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Three Paths to Despotism

To halt the rise of authoritarianism, liberal democracies must restore hope of economic improvement, particularly among the young.

· 14 min read
Three Paths to Despotism
Broken windows at a bank on Weddingplatz, Berlin, the day after violent clashes between police and demonstrators, 11th June 1931. Getty 

“Democracy is at stake,” US President Biden told a gathering of Democratic Party governors on September 28th. His warning about the global spread of illiberalism followed the stunning gains made by populist parties in Sweden and Italy, the latter of which he mentioned directly. “We can't be sanguine about what's happening here either,” he added. Biden has already called much of his own domestic opposition “semi-fascist,” and fears of anti-democratic violence remain following the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, 2020, by rioters attempting to overturn his own election.

But these worrying developments on the political Right reflect only one expression of the new authoritarianism. The Western Left, once advocates of free speech and tolerant of markets, now embrace a massive expansion of state power, complete with expansive curbs on expression and speech. Perhaps most ominous of all, expanded state power and intolerance are also now being embraced by some of the world’s most powerful corporations, which have benefited greatly from liberalism, the rule of law, and open inquiry.

Beyond the West, full-bore authoritarians are already in power—Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. At the end of the Cold War, the world seemed to be traveling on a natural “arc” to a more democratic future. But authoritarianism has been on the rise for almost two decades. Most critically, China’s rise offers an alluring—at least to some—model of a new corporate state that, perhaps more than anything, recalls the European fascist regimes in the 1920s and ’30s. “Democracies,” Xi is said to have told Biden, “can’t be sustained in the 21st century.”

Historical precedence and critical pre-conditions

Autocracy’s appeal lies partly in the sense of certainty and enthusiastic commitment it provides. In his 1995 work, Nazi Germany: A New History, the historian Klaus Fischer argues that the 20th century’s dictatorial regimes thrived by offering “a version of traditional religiosity with its own dogmas, priesthood and inquisitions.” Their preferred terroirs are societies experiencing economic decline and the loss of traditional social, spiritual, and political moorings. In the 1930s, radical cultural changes and depressed economic conditions fostered nationalist extremism in some places, while others rejected constitutional democracy for the siren song of Stalinism.

Without the Depression and the sense of societal unraveling during the Weimar Republic, it is unlikely Hitler would have gained power. “Fascism,” noted historian F.L. Carsten in The Rise of Fascism (1967), “was the product of a deep economic and social crisis, a crisis of European society.” Today’s social turmoil and economic decline is all too similar. North America and Europe both face the growing threat of a serious global economic downturn. Today, 57 percent of Americans, according to Rasmussen, worry that a major depression is on the way. This belief may not be justified, but it offers a snapshot of growing public anxiety and pessimism.

The generational aspect is critical here. Pew has found that 56 percent of residents in advanced economies believe their children will do worse than they did. This is not an unreasonable assumption—in 2018, half of all recent college grads in the US made under $28,000 annually, and another recent study suggests that most underemployed graduates will remain that way permanently. The frustrations of the young provide particularly effective kindling for extreme politics. In prewar Germany before the Nazis took power, notes historian Frederic Spotts in Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2002), National Socialism was all the rage among university students and young people in general; these disgruntled youngsters also filled the ranks of the communist militias.

By contrast, support for market-centered institutions and free speech tends to diminish in hard times. Even before the current economic woes, an Edelman survey reported that a majority of people in 28 countries around the world said they believe that capitalism does more harm than good. More than four-in-five worry about job loss, particularly from automation. Rising inequality and general fear of downward mobility have boosted support for expanded government and greater re-distribution of wealth.

Faith in the democratic model, meanwhile, has fallen steadily for almost a decade, with disapproval of democracy now well over 50 percent globally, a phenomenon clearly evident in the United States. A 2020 global survey of opinion by the Cambridge-based Center for the Future of Democracy that combined data from over 4.8 million respondents—43 sources in 160 countries between 1973 and 2020—found faith in democracy falling most precipitously among Generation X and millennials.

The revival of the populist Right

The revival of the populist Right represents the clearest face of resurgent authoritarianism. Its illiberal parties and movements reject the basic logic of economic globalism and constitute a reaction to the perceived contempt with which many leading institutions treat national, religious, and family values. This is made explicit in the program of the Brothers of Italy.

Support for right-wing populism has most obviously been driven by mass migration, fears about which demagogues have not been slow to exploit. After support for mass immigration from the Middle East appeared to surge during the Syrian civil war in 2015, support for a liberal border policy soon receded. A year later, Pew Research found that a median of 50 percent of respondents across 10 EU countries said immigrants were imposing a burden on their country, while in “no EU country surveyed did more than four-in-ten say that having an increasing number of people from many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities makes their country a better place to live.” In 2018, Pew found that 71 percent of Italians, almost 58 percent of Germans, 52 percent of Swedes, and 41 percent of French citizens wanted either fewer or no new immigrants; a median of just 10 percent wanted more.

Despite calls for mass immigration to make up for Europe’s deepening demographic decline, an overwhelming majority in virtually every European country favors stronger border controls at the EU frontier, and opposes the arrival of large numbers of unskilled people. Indeed, even as immigration has dropped (due in part to the pandemic), European policies towards migrants have toughened while attitudes have generally hardened.

The rise of crime associated with immigration has riled once-safe Sweden, which now suffers the second-highest rate of deadly shootings per capita out of 22 European countries. Illiberal, nativist politics have turned Hungary’s Victor Orbán into a celebrated figure on the populist Right in both Europe and North America. Some anti-immigrant movements espouse unambiguously racist views, but others are inspired by opposition to the kind of open-ended immigration favored by the prevailing corporate and bureaucratic apparatus. Some have even found inspiration in the Middle Ages and the example of the Frankish king Charles Martel, who defeated Muslim invaders in the eighth century.

Economic underpinnings

But it’s economic dislocation that will provide the populist Right’s resurgence with its critical fuel. The key may lie with what historian Eric Weitz identifies as “the proletarianization of the middle class” in his book, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. Today, as in Germany during the 1930s, many shopkeepers, farmers, and artisans feel threatened by inflation, and by the growing power of large corporations, Wall Street magnates, and tech oligarchs. In 2020, small-business owners in America were among Donald Trump’s strongest supporters, while shop owners across Europe still face potentially disastrous conditions.

Increasingly, “neoliberalism”—defined by historian Gary Gerstle in The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order (2022) as “a creed that favors free trade and the free movement of capital goods and people”—is falling out of favor among large parts of the Western population. Unlike traditional conservative groups, but like the authoritarians of the ’30s, the new populist Right rejects laissez-faire conservatism, generally supports a strong welfare state, and has tended to take an anti-capitalist, collectivist line during its drive for power. After all, Mussolini had once been a radical socialist and proffered fascism as meeting “the demands of the working class.” Canadian historian Robert Gellately has demonstrated that socialist ideas, including a planned expansion of the welfare state, were also a critical element of Nazi ideology.

By rejecting neoliberal dogma, the populist Right has been able to appeal to working-class voters, who are ditching their traditional ties to Democrats in America and to social-democratic parties across Europe. This working-class shift could be accelerated by the adoption of draconian green policies—and the high energy prices they produce—which is already sparking support for right-wing populists, particularly in the eastern reaches of Germany.

In the coming years, ever-stricter environmental controls on households and businesses, and the surge of energy prices and reliability shortfalls, seem likely to spark the kind of grassroots rebellions first seen in the gilets jaunes protests that swept France and received sympathetic support across the populist Right. Some resent seeing the well-to-do advertize their environmental virtue while the policies they recommend impose extraordinarily high energy and housing costs on whole economic sectors.

There are some differences between today’s populist Right and the fascists and National Socialists of the 20th century. While the Nazis, notes historian Spotts, enjoyed strong support among university students and the intelligentsia, today’s populists have little purchase among the cognitive elites. Nevertheless, this alienated population is served by a thriving alternative media ecosystem, parts of which have tried to turn the malcontents of January 6th into folk heroes and martyrs. The fact that “stop the steal” rhetoric has been adopted by nearly a third of Republican candidates suggests that much of that once-great party have embraced conspiratorial and paranoid far-Right persecution fantasies.

From left liberalism to authoritarianism

Historically, progressives saw themselves as the arch-enemies of right-wing authoritarianism. And indeed, many of the great accomplishments of liberalism—from the civil rights movement to the rights for women and gays—came about in the face of stiff opposition from the reactionary Right. In recent decades, however, the Left across the West has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissenting views.

This shift has occurred as progressives have grown to dominate many of society’s most critical institutions such as academia and the media, and have sought to fortify their position with the tools of authoritarianism. This near-total dominance of the cultural heights of Western societies has been marked by increasing political dogmatism, a penchant for censorship, and contempt for those who diverge from their orthodoxies. “The current religion of Western liberals in politics and media,” notes writer Glenn Greenwald, “is censorship: their prime weapon of activism.”

Universities have been the prime incubators of this shift. Once a bastion of open inquiry, higher education is now defined by ideological homogeneity, particularly among the faculty. This, according to a recent study, has been particularly true at liberal arts colleges, some departments of which have become entirely “Republican-free.” The skew is especially acute in fields that most affect public policy and opinion. Well under 10 percent of faculty at leading law schools, such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and Berkeley—institutions that graduate many of the nation’s leaders—describe themselves as conservative.

Similarly, although roughly half of British voters lean to the right, less than 12 percent of academics do. These trends are common across Europe and in Canada, and the resulting imbalance has transformed much of academia into something resembling an ideological reeducation camp. Prominent schools of journalism have also moved away from teaching the fundamentals of reporting in favor of advancing a “social justice” agenda. Even some progressives, such as the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, have acknowledged that “students are less likely to get a good education, and faculty members are likely to learn less from one another, if there is a prevailing political orthodoxy.”

This kind of de facto indoctrination combined with diminished economic prospects appear to be driving some young people into the arms of the populist Left. In France, the Socialist Party, which previously maintained support for free speech and free markets, is now part of an alliance committed to anti-capitalism and a program of enlightened social control under the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an admirer of the late Hugo Chávez. In this year’s Presidential race (as in 2017), those under 35 favored either the aged Trotskyite or populist-Right standard-bearer Marine Le Pen over technocratic centrist, President Emmanuel Macron.

Similarly, in the United States, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have rejected the liberal elements of the old Left for more draconian stances on both capitalism and property rights. In the 2016 primaries, the policy agenda of socialist Bernie Sanders included giving close to almost half of all corporate seats to employees and expanding federal power over all aspects of economic life. He easily outpolled Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined among under-30 voters. In 2020, he also did very well among young people, even as the older cohorts decisively rejected him.

Socialism, long anathema in America, has gained currency among the younger generations. A poll conducted by the Communism Memorial Foundation in 2016 found that 44 percent of American millennials favor socialism while 14 percent chose either fascism or communism. The emerging Left in America is also now among the most enthusiastic supporters of censorship, apparently perceiving any opposition to be essentially illegitimate and caused by racism, sexism, or some other social dysfunction. In his 2018 book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, political scientist Yascha Mounk reveals that while more than two-thirds of older Americans still embrace democracy, only one-in-three millennials do. Overall, it is white progressives, not right-wingers, who constitute the most intolerant group in America, and who are also far more likely to eschew contacts with political opponents than any group.

The corporate authoritarians

Arguably the most potent, if least understood, authoritarian drive comes not from political populists but from the convergence of dominant corporations and the bureaucratic establishment. Increasingly, the West’s economy looks more like rule by corporate giantism—the giant Japanese zaibatsu, the German prewar cartels, and the big family industrial groups in Mussolini’s time. A tenth of the US economy is made up of industries where four firms dominate more than two-thirds of the market, with finance and information technology now among the most concentrated. Europe, too, has experienced a steady growth in corporate concentration over the last two decades.

Capitalism has increasingly lost the competitive character that shaped its ascendence. Today, its giants often collude even as they fight among themselves—like the daimyo in medieval Japan. What competition remains comes from other giants rather than from plucky upstarts. Microsoft now controls 90 percent of all operating system software. Three tech firms now account for two-thirds of all online advertizing revenues, which now represent the vast majority of all ad sales. Once paragons of entrepreneurial vigor, these firms have morphed into exemplars of “tollbooth capitalism,” and receive revenues on transactions that far exceed anything they lose in failed ventures and acquisitions.

Finance, too, has become markedly more concentrated, with the number of banks in the US down a full third since 2000 while Europe experiences a slower, but similar consolidation. Global investing is now dominated by a handful of companies, the five largest of which control over 45 percent of all assets in the US compared to under 30 percent 20 years ago. The five largest investment banks control roughly one-third of investment funds; the top 10 control an absolute majority. For the most part, these firms hated Donald Trump. This partly owed to understandable revulsion at his character, but it was also due to his hostility to China, his opposition to the cheap labor provided by immigration, and his support for efforts to break up big tech firms. They therefore united to make massive contributions to electoral efforts to remove him, a move later celebrated in Time magazine.

The dominant social media players also clearly wanted Biden in the White House. They had little trouble covering Trump’s numerous lies and misdeeds, but never censored some of the equally absurd anti-Trump conspiracies, as Greenwald pointed out. The quashing of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story by Twitter and Facebook, not to mention the social media ban imposed on Trump himself, represented a remarkable and frightening exercise of arbitrary power. Although many liberals did not disapprove of these acts—anything, they reasoned, was okay if it helped to get rid of Trump—foreign observers with actual experience living under despotic regimes, like German chancellor Angela Merkel and the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, were less impressed. Like Donald Trump, the new Italian prime minister has already had a viral YouTube video removed for supposedly violating the platform’s community guidelines.

In contrast to the confrontations with Trump, the corporate elite and the Biden administration have promised to work harmoniously to control information. At US News, journalist Robert Epstein has argued that Google’s algorithms have made it “the world’s biggest censor,” creating what Jenin Younes, writing in Tablet magazine, has called “a privatized censorship regime.” As Ellie Mae O’Hagan in the Guardian put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”

In the coming years, control of information will be used to shape public attitudes about the “climate emergency,” the mindless dogmatism of which the WSJ’s Helen Raleigh has compared to Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Last year, Google announced a “crackdown” on climate policy skeptics—including well-known scientists—a policy eagerly embraced by the EPA’s director, Gina McCarthy. As environmental activist Michael Shellenberger has pointed out, there’s little appetite to be found at the major media outlets for challenging misleading statements from Biden’s energy and environmental spokespersons, another service to the current White House.

The corporate authoritarians have also started to use their financial power to promote their preferred policies. The current craze among corporate leaders, particularly the big investment banks, for “stakeholder capitalism” means the imposition of environmental race and gender perquisites on investments. This approach has the strong backing of the Administration. At the same time, PayPal now feels free to demonetize the accounts of those with “unacceptable” views on such topics as climate change, gender “fluidity,” and race.

Ironically, as the most powerful media, corporate, and government officials fret about resurgent fascism, their actions echo the fascist notion of melding corporate power with the state’s objectives. Benito Mussolini wanted the state to become “the moving center of economic life.” He successfully coopted Italian industrialists to build new infrastructure and the military, while stamping out Italy’s historically militant and socialist-oriented unions. Not all big capitalists were devoted fascists, but they were careful to maintain what Mussolini called “formal adherence to the regime.”

Is there a way to resist authoritarianism?

Whether under the control of Right or Left political regimes or powerful corporations, technology allows for the kind of surveillance that would have delighted Stalin, Hitler, or Mao—a greatly enhanced ability to monitor where people go, what they buy, and what they say to their associates. This poses a major barrier to any kind of pushback from the lower classes. Perhaps, as Aldous Huxley warned in his 1932 novel Brave New World, “A thoroughly scientific dictatorship will never be overthrown.”

China offers the obvious model. Chinese authorities understand that a “conflictual-competitive system,” like that usually dominant in America, “will hold back national economic priorities and damage the social fabric.” Under the rubric of “Corporate Social Responsibility,” the state still holds the command keys, and although entrepreneurs are allowed to get rich, they cannot deviate much from the state orthodoxy.

In the West, this kind of centralized control—albeit without the Maoist garb—is supported by prominent liberals like New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman and the former Obama budget adviser Peter Orszag, who believe that climate and other issues are too complex for elected representatives. Instead, some of them recommend ceding power to credentialed “experts” in Washington, Brussels, or Geneva. Jerry Brown, a former governor of California with close ties to China’s climate efforts, openly favors applying “the coercive power of the central state” to achieve environmental goals and the “brainwashing” of the uncomprehending masses.

For much of the upper echelons, liberal democracy has become a mere totem, cited but not widely backed by corporate executives who were once devotees of free markets and ideas. Apple’s Tim Cook, for example, waxes enthusiastic about a “common future in cyberspace” with China’s surveillance state. Wall Street actively lobbies on behalf of China, while oligarchs like Michael Bloomberg describe China, a country of business opportunity for his firm, as “ecologically friendly, democratically accountable, and invulnerable to the threat of revolution.” Furthering his flattery, he has stated that Xi Jinping is “not a dictator.”

If liberal ideas are to survive, middle- and working-class people will need to advocate against the rising authoritarian state, in any of its forms. We have not yet reached Huxley’s Brave New World or even the institutionalization of China’s high-tech police state. The sinews of civic culture still remain—churches, independent journals, local associations, small businesses—that can flex against the imposition of a “scientific dictatorship” and restore economic opportunity to the vast majority.

But ideas are not enough. Liberal democracy must also find ways to restore hope for economic improvement, particularly among the young. To halt the spread of authoritarianism, true liberals must also develop an answer to the economic malaise that spurs its growth and provides its rationale. Growing class inequities need to be addressed by a new commitment to broad-based economic progress.

Ultimately, the survival of liberal civilization depends on citizens who embrace both its freedoms and its obligations. Activists on both the Left and the Right have fostered a narrow identity politics that cannot sustain a pluralistic democracy. Corporate autocracy revolves not around greater opportunities for most but preserving both their self-defined virtue and their positions of power. To fight the growing authoritarian challenge—Right, Left, and corporate—we must confront the conditions that create it in all three forms.

Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His most recent book is 'The Coming of Neo-Feudalism.'

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