Incitement of violence by far-right media networks

The sickening tragedy of Buffalo yesterday — the racist attack on a group of African-American shoppers and workers by an 18-year-old white supremacist man in body armor, carrying a military-style weapon — is simply too much to absorb. This is indisputably an act of domestic terrorism; and yet our police and federal counter-terrorism agencies are still woefully behind in taking the threats of racist violence seriously. Where is Homeland Security when it comes to protecting African-Americans, Muslims, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and Jewish people against a rising tide of racist attacks? (Here is a Brookings report on the state of right-wing terrorism in America; link.) We are forced to ask ourselves, how many other “true believers” in the Great Replacement theory and other memes of white supremacy are out there, contemplating their own acts of racist violence?

But here is a question that must be confronted: how did violent white supremacy become mainstream in America? How did racist antagonism and fear-mongering become something more than shameful and marginal mutterings by fringe extremists? And more specifically, what role do Fox News and Tucker Carlson play in the shameful tragedy that took place in Buffalo this week?

The answer seems to be: a very extensive role. Carlson’s advocacy of the supposed catastrophe of “the Great Replacement” has reverberated throughout this country and in other parts of the world. As the recent and rigorous New York Times study documents (link), Carlson’s program is deliberate in its stoking of racial fear and hatred among its three million viewers. Here is part of the assessment offered in the Times series:

To channel their fear into ratings, Mr. Carlson has adopted the rhetorical tropes and exotic fixations of white nationalists, who have watched gleefully from the fringes of public life as he popularizes their ideas. Mr. Carlson sometimes refers to “legacy Americans,” a dog-whistle term that, before he began using it on his show last fall, appeared almost exclusively in white nationalist outlets like The Daily Stormer, The New York Times found. He takes up story lines otherwise relegated to far-right or nativist websites like VDare: “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has featured a string of segments about the gruesome murders of white farmers in South Africa, which Mr. Carlson suggested were part of a concerted campaign by that country’s Black-led government. Last April, Mr. Carlson set off yet another uproar, borrowing from a racist conspiracy theory known as “the great replacement” to argue that Democrats were deliberately importing “more obedient voters from the third world” to “replace” the current electorate and keep themselves in power. But a Times analysis of 1,150 episodes of his show found that it was far from the first time Mr. Carlson had done so. (link)

The alleged Buffalo assailant’s manifesto seems to follow this script of “great replacement” and white supremacy very closely. The manifesto is explicit on these points (link). So the connection seems evident — message disseminated, message received, violence committed.

Milan Obaidi, Jonas Kunst, Simon Ozer and Sasha Y. Kimel make a strong sociological argument for the connection between “great replacement” myths and racist violence in “The ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy: How the perceived ousting of Whites can evoke violent extremism and Islamophobia” (link). These researchers document the role this meme has played in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim populism in European states:

In recent years, the “Great Replacement” conspiracy has not only gained prominence among right-wing extremists but has also found a foot- hold among right-wing populist political parties in Europe. For example, while evoking anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, such ideas have been espoused by the former leader of the Danish People’s Party Pia Kjærsgaard, the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán, the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and the leader of the far-right movement Rassemblement National Marine Le Pen (Alduy, 2017; Kingsley, 2019; Kjærsgaard, 2020). Various conservative intellectuals and far-right organizations have also utilized language that stokes fear about the decline of the “White race” and “White identity.” For instance, in an interview in the Wall Street Journal in 2006, Mark Steyn, a prominent proponent of “Eurabia” (i.e., a term coined to describe an alleged Islamization and Arabization of Europe), claimed that by the year 2025 “Europe will be 40 percent Muslim and much of what we loosely call the Western world will not survive this century” (Steyn quoted in Carr, 2006; see also Steyn, 2005). Meanwhile, anti-Muslim organizations such as the German PEGIDA movement and the European White-nativist movement Generation Identity (GI) have espoused similar views. For example, GI—one of Europe’s fastest growing far-right movements that advocates for an ethnically and culturally homogenous Europe—portrays immigrants as invaders while playing a prominent role in promoting, popularizing, and disseminating the “Great Replacement” conspiracy (Cox & Meisel, 2018; Feder & Maplestone, 2019). (link)

Based on their survey-based study, they find that there is a causal connection between perceived replacement and willingness to act violently against members of the other group.

Perceived replacement of the autochthonous population was positively correlated with willingness to violently persecute Muslims, violent intentions, Islamophobia, as well as symbolic and realistic threat perceptions (see Table 1). Moreover, both types of threats were related to Muslim persecution and Islamophobia. However, only symbolic threat was associated with violent intentions. (link)

Now–back to America. Tucker Carlson now finds it expedient to use the “Great Replacement” meme to crystallize the fears and antagonisms of his followers — again, a finding well documented in the New York Times series cited above. It seems all too obvious that this is a potent causal factor in the rise of activist white supremacist individuals and organizations. And, coincidentally, our country is witnessing a horrifying rise in violent attacks on people of color.    

What are some of the means available to those who care about democracy and equality for combatting this resurgent white supremacy and the violence it so recklessly engenders? Electing politicians who demonstrate their commitment to our democratic values is one response, but not a very rapid or targeted cure.

Is there another possibility deriving from civil liability? Is it possible to make use of civil lawsuits against the purveyors of false and hateful theories that inspire other individuals to commit acts of violence? In the Lawfare blog Alexander Vindman raises the possibility of using civil lawsuits to prevent the harms purveyed by right-wing media and personalities, including defamation and (one might speculate) encouragement of violence (link). Consider the example of the lawsuit successfully undertaken by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1981 against United Klans of America for the murder of Michael Donald by two klansmen. Success in this lawsuit led to bankruptcy and dissolution of this branch of the Ku Klux Klan (link).

Can the victims and their survivors of the Buffalo atrocity hold Tucker Carlson and Fox News at least partially responsible for the racist murders committed on May 14? Would $1 billion be an appropriate civil damage finding for the harm done by this reckless and immoral racism on a highly influential media channel? Would Fox News then find it prudent to eliminate the racist hatred it channels on its network if it were faced with such a judgment?

And what about the advertisers who continue to provide millions in ad revenue to Fox News? Can these companies at last be brought to recognize the shame of their support for racist hate mongering, and withdraw their support? If not, should not consumers look at these companies as complicit in the rising tide of racist violence in America? Here is a call for “defunding Fox News” (link) that identifies the top advertisers on Fox: GlaxoSmithKline, Liberty Mutual, General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Intuit, NortonLifeLock, Nestle, Kraft Heinz, Progressive, Charles Schwab, Toyota, and Subaru. GM, P&G, Subaru — do you really want to align yourself with racism and anti-democratic lies and the rising tide of violence that accompanies these pathologies?

(Here is a New York Times article on the background of segregation in Buffalo; link.)

Classification of political systems and theories

Graph of political systems (click image for full resolution)

It is possible to analyze much of the history of modern political philosophy — political theory since Hobbes and Locke — in terms of answers to a few primary questions. (This post expands upon a discussion of the “topology” of the space of political theories; link.) The answers to these primary questions can in principle generate a tree-structure of variants of political theories and systems. This is depicted in the graphic above, derived from these primary questions. 

1. Is a system of coercive law required for a peaceful human society?

Hobbes has a decisive answer to this question, based on his analysis of the state of nature. But it is also possible to make a case for a human community based on free cooperation among equals (anarchism).

2. Must a legitimate state provide strict protections of individual rights and liberties? (constitution)

Locke and Jefferson argued for the necessity of establishing protections of central rights and liberties that were essentially protected from legislation by the sovereign state — a constitution.

a. Are there distinct limits to the exercise and purpose of state power? (constitutionality)

b. Do these limits create constraints on the kinds of legislation that can be adopted by a majority of citizens for the whole of society?

The most common view of the content of a governing constitution for a legitimate state is the idea that it should embody the moral facts of liberty and equality for all citizens. But what does liberty involve? And what kinds of equality must be protected? Here are a few possible answers to the latter question.

a. Equality of worth and treatment
b. Civil and legal equality
c. Equality in opportunities to fulfill human capacities and plans

3. Is majority rule morally mandatory in a just state? (democracy) 

Is democracy required in a legitimate state, given the moral realities of human beings in association with each other? Is majority rule morally superior to other possible political decision rules — dictatorship, oligarchy, random assignment of citizens to positions in government, ….?

What moral principles are involved in defending the idea that a majority is entitled to impose its will on a minority with respect to various issues of public policy?

4. Are there moral reasons for concluding that a just state must embody programs to ensure the basic needs of all citizens — health, education, old age, decent housing, adequate nutrition? (public good)

a. Does the moral equality of all citizens create a broad social requirement that all citizens should be in a position to realize their human capacities and freedoms?

b. Do all members of society have obligations of concern for each other?

c. Is a society with extensive welfare provisions more politically stable and cohesive than one without those provisions?

d. Is a society with extensive welfare provisions more economically efficient and progressive than one without those provisions?

5. Do groups, nations, religious communities, classes, or races have independent moral value, over and above the value of the individuals who compose the population? (community)

a. Do citizens owe something to their fellow citizens (beyond not violating their constitutional rights)?
b. Should the state encourage or incentivize involvement in voluntary civil associations?
c. Can / should important collective tasks be left to the authority and competence of community associations?

The graph provided at the top of the post represents a tree diagram of kinds of political theories, depending on the YES/NO answers that a give theory provides to these questions.

If we conclude with Hobbes that a sovereign state is needed in order to secure public order and security in a society of independent and free individuals, then we are committed to the idea of a coercive state and system of law. If we reject that position, then we end with anarchism. (See Robert Paul Wolff’s brilliant In Defense of Anarchism for coherent arguments along these lines.) As a next step, we ask whether there are moral limits on the scope of the state. Does a legitimate state require a constitution guaranteeing the rights, liberties, and equality of citizens? If yes, should the constitutional order be governed by majority rule (within the constraints of the constitutional protections)? if yes, then we get liberal democracy. 

We can next ask the question about the need for state-funded programs to ensure the basic needs of all citizens and protecting against life’s unfortunate contingencies (illness, unemployment, disability, old age). If yes, we get social democracy (or the welfare state). If no, we get the classic laissez-faire constitutional democracy, the minimal state. 

Taking the anti-democratic route through the tree, we get various forms of authoritarianism and illiberal democracy; and depending on the answer to the question of redistribution for public wellbeing, we get fascism, populist authoritarianism, oligarchy, and populism.

The question of the moral importance of community is to some extent separate from this series of distinctions. But it can be related to a number of the outcomes in the diagram — on both the conservative and the progressive side of the spectrum. Philosophers defending anarchism have argued for the ability of a community of equals to find cooperative ways of handling its social life. Republicanism attributes independent value to the whole, over and above the value of the individual citizens. Populism in its various versions highlights the primacy of specific groups (racial, ethnic, national, gender, …). And communism puts the future of society as a whole ahead of the importance of individuals in society. 

One consistent set of political values leads us through this tree to a particular solution: the favored political system should be a constitutional social democracy. If we favor individual freedom, human equality, democracy, and social wellbeing, then what John Rawls refers to as a “property-owning democracy” (link) is the best solution. This system can be spelled out simply:

a. Constitutional guarantees of full and equal rights and liberties as citizens

b. Economic life is carried out in a market economy regulated to ensure fair equality of opportunity.

c. Taxation to ensure inequalities of wealth do not create inequalities of dignity and fulfillment of capacities

d. Public provision (tax-financed) of reasonably high level of basic needs — food, shelter, education, healthcare

This amounts to Rawls’s two principles of justice and his argument for a property-owning democracy (Rawls, Justice as Fairness). The liberty principle ensures the first point and the difference principle ensures the second point. The constraints involved in the idea of a property-owning democracy provide a solution to the apparent tension between liberty and equality.

An extremism index for elected officials

Senator Mike Braun (R-Indiana) made news in the past few days by questioning whether the Supreme Court was right to rule in 1967 that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Here is the exchange (link):

“So you would be OK with the Supreme Court leaving the question of interracial marriage to the states?” a reporter asked.

“Yes,” Braun answered. “I think that that’s something that if you’re not wanting the Supreme Court to weigh in on issues like that, you’re not going to be able to have your cake and eat it too. I think that’s hypocritical.”

Braun now says that he misunderstood the question; but the video makes that hard to believe.

Braun’s statement is just the most recent in a long series of appalling statements, screeds, and complaints by elected officials that place them in the range of what would have been called unacceptable right-wing extremism only a few decades ago. US senators and representatives have made statements with extremely ominous implications on a range of topics:

  • justifying or encouraging political violence
  • condoning racism and white supremacy
  • vilifying their political opponents
  • aligning themselves with openly insurrectionary organizations
  • expressing admiration for authoritarian leaders in other countries
  • calling for extreme voter suppression legislation in their home states
  • defending the January 6 rioters as “peaceful protesters”

Reading the newspapers everyday provides the interested reader with an impression that these kinds of statements are increasing in frequency and boldness, but that is just an impression. Would it be possible to attempt a more systematic study of the extent and depth of anti-democratic rhetoric among our elected officials based on their public speeches and comments?

This sounds like a big-data kind of project, in which the research team would collect speeches, interviews, and quotes through newspaper reports, press releases, social media items, and other sources. Then a systematic content analysis could be performed, identifying recurring themes and phrases for each politician. The work would need to be done according to clear criteria so that it would be possible to provide a profile of the themes advocated by each politician, and a measure of each politician’s score with respect to a few large themes: white supremacy/racism; condoning of political violence; support for voter suppression; support for the rule of law; support for neutral and equal political institutions; affiliation with extremist groups; ….

An ongoing project like this could be conducted by a news organization like Talking Points Memo (link), the Atlantic Monthly, or the Guardian, or it could be conducted by a non-profit organization.Much as the Americans for Democratic Action (link) constructs a “liberalism index” for elected officials based on their voting records on a selected group of pieces of legislation, we might imagine a multi-dimensional index of elected officials measuring their affiliation with right-wing extremism through statements contained in their public utterances. 

It would be very interesting to see a list of current elected officials who have explicitly supported racist or white supremacist ideas; a list of officials who have endorsed or encouraged political violence; a list of officials who cast doubt on the validity of voting and electoral processes; and officials who have publicly associated themselves with hate-based groups. Presumably there would be a good degree of association among the lists, and as citizens we would be in a much better position to understand the depth and breadth of the threat to democracy that we currently face. And it is likely that many of us would be jolted and alarmed at how long those lists are.

The graphic for this kind of research project might look like a weird spike protein for each individual, with spikes for the handful of themes and values used to aggregate the content analysis of their speeches. A politician given to racist utterances, support for political violence, and support for voter suppression would show a preponderance of elongated spikes on these themes, and negligible spikes on the pro-democracy, pro-voting rights, anti-racism themes.

The research team might go further and consider constructing a “rightwing extremism” index, as a weighted combination of several of these factors.

It would be very interesting to see how many members of the Senate and the House would emerge with high scores on the “rightwing extremism” index. In the current environment it seems as though the number would be a large one. And it would also be very interesting to see how the distribution of ratings on this index changes over time. Will these politicians become even more extreme in the near future? Will they begin to moderate their words and actions? Will the impulse towards anti-democratic extremism abate in the United States, or will it continue to intensify? And most importantly, what do these trends suggest for the health and prospects for our democracy?

It is possible that there is research along these lines currently underway. If so, I’d like to hear about it.

Factions, insurrections, and the Federalist Papers

Sometimes political philosophers think of the The Federalist Papers as fairly minor contributions to the history of political theory — time-bound, parochial, and written by colonial bumpkins who couldn’t really hold a candle to Locke or Hobbes. When addressed at all, they are often used simply as evidence about the “original intent” of various constitutional provisions in the US Constitution (link). Now that I’ve included several of the papers in a course I’m currently teaching on modern political thought, however, I’ve come to a new appreciation of what Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were attempting to accomplish — in contrast to Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. And I have gained a new appreciation of their sophistication as political philosophers and theorists. Most strikingly, I’ve seen today something that was invisible in the 1960s: how some of the work is enormously relevant on the assault to democracy we are currently experiencing from the far right in the United States.

The approach taken by the writers of the Federalist Papers is one of psychological realism. They want to design political institutions that work for citizens as they actually behave, not as we would wish them to behave. Here is a fine statement of their approach in FP 51, offered in their analysis of the institutional idea of “separation of powers” in government:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. (FP 51: 268-269)

One of the key problems that Madison and Hamilton confront, in a very serious way, is that of “faction”. We might think of this problem in a fairly trivial way: “I say potato, you say potahto”. We’re different. But what they have in mind is much more critical to the health and stability of a democracy than that. It has to do with groups that potentially endanger the survival of the republic itself, and the liberties of the citizens who make it up. Madison opens No. 10 with these words:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed, than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. (FP 10: 42)

Madison and Hamilton hope that they and their colleagues in institution-building in 1787 will be able to design governance arrangements that reduce the dangers of “faction” to the viability of the emerging American democracy.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. (FP 10: 43)

It is worth observing that a faction is not simply a group united by a shared set of preferences — citizens who advocate for a new public park in a city, say — but rather a group that advocates for actions that are “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”. Ku Klux Klan activists in Alabama in the 1950s who sought to intimidate African-American men and women from exercising their rights to vote would be a faction; so would a group that seeks to undermine a community’s ability to prevent the spread of polio among its children.

Why do factions and inter-group conflict arise? Madison (and Hamilton) approach the problem of politics realistically; and that means that they take human beings as they find them, not as we would wish them to be. Moreover, this is true both for citizens and leaders. Here is an extended passage:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them every where brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders, ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions, whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind, to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts. (FP 10: 43)

Madison notes that it is impossible to prevent the occurrence of factions and the conflicts they create; individuals are not fully rational, just, or self-controlled.

If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know, that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together; that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.(FP 10: 46)

And likewise, rulers are not angels either:

It is in vain to say, that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm: nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all, without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another, or the good of the whole. (FP 10: 45)

But Madison believes that appropriate institutional arrangements can minimize the bad effects of ordinary citizens exercising their passions and their interests. One such arrangement that serves as a buffer to the hazards of factions is representative government, or what he refers to as a republic. Political decisions no longer depend on the direct votes of citizens, but instead emerge from a decision-making process involving their elected representatives. He believes that the elected representatives will be more moderate than the factions of the public and “more consonant to the public good” (46). But, realist that he is, he also realizes that there may be a process of faction formation within the government itself:

Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people. (FP 10: 47)

We seem to have examples of both hazards to democracy in contemporary US politics: a substantial minority of citizens who come together with the goal of attacking legitimate public institutions (public health departments and school boards, for example) and legislators “of sinister design” who gain the votes of their districts and then act out of ideological and personal self-interest. Madison confirmed that this was a possibility in 1787, but he thought it unlikely as the electorate grew larger.

In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters. (FP 10: 47)

Finally, Madison believed that the plurality of states within the Federal republic would be a buffer against extremism in the legislature:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states: a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the national councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the union, than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire state. (FP 10: 48)

Both of these replies suggests a confidence in something like the “wisdom of the crowd”; but both are refuted by the politics of the recent past. “Factious leaders” have gained national followings, with adherents in multiple states. And multitudes of voters and citizens have been swept up into populist fantasies leading them to support policies and candidates who advocate those fantasies. Right-wing populism, fueled by conspiracy theories and social media, seems to have swamped democratic republicanism.

Madison and Hamilton were asking the right questions: How can we design democratic political institutions that are resilient in the face of ordinary men and women, extremist factions, and unscrupulous leaders? Perhaps there are good answers to these questions that haven’t yet been explored. But unhappily, Madison and Hamilton did not themselves arrive at a convincing solution.

Alexander Herzen’s radical liberalism

image: Meissonier, Massacre during June Days, 1848, Paris

Alexander Herzen’s From the Other Shore (1850) is an exceptionally important example of an intelligent observer trying to make sense of the social, economic, and political changes of the nineteenth century. And Isaiah Berlin’s introduction is profound. (Here is an online version of the book; link.)

Herzen’s writings represented an almost unique combination of political perspectives. He was sympathetic to revolutionary activism by anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin, as well as revolutionary socialists in London and Paris and the radical workers of Paris in 1848. He was fervently opposed to the old oppressive order of Europe, whether the rule of the Czar and landed aristocracy in Russia or the dominant bourgeois order of wealth and poverty in France and Germany. And he was passionately committed to the principle of individual liberty. We might say that he was a revolutionary anti-Czarist liberal republican — which sounds like a very contradictory bundle of political ideas. But the contradiction may be only apparent; it is the contradiction between revolution and liberty. As the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have unfolded, they have generally sacrificed liberty for the collectivist goals of revolution. But is a post-authoritarian, post-bourgeois regime in Europe necessarily indifferent to individual liberties? Or is it possible to imagine a genuinely egalitarian liberal social democracy, with strong constitutional protections of individual rights and liberties? If so, that seems to be the political idea that fits best with Herzen’s political writings.

Here is Herzen’s liberal principle:

The liberty of the individual is the greatest thing of all, it is on this and on this alone that the true will of the people can develop. Man must respect liberty in himself, and he must esteem it in himself no less than in his neighbour, than in the entire nation. (From the Other Shore, author’s introduction, 12)

Here is his revolutionary anti-authoritarian commitment:

The state forms of France and other European countries are in their essence compatible with neither liberty, equality nor fraternity. If any of these ideas were realized, it would be the repudiation of contemporary European life; it would be its death. No constitution, no government is in a position to give feudal and monarchical countries true freedom and equality without annihilating everything feudal and monarchical in them. European life, Christian and aristocratic, has moulded our civilization, our notions, our ways of life. It cannot exist without a Christian and aristocratic environment. (From the Other Shore, Year LVII of the Republic, 62)

Here is a passage on the June days of Paris 1848 that captures his sympathy for the workers:

I listened to the thunder and the tocsin and gazed avidly at this panorama of Paris; it was as though I was taking my leave of it. At that moment I loved Paris passionately. It was my last tribute to the great town; after the June days it grew hateful to me. On the other side of the river barricades were being raised in all the streets and alleys. I can still see the gloomy faces of the men dragging stones; women and children were helping them. A young student from the Polytechnic climbed up on to an apparently completed barricade, planted the banner and started singing the Marseillaise in a soft, sad, solemn voice; all the workers joined in and the chorus of this great song, resounding from behind the stones of the barricades, gripped one’s soul. . . . The tocsin was still tolling. Meanwhile, the artillery clattered across the bridge and General Bedeau standing there raised his field-glasses to inspect the enemy positions. . . . (From the Other Shore, After the Storm, 46)

And here is an alternative vision of work without wage labor — cooperatives — based on his understanding of the peasant commune in Russia:

There are a number of such artels—builders, carpenters and other sorts of artisans—each consisting of several hundred people drawn from different communes, who come together for a given period of time, for a year for instance, and so form a group. When the year is up, the workers share out the produce on the basis of the work they have done, in each case abiding by the general decision. The police have not so far had the satisfaction of being able to interfere in these arrangements. The association, I must emphasize, generally holds itself responsible for all the workers who comprise it. (From the Other Shore, The Russian People and Socialism, 184)

Finally, Herzen has a healthy distrust of “ideology”, or purely philosophical theories of an ideal future for which all present human wellbeing must be sacrificed. Against Trotsky, Lenin, and Mao, Herzen mistrusted grand ideological goals and favored a process of social change that permitted ordinary human beings to exercise their freedoms as society changed. Berlin emphasizes this point in his introduction.

It is, in the main, a frontal attack upon the doctrine at that time preached by almost every left-wing orator in Europe (with the notable exception of Proudhon and a handful of anarchists to whom no one listened), about the sacred human duty of offering up oneself—or others—upon the altar of some great moral or political cause—some absolute principle or ‘collective noun’ capable of stirring strong emotion, like Nationality, or Democracy, or Equality, or Humanity, or Progress. For Herzen these are merely modern versions of ancient religions which demanded human sacrifice, faiths which spring from some irrational belief (rooted in theology or metaphysics) in the existence of vast and menacing powers, once the objects of blind religious worship, then, with the decay of primitive faith, degraded to becoming terms of political rhetoric. The dogmas of such religions declare that mere invocation of certain formulae, certain symbols, render what would normally be regarded as crimes or lunacies—murder, torture, the humiliation of defenceless human bodies—not only permissible, but often laudable. (From the Other Shore, Berlin introduction, xv)

Here is Herzen on “progress” in “Before the Storm”:

‘You are quite right when you speak of nature, but it seems to me that you have forgotten that throughout all the changes and confusions of history there runs a single red thread binding it into one aim. This thread—is progress, or perhaps you do not acknowledge progress?’

‘Progress is the inalienable quality of uninterrupted conscious development: it consists in a retentive memory and the physiological perfection of man through social life.’

‘Is it possible that in all this you do not see a goal?’

‘Quite the opposite, I see here only a consequence. If progress is the end, for whom are we working? Who is this Moloch who, as the toilers approach him, instead of rewarding them, only recedes, and as a consolation to the exhausted, doomed multitudes crying “morituri te salutant”, can give back only the mocking answer that after their death all will be beautiful on earth. Do you truly wish to condemn all human beings alive to-day to the sad role of caryatids supporting a floor for others some day to dance on. . . or of wretched galley slaves, up to their knees in mud, dragging a barge filled with some mysterious treasure and with the humble words “progress in the future” inscribed on its bows? Those who are exhausted fall in their tracks; others, with fresh forces take up the ropes; but there remains, as you said yourself, as much ahead as there was at the beginning, because progress is infinite. This alone should serve as a warning to people: an end that is infinitely remote is not an end, but, if you like, a trap; an end must be nearer—it ought to be, at the very least, the labourer’s wage, or pleasure in the work done. (From the Other Shore, Before the Storm, 36-37)

The new society, if it is to conform to these disparate values, must accomplish several different social goods:

  • respect liberty and equal dignity of all individuals; 
  • secure the human needs of everyone — workers, engineers, poets, and owners of property; 
  • be democratic, not autocratic. 

Was there any place on the planet in 1850 that satisfied these different structural features? There certainly was not — not Britain, not Switzerland, not the United States. Is there a society on the planet today that satisfies them? Perhaps there is; it is called Finland.

Thomas Carlyle on government and England’s poor

Thomas Carlyle was an acerbic conservative social thinker, given to assuming the fundamental legitimacy of social and political hierarchies and hostile to democracy. A re-reading of Chartism (1839) shows that he also possessed a white-hot anger at England’s indifference to the conditions of the poor, and he raged against Parliament, which whistled while catastrophe loomed. In its own way there is as much anger at England’s injustice and cruelty to its working people here as is found in Engels’s more or less contemporary The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) (link). In Chartism Carlyle takes on the 1834 Poor Law Act and the draconian version of laissez-faire that these policies imposed (link), and he interprets the Charter movement as a natural and predictable response to social and political indifference to the conditions of working people. In some passages he sounds a bit like E.P. Thompson himself, in The Making of the English Working Class, when he writes about the need for dignity and justice for working people.

What is the underlying view that Carlyle seems to have in mind? It is not a call for more charity to the poor, more noblesse oblige. Rather, it is a call for a system of government that effectively confronts the pressing problem in the first decade of the nineteenth century, of the conditions of the English poor. He is scathing at the inability of Parliament to adequately formulate and assess the problem, and he is contemptuous of the solution offered in the form of new Poor Laws.

Carlyle’s conservatism emerges fully when he advances his own views of governing, which is the primary thrust of the pamphlet. Carlyle is full of ironic disdain and contempt for the irrelevance of Parliament in the first part of the nineteenth century; whereas he admires the rule of the strong man with a unified will. Carlyle’s prescription to the task of addressing the hopeless condition of the poor in England is a return to wise but absolute government.

What are all popular commotions and maddest bellowings, from Peterloo to the Place-de-Greve itself? Bellowings, inarticulate cries as of dumb creatures in rage and pain; to the ear of wisdom they are inarticulate prayers: ” Guide me, govern me! I am mad, and miserable, and cannot guide myself!” Surely of all ‘rights of man,’ this right of the ignorant man to be guided by the wiser, to be, gently or forcibly, held in the true course by him, the indisputablest. (52)

In effect Carlyle sides with Hobbes against Locke or Jefferson: the sovereign will find it in his or her interest to rule strongly but wisely, and with laws that protect the important interests of the people.

How can-do, if we will well interpret it, unites itself with shall-do among mortals; how strength acts ever as the right-arm of justice; how might and right, so frightfully discrepant at first, are ever in the long-run one and the same, — is a cheering consideration, which always in the black tempestuous vortices of this world’s history, will shine out on us, like an everlasting polar star. (39)

This view may be thought to serve as a rejoinder to the critics of Hobbes who hold that the sovereign will do no more than exploit and oppress his or her “sheep”; Carlyle argues that it is not in the interest of the sovereign to do so, and rule based solely on coercion is doomed to end in short order.

Of conquest we may say that it never yet went by brute force and compulsion; conquest of that kind does not endure. Conquest, along with power of compulsion, an essential universally in human society, must bring benefit along with it or men, of the ordinary strength of men, will fling it out. The strong man, what is he if we will consider? The wise man; the man with the gift of method, of faithfulness and valour, all of which are of the basis of wisdom; who has insight into what is what, into what will follow out of what, the eye to see and the hand to do; who is fit to administer, to direct, and guidingly command : he is the strong man. His muscles and bones are no stronger than ours but his soul stronger, his soul is wiser, clearer,— is better and nobler, for that is, has been, and ever will be the root of all clearness worthy of such name. (39)

Over the fullness of time, then, Carlyle seems to assert that might and right converge; the “strong man” who survives will be the wise man. “His soul is wiser, clearer — is better and nobler”. And Carlyle appears to believe that this is part of the “natural” order.

But what assures Carlyle that in the long run, the rulers will respect and support the dignity and wellbeing of the “lower classes”? It is the rage and violence that is produced by a widespread feeling of injustice and unfair treatment that he believes is apparent in the violence of the Chartist movement or the French Revolution. Oppressive or negligent rule leads to its own overthrow by enraged masses. For Carlyle the French Revolution was mindless terror — and a stark historical lesson to rulers. The lesson is simple: they must rule wisely, or the terror awaits them.

He also takes it as an axiom that the poor — that is, the great majority of the English population — cannot govern themselves; the demand for universal suffrage is hooted off the stage. Democracy is a ludicrous ideal for Carlyle. The inarticulate, suffering poor can demand only to be governed well by their superiors. Even more explicitly:

Democracy, we are well aware, what is called ‘ self-government’ of the multitude by the multitude, is in words the thing everywhere passionately clamoured for at present. Democracy makes rapid progress in these latter times, and ever more rapid, in a perilous accelerative ratio ; towards democracy, and that only, the progress of things is everywhere tending as to the final goal and winning-post. So think, so clamour the multitudes everywhere. (53)

But: “Democracy never yet, that we heard of, was able to accomplish much work, beyond that same cancelling of itself” (59). “Napoleon was not president of a republic Cromwell tried hard to rule in that way, but found that he could not. These, ‘the armed soldiers of democracy,’ had to chain democracy under their feet, and become despots over it before they could work out the earnest obscure purpose of democracy itself!” (54).

In particular, Carlyle writes again and again that the underclass cannot rationally articulate its needs or make a rational plan for progress. For Carlyle, the underclasses are incapable of subtle or nuanced analysis of the causes of their condition, or of possible reforms that realistically could address their condition.

Dingy dumb millions, grimed with dust and sweat, with darkness, rage and sorrow, stood round these men, saying, or struggling as they could to say : ” Behold, our lot is unfair ; our life is not whole but sick; we cannot live under injustice; go ye and get us justice !” For whether the poor operative clamoured for Time-bill, Factory-bill, Corn-bill, for or against whatever bill, this was what he meant. (91-92)

Moreover, they live in a world that is naturally stratified between superior and inferior:

Recognised or not recognised, a man has his superiors, a regular hierarchy above him; extending up, degree above degree; to Heaven itself and God the Maker, who made His world not for anarchy but for rule and order ! (94)

His view of the radical leaders who claim to speak for the underclasses is equally severe: they are cynical opportunists.

There is a class of revolutionists named Girondins, whose fate in history is remarkable enough ! Men who rebel, and urge the Lower Classes to rebel, ought to have other than Formulas to go upon. Men who discern in the misery of the toiling complaining millions not misery, but only a raw-material which can be wrought upon, and traded in, for one’s own poor hidebound theories and egoisms ; to whom millions of living fellow-creatures, with beating hearts in their bosoms, beating, suffering, hoping, are ‘ masses,’ mere ‘explosive masses for blowing down Bastilles with,’ for voting at hustings for us: such men are of the questionable species ! (93)

And as for the issue of the day, the Charter — the Charter is nonsense, simply an enraged bellow of pain and a demand for relief. The Chartist movement is one of violence, burning, and murder. Carlyle rejects entirely the idea that the underclasses might formulate their own diagnosis of the ills of their society, or a plan for addressing those ills.

Neither is the history of Chartism mysterious in these times ; especially if that of Radicalism be looked at. All along, for the last five-and-twenty years, it was curious to note how the internal discontent of England struggled to find vent for itself through any orifice : the poor patient, all sick from centre to surface, complains now of this member, now of that ;— corn-laws, currency-laws, free-trade, protection, want of free-trade : the poor patient tossing from side to side, seeking a sound side to lie on, finds none. This Doctor says, it is the liver ; that other, it is the lungs, the head, the heart, defective transpiration in the skin. A thoroughgoing Doctor of eminence said, it was rotten boroughs; the want of extended suffrage to destroy rotten boroughs. From of old, the English patient himself had a continually recurring notion that this was it. The English people are used to suffrage ; it is their panacea for all that goes wrong with them ; they have a fixed-idea of suffrage. (90)

Moreover, rebellion is always wrong, because:

No man is justified in resisting by word or deed the Authority he lives under, for a light cause, be such Authority what it may. Obedience, little as many may consider that side of the matter, is the primary duty of man. No man but is bound indefeasibly, with all force of obligation, to obey. (93-94)

With an intriguing sleight of hand, Carlyle maintains that democracy and laissez-faire are one and the same; both amount to a “do-nothing” approach to government. Democracy cannot rule wisely, as the principle of “laissez-faire” cannot guide social and economic life.

So who should rule in England? Carlyle makes his preferences clear; and it is a preference for the feudal past, where feudal lords governed their bonded workers and farmers. It is the aristocracy that must take up the responsibility of governing — the aristocracy must lead and govern.

Yet we do say that the old Aristocracy were the governors of the Lower Classes, the guides of the Lower Classes ; and even, at bottom, that they existed as an Aristocracy because they were found adequate for that. Not by Charity-Balls and Soup-Kitchens; not so; far otherwise! But it was their happiness that, in struggling for their own objects, they had to govern the Lower Classes, even in this sense of governing. For, in one word. Cash Payment had not then grown to be the universal sole nexus of man to man ; it was something other than money that the high then expected from the low, and could not live without getting from the low. (58)

This is the passage where the “cash nexus” phrase originates. And the passage appears to express one of Carlyle’s fundamental beliefs — that a harmonious society depends upon strands of loyalty, trust, and commitment between unequals — not simply impersonal economic relationships.

We might say that the political theory expressed in Chartism amounts to only a handful of assertions:

  1. The poor are suffering enormously under current conditions in England. They are both severely impoverished and treated unfairly.
  2. The poor are naturally inferior to the aristocracy and are incapable of rational political thought.
  3. The current system of government (Parliament) is incapable of perceiving the crisis, let alone addressing it with intelligent policies.
  4. England is in crisis because of these facts.
  5. Only authoritarian, unified government by a natural aristocracy will have the insight and wisdom to remedy England’s crisis.

It is interesting to recall that Engels, and later Marx, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, would agree with premises 1, 3, and 4, but disagree fundamentally with 2 and 5. It is also interesting to observe that Carlyle’s conservatism (authoritarianism, really) became a branch-line in the coming century of conflict over “the social question”, with social democrats and revolutionary socialists defining the main contenders for a program of progress. And Carlyle’s political views do not line up with other forms of conservatism in the twentieth century very closely either — whether fascist ideology or the persistence of English laissez-faire conservatism grounded in pre-Keynesian political economy. Carlyle was sui generis.

Decline of democracy in India

The entrenched rule of the BJP and its leader, Narendra Modi, has led to a truly alarming degradation in India’s democratic institutions (link). Hindu nationalism and the degradation of citizenship rights for Muslims and other non-Hindus; the rise of paramilitary violence in cities; the repression of non-compliant students and academics through violence and the threat of violence; the systematic undermining of judicial institutions — India is fast becoming an “illiberal democracy” (link) in which single-party rule and an autocratic leader systematically erode the principles of equal citizenship, freedom of speech and association, and the integrity and independence of other constitutional mechanisms. 

The well-respected Freedom House index of freedom documents the decline of democratic freedoms in India (link). Here is a summary of the 2021 Freedom House assessment:

India’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.

Overview

While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over discriminatory policies and increased violence affecting the Muslim population. The constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi. Muslims, scheduled castes (Dalits), and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) remain economically and socially marginalized. (link)

Here is a sober account of Hindu nationalist violence, organized by RSS groups, against students and faculty in February 2020 at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi (link). 

The group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP), is the youth wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Founded 94 years ago by men who were besotted with Mussolini’s fascists, the RSS is the holding company of Hindu supremacism: of Hindutva, as it’s called. Given its role and its size, it is difficult to find an analogue for the RSS anywhere in the world. In nearly every faith, the source of conservative theology is its hierarchical, centrally organised clergy; that theology is recast into a project of religious statecraft elsewhere, by other parties. Hinduism, though, has no principal church, no single pontiff, nobody to ordain or rule. The RSS has appointed itself as both the arbiter of theological meaning and the architect of a Hindu nation-state. It has at least 4 million volunteers, who swear oaths of allegiance and take part in quasi-military drills. (link)

The violence was organized and brutal, and eye witness reports assert that the police stood by without intervening.

The police were called, but they didn’t move to stop the violence. Instead, a posse of policemen installed itself at JNU’s gate, allowing no one in. Yogendra Yadav, a political activist, arrived at the gate at 9pm. Ninety minutes later, the attackers emerged, still masked and armed. Even then, the police detained no one. Instead, they were permitted to walk away as if nothing had happened. When Yadav’s colleague took photos, Yadav was set upon by a knot of men, knocked down and kicked in the face. The police did nothing. Later, from a video, Yadav identified a local ABVP official among those who had hit him. In a statement, the ABVP blamed the attacks on “leftist goons,” but on television members admitted that the masked, armed men and women on campus were part of the ABVP. Still, the Delhi police pressed no charges. “The police gave the goons cover, gave them free rein on campus,” Yadav said. A JNU professor went further, claiming that: “The police are complicit.”

This is fascism — and the history of the RSS goes back directly to its admiration for Mussolini’s fascist movement in the 1920s. Paramilitary violence is a horrific step forward in the decline of democracy.

The attack on intellectuals and the attack on the independence of the judiciary come together in the increasingly aggressive efforts made by the BJP and Modi to silence their critics. Consider for example the legal assault on Anand Teltumbde (link). “Teltumbde, an advocate for India’s most disadvantaged communities, including Dalits, once called ‘untouchables,’ has been swept up in a broad crackdown against lawyers, activists and dissent in general.” And he has been treated in a very prejudicial manner by the courts in India: “Teltumbde’s unfair treatment by our judiciary underscores the loss of independence by India’s institutions. The refusal by the Supreme Court to grant him bail came soon before a former chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi, joined Parliament after being nominated by Modi government…. It’s clear India’s Supreme Court has been politicized and has become pliant toward the current administration. Recently, Justice Arun Mishra, who has also ruled in favor of Modi, hailed the prime minister as a versatile genius, an internationally acclaimed visionary who thought globally and acted locally” (link).

A third dimension of the decline of democracy under Hindu nationalist rule is the effort to redefine citizenship to disadvantage Muslim immigrants. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) passed in 2019 was plainly designed for the purpose of reducing the rights of citizenship of immigrant Muslims in comparison to other religious minorities:

Now there will be an exception for members of six religious minority communities — Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian — if they can prove that they are from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh. They will only have to live or work in India for six years to be eligible for citizenship by naturalisation, the process by which a non-citizen acquires the citizenship or nationality of that country. (link)

The Citizenship Amendment Bill has provoked extensive protest because of its plain purpose of placing burdens and disadvantages on Muslim residents of India. It should be recalled that Prime Minister Modi was partially responsible for anti-Muslim violence in 2002 in Gujarat while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat (link), and was denied a visa by the US State Department on the basis of evidence in support of this finding (link). Narendra Modi is now the apparently unshakeable chief executive of India’s democracy of 1.4 billion people.

United States after the failure of democracy

Democracy is at risk in the United States. Why do leading political observers like Steven Levitsky and  Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) fear for the fate of our democracy? Because anti-democratic forces have taken over one of America’s primary political parties — the GOP; because GOP officials, governors, and legislators openly conspire to subvert future elections; because GOP activists and officials work intensively in state legislatures to restrict voting rights for non-Republican voters, including people of color and city dwellers; and because the Supreme Court no longer protects the Constitution and the rights that it embodies. 

Here is how Levitsky and Ziblatt summarize their urgent concerns about the future of our democracy in a recent Atlantic article (link):

From November 2020 to January 2021, then, a significant portion of the Republican Party refused to unambiguously accept electoral defeat, eschew violence, or break with extremist groups—the three principles that define prodemocracy parties. Because of that behavior, as well as its behavior over the past six months, we are convinced that the Republican Party leadership is willing to overturn an election. Moreover, we are concerned that it will be able to do so—legally. That’s why we serve on the board of advisers to Protect Democracy, a nonprofit working to prevent democratic decline in the United States. We wrote this essay as part of “The Democracy Endgame,” the group’s symposium on the long-term strategy to fight authoritarianism.

Any reader of the morning newspaper understands how deadly serious this threat is. Many residents of Michigan find it absolutely chilling that the most recently appointed GOP canvasser for Wayne County has said publicly that he would not have certified the election results for the county in 2020 — with no factual basis whatsoever (link). With GOP officials in many states indicating their corrupt willingness to subvert future elections, how can one have a lot of hope for the future of our democracy?

So, tragically, it is very timely to consider this difficult question: what might an anti-democratic authoritarian system look like in the United States? Sinclair Lewis considered this question in 1935, and his portrait in It Can’t Happen Here was gloomy. Here is a snippet of Lewis’s vision of a fascist dictatorship in America following the election of the unscrupulous populist candidate Berzelius Windrip and his paramilitary followers, the Minute Men:

At the time of Windrip’s election, there had been more than 80,000 relief administrators employed by the federal and local governments in America. With the labor camps absorbing most people on relief, this army of social workers, both amateurs and long-trained professional uplifters, was stranded.

The Minute Men controlling the labor camps were generous: they offered the charitarians the same dollar a day that the proletarians received, with special low rates for board and lodging. But the cleverer social workers received a much better offer: to help list every family and every unmarried person in the country, with his or her finances, professional ability, military training and, most important and most tactfully to be ascertained, his or her secret opinion of the M.M.’s and of the Corpos in general.

A good many of the social workers indignantly said that this was asking them to be spies, stool pigeons for the American OGPU. These were, on various unimportant charges, sent to jail or, later, to concentration camps—which were also jails, but the private jails of the M.M.’s, unshackled by any old-fashioned, nonsensical prison regulations.

In the confusion of the summer and early autumn of 1937, local M.M. officers had a splendid time making their own laws, and such congenital traitors and bellyachers as Jewish doctors, Jewish musicians, Negro journalists, socialistic college professors, young men who preferred reading or chemical research to manly service with the M.M.’s, women who complained when their men had been taken away by the M.M.’s and had disappeared, were increasingly beaten in the streets, or arrested on charges that would not have been very familiar to pre-Corpo jurists. (ch xvii)

But perhaps this is extreme. Foretelling the future is impossible, but here are several features that seem likely enough given the current drift of US politics, if anti-democratic authoritarian politicians seize control of our legislative and executive offices.

Undermining of constitutional liberties

  • weakening of freedom of the press through additional libel-law restrictions, bonds, and other “chilling” legal mechanisms
  • weakening of freedom of thought and speech through legislation and bullying concerning critical / unpopular doctrines — “Critical Race Theory”, “Queer Studies”, “Communist/anarchist thought”, …
  • weakening of freedom of association through extension of police surveillance, police violence, “anti-riot” legislation limiting demonstrations, vilification by leaders, trolls, and social media of outspoken advocates of unpopular positions

Further restrictions on voting rights and voter access to elections

  • extreme gerrymandering to ensure one-party dominance
  • unreasonable voter ID requirements
  • limitations on absentee voting
  • voter intimidation at the polls

The imposition of laws and mandates that are distinctly opposed by the majority of citizens by minority-party-dominated legislatures 

  • repressive and unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation
  • open-carry firearms legislation

Implementation of an anti-regulation agenda that gives a free hand to big business and other powerful stakeholders

  • weakening of regulatory agencies through reduction of legal mandate and budget

Intimidation of dissenters through violent threats, paramilitary demonstrations, and the occasional murder

  • encouragement of social violence by followers of the authoritarian leader
  • persecution through informal and sometimes formal channels of racial and social minorities — immigrants, people of color, Asians, LGBTQ and transgender people, …
  • threats of violence and murder against public officials, journalists, and dissidents

These are terrible outcomes, and taken together they represent the extinction of liberal democracy: the integrity of constitutionally-defined equal rights for all individuals, and the principle of majoritarian public decision-making. But what about the extremes that authoritarian states have often reached in the past century — wholesale persecution of “enemies of the state”, imprisonment of dissidents, forcible dissolution of opposition political organizations, political murder, and wholesale use of paramilitary organizations to achieve the political goals of the authoritarian rules? What about the secret police, the Gulag, and the concentration camps? What are the prospects for these horrific outcomes in the United States? How likely is the descent imagined by Sinclair Lewis into wholesale fascist dictatorship?

One would like to say these extremes are unlikely in the US — that US authoritarianism would be “soft dictatorship” like that of Orban rather than the hard dictatorship of a Putin involving rule by fear, violence, imprisonment, and intimidation. But actually, history is not encouraging. We have seen the decline of one after another of the “guard rails of democracy” in just the past five years, and we have seen the actions of a president who clearly cared only about his own power and will. So where exactly should we find optimism for the idea that an American Mussolini or Windrip would never commit the crimes of the dictators of the twentieth century? Isn’t there a great deal of truth in Acton’s maxim, “power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Here is Acton’s quote in its more extended context; and it is very specific in its advice that we should not trust “great leaders” to refrain from great crimes:

If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Would any of us want to trust our fate as free, equal, and dignified persons to the kindness and democratic values of a Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, or Donald Trump? 

The best remedy against these terrible outcomes is to struggle for our democracy now. We must give full and deep support to politicians and candidates who demonstrate a commitment to democratic values, and we must reject the very large number of GOP politicians who countenance the subversion of our democracy through their adherence to the lies of the Trump years. This is not a struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives”; it is a struggle between those who value our liberal democracy and those who cynically undermine and disparage it. And perhaps we will need to take the example and the courage of men and women in Belarus, Myanmar, Thailand, and Hong Kong in their willingness to stand up against the usurpation of their democratic rights through massive peaceful demonstrations.

Fascist populism and the threat to democracy

What features of a political regime contribute to political loyalty and commitment on the part of its citizens? Can a fascist dictatorship inspire political loyalty and commitment from the mass of society? And what about liberal democracy; can a liberal democratic regime maintain mass support?

We have the makings of an answer to the first question. A fascist dictatorship like that of Mussolini can indeed maintain passionate support through a powerful (often mendacious) ideology and value scheme — fatherland, church, family, scapegoating of “enemies of the people”; a social program that finds support (repression of immigrants and ethnic minorities); and a demonstration of competent governance (“the trains run on time”). This story identifies several factors — ideology and values, scapegoating, implementation of popular policies of repression, and efficient adminstration of government (economic growth. jobs, stable prices, …).

So what about liberal democracy: a maximal, extensive, and equal system of rights; and a legislative process implementing equal democratic rights to set law and policy. Does this system provide a basis for eliciting loyalty and commitment from all or most citizens? In particular, does it support a compelling value statement, a real principle of tolerance, and the capacity for achieving “good government” (efficient management of the public good)? Can the values of equal worth, tolerance of difference, and majoritarian decision-making lead to loyalty and commitment? Can a Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton create an inspiring vision of the future that mobilizes most citizens in support?

The prospects don’t appear to be very good. Anti-liberal political opportunists can always create a counter-narrative that directly or tacitly rejects equality and tolerance and seeks to create a basis for minority rule. Right-wing populism has shown itself to be insidious and virulent — very capable of winning support from large groups of anti-liberal activists and followers. The politics of division and hate are indeed powerful. Fascist ideology, values, and programs have great strength in the space of contemporary mass politics. The currents of hate, fear, racism, xenophobia, and the political maneuver of “group supremacy” have shown themselves to be highly potent bases for political mobilization.

There seem to be two levels of support for a regime that are in question. First is “rational/reasonable consideration” of which regime best suits my longterm interests. The second is “emotional/passionate mobilization” around the call to action by a highly persuasive leader — a Tucker Carlson or Mussolini. The first is a deliberative “all things considered” choice of a regime; the other is political marketing and propaganda.

What then are the prospects for continuing stable support for liberal democracy? First, it is clear that this kind of support is not automatic. There are powerful and compelling anti-liberal voices in the space of liberal democracy. Liberal democrats must compete vigorously or they will lose. They must articulate the value of liberal democracy and the very real dangers of the rise of populist extremism.

Second, liberal democracy needs to make credible the belief that liberal democratic government can succeed in creating laws and policies that genuinely enhance justice, equality, and opportunity.

And third, defenders of liberal democracy need to ensure that the institutions of the state continue to guarantee the rights of all citizens. The willingness of the far-right to use violent threats and actions against our institutions must be rebutted. January 6 is a dangerous and sobering precedent; so are the kidnapping plot against Michigan Governor Whitmer, the brandishing of semi-automatic weapons in state houses around the country, and the intimidation of public health officials during the pandemic. Violence and intimidation are inherently toxic to liberal democracy.

It seems very clear: Citizens must actively assert themselves in support of our liberal democracy, or we will go the way of Hungary.

Tony Judt on twentieth-century Marxism

Tony Judt was especially astute when it came to linking history and intellectuals. One strand of thought in his collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a critical engagement with several twentieth-century thinkers associated with Marxism (and sometimes anti-Marxism), including Althusser, Kołakowski, E.P. Thompson (briefly), Raymond Aron (briefly), and Eric Hobsbawm. With the exception of Kołakowski, Judt’s perspective on these thinkers is negative, usually because of their failure to honestly reckon with the crimes of Stalinism (Althusser, Hobsbawm). And there is often a disparaging tone to his rhetoric.

In the case of Althusser Judt’s tone and critique are especially harsh. He portrays Althusser as an ignorant pundit rather than a serious philosopher, he finds Althusser to be contemptible for his efforts to gloss over the crimes of Stalinism, and he has complete scorn for Althusser’s “structuralism” as an explication of Marx’s theories. On Althusser’s ignorance of history and philosophy:

He seems to know nothing of recent history (among his howlers is an indictment of the “Polish fascist” Pilsudski for starting World War II). He appears only late in life to have discovered Machiavelli and other classics of Western philosophy, and he even admits to a skimpy and partial acquaintance with Marx’s texts (something one might have inferred from his published work). He is also unsophisticated to the point of crudity in his political analysis. He seems to have learned nothing and to have forgotten nothing in the last twenty years of his life. Thus there is much talk of “the hegemony of bourgeois, imperialist capitalism”; and he is dismissive of the dissidents of the Soviet bloc (“cut off from their own people”) and contemptuous of writers like André Glucksmann for “putting around unbelievable horror stories of the Gulag.” Those words were written in 1985! (p. 113)

Judt believes there is no content to Althusser’s “theory of structural practices”. And this shortcoming dovetails with the issue of Althusser’s failure to confront Stalinism:

This subjectless theory of everything had a further virtue. By emphasizing the importance of theory, it diverted attention from the embarrassing defects of recent practice. In such an account, Stalin’s crime was not that he had murdered millions of human beings, it was that he had perverted the self-understanding of Marxism. Stalinism, in short, was just another mistake in theory, albeit an especially egregious one, whose major sin consisted of its refusal to acknowledge its own errors. (p. 108)

I am inclined to agree with Judt’s assessment of Althusser’s structuralism. My own assessment in The Scientific Marx (1986) of Althusser’s structuralist Marxism was negative as well:

A second important example of this “theoretist” approach to Capital can be found in structuralist Marxism, particularly that of Althusser and his followers. In this case, instead of an economic interpretation of Marx’s system, we find an effort to describe Capital as a general theory of the “structures” that define and animate the capitalist mode of production. For example, Hindess and Hirst hold that Capital is fundamentally an abstract theory of the capitalist mode of production that derives the “logic” of the system from the concept of the mode of production. Here too the aim is to portray Capital as a unified set of theoretical principles, with the rest of the work being treated as illustrative material or derived consequences. This account shows the same predisposition identified earlier to construe Capital as an organized theoretical system, and the same reductionist necessity to downplay those portions of the work which cannot be easily assimilated to the theoretical model. (Scientific Marx, 17)

Judt’s discussion of Leszek Kołakowski gives special attention to Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown and is much more favorable. 

It is quite impossible to convey in a short review the astonishing range of Kołakowski’s history of Marxist doctrine. It will surely not be superseded: Who will ever again know—or care—enough to go back over this ground in such detail and with such analytical sophistication? Main Currents of Marxism is not a history of socialism; its author pays only passing attention to political contexts or social organizations. It is unashamedly a narrative of ideas, a sort of bildungsroman of the rise and fall of a once-mighty family of theory and theorists, related in skeptical, disabused old age by one of its last surviving children. (132)

Judt believes that Kołakowski arrives at a fundamental insight about the role of Marxism in 20th-century history — the propensity of his followers to regard Marx’s writings as total theories encompassing both the present and the future. These forms of dogmatism laid the seeds of the totalitarianism of Communism as a political-economic system:

Solving the problems of mankind in one stroke; seeking out an all-embracing theory that can simultaneously explain the present and guarantee the future; resorting to the crutch of intellectual or historical “systems” to navigate the irritating complexity and contradictions of real experience; saving the “pure” seed of an idea or an ideal from its rotten fruit: Such shortcuts have a timeless allure and are certainly not the monopoly of Marxists (or indeed the Left). But it is understandably tempting to dismiss at least the Marxist variant of such human follies: Between the disabused insights of former Communists like Kołakowski and the self-righteous provincialism of “Western” Marxists like Thompson, not to speak of the verdict of history itself, the subject would appear to have self-destructed. (136)

Judt also provides an extensive discussion of E.P. Thompson’s polemic with Leszek Kołakowski:

The “Open Letter” was Thompson at his priggish, Little-Englander worst: garrulous (the letter runs to one hundred pages of printed text), patronizing, and sanctimonious. In a pompous, demagogic tone, with more than half an eye to his worshipful progressive audience, Thompson shook his rhetorical finger at the exiled Kołakowski, admonishing him for apostasy: “We were both voices of the Communist revisionism of 1956. . . . We both passed from a frontal critique of Stalinism to a stance of Marxist revisionism. . . . There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts.” How dare you, Thompson suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England, betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal? (p. 136)

This portrait has much of the rhetorical excess from which Judt’s polemical essay “Clown in Regal Purple” (link) suffers in regard to Judt’s treatment of Charles Tilly (link), and seems to reflect intellectual animus as much as substantive critique. A clear indicator of the animus: after discussing Kołakowski’s response to Thompson, Judt writes a few lines later: “No one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again” (136). That is a bit hard, given that few historians would doubt the importance, rigor, and enduring insights of Thompson’s most important work, The Making of the English Working Class (link). 

Judt believes that Marxism was historically important in the twentieth century, but its importance was largely destructive. Judt believes that Marxism gave rise to social and political theories that led fairly directly to Communist totalitarianism. So he argues that it is of more than academic interest for us to try to understand the nature of Marxist thought throughout the first half of the century.

Marxism is thus inextricably intertwined with the intellectual history of the modern world. To ignore or dismiss it is willfully to misinterpret the recent past. Ex-Communists and former Marxists—François Furet, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kołakowski, Wolfgang Leonhard, Jorge Semprún, Victor Serge, Ignazio Silone, Boris Souvarine, Manès Sperber, Alexander Wat, and dozens of others—have written some of the best accounts of twentieth-century intellectual and political life. Even a lifelong anti-Communist like Raymond Aron was not embarrassed to acknowledge his undiminished interest in the “secular religion” of Marxism (to the point of recognizing that his obsession with combating it amounted to a sort of transposed anticlericalism). And it is indicative that a liberal like Aron took particular pride in being far better read in Marx and Marxism than many of his self-styled “Marxist” contemporaries. (137)

Marxism was important, Judt believes, because it gave a unified narrative that ordinary engaged people could understand about how society might move forward to a more just future.

The Marxist project, like the older Socialist dream which it displaced and absorbed, was one strand in the great progressive narrative of our time: It shares with classical liberalism, its antithetical historical twin, that narrative’s optimistic, rationalistic account of modern society and its possibilities. Marxism’s distinctive twist—the assertion that the good society to come would be a classless, post-capitalist product of economic processes and social upheaval—was already hard to credit by 1920. But social movements deriving from the initial Marxian analytical impulse continued for many decades to talk and behave as though they still believed in the transformative project. (138)

Most importantly, Marxism highlighted the features of contemporary capitalist society that were most visible and repellent to ordinary people: exploitation, alienation of ordinary life, inequality, and the indignities of class. However, for a number of years, the Marxist narrative appeared to be refuted by the postwar expansion in the standard of living, the accessibility of public education, and health and welfare protections.

Marxism, as the Polish historian Andrzej Walicki—one of its more acerbic critics—openly acknowledges, was the most influential “reaction to the multiple shortcomings of capitalist societies and the liberal tradition.” If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century, it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of Left and Right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point. (140)

But — as Judt recognizes in the final few pages of the essay on Althusser — twenty-first century capitalism persists in presenting humanity with many of the same crippling problems that Marx identified in the nineteenth century: staggering inequalities, extensive deprivation for working class and underclass men and women, and alienating forms of daily life. The seemingly unbridled power of corporations to have their way in the market and in public policy makes the language of civic equality seem hollow. And we now know the terrible potential of right-wing extremist movements — whether National Socialism in the 1930s or right-wing nationalist populism in the 2000s — to mobilize mass support for dictatorship and repression. The stability of liberal democracies is no longer assured; authoritarian leaders like Orban, Erdogan, and Trump have demonstrated their willingness to smash democratic institutions and norms. 

Judt argues that intellectuals and social change have always gone hand in hand; intellectuals help us think about the future and how to create a pathway of progress to better circumstances for humanity. Judt plainly rejected the notion that Marxism could play that role. But in the current moment, we have a deficit of convincing intellectuals and broad social movements that might help us envision and secure a more egalitarian democracy. We urgently need broad and appealing visions of a more palatable future for all members of society. Where are the social thinkers who will speak for progressive liberal democracy? Rejecting “Marxism” cannot be extended to intolerance of creative thinking by a range of democratic socialist theorists. Social democracy, democratic socialism, and non-Marxist socialist thought are broad and important ideas in our current context. Are there socialist thinkers in the past who gave greater attention to individual freedom and wellbeing whose work repays a rereading (for example, Alexander Chayanov, murdered by Stalin in 1937 (linklink))? Do contemporary thinkers like Erik Olin Wright and others associated with the Real Utopias project have important contributions to make in the current setting (link)? We need progressive public intellectuals who can speak to the disaffected in contemporary society; otherwise, the Orbans and the Trumps will pursue their politics of division and hate, and will determine our futures in quite ugly ways. (Quite a few earlier posts have addressed this problem — for example, linklinklink.)

(For what it is worth, the Democracy Index estimates that the most democratic nations in the world are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Switzerland. Significantly, the Nordic countries make up five of the top ten nations on this list — nations that have adopted strong versions of “social democracy” as a foundation for their social contract. This too is part of the progressive tradition of thought within which Marx did his work.)

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