Tuesday, September 28, 2021

New Bottle For Old Whine


Graphic by The Heckler, June 2011, in honor of legendary Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, quoted as saying, "Surprisingly, my tears are slightly peachy with a touch of licorice."

People somewhat exercised by this big article in The Atlantic by a psychiatrist, Sally Satel, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "The Experts Somehow Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left":

In the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality, an inquiry into the psychologicalmakeup of people strongly drawn to autocratic rule and repressive politics, the German-born scholar Theodor W. Adorno and three other psychologists measured people along dimensions such as conformity to societal norms, rigid thinking, and sexual repression. And they concluded that “the authoritarian type of human”— the kind of person whose enthusiastic support allows someone like Hitler to exercise power—was found only among conservatives. In the mid-1990s, the influential Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer described left-wing authoritarianism as “the of political psychology—an occasional shadow, but no monster.” Subsequently, other psychologists reached the same conclusion....

Actually Adorno was not a psychologist but offered a sociological perspective to the team, and made a relatively small contribution (to five of the 23 chapters). And I don't think it's correct to say they "concluded" that authoritarianism was found only among conservatives; rather, rightwing authoritarianism was what the mostly American psychologists ( Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford) set out to study, carefully weeding out the contrast with revolutionary leftism that was a key to the original Frankfurt School project:

First, their Marxist and radical roots were downplayed. For example, the earlier "authoritarian personality/revolutionary personality" axis was changed to an "authoritarian personality/democratic personality" axis in America. Thus, values and behaviors earlier associated with revolutionary Marxism were now associated with support for democracy.[9] Second, the book abandoned and/or modified traditional Marxist sociological and economic explanations for human behavior in favor of psychological explanations, earning scorn from more orthodox Marxists. 

So, perhaps self-censoring in the shadow of Senator McCarthy, perhaps regarding revolutionary leftism as not of interest to Americans, they didn't make any conclusions about non-conservatives at all (which is not the case of Professor Altemeyer in the 1990s). 

Anyway Satel's argument sounds at first blush like a new bottle for some old whine: conservatives are underrepresented in the social sciences, and this leads to biased work. (As you know, I think conservatives are responsible for the underrepresentation because they refuse to work in fields where they won't make any money.) Indeed that's what she's saying—

one reason left-wing authoritarianism barely shows up in social-psychology research is that most academic experts in the field are based at institutions where prevailing attitudes are far to the left of society as a whole. Scholars who personally support the left’s social vision—such as redistributing income, countering racism, and more—may simply be slow to identify authoritarianism among people with similar goals.

—which might be enough reason to just dismiss the whole thing out of hand, though not without mentioning that she's completely wrong, in the sense that Left Wing Authoritarianism, far from being ignored until the 2021 study by Thomas Costello et al, ("Clarifying the Structure and Nature of Left-wing Authoritarianism") that she is pushing in this piece, has been an object of plenty of study in the US, particularly among political scientists:

... (WEIRD meaning Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic). 

Which would leave a couple of fairly obvious questions: 

  • What about non-WEIRD countries, and particularly those with a leftist governmental system? If they're run, as in the old Soviet bloc, on undemocratic models, wouldn't that be cases of LWA?
  • And in WEIRD countries, was it ever thus? Decades ago, in cultlike organizations with a left political orientation like the German Red Army Faction or the American Weather Underground, wouldn't you describe them as manifesting LWA?

Altemeyer evidently had an answer to the first of these, to which I'm at least partly sympathetic: under the Stalin regime, the society may have been politically leftwing, but its personality was absolutely RWA by Altemeyer's main criteria: hierarchical, submissive to authority (figures higher on the hierarchy), aggressive against deviants, outgroup members, and those perceives to be weak (figures lower on the hierarchy), and conventionalist—adhering conscientiously to the norms proclaimed by the authorities.

This is illustrated, maybe, by the contrast with Soviet Russia before Lenin's death, in the transition from War Communism to the New Economic Policy, when the authorities were capable of great brutality, certainly, but not of maintaining a strict social hierarchy, as they switched from experimental plan to experimental plan, as also experiments in social and sexual freedom and artistic explorations of ferocious satire, abstract painting, and dissonant music. Under Stalin, in contrast, all of these things were changed: the Party hierarchy was absolute, successful people were sycophants to their masters and cruel to their subordinates, the arts focused on emulation of the Russian and German classics, painting had to be "beautiful" and music lofty, and minorities were persecuted, especially the Jews who had played such a lively role in the Lenin period.

You can find something similar in the more recent history of Venezuela, from the giddy social experimentation of Chavismo to the frozen paranoia of the Maduro regime (again I'm not saying Chavismo was good, just that it had few rightwing characteristics) or Nicaragua. And most dramatically in the history of Communist China, from Mao's continuous revolution, in which the Chairman himself never stopped encouraging upward aggression, sometimes mounting full-scale coups against the RWA in his own government like the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s or the 10-year Saturnalia of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1966 onward, when students literally beat up their professors, and Beijing opera actors were more important than the military brass, to the current ironbound bureaucracy, which is on the whole much nicer for Chinese people than Maoism, but still communist, if "with Chinese characteristics", meaning with extensive persecution of ethnic and other minorities and slavish adherence to the dictates of the five-year plans established by each National Party Congress.

What I would want to say about all these cases is what I always say about conservatism: that developments in Stalin's Russia and Maduro's Venezuela and Xi Jinping's China are meant to keep power where it is, concentrated, and to concentrate it further. Or in Wilhoit's language, if you like, to maintain the division between those whom the law protects and those whom the law binds. The fact that China's economy continues to be dominated by enormous state-owned industries doesn't make it any less conservative! What's significant for the regime's personality, its social-psychological character, is really the way party officials have moved to replace the entrepreneurs of the capitalist-revolutionary Reform and Opening Up period, radically firming up the hierarchy:

The time when private Chinese companies downplayed their links to the Communist Party is gone. By The Economist’s count, nearly 400 of the 3,900 companies listed on stock exchanges in mainland China paid homage to the Communist Party and its leader in their annual reports this year. References by both state-owned firms and their private-sector peers to Mr Xi’s guidance have increased more than 20-fold since 2017.

The time when private Chinese companies downplayed their links to the Communist Party is gone. The trend reflects China’s new reality. The Communist Party has greater control over all aspects of life, and Mr Xi has greater control over the party. This does not just mean it is a good idea for companies to butter him up. It means that he is in a position to reshape the economy within which they prosper or fail.

Then, thinking about the other question, of the Red Brigades and Symbionese Liberation Army, where left-oriented leaders demanded absolute obedience from followers, authoritarian gender norms, and so forth I think there's an important contradiction in their authoritarianism that's not unlike Mao's or Lenin's, which the Costello study points out: they're aggressive as it were in both directions, beating down their subordinates and working to overthrow or at least terrorize the Big Bosses. And it's unsurvivable.

That is, if there's something you want to call LWA, it's inherently unstable. It must eventually abandon either its leftism, its desire to keep the distribution of power in a state of churn, or else its yearning to exercise authority, which is to keep the distribution of power from changing. And it's normally the leftism that has to go, every time; LWA has an irreversible tendency to turn into RWA—or, harking back to the 1950s discussion, a leftwing authoritarianism is just an authoritarianism that hasn't gone rightwing yet.

(This applies to the Italian and German originators of fascism, both of which were born with a heavy socialist contingent which they ruthlessly destroyed after acceding to power, and also I guess to the Chinese nationalist movement led by Chiang Kai-shek, but not to others such as Franco's Spain or Suharto's Indonesia originating in ferocious anti-leftism. Napoléon III created his empire by turning on the revolution that made him possible, and so, I suppose, did his more famous uncle.)

Political science really isn't very well equipped to deal with these matters, because, as old Thornton might say (I should say I'm following up here on a Twitter debate with him that stalled before I got close to the point I wanted to make), they are stuck with Newtonian methods of trying to explain a Darwinian space—they don't know how to describe a system in the process of becoming a different system, which it always, in point of fact, is. This inclines them to treat LWA as the equal or opposite of RWA, a kind of mathematically necessary counterpart. But it really isn't: the only real use of the concept is the one Satel puts it to, setting it up as a bothsiderist scapegoat.

The real opposite of RWA is the alternative choice, the preference that power should be distributed as widely as possible in a system where everybody really is equal, which is the ideal of what we call liberal democracy, and "left" in that sense, opposing fixed hierarchies, kissing up and kicking down, and excessive reverence for tradition. But of course in an actual liberal democracy some portion of the population is going to have an authoritarian personality and fight for its own preferences (which could be initially left or right but will generally end up right, like Taibbi and Greenwald if you like, because that contradiction has to be resolved). And will often, unfortunately, win.

The WEIRD countries have developed a remarkable set of techniques for maintaining that kind of constant churn in the distribution of power that we democratic leftists idealize, with the outcome that authoritarians win quite frequently but the damage they can do is mostly fairly well controlled. Though they don't seem to work very well in a lot of other places (with pleasing exceptions like Costa Rica and Botswana and maybe even Malaysia), and particularly distressingly in the countries of the former Soviet sphere. And then authoritarians have had a 40-year ascendancy in the US and UK that is very distressing indeed. Partly by bamboozling voters with bogeymen of which the LWA may be the latest iteration.

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