interpersonal dominance, conservatism, and authoritarianism. SDO was negatively correlated with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism. The ramifications of SDO in social context are discussed.

They explain the central idea of social dominance ideology in these terms:

The theory postulates that societies minimize group conflict by creating consensus on ideologies that promote the superiority of one group over others (see also Sidanius, Pratto, Martin, & Stallworth, 1991). Ideologies that promote or maintain group inequality are the tools that legitimize discrimination. To work smoothly, these ideologies must be widely accepted within a society, appearing as self-apparent truths; hence we call them hierarchy-legitimizing myth.... For example, the ideology of anti-Black racism has been instantiated in personal acts of discrimination, but also in institutional discrimination against African-Americans by banks, public transit authorities, schools, churches, marriage laws, and the penal system . (741)

Saunders and Ngo observe that the RWA scale and the SDO scale are often used together to predict the political affinities and behavior of different groups, and that the two measures are correlated with each other.

What appears to be left unexplained in the psychometric literature on the SDO and RWA measures is the developmental question: why do different individuals develop in such a way as to manifest important differences on each of these scales? Why do some individuals become intolerant and authoritarian adults, whereas other adults are tolerant and democratic? Are these two aspects of personality linked, or are they independent from each other? What facts of social context, family relations, education, and other social and political factors are most important for giving rise to the social psychology of social dominance and right-wing authoritarianism? The most plausible theory mentioned by Saunders and Ngo is a social-cognitive theory (motivated social cognition) derived from Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway (link): "people adopt RWA attitudes to meet psychological needs such as the reduction of fear (i.e., existential needs), uncertainty and loss (i.e., epistemic needs), as well as meeting related needs for structure and cognitive closure." Jost et al summarize their approach in these terms in the abstract to this article: "Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism-intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification)." On this approach, conditions of insecurity, fear, and threat are thought to encourage the personality psychology of intolerance and authoritarianism. 

The developmental question is important, but the empirical fact is alarming enough: tens of millions of American citizens rank highly on both scales, and these individuals tend to support right-wing populists with xenophobic and racist inclinations. And the two scales are correlated. "In large adult and student samples, for example, right-wing authoritarianism positively predicts anti-Black prejudice and did so more strongly than several other correlates of prejudice" (Saunders and Ngo 2017:4).

In Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos make use of this body of theory and research in their analysis of the influence of racism within grassroots conservative movements in the United States, including the Tea Party movement. In particular, they make use of survey research to assess the level of Social Dominance Orientation in different voting groups.

Abamowitz’s analyses of the 2010 ANES data yield results that are very consistent with the Parker/Barreto findings. In particular, Abamowitz finds three variables to be especially strong predictors of attitudinal support for the Tea Party. Two of the three—“dislike of Obama” and “racial resentment”—essentially mirror the first two variables in the Parker/Barreto study. Abramowitz’s conclusion echoes that of Parker and Barreto: “these results clearly show that the rise of the Tea Party movement was a direct result of the growing racial and ideological polarization of the American electorate. The Tea Party drew its support very disproportionately from Republican identifiers who were white, conservative, and very upset about the presence of a black man in the White House.” Support for the Tea Party is thus decidedly not the same thing as conventional conservatism or traditional partisan identification with the Republican Party. Above all else, it is race and racism that runs through and links all three variables discussed here. Whatever else is motivating supporters, racial resentment must be seen as central to the Tea Party and, by extension, to the GOP as well in view of the movement’s significant influence within the party. (p. 353)

It seems, then, that researchers in personality psychology have developed theories and measurement tools that contribute to answering part of the anti-democratic populism puzzle. The prevalence in a significant percentage of citizens of the personality attributes of social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism may explain the dramatic and surprising upsurge of support that anti-democratic populist politicians are able to draw upon. The difficult questions of "why now?", "why in this generation?" are as yet unanswered, though the cognitive theory of personality formation above may give the clue. The precariousness of certain parts of the populations in Western Europe and North America -- terrorism, fear of shifting demographic balance, fear of the consequences of globalization -- may be all it takes to trigger this toxic and intolerant form of personality in an extensive proportion of the population of these countries. This suggests that the theories of authoritarian personality at the individual level and political entrepreneurship at the political level -- in an environment of rapid change and perceived threats to various groups -- may go a long way to explaining the scope and depth of right-wing populism in liberal democracies today.

Tony Judt on memory and myth in the twentieth century

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 08/09/2020 - 9:23am in


One of the historians whose work I greatly appreciate is Tony Judt. I've posted about his seminal book about Europe after World War II (Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (linklink)) and his history of the French left in Marxism and the French Left: Studies on Labour and Politics in France, 1830-1981) (link). Some of his most penetrating reflections about twentieth century European history are developed in his essay, "The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe", published in Deák, Gross, and Judt, The Politics of Retribution in Europe (lightly revised from original publication in Daedalus in 1992). Judt's premise is that postwar "Europe" as a complex of values and common identities cultivated since World War II is founded on a grave self-deception and amnesia in the representation upon which it depends concerning issues of responsibility for atrocity, genocide, and collaboration. And Judt believes that these comfortable "mis-tellings" of the story of the 1930s-1950s unavoidably lead to future contradictions in European politics and harmony.

The new Europe is thus being built upon historical sands at least as shifty in nature as those on which the postwar edifice was mounted. To the extent that collective identities—whether ethnic, national, or continental—are always complex compositions of myth, memory, and political convenience, this need not surprise us. From Spain to Lithuania the transition from past to present is being recalibrated in the name of a “European” idea that is itself a historical and illusory product, with different meanings in different places. In the Western and Central regions of the continent (including Poland, the Czech lands, Hungary, and Slovenia but not their eastern neighbors), the dream of economic unity may or may not be achieved in due course. (317) 

Further, Judt believes that the self-deceptions and false memories created during and especially after the Second World War are a key part of this instability.

I shall suggest that the ways in which the official versions of the war and postwar era have unraveled in recent years are indicative of unresolved problems that lie at the center of the present continental crisis—an observation true of both Western and Eastern Europe, though in distinctive ways. Finally I shall note some of the new myths and mismemories attendant upon the collapse of Communism and the ways in which these, too, are already shaping, and misshaping the new European “order.” (294) 

 Memories matter, and false memories matter a great deal. Consider the matter of "resistance to Nazi oppression". Judt finds that the romantic stories of resistance are greatly overstated; they are largely false.

Another way of putting this is to say that most of occupied Europe either collaborated with the occupying forces (a minority) or accepted with resignation and equanimity the presence and activities of the German forces (a majority). The Nazis could certainly never have sustained their hegemony over most of the continent for as long as they did had it been otherwise: Norway and France were run by active partners in ideological collaboration with the occupier; the Baltic nations, Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and Flemish-speaking Belgium all took enthusiastic advantage of the opportunity afforded them to settle ethnic and territorial scores under benevolent German oversight. Active resistance was confined, until the final months, to a restricted and in some measure self-restricting set of persons: socialists, communists (after June 1941), nationalists, and ultramonarchists, together with those, like Jews, who had little to lose given the nature and purposes of the Nazi project. (295)

 Judt believes that the grand myths of the Second World War must be confronted honestly:

At this point we leave the history of the Second World War and begin to encounter the myth of that war, a myth whose construction was undertaken almost before the war itself was over. (296)

Here are the exculpatory myths that Judt believes to be most pervasive:

There is space here to note only briefly the factors that contributed to the official version of the wartime experience that was common European currency by 1948. Of these I shall list just the most salient. The first was the universally acknowledged claim that responsibility for the war, its sufferings, and its crimes lay with the Germans. “They” did it. There was a certain intuitive logic to this comforting projection of guilt and blame. After all, had it not been for the German occupations and depredations from 1938 to 1945, there would have been no war, no death camps, no occupations—and thus no occasion for the civil conflicts, denunciations, and other shadows that hung over Europe in 1945. Moreover, the decision to blame everything on Germany was one of the few matters on which all sides, within each country and among the Allied powers, could readily agree. The presence of concentration camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and even France could thus readily be forgotten, or simply ascribed to the occupying power, with attention diverted from the fact that many of these camps were staffed by non-Germans and (as in the French case) had been established and in operation before the German occupation began. (296)

So everyone is innocent; everyone is a victim.

Italy’s experience with fascism was left largely unrecorded in public discussion, part of a double myth: that Mussolini had been an idiotic oaf propped into power by a brutal and unrepresentative clique, and that the nation had been purged of its fascist impurities and taken an active and enthusiastic part in its own liberation. Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium were accorded full victim status for their wartime experience, and the active and enthusiastic collaboration and worse of some Flemings and Dutch stricken from the public record. (304)

This deliberate forgetting of national and citizen culpability all across Europe seems to be a part of contemporary Polish politics, coming to a head in the abortive 2018 Holocaust law (link). But Poland is not alone. Judt makes it clear that a very similar process of myth-making and forgetting has been a deep part of the narrative-making in the collapsed Communist states of eastern and central Europe.

The mismemory of communism is also contributing, in its turn, to a mismemory of anticommunism. Marshal Antonescu, the wartime Romanian leader who was executed in June 1945, defended himself at his trial with the claim that he had sought to protect his country from the Soviet Union. He is now being rewritten into Romanian popular history as a hero, his part in the massacre of Jews and others in wartime Romania weighing little in the balance against his anti-Russian credentials. Anti-communist clerics throughout the region; nationalists who fought along- side the Nazis in Estonia, Lithuania, and Hungary; right-wing partisans who indiscriminately murdered Jews, communists, and liberals in the vicious score settling of the immediate postwar years before the communists took effective control are all candidates for rehabilitation as men of moderate and laudable convictions; their strongest suit, of course, is the obloquy heaped upon them by the former regime. (309-310)

If I were to distill Judt's points into a few key ideas, it is that "history matters"; that oppressors and tyrants are invariably interested in concealing their culpability, while "innocent citizens" are likewise inclined to minimize their own involvement in the crimes of their governments; and that bad myths give rise eventually to bad politics -- more conflict, more tyranny, more violence. So the work of honest history is crucial to humanity's ability to achieve a better future.

Is there a lesson for us in the United States? There is indeed. We must confront the difficult realities of racism, nationalism, bigotry, and authoritarianism that have simmered throughout the decades and centuries in the United States, and that have broken into a boil under the Trump presidency. Tony Judt is right here: the myths of one decade become the action principles of the next.