A significant cultural trend over recent decades has been the change in how social status is distinguished. In times past, material assets, with the veneer of etiquette, displayed higher standing. The popular BBC series Keeping Up Appearances (1990-2008) relentlessly mocked this archetype, with the overbearing character of Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced ‘Bouquet’), desperately trying, but endlessly failing, to escape the embrace of her oafish working-class family. Such social stereotyping lives on in clichés like the ‘barrow boy done good’: whatever his acquired luxury, you can take the market trader out of the East End, but you cannot take the East End out of the market trader.
By the turn of the millennium, as consumerism and cheap imports made goods and services more widely available, tangible signifiers of social standing lost their exclusivity. The term ‘chav,’ for example, represented a brash person of lower class draped in expensive designer clothing (or ‘bling’). So began the shift in social validation from material to moral signifiers, as exhibition of abundance gave way to expressions of virtue. Consequently, snobbery has moved on from the world of Hyacinth Bucket, who is now little more than a quaint reminder of yesteryear. Pomposity and conceit are now manifested altogether very differently.
Prosaically, as a cashless society emerges, a moral currency has been minted. Elevation to superior social status is restricted by the passwords of politically correct values, which are necessary for professional career progress. Commitment must be shown to “diversity, equality, and inclusion,” and the cosmopolitan doctrines of identity politics and multiculturalism (although, as we shall discuss below, such virtuous notions are selectively applied).
This social trend has been facilitated by the advance of technology as an instrument of social control. In the world of ‘Big Data,’ smartphones, and social media, individual beliefs and behaviours can be policed effectively, potentially determining access to services, goods and travel. Exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic, Western democracies have moved towards the Chinese Communist Party’s social credit system and away from the classically liberal conception of individual agency.
The changing currency of social status and the increasing predilection towards social control and conformity are paradoxically linked. By focusing on the parochial failings of the populace, those who assume a position of social and intellectual superiority unwittingly expose their own illiberal proclivity. It is worth examining the origins of this paradox.
Liberal sophistication vs. dull order
The seeds of morality-based social stratification were sown many decades ago, and with an explicit design that is often obscured in contemporary commentary. The antecedents of the changing exhibition of social status are many. A golden thread, however, can be traced back to the Frankfurt School in the 1920s, whose ideological roots took hold in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the red-tinged green shoots of a new morality appeared in Western democracies.
Photo: Public Domain.
During the war, public and private funds were provided to researchers in the United States to discover why people were drawn to totalitarian ideologies. Among them was the Marxist scholar and Frankfurt School alumnus Theodor Adorno, who in 1947 devised the ‘F scale.’ This was a personality test purporting to measure the presence of authoritarian traits within individuals. The test supposedly revealed a rigid personality type that was susceptible to aggressive impulses, suggestible to superstitions, and thus easily manipulated by demagogues. Interestingly, though perhaps somewhat predictably, the F scale psychopathologised only the political Right. As an exile from Nazi Germany, Adorno was influenced by his experiences and political leanings: the F standing for fascism. The F scale was flawed in too easily finding what its designer was looking for, but it nonetheless lay the pseudo-intellectual foundations for a body of research that was inherently slanted against socially conservative dispositions.
At the Institute of Psychiatry in London, Hans Eysenck, another German émigré, took a more considered view of the authoritarian personality, as presented in his book The Psychology of Politics (1954). He saw the extremes of Left and Right as mirror images of each other, both sides pining for strong leaders, as well as law and order. Academic peers disapproved of Eysenck’s equivalence thesis, due to their assumption that socialists are well-intended while the Right is inherently malign. As Roderick Buchanan noted in his biography of Eysenck, Playing with Fire (2010), the left-wing London School of Economics was particularly scathing, while the American scholar Milton Rokeach accused Eysenck of ‘red baiting.’
The people cannot be trusted
Historian Richard Hofstadter further developed the concept of the right-wing authoritarian personality. Conservative fear of communist infiltration was a favourite theme of Hofstadter, whose book The Paranoid Style of American Politics (1964) was conceived in part as a reaction to the ‘reds under the beds’ scare of the 1950s. Hofstadter discerned a predisposition to paranoia lurking within the uneducated masses that consequently made them vulnerable to quasi-fascistic authoritarian demagoguery. Again, authoritarianism was seen only as a hazard on the political right. Christian groups and populist patriots were, in Hofstadter’s view, inordinately prone to indulge McCarthyite excesses.
In other words, Hofstadter’s framework intentionally contrasted the authoritarian predilection with that of an enlightened rationalistic liberal elite. Promoting a vision of an elite-led technocracy, he saw progress obstructed by traditional customs and bonds. According to Michael Lind in The New Class War (2020), “Hofstadter was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for telling complacent, affluent elites in metropolitan enclaves what they wanted to hear about the alleged menace posed by the less-educated rabble.”
The particular problem of attempting to define a category of authoritarian personality in the manner that Hofstadter outlined, and of those who followed him, is that it sought to problematise views that were—and to a great degree remain—widely prevalent in society. National pride, traditional family values, Christian worship, concerns about crime, immigration and wariness of radical change were seen as backward, aberrant and irrational.
All of this was deeply questionable scientifically because pathologising broad societal norms can only be achieved by claiming a position of Olympian detachment. That is to say, the analyst declares himself or herself to be able to stand outside ‘the political.’ They endow themselves with the unique ability to see into the prejudices of others, while claiming—and often truly believing—that they exist in a condition of objectivity. Thus, the analyst arrogates the right to discern the ideological blinkers of others without recognising their own.
As philosophers such as Carl Schmitt contended, nobody can stand outside the political. Arguably, in this respect, attempting to delineate a psychological category of the authoritarian personality is therefore a paradox, being itself evidence of an authoritarian disposition. The reason for this is because the endeavour reduces disagreements of viewpoint to stigmatising, arbitrary, and unproveable, judgments. One of the classic examples of the genre is the claim that people ‘don’t know what they voted for’ in elections or referenda, or ascribes malign intentions based on ignorance, prejudice and lack of education (note the neo-snobbery here).
Olympian rationalists can, apparently, see into your soul. They know your mind better than you do. As the Austrian political theorist Eric Voegelin observed, this condescending attitude is a form of Gnosticism that is more akin to religious thought than to scientifically rooted explanations that render themselves subject to falsification.
Fear of progress
It does not take much effort to see how this line of thinking has infected contemporary political debate in the West. Like the Soviet Union’s use of psychiatry to suppress dissidents, the Western intelligentsia increasingly deploys psychological categorisations to delegitimise opposition to progressive ideology. Pseudo-clinical diagnoses of ‘phobias’ are concocted for wrong-thinkers who affirm the biological binary of the sexes (transphobia), or who fear the replacement of Western culture by mass immigration (Islamophobia).
Photo: licensed under CCA-SA 3.0 Unported.
The paradox of attempting to detect paranoid or phobic enthusiasm for totalitarian order in ordinary people while endorsing a society of top-down control is revealing. The Freudian defence mechanism of projection—attributing drives and impulses to others as a means of denying them within yourself—appears prevalent. For example, conspiratorial claims, all of which were discovered to be inaccurate, about Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, gained prestigious prizes for writers who interpreted these democratic events as the rise of a ‘nationalist-authoritarian right’ which endangered democracy (Atlantic, 31 October 2016). Newspapers declared authoritarianism to be on the march (Financial Times, 22 January 2019), and progressive newspapers such as the Guardian, Independent and New York Times perceived a regression to the 1930s. One article in the academic forum The Conversation (17 January 2017) argued that Brexit heralded the coming era of British fascism.
In Britain, following the referendum on EU membership, corporate media, including the BBC, cast Brexit as the reflex of closed minds, in contrast to the liberal attributes of openness. Universities, the media, the arts, the civil service and other institutions represented ‘citizens of the world,’ whose priorities were supposedly emancipatory, cosmopolitan and multicultural, with a commitment to open borders and the free movement of trade and people. Yet, paradoxically, come the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, we see the commitment to these cosmopolitan ideals of global communitarianism distort into something quite opposite.
Whose side are you on?
As the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 spread around the world in spring 2020, most people were worried and accepted the necessity of public health controls. But after some months of lockdown, political dividing lines became more apparent. Whereas ‘populists’ such as Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro were reluctant to impose draconian restrictions on people and businesses, the severest curfews, travel bans and mask mandates were imposed by supposedly more liberal governments (with the notable exception of Sweden). Indeed, leaders of a progressive outlook took to the COVID-19 crisis like a duck to water.
Prime Ministers Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Justin Trudeau in Canada, Premier Dan Andrews in the Australian state of Victoria, Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Netherlands and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland have enjoyed boosts in popularity, as the majority of the populace in these relatively cohesive societies see themselves as uniting against a mortal threat under a great protector, which is—when all is said and done—far more indicative of the conditions of authoritarian rule than anything instilled by ‘nationalist-authoritarians.’ Indeed, the progressive accusation now is that ‘populist’ leaders like Johnson and Trump did not lock down early or hard enough, which of course, is an argument that they should have been more authoritarian, not less.
In depriving citizens of basic liberties, might leaders in the mould of Ardern, Trudeau and Sturgeon actually be demonstrating the paradoxes of the authoritarian personality? Are we not witnessing projection writ large? Perhaps these leaders were genuinely liberal on their way up the political ladder, but given emergency powers they have become highly interventionist. Or are they simply showing their true colours? COVID-19 has revealed the incongruence of liberalism and progressivism: the former is really concerned with individual liberties, while the latter is a means-to-an-end mission.
Arguably, progressive politicians wear the cloak of liberal values, but in truth they pay lip service to diversity, equality and inclusiveness. A politician like Justin Trudeau, for example, at one level epitomises multicultural awareness, yet he repeatedly dressed up in black face at parties prior to his political ascent (the Internet never forgets). In practice, they certainly do not appear to want diversity of ideas or debate; their record on equality is poor, exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns that have transferred wealth from the ordinary people and small businesses to the already rich; instead of inclusiveness they are facilitating elitism and a rigid social stratification maintained by digital control systems (for which the prospect of vaccine passports are possibly merely the beginning).
The progressive power grab is, we might discern, a pursuit of technocracy, which is highly authoritarian in its ultimate goals. The use of advanced technology, as predicted in the dystopian science fiction of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, is more likely to enslave the masses than lead to their liberation. Luring people with comfort and convenience, such as internet shopping and contactless payment, leads to choice and freedom being replaced by menu-driven options set by the authorities or monopolistic corporations.
A liberal existence is—in part—to have the freedom to live spontaneously, to go on a pub crawl, to take a weekend break in Blackpool or Paris, or to attend a festival or rally. In ‘Smart Cities,’ automated cars will take passengers only on approved routes and to permissible destinations. A technocracy has no need for pubs or protests, as society will be atomised and regulated for the security and benefit of the elite.
We have seen in the COVID-19 pandemic how the bureaucratic class has relinquished liberalism in pursuit of a controlled society that is more characteristic of authoritarianism than anything that has preceded it in the recent past. The irony is that to be adjudicated as a good and virtuous person in the current era is to obey government edicts and conform to a collective, and often state-sanctioned, morality (clap for the NHS, wear your rainbow coloured lanyard, and stay silent if you disagree). Meanwhile, governments and corporate media have almost totally suppressed contrary evidence or debate on the public health regime. As we have shown above, the foundations of this new cultural hegemony were laid many decades ago under the auspices of identifying, and eliminating, the supposedly authoritarian impulses within mass society. This is profoundly ironic.
Consequently, leaders around the world—especially those that cast themselves as liberal, tolerant and open-minded—have demonstrated the very opposite traits. They have sought to close minds and terrify many of their citizens into an apparently phobic reaction to a coronavirus imposed totalitarian ‘lockdown.’ It is possible, moreover, to detect even more authoritarian stirrings with murmurs of proposals that would sanction forms of medical apartheid by denying services to people who refuse to take a vaccine or present their digital health status.
In short, those who claim the mantle of liberal superiority behave in stark contrast to how their rhetorical ideological commitments suggest they should. We surmise, therefore, that the authoritarian personality is not a myth. It just so happens to exist primarily in those who wish to diagnose it in others.
Niall McCrae is an officer of the Workers of England trade union. He writes regularly for various news websites including Unity News Network. He is a co-author, with Robert Oulds, of the book, Moralitis: a Cultural Virus.
M.L.R. Smith is professor of strategic theory at King’s College London.