Marxism Within Capitalism

As explained in an article celebrating Karl Marx’s birthday, “Marx’s vision of socialism had nothing in common with one-party dictatorships like the former Soviet Union that declared themselves to be socialist or communist. For Marx, the key question was not whether the economy was controlled by the state, but which class controlled the state. A society can only be socialist if power is in the hands of workers themselves.”

This is why the Soviet Union and Maoist China were never Marxist or ever attempted to be Marxist, in spite of Marxist rhetoric getting caught up in Cold War debates. Then again, capitalist rhetoric of ‘free markets’ has for generations been used to defend plutocracy, fascism, corporatism, and inverted totalitarianism. If we don’t differentiate rhetoric from reality, then any ‘debate’ is about declaring power rather than discerning truth.

To clarify an alternative perspective that was excluded from Cold War propaganda on both sides, Marx explained that, “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

He had no interest in starting a revolution to replace one system of centralized authoritarian power structure with another. He saw the only way forward was through the system already in place. This is probably why, in writing for the leading Republican newspaper in the United States, he supported a capitalist like Abraham Lincoln. The last of feudalism in the form of slavery had to be eliminated and capitalism fully established before the new system could demonstrate what it was.

Such a system can’t be destroyed from without, until it has already weakened itself from within, based on the assumption this is the life cycle of all socioeconomic orders. Only by pushing the dominant system to its furthest extreme form and its ultimate conclusion could the potentials and flaws be fully seen for what they are. There is no short cut to avoid this difficult transition.

The dominant system either would collapse under its own weight, as happened with the decline of the ancien regime, or it would not. From a Marxist perspective, shifting control of the ‘capital’ in modern economy from plutocrats to oligarchs is the same difference. It’s still capitalism in both cases, although slightly different varieties (difficult to tell them apart sometimes, such as with China’s mix of statist communism and statist capitalism, demonstrating that there is no inherent contradiction between the two).

As Chris Saunders simply stated, “Marx had said that Capitalism was a necessary stage along the road to socialism. Those attempts by the USSR and China to by-pass capitalism, have instead necessitated the resort to state capitalism.” Capitalist rhetoric obscures the real world functioning of capitalism. It never required free markets. If anything, it’s easy to make the argument that capitalism is by definition and intent the opposite of free markets. The concentration of capital within the capitalist class, whether plutocrats or oligarchs, inevitably means the concentration of all else: power, influence, opportunities, resources, education, rights, privileges, and of course freedom itself. It should go without saying that markets can’t be free when people involved in and impacted by markets aren’t free.

Marxism has never exactly been implemented and certainly never failed. That is because Marx never offered an alternative utopian scheme. He assumed that only after the breakdown or during the process of weakening and decline could some other system organically arise and take form. Then the lower classes, hopefully, might begin to assert their own power for self-control and authority for self-governance. As far as a Marxist perspective is concerned, everything so far has been happening as Marx predicted it would.

Full steam ahead! Let’s find out what comes next. And that means understanding what is happening right now within the present society and economy. New developments are already taking root in the cracks of the edifice.

* * *

Should we celebrate Karl Marx on his 200th birthday?
by Barbara Foley

In the wake of World War II, various economists heralded the narrowing of the gap between the richest and the poorest as evidence of the disappearance of class antagonisms.

But the long curve of capitalist development suggests that has widened, as illustrated in economist Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

The candle of the 2012 Occupy movement may have guttered, but its mantra of the 99 percent opposing the 1 percent is now a truiusm. Everyone knows that the super-rich are richer than ever, while for most of the working-class majority – many of them caught in the uncertainty of the “gig economy” – belt-tightening has become the new normal.

Those laboring in the formal and informal economies of much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, needless to say, face conditions that are far more dire.

Marx was correct, it would seem, when he wrote that capitalism keeps the working class poor.

He was also spot-on about capital’s inherent instability. There is some validity to the joke that “Marxists have predicted correctly 12 of the last three financial crises.”

Marx’s reputation has made a startling comeback, however, at times in unexpected circles.

In discussing the 2008 financial meltdown, one Wall Street Journal commentator wrote: “Karl Marx got it right, at some point capitalism can destroy itself. We thought markets worked. They’re not working.”

In 2017, the National Review reported that a poll found as many as 40 percent of people in the U.S. “now prefer socialism to capitalism.”

Notably, too, the C-word – Communism – has been making a reappearance, as is indicated by recent series of titles: The Idea of Communism,“ ”The Communist Hypothesis,“ ”The Actuality of Communism,“ and ”The Communist Horizon.“ Until recently, the word was largely avoided by neo- and post-Marxist academics.

Class analysis remains alive and well. This is because capitalism is no longer as seemingly natural as the air we breathe. It is a system that came into being and can also go out of being.

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The Hidden Lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has returned with a second season. I finished the second new episode. It offers much food for thought. The story itself is wonderfully told, partly because it is based on a fine piece of literature, but credit is due to the screenwriters and main actresses.

Also, it is one of the most plausible and compelling dystopias of the near future. That can’t be doubted. Still, it could be doubted that it is the most probable dystopia, as there are so many other possible dystopias. Some would argue we are already living in a dystopia, the only issue being how bad can it get. That isn’t to say we should fool ourselves that recent events have been as important as they seem in how they loom in our immediate public imagination. The shit storm has been brewing for a long time.

As I watched the beginning of the second season, it occurred to me that The Handmaid’s Tale is the nightmare of a specific demographic. I think it’s an awesome show, but as a working  class white guy I’m not the target audience. It doesn’t speak to my personal fear-ridden fantasies about the world I see around me. Nor does it speak to white working class single mothers, poor rural Christians, homeless veterans with PTSD, recent immigrant families, Native Americans on reservations, young black men targeted by police, etc.

I’ve talked about the haunted moral imagination of the reactionary mind. Well, this show is the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class. To be more specific, I noticed that all the lead roles are professional white women or were before the theocrats took over. Both seasons focus on various professional white women who in the pre-catastrophe world were moving up in the world. The actresses by profession are of the liberal class with most of the main actresses being Millennials and so the show points to their experience.

An older gay guy tries to warn a younger lesbian to be careful at the college where they both work, but she dismisses him as trying to “hide the dykes” and she acts tough. Like most liberal class Americans, she has never lived in a world where there were severely dangerous consequences for people like her. The toughest battles were fought in the past and it was assumed that society was permanently changed and continuously improving, the liberal class’ version of Whig history.

What exists outside of the liberal class moral imagination is the fact that, for many Americans outside of the liberal class, this society has been horrific for a long time. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about those suffering the consequences of their complicity in what has been done to others. Minority women and poor white women in the United States have been experiencing continuous oppression, including sterilizations in recent history. Middle-to-upper class white feminists maybe thought, at least prior to Donald Trump’s presidency, that the worst battles have already been fought and won with only some cleanup to eliminate the last of the misogynists in power, but as for other women the worst battles are yet to come and they’ve long known the risks of continuing to lose the fight.

The fear of American theocracy isn’t entirely unrealistic, obviously. Yet the origins of the fear come from within the dark heart of American liberalism itself. All those secular societies that the United States destroyed and replaced with theocracies along with other forms of authoritarianism, that was done with the full support of Democrats like Hillary Clinton who laughed at the suffering of Libyans (and ask Haitian-Americans in Florida why they didn’t vote for Clinton and helped swing the state and hence the entire election to Trump). A vote for the Democrats, no different than a vote for the Republicans, is to support the exploitation, oppression, dislocation, and killing of hundreds of millions of mostly poor brown people in dozens of countries around the world (the war on terror alone has involved the US military in more than 70 countries).

The Handmaid’s Tale is the shadow cast by American actions worldwide, actions supported by both parties for generations. The liberal class has been fine with promoting theocracy elsewhere, just as long as they don’t have to think about it or admit their own responsibility. What is portrayed in this show is not speculation. It is what we Americans have already done to untold numbers of women elsewhere. Within the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class, there is a seething guilty conscience that fears its own moral failure.

What The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show is how a society becomes like that. It never happens with no presentiments and precursors. In a previous post (But Then It Was Too Late), I shared a passage from Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free (ch. 13). Like one of the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, Mayer’s was a good liberal college professor, someone who meant well but wasn’t a fighter and wasn’t prone to radicalism. He didn’t protest or revolt when he had a chance, waiting and waiting for the right moment to speak out until it was finally too late:

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late. […] It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”

That describes America this past century. And economically well off white liberals have been part of the problem. When bad things happened to the poor, they weren’t poor. When bad things happened to rural and inner city residents, they weren’t rural or inner city residents. When bad things happened to minorities, they weren’t minorities. When bad things happened to immigrants, they weren’t immigrants. When bad things happened to foreigners, they weren’t foreigners. And so most liberals did nothing. The liberalism (and feminism) they fought for was one of privilege, but they didn’t realize that once all others had been targeted by oppression they would be next and then no one would be left to stand up for them.

The saddest part of an authoritarian takeover is how easy it is to see coming decades in advance. Radical left-wingers have been warning the liberal class for generations and they would not listen. The Handmaid’s Tale does make the liberal class sit up and pay attention. But do they learn the most important lesson from it? That lesson is hidden deep within the story and requires soul-searching to discern.

Fearful Cops and Gun Culture

What should I absolutely not do when visiting the USA?
Quora

Don’t get out of your car if you get pulled over by police.
by Charlie Knoles
(I have lived in 5 countries and am an Aussie expat in the USA.)

I was pulled over by a police officer while driving in Iowa. It was one week after I had arrived in the USA for the first time. I had accidentally made a minor mistake disobeying a traffic sign. Back home in Australia it’s considered polite to get out of your car and walk over to the police officer’s car and hand him your license* so he doesn’t have to get out of his seat. I wanted to be extra polite so I immediately jumped out of my car and walked towards his car while reaching into my back pocket.

I’m lucky to be alive.

If you come from a gun-free country like the UK or Australia you don’t have any natural instinct for gun culture. You don’t realize that police assume that everyone is armed.

Things got immediately serious. The police officer’s hand went to his weapon and I responded by dropping to my knees with my hands up. He yelled a bunch of things at me but my memory is vague because my heartbeat was suddenly pulsing in my ears blotting out all sound. I don’t know if he drew his weapon or not. I was staring intently at the ground, shaking and trying to project non-threatening vibes. My next memory is that there were three police cars around me and a bunch of cops who’d been called for backup. They were all keeping their hands close to their guns. After some time passed (a minute? 30 minutes? I have no idea) the tensions de-escalated and they told me to get up. I gave the officer my license and tried to explain why I’d approached him. It was completely incomprehensible to him that there was a place where people don’t fear cops and vice versa at traffic stops. It was as though I was trying to tell him that I came from Narnia and our cops were all talking animals.

I’ve spoken to several British people, New Zealanders, and Australians who have shared almost identical stories. They really need to put signs up in all major US airports.

Don’t get out of your car if stopped by police. They will assume you are armed and they might shoot you.

Comment
by Bill Null

As the country has gotten safer the police have become more aggressive. It’s now at the point where you are far more likely to die by interacting with a police officer than they are to die by interacting with you.

In 2015, out of the 980,000 police employed nation wide, there were 26 recorded cases of homicide against a police officer, 4 of which occurred during a traffic stop. By contrast, 1093 people were killed in the same year; more than half of which didn’t have a firearm, and 170 were completely unarmed at the time.

Policing in the US has never really been a dangerous job, at least not in comparison to other outdoor occupations. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the job of police and sheriff’s deputy as the 16th most dangerous job, right below grounds maintenance workers. That figure however, includes all officer related fatalities, including traffic and health related incidents. If you compare on-the-job injury rates, the numbers aren’t much higher.

21st Century American Violence and Authoritarianism

From Gods & Radicals, by Dr. Bones:

The rules of honor common among herding societies, marked by an aggressive stance towards the world and a wariness towards outsiders who might take what has been rightfully stolen — still remain as well. Southern white males commit murder at a rate of 2 to 1 when compared to the rest of the country; in small cities (pop. 10k-50k) the ratio is 3 to 1; in rural areas it is 4 to 1. Shiftless, fiddle-footed, they wander into the towns and outposts of the coast and become painfully aware they don’t belong, that somehow they’ve been left behind and they are angry about it.  As our time progresses and the old trades close down they are once again becoming abandoned, shuttered from the social standing they hold so dear. The old compacts are gone, Rhyd. High school and a knowledge of engines won’t cut it. The land and the money are going fast and by god they know it. […]

Trump knows his audience. He framed the government shutdown as the Democrats choosing “illegal immigrants” over paying the troops. The polls seem to show the people ate it up, which should come as no suprise. Trump strongholds in the South and rural America send a much higher proportion than the national average of their children into the armed forces, so any patriotic gesture is a sure winner among them. Recall too that polls indicate American troops continue to be stronger supporters of Trump than the public at large, U.S. veterans more pro-Trump than almost any other group. […]

Last year The Military Times conducted a confidential poll that revealed 42 percent of non-white troops polled had personally experienced examples of white nationalism in the military. When asked whether white nationalists pose a threat to national security, 30 percent of respondents labeled it a significant danger, more than many international hot spots, like Syria (27 percent), Pakistan (25 percent), Afghanistan (22 percent) and Iraq (17 percent).

Most disturbingly “a notable number of poll participants also bristled at the assertion that white power ideology is a real problem.”

“Nearly five percent of those polled left comments complaining that groups like Black Lives Matter — whose stated goal is to raise awareness of violence and discrimination towards black people — weren’t included among the options for threats to national security…

‘White nationalism is not a terrorist organization,’ wrote one Navy commander, who declined to give his name…

‘You do realize white nationalists and racists are two totally different types of people?’ wrote another anonymous Air Force staff sergeant.”

These ideas come home, not only in the soldiers but in the children they raise, spreading like the sound of laughter at a politician’s promise. Kathleen Belew, in her forthcoming book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, reveals a 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security that states the single factor correlating most highly with surges in Ku Klux Klan membership (going all the way back to the 1860’s) is an influx of veterans returning from war. […]

4 in 10 Southerners still sympathize with the Confederacy. Those are the same people making up the majority of the military, which is to say a large amount of people with a lot of guns holding a certain fondness for the idea of a civil war. Imagine if they had the blessing of the president, the highest honor in the land…

Read full article here:
Trump’s Military Parade Isn’t Fascist. It’s Older and Much Worse.

And from The Violent Ink, by rauldukeblog:

While it’s true that the train will now move to the next station what matters is what has mattered since day one: Trump is not normal. Even Nixon was, by governmental standards, normal. A cursory look at the facts shows that Nixon was as much of a monster as any number of other people who were creatures of the system but he turned on the system and that’s when things went off the rails. It’s one thing to rattle the nuclear saber but to do it while drunk and high on pills and to seriously say you want to drop a fat one on someone is where the other goons start looking for the nearest exit and a tranquilizer dart in the shape of impeachment.

Which brings us to Trump. It’s not just that, as we’ve said elsewhere and repeatedly, he’s an unhinged professional demagogue and amateur fascist. It’s that he really is incapable of understanding how the system works and he really is in the grip of several out of control pathologies each of which is at any moment capable of causing him to do something truly dangerous. Like pick up the phone and order someone to drop a bomb somewhere setting in motion a catastrophic chain of events.

It is not a joke, though it is funny, that at various times senior military figures have said in not so coded language, that they will not obey crazy orders from a crazy man. While that is a relief, it should still be cause for alarm. […]

Or, there will be a very loud coup which will be called something else (like the 25th amendment). […]

The damage that he can do lays in his causing the thugs to actually have to remove him and in forcing the spineless whores and old ladies of both sexes in the House and Senate and judiciary and the media to do the dirty work of what amounts to, staging a coup.

One of the things that so far has gone more or less unremarked upon in regards to the utterly vile Harvey Weinstein mess is the look – a hard look – at complicity. […] the entire creaking mess ran on complicity because the entire system demands obedience and is corrupt. And when someone says I didn’t see anything it all depends on the definition of seeing and of things.

Trump did not arrive from another planet any more than Franco, Pinochet, Mussolini, Mao, Stalin, Hitler or Kissinger arrived from another planet. They were here all along.

That he is a monster is undeniable. That he is a symptom and not the disease is also undeniable but just look at all the complicit creeps lining up for their moment when he’s gone and the smouldering wreckage of the constitution and the limp remains of the shattered republic are on display and you’ll be able to hear them say (with unintended irony just as they did when they sent off Nixon) the magic words: the system worked.

Read full article here:
The Russians are Coming! And so is The Day of Reckoning.

Motivated Reasoning in a Post-Fact Age

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationship with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

In this supposed post-fact age dominated by alt-facts, it has come to be questioned how much truth matters. This is hardly a new concern, simply because we have proud ignoramus as president, as Ron Suskind years ago wrote of Karl Rove:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.”

When ignorance is cynically wielded as a weapon, what power can truth have? The problem of ignorance isn’t only about what we don’t know but what we ignore, sometimes what pretend to not know, sometimes even to ourselves by way of dissociation or else by way of welcoming any comforting lie. There are cognitive biases and failures that we are prone to, as our shared human inheritance, but it has been claimed that some are more prone than others — as I’ve argued in the past (6 years ago):

Research shows that liberals are more willing to challenge authority and so lack the submissive attitude of unquestioning respect toward authority which is common among conservatives. For example, more liberals than conservatives state they’d be willing to slap their own father. ‘Openness’ is the main psychological trait that correlates to liberalism. What ‘openness’ is about is cognitive complexity, capacity for cognitive dissonance, intellectual curiosity, desire to experiment and explore, etc. But ‘openness’ also relates to being less inclined to fall into motivated reasoning (confirmation bias, backfire effect, etc)… on issues related to politics, anyway. I’ll point out the obvious fact that ‘openness’ can’t operate while submitting to authority. […]

Relatively speaking, liberals are more rational than conservatives when it comes to political issues (or so the research shows it to be the case in liberal democracies like the US). This is significant since the political issues that provoke the strongest motivated reasoning are always mired in moral issues, all of politics ultimately being inseparable from morality. In practical terms, this doesn’t necessarily mean liberals are more well informed for that has more to do with education and there are plenty of well educated conservatives; but what it does mean (as shown by research; read Mooney’s book for a helpful summary) is that liberals are less misinformed while conservatives are more misinformed. The odd part is that conservatives are more misinformed to the degree they are informed, what is described as the “smart idiot” effect. This also relates to how conservatives and experts (well educated conservatives fitting both categories) are most prone to the backfire effect which is when challenging info causes someone to become even stronger in their opinions.

Is that true? Does the evidence still support this assessment? That is what I’ll explore.

Let me be clear. One of my favorite hobbies is criticizing and complaining about liberals (e.g., Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures) and increasingly left-wingers as well (e.g., Is there a balance point in a society of extremes?). I end up obsessing more about the political left than the political right and my conclusions are often far from kind, to such an extent that I’ve lost some liberal friends these past couple of years (even my sister-in-law, a good liberal and partisan Democrat, who likes me on a personal level admitted that she blocked me on Facebook because of my political views). I personally know liberalism as someone who is a liberal, having been raised in a liberal church and having spent most of my life in a liberal town. But when I speak of conservatism, I also do so from a personal perspective, having been raised by conservative parents and having spent much of my life in conservative places (even this liberal town is in a rural farm state that is conservative in many ways, the state government presently controlled by right-wing Republicans).

My picking on conservatism isn’t separate from my picking on liberals. One of the main irritations about liberals is how easily, under conditions of stress and cognitive overload, they begin thinking and acting like conservatives. Under those conditions, liberals will share the same tendencies and biases as conservatives. The difference is that it requires pushing liberals out of their preferred mindset to get this response from them. This interests me more, the conditions that create and change ideological mindsets — that isn’t exactly my focus here, but it relates.

My own view is more in line with Chris Mooney, as opposed to Jonathan Haidt (I should point out that when I first read about Haidt’s research many years ago I found it quite compelling or at least interesting, but I later changed my mind as I read his book and analyzed his arguments and data more closely). Some see these two thinkers as making the same basic argument. It’s true that they rarely disagree about much (at least, not strongly when the two dialogue in person), and Mooney goes so far as to praise Haidt while sometimes dismissing apparent differences. I understand how their their arguments resonate, as they both started from a liberal position and from there sought to understand the American ideological divide. They share a common goal, to improve understanding and communication. Still, I sense something fundamentally different not just about their views but how they approach and hold those views. Their ultimate conclusions diverge greatly, Mooney leaning to the left and Haidt leaning over backwards toward the right. As I see it, much of what Haidt says is way off the mark. And for this reason, he is an example of the kind of public intellectual that confuses and annoys me, despite his amiable personality and liberal-minded good intentions. Mooney, though also being a fairly standard liberal, has a way of being more direct and so what can seem more honest, calling a spade a spade (The Republican Brain, Kindle Locations 2075-2079):

“You will probably have noted by now that the moral intuition research of Haidt and Ditto is not fully separate from the [cognitive] research covered in the last chapter. It overlaps. For instance, take conservatives’ greater respect for authority, and their stronger loyalty to the in-group, the tribe, the team. Respect for authority, at its extreme, is hard to distinguish from authoritarianism. And viewing the world with a strong distinction between the in-group and the out-group clearly relates to having lower integrative complexity and less tolerance of difference (although it can also, on a more positive note, mean showing loyalty and allegiance to one’s friends, and more patriotism).”

As I compared the two elsewhere:

So, Haidt’s view of intuition being greater than reasoning has some truth to it while also containing much speculation. We know that all people are predisposed to motivated reasoning. Yes, such bias can manifest as post hoc rationalizations of our intuited moral values. What Haidt ignores or doesn’t fully acknowledge, intentionally or not, is that not all people are equally predisposed to motivated reasoning in all types of situations. Mooney’s book presents a logical argument based on damning evidence about how conservatives are more predisposed to motivated reasoning when it comes to political issues, and it is clear that political issues are inseparable from moral issues in these cases of motivated reasoning.

A major example of motivated reasoning is the backfire effect. It has been well researched at this point. And the research shows it to be complex and context-dependent, as is presumably true of any cognitive biases. One early result found was that two oddly paired groups were most prone to the backfire effect, conservatives and the highly educated with highly educated conservatives being the worst (I’ll further discuss this finding below).

What can we make of this? As always, it depends. It’s not that conservatives are inherently anti-truth and anti-fact, anti-intellectual and anti-science. If you go back almost a half century ago, conservatives actually had slightly greater trust in science than liberals at the time, the two having switched places over time (the same was true with average IQ, having been higher among Republicans under Reagan but since then having been higher among Democrats, but intriguing piece of data is straying too far afield).

Why is that? Why did this change occur? There might be a simple explanation for it. During the Cold War, scientists were highly respected and science heavily funded by government in the fight against communism. For conservatives, the Cold War was all about an ideological war and a defense of the American Way. A major form that took was a technological competition between the two global superpowers, a space race and a nuclear weapons conflict. Science was a tool of ideology and the ideology in question was in line with an authoritarian vision of establishment power and a socially conservative vision of a status quo social order (an era during which perceived leftist radicals and deviants were the victims of big gov and big biz oppression, targeted by witch-hunts, blackballing, COINTELPRO, etc). Government funding of science and technology was often directly linked to the the military (e.g., R&D that created an early version of the internet as a communication system that would survive a military attack), and hence proof and expression of American greatness as part of the Whiggish view of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. Liberal values were also useful in the fight against communism and, unsurprisingly, during the early Cold War even conservatives like Ike and Nixon would publicly praise liberalism.

Humans in general are swayed by consensus views as an indicator of social norms. But conservatives are particularly motivated, as consensus among authority figures can be useful for conformity within and enforcement of the social order. In the anti-communist mindset back then, science and liberalism were part of the status quo of idealized American greatness as embodied in the American Dream (industrialized technology being commodified and experienced through a growing middle class of citizen-consumers; e.g., “Better living through chemistry”), what supposedly differentiated us from the backward authoritarianism of the Soviet regime (the ‘progressive’ authoritarianism of neocon corporatism is so much better!).

As the USSR weakened and eventually the Cold War ended, that consensus was broken and there was no longer a foreign authoritarian power posing a real threat. Liberalism and science no longer served any ideological purpose for the conservative agenda. So, to the conservative mind, liberalism once again became the enemy and so scientists were treated as liberal elites to be opposed (of course, excluding all of the scientists working for corporations and right-wing think tanks, as the big money of capitalism washes away their sins of intellectual pride; and also conveniently ignoring the sizable proportion of scientists along with engineering and tech field professors in universities who are on the political right).

When the US lost its only major global competitor with the collapse of the Soviet Union, consensus seemed irrelevant. America ruled the world and the Cold War had pushed conservatives into power. Conservatives didn’t need to make any concessions or compromises with the ideological opposition, as decades of persecution had broken the back of the political left. Conservatives no longer felt a need to justify themselves or look for allies. But that is changing now that the American star is on the decline and new global competitors are taking the stage. We have the opportunity to put pressure back on the political right for they are vulnerable to persuasion right now by anyone who will take advantage of it.

This brings me back to some of the research on backfire effect. This pressure seems to work. In Cosmos Magazine, Jeff Glorfeld offers a happy thought: “The added negative effect of conservatism plus high education was completely neutralised through exposure to the fact of scientific agreement around man-made climate change.” Consensus prevails! What this means is that defeating backfire effect requires pulling out the big guns. Repeat, repeat, repeat the facts of consensus. Don’t be shy about it!

More generally, I must admit that the backfire effect research doesn’t allow for simple conclusions. Some of it even seems contradictory, but I suspect this is because of the multiple factors (many of them confounding) involved. There is no single population and single set of conditions and so it’s unsurprising that various studies using different subjects from different backgrounds would come to different results (and we aren’t even talking about the even larger biases and problems of this kind of WEIRD research). Some of what we presently think we know about backfire effect and similar motivated reasoning might turn out to be wrong, misinterpreted, or more nuanced.

Let me give an example. Related to the above discussion about consensus, previous research wasn’t replicated by recent research (see: Wood & Porter’s published The Elusive Backfire Effect; Guess & Coppock’s unpublished The Exception, Not the Rule?). It indicates backfire effect might not be so strong and common, after all (not that the original researchers ever claimed it was ubiquitous and, showing no backfire effect of their own, the original researchers have supported the publishing of this new data). Also, there is no new evidence of any ideological disparity, if anything demonstrating that moderates are the least prone to it (are we to assume moderates are the least ideologically dogmatic in the partisan sense or are they simply the most apathetic with fewer ideological commitments because of intellectual laziness, thoughtlessness, or whatever?). Does this disprove the prior research? Flynn, Nyhand, and Reifler responded with some commentary.

Whatever it might or might not mean, I wouldn’t allow this to comfort you too much. Even though “[t]his finding is contested by other research that finds limited evidence that corrective information contributes to such a ‘backfire effect,'” writes Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich (Truth Decay, p. 83), “even this research suggests that altering preexisting beliefs can be difficult.” One of the authors of the published work, Ethan Porter, admits that what “Our work shows is that people do accept new information, but we have no evidence that this then affects their downstream policy attitudes.”

This latter suspicion was confirmed, at least among certain people. The original researchers collaborated with the challenging researchers. They again couldn’t find backfire effect, which seems to put the original research into doubt, although it is a bit early to come to strong conclusions. What they did find was maybe even more disheartening, as written about in a Vox piece by Brian Resnick — that “facts make an impression. They just don’t matter for our decision-making, which is a conclusion that’s abundant in psychology science.” And this is specifically relevant for the present: “there’s still a big problem: Trump supporters know their candidate lies, but that doesn’t change how they feel about him. Which prompts a scary thought: Is this just a Trump phenomenon? Or can any charismatic politician get away with being called out on lies?” It still doesn’t disprove the backfire effect, since it’s possible that they had already backfired as far back as they could go at this point: “Many of his supporters may have to come to terms with his records of misstatements by the time this study was conducted.” Further research will be required.

If we take this latest research as is, it would simply justify the view of backfire effect being the least of our worries. Backfire effect can only occur after facts are shown to someone and they look at them. But how often do political debates even get to the point where facts get exchanged, much less acknowledged?

“At least it’s nice to know that facts do make an impression, right? On the other hand, we tend to avoid confronting facts that run hostile to our political allegiances. Getting partisans to confront facts might be easy in the context of an online experiment. It’s much harder to do in the real world.”

* * *

Let me make a note. Ideological mindsets are as much social constructs as are races. They are part of a particular social order and cultural worldview. Conservatives and liberals didn’t exist until the Enlightenment. Any such labels are one of many possible ways of grouping diverse potentials and tendencies within human nature.

That might explain why, as research shows (in the American population at least), there is an overlap between conservatism and authoritarianism. But that is just another way of saying all authoritarians, left and right, are socially conservative (the reason why it is sometimes referred to as right-wing authoritarianism, as there is no such thing as socially liberal authoritarianism) — whereas fiscal conservatism has no known positive or negative correlation to authoritarianism (so-called fiscal conservatism simply being an old form of liberalism, i.e., classical liberalism). So, this is the reason authoritarians are mostly found on the political right in countries like the United States and on the political left in countries like Russia (left and liberal not being the same thing, as always depending on what specific ideologies we are talking about).

It depends on context, on definition and perception. There is no singular ‘conservatism’ for its just a general way of speaking about overlapping patterns of ideology, culture, personality, and neurology. The overlap of social conservatism and fiscal conservatism in contemporary American thought might be more of a fluke of historical conditions. Russell Kirk, the godfather of modern American conservatism, actually thought the two were fundamentally incompatible.

* * *

Why the Right Wing’s War on Facts Is Driving the Divide in America
by Sophia A. McClennen

A recent study by the Duke Reporters’ Lab shows that, in addition to a partisan difference in the frequency of lying, there is a partisan division over the very idea of fact-checking itself.

The researchers logged 792 statements mentioning fact-checkers and coded them as positive, negative or neutral. While a majority of citations (68 percent) were neutral, they found a dramatic divide in the source of negative comments. The study noted 71 accusations of bias against fact-checkers. Conservative websites were responsible for 97 percent of them.

The study shows that conservative sites take a hostile, negative attitude toward the practice of fact-checking. In some cases the tone is hardly subtle. In one example, they cite Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online, who noted that Hillary Clinton’s record with the truth was far from spotless. “Even PolitiFact, the hackiest and most biased of the fact-checking outfits, which bends over like a Bangkok hooker to defend Democrats, has a long list of her more recent lies.”

Goldberg seems pleased that Politifact has a list of Clinton’s lies, but at the same time he feels compelled to denigrate the fact-checking operation that produced the list. In fact, the Duke study shows that even when conservative sites are happy to reference fact-checks that bolster their ideological perspective, they often still find a way to denigrate their sources.

How Campaign Messages Are Received and Processed
by David Helfert

Left Brain, Right Brain

Other neurological studies seem congruent with Westen’s findings. In the 1980s, pop psychology began to describe people as either left or right brained and suggested that the characteristic determined whether they tended to be more artistic, sensitive, thoughtful, creative, emotional, or analytical, depending on which lobes of the brain dominated their thought processing and behavior. The theory that everyone is either one or the other has been roundly disputed in recent years. Now, however, it appears there may be something to the basic idea after all, and that the unique characteristics of the left and right lobes of the brain may have consequences in political communication.

Journalist and author Chris Mooney has written extensively on how different kinds of political messages are received and processed by different people. Mooney has built on Westen’s research about neurological differences in processing varying kinds of messages. In his 2012 book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, he points to research that finds the predisposition to process stimuli in one lobe of the brain or the other is due to an actual physical difference in the size of the respective lobes.

Some people, says Mooney, actually have a larger right brain lobe, including the limbic system, which supports emotion, behavior, motivation, and long-term memory. Other people, he says, have a larger left brain lobe and tend to process most information through their prefrontal cortex, the lobes that help in reasoning and logical processing.

Mooney suggests that this neurological difference can reflect political tendencies. In The Republican Brain, Mooney describes “a recent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of 90 University College of London students that found on average, political conservatives actually had a larger right lobe, including the amygdalae, while political liberals had more gray matter in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC),” part of the brain’s frontal lobe, with many links to the prefrontal cortex.

This seems consistent with studies conducted in 2013 by Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics at the University of Exeter in the UK, and colleagues at the University of California. Their research was described in “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans” in the international online journal PLOS ONE.

The study used data from a previous experiment in which a group of people were asked to play a simple gambling task. Schreiber’s team took the brain activity measurement of eighty-two people and cross-referenced them with the participants’ publicly available political party registration data. They found that Republicans tended to use their right amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the body’s fight-or-flight system, when making risk-taking decisions; Democrats tended to show greater activity in their left insula, an area associated with self and social awareness.

Schreiber claims the insula/amygdala brain function model offers an 82.9 percent accuracy rate in predicting whether a person is a Democrat or Republican. In comparison, the longstanding model using the party affiliation of parents to predict a child’s affiliation is accurate about 69.5 percent of the time. Another model based on the differences in brain structure distinguishes liberals from conservatives with 71.6 percent accuracy.

Mooney cites other academic research findings indicating that people whose limbic system is more involved in processing information are less likely to change their minds. Once they have arrived at a position on an issue that is congruent with their belief system and values, they are unlikely to change their minds even when presented with irrefutable evidence to support a different viewpoint. They will actually reject or discount facts or attempt to discredit the source of facts that conflict with their position.

Motivated Reasoning

A series of related behavioral concepts could shed light on why different people seem to react differently to various political messages. One of the best known concepts is motivated reasoning, which is based on research findings, such as that described by Mooney, that some people tend to process most information through the prefrontal cortex of their brains while others tend to receive and process information through the limbic system.

Other research has found that subjects who tend to process information through the prefrontal lobes of the brain tend to be more open to new information, and to be more politically liberal. Those subjects who tend to process information through the emotion-centers in the brain tend to be more politically conservative.

How Warnings About False Claims Become Recommendations
by Skurnik, Yoon, Park, & Schwarz

Telling people that a consumer claim is false can make them misremember it as true. In two experiments older adults were especially susceptible to this “illusion of truth” effect. Repeatedly identifying a claim as false helped older adults remember it as false in the short term, but paradoxically made them more likely to remember it as true after a three-day delay. This unintended effect of repetition comes from increased familiarity with the claim itself, but decreased recollection of the claim’s original context. Findings provide insight into susceptibility over time to memory distortions and exploitation via repetition of claims in media and advertising.

Misinformation lingers in memory: Failure of three pro-vaccination strategies
by Pluviano, Watt , & Sala

People’s inability to update their memories in light of corrective information may have important public health consequences, as in the case of vaccination choice. In the present study, we compare three potentially effective strategies in vaccine promotion: one contrasting myths vs. facts, one employing fact and icon boxes, and one showing images of non-vaccinated sick children. Beliefs in the autism/vaccines link and in vaccines side effects, along with intention to vaccinate a future child, were evaluated both immediately after the correction intervention and after a 7-day delay to reveal possible backfire effects. Results show that existing strategies to correct vaccine misinformation are ineffective and often backfire, resulting in the unintended opposite effect, reinforcing ill-founded beliefs about vaccination and reducing intentions to vaccinate.

Sometimes busting myths can backfire
by Bethany Brookshire

But bursting mythical bubbles can also backfire. The first problem is that people are easily persuaded by things they hear more often. “The mere repetition of a myth leads people to believe it to be more true,” notes Christina Peter, a communication scientist at the Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich.

And unfortunately, our brains don’t remember myths in a very helpful way. “There’s a lot of research that tells us people have a hard time remembering negations,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol in England. We remember myths not as myths, but rather as statements that are additionally tagged as “false.” So instead of remembering “cheese is nothing like crack,” our brains remember “cheese is like crack (false).” As our memories fade, the qualifier on the statement may fade too, leaving us with the false idea that brie really is the next cocaine.

Peter and her colleague Thomas Koch decided to find out how best to combat this backfire effect — our tendency to misremember myths as fact — when confronted with scientific information. They recruited 335 volunteers and asked them to read three newspaper articles. The first and last were decoys. The important one was in the middle, and concerned a new in-home bowel cancer test. The article included eight statements about the new test, with each immediately identified as fact or myth, and with an explanation of why the items were true or false.

The scientists also asked the participants to focus on different things. They asked one group to form an opinion about the articles as they read them. They asked another just to study the language.

After all the groups were done reading, Peter and Koch presented them with the eight statements from the bowel test article, and asked them whether they were true or false. Then the scientists asked the participants those questions again after five days to test what they retained.

Readers who focused just on the language of the articles suffered from the backfire effect.  They were more likely to remember false statements as true than to remember true statements as false. This backfire effect got stronger when they saw the statements again five days later, and it influenced what they thought of the bowel test. The articles described the test in a slightly negative light. But if people remembered more of the myths as facts, they ended up with a positive view of the test. Oops.

But the backfire effect changed if participants formed an opinion as they read. Participants who were making up their minds on the fly made errors half as often as those who were reading only for language.

Peter says the results suggest that when presenting readers with new information, “try to avoid repeating false information,” since that may be what remains in people’s minds. And in some situations, Peter says, asking readers for their opinion or getting them to form an opinion as they read might help them distinguish between what is truth and what is myth. Peter and Koch published their results in the January Science Communication.

Backfire Effect Not Significant
by Steven Novella

For me there are two main limitations of this study – the first is that it is difficult to extrapolate from the artificial setting of a psychological study to an emotional discussion around the dinner table (or in the comments to a blog). It seems likely that people are much more willing to be reasonable in the former setting.

Second, we have no idea how persistent the correction effect is. People may immediately correct their belief, but then quickly forget the new information that runs counter to their narrative. That would be consistent with my personal experience, at least some of the time. It seems I can correct someone’s false information, with objective references, but then a month later they repeat their original claim as if the prior conversation never happened. I would love to see some long term follow up to these studies.

So if people do not respond to ideologically inconvenient facts by forming counterarguments and moving away from them (again – that is the backfire effect) then what do they do? The authors discuss a competing hypothesis, that people are fundamentally intellectually lazy. In fact, forming counterarguments is a lot of mental work that people will tend to avoid. It is much easier to just ignore the new facts.

Further there is evidence that to some extent people not only ignore facts, they may think that facts are not important. They may conclude that the specific fact they are being presented is not relevant to their ideological belief. Or they may believe that facts in general are not important.

What that generally means is that they dismiss facts as being biased and subjective. You have your facts, but I have my facts, and everyone is entitled to their opinion – meaning they get to choose which facts to believe.

Of course all of this is exacerbated by the echochamber effect. People overwhelmingly seek out sources of information that are in line with their ideology.

I think it is very important to recognize that the backfire effect is a small or perhaps even nonexistent phenomenon. The problem with belief in the backfire effect is that it portrays people as hopelessly biased, and suggests that attempts at educating people or changing their mind is fruitless. It suggests that the problem of incorrect beliefs is an unfixable inherent problem with human psychology.

Mick West says:
January 4, 2018 at 11:52 am
The primary problem with this study is that it is only measuring the IMMEDIATE effect of corrections. As they say in the final sentence of the discussion, there’s little backfire effect to correcting ideologically biased misinformation “at least for a brief moment”. It tells use nothing about what might happen weeks or months later. In fact the design of the study seems more like a reading comprehension test than about measuring changes in belief.

I’d recommend people have a look at the overview of backfire effects in The Debunking Handbook by Cook & Lewandowsky (free online). They identify three types: Familiarity Backfire, Overkill Backfire, and Worldview Backfire. Worldview backfire (which the Wood & Porter study measures) is more manifest as a disconfirmation bias, something which Wood and Porter dismiss, but don’t measure – not because people are too lazy to come up with alternative explanations, but because the immediate nature of the study does not allow the participants time for any mental gymnastics. The other two forms of backfire are likewise things that happen over time.

So I’d not put too large an asterisk on the backfire effect just yet.

B.S. says:
January 4, 2018 at 2:35 pm
I think that the backfire effect is most likely an emotional response. I’m reading “Crucial Conversations” right now and this book describes emotional responses to uncomfortable conversations- attacking someone who disagrees with you (perceived as an adversary) and defending yourself without thinking are a huge portion of this book. This model seems to fits both anecdotal observations of the backfire effect and this new research.
The mechanical turn questions appear to be emotionless and have no cues from an opponent with an opposing view. The corrections were all “neutral data from [cited] governmental sources.”. I’d bet that changing the factual correction to “No it isn’t you asshole! President Obama has deported illegal immigrants at twice the rate of Bush!” (note no source cited, because we rarely remember them in conversations) would elicit some sort of backfire effect that would likely be even larger if delivered emotionally and in person by an “adversary”. Maybe this all means that the key to eliminating any backfire effect is removing emotion from your response and accurately citing neutral sources. Maybe this means that dispassionate real-time fact checking of politicians could actually make a difference. Regardless, this is an interesting addition to the literature and conversation. It restores some of my hope.

NiroZ says:
January 4, 2018 at 11:37 pm
I’d wager that the reason for this would be in line with the research for motivational interviewing (a therapy technique) as well as the research around stigma, shame and vulnerability. Basically, when people make arguments that appear to be part of the ‘backfire’ effect, they’re actually responding to the feeling of being cornered, the loss of control and power in find found incorrect and the possible sense of alienation they feel about identifying with an ‘incorrect’ belief. If this is correct, it’s likely that these people would, under the right circumstances/ to people they feel safe with, admit that X belief is wrong, but they need adhere to it for other reasons (to belong in a group, to annoy someone they dislike, to avoid losing face).

Nidwin says:
January 5, 2018 at 3:41 am
From my experience the backfire effect kicks in when folks can’t say “woops, was I wrong on that one”.

Folks only change their minds as long as the subject doesn’t breech their little personal cocoon. And even then it’s often FIFO (first in first out).

The Fantasy of Creative Destruction

An interesting take on the Nazis and their sympathizers comes from Jorge Luis Borges. What motivates a certain variety of reactionary authoritarianism isn’t straightforward politics. The vision is grander than that, almost a cosmic battle. Issues of who is victorious in war is maybe secondary.

In moments of honest admission, Adolf Hitler explained that the struggle he envisioned went beyond mere national interest. He wouldn’t allow German soldiers in Russia to retreat. Either Germans were superior and would succeed or they were inferior and would lose. His only purpose was to test the German race against foreign races. Let the best people win, that was his attitude. It had apocalyptic implications. Other races had to be destroyed and subjugated. Failing that, the German population must be sacrificed in the attempt. It was total war requiring total commitment.

This is similar to Karen Armstrong’s interpretation of Islamic jihadis. She has pointed out that the 9/11 terrorists seemed to intentionally flout Islamic law, as if they were demanding Allah’s attention and forcing the Divine Hand to intervene. They were trying to call down apocalypse, not unlike American evangelicals hoping to incite violent attack on Israel as they believe must happen prior to the Second Coming. It isn’t mere nihilism.

Some would argue that a similar attitude is held by Trump supporters. Not even those who voted for him, according to polls, thought he would do what he promised. But the one thing that he could accomplish was to destroy a corrupt system. Electing Donald Trump as president was like lobbing a grenade into a bunker. It may be an act of desperation, although it makes perfect sense as an all too human motivation. Studies have shown that individuals are willing to punish perceived wrongdoers even at great costs to themselves. It is what morality becomes when morality has been denied for too long.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth describes the Joker in saying, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” But that isn’t quite right. In his own words, the Joker explains himself: “Introduce a little anarchy – upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos – it’s fair.” Exactly! It’s fair. Death and destruction is the last refuge of fairness, what is necessary to bring on justice, even if it is the justice of a mad man’s chaos. The slate must be wiped clean. Then something new can emerge from the ashes. An apocalypse is a revelation.

To the reactionary mind, sacrifice of self can be as acceptable as sacrifice of others. It’s the fight, the struggle itself that gives meaning — no matter the costs and consequences, no matter how it ends. The greatest sin is boredom, the inevitable result of victory. As Irving Kristol said to Corey Robin, the defeat of the Soviet Union “deprived us of an enemy.” It was the end of history for, without an enervating battle of moral imagination, it was the end of the world.

There is a balance point in this, though. It is the fantasy of violence that matters most, the glorious battle that transcends mundane reality. The other way victory threatens is by making the violence all too immediately real. It was easy for Hitler, safely back in Germany, to play out his ideological visions on distant battlefields. When violence gets too close, it simply becomes terrifying. The Nazi sympathizers Borges described had the advantage of cheering on Hitler from a continent across the ocean. But even for them, the possibility of the Nazis actually winning caused trepidation.

* * *

The metal vultures and the dragon
by Alec Nevala-Lee

In another essay, Borges remembers the man who came to his house to proudly announce that the Germans had taken Paris: “I felt a confusion of sadness, disgust, malaise. Then it occurred to me that his insolent joy did not explain the stentorian voice or the abrupt proclamation. He added that the German troops would soon be in London. Any opposition was useless, nothing could prevent their victory. That was when I knew that he, too, was terrified.” This speaks for itself. But what troubles me the most is Borges’s conclusion:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

After the war, Borges explored these themes in one of his most haunting stories, “Deutsches Requiem,” in which he attempted to write from the point of view of “the ideal Nazi.” Its narrator, the subdirector of a concentration camp, writes out his confession as he prepares to face the firing squad, and his closing words feel like a glimpse of our own future, regardless of the names of those in power: “Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.”

The Reactionary Mind
by Corey Robin
pp. 243-245

As Orwell taught, the possibilities for cruelty and violence are as limitless as the imagination that dreams them up. But the armies and agencies of today’s violence are vast bureaucracies, and vast bureaucracies need rules. Eliminating the rules does not Prometheus unbind; it just makes for more billable hours.

“No yielding. No equivocation. No lawyering this thing to death.” That was George W. Bush’s vow after 9/ 11 and his description of how the war on terror would be conducted. Like so many of Bush’s other declarations, it turned out to be an empty promise. This thing was lawyered to death. But, and this is the critical point, far from minimizing state violence— which was the great fear of the neocons— lawyering has proven to be perfectly compatible with violence. In a war already swollen with disappointment and disillusion, the realization that inevitably follows— the rule of law can, in fact, authorize the greatest adventures of violence and death, thereby draining them of sublimity— must be, for the conservative, the greatest disillusion of all.

Had they been closer readers of Burke, the neoconservatives— like Fukuyama, Roosevelt, Sorel, Schmitt, Tocqueville, Maistre, Treitschke, and so many more on the American and European right— could have seen this disillusion coming. Burke certainly did. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, he was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”— that is, should they become realities rather than fantasies, should they become “conversant about the present destruction of the person”— their sublimity would disappear. They would cease to be “delightful” and restorative and become simply terrible. 64 Burke’s point was not merely that no one, in the end, really wants to die or that no one enjoys unwelcome, excruciating pain. It was that sublimity of whatever kind and source depends upon obscurity: get too close to anything, whether an object or experience, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. It becomes familiar. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” 65 “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.” 66 “A clear idea,” Burke concludes, “is therefore another name for a little idea.” 67 Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses whatever attribute— rejuvenation, transgression, excitement, awe— you ascribed to it when it was just an idea.

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Since 9/ 11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives— or their sons and daughters— to fight the war on terror themselves. For those on the left, that failure is symptomatic of the class injustice of contemporary America. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea— a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24— it is sublime. As soon as the war on terror becomes a reality, it can be as cheerless as a discussion of the tax code and as tedious as a trip to the DMV.

A Compelling Story

“A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.”

This is Todd Walton discussing an interesting phenomenon, from Know Your Audience. And it is something he has personally experienced with his own fiction writing:

“I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

“Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.”

It’s not only that people were adamant about believing his fiction was real. They would get quite upset when told once again that it was fiction, even though they already had this explained to them before the reading. Some of them accused the author of lying to them. And a few left the room in protest.

From a slightly different perspective, here is an anecdote shared by Harlan Ellison:

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

I quoted that in a post I wrote about a similarly strange phenomenon. It’s how people are able to know and not know simultaneously (a sub-category of cognitive blindness; related to inattentional blindnesscontextual ignorancehypocognition, and conceptual blindness). With that in mind, maybe some of those people in Walton’s various audiences did know it was fiction, even while another part of them took it as real.

This kind of dissociation is probably more common than we might suspect. The sometimes antagonsitic responses he got could have been more than mere anger at having their perception denied. He was going beyond that in challenging their dissociation, which cuts even deeper into the human psyche. People hold onto their dissociations more powerfully than maybe anything else.

There is another factor as well. We live in a literal-minded age. Truth has become conflated with literalism. When something feels true, many people automatically take it as literal. This is the power of religion and its stories, along with politics and its rhetoric. But some argue that literal-mindedness has increased over time, starting with the Axial Age and becoming a force to be reckoned with in this post-Enlightenment age of scientism and fundamentalism. That is what leads to the black-and-white thinking of something either being literally true or absolutely false (a blatant lie, a frivolous fantasy, etc). Iain McGilchrist describes this as the brain dominance of the left hempisphere’s experience and the suppression of right hemisphere’s emotional nuance and grounded context.

This mindset isn’t just a source of amusing anecdotes. It has real world consequences. The most powerful stories aren’t told by fiction writers or at least not by those openly identifying as such. Rather, the greatest compelling storytellers of our age work in news media and politics. The gatekeepers have immense influence in determining what is real or not in the public mind. This is why there is a battle right now over fake news. It’s a battle among the gatekeepers.

This connects to the smart idiot effect. It’s interesting to note that, according to studies, the least educated are the most aware of the limits of their knowledge and expertise. It requires being well educated to fall into the trap of the smart idiot effect (hence why it is called that). This is the reason media personalities and politicians can be so dangerous, as they are people who talk a bit about everything while often being an expert in nothing or, at best, their expertise being narrowly constrained. This is fertile ground for storytelling. And this is why attention-grabbing politicians like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump first became famous as media personalities — their being experts only in entertainment and egotism. Those like Reagan and Trump are storytellers who embody the stories they tell. They pretend to be something they are not and their audience-supporters take the pretense for reality.

This is seen in many areas of society but particularly on right-wing media. Interestingly, according to research, it is most clearly evidenced among the most well informed audience members of right-wing media who simultaneously are the most misinformed. The average Fox News viewer does know more factoids than the average American (maybe no great accomplishment), but they also know more falsehoods than the average American. What they don’t know very well is how to differentiate between what is true and not true. To be able to make this differentiation would require they not only be able to memorize factoids but to understand the larger context of knowledge and the deeper understanding of truth — the subltety and nuance provided primarily by the right hemisphere, according to Iain McGilchrist. Otherwise, factoids are simply fodder for talking points. And it leads to much confusion, such as a surprising percentage of conservatives taking seriously Stephen Colbert’s caricature of conservatism. Isn’t that interesting, that many conservatives can’t tell the difference between supposedly authentic conservatism and a caricature of it? The election of Donald Trump, an apolitical demagogue posing as a conservative, emphasizes this point.

It is maybe no accident that this phenomenon manifests the strongest on the political right, at least in the United States. It could be caused by how, in the US, authoritarianism is correlated to the political right — not so in former Soviet countries, though. So the main causal factor is probably authoritarianism in general (and, yes, authoritarianism does exist within the Democratic Party, if not to the extreme seen within the GOP; but I would note that, even though Democratic leaders are to the left of the far right, they are in many ways to the right of the majority of Americans… as observed in decades of diverse public polling). Research does show that authoritarians don’t mind being hypocritical, assuming they even comprehend what hypocrisy means. Authoritarians are good at groupthink and believing what they are told. They are literal-minded, as for them the group’s ideology and the leader’s words are identical to reality itself, literally. One could interpret authoritarianism as an extreme variety of dissociation.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Todd Walton’s most offended audience members would test as higher on authoritarianism. Such people have a strong desire to believe in something absolutely. Self-aware use of imagination and the imaginal is not an area of talent for them nor the trait of openness upon which it depends. This is because they lack the tolerance for cognitive dissonance, a necessary component of suspension of disbelief in the enjoyment of fiction. It makes no sense to them that a story could be subjectively true while being factually false (or factually partial). Hence, the sense of being deceived and betrayed. The fiction writer is an unworthy authority figure to the authoritarian mind. A proper authoritarian demagogue would tell his followers what they wanted to hear and would never then tell them that it was just fiction. The point of storytelling, for the authoritarian, is that it is told with utter conviction — it being irrelevant whether or not the authoritarian leader himself believes what he says, just that he pretends to believe.

Authoritarians aside, it should be noted that most people appear to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between non-fiction and fiction. People will say they believe all kinds of things to be true. But if you give them enough of an incentive, they will admit to what they actually believe is true (priming them for rational/analytical thought would probably also help, as various studies indicate). And it turns out most people agree about a lot of things, even in politics. Dissociation has its limits, when real costs and consequences are on the line. But most storytelling, whether fictional or political, won’t effect the concrete daily life of the average person. People want to believe stories and so will take them literally, especially when a story has no real impact. For example, believing in the literal reality that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ is an attractive story for it being largely irrelevant, just a pleasant fiction to create a social bonding experience through ritual (and evidence indicates that many ancient people perceived such things metaphorically or imaginally, instead of literally; the mythical being a far different experience from the literal). Literal-minded people forget that something can have truth value without being literally true. That is what stories are about.

So, it’s possible that if there had been some concrete and personal incentive for self-aware honesty (at least some of) those seemingly naive audience members would have admitted that they really did know that Todd Walton’s readings were fictional. It’s just that, under the actual circumstances with little at stake, their only incentive was their own emotional commitment in being drawn into the story. To be told it is fiction is like being told their experience is false, which would be taken as a personal attack. What they are missing, in that situation, is the willingness to separate their experience of the story from the story itself. It feels so real that they it would ruin their experience of it to imagine it not being real. That is a successful story.

(By the way, this helps explain why Plato so feared the poets, the storytellers of that era. See some context for this in an earlier post of mine, On Truth and Bullshit: “Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind.”)

* * *

For some further thoughts from Iain McGilchrist:

The Master and His Emissary
pp. 49-50

“Anything that requires indirect interpretation, which is not explicit or literal, that in other words requires contextual understanding, depends on the right frontal lobe for its meaning to be conveyed or received. 132 The right hemisphere understands from indirect contextual clues, not only from explicit statement, whereas the left hemisphere will identify by labels rather than context (e.g. identifies that it must be winter because it is ‘January’, not by looking at the trees). 133

“This difference is particularly important when it comes to what the two hemispheres contribute to language. The right hemisphere takes whatever is said within its entire context. 134 It is specialised in pragmatics, the art of contextual understanding of meaning, and in using metaphor. 135 It is the right hemisphere which processes the non-literal aspects of language, 136 of which more later. This is why the left hemisphere is not good at understanding the higher level meaning of utterances such as ‘it’s a bit hot in here today’ (while the right hemisphere understands ‘please open a window’, the left hemisphere assumes this is just helpful supply of meteorological data). It is also why the right hemisphere underpins the appreciation of humour, since humour depends vitally on being able to understand the context of what is said and done, and how context changes it. Subjects with right brain damage, like subjects with schizophrenia, who in many respects resemble them, cannot understand implied meaning, and tend to take conversational remarks literally.”

pp. 125-126

“Metaphor is the crucial aspect of language whereby it retains its connectedness to the world, and by which the ‘parts’ of the world which language appears to identify retain their connectedness one to another. Literal language, by contrast, is the means whereby the mind loosens its contact with reality and becomes a self-consistent system of tokens.”

p. 332

“Metaphorical understanding has a close relationship with reason, which seems paradoxical only because we have inherited an Enlightenment view of metaphor: namely, that it is either indirectly literal, and can be reduced to ‘proper’ literal language, or a purely fanciful ornament, and therefore irrelevant to meaning and rational thought, which it indeed threatens to disrupt. It is seen as a linguistic device, not as a vehicle of thought. What the literalist view and the anti-literalist view share is that, ultimately, metaphor can have nothing directly to do with truth. Either it is simply another way of stating literal truth or else it undermines any claim to truth. But as Lakoff and Johnson have shown, ‘metaphor is centrally a matter of thought, not just words’. 2 The loss of metaphor is a loss of cognitive content.”

Is there a balance point in a society of extremes?

“That decadence is a cumulative thing. Certainly, it is nurtured both by dogma and nihilism. Only a sceptical meaningfulness can push forward in a creative way.”
~ Paul Adkin, Decadence & Stagnation

Many liberals in the United States have become or always were rather conservative in personality and/or ideology. This is an old complaint made by many further to the left, myself included.

Quite a few liberals maybe would have identified as conservatives at a different time or in a different society. The US political spectrum is shifted so far right that moderate conservatives appear as liberals and typically portray themselves as liberals, but even these moderate conservatives long to push society further right into neoliberal corporatism and neocon authoritarianism. That is how so much of the political left gets excluded from mainstream respectability and legitimacy for, in big biz media and plutocratic politics, even a moderate liberal gets portrayed as a radical.

But the other thing about our society is how reactionary it is, not merely right-wing in the way seen a century ago. This forces the entire political left into an oppositional position that gets defined by what it isn’t and so leftists are forced into a narrow corner of the dominant paradigm. This causes many left-wingers to be constantly on the defensive or to be overly preoccupied with the other side.

And it is so easy to become more like what is opposed. There is a surprising number of left-wingers who become right-wingers or otherwise fall into reactionary thinking, who become obsessed with fringe ideologies and movements that feed into authoritarianism or get lost in dark fantasies of dystopia and apocalypse. Many others on the political left simply lose hope, becoming cynical and apathetic.

In a society like this, it’s very difficult to remain solidly on the political left while maintaining balance. One hopes there is a sweet spot between what goes for liberalism and the far left, these two in themselves forming extremes on a spectrum.

The danger on the political right is far different. Conservative, right-wing, and reactionary have all become conflated into an ideological confusion that is held together by an authoritarian streak. This is a vague set of overlapping visons involving dominance and oppression, fear and anxiety, righteousness and resentment, nostalgia and pseudo-realism, theocracy and nationalism, crude libertarianism and fascist-like futurism.

This scattered political left and mixed-up political right is what goes for American politics.

How does an individual as a member of the public gain enough distance from the very social order that dominates the public mind and frames public debate, manages public perception and manipulates public behavior? And where does one find solid ground to make a stand?

* * *

Let me add some thoughts.

We Americans live in an authoritarian society. There is a long history of authoritarianism: genocide, slavery, land theft, population displacement, reservations, internment camps, re-enslavement through chain gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, race wars, redlining, eugenics, human medical testing, tough-on-crime laws, war on drugs, war on the poor, racial profiling, mass incarceration, police brutality, military-industrial complex, near continuous war-mongering, anti-democratic covert operations (foreign and domestic), intelligence-security state, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, etc.

In America, there were openly stated racist laws on the books for several centuries. Of course, we inherited this authoritarian tradition from Britain and Europe. They have their own long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, pogroms, Holocaust, eugenics, ghettoization, exploitation, oppression, prejudice, violence, state terrorism, wars of aggression, world war, and on and on. We can’t rationalize this as being just human nature, as not all humans have acted this way. There are societies like the Piraha that wouldn’t even understand authoritarianism, much less be prone to it. But even among modern nation-states, not all of them have an extensive past of conquering and dominating other people.

Anyway, what other societies do is a moot issue, as far as dealing with one’s own society and one’s own culpability and complicity. So you say that you’re an anti-authoritarian. Well, good for you. What does that mean?

Our lives are ruled over by authoritarianism. But it’s not just something that comes from above for it is built into every aspect of our society and economy. On a daily basis, we act out scripts of authoritarianism and play by its rules. Our lives are dependent on the internalized benefits of externalized costs, the latter being mostly paid by the worst victims of authoritarianism, typically poor dark-skinned people in distant countries. The cheap gas and cheap products you consume were paid for by the blood and suffering of untold others who remain unseen and unheard.

Even to embrace anti-authoritarianism is to remain captured within the gravity of authoritarianism’s pull. The challenge is that maybe authoritarianism can’t ever be directly opposed because opposition is part of the language of authoritarianism. Opposition can always be co-opted, subverted, or redirected. There is either authoritarianism or there is not. For it to end, something entirely new would have to take its place.

This is where radical imagination comes in. We need entirely different thinking made possible through a paradigm shift, a revolution of the mind. We aren’t going to debate or analyze, petition or vote our way out of authoritarianism. That puts us in a tricky spot, for those of us dissatisfied with the options being forced upon us.

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

A System of Unhappiness

The unhappiness, frustration, outrage, and whatever else many Americans are experiencing is hardly new. It has been around for as long I can remember.

Even back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing sense of unease and a sense that something had gone askew, as wages stagnated and inequality grew while the lower classes waited for the promises of trickle-down. Long before the 2008 recession and Trump’s economic populism, there were the WTO protests in 1999. The failures have been apparent for at least decades, failures of American-style globalization and neoliberal corporatism (inverted totalitarianism?) along with the political elite, lobbyists, and think tanks that serve it.

The sense of tension and conflict has only grown worse, as the economic situation for most Americans has deterioriated. For this past decade or so: Large parts of our government, such as Congress, have had microscopic levels in the general public’s approval ratings. In polls, large percentages (often a majority) of Americans regularly say that they don’t think the government represents them and that we don’t have a functioning democracy. Also, accusations of political manipulation, vote rigging, and media bias/collusion have been regularly heard all across the political spectrum.

With this past campaign season and the presidential election, all of this has been magnified to the point it can no longer be ignored or dismissed by the political and media elite. It seems to have hit a tipping point. But the culmination of it all is still unclear. Sanders voters accused Clinton and the DNC in rigging the primary. Trump accused Democrats of rigging the election. And then Democrats returned the favor by accusing Trump and now the Russians. It seems almost everyone now agrees our system is dysfunctional and being rigged somehow by someone. Whatever it is, it ain’t democracy.

Yet, at the same time, the American public (myself included, sadly) has grown so cynical and apathetic that few can be bothered to start protests and riots in the street to demand democracy. If people are so unhappy, where is the march on Washington or the occupation of statehouses? It feels like most Americans have given up on the system, which is dangerous for that is when the system is most vulnerable to authoritarianism, demagoguery, and dictatorship. When a society gets to that point, the best that can be hoped for is all-out revolution that overthrows the entire system and starts from scratch.

It’s highly probable that the Russians were meddling in American politics. It would be shocking if they weren’t. Russians and Americans have been meddling with each other’s countries since the beginning of the Cold War. The CIA is infamous for its covert activities in fucking around with other countries. You’d have to be naive to the point of idiocy to think that every major government isn’t constantly meddling in the affairs of other countries. We might as well have an open system of international spy exchange, just to simplify things. And it isn’t even just government. Do you really think the Chinese government doesn’t have spies in Western technology companies? Do you really think the Russian government doesn’t have spies in American companies manufacturing and operating voting machines? Come on! Don’t be stupid. In our heart of hearts, we already know this.

As for a functioning democracy, our government was from the beginning designed to not be a functioning democracy. That is what happened when the Federalists won. It’s true the Anti-Federalists got some semi-democratic concessions in trying to protect against the worst aspects of the Federalist aspirations of monarchy, aristocracy, and imperialism. But those concessions have turned out to be impotent.

Consider the electoral college. It was a compromise in the hope of balancing power. The reality of it, however, was that it gave power to the elite. It ultimately wasn’t a compromise between the public and the powerful nor between large and small states. Rather it ended up being an agreement between elites and other elites, in the struggle over which elites would rule and how they would rule.

Electors are part of the political elite, first and foremost. Their purpose is to represent state governments (i.e., local political elite) more than it is to represent local voters. This is why electors have always had the freedom to elect anyone they want. The idea was that, if the public voted incorrectly, the political elite by way of the electors could ensure the correct candidate was elected president. So, if the electors in this election did choose Clinton over Trump, they would simply be doing what is in their job description. Clinton is part of the political establishment and Trump isn’t. The electors purpose is to protect the political establishment, and the party-affiliation of the electors guarantees the state political establishments remains aligned with the federal political establishment.

From this perspective, nothing is exactly malfunctioning.

It’s sort of like modern warfare. The United States didn’t lose the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. They achieved their purpose in destabilizing these countries to keep other global powers from establishing control. It’s how geopolitics is played. The United States could have simply blown any of those countries off the map or turned any of them into permanent colonies, but that isn’t how the modern geopolitical game is played and won. Plus, it is effective as spectacle and entertainment to distract the masses, by playing out scapegoating rituals and propaganda narratives on the global stage. This redirects the public’s unhappiness and anger toward state-approved targets, allowing for emotional catharsis and temporary appeasement of collective anxiety.

As explained by Diana Johnstone, in Queen of Chaos:

For most Americans, U.S. wars are simply a branch of the entertainment industry, something to hear about on television but rarely seen. These wars give you a bit of serious entertainment in return for your tax dollars. But they are not really a matter of life and death…

In fact, it hardly seems to matter what happens in these wars. The United States no longer even makes war in order to win, but rather to make sure that the other side loses. Hillary Clinton accused Vladimir Putin, quite falsely, of adhering to a “zero-sum game in which, if someone is winning, then someone else has to be losing”. The United States is playing something even worse: a “no win”, or a “lose-lose”, game in which the other side may lose, yet the United States cannot be called the winner. These are essentially spoiler wars, fought to get rid of real or imagined rivals; everyone is poorer as a result. Americans are being taught to grow accustomed to these negative wars, whose declared purpose is to get rid of something – a dictator, or terrorism, or human rights violations.

The United States is out to dominate the world by knocking out the other players.

“Our ideals” are part of the collateral damage.

If you don’t understand the purpose and agenda behind a system, you can’t judge how effective it is in achieving those ends. Maybe that is what is happening with the American public right now. They are waking up to the reality that the world isn’t as they thought it was, that their country isn’t the kind they had been sold.

So, by what right do the elite rule over us? The social contract is being questioned, the legitimacy of the government challenged. Then what?