DIFFERENT STAGE, SAME PROBLEM
We've been experiencing the growth of authoritarianism for some time. Now we're entering a new phase. There's still time to stop this, but that time is wearing thin.
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This past weekend many of us in the analysis game shook our heads as we watched the results roll in from Italy’s latest round of elections. It was almost a foregone conclusion that Giorgia Meloni, leader of the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party, would ascend to power. The conditions were too perfect, the stage was set, and the trajectory of current events all but made certain. Still, the numbers hit like a stiff uppercut. Brothers of Italy rode the wave of authoritarianism and desperation from an outsider position all the way to power.
And then, with predictable quickness, the normalization began.
The language in this opinion piece from The Washington Post is so by-the-books in terms of normalizing extremism that it probably came from a folder pulled out of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s file cabinet labeled START HERE. The wrapping of dangerous nationalism in symbols and metaphors. The comparison to a “worse” country and regime. The focus on respecting “national traditions” and restoring “economic freedoms.”
Henry Olsen, the author, is capable of doing this all day, and luckily he’s rewarded for that willingness by donors like the Kochs and any number of Right Wing billionaires who keep the Center flooded with money to promote “Judeo-Christian morality in business.” In other words, it’s the usage of religion and mythical traditions to legitimize extreme wealth and antidemocratic actions.
To someone like Olsen and his fellows, Meloni is a literal godsend. A Right Wing demagogue who mixes militant capitalism with perfect amounts of fearmongering, racism, and conspiracy theories in order to make the whole thing go down and generate populist support. These people either have no ability to understand the inherent fascism in their views or are well aware and see it as a necessary bonus. Either way, they aren’t alone. Their views and laundering are gaining traction in mainstream publications and networks because we are steadily marching toward fully-accepted authoritarianism.
With similar trepidation, we are also watching the upcoming election in Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro seems likely to fall to his rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula). That expectation has already spurred Bolsonaro to strike an aggressive posture and promise that he is willing to “go to war” considering any outcome besides an outright victory would be the result of a conspiracy and a stolen election. That a Right Wing figure is aping Donald Trump’s playbook is no surprise or coincidence as figures like Steve Bannon have been hard at work tutoring Bolsonaro and others around the world as this Right Wing association cements its tactics and partnerships.
If Bolsonaro loses, which seems likely, there is a very real possibility there will be a coup. His relationship with Brazil’s military and police could lead to violence and a widespread crackdown, but he also has a key factor on his side: the support of Brazil’s wealth class.
Recently, chats and messages between some of Brazil’s billionaires were revealed to have shown a preference for a coup over a Lula victory. As discussed previously in this forum, the relationship between authoritarians and the wealthy is indisputable. Right Wing dictators and movements promise the wealthy to discipline workers, attack the Left, and protect their wealthy, power, and property. It’s a deal that always gets made.
So what happens when Brazil’s courts attempted to stop any potential coup before it happened?
Once more, we see the legitimization. To defend democracy is its own repression. And should Bolsonaro lose, reject his defeat, and carry out a coup? We’ll see similar hand-wringing to a different end. Accepting the action with a sheen of protest and moving on. Probably to admire the economic stability and outcomes that are preferable, even if they come from the hell that is authoritarianism.
For these reasons, and many more, it needs said that we are entering a new phase of this crisis. We have watched for years as democratic institutions have been assaulted, weakened, and exposed as rotten. We have seen lawlessness continue without response, lending the authoritarians strength and assurance that they can threaten and destroy with impunity.
And, what’s more, the economic and material conditions that got us here in the first place, are only getting worse by the day. That seeds the public sphere for acceptance within electorates, populaces, the media, and political circles. If this crisis was an epidemic, it is quickly escalating to a full-blown pandemic.
THE MIDNIGHT KINGDOM: A HISTORY OF POWER, PARANOIA, AND THE COMING CRISIS is available for preorder now. This is the story of how we have arrived at this moment, a crossroads in which we must recognize how the world we live in was founded on white supremacist lies and conspiracy theories in order for the wealthy and powerful to maintain control. Our only means of escaping a nightmarish future is that recognition and a decision to create something better, fairer, and more human
This threat grows in tandem with the failure of our institutions and their guardians. Politicians of all stripes who are still wed to the neoliberal status-quo are finding themselves incapable of addressing the pressing issues of the moment because they, as a result of their agendas and philosophies, have been rendered virtually powerless to do anything besides forward the interests of the wealthy.
In England, following the headshakingly ridiculous mourning period for their queen, the economic outlook has absolutely cratered. New Prime Minister Liz Truss has began her term by doing the only thing she’s allowed to do: cutting taxes. That is, after all, the only thing that the wealthy want government to do besides bail out their financial disasters, provide military and law enforcement to protect them, and provide the veneer of representation.
That avenue has already failed, not only to address the economic issues in England, but also outright. Already, Truss and the conservative plan has cost the UK markets $500 billion dollars. It has compounded the problem because there is literally nothing else it could do. As is the case with the author defending Meloni, the worldview and outlook is so narrow and so delusional that it is recreating a predictable pattern. There is no means, whether philosophical, political, or economic, for anyone currently in that position to carry out the necessary actions to put this economy on a better or more sustainable path.
In our considerations of authoritarianism, we as a society prefer to imagine it in supernatural terms. It is comforting, to an extent, to imagine these things happen as something outside of us, as a result of some kind of supernatural power that we can ward off through good intentions and possibly even methods of exorcism. But authoritarianism is a consequence of deteriorating material conditions. It happens when populations feel lost and squeezed and hopeless and their representatives and leaders off less than nothing to solve the problem.
Authoritarians then offer solutions.
They pick scapegoats (Jews, people of color, immigrants, gay/trans citizens, women, satanic cabals) and cast the blame from the wealthy onto someone who can be targeted.
They demonstrate authority through systematic violence and attacks on democracy.
And they transfer the economic pain onto the scapegoated population, which includes prejudiced laws, exclusion from the system, violence, and death.
What is ailing our system is this: the redistribution of wealth from the bottom up has created an over-concentration of wealth in the hands of too few. Those wealthy have corrupted our institutions and turned them into carriers of their will. That has made the conditions worse and unleashed some of the worst contradictions of capitalism, which eventually leads to a collapse.
And guess what? When that collapse hits, the authoritarians are there to pick up the pieces.
Nothing that we are watching is new. If it seems familiar, it should. For years we have watched the pieces gather, express themselves openly, and flourish while the political and media classes that should have protected against them pretended they simply didn’t exist or, if they did, that the institutions we rely on were strong enough to reject them outright.
They were not only wrong, they were deadly wrong.
This new phase is a result of that mishandling. Watching fascists get elected or take power and then get normalized is part and parcel of this. Watching these movements gain more sway and more support is part of it. And, as that concentration of power continues and the democratic checks and balances fall, these forces will inevitably head in the direction that Vladimir Putin has chosen and become more militant and more aggressive because their very nature demands it.
Make no mistake. We are in the shit. We’ve been in it for awhile, but we are deep, deep in it. I still maintain faith that we can head this thing off before we experience the later stages of rising authoritarianism, but escalations like we’re seeing now are no less alarming.