04 February 2013

Authoritarianism against government?

A local paper referred me to an article by Henry A. Giroux on the TruthOut website, headlining Giroux's claim that the U.S. was becoming a more authoritarian country. His argument seems paradoxical, for while he denounces the Obama administration for perpetuating the War on Terror and various offenses against poor people, he identifies this new authoritarian tendency with the anti-government or anti-statist rhetoric of the Republican party. That is, the people who hate "big government" are the entering wedge of a new authoritarianism. This requires some explaining. Giroux is really describing a kind of intellectual authoritarianism that doesn't allow for the sort of social-justice advocacy or even the "another world is possible" imagination that dominated the 20th century. While there may be no overt attempt to censor or outlaw such ideas, Giroux accuses the American establishment -- neoliberals as well as hard-line rightists -- of trying to remake society according to a selfish consumerist model that would prove ultimately merciless to the poor. The right-wing/neoliberal "anti-politics" takes on an authoritarian character in Giroux's eyes by denying the poor even the idea of agency and rejecting any idea of collective action by people to improve their lives through politics. If part of your notion of "authoritarianism" is a certain brutality or cruelty, the kind Giroux describes may qualify.

The new extremism unleashes all the forces of brutal self-absorption that deepen and expand both the structure of cruelty and its ongoing privatization. Material self-interests have weakened any sense of collective purpose, just as America's obsession with radical individualism and wealth and the growing existence of gross inequality have become symptomatic of our ethical and collective impoverishment.

Still, it can't help but seem slightly paradoxical to describe an "every man for himself" ethic as "authoritarian." However, the state doesn't exactly disappear in Giroux's dystopia. Instead of the nurturing, regulating state he idealizes, it becomes a "punishing state" more likely to use force against the poor or anyone who challenges the reigning ideology through acts of solidarity or resistance. And you can bet, if you believe this scenario, that those dissidents will be the ones accused of authoritarian if not totalitarian tendencies, because they'll be presumed worshipers of an all-powerful state and haters of freedom.

Republicans themselves, since the 1980s, have insisted on a distinction between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" forms of tyranny. According to the theorist of this distinction, the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick, authoritarian regimes might be deplorable in practice but were more acceptable on principle than totalitarian states. This is because authoritarian states, generally speaking, allowed more economic freedom than totalitarian states. Ideally, that allowed for the formation of a "civil society" that would inevitably claim political freedoms, while totalitarian states were presumed irreconcilably hostile to both economic freedom and civil society. By Republican standards, then, Giroux may be on to something when he observes a slide toward authoritarianism in the U.S. We might ask, however, whether the essence of "totalitarianism," if you grant any essence to the concept, is its hostility to economic freedom or its hostility to civil society. If civil society itself begins to question unconditional economic freedom, and a society dogmatically committed to economic liberty above all other values resolves to crush all challenges, whether through cultural propaganda, social engineering or other means, wouldn't the country in question have a totalitarian tendency, too? How's that for a paradox?


Anonymous said...

The paradox, to me, is that in order to ensure the Constitutional freedoms we have, we need a strong state. A strong state can defend itself against corruption from without as well as within. Yet these people want a weak state because they claim a strong state impedes their "freedom".

Given the many conversations I've had and comments I've read, their idea of freedom seems to be the "right" to act in any manner they wish, with impunity, no sense of responsibility or limits, regardless of what harm those actions may bring on to others.

This is not freedom. It is irrational and ignorant. One cannot have a society without rules, limits and boundaries.

If these animals can't live peacefully within the limitations necessary to a peaceful and prosperous society, then they should have the decency to go live with the rest of the animals, in the wilderness, where they belong. Without the benefits of a modern civilized culture.

Samuel Wilson said...

Obviously, though, no one thinks there should be no such thing as "crime," so everyone accepts that lines can and should be drawn. The debate is usually over where the lines are drawn, and the issue is whether the people -- the body politic -- can draw the lines and define "crime" where they will, or whether some overriding principle of individual freedom should constrain them, on the assumption that individual freedom is the primary object of collective endeavor. It should be possible to mark a point beyond which limits to individual conduct become oppressive and insist that limits short of that point are not oppressive, no matter what dissidents think or feel. You'll probably always have someone who finds some restriction or regulation oppressive, but whether feeling that way proves the charge isn't for the individual alone to determine.

Anonymous said...

Individual freedom? What is that? The fact of the matter is, since the state holds the only "legitimate" monopoly on violence, the state gets to decide what freedom any individual has. There is no overriding principle because there is no higher authority to appeal to.

In my opinion, the individual should be able to do whatever they wish to do, providing their actions do not infringe on any other individual. I also believe that if an individual's actions cause problems for others, they should not whine about any reprisals which come their way.