What is Authoritarianism?

Someone just forwarded this NY Times editorial to me, which is like a compendium of all the most tried-and-true rhetorical moves of the closet neoliberal.

The author (the paper’s executive editor, no less) begins by expressing solidarity with the more openly neolib Business Spectator in its fond nostalgia for Fukuyama’s bullshit-from-the-very-beginning end of history thesis. There’s nothing like spooky headlines about foreign governments to make these people forget all about the ‘excesses’ of their own. Especially when these people are responsible for those headlines in the first place. After citing the thoroughly discredited Fukuyama as an ‘ideal’ (in a perfect world…) authority, Keller then tries to retain that mythology of Western supremacy by retaining its perspective, now awakened from its self-satisfied slumber to harsh, cold war-esque realities and ready for vigilance.

The Evil Empire(s) Strikes Back: Fukuyama’s Hegelian telos of a liberal new world order is now confronted with a return of the repressed foreign others — not the a priori passive, poverty-stricken global majority, of course, but the Specter of Communism. With the assistance of ready-to-hand, history-free cultural associations (assisted by the rote sidebar photographs — Berlin Wall! Tiananmen Square!), he can then collect all the bad guys under a single emergent zeitgeist, favorite tool of P.R.-fluent journalists with pretensions to being public intellectuals. The title seems to be the only point of contention between Keller and his Business Spectator compatriot Chrystia Freeland. Either the Age of Authoritarianism (if you’re a 5th Dimension fan) or the Season (should you prefer The Zombies). It’s not just a zeitgeist, it’s also the reboot of a franchise with a proven track record:

“If it is not yet an age, it is at least a season: Springtime for autocrats, and not just the minor-league monsters of Zimbabwe and the like, but the giant regimes that seemed so surely bound for the ash heap in 1989.”

As evidence we get references to China’s suppression of protestors and Russia’s invasion of Georgia, events liberated from their context in order to say that these historic rivals have “evolved toward one another.” As expected, there is no mention of the minor fact that Georgia attacked first (thanks to steppling for the link), and certainly no inquiry into why this might have happened. Since there are no facts to get in the way, we are expected to ‘get’ that China and Russia are really the same thing on the strength of our own ignorance and inflamed prejudice. Any legitimate investigation into the nature of China’s harsh, hypocritical treatment of activists or Russia’s violation of Georgian sovereignty might, after all, be a little too familiar. The point of this sort of propagandizing, after all, is to make actual reporting seem unnecessary.

The author ignores the U.S. until the second to last paragraph, where in a stunning display of journalistic objectivity he refers to the U.S.’s position in Iraq and Afghanistan as “mired,” deftly erasing all possible agents. It’s not important how or why the U.S. is “mired,” only that we “deal” with it, as one of many “legacy issues.” This gets to the point where both Keller and Freeland’s rhetoric (i.e. Russia’s “audacity” and “swagger”) can be applied almost without alteration to the many (belated) criticisms the Times has levelled at the Bush administration. But I suppose the mature thing to do is to pretend a clean slate: once Bush is gone, Iraq is no one’s fault.

And of course this mention of the U.S. is preceded by explicitly positioning the West as the ‘mature’ part of the world, occupying the most advanced stage of ‘historical’ development:

“This time it is not — or not yet — the threat of nuclear apocalypse that limits the West’s options toward our emboldened Eastern rivals. The Chinese, in fact, are acting as if they have gotten past the saber-rattling stage of emerging-power status; they lavish diplomacy on Taiwan and Japan, and deploy the might of capital instead. The Russians may be in a more adolescent, table-pounding stage of development, but Mr. Putin, too, prefers to work the economic levers, bullying with petroleum.”

which simultaneously, in a retraction meant to sneak away beneath all the hot air, subtracts violence from the label ‘authoritarianism.’ If Authoritarianism does not refer to brutal, repressive violence, then what could it possibly mean? The word is reduced to how Keller wants to use it: as an ideological bludgeon. Surely the ‘situations’ in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Israel are completely absent from this action-movie image.

One could go on: Keller’s narrowing of all criticism of his unfounded assertions to “Russian bloggers,” his Orientalizing Russia into China as “Eastern rivals,” the caricature of Russian foreign policy in terms of Dostoevsky (“existential payback,” “bitter resentment in the humiliated soil of Russia”), etc. etc.

But the really jaw-dropping line for me is the last:

“History, it seems, is back, and not so obviously on our side.”

It makes a nice pair with the closing statement of the ’05 editorial:

“Mr. Bush said last Friday that he welcomed debate, even in a time of war, but that “it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.” We agree, but it is Mr. Bush and his team who are rewriting history.”

So this is what old Hegel has contributed to American public discourse — his notion of true History as the subsumption of the Bayle-ian history of mere contingent facts (which must be protected from revisionism by non-professionals) into Spirit’s “gallery of images,” a history thenceforth complete because, through manly refusal to repress its internal division, it is actively self-confirming: “the two together, comprehended History, form alike the inwardizing and the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth, and certainty of his throne, without which he would be lifeless and alone.”

8 Responses to “What is Authoritarianism?”

  1. I love the rote themes of the main stream media. Got a point to make? Reach into the bag of same ol’ tricks: the Russian Commies, The Asian Menace, the Zealot Jihadi (which previously could double a Muhajadeen freedom fighter during the Russian Commies efforts in Afghanistan), the Over-sexed Black, etc. Just spread some of that on a tabloid, and, as if by magic, your point gets made.

    Another of these golden tropes is the notion that after 9/11, America must no longer be soft–it must Get Serious. So, in a review of Sokal’s recent collection of essays on his hoax, the reviewer makes a flagrantly untenable analogy between the ‘perspectivism’ of postmodern philosophy and the sort of behavior that caused 9/11 to happen. It’s so abstracted from fact, so rich, it’s… I don’t know the word, really. Perhaps ‘so the New Republic’.

  2. I think there is a mutual problem with public media on our side and in China and Russia, namely that so-called public intellectuals refuse to see belligerent policy in their own state as not only similar, but exactly the same as belligerent policy elsewhere. I think one thing to be gleaned from all this silliness is, however, that we should probably not be looking forward to the next twenty years (if anyone who reads this blog was, in fact, doing so). The willingness of writers to call “fascist” is mirrored in the willingness of governments to play along.

  3. traxus4420 Says:

    jcd – yeah, it makes clear how easy the transition is between pundit and philosopher — i’m surprised more people weren’t doing it before the blogs.

    “so-called public intellectuals refuse to see belligerent policy in their own state as not only similar, but exactly the same as belligerent policy elsewhere.”

    this is probably assisted by their mutual tendency to get their facts from the same government and insider sources, mediated by however many degrees of separation.

  4. “Since there are no facts to get in the way, we are expected to ‘get’ that China and Russia are really the same thing on the strength of our own ignorance and inflamed prejudice. ”

    peter eisenmann could accomplish this architecturally.

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  8. What is Authoritarianism? | American Stranger

    […]As far as I see, Trump and his belligerent supporters have and will continue to cause more damage to the GOP brand than anyone else could.[…]

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