/ About / Archive / Other media
What do liberals mean by "authoritarian"? - 3/7/18
The discourse on authoritarianism has significantly ramped up over the past decade:

Though Google trends can be an unreliable guide, the growth here maps onto some intuitive milestones: the first major spike corresponds directly with Donald Trump's Super Tuesday victories in the Republican primaries, and the next corresponds to his general election victory and inauguration. Much of the talk about authoritarianism clearly owes to liberal anxieties about Trump, though it has also, by association, become a choice adjective for Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Nicholas Kristof, writing on Trump's Threat to Democracy, offers a telling formulation:
“President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script during his first year,” Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude. “...But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized...” 
That seems right to me: The system worked.
For most of history since the emergence of the left proper during the French Revolution, this phrasing would have been unremarkable. "The system," of course, is our government; to say that it is "working" is to say that formal democracy is checking the power of some central authority. Some two hundred years ago, that meant subduing the monarchy; in the twentieth century, it meant binding the hands of various dictators. An "authoritarian" is the ultimate "threat to democracy" because that is how power works: some ruthless and ambitious person tries to personally seize control of the government.

If this theory of power sounds familiar, there's a reason: it's capitalism. Capitalism is the ideology which teaches us that all power is government power; since the free market operates on a principle of voluntary exchange, coercion only emerges when the state tells people what to do. That's why the only real authority is government authority. For libertarians, that's all authoritarianism is: the government exercising power. Liberals, meanwhile, carry on the Revolutionary tradition of opposing monarchs and neo-monarchs ("dictators", "tyrants", etc.) who wield government power; this may seem distinct from the libertarian formulation, but both see power and authority as exclusive properties of the state.

This notion of the "authoritarian" ignores precisely what capitalism ignores: every other form of power.

A crucial contribution of the modern left to our understanding of power is the insight that power does not just come from the government. Live in a patriarchal household and you'll see the authoritarian in the domination of husbands, fathers, and brothers. Listen to the way black folks are talked to and you'll hear the authoritarian in a white voice. Work for a micro-managing boss, or beg a bank for a loan, and you'll meet the authoritarians of the bourgeoisie. Every day we encounter tyrants who do not control the state, but who threaten our freedom and even our lives in a million different ways.

Liberalism may co-opt the language of intersectionality, but fundamentally, it believes precisely what Kristof believes: if we can just keep the government under control, "the system works." That's why liberals reserve "authoritarian" for villains in the government - to remind us where authority is, and to insist where authority is not.