Sunday, 8 May 2016

Fear My Boogeyman! The Politics Of Authoritarian Enforcement

The left-right see-saw, by Wendy Cockcroft
I got annoyed when one of my "lefty-lefty" friends retweeted a meme about class war. As I've pointed out on many occasions, there is no "class" as such. Society stratifies according to the wealth, and power of its members and wealth enables mobility. So why do they keep harping on about it and what does this mean for the general election in 2020?

You can read the exchange between myself and class warrior Raphael here, but he is not the problem, his authoritarianism is. The trouble I have with "-ism" in general is that it's a club, and there are terms for entry into the club. Okay, fair enough. There are lots of clubs around, aren't there? Aye, there's the rub: if you want to be in a position to bully and shame people into accepting your authority, you have to reduce the number of clubs, or at least the perceived number of clubs. If you let the Left and Right have their way, we'll end of with a choice between Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber, and that's it. I'm not going to stand for that and it's getting harder to push back against this crap, so if I tell you what is going on will you give me a hand with this?

It's not really about left-wing-ery or right-wing-ery; both sides use the same techniques to get people on board and keep them there whether they like it or not. It's straight-up coercion and it's profoundly undemocratic. So what are these techniques?

  1. Create a boogeyman and a scapegoat
  2. Instill a sense of helpless paranoia in your audience
  3. Promise to defend them against the boogeyman and punish the scapegoat
  4. Encourage the development of an us-or-them mentality

Okay, let's take a closer look from the left and the right points of view.

1. Create a boogeyman and a scapegoat

The beauty of the boogeyman is that if people fear it enough, they won't care too much about what is done in the name of making it go away. To maintain control of the population, then, you must always be seen to be valiantly fighting the boogeyman without actually finishing the job. Remember, once the boogeyman has been slain you'll have to find another one if you want to keep people frightened enough to give you all the powers you said you need to destroy him. To keep people distracted, you need a scapegoat to accuse of being in league with the boogeyman. You might not be able to actually get at the boogeyman but the scapegoat is within easy reach. Thus the people will merrily lay into the scapegoat and completely ignore the fact that the things being said about the boogeyman aren't even generally true. Having someone to hit pretty much stops them thinking about the situation.

On the left

The left's boogeyman is "class," a term that conjures up images of wealth and privilege. While they often tell you it's the super rich they have the problem with, you'll often find them laying into the middle class, i.e. doctors, lawyers, etc. Why is that? Because being in the middle means you haven't picked a side. Professionals and property owners, particularly landowners, are considered to be in league with the Establishment, whom they trust to protect their holdings in the name of upholding the law. Even those on the lower rungs of the social ladder are not exempt from contempt:

The lower middle-class is not fit to wield power, and a long government by it is unthinkable. This, first and foremost, for economic reasons: the small shopkeeper is the debtor of the great capitalist, and must remain in dependence on him as long as there exists the system of credit — which cannot be destroyed while the domination of private property continues.
...The roots of the dilemma created by Imperialism are to be found in the economic relations on which Imperialism is based. There are only two classes capable of governing: the class of great capitalists, and the proletariat. 
- Marx and the Middle Classes - Marxists Internet Archive

Every Marxist I've ever had dealings with admits to holding this view sooner or later. Even the more moderate Socialists subscribe to it in some way, shape, or form. Per my research for my Medium blog post, What Has Socialism Done For Us?, the leftist movements are about moving towards a fully cooperative society in which everything is owned in common and production is for need alone. This explains why the Soviets used to decry Western capitalism during the Cold War; they were in complete denial of the role of market forces in society itself and their Socialist colleagues are no different today. It's what I argue about with my left-wing friends. They tend to use "class" as a catch-all but always bear in mind what they really mean: anyone who owns a business or property, and that means "most of us." Their scapegoats are capitalism, the super-rich, and the titled nobility, whom they accuse of creating and maintaining class divisions to keep themselves on top.

On the right

The right's boogeyman is "socialism," a catch-all term for "government intervention," the idea being that everything touched by "government" turns to crap because bureaucracy is inherently inefficient. This position requires you not to ask what "government" actually means. While they'll tell you that it's actually infringements on their personal freedom that they have the problem with, you'll often see them laying into people for ultimately not being white and male, or not identifying closely enough with the concerns of the prevailing consensus of the dominant white male faction. As with the left, being in the middle means you haven't picked a side. Professionals who work for tax-funded services, e.g. teachers, are considered to be in league with the unions, whom they trust to protect their earnings in the name of upholding their status. Even those on the lower rungs of the social ladder are not exempt from contempt:

From a human resource perspective, workplace tension is on the rise. Employees are increasingly expressing to managers that they're unhappy with the fact that new employees are starting at a base similar to what they are now earning, after months or years of hard work. Just as we stated a long time ago, raising the bottom tier pay will now make more senior workers feel underpaid. - The Unintended Consequences Of Minimum Wage Increases, by Tyler Durden for Zero Hedge

Every right-winger I've dealt with admits to holding this view sooner or later: their philosophy demands that low wage earners be kept in poverty to maintain the status quo. Per my research for my Medium blog post, What Has Capitalism Done For Us?, the right-wing movements are about stripping away the role of the state in providing social welfare programs, even for essential services, and turning over responsibility for delivering these to private enterprises or charities. They're confused about the role of the market in society, forgetting entirely that there's no such thing as the free market and never will be — the incumbents will never let it happen.  They tend to use "socialism" as a catch-all but bear in mind what they really mean: any service delivered via a tax-funded program that benefits people they don't like or care about. Their scapegoat is "government," whom they blame for everything, including crony capitalism, which, though they loudly decry, they're unwilling to do anything about.

2. Instill a sense of helpless paranoia in your audience

Every authoritarian I've ever tangled with does this in one way or another.

  • Left-wingers blame capitalism, the super-rich and the titled nobility for their ills, and regale us with mostly true horror stories of abuse to boil our blood. 
  • Right-wingers blame socialism and "big government" for their ills, and they too regale us with mostly true horror stories of abuse to boil our blood — usually along the lines of the evils of over-regulation. 
  • The IPR lobby does it — their stories are always about how evil pirates rob the toiling creators of their earned income and lefties always fall for it.* 
  • Radical feminists stridently warn us that physically male wannabes are literally muscling in on their narrative of victimisation by the patriarchy.
  • The Basic Income brigade use "All ur jobs are belong to robots!"
  • The left-liberal political protectionists would have us believe we are surrounded by delicate snowflakes who must be protected from the very idea that they might possibly be offended one day.

And on and on and on it goes till you are constantly afraid. Fear turns to anger, then anger to action. This is why they do it. They stoke and bank the fires in order to control us.

3. Promise to defend them against the boogeyman and punish the scapegoat

So you've got your audience wound up a treat; how do you then direct all that energy? Well first they've got to see you as a leader, after which they'll follow you anywhere, at least in theory. So the first thing you will do is to describe their situation in terms that paint them as the victims of great injustice. Then you tell them what they're up against. Then you promise to take on the boogeyman and give the scapegoat a hiding. At this point, at least in theory, they'll carry you out on their shoulders and run for the torches and pitchforks.  

"O captain, my captain!"

Without a clear end goal, movements go nowhere. Authoritarians usually have some idea of what they want the future to look like whether they intend to actually make it happen or not. As time goes by, they all come to the conclusion that they actually need the boogeyman to provide a raison d'ĂȘtre for their position, since that is what their authority is actually based on. So they're left with a choice; either carry on till they've finished the job and end up looking for something else to do, or be seen to be doing something without altering the status quo too much.

The War on Drugs is a fantastic example of this: there's a whole industry that's been built around taking on the narcotics boogeyman. If Americans stopped doing coke and meth tomorrow, game over. A lot of people would lose their jobs. So the anti-drugs authorities are seen to be capturing boats filled with cocaine, etc., but they're not interested in doing anything about the demand for the stuff, which is the underlying problem. And they flip out when I suggest doing what is done in Portugal, i.e. treating it as a health issue.

4. Encourage the development of an us-or-them mentality 

Every authoritarian movement needs a boogeyman and scapegoat(s) to get the base riled up. There needs to be a focus for the anger. As the movement builds momentum it begins to occur to the glorious leaders that if the boogeyman goes away tomorrow, they might lose their positions as glorious leaders and the people might start to question their authority. The most effective way to keep them on board, then, is to distract them with the boogeyman and keep them too focused on that to ask questions. This is the root of the us-or-them mentality and the binary thinking that goes with it.

Polarisation: my way or the highway

What wound Raphael up wasn't that he genuinely thinks I'm a mad Ayn Rand fan with a portrait of Margaret Thatcher on my bedroom wall, it's that I would not fear the boogeyman Class, even though Karl Marx said it and Warren Buffet said it. As far as authoritarians are concerned, refusing to get on board without question automatically makes you an enemy in league with the scapegoat. As I told him at the time, I get the same kind of crap on the right; I won't fear the boogeyman Socialism so I must be in the habit of singing The Red Flag on a daily basis. Every authoritarian does this. A member of the Basic Income brigade asserted that, since I disagreed with him, I had no interest in helping the homeless.

Evil among us

It's impossible to maintain the low-level hysteria you need to keep an authoritarian movement going without maintaining a certain amount of helpless paranoia, and the easiest way to do that is to constantly remind the faithful of the enemies among us. The idea of having to be constantly vigilant against the intrigues of fifth columnists in league with the boogeyman is a great way to keep people in line. After all, if they should start asking awkward questions or challenging authority, it must be because they're in league with the boogeyman. Why else would they do it?

They might kick me out of the club

The threat of being ousted from the group forces people to choose between accepting the status quo or accepting the consequences of rebellion. In the fraught atmosphere of an echo chamber environment, the social costs can be high, particularly if you have already alienated members of your former social circle to be a part of the movement. This is how religious cults operate, and it's why it is so hard to exit, even if you've fallen out with the leaders.


I have a boogeyman of my own: authoritarianism. I've got a litmus test to sniff them out: the Twofold Principle.

The individual must be free to act and the will of the people must be respected

Anyone who can't or won't accept the self-evident truth of that statement is authoritarian and should be treated with caution at all times. I refuse to accept the authority of any given individual over me unless I have consented to it, i.e. I have bosses at work and must carry out the tasks they give me. I insist that nobody but me knows what is best for me as a general rule; in cases where I need advice, it's advice, okay? Explain the options and let me decide for myself.

This is what it means to be a free person: to be able to exercise your own will as a responsible member of society, to be beholden to no one against your will, and to have the ability to make choices for the way you want to live without interference from third parties. And believe me, anything that interferes with that freedom will meet with the greatest resistance I can possibly put up.

*Don't get me started. Suffice it to say that six of one = the record companies and publishers not paying a decent royalty sum while the half dozen of the other = not enough people buying the product because the creator isn't popular enough to sell many copies.

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