Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Review: The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts

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".

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

An Examination of the Violence of Abjection and Suffering During the Holocaust

Society is underpinned by standards and expectations as to what social worlds should resemble and operate. But when the very foundations of that world are rocky and open to misuse and abuse, the society is left in a destabilized position. What remains is the question of how these worlds are tolerated in this destabilized form? Can they continue indefinitely in such a way? This place of discomfort is the abject, that which is contrary to everyday harmony. Often the locus of the abject can be expressed in violence. In the case of the Holocaust the abject impacted the individual Jewish people and the wider community of Germany and the world. The meaning that was derived to spark the violence and the meaning that remains are in stark contrast.

Prior to the Holocaust the Jewish people were not abject to their community, but with a little guidance and propaganda they were led to a mass hysteria that the world hopes to never witness again. During Europe’s enlightened period the annihilation of over 5 million Jews and Gypsies occurred in Europe without a blink of an eye. It was tolerated, accepted and some leaders such as the Vichy government of France contributed to the Nazi effort by gathering their Jews and handing them over to the German’s to protect themselves as best they could from the German occupational army. The fear that gripped Europe and strangled the very humanity out of those in power validated and added meaning to the Nazi ideology. As their power increased through the pain and suffering of individuals within those social worlds their domination over the region continued to surge. If violence is triadic in generating meaning it requires a victim, perpetrator and witness, thus in having the people of Europe witness the demise of the vile cancerous Jew they saw the power of the Nazi’s in ability to control and strip the rights of its own population and later other parts of Europe. As Foucault states “...public execution did not re- establish justice; it reactivated power” (1977: 49).

The purpose behind the Nazi violence was the establishment of control over its people with a goal of world domination. Violence as abjection is something contrary to the human condition, it impacts individuals and the community in the sense that it cannot be tolerated, but what happens when it is tolerated as in Nazi Germany. How does a community bear witness to suffering and pain of the Jewish people and accept it as normal? How does meaning produced by violence make it acceptable on any terms? The use of abjection by Hitler to create distinctions and validate the actions taken against the European Jews, through propaganda and unsubstantiated claims marked the period. Violence that creates meaning rarely does so for those that it violates, typically the impetus is to incite fear and terror. In the case of the holocaust, the violence served as a means of creating fear in the hearts of the Jews throughout Europe and their sympathizers, so that no one would stand in the way of what Hitler viewed as a necessary task to remove the impurities from his nation. The violence impacted both the Jews and Gypsies and the worlds in which they both belong and are outcast.

Hitler’s use of “transcendental based on theories of the absolute need to eliminate all members of a category, because of their intractable vileness, wickedness, dangerousness or opposition” (Preez 1994: 11). Hitler portrayed the Jews as the root cause of all that was wrong with Germany and the only means of recreating all that was once great in their national identity and nation through the elimination of that which contaminated the German State and world alike. Jews were described to be “a cancer within the German social body” (Appagurai 1998: 913) this statement highlights this use of the abject to discredit the Jew’s as people with rights that belong within society. Here they are likened to disease which is always to be eradicated. They are the parasites taking jobs and the livelihood for the German people; hence the governments created this state of emergency whereby the suspension of rational though and disgust at the policies that strip people of their dignity and identity. This served as a further means of creating the Jew as the ‘other’, so that good German folk did not have a problem bearing witness to their mass annihilation. As Kristeva (1982: 31) states “the abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things.”. This is what makes the Holocaust so difficult a pill to swallow.

During this period perhaps for the German people and especially those in powerful positions perhaps the fact that they did not view Jews in the same vein as themselves, it was easier to carry out the task. As Bauman (1989: 21) asserts “...moral inhibitions against violent atrocities tend to be eroded once three conditions are met...violence is authorized, actions are reutilized, and the victims are dehumanized”. In creating images of the Jews as subhuman, cancerous and abject to the German people it became “...the arbitrary termination of life against the will of the individual and on behalf of the collective will of the state” (Horowitz 1976: 33), for its own protection. As in all types of ethnic cleansing the imagery of the stain or blemish on society that needs to be efficiently removed so as not to impact on the national identity, so too did “...the Nazi theory demanded the elimination of all Jews and many other ‘impurities’ from the nation” (Preez 1994: 11).

If the mass annihilation of the Jew “is unimaginable...its representation must be fit into existing, acceptable discourses: patriotism, retaliation for real and imagined past injustices, separatism, terrorism, communism, subversion, anarchy, the need to preserve the states and territorial integrity, the need to protect the nation from subversion through ethnic cleansing...” (Nagengast: 120; citing Lyotard: 172). This is what the Nazi party did by making the Jew a distinguishable difference to the German national identity by forcing them to wear the Star of David, by tattooing prisoners of concentration camps with numbers. It created a lasting difference that would forever be recognized a Jewish within that culture. The very fact that each Jew in the concentration camp was numbered dehumanized and removed them as a valuable commodity within that society. They no longer had an identity other than the fact that they were Jewish, similar to that of branding cattle. In this same way “what kept the murdering machine going then was solely its own routine and impetus. The skills of mass murder had to be used simply because they were there” (Bauman 1989: 106) and they were a part of the bureaucracy that failed to see the collective pain of the individuals it destroyed.

The Jewish people were “...shot, hung, electrocuted, gassed to death by [the state]...for political misdeeds: criticism of the state, membership banned political parties or groups, or for adherence to the “wrong” religion; for moral deeds...homosexuality” (Nagengast, 1994: 120). They were no longer accepted as part of the German state hence they were not protected by it. As is typically utilized by certain powers wanting to grasp control of populations, part of that control can involve forcibly removing groups from that national identity that they view as not cohesive. This violence can take the form of genocide against a race or peoples, as they may be classed as outsiders to that nation’s identity. Alternatively, as in the case of Germany, the Jews were seen to be a threat or stain to the national identity. For example, the state of emergency that was created by the Nazi government is highlighted in Article 48 of the Weimar constitution which states:

The president of the Reich may, in the case of a grave disturbance or threat to public security and order, make decisions necessary to re-establish public security, if necessary with the aid of armed forces. To this end he may provisionally suspend the fundamental rights...(Cited by Agamben 1998: 167).

This section of the constitution created a legal loophole for the Reich to decide that those deemed to be ‘threats to public security to have all fundamental rights revoked and “taken into custody”, i.e. concentration camps without question. It is not hard to envisage how easy it was to take advantage of this power within the German constitution. It allowed for rights to be stripped with the wave of a pen.

Through the use of abjection, it became simple to turn the pain of the Jewish people into a silent cry that the German people could not here, it was the ‘other’. As Scarry (1985: 29) affirms “for the torturers, the sheer and simple fact of human agony is made invisible, and the moral fact of inflicting that agony is made neutral by the feigned urgency and significance of the question. For the prisoner, the sheer, simple, overwhelming fact of the world to which the question refers. Intense pain is world destroying”. In the Jewish context it is clear that the Jews had found themselves in an intolerable state in which they were not welcome and were stripped of their very identity for the purpose of mass extermination. Their worlds were forcibly destroyed before their eyes as step by step their identity and rights were forcibly removed, until they had no control or power and were bound off together to be slaughtered and removed from the life and world that they had once known. Their friends and neighbour became enemies, the fear of the unknown and who was a spy for the government, this fear and paranoia is another essence of abjection. The fear that paralyses you to the point where you don’t run you can’t.

The use of abjection to produce meaning in violence that is committed against the ‘other’ can be different from the various viewpoints that people hold. Hitler’s use of the abject and their being likened to a cancerous disease allowed them to be separated and created a collective meaning within the German identity. It reactivated the power of the German government. It reduced the pain and suffering of Europe’s Jews and Gypsies to a silent voice of the powerless. For those that bore witness to the atrocity and found it abject it holds different meaning. The Holocaust is an event in history that will forever plague the world; it was mass murder on a scale never envisioned previously. The meaning derived from this mass atrocity today is very different to its purpose.

It is abject to the very human soul that a society could allow men, women and children to be dehumanized and murdered through a bureaucratic process that belied their human value. As Kristeva states “the abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death which, in any case kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things” (1982: 31). This is what made the Holocaust so difficult a pill to swallow. These people were held in various work camps, concentration camps and marked for death, for no crime other than having the wrong identity. For the Jewish people that have been impacted personally or by a family member, their response is to commemorate it so that the world never forgets what it did. Various films have depicted the abject nature of this atrocity, perhaps to create a new meaning, ‘absolute power absolutely corrupts’ and we should not stand by and allow mass atrocities to occur as we are as guilty as the perpetrators. The one message that should be taken from their harrowing experiences is that no human should ever go through that and that there is now meaning in the world that can excuse it.

by Natalia Maystorovich Chulio, written 2009. 


  1. Appadurai, Arjun (1998) ‘Dead Certainty: Ethnic Violence in the Era of Globalization’ in Develop and Change, 29: 905-925.
  2. Agamben, Giorgio (1995) The Camp as the ‘Nomos’ of the Modern in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power & Bare Life, Stanford University Press (Chapter 7) pp166-180.
  3. Bauman, Zygmunt (1989) ‘Social Production of moral indifference’ in Modernity and the Holocaust, Cornell University Press, New York, pp18-23.
  4. Bauman, Zygmunt (1989) ‘The role of Bureaucracy in the Holocaust’ in Modernity and the Holocaust, Cornell University Press, New York, pp104-106.
  5. Du Preez, Peter (1994) Genocide: The Psychology of Mass Murder, Bowerdean Publishing Co. Ltd, London.
  6. Engel, David (2000) The Holocaust: The Third Reich and the Jews, Longman Press, Essex, UK.
  7. Horowitz, Irving (1976) Genocide: State Power and Mass Murder, Transaction Books, New Jersey
  8. Kristeva, Julia (1982) ‘Approaching Abjection’ Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, new York Columbia University Press, pp1-31.
  9. Nagengast, Carol (1994) ‘Violence, Terror and the Crisis of the State’. Annual Review of Anthropology 23:109-36.
  10. Scarry, Elaine (1985) ‘The Structure of Torture’, in The Body in Pain, pp27-59. 

Author biography:  Natalia Maystorovich Chulio recently was awarded her PhD and works in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include humanitarian and human rights law; transitional justice; the archaeological recovery of mass graves; and the capacity of social movements to elicit social, political and legal change as they seek justice for victims.  Her focus is on socio-legal research and qualitative methods in an attempt to merge her political and social interests with a scholarship which may enact social change. Since 2012 she has worked with the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (ARMH – Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory) in an attempt to draw attention to the difficulties experienced by victims and their relatives in the recuperation of their missing.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Teaching@Sydney post: Integrating Text and Data Mining into a History Course

I co-wrote a short piece on using computational methods in a history course.  If you're interested in teaching text and data mining, digital humanities, and digital methods - you might be interested in this.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Third Legitimation Code Theory Conference, Abstract: Knowledge and Rhetoric

Title slide for the talk.
The Third Legitimation Code Theory Conference (#LCT3 on twitter) is coming up this year and I have submitted a paper co-authored with Shi Chunxu (who runs the LCT Research Group in China & works on legal discourse with LCT and Systemic Functional Linguistics).  We have a couple of manuscripts in the works - so hopfully they will be published soon.  For now here is the abstract for our conference paper:

TitleKnowledge and Rhetoric:  A Specialization Analysis of Courtroom Argumentation

Abstract: Legal cultures grounded on abstract principles or rhetorical appeals to moral feelings would seem to be diametrically opposed.  Yet, in courtroom argumentation, there is a balance between interpreting events with legal statutes; and moral evaluations of character and intentions (Shi, 2017). The mix of epistemic and social elements suggests a problem: what is the basis of legitimation in courtroom argumentation and what stance-taking strategies do defence lawyers and prosecutors use to influence the outcome of court cases? These problems are not merely of theoretical interest. The judicial field is a key arena of struggle closely related to the field of politics (Bourdieu, 1986: 815) – legitimation within the courtroom is a fulcrum for the operation of power. This operation also has important pedagogic implications for legal education as understanding the social practices of the judicial field is crucial for aligning graduate qualities with the professional standards of legal practice. The rapid transformation of China’s legal system since 1979 and the corresponding expansion of legal education, credentialism, and tightening professional standard bring these issues to the fore (Zhou, 2009; Ji, 2017). 

To address this question, this paper employs the Specialization dimension of Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) to analyse transcripts of 20 court cases from the People’s Republic of China that involve several different types of criminal offenses. Specialization codes allow for insight into the basis of courtroom strategies, differentiating between claims that emphasize or deemphasize relations between knowledge and the object or method of study (epistemic relations) or claims that stress or downplay the importance of relations between knowledge and the author of the claim, either because of their ways of knowing or subjective characteristics (social relations) (Maton 2014:29).  We apply these concepts to courtroom discourse and develop a translation device (Chen and Maton, 2016) to facilitate the Specialization analysis. We operationalize epistemic relations in terms of appeals to legal principles, processes of fact construction and interpretation; and social relations in terms of evaluation of moral character and the subjective intention of defendants.  

Courtroom argumentation is orientated towards legal principles and the supremacy of the law. However, the law allows a range of strategies and the specialization analysis reveals code shifts and clashes occur in such institutional contexts. Defence lawyers and prosecutors both engage in strategies that emphasis epistemic relations and social relations, depending on the affordances of the relevant legal statutes and range symbolic resources available. Statutes that define a crime and the criteria to judge if a crime has been committed provide relatively stable technical meanings; while statutes that outline grounds for the mitigation of sentences leave more latitude for the interpretation of people.  This legal context and the facts of the case provide the constraints and resources that lawyers exploit to enact different argumentative strategies. Emphasis of the law and rhetorical appeals to moral feeling are two potential paths to follow. 

Despite the objectivity characteristic of legal language and judicial ideology (Bourdieu, 1986), Specialization analysis also reveals the social and axiological aspects of legal practice that are often concealed. This study offers an operational understanding of Specialization codes in legal discourse and provides a case study of social relations within a field that obscures or downplays these relations in its self-representation. These findings have implications for understanding the ideology of the judicial field in China and pedagogy that neglects the rhetorical aspects of courtroom argumentation.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). “The force of law: Toward a sociology of the juridical field”. Hastings Law Journal, 38, p.805.
Ji, W. (2017). “The ideal and path of legal education reform in China”, Legal Education in the Global Context: Opportunities and Challenges, London: Routledge, pp. 267-78. 
Maton, K. and Chen, R.T, (2016) “LCT in qualitative research: creating a translation device for studying constructivist pedagogy”, Knowledge building: Educational studies in legitimation code theory, London: Routledge, pp.27-48.
Maton, K. (2014). Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a Realist Sociology of Education. London: Routledge.
Shi, C. (2017) Affiliation Through Value Negotiation in Chinese Criminal Courtroom Argumentation, PhD Thesis, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China.
Zhou, S. (2009). “The Reform Strategy of Legal Education in China”, Global Business & Development Law Journal, 22, pp. 69-73.

Presenting the talk at LCT3, Wits University.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Wayback Machine: Essays from High School

I did some digging and I found a series of old essays I wrote during High School and just after published on the e-zine (i.e. a blog, but we were going for a digital analog of zines put out by activists and anarchist collectives).  One of the last ones, "The Concepts of Alienation and Surplus value, A brief look", was my first or second sociology essay for Open Foundation at Newcastle Uni (alternative pathway into Uni). I seemed to have liked situationlists, Cyril Smith, and Non-leninist Marxists. 

Here is my ealiest collection, under the pseudonym euripidies. And here is a second collection, later, under the name Monty Cantsin.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

SSPS Magazine article on S-Club

I had short article for the SSPS Magazine published about S-Club, a data analysis workshop with the LCT Centre for Knowledge-Building.  You can find it: here.