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Life in Soft Authoritarian Regimes


hqdefaultMuch of my academic work concerns the nature and dynamics of empires. There was a point, during the Bush Administration, when I came to a realization. Whether or not it made sense to call the United States an empire, daily life in was not really all that different than it would be in an imperial metropole.

We consume the news about forces fighting in distant lands as we sit at a coffee shop, drive to work, or eat our breakfast. For those not fighting themselves, or with family fighting, or living in the war zone, the daily grind continues as it always does. We worry about our jobs, our raises, our grades, our next meal, our love life…. Even the latest on the war must compete for time and attention with celebrity gossip, human interest stories, discussions of sportsball, and reporting on the latest ‘event’ movie. The “small wars” of empire become just so much background noise.

Later, when I spent a year working at the Department of Defense, I learned that there was a conscious effort to remind Pentagon employees that yes, in fact, the United States is at war.

It still is.

Which brings me to a terrific post written by Tom Pepinksy—a comparative-politics scholar at Cornell—about the realities of living in hybrid, or soft authoritarian, regimes The punchline: it isn’t all that different than life in liberal democracies. If we don’t recognize that fact, then Americans will be completely unprepared to mobilize against democratic backsliding in our own country.

To begin with, our vision of authoritarian rule is terribly wrong.

The mental image that most American harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision of authoritarian rule has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (and the Second World War and the Cold War), and from a kind of “imaginary othering” in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows.

Still, that fantastical image of authoritarianism is entirely misleading as a description of modern authoritarian rule and life under it. It is a description, to some approximation, of totalitarianism. Carl Friedrich is the best on totalitarianism (see PDF), and Hannah Arendt of course on its emergence (PDF). But Arendt and Friedrich were very clear that totalitarianism is exceptional as a form of politics.

My sense is that this mythology intertwines with another, equally dangerous mistake. That is, Americans believe that, deep within us, lies some kind of special ingredient. This ingredient means that we would never, ever accommodate to authoritarian rule. Such thinking requires us to ignore, of course, our roughly ninety-year tolerance for racial authoritarianism in large swaths of the United States.

It also gets at what makes Amazon’s adaptation of Man in the High Castle both powerful and unnerving. It convincingly illustrates how the vast majority of Americans would likely have accommodated themselves to occupation by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—and here we’re talking about situations somewhat closer to the mythology Pepinsky discusses than to contemporary hybrid regimes. Not a few—as conquered peoples invariably do—would have actively collaborated: some for personal gain, others out of ideological affinity, and many just to protect themselves and the people that they love. Most Frenchmen and Frenchwomen weren’t really, after all, members of La Résistance.

But, back to life under soft authoritarianism:

The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family.* There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. This is Malaysia, and many countries like it.

Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered like Anna Politkovskaya, they are going to be frustrated. Most not-very-vocal critics will live their lives completely unmolested by the security forces. They will enjoy it when the trains run on time, blame the government when they do not, gripe at their taxes, and save for vacation. Elections, when they happen, will serve the “anesthetic function” that Philippe Schmitter attributed to elections in Portugal under Salazar in the greatly underappreciated in 1978 volume Elections without Choice.

Life under authoritarian rule in such situations looks a lot like life in a democracy. As Malaysia’s longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used to say, “if you don’t like me, defeat me in my district.”

Read it, you should.

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  • jim, some guy in iowa

    after reading this it occurs to me that a fair number of people from both the far left and far right- for much different reasons- would say “we’ve been living under a soft authoritarian regime since the New Deal/World War II, and what’s your point”

    • Not uninteresting, maybe, to ask what would follow if that were true, or not true, and what would not follow. Authoritarianism is X, we are X, therefore we live under authoritarianism (The Hunger Games has some similarity to the US, therefore it’s true) is a fallacy. The US is different from Malaysia in a lot of ways.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        well yeah I don’t mean to say they would be right- but I do think that’s what they see going on

        I think what’s next could go either way- probably more likely the hard version but maybe no- so much would depend on whether you could get an Obama/George Washington figure who would voluntarily transfer power or a Castro/Trump (?) who wouldn’t

        • Yeah, I didn’t think you were, sorry if I implied otherwise.

    • Chuckie

      In fairness, because of the joys of America’s just-short-of-explicit racial caste system, vast swathes of Americans have been living in a police state with political repression, forced labor, and assassination of community leaders their whole lifetimes.

      There is an old joke in SJW circles that everyday dystopian fiction can be summed up as ‘what if they started treating white people like they already treat black people?’

      • Origami Isopod


        Or maybe I should have said +1492.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          or maybe whenever the Vikings landed. I was exhibiting some white privilege in the original comment wasn’t I

      • Woodrowfan

        huh, so the goal of the left was to start treating people of color like we treated whites. The right wants to treat whites like they treat people of color.

        See, both sides want the two groups treated alike!

      • CP

        In fairness, because of the joys of America’s just-short-of-explicit racial caste system, vast swathes of Americans have been living in a police state with political repression, forced labor, and assassination of community leaders their whole lifetimes.

        This is exactly why I took no offense at Michelle Obama’s “for the first time in my life I feel proud to be American” moment, even though my politics were much less developed then. I mean, no fucking shit. If you’re black, for most of your history the United States didn’t even pretend to be anything other than an authoritarian regime. In the last fifty years, it finally hoisted itself to the point of giving de jure equality to all people regardless of color, but the de facto application of the law did a lot to contradict that, and for most white people, the former was only acceptable because of the latter (see also the instant losing-their-shit). Obama’s election was, for a moment, a hopeful sign that maybe enough people were finally moving past this. Promptly contradicted by eight years of teabaggerism capped off by the election of Trump.

      • ThrottleJockey

        You mean what would happen if professors wore blackface in front of their students and accused black men of being sexist whenever they got pissed at them???

        Why I imagine someone at LGM would defend them.

    • LeeEsq

      One person’s liberal democracy is another person’s soft authoritarian state depending on your circumstances. A white American who believes somewhat strongly in the idea of law and order, that basically laws should be followed and enforced regardless of an individual’s particular circumstances or the morality/wisdom of the law itself, could see America as a liberal democracy while a person of color would see it as a soft authoritarian state. Like many things, the line could get blurry.

      Even when you aren’t dealing with the big issues of gender, race, and sexuality, people who can not or will not conform to mainstream life can argue that the United States or nearly any other liberal democracy is a soft authoritarian state because living off the grid is kind of hard even if you only consider civil law, regulations, and ordinances. There is a certain amount of social conformity expected to make life function. You can’t do what you will to your property or hunt and fish when you please.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Presently I can’t think of any POC who consider America a “soft” authoritarian regime. A lot has changed since Jim Crow.

        • LeeEsq

          You don’t read some of the other POC who post on this site?

          • ThrottleJockey

            I only know a few of the POC and the only ones who might possibly call present day USA an authoritarian regime is Drex.

            I can’t think of anyone else who would say that and I’m not sure even he would.

      • There’s something to be said for the idea that a lot of Americans are taught in a way that leaves them unable to process the fact that a lot of areas of life are not subject to democracy and public debate. (Who flies the plane.)

        There’s also something to be said, I think, for the idea that the rhetoric around this slides easily into something that can sound like a defense of authoritarianism if the writer or speaker isn’t careful. That pepes pick up that rhetoric so easily is a good enough reason for me to avoid it.

        That it’s also in some sense (weaker than how it sounds) true, doesn’t mean I think the pepes are right that the US should be authoritarian, or that I think various radicals are right that it is (whatever we can do about it), or that I would intentionally appear to be supporting either group. There is really no social situation in which adult humans need to be reminded that we have traffic laws for a reason.

  • Halloween Jack

    I didn’t think that it was a coincidence that I started seeing ads for The Man in the High Castle–which had been out for some time–immediately after the election.

    • humanoid.panda

      Might also have something to do with season 2 coming out though :-)

      • q-tip

        Sometimes an American Nazi is just an American Nazi!

    • Just_Dropping_By

      Uh, season 2 launched December 16, and that date was set several months before the election, so it’s not really surprising that you would have mostly seen advertisements for it after the election regardless of who won….

  • lige

    The title of this post made me thing about Malaysia immediately. It is weird how normal everything seems there but then you meet someone who is about to go on trial for libel or my favorite “interfering with democracy” for giving fairly innocuous comments to a media organization. While I was there last time a bunch of media outlets were literally shut down overnight for reporting on the current Prime Ministers scandals. I don’t think we’re there yet but Trump’s love for libel laws is extra chilling to me after seeing all that.

    • ThrottleJockey

      Throw in Thailand, Singapore and Venezuela while you’re at it. In 2 of the 3 life ain’t all bad.

      • Nick never Nick

        Life in Thailand is only good if you don’t have to participate in the place . . . I got to the point where I couldn’t stand the effects that the Thai government and legal system have on everyday life, and where I didn’t respect the people who participated in the system. I am sure that many of these are based on their authoritarian government, and include:

        – no rule of law, the ability to pay off a policeman is critical to winning legal disputes
        – an inability to have peaceful transfers of power, which leads to . . .
        – an inability to have peaceful elections
        – the use of government power in maintaining the social hierarchy (Central Thai/other Thai, urban Thai/rural Thai, rich Thai/poor Thai, politically-connected Thai/other Thai)
        – civic life that doesn’t include participation in government

        Thailand is NOT Singapore — it is an example of authoritarianism combined with entrenched corruption. Foreigners aren’t affected by it and often benefit, but it has a poisonous effect on everyday life of Thai people. My wife and I were on top of several of those hierarchies, but I wouldn’t have my kid grow up thinking any of them were right and just for anything.

        And no, life still isn’t ‘bad’ — until you get a bug in your bonnet about something that you can’t speak out about, and then see its effects everywhere.

  • Kazanir

    I think reading about the aftermath of the Gawker case and the ongoing Ayaddurai cases (now involving Techdirt) was the thing that really highlighted this to me. We are already in an authoritarian oligarchy/kyriarchy. The dystopian future is now.

    • CP Norris

      Any slave society is a dystopia. (By the squishy metric of “if you didn’t know this really happened and you read a novel about it, would you call it a dystopian novel?”) Jim Crow easily qualifies too. Probably Ferguson.

      Even the really nice democratic socialist parts of Europe are a bit like the Panem Capital.

    • ThrottleJockey

      Gawker lost a lawsuit to a private party for having horrible judgment and no morals. The government per se had nothing to do with it.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      I think reading about the aftermath of the Gawker case and the ongoing Ayaddurai cases (now involving Techdirt) was the thing that really highlighted this to me. We are already in an authoritarian oligarchy/kyriarchy.

      And what would be your solution to the Gawker and Techdirt cases? Because I can tell you right now that pretty much anything you propose (damages caps, restrictions on litigation financing, etc.) would be shrieked about around here as wicked and unjust “Tort Reform” if the identical proposals were put forward by an industry lobbying group.

  • Steve

    I understand the point of this article (no jack-booted thugs and running from shadow to shadow to avoid storm-troopers) but for the designated scapegoats of the regime (e.g. LGBT, Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims) life can and will change for the worse…legal rights stripped, harassment, monitoring/arrest, family members deported, (even more) difficult to advance economically/socially, etc.

    This seems to be written from the perspective of an ethnic/racial/cultural/religious majority member or perhaps refers to “soft authoritarian” regimes that are not nationalist in the way the current stream of right-wing populism rising in Europe/US is.

    • Origami Isopod

      Yes. It’s a glaring omission in Pepinsky’s post and also in Dan’s.

      • I thought it was obvious that I was writing from the perspective of the majority. Those facing into the barrel of the proverbial (or literal) gun understand full well what’s going on.

        Note also that while I recognize my enormous class and skin-tone privilege, the last 12 months have been something of a reminder that my own position might be more precarious than I thought possible.

        There’s a decent argument, for what it’s worth, that Nazi Germany wasn’t totalitarian, because if you weren’t a subhuman minority or an active dissident, you got left alone.

        • Part of what made NS totalitarian, surely, was the infiltration of civil society by party cadres, enforcing a party line and a certain broad public stance toward the regime. From what I’ve read, many middle class people were very aware that they had to toe a certain line, because the pressure was present for them every day. This isn’t to exonerate them–just he opposite–the stakes were generally not that high for them to stand apart from the group in minor ways. But the pressure was imposed and increased by a state apparatus.

          • And that’s where the rubber hits the road, analytically. How much did the Nazis tolerate independent manifestations of civil society? I agree with you that they’re definitely on the totalitarian side of the spectrum.

            • That’s also, I think, where the “internal enemy”‘ makes a difference, as well. It changes the nature of the situations where people become aware of the need to enforce the regime’s rules, and of the ways they can display their willingness to do so.

              (Recommendations of books by people who’ve actually thought of this appreciated.)

          • Woodrowfan

            have been rereading Shirer’s “Nightmare Years” He noted how, even in 1934, you had to salute the Nazi banner when SA or SS marched it down the sidewalk or street, even if you were not German. He took to ducking into stores to avoid them.

        • Nick never Nick

          Really? That would imply that the only truly ‘totalitarian’ regimes are places like North Korea, where literally 99% of the population is wretched. I understood the term to be broader than that.

          In response to your larger point, though — in an authoritarian America, or America today, the minorities you mention can get along and sometimes succeed (i.e. kids in good school, good job, house), if they conform to what is asked of them. That’s how I understand authoritarianism.

        • Just_Dropping_By

          There’s a decent argument, for what it’s worth, that Nazi Germany wasn’t totalitarian, because if you weren’t a subhuman minority or an active dissident, you got left alone.

          I don’t think the Nazis would agree with that. While Hitler didn’t personally endorse the term “the Total State,” Nazism was deeply anti-individualist and prescriptivist with regard to cultural issues, education, etc. that fits with the emphasis in totalitarianism on “correct thought” in way that conventional authoritarianism doesn’t.

        • Bloix

          You didn’t get ‘left alone.’ Membership in the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls was mandatory from the age of 10. Your children were taught to (and did!) spy on you. You could not write, speak or possess literature that was any way critical of the regime. You could not write or perform or listen to music, or make, possess or show art that was not in line with Aryan culture – and certainly not if it was deemed to be “degenerate.” All cultural organizations were directly supervised by a state ministry. The press was closely supervised by state authorities – not just to censor them, but to assure that they supported the regime. If you played soccer you played it with a Nazi soccer club. If you sang in a chorus it was a Nazi chorus. Your local small business association was a Nazi association.

          Read “Diary of a Man in Despair.” Even a rich man could not manage to be “left alone.”

    • The existence of an internal “enemy” would seem to make a big difference, yes.

      eta Though I assume LGBT suffer the usual oppression in Malaysia as in any other conservative regime.

      • rea

        Malaysia is rather worse than the typical conservative regime on LGBT rights

        • mds

          Yeah, it’s a lot closer to Pence’s desired societal endgame than it is to Trump’s. Or to Theresa May’s, for that matter.

    • Steve LaBonne

      What makes this a really, really important point is that those of us who have little to fear from the regime in the ordinary course of our lives need to be prepared to stick our necks out for those who do.

      • Nick never Nick

        And yet one implication of the post is that one of the problems is that in most situations, the neck-sticking moment isn’t obvious, and the impingements on freedom aren’t great . . . That a lot of what happens is procedural, not curb-stomping, and is set up so that many people become indifferent or complicit.

        • Steve LaBonne

          That’s where having an intellectual and institutional framework for resistance is crucial. Being a Unitarian Universalist is what provides that for me. My congregation will be stepping up its existing efforts in areas like immigration justice and racial justice, and is considering how to provide sanctuary (a word that features prominently in our recently revised mission statement) when called upon to do so.

    • NewishLawyer

      In Singapore, male homosexuality is still technically illegal and there is no such thing as gay marriage. However attitudes towards homosexuality seem to be liberalzing. There is a gay neighborhood. My girlfriend’s cohort finds the laws against homosexuality to be absurd. On the other hand, I don’t see them really agitating to get rid of them and the Singaporean attempt at getting their version of Lawrence v. Texas failed.

      • LeeEsq

        A lot of Western small-d democratic politics can be described as rights agitation. Different groups from all over the socio-economic spectrum agitate for their rights as they see them. Women, people of color, members of the LGBT people, and even wealthy people that don’t want to pay their taxes are agitating for their rights. This types of rights agitation does not seem to exist on the same level in East Asian countries.

    • ThrottleJockey

      If family members deported is a significant marker of an authoritarian regime then Obama is among the most authoritarian presidents in our history. It was immigration activists who called him the Deporter in Chief. He deported more illegal immigrants than any president in history.

  • keta

    It’s not authoritarian if it’s your guy doin’ the authoritarian’.

    Just ask the Trump supporters.

  • Cheerfull

    I have been reading lately some of the Letters of the Younger Pliny, and his recounting an otherwise ordinary existence of the Roman upper class – trials in the senate, trips to his country estate, reviews of poetry, helping friends with jobs, interspersed by occasional obligatory references to the Beloved Emperor, and noting how not long ago various of his friends had been killed by Nero and Domitian. Soft authoritarianism seems to have been the highest aspiration for civilization for a long time. You’d hope though that we could evolve a little higher to democracy and a rule of law that could stand on its own for awhile.

  • Tyro

    The beauty of a possible American transition to authoritarianism is that since we have the belief that America = Freedom, then anything America does must by definition be the freest most democratic thing a country can do and thus CAN’T be authoritarian

    • To generalize what somebody may have said about Fascism, when anything comes to America, it will be called Americanism.

    • Thom

      Plus there is the current favorite conservative line, in reference to the popular vote, “we are not a democracy, we are a republic.”

      • Cheerfull

        I get that occasionally, even from otherwise sensible liberal friends. I resist the desire to yell at them and note that these things are not alternatives. Republics exist as a subset of democracies. And undemocratic republic would be, at best, some sort of federated collection of authoritarian states, something like the old Holy Roman Empire.

        • I think we overestimate the applicability of 11th-grade level taxonomies of political systems and 11th-grade methods of determining the definitions of things. The real world isn’t a quiz with questions like “accurately distinguish these two terms.”

        • gmack

          I think it makes much more sense simply to say that “democracy” and “republican” are polemical words whose meaning is not fixed but instead only emerges in and through specific political battles. We know very well what the Republicans are doing when they make this argument; they’re trying to justify current voting practices that (a) undermine universal suffrage through voter suppression tactics, and (b) ignore the outcome of majority voting through such mechanisms as the electoral college, the Senate, and the organization of Congressional districts. We don’t need a complex theoretical taxonomy of regime times in order to understand and contest those arguments (indeed, I think the theoretical arguments are distractions: no one’s mind will get changed if we can prove, for instance, that republics are subsets of democracies).

          Having said that, let me indulge in my political theory geekery for a moment: historically speaking, there are a great many political thinkers who have distinguished between democracy and republics. The distinction is made on the grounds that republics refer to in general to the idea of the rule of law, or a system of governance in which no one person or group can be identified as the dominant power/sovereign. Democracies, by contrast, are usually understood as forms of government in which the majority rules; that is, the difference between a monarchy and a democracy is simply the number of rulers (and they are both distinct from republics, the argument goes, because in a republic there is not supposed to be any single person or group ruling; instead, the different elements of society all have representatives that “check and balance” one another). Since the poor are usually the majority, it is often associated with rule of the poor (which is why democracy is often associated with demagogic populism; stretching all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, many political philosophers have argued that democracy ultimately leads to the rule of the tyrant). The people who wrote our constitution seemed to have some basic sense of this distinction, and many of them explicitly argued against “democracy” as a suitable form of government.

          • LFC

            A obvs. point but still worth making, if it hasn’t already been made in this thread, is that the U.S., by fits and starts and w backsliding as well as forward progress, has evolved in a progressively democratic direction since the early republic. In non-chronological order, one can cite enfranchisement of women and African-Americans, abolition of property requirements for voting, and direct election of Senators.

            In this context, whether the Founders thought of themselves as republicans, democrats, or some mixture of the two (and as I’ve had occasion to note before, the full name of Jefferson’s political party had *both* words — ‘democratic’ and ‘republican’ — in it) is relevant to scholars of the history of political thought, but not quite so relevant to the question of how U.S. political development has occurred over time and what the present character of the polity is.

            (p.s. And the recent death of Joyce Appleby is a reminder of how lively the debates about liberalism and republicanism in the early U.S. were, and I guess in some scholarly circles still are.)

            • LFC

              In the above comment, I’m talking about the formal features of the pol. system; the question of how *substantively* democratic the system is — i.e. how much influence ordinary non-rich voters have on public policy — is a separate one, and on that question recent research suggests the system has strong tendencies toward ‘oligarchy’.

  • NewishLawyer

    This strikes me as exactly right. My girlfriend is from Singapore which strikes me as the very definition of quasi-Democracy/soft-Authoritarian regime.

    I don’t know how I would describe Singapore’s government. There drug policies are much stricter than those of the United States. When it comes to free speech, political dissidents are still occasionally punished and/or driven to bankruptcy. Freedom House’s report on Singapore gave an example of a teenage blogger required to do 2-weeks of psychological counseling because he or she criticized Lee Kwan Yew at the time of Yew’s death.

    On the other hand, life in Singapore is very much what you describe in the post. People go to work, hang out with their friends, shop in an abundance of consumer goods, etc. There are stores with punny names, hipster coffee shops and beer bars. Gay neighborhoods. Legalized prostitution (one building has the interesting unofficial name of “four floors of whores.”) The majority of books and other entertainment are or seem uncensored. I went into a small, hipster bookstore that also worked as a publishing house for Singaporean authors, poets, and playwrights. The back cover descriptions could have been written in the U.S. and would talk about the author’s brave stance in describing childhood sexual abuse. Or graphic novels about twenty-something Singaporean slackers who play video games all day.

    There are PSA campaigns about the dangers and immorality of stigmatizing ex-felons too much and how it hurts their families as well.

    So yeah, life in Singapore seems perfectly tolerant and often pleasurable.

    I remember when Lee Kwan Yew died, there were a lot of articles by Singaporeans criticizing Western notions of freedom especially the negative-liberty, mind the risk kind of freedom that is popular in the United States especially among libertarians. One op-ed or interview by a Singaporean said something like “Freedom is the ability to go into a train and not be molested if you are a woman. Or Freedom is the ability to walk in any neighborhood at any time of day.” I suppose the American stance would call this safety and not freedom.

    • SIS1

      The very concept of “Freedom” is problematic: the concept fundamentally is all about being unconstrained, but constraints exist for all sorts of reasons.

      For example, liberals are big on constraining individual’s ability to exploit or denigrate other individuals (for example, fighting sexual harassment) because to us, its clear that i is wrong for one individual to be able to use their individual powers to constrain another individual. But for many conservatives, this is clearly an assault on individual freedom – the ability for the rich and powerful to use their riches and power as they want.

      You differentiate safety and freedom, but safety concerns most definitely affect freedom – fear can be a cage, and if you don’t feel comfortable being able to go outside, your freedom is being affected. The inherently nebulous nature of the concept of “Freedom” allows it to be used in so many ways.

      • LeeEsq

        Even in ordinary matters, freedom is subject to constraint. You have to drive safely, you can’t listen to music or TV in your home as loudly as you want so you don’t disturb neighbors, etc.

        • SIS1

          Even in ordinary matters, freedom is subject to constraint. You have to drive safely, you can’t listen to music or TV in your home as loudly as you want so you don’t disturb neighbors, etc.

          That is incorrect. Have you driven or been driven extensively in other countries? Cause I can from experience tell you that in a lot of third world countries driving “safely” is not only completely optional, but frowned upon because the person doing it is the sucker.

          Ditto for the whole “disturb” the neighbors bit. You are making social assumptions that don’t in fact carry to all other places. Its certainly deeply frowned upon to start shooting in the air during a celebration in the US and other countries, but there are places where this is common.

          • LeeEsq

            I thought it was perfectly clear I was talking about developed countries in my comment.

            • Nepos

              So southern Europe isn’t developed? Because dear lord, driving in Italy or Greece can be terrifying.

              Your cultural bias is showing. “American” is not a synonym of “developed country.”

            • SIS1

              With what words? Nothing in your post whatsoever made any mention of any particular place of the world.

              An attitude that things are somehow different in “developed” countries is just the kind of attitude that needs to end.

          • delazeur

            I assume that social constraints are subject to culture. The things that are frowned upon in Western societies (e.g., line cutting), are not necessarily frowned upon in other societies (e.g., queuing is not a thing in mainland China). Other things are subject to social constraints in those cultures, which may or may not also be frowned upon in Western culture.

            • Mellano

              Heck, add la douce France to the list of countries where queuing isn’t enforced strictly, the origin of the word notwithstanding.

        • LNM_in_LA

          Like this guy?

          . . . and I LIKE Chaka Khan.

          Actually, I (unfortunately) also know the guy who is the subject of the article. Who is a wonderful example of the need to allow the State to enforce constraint on some behaviors of the People at some times. The poor neighbors (neighbours?) we’re going through some tough personal times, and then this guy started playing his records at full volume all through the night. The guy is a complete … idiot … consumed by drink, a wet brain.

          It’s a weird example, yes, but without the police in this instance, the solution could have been a cricket bat landing upside this guy’s head. Oh, wait, if I had been his neighbor it would have been a baseball bat landing on his stereo.

    • wjts

      One op-ed or interview by a Singaporean said something like “Freedom is the ability to go into a train and not be molested if you are a woman. Or Freedom is the ability to walk in any neighborhood at any time of day.” I suppose the American stance would call this safety and not freedom.

      Cf. Aunt Lydia’s lectures on “freedom from” and “freedom to” in The Handmaid’s Tale. Though “freedom” isn’t always exclusively “freedom to” in the American mind: Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms were two of each.

      • NewishLawyer

        Haven’t read that book yet but more or less. The big issue is that the United States is heavily based on concepts of negative freedom. Liberals have been trying to make the case for positive freedom since FDR (especially his Economic Bill of Rights) but have been largely non-successful.

        I have to admit that Lee Kwan Yew massively raised the standard of living in Singapore.

        • Domino

          I keep going back to this quote from that Bourdain interview:

          I mean, you would think, Gee, with all these great travel shows on, there are plenty of opportunities to see how other people live. But you know something else travel has taught me: People rise up and kill their neighbors all the time. People they’ve lived with their whole lives, yesterday they were fine, today they’re the enemy. You’ve seen it in Yugoslavia, you’ve seen it in Borneo. Now you’re seeing it here. So, I don’t know.

        • ExpatJK

          Indeed. I have spent maybe 1 month – 2 months in Singapore, and the difference in standard of living between Singapore and Malaysia is striking. This is even more so when you consider that Singapore may have wound up as part of Malaysia.

          • NewishLawyer

            I’ve spent just under a month in Singapore. Singapore was briefly part of a federation with Malaysia but were expelled in 1965 because of ethnic tensions between the Malays and Chinese. Something that continues to this day in Malaysia.

            Lee Kwan Yew is an interesting figure. From what I’ve read, he started out in public life with a reputation as a left-wing lawyer but it is hard to know how long a game he was playing and/or how sincere his early left-wing convictions were. The PAP started out as a leftish party but Yew admitted in later years that they needed to find a way to make sure people did not turn to Communism.

            I think Lee Kwan Yew’s vision of an independent Singapore was a bit civil liberties lite because he wanted to find a way for very different cultural groups (Chinese, Indians, Malays, Buddhishts, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims) to get along and not riot.

            So they had a bit of what Arendt called the “social problem” along with more poverty. Perhaps the American Revolution was allowed to be about “liberty” because Colonial America did have a good deal of prosperity that other nations lacked. Not for slaves but for the everyday citizen in many ways. The poorest non-slaves in America were better off than the poorest of France.

    • Tyro

      The frustrating thing about the recent US election is that it effectively provides ammunition for quasi-authoritarian regimes to justify why western-style democracy is a bad idea. For a long time to come, advocates for these authoritarian systems of government will point to Trump’s election and the clusterfuck it created as an example of why their own systems are superior, and a large amount of the population will see the “wisdom” of their arguments.

      • NewishLawyer

        That’s always the danger in a western-style democracy. I’ve gotten into debates with my girlfriend about Fox News. She dislikes it as much as I do and finds it irresponsible but to her it becomes a problem with the First Amendment and the need for a paternalistic gatekeeper.* My view is that paternalistic gatekeepers might be well-meaning but they can have their own biases and needs that play out at a higher order.

        The First Amendment might lead to bad speech but the alternatives are worse.

        *The worst part of Singaporean paternalism is how they handle gambling. There are two Casinos in Singapore. Singaporean citizens need to pay a 100 dollar entry fee or a 2000 dollar annual fee. Non-Singaporeans get in without an entry fee. This is how you have all the benefits of legalized gambling without any of the negative social costs. My view is that you accept the good with the bad or you don’t have gambling. This might be a very American view though.

        • Interesting. In Victorian times, the rich would have been permitted to gamble, on the principle that if they got out of control, society and the state had tools to punish them, by loss of standing and status, that couldn’t be used on the poor (because what did they have that could be taken away by social pressure?).

          Singapore’s solution unifies the demands on the nation by creating an escape valve of inviting foreigners in to pay for the privilege of displaying their immorality.

      • farin

        Which surely is part of Putin’s goal in backing anti-liberal candidates like Trump and the AFD.

  • SIS1

    I grew up in such a soft, authoritarian place in the 1980’s (Panama) and having lived there, the ridiculous image of what living under such a regime that Americans have has always been a source of amusement, if that is the right word. There can be moments of obvious repression, but most of the time people simply live just as they live here. Most individual avoid or hate politics even in this country and if you do avoid political action, the authorities generally have no reason to do anything to you. Its a waste of their limited resources to even try.

    And as for the comments about being a repressed minority – we have a clear example from the US about how such soft authoritarianism works for such a community – the South from 1877 to 1965 for African-Americans. There is constant, every day humiliation, but clear, violent repression is not constant – it comes in bloody spurts.

    • Nick never Nick

      I think you imagine the American South as more benign than it actually was — the point of the post is that most people live their lives normally in an authoritarian regime, and that simply wasn’t true for black people in most of America, prior to the 1960s (and there will likely be a debate here about whether it’s true today — I would argue that today what you say is more likely to be so, but there will be disagreement).

      • Steve

        Herrenvolk democracy….it is simultaneous a rather hard authoritarianism for outsiders and a rather pleasant, free experience for insiders (unless they try to disrupt the relevant part of the system).

      • SIS1

        I think you imagine the American South as more benign than it actually was

        And I would say you are incorrect about that notion.

        And I think your statement shows that you aren’t getting the reality of the OP’s point. Most African-Americans did in fact live “ordinary” enough lives even in the South during Jim Crow. They had their own struggles and own communities – they had stores, and lives, and personal victories and travails, etc., which is exactly why I used it as a ready made example from the US itself.

        • Nick never Nick

          The fact that they had those things shows that they weren’t living ‘normal lives’ — they weren’t able to interact with the institutions of larger society.

          The examples of ‘soft authoritarianism’ given here are Malaysia and Singapore. In those countries, will an Islamic man be burned to death, beaten, or hung for smiling at, flirting with, or marrying a Chinese woman? Under soft authoritarianism, normal everyday interactions don’t carry the risk of mob (or official) violence.

          • Most people before the mid 20th century almost never interacted with “the institutions of the larger society” and didn’t suffer from that fact.

            • Nick never Nick

              Elementary schools? Drinking fountains? Buses? Sidewalks that they could walk along without stepping aside for a white person? Parks? Banks that give them bank loans?

              • The normal way of life for most people for millennia was to work hard, enjoy time with their family and a small social and maybe religious set, get very little education, never go far from home, and stay out of the way of people with power, who had no effective constraints on their behavior.

                To suggest that poor people were disadvantaged by their not being able to learn long division, which could not make their lives better, is condescending. The imposition of a system where education and contact with other levels of society could help black Americans is an advance but its absence has usually not been felt as harmful by the people affected until it is a real option–after it was seen as such, I agree, its loss was felt.

                You can say you do believe everyone should be incorporated into the larger culture, in a way that includes, say, long division or home ownership or whatever, but that is not the same argument as saying people whose culture doesn’t value long division will be unhappy about it.

                • Nick never Nick

                  This is deeply silly. Is your argument that black people in the American South were happy to be sharecroppers, and never wished that their kids could be doctors, engineers, professors, etc., or take the local government jobs, or simply choose their careers without dangerous social constraints? And it’s condescending to point out that these choices weren’t available to them? Sheesh.

                • Crusty

                  I’ll go further than deeply silly. This is garbage. Just because there were other sources of happiness like family and religion doesn’t mean that people should be denied the opportunity to fulfill their human potential and be forced to accept the circumstances of their birth as their fate.

                  What you’re saying sounds an awful lot like hey, I’ve seen video from inside black churches, they seem like their having lots of fun, ergo racism and oppression don’t matter, they’re having a blast.

                • Sure, the word only makes sense in the modern era. Though possibly it includes a sense where the possibilities of escape from the system, the things Foucault celebrated about pre-modern society–are closed off. Which is also only possible with modern technology and modern bureaucracy and so on.

                  Otherwise, your whole mindset (and mine too) is based on modern liberalism: the idea of movement between classes, cities, urban and rural areas. If people can be persuaded liberal individualism is the enemy, all that will go away. It would seem that authoritarianism would be well placed to convince people not to want that stuff, after they started wanting it in the first place, like pretty much all of us, white or black, now do. And then you will go into those places and you won’t be able to tell if people would want something different if they had a choice.

                • Crusty, give me a break.

                • Oh God I’m convinced. Black people all believe all the things the writers for Teen Vogue do and wish their kids could live in Williamsburg and make artisanal chair cushions. It’s not what I want myself, but who am I to despise the institutions of the larger culture?

                • SIS1

                  I’ll go further than deeply silly. This is garbage. Just because there were other sources of happiness like family and religion doesn’t mean that people should be denied the opportunity to fulfill their human potential and be forced to accept the circumstances of their birth as their fate.

                  What is deeply silly is blatantly ignoring the written record of humanity, which is more than 5,500 years long, and which clearly points to the FACT that the vast majority of humanity that has lived through civilization has in fact lived under some form of authoritarianism.

                  Bianca is pointing out truths, which may be ideologically inconvenient or painful, but truths they remain.

                • Crusty

                  @SIS1, Bianca is not simply describing history, which I do not dispute. She adds a value judgment and turns her descriptive statement into a normative one when she says that it is condescending to suggest that poor people were disadvantage by the lack of education in long division.

                  Here it is, I’m making a value judgement- education is good. Knowledge is good. (A famous college motto). Access to education is good. The ability to expand knowledge is good. Crawling out of the cave is good.

                • SIS1


                  Here it is, I’m making a value judgement- education is good. Knowledge is good. (A famous college motto). Access to education is good. The ability to expand knowledge is good. Crawling out of the cave is good.

                  I personally completely share that value statement. I also, personally, accept that many people (possibly most) DO NOT, and that those people are just as much part of the commonweal as I am, and their desires also shape society.

                  Most people are content with having a small bit of the world, and living in it without constant harassment. Yes, its a limited (and limiting) view, but its what has allowed authoritarianism to be the default setting for human civilization. And we should never forget that – the modern Liberal Democratic regimes are the exception, not the rule.

                • random

                  The norm for human beings for millenia is that they mostly survived and prospered by being part of larger social orders capable of farming and storing crops at scale, maintaining currency, sharing a common language and religion, surviving natural disasters, building structures and repelling invasions by other large societies of humans.

                • random

                  Which is also only possible with modern technology and modern bureaucracy and so on.

                  Bureaucracy is several thousands of years old, it’s not at all a modern invention.

                • veleda_k

                  To suggest that poor people were disadvantaged by their not being able to learn long division, which could not make their lives better, is condescending.

                  Well, this is a bunch of bullshit. To belittle the fight for education is to insult everyone who risked their lives for a chance to learn, from the Little Rock Nine to Malala Yousafzai. But hey, how would math skills benefit the unenlightened unwashed masses anyway? That’s for fancy folks.

                  Look at these sweet, simple people. Do they really need education? Or are they simply being brought down by long division?

                • Ronan

                  Wrong place

              • For that matter, I don’t think it’s unfair to point out that there were very few buses in the South before the mid-20th century.

                • Woodrowfan

                  Um, no. Public transportation (trolleys, buses, trams, etc) were common in urban areas. Richmond Virginia, for example, had the first US electric streetcar system in the 1880s. Interurban trains were also pretty common that connected small towns to larger cities.

                • Oh, dear, you not only just refuted ALL my points, you also proved that all the evidenceless moral claims “random” and other authoritative commenters made were true!

                • random

                  Bianca is not simply describing history, which I do not dispute.

                  I may be misunderstanding, but it sounds like Bianca believes that prior to around 1950, human beings typically existed in tiny isolated tribes that had virtually no contact or political affiliation or trade with each other. Each apparently had their own totally local home-grown religion, language, currency, and laws, with cities and nation-states having almost no influence over rural communities.

                  That’s really not terribly accurate.

                • LeeEsq

                  Well, yeah. Busses didn’t exist. Trains and trolleys did. They idea that most humans were very sedentary before the advent of the automobile and airplane is just one of the most persistent myths out there. Humans have been moving around quite a bit from the time we evolved. No country in North or South America would exist without large scale human migration over great distances.

                • random

                  For that matter, I don’t think it’s unfair to point out that there were very few buses in the South before the mid-20th century.

                  Oh they didn’t even have the wheel in the American South for thousands of years. They still had fairly far-flung empires and the rural people did not live a life of blissful disconnect from the urbanites.

              • Nick never Nick

                r.e. Crusty — yes, this is basically the same as saying that the poor people in India look so spiritual, let’s celebrate their lives and put pictures of them on calendars.

                Edit: sorry, intended for the subthread above.

              • gmack

                A general observation: we don’t need to go back to the history of Jim Crow to worry about soft authoritarianism in the U.S. As should be by now abundantly clear, many inequalities and authoritarian tendencies exist in the present. Millions of Americans live in highly segregated neighborhoods, in terrible poverty, with little access to the “main institutions of American life” (official institutions of education, jobs, or social advancement; unofficial ones are a different matter, of course). They live under threat of more or less arbitrary police violence with precious little recourse. And here’s the thing: we–all of us–have lived with this authoritarianism for a long time; we’ve tolerated it. We’ll post about it on blogs or social media, and maybe we’ll do a little more. But by and large, it’s just normal, boring, and tolerable.

                It only ceases to be this when there are political movements (e.g., Black Lives Matter) that no longer find stuff like this tolerable. Then, and only then, does the “normal” practice of life and rule become questionable and abnormal. It is only then, in other words, that inequality and domination become genuine political problems that others must respond to. In this sense, I think bianca steele is broadly correct: there is nothing inherent in the human condition that makes inequality and domination intolerable; under most conditions, they are taken for granted as “given,” as just the way the world is. They become intolerable–and potentially open to challenge and transformation–only through concerted action. And only then do we see whether we’re living in an authoritarian regime or whether instead there is sufficient commitment to liberal democracy to respect such dissent and have it actually change existing practices.

            • random

              Most people before the mid 20th century almost never interacted with “the institutions of the larger society”


              • What are you defining as institutions of the larger society?

                • Nick never Nick

                  Why don’t you define the institutions that black people didn’t mind being excluded from?

                • random

                  You’d have to come up with an extremely contrived and artificial definition in order to make your sentence true.

                • No, because I suspect you’re defining “larger society” in an ethnocentric, antipluralist way, so anyone who thinks it’s okay for people to disagree with you is excluding people from “the larger society.” That combined with an extreme defense of liberal individualist social mobility is not a good look.

                  And it won’t become a good look by claiming people of all races and backgrounds agree with you when they’re educated properly.

                • Nick never Nick

                  Except no one has claimed that — we’re arguing that excluding people from most opportunities society offers is more than ‘soft authoritarianism’. You’re claiming that they don’t want those opportunities, which goes a lot further towards imposing your views on strangers than anyone else is doing.

                • You aren’t “arguing” at all. You’re making disconnected statements that create an appearance that you have an argument you’d provide if someone actually important asked for one.

                  Have you posted a single comment to me that didn’t consist of derailing my own argument by attributing beliefs to me don’t have but that I’d have to refute?

                  eta and I forgot. I don’t believe people don’t want better things. I don’t believe black people in the south didn’t perceive their oppression. I do believe, however, that poor and working class people generally don’t want their kids to have ideas about a future that’s unrealistic. Maybe you are working class and always knew someone would pay for your Ph.D. if you deserved one. If so, good for you.

                • random

                  No, because I suspect you’re defining “larger society” in an ethnocentric, antipluralist way

                  It really doesn’t get too much less anthro-centric than graph theory and my definition considers equally the Mayans, the Han dynasty, the Mound-Builders, the American colonies, the ancient Egyptians, the Sioux, etc. etc.

                  Human beings going back for thousands of years now have typically existed in communities with extensive ties to a larger social order, even in places where they didn’t have the damn wheel. They generally share common language, technology, religion, political affiliations, military interests and organization, etc with large populations of individuals that they never came anywhere near meeting in person.

                • Ronan

                  “Except no one has claimed that — we’re arguing that excluding people from most opportunities society offers is more than ‘soft authoritarianism’”

                  Nick, you’re missing the point. The soft authoritarianism of the post applies to how *the majority* can go about living their lives under such conditions. It implicitly excludes outgroups (such as ethnic minorities or political dissidents) who live under harsher conditions.
                  Jim crow south is a perfect illustration.

              • veleda_k

                Next we can argue that medieval Jews never really minded living in ghettos, because they weren’t going to interact with “the institutions of the larger society” anyway.

                • Nick never Nick

                  I know, right? I feel that this is one of the most asinine arguments I’ve ever encountered on this site — I don’t know if bianca steele is just having a bad day, or if she’s studies so much theory it’s all gone off, but it’s a good example of combining intelligence with fundamental stupidity.

                • You didn’t read what I wrote, and Nick’s behavior crosses the line.

            • Woodrowfan

              only for the federal government and even then your date is far too late. There were regional differences and urban/rural differences, but unless you lived on the extreme edge of the frontier,you always had some local law enforcement, the post office, the church, etc. One of the lessons I try to get across in my frontier class is how even on the frontier you were subject to, and generally benefited from, the US government. If you traveled on the Oregon Trail it had been cleared in large part by the Army, and had Army posts along the way. You filed land claims with state or federal (territorial) government offices. If you went part of the way on riverboat, it’s boilers were inspected by government officials and the Corps of Engineers cleared the river obstacles. Who cleared the Indians for you? The US Army. Earlier on who ran trading posts? The Army. If you were a vet you got a pension and maybe some land. Law enforcement, local, state/territorial and federal moved quickly into new settlements.

              Of course if you lived in even a small town there were state and federal laws and representatives such as those who regulated land claims, wills, voting rights, basic property rights, courts, the Post Office, created the roads, set up public schools, etc.

              Unless you were a fur trader in the early 1800s living alone, or in a small group, or with your (likely Native) wife, you ran into some level of government, often federal, a lot more than modern Americans assume.

          • SIS1

            The examples of ‘soft authoritarianism’ given here are Malaysia and Singapore.

            Those are YOUR examples, not the only examples, by far.

            And there are plenty of places were you might see people trying to do mix couples incurring the wrath of a “mob” just as you would have in the south. Places like India and Pakistan still see communal violence when mixed couples are involved, and India is a democracy and Pakistan a soft authoritarian place. The fact that such violence doesn’t happen in the two very limited examples you used have more to do with the inter-communal relations of those two particular places and the strength of central governance than it does with teaching us any universal lessons about how most people actually live.

            • Woodrowfan

              or places in Africa where GLBT persons can be attacked.

  • Nick never Nick

    This is a great post — and it might explain one of the differences I felt when I emigrated from the United States to Canada. In most respects, life is totally the same — but in a way that I simply can’t really describe, living in Canada lacks the sense of background tension that I felt living in the United States. Here are some examples of what that is:

    – cops smile at you and are relaxed — when I rear-ended an off-duty cop, and saw someone on the job who looked like her, I just shouted “Hey, was it you I hit with my car a couple months back?” and she just laughed and said “Nah, someone else.”
    – when something like a suspect police shooting happens, the investigation tends to be immediately announced and by a semi-outside body; charges are regularly brought against cops, and they are brought again and again if possible (the prosecution is serious about it).
    – when something happens that violates political norms (here in Alberta a few weeks ago a crowd started chanting ‘lock her up’ r.e. the socialist premier), the pushback is immediate, polite, and from all ends of the political spectrum.
    – bureaucrats are polite, and are treated politely; but there is also an expectation that people are entitled to services from the government.

    It all adds up to a sense of less aggression in society, and the feeling that there is a community, both private and civic, that listens to the individual and respects and defends their autonomy. If you actually asked me what was different, day to day, from the US., it wouldn’t be much — but the expectations that people have for interacting with, or simply hearing about, the larger society, are much gentler.

    • Steve LaBonne

      I know what you mean. Whenever I cross the border I have a sense that I am temporarily existing in a civilized country (and I don’t look forward to coming back). The risk of losing that example next door is what troubled me deeply about Harper and made me rejoice at seeing him clobbered in the last election. Thank goodness the Grits finally got their shit together.

    • kateislate

      I know you know you are generalizing, but even then, this applies basically only to specific classes of people. Most First Nations’ folks would not experience many or any of your examples (regardless of other status markers).

      We’re also not doing great on the things ‘like a suspect police shooting’ – charges may be brought in many cases of shooting (although I don’t know if I would say ‘regularly’) but for some reason we are very comfortable with the cops beating people to death with no consequences.

      • Steve LaBonne

        It’s not that US admirers of Canada (or most of us, at least) suffer from the delusion that it’s anywhere near being a perfect country, and if I had the good fortune to be Canadian I would be agitating about those and other problems. But compared to the incredible meanness that has come to dominate so much of public life here, Canada remains a refreshing contrast.

  • I think our discourse about totalitarianism and authoritarianism is still very tied up in post-WWII thinking. Not not just “Cold War” thinking about the USSR, but that (and focus on dispossession of economic elites there and what it felt like subjectively for elites, in our culture) and also the Holocaust, the fear of European domination by Germany, possibly the sense that one of those two models was inevitable given the changes that had become irreversible by mid century.

    On some level we compare everything to those two regimes and we are always relieved that it’s not that bad.

    eta (cross post with NB), “authoritarian” for a lot of people still means just “people who would have voted for Hitler”

    • N__B

      This comment is part of a category that I think of as “the US learned every possible lesson from WWII wrong.”

      • Is it just the US?

        (Certainly German refugees have to be considered as contributing to it at least; I think it’s relatively cosmopolitan in reach.)

        • N__B

          I’d argue that, as a nation, the Germans learned the lesson. And that the existence of the EU in its current flawed but not useless form suggests other nations did as well.

    • Nick never Nick

      Yep — when I was a high school exchange student in Thailand, and first learned about the extent that a government can coerce people in personal life (i.e. what language one speaks, whether one gets to go to school or not), I literally had no vocabulary at all to discuss this aside from the term ‘fascist’, which I understood to be basically any impingement on personal choice, plus and official racial, ethnic, religious, or moral distinctions.

    • Linnaeus

      Because of such historical contingencies, I’m no longer sure that “totalitarian” is a useful analytical category.

    • NewishLawyer

      I think this is true. Another thing that teaches this is fiction. Most fiction on authoritarian and totalitarian regimes goes for the heavy with the protagonists or anti-hereos being part of a resistance cell to varying degrees of willingness.

      • Brien Jackson

        One of the best parts of Season 2 of The Man in the High Castle is how it avoids this. The resistance fighters aren’t noble heroes who are going to overcome the odds: They’re angry deadenders with no real goals, discipline, or moral compass at all.

  • LWA

    I knew a guy who was a Mormon missionary in Argentina during the 1970s.
    I asked him if it wasn’t scary because of the dirty war going on, but he shrugged and said he never saw or heard anything about it.
    But he wouldn’t have, would he? We forget in our fantastical image that the boot of oppression doesn’t fall equally on every neck.
    There’s always a favored in group or disfavored ethnic tribe and depending on what side you’re on, life can actually be pleasant under oppression or hellish.

    • MAJeff

      But he wouldn’t have, would he? We forget in our fantastical image that the boot of oppression doesn’t fall equally on every neck.

      And regimes work hard to make the boot appear to be comfy slippers.

  • There was a point, during the Bush Administration, when I came to a realization. Whether or not it made sense to call the United States an empire, daily life in was not really all that different than it would be in an imperial metropole.

    I came to the same realization round about 2005 when the Iraq and Afghan Wars started receding from the headlines unless there was a particularly big bombing. Now that very few Americans get killed, the wars get even less attention.

    This, from Pepinsky’s post also strikes me as basically true:

    Most Americans conceptualize a hypothetical end of American democracy in Apocalyptic terms. But actually, you usually learn that you are no longer living in a democracy not because The Government Is Taking Away Your Rights, or passing laws that you oppose, or because there is a coup or a quisling. You know that you are no longer living in a democracy because the elections in which you are participating no longer can yield political change.

    The problem with applying this critique to the contemporary United States, even speculatively, is that last sentence. We are in the process of getting a *very* harsh lesson that, yes, participating in our elections does indeed “yield political change”. As disgusting as the rough bi-partisan consensus* on, say, low taxes on the rich and freedom bombing can be, elections have real consequences.

    (*Noting that even on the bad stuff the Democrats are always far better than the Republicans.)

    Pepinsky’s point, that the mechanisms of democracy can erode, is obviously correct. But while I don’t think there’s a “special ingredient” or anything that makes the U.S. immune to it, and we’ve certainly seen a lot of erosion in the last 30-40 years, the U.S. political system has a ton democratic mechanical protection built in. After all, there were elections in 1864 and 1944, and if Trump proves to be a disaster (spoiler: he will) the 2018 midterm could easily yield a Democratic House (Senate map’s tougher, but you get my point). Malaysia doesn’t have anything like that. Hell, Britain (our shared former masters) doesn’t even have anything like that.

    I’m not trying to minimize the serious long-term damage Trump and his allies can do. I just think these kinds of comparisons/descriptions serve more to panic and concern educated lefties than they do to provide useful analysis.

    • vic rattlehead

      I came to the same realization round about 2005 when the Iraq and Afghan Wars started receding from the headlines unless there was a particularly big bombing. Now that very few Americans get killed, the wars get even less attention.

      I was thinking of the continued political popularity of calling for war, and the political risks of trying to stop it, and was reminded of this paragraph in David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln that I highlighted some time ago and just looked up again:

      When someone asked Justin Butterfield, a leading Chicago Whig, whether he would condemn the Mexican War as he had denounced the War of 1812, he responded: “No, indeed! I opposed one war and it ruined me. From now on I am for war, pestilence, and famine.”

      One of the most mordantly funny quotes I’ve encountered in a work of history, and all of Trump’s bellicose rhetoric makes me think about it more often.

    • mds

      We are in the process of getting a *very* harsh lesson that, yes, participating in our elections does indeed “yield political change”.

      The problem that I’ve seen, though, which I think Pepinsky might be getting at, is that there seems to be a tendency for this to be a one-way ratchet. So you have right-wing authoritarians ride a wave of reaction into power at the state and federal level, and they use their levers of power at the state level to draw egregious legislative district maps, enact voting restrictions, abuse their discretionary powers during elections, more explicitly politicize the state judiciary, etc, etc. Wisconsin Republicans took action to make it much, much harder to dislodge them than it was to install them in the first place. Ditto Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas … . Look at all the analyses of how much more of a swing it would now take to accomplish the equivalent of the 2006 Democratic wave. Hell, a North Carolina gubernatorial election “yielded political change,” so the Republican legislature simply colluded with the loser to gut the powers of the governorship. Where are the democratic mechanical protections in that? All those voters in Republican districts voting them out because they disapprove? Add to that the utter failure of the fourth estate to do its fucking job of informing the public, and, well “midterm elections are traditionally bad for the President’s party.” Yeah, how many Democratic Senate seats are we going to lose just because they’re held by Democrats, no matter what kind of shitshow the Trump administration has put on?

  • LeeEsq

    I’d quibble on whether the Nazi occupied part of the United States is soft authoritarian. From my Jewish perspective, it looked like a hard authoritarian state with its genocidal policies. The Japanese occupied part of the United States in Man in the High Castle is soft authoritarian and as long as you aren’t overly political going along with the flow is not unpleasant. The actual form of German soft authoritarians was the Kaiserreich that ended in World War II.

    Most people aren’t that political and prefer a keep your head down and avoid trouble approach to life. If you really don’t have any strong political beliefs and aren’t being targeted by the government than that is how they will go through life in a soft authoritarian state. Once authoritarian states learned that a lighter touch works better in maintaining control, they solved a problem of theirs.

    • Brien Jackson

      I don’t think this is right about the Pacific states. White Americans are second class citizens with no pretense of having any rights, the Kempetai is everywhere, and over the top state violence is normal. Smith doesn’t roundup random New Yorkers when the resistance tries to assassinate him, even

  • Frank Wilhoit

    As so many others have pointed out, the South has been “soft authoritarian” since Reconstruction and most of the rest of the country has been at least since 1981.

    But all of the discussions and examples in the OP referred to a kind of regime that was, at some bottom level, pragmatic.

    We are now coming under the rule of a regime that has no pragmatism whatsoever; no concern with what “works” (except where it is a symptom of expertise and therefore bad); no concern with resource allocation or limitations (see above, re: expertise); no concern with anything other than symbolism and emotional reward.

    This is the real “end of history”, again: not a nirvana in which nothing happens and in which we would be relieved from the intolerable burden of “living in interesting times”, but an inflection point at which historical parallels cease to be explanatory or predictive.

  • ExpatJK

    If the argument is electoral participation doesn’t yield political change, then it seems like many places could be described as authoritarian. For example, Japan, where the same party has mostly been in power since the 1940s. Even when there was a party change in the 1990s, it was mostly people from the old ruling party who had split off to make a new party. I found living in Japan to be very tolerable. There’s space for political dissent, etc, so I don’t know how well this would fit the ‘authoritarian’ label.

    I guess a better question would be, how well COULD electoral participation yield change, rather than DOES it? Going back to Japan, I don’t know of any major electoral participation barriers (though of course they could exist and I just don’t know about them). The US would be closer to authoritarianism on that score.

    • SatanicPanic

      I suspect Japan’s government isn’t authoritarian because society is already so authoritarian.

      • Nick never Nick

        I had the same thought myself . . .

        • SatanicPanic

          That being said, the country is definitely drifting in the direction of the far right. I expect a lot of ugliness in upcoming decades.

          • ExpatJK

            I am not so sure about this. There has been some drift, but even the new legislation re the Self-Defence Forces is relatively mild and does not turn them into a ‘regular’ army in any sense. My view is the biggest concerns are around the ageing population and how to support them, etc. Abe is certainly a rightist, but Japan has had rightist types in power before, such as Kishi (who I believe was in Tojo’s cabinet?). If they do go far right, it probably wouldn’t look like the 1930s.

            • SatanicPanic

              Those buses with the far-right announcements blaring don’t scare you? Those things freaked me out.

              • LeeEsq

                Those people freaked me out to but they are and remain a political cult.

              • NewishLawyer

                I taught English in Japan in the early aughts. You could frequently hear the buses and their slogans from my school.

                My adult students always became really embarrassed and apologetic when the trucks were blaring. This was in Kawasaki/suburban Tokyo.

                IIRC there was a right-wing march where the participants stopped to get ice cream. I don’t consider that too threatening.

              • ExpatJK

                Sure, they’re weird, but as others have said this is mostly a fringe thing. My host family was always embarrassed by them.

                Despite the LDP political domination, there’s also some tradition of political dissent. For example: the 1960s protests, the sinking of Kishi’s government over the security treaty, etc.

                I’d say the most authoritarian aspect probably relates to the judicial system. I think the conviction rate is something like 90%?

      • ExpatJK

        Right, but this is kind of what I am getting at. The definition of ‘authoritarian’ here is non-specific enough to make classification difficult. Coupled with the popular idea of authoritarian=Nazis or USSR, this makes it even harder.

        At least in political terms, Japan could be considered ‘authoritarian’ by this metric, but less so on other metrics.

        I would also push back on the idea that the society is so authoritarian. It is in some ways of course, e.g. when I was there I seem to remember regulations around high school uniform skirt length. On the other hand, things like public drunkenness, cosplay, getting completely drunk off your face with your co-workers on a regular basis are tolerated. These things would be very weird in other societies. Certainly in a USSR-style totalitarian society, getting drunk with co-workers could have serious consequences in a way it doesn’t in Japan.

        • Nick never Nick

          With regards to your final point, I really have to disagree . . . In the USSR, group drunkenness, all the way to Stalin’s table, was acceptable . . .

        • LeeEsq

          By the standard of near continual one Party rule, the Nordic social Democracies count as soft authoritarian. Many of them also have a lot of social norms in place to enforce a type of thinking most people on this site would like. It’s a lot harder to be a rightist asshole or Christian fundie and express those opinions openly as I understand? Does informal enforcement of Left-liberal social norms make a place soft authoritarian?

          • Vance Maverick

            This is part of the odd tension in Knausgaard. He makes rather mild right-wing noises in the book (both in his capacity as character and as narrator), but with a manner that suggests he’s being controversial.

          • ExpatJK

            This is what I was getting at. The OP seemed to be suggesting that perpetual or near-perpetual 1 party rule was authoritarian, at least with the example of Mahathir. However, there are a number of other cases, e.g. Japan, Mexico under PRI rule, etc, where this is probably less of a useful descriptor. So I am not sure how useful this classification is.

            • LeeEsq

              Its how rather than how many elections you win that matters. If a party manages to keep winning free and fair elections because the electorate likes them or sees the opposition as bonkers than your not really a soft authoritarian state. When you use trickery and other anti-democratic means to maintain power than you might be soft authoritarian.

          • ThrottleJockey

            If you force Muslim men to watch film out men kissing on order to immigrate sure. Or if you ban hijabs or minarets. Authoritarianism is a type of governance without ideological boundaries.

        • SatanicPanic

          Even that is so regimented though. You can’t just go home after work, you have to go get drunk with your boss and you have to drink everything he sends your way. I knew a lot of oddballs, but I can’t remember ever meeting anyone who wasn’t mostly apolitical. I knew one guy whose dad was a Communist party politician, but even that guy was mostly not interested in talking politics. It seems like weirdness and non-conformity is OK until you start challenging power structures, and I really can’t remember meeting too many people who were interested in doing that.

          • LeeEsq

            This conforms to my experience in Japan. Nearly everybody seemed apolitical. Deep, intellectual conversations were mainly about art, history, and philosophy rather than policy and politics.

          • NewishLawyer

            One of my students in Japan was a member of the Communist Party. She was also a licensed psychologist who worked in battered women’s shelters. I suspect she was atypical.

            But the rest of my students were largely apolitical it seemed. I did have one student who appreciated that I liked talking about social issues though.

          • ExpatJK

            The regimentation aspect is true to some extent. I was referring to not getting in trouble for what you said while drunk, but I take your point.

            I also had a friend whose parents were both involved with the Communist party, although her experience was certainly not the norm.

            In terms of challenging power structures – how many people want to do that generally? I guess I am pushing back on this because I find the definition/examples of authoritarianism somewhat vague, and I don’t know how useful they are as explanatory tools. This is what I’m getting at with the Japan example.

            • mpavilion

              In terms of challenging power structures – how many people want to do that generally?

              I feel like “challenging power structures” (or wanting, pretending, aspiring, etc. to) is a big part of American culture.

  • SNF

    Another common fallacy, which seems to be dying now given recent events, is the idea that supporters of a horrible regime are cruel people in their day to day lives.

    There’s a cognitive dissonance when you see a nice, “normal” person, and then they turn out to believe absolutely horrific things. But it’s quite common. Basically, this Onion piece is very good: http://www.theonion.com/article/aunt-facebook-casually-advocates-war-crime-53745

    I imagine that there were a lot of very kind people, who loved their family members and friends and were always nice to people they met, who were also very happy that Hitler was “keeping them safe” from the Jews.

    • Linnaeus

      Christopher Browning would agree with you.

    • CrunchyFrog

      The term for these people is “Good Germans”.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      Another common fallacy, which seems to be dying now given recent events, is the idea that supporters of a horrible regime are cruel people in their day to day lives.

      I have the complete opposite perception, at least based on hanging out around here. Numerous posters and commenters declare that no individual holds any conservative and/or libertarian belief out of good faith, but instead only hold them out of willful and premeditated murderous malice toward non-white people/women/LGBT individuals/poor people/non-Christians/etc.

  • Actually, given the reduced state of privacy and human rights within which we live; the adoption by much of the populace of devices that track their every move (smart phones) and potentially record their conversations (Amazon Echo, Samsung televisions); the increasing reliance on and desire for devices that think for you (apps, self-driving cars); the information bubble of personalized news content and social media; the increasing difficulty of distinguishing fake news from real; the enormous amounts of big data acquired about people and the actions taken on in, and so on, I think we are much closer to finding ourselves in a soft totalitarian environment than autocratic.

    • the adoption by much of the populace of devices that track their every move (smart phones) and potentially record their conversations (Amazon Echo, Samsung televisions)

      I mean, your phone does that too.

  • tsam

    I think it’s important to recognize the authoritarianism we impose on ourselves and others, without provocation of any sort from any ostensible authority.

    A few examples that prompted the thought:
    The idea that we must restrict birth control or women will be sluts
    Bumper sticker patriotism
    The treatment of Trayvon Martin after he was murdered (the slanderous bullshit intended to convince people he deserved what he got)

    It’s easy for authoritarians to manipulate these insane sentiments to impose their will without sending brownshirts to your home.

  • CrunchyFrog

    I read the article but haven’t read all of the other links. But have a question about one aspect of authoritarian societies that hasn’t been mentioned here: having citizens spy and “inform” on other citizens. To me this is when the day-to-day life goes from acceptable to intolerable.

    We saw some hints that this might be a direction the US would go after 9/11. The “watch what you say” statements from the Bush administration, the banning of certain songs and musicians from radio, the attempts to shame people who opposed Bush and even get them fired. But there was a strong backlash against those kind of activities, and eventually the country went back to a sort of normal state. Youngsters probably don’t remember just how tense things became during the 2001-2004 period in terms of attempted speech restrictions.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      I’m not a fan of the George W. Bush administration, but “the banning of certain songs and musicians from radio” was done by private companies and, AFAIA, was not done in response to any pressure from the government.

      • CrunchyFrog

        Correct. But in authoritarian societies the censorship does not come strictly from the government. There was strong cultural trend in that direction – a trend a lot of people embraced, but fortunately a lot of people also resisted.

        • ThrottleJockey

          But it’s also a consequence if Free Speech. Just yesterday a lot off people here were agreeing with Lemieux that Simon and Schuster shouldn’t publish Milo Pepe’s Alt Right memoir. So is that an example of authoritarianism???

          • leftwingfox

            Personally I think free speech in the market becomes a greater issue when monopolies start to become involved. The more choice there is for alternate outlets, the less onerous private speech regulations become.

            In Milo’s case, there’s plenty of self-publishing options available, perhaps more now than at any time in history, thanks to sites like Amazon. His use of public platforms to directly harass and threaten people (From Leslie Jones on twitter to individual transgender students at college shows) justifies his restriction from those venues he uses as means of attack, and brings into question why a publisher should pay him.

            In the case of the Dixie Chicks, who merely said they were ashamed of their president, found themselves largely banned from Clear Channel, which had a radio monopoly in many major markets.

            • ThrottleJockey

              Authoritarians can come from the left or the right. So we have steer clear of content analysis. That logic will always privilege your view point over theirs.

              I don’t think either the Milo ban or the DixieChicks ban was authoritarian. Neither ban was initiated by the government.

        • Nick never Nick

          I don’t think this is a useful avenue to look at. Take, for example, pornography. Most respectable publishing houses wouldn’t publish it, prior to the 1970s — does that fact make the US an authoritative society? Not at all; but, there might be authoritative aspects of American society that stem from the same impulse that led publishing companies to reject pornography.

          Any limitation on what people or companies do will in some sense be authoritarian — that was talked about above, in the context of Japanese society, which is strict in many senses. That doesn’t mean that those places are authoritarian, it means that they are normal human societies which are not complete anarchy. I’d be willing to bet that the discussion on Simon and Schuster was basically about how society can punish a company that abandons any moral base at all, using the market. That’s not authoritarianism, especially today when Milo can publish his nasty little book on the Internet for free, and anyone at all who wants to can read it.

          • bender

            Respectable publishing houses didn’t publish pornography before about 1960 because pornography was illegal in many parts of the US–I’m talking about words, not pictures–and distributing pornography via the US mail was a federal crime. Allan Ginsburg (and I believe his publisher) were put on trial for a poem.

  • Crusty

    The thing about life in soft authoritarian regimes is that it is a certain way until it isn’t. We like to think that in the more free or democratic or less authoritarian regimes there are structures and mechanisms to that serve to make the freedom and liberty a permanent feature. I think we’re about to test the validity of that belief. One such institution we previously relied on was simply the concept of shame. But apparently, it is quite easily cast aside.

    • SIS1

      “Shame” is a tool that serves authoritarianism just as well, possibly even better, than it serves ‘democracy’.

      • mds

        There’s a difference, though, between “shaming” as a force for top-down social control, and “sense of shame” in the sense that Crusty seems to be using it. A better way to put the latter might be “notions of fair play”? I mean, I think politics in recent decades has verifed that our “institutional robustness” is based on a whole lot of unwritten norms. If you don’t care about violating those norms, and there aren’t enough other actors willing to enforce them, because they’re benefiting from it too, then you can have a problem. See, for example, “Presidents can’t fill Supreme Court vacancies during their last year in office if the opposing party controls the Senate.” Horseshit equivalencies about the Biden Rule notwithstanding, that was a perfectly legal gambit by Senate Republicans that would have been considered beyond the pale not all that long ago.

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