Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Authoritarian Alternative to Authoritarianism

I heard the tale end of NPR's "On Point" tonight. Tom Ashbrook was interviewing Clay Christensen, a religious and business leader.

He recited an anecdote about a Chinese Marxist and economist who studied with him at Harvard. You can find a similar retelling here. The main thrust was that in order to create a stable and prosperous culture, there were two ways about it. You could go the way of Singapore, and have clear rules and clear ramifications for those who broke them, or you could go the way of democracy, which Christensen sweetly stated through the mouth of his Marxist friend was far harder.

But in democracy, the only way people would behave in a just way was that they believed they would be punished or rewarded according to a higher power. The PDF I link to makes the religiosity much clearer, though even the radio statement (toward the last 10 minutes) was blunt as a hammer.

Personally, I am not surprised that an economist from the PRC would believe that people are weak and require some kind of authority to "hold them accountable"--or, in other words, make them do what is "right." I am sure Christensen saw this as some incredible validation--"Look, even the Marxist thinks we need rules, and that democracy needs religion!" But for me, this is no surprise. An authoritarian and an authoritarian will likely agree on the people; it's the nature of authority on which they differ. It is no surprise that authoritarian socialism gave way to monarchy, state religion, and cults of personality. It is no surprise that Juche and Maoism resemble ancient despotisms, complete with supernaturally gifted leaders. It is no surprise that Guevara became a Castroist Jesus and Stalin was painted with happy children in the same tacky style I see in Adventist portraiture. Man as he is is unimportant to these doctrines. Man is to be molded, recreated, and perfected. They are all Procrustean exercises, all self-demeaning faiths. As valuable as Marx is to deconstructing capitalist economy, he despised anarchists and believed in a rule by elite. He and his heirs ushered in a new priesthood and a new liturgy which has only given way to new Marxian philosophy with great effort and the fall of the Soviet Union.

This is the same as Democrats being trotted out by Republicans when they personally agree. I am not impressed that Lieberman agreed with Bush, no more than I am that Republicans voted for Obama in droves. What is presented as an alternative is not often that significant a difference. Those who are presented as opposites may share great similarities in many areas, especially when the range of discussion is so very small.

In the past, it was much easier to spot this kind of false choice, though people were still ignorant and distracted. Have you ever seen the faces of the Kings of Great Britain, Germany, and Russia at the eve of the First World War? The inbred fools could be practically brothers. Now the appearances are greater among our options, but we still have much the same choice as then: this empire or that, this thug or that, this master or that. And yet we have not improved on the Marxists of a hundred years ago. We do not reach outside to the rest of the world. For all our technology, we have dwindled to myriad disparate homebodies and provincialists. I am all for home rule, and yet I do not believe in being divided and being conquered. And if it is not obvious right now, despotism is as strong as ever it has been. After all, the Mormons and the Maoists talk when they are at the highest levels of power. We commoners cannot say the same. We libertarians and anarchists and resisters have yet to answer the authoritarians. And as a result they continue to choose our alternatives, and control our fates.


  1. the only higher power is in .. that our own minds will haunt us in some way if we don't behave in a just way , i said something else of this on john's .. a few posts back , / now back over to the homebodies (i am not ) of able to find some reasoning in this north of your border place , and further nor th of mind , in able to find something of my own mind in avoiding the presses too pressed ) .. on io z ..to see what they are talking on this morning after my mention of noam ..

  2. And anne brings Plato into the mix. :)

    Thank you for the continued inspiration, Cuneyt; you've sparked something larger.

  3. Very interesting post.

    In my view there's nothing Marxist whatsoever about the PRC (i.e. the "party's republic of china"), the society is, as you put it, an authoritarian form of capitalism. Socialism means workers direct, democratic control of production through councils and general assemblies. The Chinese working class--a sleeping giant if ever there was won--is one of the most exploited and oppressed in the world. Among socialists, the key divide here is between those who are for socialism-from-below and those who (wrongly) think that socialism can be imposed from above and still be (genuine) socialism. For a socialism-from-below style analysis of china, check out: http://socialistworker.org/2012/05/22/repression-and-dissent-china

    I think it's a Stalinist myth (and one that Maoists buy into as well) that Marx or Engels endorsed any form of elitism. In fact, the whole innovation that Marx and Engels made within the socialist movement was to reject elitism in all of its guises (e.g. whether it was Owen, Blanqui, or Proudhon), defending the principle of self-emancipation which states that "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves". They were quite uncompromising about this politically--even though latter-day "Marxists" seem to have discarded it and returned to the elitist ideas of socialism-from-above. If anyone is interested in discussing these matters, I welcome comments on the following blog post on Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky's politics: http://pink-scare.blogspot.com/2012/01/luxemburg-and-trotsky-on-political.html

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking post!

  4. The entire strain of "democratic centralism" owes to Marx, and even worse so, Engels, insisting upon the primacy of Hegel's dialectic, flipped on its head or no. So long as the dialectic (a false model of reality, only challenged perhaps by the Abrahamic or the Platonic, in Western intellectual thought) remains central to Marxist thought, it will continuously produce hierarchies, mystical priesthoods and hagiographic histories.