Liberal Authoritarianism: A Senescent Disorder Of State Capitalism

Jacob Weisberg, at Slate, recently criticized the Tea Party movement for its anti-authoritarianism (“The Right’s New Left,” September 18).  The Tea Party, Weisberg says, is distinguished from previous right-wing insurgencies by its “antagonism toward any authority.”

As someone who treats “Question Authority” as a personal motto, I find this somewhat counter-intuitive. The Tea Parties have their anti-authortarian side, true enough. It’s sometimes been called a crowdsourced or open-source movement. And John Robb of Global Guerrillas blog, the premier expert on networked resistance and asymmetric warfare, calls it an “open-source insurgency.”

But this anti-authoritarianism is hardly unqualified. Many leading figures in the movement, like Sarah Palin, are textbook illustrations of the classic “authoritarian personality.” Someone who combines Dick Cheney’s view of the national security state with Nancy Grace’s view of criminal justice issues isn’t exactly my idea of an anti-authoritarian.

So it’s a bit odd, as The Freeman editor Sheldon Richman observes, to see the Tea Parties being criticized from the Left for not being authoritarian ENOUGH (“The Anti-anti-authoritarians,” September 24).

In any case, the fact that Weisberg sees anti-authoritarianism as a bad thing, and compares the Tea Partiers to the New Left, gives us every reason to suspect he wouldn’t be very friendly to the original New Left, or to thinkers on the libertarian and decentralist Left like Ivan Illich, Paul Goodman or Colin Ward.

Weisberg displays a trait common to establishment liberalism: Managerialism.

Take, for example, Mark Lilla’s New York Review of Books essay from last Spring: “The Tea Party Jacobins” (May 27).  Lilla sees anti-establishment populism, specifically resentment of the social control exercised by professionalized elites, as the unifying theme of the Tea Parties. The Tea Party’s Jacobinism, Lilla writes in an unconscious echo of Samuel Huntington some thirty-seven years earlier, is fueled by “a blanket distrust of institutions.” The horror!

Back in the 1970s Huntington lamented the loss of confidence in institutions as part of the “crisis of governability” that undermined the autonomy the American political elite needed to maintain America’s role as “hegemonic power in a system of world order.” It’s interesting, in this regard, to consider Katarina vanden Heuvel’s post-911 exultation about the resurgence of faith in government. No wonder Weisberg and Lilla hate the New Left!

In Weisberg and Lilla, we see the dark heart of 20th century liberalism at its most managerialist and authoritarian. Unlike “progressivism,” of which old-style liberalism is a major component, their old-style liberalism is utterly untinged by even the faintest tint of decentralist greenwashing.

This is a strain of liberalism exemplified by Andrew Keen’s obnoxious rants against the “cult of the amateur,” and the complaints of The Nation’s Chris Hedges (despite his strong anti-corporate views in other contexts) about the free culture movement “stealing” the “intellectual property” of creators in the proprietary content industries. (No, Mr. Hedges, the executives at the record companies, publishers and studios are probably the pirates you’re thinking of). Its apotheosis is Thomas Frank, who hates network culture on a visceral level.

As I argued in a C4SS research paper earlier this year (“Thermidor of the Progressives,” Second Quarter 2010), twentieth century liberalism is essentially Schumpeterian. It identifies with the large, hierarchical, managerialist organization the same way the French politiques identified with the absolute monarchs four hundred years ago. Only the large bureaucratic organization can be truly progressive, because it possesses the market power to charge prices above marginal cost — and thus pay high wages and benefits. And only the large proprietary content companies can price above marginal cost with the help of “intellectual property,” and thus guarantee royalties to content creators.

For establishment liberals, the ideal society was the Consensus Capitalism of the early post-war era. GM owned half the economy, but paid union wages to Michael Moore’s dad.  “Professional journalists” at a handful of gatekeeper networks controlled the news, but were regulated by the fairness doctrine. Every occupation was highly credentialed to keep up pay, and the delivery of all services was governed by the cult of professionalism. The economy was awash in administrative costs and overhead, what Paul Goodman memorably called “the great realm of cost-plus.” But it didn’t matter because everyone was also guaranteed forty hour weeks at union wages under the prevailing social contract.

That social model, as you recall, was no more popular among the SDS than it is among the Tea Partiers.

As Reason Magazine’s Jesse Walker writes of Lilla: “This is how the world looks to someone who thinks a revolt against bureaucratic institutions is a bad thing” (“A Horde of Angry Libertarians,” May 10).

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