This post is a review I wrote of Salvatore Babones's book 'The New Authoritarianism' for Good reads a couple of years ago. I intended to write an extended post on the book for the blog but never did. So here is the original review:
Babones offers an account of a “new authoritarianism”: an illiberal transformation of liberalism from the classical philosophy of individual freedom to a rights-based discourse that ‘empowers’ people on their behalf and removes rights from the realm of democratic contestation.
This transformation of liberalism is underpinned by the authority (or rather tyranny) of a new liberal expert class of professionals and managers that control liberal institutions, nationally and globally, and filter the range of policy options presented to the voting population.
This is an intriguing thesis – elements of the argument ring true. Garrett Hardin suggested that human right frameworks that enshrined freedom to breed forbade policy action that could save the world from overpopulation and Malthusian crisis.
Not that many people would forgo that right and it seems that the demographic transformation will not render it a necessity. It is obvious that constructing a universal right is at least an attempt to put it beyond the realm of political contestation – or at least makes political challenge harder and less legitimate. And supernational institutions, when conceded too, explicitly shift the site of control.
Babones sees this as limiting the sovereignty of the demos and establishing a sovereignty of experts. And It is this that Babones sees as the relevant background for understanding nativist and populist discontent.
The rhetoric of global elites, liberal elites, EU apparatchiks concentrated in liberal enclaves that pervades political discourse would suggest that there is something to this account – at least as far as it reflects the populist imagination.
Babones provides a description of the sociological basis for the support of both new authoritarianism and populism. Socio-economic class, occupational order, and migration status are the axes that predispose groups towards the liberal consensus or an attempt to break this through populist strategies.
It is not hard to see, in the years following the breakdown of the ‘great moderation’ supposedly ensured by the management of neo-liberal economic experts and the financial crisis, that groups most hurt by these economic changes have a distrust of experts and mainstream institutions.
Babones’ account of the 2016 US election had an interesting discussion of the divergent class trajectories among American woman and the split between those who could imagine themselves running for office themselves one day and those more concerned with stagnate real wages and underemployment.
It was this latter group, among white women, that were more likely to side with Trump.
Elements of a political economy of the rise of populism and new authoritarianism thread throughout the book and I would have liked to read more about this. And the relationship between these political economic shifts and neoliberalism.
Another quibble is the lose use of the term 'liberalism' throughout the book. Babones talks about the linguistic confusion that arose when F.D.R. developed a more 'progressive' interpretation of classical liberalism without acknowledging that he was changing the meaning of the term. It isn't always clear what version of the term he is employing and therefore talking about a generic liberalism obscures the extent to which other political traditions have help establish modern political systems, including international human rights frameworks.
Babones' suggestion for dealing with these two political trends is to more fully engage with a democratic politics that puts real policy options in front of the voters -- trusting the demos to run the polis and moving beyond the consensus of the expert class.
This book, offering an account of populism, could be seen as a justification of Brexit and Trump. It isn't hard to see that an account of 'new authoritarianism' that identities liberal experts as limiting democratic processes could be seen to embolden right-populists.
Yet, understanding these concerns is extremely important. Why do people challenge experts and the elites of the global cities? How do we get people to invest in their democracy and keep it strong? - I think those who read this book, especially those of a certain occupational order, should remember this quote by Robert Louis Stevenson: "the truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the enemy".