Left Authoritarianism

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

I want to take a moment to speak about a phenomenon that I have become concerned about since I started reading political websites: the emergence of something that I will call left-authoritarianism.  There has always been a trend on the left, a trend quite distinct from what we typically call liberalism or progressivism, that has tended toward authoritarianism.  This trend found its fullest and most unfortunate expression in the rise of the Soviet Union and in that country’s betrayal of socialism early in the twentieth century. I am of the firm conviction that the viewpoints of people who think along these lines must be distinguished from those who hold liberal or progressive views.

So, what’s the difference?  The United States was founded as a liberal country.  The principles of Enlightenment-Rationalism, principles of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the idea that the authority of government derives from the consent of the governed, are at the core of what the Constitution stands for.  Liberals, both of the classic 19th century variety, as well as current ones, still hold to these principles.  

Left-Authoritarians, however, do not.

With the failure of the New Left, in the early 1970s, and with the rise of the Conservative Movement, from Reagan through the administration of George W. Bush, a certain number of liberals have slowly migrated from liberalism to authoritarianism in their reaction to the conservative movement and the policies of the previous, if not current, administration.  Because of war, the “bundling” of corporate and political power, and Bush administration attacks on civil liberties, these individuals have responded in a manner that can be, and should be, characterized as authoritarian and therefore anti-liberal.

The individuals who make up this trend on the left do not believe either in freedom of speech, nor in democracy.  Those who truly believe in freedom of speech are willing to listen to those who may disagree with them without making of those people “the enemy.”  Only authoritarians insist that anyone who disagrees with their views are some hideous other, some enemy to be opposed, rather than someone to be reasoned with.  Those who truly believe in freedom of speech do not whine and cry that the presence of speech they oppose is evidence that they, themselves, are being silenced.  Whatever else we might make of people who display this characteristic, they are not liberal because, in their opposition to freedom of speech, they cannot, by definition, be liberal.

Another tendency of the authoritarian-left is to denigrate electoral politics as a device designed to deceive the stupid masses, the sheeple, into believing that they live within a democracy.  While it is obviously true that the US has, and has always had, huge problems with ballot tampering and other forms of election cheating, it is also true that the ballot is at the center of what it means to have a democracy.  Those who believe that electoral politics is worthless are not reformers, nor liberals, nor progressives.  They are putting forth an idea that undermines the Constitution, yet they usually seem to have no idea what in the world they would replace the Constitution with.  They are “revolutionaries” with no plan, whatsoever, and no actual revolutionary ideology.  For a revolution to happen there must be certain organizations in place devoted to fostering that revolution, such as unions or political parties.  There must be a foundation, in other words, to promote the revolution.  Without any such foundation, no revolution can take place.  However, even if there was such a foundation, and even if the American people were in a revolutionary spirit, we still do not know what these people, these left-authoritarians, would replace the Constitution with?  Whatever they would replace it with, it would not include elections because they oppose electoral politics, which they believe is a fraud.

The bottom line is this:  if you oppose elections and you oppose freedom of speech, then you are something other than a liberal or a progressive.  You may hold many policy views that liberals and progressives might agree with.  A left-authoritarian may, for example, favor a woman’s right to choose.  A left-authoritarian may oppose the war in Iraq and favor universal health care coverage.  Nonetheless, anyone who stands in opposition to the most fundamental principles upon which liberalism is based (freedom of speech and the ballot) cannot, in any meaningful way, be considered a liberal.

Finally, in case anyone thinks otherwise, this is not a condemnation of liberalism, in general.  Hell, I am a liberal.  It is simply a recognition that there is an element on the left, wittingly or not, that has moved beyond liberal values into something poisonous and anti-liberal.

I have not seen much of that here, thankfully, but it’s definitely out there and we should be aware of it.


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  1. and published it on My Left Wing.

    I’ve been thinking about it again, so I thought I would publish here.

    • rossl on June 4, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Another tendency of the authoritarian-left is to denigrate electoral politics as a device designed to deceive the stupid masses, the sheeple, into believing that they live within a democracy.  While it is obviously true that the US has, and has always had, huge problems with ballot tampering and other forms of election cheating, it is also true that the ballot is at the center of what it means to have a democracy.  Those who believe that electoral politics is worthless are not reformers, nor liberals, nor progressives.

    There are authoritarians on the left and the right (clearly, if you payed attention during the Bush years you saw the right’s version of it that is not truly conservative or libertarian).  When it comes to elections, they are equally bad.  

    For instance, on the left, there are tons of people who are strongly anti-third party and actively work to keep them off the ballot and make our republic less participatory.  Perhaps the best example of this is what’s recently been in the news – Terry McAuliffe attempted bribing of Ralph Nader to “stay out of my 19 [swing] states” and then pushing Nader off the ballot in a bunch of those states, sometimes by illegal (and always by unethical) means.

    There are also people on the left that want to limit the initiative process in a similar way.  There are a lot of people on the left and right who do nothing to change unreliable voting machines even though they’re in a position to do so, or people who encourage the use of unreliable machines.

    Gerrymandering is another awful problem that is hardly discouraged by the left in this country.  It protects incumbents and results in policy that is not what the people want at all.

    On all sides of the political prism (it’s not really a spectrum, is it?), there are people who are willing to sacrifice reliable, representative, good elections for a victory.

    • Adam on June 5, 2009 at 12:02 am

    China Mieville is a award winning fantasy/science fiction author who’s kinda hot right now. He’s also a Trotskyist and a member of the British Socialist Workers Party. He’s got a PhD in International Studies from the London School of Economics.


    He wrote his dissertation on International Law. From Mieville’s Wikipedia bio….

    “…In Between Equal Rights, his only major political writing, Miéville advocates a revised version of the legal theory of the Russian Marxist Evgeny Pashukanis, as applied to international law and synthesized with ideas drawn from the Critical Legal Studies movement, particularly Martti Koskenniemi, as well as U.S. international legal theorist Myres McDougal. Miéville argues that the form taken by the law, a process of deciding disputes between abstract, formally equal subjects, can only be explained as essentially related to capitalism’s system of generalized commodity exchange, which requires participants with equal rights to property. However, he argues, just as the symmetry of commodity exchange conceals class division and exploitation, the symmetry of law conceals violent power relations. Law is structurally indeterminate as applied to particular cases, and so the interpretation which becomes official is always a matter of force; the stronger of the contesting parties in each legal dispute will ultimately obtain the sanction of law. International law, therefore, is not only genuine law despite the lack of an overarching sovereign, but is a more basic type than domestic law, with states taking the role of individuals, with “property rights” in their territory. This analysis leads Miéville to be skeptical that international law can ever live up to its promises; rather, he concludes, “The attempt to replace war and inequality with law is not merely utopian but is precisely self-defeating. A world structured around international law cannot but be one of imperialist violence. The chaotic and bloody world around us is the rule of law.”[4]…”

    Here’s the Amazon info on that book…


    He’s got a point. Not enough of one to sway me from any of my Gandhi-roots beliefs, but enough of one to recognize I don’t want to be forced to debate him.

  2. There are (what I call) Rulemongers in both directions, to be sure.

  3. The bottom line is this:  if you oppose elections and you oppose freedom of speech, then you are something other than a liberal or a progressive.

    Do you have any specific examples of an ostensible liberal opposing elections and freedom of speech?

    I realize that when some people refer to “sheeple” there may be implicitly the suggestion that people generally are too dumb and gullible to properly elect their representatives, but then again, most probably refer to “sheeple” out of some legitimate frustration.

  4. thank you for the promotion of this diary.

    Oh, and fuck you.


    I’m kidding!

    • RUKind on June 5, 2009 at 6:36 am

    The current conservative movement is totally false and always has been. They succeeded with Reagan because they totally suckered in the Christian Right along with enough Catholics to reach a majority. Onci in office, Ron and Nancy began consulting astrologers for major decisions. That’s call Satanism by the Christian Right but they were able to overlook it because they finally had a seat at the table.

    For the people who were and are the leaders of the Christian Right it’s always been about suckering the poor fools out of their money by playing on the fervency of their belief system. That’s why we have megachurch pastors with his and her private jets and multi-million dollar mansions. Somehow I don’t see the man from Nazareth lusting after a G5 and 10 BR/10 Bath 10 acre estate and a 10,000 seat church with a million dollar sound and lighting system to deliver the gospel.

    Back to labels: I’m an independent. I believe capitalism is a decent system that can work IF the playing field is level. That’s a huge fucking IF. I think universal health care should be included in our basic rights. If we can afford to trash nations just for oil and waste billions in MIC fraud then we can afford to pay for health care for everyone.

    It’s the fundamentalists who screw everything up for the great middle. The fundies are always “my way or the highway” and they come from left, right, in, out, and sideways. Find any political axis out there and the people at either fringe are trying to run your life according to their beliefs.

    Live and let live, the saying goes. If we put half as much effort into reinforcing the 90+% we can all agree on instead of doing the steel cage death match over the other 10% than we’d all be a lot better off.

    Dogma is bullshit. Try not to step in it.


    • pico on June 5, 2009 at 8:00 am

    the distinctions between liberal/progressives and leftist-authoritarians are quite that clear-cut.  I think it’s a good idea to distinguish fundamental values the way you have, but the world is a fuzzy place.

    What’s that famous quote?  Something like, “The urge to save humanity is oftentimes indistinguishable from the urge to rule it.”  Supposedly Mencken, but I can’t find a good source.  Anyway, it’s worth thinking about just how powerful that quote is: the desire to do good becomes indistinguishable from the desire to force people to do something.  

    Or another quote: “Power corrupts”.  If you had the power to make the world a better place by fiat, would you do it?  And, to what extent is the exercise of that power already incompatible with the values you want to see in place?

    Now I’ll agree with you that there’s a wing on the left that believes that action, and specifically action aimed at forcing reorganization of power structures, is the most necessary goal; and that does put them at odds with other values on the liberal/progressive wing.  Maybe that’s the distinction you’re making here, although where one starts and another starts is a little hazy.  

    A good case study for this type of argument: what if you institute democracy among a people with no real cultural background in democracy, and they vote democracy out of existence by electing a freedom-restricting dictator on purpose?  Do you forcibly re-institute democracy and betray the values of free choice, or do you allow the dictator to maintain control and betray the values of e.g. free speech, etc.?  

    (A little uneven an argument since you wouldn’t be the one “betraying” in the second example, but think of it as a hypothetical.)

    Sidenote: I don’t really agree that the Soviets betrayed socialism, given that they did nothing that wasn’t already prefigured in 19th century European debates over socialism (Marx, Bakunin, the Internationale, etc.)  (If anything the betrayal was the incorporation of the capitalistic New Economic Policy.)  Something about this argument always strikes me as a “no true Scotsman” fallacy, although I understand the desire to put high Stalinism as far away from the more benign socialism of, say, Scandinavia as possible.

    • halef on June 5, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    I am not sold on any of the system labels bandied about in the health care discussion (single payer, single provider, mixed, whatever) – different countries have different systems, one system works well in one country but not in another.

    What it boils down to, in my view, is a cross-party, societal commitment that decent, consistent health care is something we as a community want to ensure for all members of the community.  If you have that, even a system that shouldn’t work will work; if you don’t have that, the “best” system won’t work.

    For me, the authoritarian bent has come out in the vaccine “discussions”, where some of the uncritical vaccine pushers wish for universal health care just so they can force everyone to get all the vaccines they’d like to see administered, without any get-out.

    While I have my doubts about the wisdom of some of the vaccination practices, I am by no means anti-vaccine.  In a sense, the vaccine issue is a side-show (and the same people that bemoan the “anti-vaccine” faction go on equate the drug companies which make and push the vaccines with the devil incarnate when the discussion moves on to another health care topic).  I get far more worried when faced with people in government whose attitude is:  We’re smarter than you, we know what’s good for you, and by golly we’ll make sure you take it.

    I will not have the government make my health care decisions for me, nor will I put up with (and it comes to the same thing) the government restricting my health care choices to such an extent that my “choice” is their crappy “solution” or a slow and painful death (i.e. the English NHS).

    We’ve seen the glorious mess the “smartest people in the room” will make when left without adult supervision.  Government/scientist/doctors have been – innocently or deliberately – wrong on so many things relating to health (nutrition, agriculture, anti-biotics, pesticides, treatments, etc etc) that I refuse to accept that they know better simply because they’re in government.  Persuade me.

    • Viet71 on June 5, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    I wanted to see Kucinich vs. Paul.

    I’m not childish enough to complain just because that didn’t happen.

    But I do complain because the system made it impossible for either of these two impassioned, principled outsiders to have any real chance of getting a major-party nomination.

    Once Obama got the nomination, it was all over except for the proverbial shouting.  Obama signaled he knew this with his FISA vote.

    The election for president IS a sham.  The fix is always in no matter what.

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