Authoritarians in Authoritarianism

Recent articles I’ve read point toward a typical confusion about authoritarianism, what it is and what causes it. The confusion seems built into the way we frame and measure authoritarianism, in particular as seen in the earliest research. Some social scientists speak of ideological mindsets and personality traits in the way that race realists talk about races, such that there are ‘authoritarians’ and ‘non-authoritarians’ as clearly defined and demarcated types of people. But it’s beginning to occur to some of them that this is inadequate.

Maybe unintentionally, Amanda Taub gets at this point in her Vox piece, The Rise of American authoritarianism. She states that, “Non-authoritarians who were sufficiently frightened of threats like terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.” This is based on “researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, and Elizabeth Suhay, to name just a few.”

It’s interesting research and I’ve read many of the scholarly writings on this and so I’m already familiar with what Taub is discussing, but my understanding of such things has shifted these past years. When we label something, we tend to reify the underlying concepts and forget that they are social constructs we project onto the data (and hence onto the world) in trying to make sense of complexity, which then can lead to increasing simplification as the reified concepts are fed back into further research design and analysis.

The quote above about ‘non-authoritarians’ gets at this. If non-authoritarians can act like authoritarians, then maybe there is no such thing as authoritarians and non-authoritarians. Instead, a more reasonable conclusion is that all people possess within their common humanity a wide variety of potentials for psychological traits, social behaviors, and ideological tendencies. If so, it wouldn’t be helpful then to speak of subsets and subgroups as if that adds further clarity and insight. To be fair, Taub touches upon the issue rather directly, albeit briefly:

“More than that, this early research seemed to assume that a certain subset of people were inherently evil or dangerous — an idea that Hetherington and Weiler say is simplistic and wrong, and that they resist in their work. (They acknowledge the label “authoritarians” doesn’t do much to dispel this, but their efforts to replace it with a less pejorative-sounding term were unsuccessful.)”

Immediately after that, Taub goes right back to the assumption that authoritarianism is an inherent “psychological profile” that can get activated. From this view, seeming non-authoritarians don’t become authoritarian but were secretly authoritarian all along, just waiting for the right conditions to make their true nature manifest. Sleeper agents of societal madness ready to be unleashed on the naively innocent, Manchurian candidates waiting for a trigger from an evolutionary demiurge lurking in human synapses. At any moment, so goes the dark fantasy, alt-right trolls could transform into goosestepping Nazis who will suddenly take over the country. But in reality that isn’t how it ever works, as these things gradually build up over time and involve the entire society. Authoritarianism is far from being a strange relic of abnormal psychology and social deviants, like an infectious Darwinian maladaptation that must be quarantined and studied by the intellectual elite standing above it all. Even if we were to think of it as a mind virus, the greater threat would be those intellectual elites becoming carriers and spreading it into polite society, as has happened throughout history.

Projecting authoritarianism onto individuals or narrow groups is the opposite of helpful. It’s a way for people like Taub to maintain their belief that authoritarianism is something that only involves those other people, not good liberals like herself. Here is the problem. Taub is a Democrat and has strongly supported Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign has shown how strong the authoritarian tendencies are built into the Democratic Party. In supporting corrupt oligarchs like Clinton, Taub demonstrates how easily supposed non-authoritarians can act like authoritarians and defend authoritarianism. It does appear that authoritarianism closely tracks with social conservatism, but social conservatism comes in many forms. Democrats, for example, can be extremely socially conservative in their defense of the status quo, no matter how ‘liberal’-sounding is their empty rhetoric.

The reality is that no individual is an authoritarian. Rather, it’s social systems that are authoritarian, whether we are talking about organizations or movements or parties. In the US, the two-party system has long had an authoritarian streak. Both parties create the conditions for increasing neoliberalism and neoconservatism, increasing inequality and police-surveillance state. And those conditions in turn create an oppressive atmosphere of fear that, for the general public, elicits authoritarianism. It’s a great means of ensuring submission and social control. Social dominance orientation types, such as the lesser evils of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, then attempt to use that to their advantage. If you’re looking for the least authoritarian Americans, you’d need to look entirely outside of the two-party system.

In a fairly authoritarian society such as ours built on a long history of oppression, it is meaningless to talk about ‘authoritarians’ as if they were a distinct group of people. Nor does it help to blame it all on a single issue like racism, as a way of dismissing the larger context of authoritarianism. Obviously, as Taub explains, various forms of bigotry and other factors can elicit and activate authoritarianism. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to separate out all of the tangled threads of dysfunction.

Let me return to the significance of the racial order. It is true that, as we live in an authoritarian society, we also live in a racist society. Both authoritarianism and racism become internalized by everyone within this society, even if normally these remain hidden. It’s there in the background, shaping and informing our worldview. Research shows that it’s easy to find racial biases in almost anyone, but more than that it is how racism is woven into the social structures and institutions we are part of. Not as much research of this sort has been done on underlying authoritarianism, but it has become more of a focus and it would be expected to operate in a similar way. There is pervasive racism with a rather small minority of overt racists, and so it should be unsurprising that there can be pervasive authoritarianism that is not primarily dependent on the authoritarianism of individuals. The continuation of systemic problems don’t require vocal, active support since silent, passive complicity can be so much more powerful.

This is hard for people to grasp. We can’t see clearly the society we are inseparably a part of, that defines our entire sense of identity and experience of reality. This makes it difficult for researchers who are trying to understand the very problems they are implicated in, as members of the society under scrutiny. Many researchers, as with many journalists like Taub, are good liberals which creates another bias. Obviously, authoritarianism will operate differently among liberals than among conservatives or right-wing reactionaries. Yet we know from history that authoritarians often come to power when good liberals, out of fear, turn to authoritarian leaders. Clinton in calling her enemies deplorables (just like she did when calling young blacks ‘superpredators’) was intentionally provoking an authoritarian response of fear from her followers, framing the other side as an existential threat to the ‘liberal’ way of life… and it worked, even though it turned out that her establishment authoritarianism was less effective as she lacks charisma and raw force of personality.

It’s not hard, though, to understand the likely reasons for authoritarianism manifesting differently throughout the social order. Growing inequality (of wealth and opportunity, of power and influence) inevitably will lead to authoritarianism, but that authoritarianism will be expressed in disparate ways according to demographics and the historical legacies that they represent; lower classes or upper classes; or if middle class, downwardly mobile lower middle class or stable upper middle class; populations with high or low rates of unemployment, food deserts, incarceration, and lead toxicity; those directly impacted or not by the numerous negative externalities of neoliberalism and neoconservatism; et cetera.

The liberal class tends to be relatively more economically secure and comfortable, and so authoritarianism is less often to be seen in overt ways on the personal level. Instead, good liberals will support the authoritarianism of the system that their lifestyle is dependent on. That way, their hands are kept clean. They let the professionals like the Clinton New Democrats do the dirty work of forcing punishment on minorities through racialized tough-on-crime laws, drug wars, and mass incarceration… through corporatism that maintains the class system and keeps the poor in their place… through war-mongering, CIA interventions, and neoliberal foreign policies that ensures the American Empire runs smoothly.

In basic ways, the liberal class even on the lower end of the economic spectrum are protected from what the rest of the country experiences. The greatest of privileges is never having to acknowledge one’s privilege. It is all taken for granted, not just as a privilege but a right — if required, to be protected from the dirty masses that demand to be treated with equality and fairness. When that privilege is challenged, the authoritarianism of good liberals becomes very much overt. It’s just that in recent history good liberals have been kept comfortable and content while the lower classes have been kept disempowered and silenced, but that has begun to change and so we are beginning to hear authoritarian rhetoric from establishment Democrats, in their fear of the coming backlash of righteous justice, outraged vengeance, and populist unrest. Status quo Democrats know that they have been on the wrong side of history and this all-encompassing anxiety has led them to lash out blindly, making them a dangerous animal (e.g., their paranoid conspiracy theorizing and war-mongering about Russia that could initiate World War III).

Sadly, liberals tolerate, help to create, and often defend the very conditions that make authoritarianism inevitable: hyper-partisanship, identity politics, increasing inequality, stagnating wages, weakening organized labor, loss of good job benefits, worsening job insecurity, scapegoating the poor, law and order politics, racist dog whistle rhetoric, war hawk policies, militarization of the police, drug wars, mass incarceration, etc. Major figures such as President Jimmy Carter have voiced concern that the United States has become a banana republic and, based on the overwhelming evidence, it is impossible to argue against those concerns. In Taub’s article, she discusses this as if the conditions of authoritarianism are new, but the reality is that they’ve been building for decades and generations. Democrats have done little if anything to stop this, often promoting policies that make it worse. Both parties have embraced a corporatism that somehow balances the requirements of an oligarchic police state and the demands of plutocratic inverted totalitarianism, all the while maintaining the endless spectacle of a banana republic.

What motivates supposed liberals to promote the policies that undermine liberal-mindedness and strengthen authoritarianism? That isn’t to scapegoat liberals, in opposition to those who would like to scapegoat some other group, but obviously many who sound liberal-like aren’t the enemies of authoritarianism that they pretend to be. This faux liberalism is what one would expect in an authoritarian society born out of classical liberalism. Most people on all sides don’t understand the kind of society they are in or how it shapes them. As with faux liberals, Trump’s followers and his election to the presidency are symptoms, not the disease. No single group can be blamed for what has become of this society. All of it has to be taken as a whole, including the role of good liberals and every other sector of society. It is the society that is authoritarian. In a non-authoritarian society, individual authoritarians would be powerless and insignificant. The source of of the problem is systemic and institutional.

There is no inborn psychological profile of authoritarians, just as I’d argue that there are no genetic-based personality traits of addictiveness, neuroticism, etc. There are simply authoritarian conditions, no different than there are conditions for other mindsets and behaviors. Authoritarianism along with so much else is latent in everyone, as a potential within a shared human nature.

I’ve long been fascinated by personality traits/types and other areas of social science. Myers-Briggs personality theory was what initially drew me toward using web searches to find info. The first website I ever became an active member of was a Myers-Briggs discussion forum, although such things as trait theory was also regularly discussed. Most fascinating of all was the research and the many correlations shown, but over time I’ve grown more circumspect.

These days, I feel less certain about what correlations might (or might not) indicate. It partly comes from years of seeing how research can be misused by race realists, but that is only possible because much of the research itself is problematic. Correlations are dime a dozen, whereas proving causation is often near impossible. It’s not easy to determine that a correlation is not spurious, that it is significant and meaningful, and then articulating a falsifiable hypothesis that leads to useful results that don’t merely confirm one’s biases and expectations.

My interest here goes far beyond only authoritarianism. This involves my growing appreciation for the power of all kinds of environmental influences. Not just influences, though. To be more accurate, we are environmental creatures to the core of our being. We are inseparable from our environments, both physical and social. This has become a major theme of my writing. It comes out in my discussions of race realism and capitalist realism, of rat parks and high inequality, of toxo plasmosis and lead toxicity, WEIRD research and ancient societies.

Authoritarianism is yet another lens through which to peer into the social nature of humans. Living in this society, all of us are products of our environment while also being participants in the social order. What if studying authoritarians holds up a mirror to our own psyche, individual and collective? What does this say about us?

* * *

Human Nature: Categories & Biases
Bias About Bias
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams
Dark Matter of the Mind
Investing in Violence and Death
An Invisible Debt Made Visible
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
America Is Not Great For Most Americans
The Comfortable Classes Remain Comfortable
Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology
Bias About Bias

Inequality leads to authoritarianism: Why Trump is acting like “a generalissimo with a giant brass eagle on his hat”
by Edward McClelland

Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable
by Tom Pepinsky

The Social Origins of Authoritarianism
Frederick Solt

Authoritarianism’s Hidden Root Cause
by Matthew Wills

The Rise of the Servant Society
by Michael J. Thompson

Authoritarian capitalism in modern times
by Peter Bloom

Culture of Cruelty: the Age of Neoliberal Authoritarianism
by Henry Giroux

Neoliberalism, Austerity, and Authoritarianism
by Riad Azar

Inequality causes rise of authoritarian leaders
by Hamid Ansari

The Preschooler’s Empathy Void
by Alia Wong

People With This Personality Trait Literally See the World Differently
by Cari Romm

Creative people physically see and process the world differently
by Alice Klein

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20 thoughts on “Authoritarians in Authoritarianism

    • It was sort of a difficult piece to write. I knew the message I wanted to communicate. But I wanted to make sure I communicated it well. For a while now, I’ve been trying to articulate a different understanding of various issues. This has led me to look beyond the simplistic divides of old narratives: authoritarian vs non-authoritarian, liberals vs conservatives, whites vs minorities, urban vs rural, etc.

      I can see that not everyone like this piece, though. Two people stopped following my blog immediately after I posted this. I always wonder what causes people to do that, since this piece is fairly representative of what I’ve been writing in this blog for years. If a post like this causes some to stop following my blog, what exactly caused them to start following my blog?

      • Well, I wanted to react to this –

        “Sadly, liberals tolerate, help to create, and often defend the very conditions that make authoritarianism inevitable: hyper-partisanship, identity politics, increasing inequality, stagnating wages, weakening organized labor, loss of good job benefits, worsening job insecurity, scapegoating the poor, law and order politics, racist dog whistle rhetoric, war hawk policies, militarization of the police, drug wars, mass incarceration, etc.”

        as well as something later in that paragraph, but I read on and you almost addressed it all a few paragraphs later: most of these positions aren’t liberal, so the people who hold them aren’t actually liberal. I guess it comes down to what’s become an old saw for me, there is no political Left in the States. (Sorry, “the States” means “the USA” here in Canada.), just Righties called Righties, Righties called independents, and Righties called Lefties. That, I have learned, is MY bias, my interpretation of the dualism, authoritarianism means Right to me. In Canada, in north America, we haven’t seen a powerful, let alone an authoritarian Left yet. Certainly, as you say, Left and Right don’t mean a great deal if it’s an authoritarian dictatorship anyway.

        What I was reacting to was the sense that the Democrats are “authoritarians” for failing to win the battle against the authoritarians on the Right, a mirror to how Clinton is to blame for Trump, for irresponsibly losing an un-losable election. You try to fix something and fail, now they say you caused it in the first place.

        Those would have been my only bad feelings, and I’m guessing your unfollowers didn’t make it past that paragraph.
        If I were to try to tweak your mindset, I’d say do a Find and Replace on this, Find “authoritarian” and Replace it with some form of “antisocialist” or “antisocializing,” I think it will turn this from an A to an A+. The difference would be that authority in itself is theoretically not inherently evil, not inherently violent (until it goes into practice) while antisocializing is, inherently, even in purely theoretical form.

        Great stuff by me – that’s a solid predictor for a wave of unfollowing too, I’m afraid.

        Jeff

        • “as well as something later in that paragraph, but I read on and you almost addressed it all a few paragraphs later: most of these positions aren’t liberal, so the people who hold them aren’t actually liberal. I guess it comes down to what’s become an old saw for me, there is no political Left in the States.”

          I understand what you mean. I used to make that kind of argument all the time. But it grows tiresome always trying to defend some “real liberalism”. I’m not an ideological purist nor particularly attached to labels. I honestly don’t know what to think of ‘liberalism’.

          If you look back at history, liberalism has always had a streak of what could be called authoritarianism. For the entire history of liberalism, there have been major figures who have promoted liberal ideology through various rhetoric, agendas, and methods: pseudo-meritocratic plutocracy and technocratic paternalism, Whiggish Manifest Destiny of genocidal progressivism and eugenic social engineering, moralistic reform of Prohibition and drug wars, racist New Deal Progressivism and FDR’s internment camps, commie witchhunts and McCarthyism to fight the Red Scare of Soviet authoritarianism, soft corporatism and friendly neoliberalism, spreading democratic freedom and free markets through military might, and other similar stuff.

          The liberal class has often played a central role in the rise of authoritarianism. It’s strange to contemplate why this is, but it can’t be denied. Sure, you can deny they are really liberals. I’m not sure that is helpful, though, because you’d have to dismiss large swaths of historical liberalism. If we are to go down that road, then we should say that no one is a liberal, in the way I argue no one is an authoritarian.

          Many people who identified as liberal, advocated for liberal policies, and acted in liberal ways would later on support that which seemed quite illiberal, although it depends on perspective. Were people who supported tough-on-crime laws not liberal even when they believed their own motives were liberal? A not insignificant number of supporters of tough-on-crime laws saw a need to strengthen social democracy through liberal proceduralism of the legal system and liberal professionalization of police forces. And prisons were originally invented as part of liberal reform in the hope of rehabilitating people by isolating them so that they could contemplate their wrongdoings. Is having a liberal motivation not enough to be liberal?

          Were liberals in early 20th century Germany not being liberal in supporting the progressive rebuilding and reforming of the economy, infrastructure, and society? Are they to be blamed for betraying liberalism in not foreseeing what the Nazis would later become? Humans are immensely talented at not seeing or else rationalizing away what is uncomfortable and inconvenient. This is normal human behavior, even for sincerely well-intentioned liberals.

          When liberal Democrats voted for politicians that supported the War on Terror that has slaughtered and terrorized millions of innocent people in several different countries, did they understand that they were complicit in horrific crimes against humanity? Probably not. They were good liberals and most of them never comprehended what was going on. Most of them still don’t get it because they have a vested interest in not getting it. The human mind is amazing like this. None of it requires conscious knowledge and intention, just passive acceptance, just going along to get along.

          “That, I have learned, is MY bias, my interpretation of the dualism, authoritarianism means Right to me.”

          In any authoritarian society, most people aren’t overt authoritarians. It’s not something the average person embraces and, if there life is reasonably tolerable, authoritarianism won’t likely be expressed on a personal level. Nothing requires an individual to be an authoritarian in order to live in an authoritarian society. Even non-authoritarians can find reasons to support an authoritarian order, especially when they personally benefit from it. There are always reasons.

          “In Canada, in north America, we haven’t seen a powerful, let alone an authoritarian Left yet. Certainly, as you say, Left and Right don’t mean a great deal if it’s an authoritarian dictatorship anyway.”

          Left and right can become a bit meaningless after a while. Neoliberalism is authoritarian in many ways. Yet neoliberalism is also far to the left of fascism and less directly or obviously authoritarian than communist statism. What makes neoliberalism authoritarian isn’t whether the ideology is left or right. Rather what makes it authoritarian is the system it is part of and those who exist within that system. Such neoliberalism has been growing in its authoritarianism all over the world, not just the US. Even Canada has become more neoliberal over time and has benefited greatly by being part of the larger neoliberal system that is supported and defended by US imperial authoritarianism, with the help of US allies such as Canada.

          Individual Canadians, like individual Americans, don’t need to be authoritarians to be part of the authoritarian order that is presently ruling the world. They don’t even have to recognize it as authoritarianism, since the old school authoritarianism of dictatorships is rare these days. Most authoritarianism now expresses itself in outwardly softer and friendly ways. The Western governments fight terrorists to protect freedom and democracy. It’s not our fault that millions of innocents get killed in the process and it’s not our fault that entire societies are destroyed or destabilized by Western policies, not that good liberals are ever forced to acknowledge such facts since the corporate media and corporatist politicians rarely if ever speak about them.

          “What I was reacting to was the sense that the Democrats are “authoritarians” for failing to win the battle against the authoritarians on the Right, a mirror to how Clinton is to blame for Trump, for irresponsibly losing an un-losable election. You try to fix something and fail, now they say you caused it in the first place.”

          I’m looking at the long history. Trump didn’t cause the Clinton New Democrats to slash welfare, to racialize the war on crime, to use racist dog whistle rhetoric, to implement tough-on-crime policies and mass incarceration, to undo corporate and banking regulations, to promote corporatist interests and neoliberal trade deals, etc. That happened decades ago.

          Clinton New Democrats did it because the new focus on wealth and power combined with underlying racism and classism was an effective way to win elections. The Clintons and their foundation became immensely wealthy in the process through their crony connections. Before that, sadly, even Jimmy Carter contributed to the negative turn of the Democratic Party. The so-called Reagan Revolution actually began under the Carter administration, the whole attack on the welfare state with tax cuts to defund it.

          None of that can be blamed on Trump or the Republicans.

          “The difference would be that authority in itself is theoretically not inherently evil, not inherently violent (until it goes into practice) while antisocializing is, inherently, even in purely theoretical form.”

          My criticism isn’t against authority in general. I’m speaking of authoritarianism specifically. The most recent research is pointing toward a new understanding. What research has shown that it is much more complex than previously thought and doesn’t follow clear, simple ideological divides of left and right. But we haven’t yet come to a new understanding. We are pushing at the edges of present knowledge. Old ideological frames have misled us in coming to terms with human nature.

          “Great stuff by me – that’s a solid predictor for a wave of unfollowing too, I’m afraid.”

          I’m not really bothered by a couple of people unfollowing me. It happens almost every other time I post some something. The numbers of followers slowly creeps up over time, but sometimes it seems like I’ve come to a plateau where every new follower is matched by someone unfollowing. It’s amusing and it makes me a tad curious.

          By the way, to understand where I’m coming from, below are some previous posts about how good people can come to support, allow, or otherwise become complicit in bad systems. Sometimes, people are simply born into bad systems and so grow up with the rationalizations. At other times, bad systems develop slowly around people so that they never notice, each small step ignored or explained away. In either case, the individual finds themselves in the same place of a bad system that doesn’t match their self-identity and yet life often goes on as normal, at least for those not directly victimized by the bad system.

          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/11/22/then-what/
          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/11/26/but-then-it-was-too-late/
          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/what-is-an-imperial-subject-to-do/
          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/a-liberalism-that-dominates/
          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/06/15/what-liberalism-has-become/
          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/12/21/confused-liberalism/
          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/moral-failure-of-partisanship-and-the-political-machine/
          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/they-join-the-army-because-they-want-to-be-like-you/

          • “I’m looking at the long history. Trump didn’t cause the Clinton New Democrats to slash welfare, to racialize the war on crime, to use racist dog whistle rhetoric, to implement tough-on-crime policies and mass incarceration, to undo corporate and banking regulations, to promote corporatist interests and neoliberal trade deals, etc. That happened decades ago.

            Clinton New Democrats did it because the new focus on wealth and power combined with underlying racism and classism was an effective way to win elections. The Clintons and their foundation became immensely wealthy in the process through their crony connections. Before that, sadly, even Jimmy Carter contributed to the negative turn of the Democratic Party. The so-called Reagan Revolution actually began under the Carter administration, the whole attack on the welfare state with tax cuts to defund it.

            None of that can be blamed on Trump or the Republicans.”

            Now, I’m not prepared to back this up, but this is what I’ve always assumed (and still do until someone convinces me otherwise): all the shitty authoritarian stuff that the party of the “Left” have done, the war on drugs, the three strike stuff, their wars, they have done for the Right, that these things happen not because of a Democrat administration, but in spite of one, as a deal with the Devil sort of thing where they are allowed to make some small gains in social policy as long as the wars and the racial oppression never really stop. So of course, that old stuff wasn’t Trump, but it sure as Hell was some hard Right element, and all of these policies were and are more popular with Republicans than Democrats.

            No?

            Jeff

          • “Now, I’m not prepared to back this up, but this is what I’ve always assumed (and still do until someone convinces me otherwise)”

            I judge people by their actions, along with the results and consequences. The Clinton New Democrats, despite their rhetoric, have been pushing the same neoliberalism and neoconservatism for decades. They’ve done so consistently. After a while, you are forced to conclude that simply represents who they are and what they stand for. If this doesn’t convince you, there is nothing in the entire world that could convince you.

            If these actions are only possible because of the influence from the right, then we must assume that those in the Democratic Party are either fairly right or rather friendly with the right. Research has shown that on many issues even Democratic politicians are to the right of their own constituents. Most Americans are less conservative about economics, military, and crime than most US politicians.

            If we don’t use the majority of the American people as a standard of what is left and right, how is left and right even meaningful? In that case, what are we trying to communicate by stating authoritarianism is solely a right-wing phenomenon? Since most Democratic politicians are more right-wing than most Americans on many key issues, does it follow that therefore Democratic politicians are right-wing? If not, why not?

        • As I think you know, I’ve spent most of my life self-identified as a liberal. I spent at least a good decade trying to defend some notion of real liberalism against faux liberals, specifically of the Democratic Party. I eventually came to the conclusion that it was probably a losing battle.

          If you’re looking for what I’d consider real liberalism, you’d have to look Sander’s socialism. And if you are looking for something akin to real socialism, you’d have to look to the Nordic social democracies. It’s similar to the fact that, if you are looking for real libertarianism, one of the few advocates of it you’ll find in the US is Chomsky.

          But this comes down to arguing that pretty much nothing means what it seems to mean, according to standard ‘mainstream’ definitions and portrayals. Most young Americans have a positive opinion about ‘socialism’, although in reality this probably just means they support what once was known as progressive liberalism. Do labels matter more than substance?

          When is it pointless to go on arguing that a word means something that most people no longer think it means? The fact of the matter is most people who are ideologically and psychologically ‘liberal’ don’t identity as liberal and most people who identity as liberal aren’t the most ideologically and psychologically liberal. Considering liberalism has either lost most of its meaning or maybe always was a confused social construct, what’s the point in arguing about it?

          I’ve contemplated this for a long time now. I’ve more or less given up on it. I’m presently focused on trying to see the deeper patterns below labels. It is irrelevant to me what someone identifies as or what kind of rhetoric they use. I judge people by their actions, by what they support, and by the real world consequences that follow.

          • I’m not as interested in these labels as I may sound either, it’s just that everything I see criticizing Clinton drives me nuts because of who the other candidate is. There is no getting around it, we are social creatures and critique of one is support for the other IRL, not our choice, and no innocent voices in wartime. A lot of good, truth-seeking people helped fascists steal this election by failing to grasp this simple truth. I think the fallacy I complained about in the other comment is at the center of this stuff. No matter who is in power, it is the hard Right behind the scenes and they never lose power, not really.

          • Here is one problem. Obama helped further concentrate power in the executive branch. The reason you don’t want to do that is because someone like Trump will eventually come along, even if not now then later.

            Concentrating power in the executive branch is the kind of authoritarianism the founding fathers feared would happen. It is an act of creeping authoritarianism that makes inevitable even more authoritarianism, until someone stops it, but Democrats have strongly supported this creeping authoritarianism because it gave them great power while they controlled the presidency. Now Democrats, along with the rest of us, are suffering the consequences of Democratic-promoted authoritarianism.

            People like me were warning Democrats this was a bad idea long before Trump came along. The fight against authoritarianism didn’t suddenly begin with Trump’s campaign. And if Clinton instead of Trump had been elected, creeping authoritarianism would have continued until someone even worse than Trump came along and then we’d be more fucked than we could imagine in our darkest nightmares. Trump is a fluffy kitten compared to the kinds of authoritarians that could gain power, such as those old school authoritarians like Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Mao. We should be thanking our lucky stars that this creeping authoritarianism hasn’t yet ended up in anything worse.

            This is a wake up call, but those not completely morally corrupt and historically ignorant should have been awake for decades now. The time for fighting against the creeping authoritarianism of the party duopoly was long ago. We wouldn’t now be at this point of fear and desperation, if not for a half century of lesser evil voting that allowed corruption to fester in both parties.

  1. All of these threads you’re synthesizing, I’ve gotta tell you, I’m keeping a bunch of them at bay, I find all that complexity to be a part of the parasitic social meme that hides the authority/antisocialization at the base of so much, a storm of detail that distracts from more basic themes. I feel like the world is throwing all this various thought at me like some huge corporation’s lawyers burying me in injunctions and stuff to avoid acknowledging some basic crime everyone knows they do every day. Actually, not the world. It’s a handful of biologists, maybe, or something in between.

    • It only seems like complexity when we don’t understand it. And at present none of us fully understands it.

      That is how all things operate. Once something is understood and the knowledge of it incorporated into our worldview, it then just seems like the most intuitively obvious of common sense. But in pushing toward new knowledge, a sense of overwhelming complexity is unavoidable, until the new knowledge can be processed and a placed into a new frame.

      It’s an uncomfortable, although completely normal, stage in gaining new insight. If it was easier, we would have come to the new insight much sooner with a lot less struggle and resistance.

      If you follow my synthesizing of threads, you’ll notice how I’m pushing toward simple insights that explain what at first appears like complexity. Only then can we genuinely, accurately, clearly, and powerfully acknowledge the reality of the situation.

      One of the problems, from my perspective, is that it seems the vast majority of people don’t know about some basic crimes (and other non-criminal wrongdoings) that are done every day. That is why we are incapable of dealing with those problems in an honest and effective manner.

      • I do get that about you. I guess I’m thinking more about my online nemesis, the Dr. Brian Boutwell character and his crew. Remember “Why Parenting Might not Matter and Why Much Social Science is Wrong?” (or something like that?) They’ll deny it all day long, but I can smell philosophies, and I smell an ancient religious and deterministic driver behind that bunch and all of the associated behavioural genetic research. 😉

        • I maybe sort of remember about Boutwell. But I forget what he exactly argues for.

          In my own way, I’m arguing against determinism. My strategy is simply to refuse as meaningless the entire frame of determinism vs non-determinism. It simply makes no sense to me, in looking at what we actually know about human nature and societies. Such a modern frame can’t explain tribal societies like the Piraha or ancient societies of the earliest Greeks.

          I can give you a sense of what I mean. One thing that gave me a key insight was the comparison of Roman liberty and Germanic freedom. The former means a lack of unfreedom, specifically slavery, and the latter means the inclusion as a member of a free society, freedom etymologically related to friendship.

          It’s occurred to me as I age that, to the degree a meaningful sense of freedom exists, it is a social reality more than an individual reality. As social creatures, we can only know freedom among and in relationship to others. Freedom is possessed by no one for it can only manifest in the interconnection of people, in the way that cells have greater potential of action as part of a body than as a lone cell.

          This is why one of the most tragic fates for a human is social exclusion. This can be experienced as social death. And it can often lead to physical death. We are social animals. Humans need humans. An individual lost and isolated in the wilderness is not free. They are simply alone.

  2. Here is something I was thinking about for some other reason. It’s a passage from a book I’ve brought up in a couple of posts. Maybe it relates to this post. It’s about research, in terms of how our understanding within the social sciences is drastically changing.

    Most of the authoritarian research has been done on WEIRD subjects. No one has any clue, as far as I know, what we might discover by studying far different populations. That is immensely significant considering that WEIRD subjects are among the least representative on the planet.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/bias-about-bias/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/human-nature-categories-biases/

    A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind
    by Robert Burton
    pp. 105-8

    “Heinrich’s team showed the illusion to members of sixteen different social groups including fourteen from small-scale societies such as native African tribes. To see how strong the illusion was in each of these groups, they determined how much longer the “shorter” line needed to be for the observer to conclude that the two lines were equal. (You can test yourself at this website— http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/sze_muelue/index.html.) By measuring the amount of lengthening necessary for the illusion to disappear, they were able to chart differences between various societies. At the far end of the spectrum— those requiring the greatest degree of lengthening in order to perceive the two lines as equal (20 percent lengthening)— were American college undergraduates, followed by the South African European sample from Johannesburg. At the other end of the spectrum were members of a Kalahari Desert tribe, the San foragers. For the San tribe members, the lines looked equal; no line adjustment was necessary, as they experienced no sense of illusion. The authors’ conclusion: “This work suggests that even a process as apparently basic as visual perception can show substantial variation across populations. If visual perception can vary, what kind of psychological processes can we be sure will not vary?” 14

    “Challenging the entire field of psychology, Heinrich and colleagues have come to some profoundly disquieting conclusions. Lifelong members of societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic (the authors coined the acronym WEIRD) reacted differently from others in experiment after experiment involving measures of fairness, antisocial punishment, and cooperation, as well as when responding to visual illusions and questions of individualism and conformity. “The fact that WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the behavioral sciences may render them one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens.” The researchers found that 96 percent of behavioral science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries, even though those countries have just 12 percent of the world’s population, and that 68 percent of all subjects are Americans.

    “Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia psychologist and prepublication reviewer of the article, has said that Heinrich’s study “confirms something that many researchers knew all along but didn’t want to admit or acknowledge because its implications are so troublesome.” 15 Heinrich feels that either many behavioral psychology studies have to be redone on a far wider range of cultural groups— a daunting proposition— or they must be understood to offer insight only into the minds of rich, educated Westerners.

    “Results of a scientific study that offer universal claims about human nature should be independent of location, cultural factors, and any outside influences. Indeed, one of the prerequisites of such a study would be to test the physical principles under a variety of situations and circumstances. And yet, much of what we know or believe we know about human behavior has been extrapolated from the study of a small subsection of the world’s population known to have different perceptions in such disparate domains as fairness, moral choice, even what we think about sharing. 16 If we look beyond the usual accusations and justifications— from the ease of inexpensively studying undergraduates to career-augmenting shortcuts— we are back at the recurrent problem of a unique self-contained mind dictating how it should study itself.

    “The idea that minds operate according to universal principles is a reflection of the way we study biological systems in general. To understand anatomy, we dissect one body as thoroughly as possible and draw from it a general grasp of human anatomy. Though we expect variations, we see these as exceptions to a general rule. It is to be expected that we see the mind in the same light. One way to circumvent this potentially misleading tendency to draw universal conclusions whenever possible is to subdivide the very idea of a mind into the experiential (how we experience a mind) and the larger conceptual category of the mind— how we think about, describe, and explain what a mind is. What we feel at the personal (experiential) level should not be confused with what a mind might be at a higher level— either as a group or as an extended mind.”

    • I pulled this from one of the things Boutwell RTd:

      “The problem

      The big issue stems from how data is gathered. After all, for evolution to influence behaviour that characteristic has to be heritable (i.e., have a genetic foundation). However, establishing a definitive link between a particular behaviour and a gene would require human testing on a scale that would make the Nazis queasy.

      Instead, scientists reason that since humans are almost genetically identical then behaviours with a genetic basis should also be very similar between people. So rather than conducting horrific genetic experiments they just look for “universal” behaviours instead. Everyone’s a winner.”

      and it goes from there, mostly about the WEIRD thing, how they thought they were looking at universal behaviours, but hardly challenged that idea at all.

      I’m not sure why I grabbed that, something bugged me about it. I have this sense that when provided with logical premises, they do well, but that they are as subject to faulty premises as the social science they’re debunking, and there’s something even more basic that’s not right in their setup. Like I can’t feel all that confident about sentence #2:

      ” After all, for evolution to influence behaviour that characteristic has to be heritable (i.e., have a genetic foundation).”

      Maybe it’s not wrong, maybe it’s some implication that’s bugging me, like it sounds like there’s no room for conscious behaviour, just a behaviour matched to a gene . . . they don’t appear to be leaving room for anything involving the nurture principle, meaning free will, and an inner life that drives choices. I don’t know, I haven’t worked it out, it’s probably just something I don’t grasp. I’m a suspicious sort.

      • I’m not sure what might be bugging you. But I can understand that it might feel frustrating. It’s easier to offer criticism of someone else’s view than to defend a position that offers worthy insight. When taking WEIRD into account, where does that leave us? It’s not clear.

        I always wish I was able to offer better answers than I do. It can feel like staring off into an abyss of darkness while trying to move forward. Meanwhile, someone rips up your map and keeps pointing out that we are entering unknown territory, which can feel entirely unhelpful.

        Here is my sense of things. Consciousness, nurturing, and freedom are words that indicate meaning within our culture. But it’s hard to know how they translate into another culture.

        I’m not sure that most pre-Enlightenment and pre-Reformation Westerners would have been able to comprehend a concept like free will, as it would probably have seemed like a strange abstraction that was dangerously heretical. Declaring free will at that time would likely have led to your being tortured to death or burned alive.

        Or go further back several millennia. The notion of an individual consciousness maybe would have been utterly meaningless to someone living in one of the early city-states, as their entire sense of reality would have been defined by their kin group, community, and culture. They may have never spent a moment alone, constantly surrounded by people in their enclosed world that allowed no privacy.

        So, how do we apply such words to a conception of a universal human nature? We have these discussions like this, but most humans for most of human existence would never have thought of such things. Most humans have simply lived their lives, stuck within their local reality tunnel with absolutely no awareness that other humans were different.

        When Everett tried to force his ideological worldview onto the Piraha, their response was irritation. They basically told him to shut up about his proselytizing or go away. His view of their human nature was wrongheaded and irrelevant. If instead of Christianity he had talked about Western philosophy of free will, they would have been just as annoyed. They weren’t lost and didn’t need to be saved nor did they need anyone to give freedom to their will, whatever the fuck that is. If they couldn’t directly and concretely experience something, it had no value or meaning to them.

        The Piraha didn’t believe in a universal human nature. They have a simple life philosophy. The Piraha are the Piraha. And the non-Piraha are the non-Piraha. There is a certain elegance about that life philosophy.

  3. Another thought I’ve had for a long time is that conservatives and liberals are inseparably linked. They both exist within the same larger ideological framework and worldview, that of post-Enlightenment modernity.

    Conservatives are to liberals, as orcs are to elves, the one becoming the other under severe trauma. And I’d argue that modern civilization is highly traumatizing, in particular to tender developing psyches, although to adults as well. As non-authoritarians can become or act like authoritarians, liberals can become or act like conservatives.

    I don’t even need to refer to authoritarianism to speak of the politics, culture, and psychology of fear. But authoritarianism can be useful way of looking at things, if for no other reason than it has been the focus of major research for more than a half century.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/poised-on-a-knife-edge/

    “This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

    “This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

    “Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

    “The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. […]

    “The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.”

    • sometimes that “Leave a Reply” prompt at the bottom is too much of a challenge for a mere mortal! Whew! OK, I got one bit, but, wow.

      This:

      “Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.”

      gotta say – jealous. That is as close to a sense of purpose or a reason to be a certain way as anybody ever gets, right? I mean, considering that this other – enemy narrative surely has its roots in some aboriginal reality, it has surely been a fact of life for most humans for some time, then a battle mentality at least provides people with a clarity of purpose . . . sense of importance . . .

      • I am insatiably curious about the possible “roots in some aboriginal reality”.

        When I look at foreign or ancient societies and their worldviews that sometimes are incomprehensible to us modern Westerners, I’m looking for two things. First, I want to understand the furthest reaches of human potential, all the nooks and crannies of the collective psyche. But, secondly, I’d love to be able to find the bare bone commonalities and substructure of the mind that makes anyone and everyone human, no matter what society they belong to.

        That curiosity is what leads me to be fascinated with such patterns as the apparent lack of major mental illness among tribal hunter-gatherers that have maintained their traditional cultures and lifestyle. How can the Piraha, for example, seemingly be so free of anxiety and depression? Fear exists for all humans, but obviously it doesn’t manifest in the same ways. No doubt the Piraha regularly experience fear, considering the dangerous environment they live in, but for whatever reason it doesn’t lead to trauma and such.

        Not all societies have elves that have been turned into orcs. Why is that?

        • yeah, I know there’s some controversy about it. I didn’t get the impression from Pinker at least that it was up for discussion, not the Deep Roots of War thing so much, but human family groups existing in some degree of competition with each other, and being a male bonded primate species. Mostly I think it was our aboriginal reality because it seems to be that other – enemy paradigm that rules us today, rules our politics and our social lives, in-group and out-group stuff.

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