Readings on politics, socialism, and other things from Carl Beijer's substack.
"Authoritarian" is an analytically useless concept
Guess the term: some scholarly works of history and political theory use it in specific and coherent ways, but almost no one else does. Instead, its primary role in our discourse is to demonize political opponents and shut down debate by vaguely invoking the memory of Nazi Germany and other violent, repressive regimes. In this use, it appeals to a concept that is just too vague and subjective to explain or describe anything; in this use, it never moves the conversation forward or contributes to any kind of substantive analysis. It seems to be favored, in practice, by bomb-throwing demagogues and juvenile college partisans who want to vilify people and ideas without engaging in meaningful criticism.
If the word that comes to mind here is fascist then you have undoubtedly heard a Republican talk at some point in the past six years; delegitimizing this term has been a major project on the right since at least 2015.
But curiously, this description is an even better fit for a term it is almost never applied to: authoritarian. As with fascist, there is indeed a relatively obscure literature that defines the term authoritarian in ways that are specific and rigorous enough to be useful. But if fascism-so-defined is an endangered species in our discourse, meaningful use of authoritarian is virtually extinct.
As we usually encounter it in the discourse, authoritarian is analytically useless. It brings to mind images of Nazis barking orders and Big Brother propagandizing on the big screen, comparisons that understandably trigger a fight-or-flight reflex in decent people; but it gives us no real way to evaluate whether these comparisons are fair or reasonable. Understood literally, any imaginable form of authority — sensible or unreasonable, beneficial or malevolent, legitimate or illegitimate, trivial or expansive — can be related to history’s greatest monsters insofar as both are authoritarian.
Another point in common with fascism and authoritarian: both suffer less from a lack of definition than from a surplus of definitions. There are almost as many authoritarianisms as there are political traditions, which means that even though they use the same term they are often describing very different and often incompatible ideas. Let’s look at some of them.
The Frankfurt School uses authoritarian to describe a certain kind of personality, or rather a kind of psychological complex. Its political and cultural expressions are often quite unpredictable, and even innocuous; interest in astrology, for example, is authoritarian and can be directly related with the rise of early twentieth century fascism. In fact, the Frankfurt School occasionally uses the terms authoritarian and fascist interchangeably, which brings us to a broader tendency.
Particularly in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, a whole genre of writers like Arendt and Orwell set out to explain the horrors of early twentieth century fascism as a problem of a certain kind of authority that has certain kinds of powers. In “What Is Authority?”, for example, Arendt objects to the liberal “confusion of authority with tyranny, and of legitimate power with violence,” but insists that she does not have in mind “‘authority in general,’ but rather a very specific form”.
The anarchist tradition, of course, makes “authority in general” its central concern — though even among anarchists the takes are notoriously diverse. Chomsky, for example, insists that there are cases where authority can be justified, and specifically argues that “the state…provides devices to constrain the much more dangerous forces of private power.” Proudhon, meanwhile, writes that “Authority, Government, Power, State, — these words all denote the same thing…there will be no liberty…till in the political catechism the renunciation of authority shall have replaced faith in authority.” (Confessions p.7)
In contrast with Chomsky, libertarians and Objectivists ar
Pandering to the right is lucrative and can make you extremely popular
Let’s suppose that the standard Republican take about the supposed left-wing bias of MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and so on are true. It’s not — this is a gross simplification that calls liberal orthodoxy “left” and then ignores all of the coverage that doesn’t even meet that standard — but let’s accept it for the sake of argument. Let’s imagine that these outlets are all radical left propaganda organs. Let’s also suppose, to accept another exaggerated claim, that if you depart from this radical left orthodoxy and dare to take a Republican position on anything, you will be blacklisted from this entire ecosystem and that all of these journalists will do everything they can to destroy your reputation. This is a wild overstatement of what actually happens, but for the moment let’s pretend it’s accurate.
Does this mean that your career will be ruined and you will be shut out from society as a pariah? Of course not.
This is because even if we pretend that the radical left dominates the media in the United States, there is still obviously a very large right-wing media market. The right has the most-watched cable news network. The right has a whole galaxy of news outlets, from the WSJ to the Free Beacon to the New York Post to Reason to the National Review to the Daily Wire to the Daily Caller to Newsmax to the Epoch Times to Breitbart to American Greatness to The American Mind to The American Conservative, from nearly all of am political talk radio to the endless parade of individual ventures (Charlie Kirk, Ben Shapiro) to all kinds of dark-money funded ventures (The Federalist, Chronicles) and so on. This of course is just media that is aligned with the GOP more or less explicitly; if we add so-called “independent” outlets and voices (Infowars, Andrew Sullivan) along with “Democrats” that no sane person would consider left-wing, even by US standards (Jonathan Chait, Jennifer Rubin), the right-wing media sphere grows even larger.
If you want to become extremely rich then you probably have a somewhat better shot in liberal media than in right wing media, though the odds of either happening are both of course infinitesimal. If you just want to make a living, however, and perhaps go to the occasional upscale happy hour or land an interview with a famous politician, the chances of making it are probably roughly even. They may even be slightly better on the right, because good jobs on the left are concentrated into a smaller number of large outlets, whereas they seem to be spread across a larger number of small outlets on the right. And while getting a left media gig often demands a prestige degree, knowing someone, and the ability to intern for an extended period of time without pay, the barriers to entry on the right seem to be much lower, particularly given the conscious, systematic efforts the right makes to cultivate and promote new media personalities.
What if you just want to be popular? Well, if you want to be some kind of top-tier A-list celebrity megastar, then sure, liberal media is probably the way to go — though again, as with getting rich, the odds of this happening are tiny even then. But if all you want is a lot of adoring fans, people who will praise you or who will defend you from the critics, and perhaps people who will subscribe to your Substack or Patreon — in that case, it just isn’t plausible to argue that going into left media gives you any clear advantage. If all you want are colleagues who will promote your work and perhaps even help you advance your career, you’ll find plenty of fellow-travelers on the right.
Spend five-minutes listening to right-wing media — or for that matter, to some of our ostensibly “independent” media — and you’ll inevitably be told something quite different than what I’ve laid out here. The media, we are told, is so thoroughly dominated by the left that breaking with the left is always an extraordina