In this episode of the podcast I talk to Professor Emma Bell of Savoie University in France.
We explore the idea of soft authoritarianism, and how this concept can be used to examine British politics in the 20th century through to present day.
Emma is Professor of Contemporary British Politics at Savoie Mont-Blanc University in Chambéry, France. She has published widely in the UK and France on authoritarianism in the British State in journals such as the Observatoire de la Société Britannique, Race and Class, Theoretical Criminology and Socialism and Democracy. She is also a founding editor of the journal Justice, Power and Resistance. Her current research focuses on new forms of democracy and challenges to state authoritarianism.
Emma has written 2 books (links are affiliate marketing):
During the show we cover:
What is authoritarianism? 1940s
Nazis and Stalin as archetypal authoritarian regimes for left and right.
● lack of plurality: one-party states/ no opposition
● shared and enforced ideology
● coercion: totalitarianism
Authoritarianism contrasted to liberalism:
● Absence of coercion: Freedom FROM the State (and others)/ freedom of the individual
● Plurality + democratic opposition parties
Yet, always present within liberalism (rewind):
● Hobbes’ Leviathan- strong authoritarian rule for protection/ Once anarchy is reduced liberalism is more possible: security prerequisite for liberty
● Attenuated under Locke with refinement of social contract theory: right to resist arbitrary power
● But liberty only applied to certain individuals (Domenico Losurdo)
● Mill’s harm principle: broad definition of liberty but he still believes in a strong role for the state in the interests of the moral perfection of society + believes in coercion for those who do harm to others – criticism of the ‘humanity mongers’ who are too lenient on criminals + claimed despotism appropriate for ‘uncivilised’ societies
● New Liberals: strong role for the state + new conception of liberty but still experienced as coercion by syndicalists (criticism from the LEFT) = freedom TO
● Fears that new liberalism (socialism) may lead to totalitarianism (HAYEK)
● Criticism on the LEFT about authoritarian side to the welfare state: Hall’s ‘benevolent dictatorship’ + criticism of moral authoritarianism = move from collectivism to individualism
Response to these criticisms: 1970s
Development of ideas of soft authoritarianism: authoritarianism justified in the name of liberty) = exercise of soft power (lack of political plurality – new consensus/attempt at depoliticisation – but my focus is on coercion/ attack on both negative and positive freedoms):
- more diffuse, exercised via the intermediary of a number of different state and non-state actors.
- less overtly coercive/ tends to be dressed in the language of liberalism and individua l empowerment.
● Right -> promoting liberty and freedom/ Thatcherism following Hayek
○ Economic freedom as the best means of realising individual freedom (consumer freedom through privatisation) + entrepreneurial freedom = following ordoliberals, justified the strong state (Gamble) – tough on the unions – not so subtle authoritarianism
○ More subtle authoritarianism when it comes to cultural change, creating a Vitalpolitik (Alexander Rüstow): creating a legal, social and moral order conducive to economic freedom:
■ Encouraging home ownership/ share ownership – popular capitalism
■ Pushing people off benefits and into the workplace – moving away from the ‘dependency culture’/healing moral cripples (more conditionality in welfare)
● Left: New Labour
○ Moral liberalism (as opposed to Thatcher’s moral authoritarianism, symbolised by s.28): reduction of age of consent for homosexual relations between men/ 2003 repeal of s.28
○ But also a certain moral authoritarianism re the definition of the good citizen:
■ Independent/integrated into the workplace: justified increasing conditionality in welfare – some acceptance of Charles Murray’s moral underclass
■ Law-abiding/ Increased left interest in crime = left realism (but distorted understanding)/ focus on causes of crime = INDIVIDUAL causes = social problems as crime problems (school truancy etc) = coercive social interventions, state intervention into family life etc. / widening of social control by state
■ Obsession with crime: authoritarian populism (already developed under Tha tacher)
+ return to the idea of security as a precondition for liberty: war on terror and development of pre-crime measures
○ Intensification of previous trends but different discourse: increased talk of liberty after Blair years (centralisation of power/attacks on civil liberties etc.) + need to detoxify the party and differentiate it from the Thatcher era = Cameron’s Big Society (transferring power from the state to society)
But in reality, more power to the private sector (creation of new markets in welfare management/ probation and prison etc – with disastrous results!): individuals and local authorities given more responsibilities but not necessarily empowered
Appears to continue moral liberalism (gay marriage etc) but simultaneously more moral authoritarianism: muscular liberalism
· term used to refer to migrants and certainly muscular approach: hostile environment/Prevent a nice example – based on changing values
· muscular liberalism and welfare claimants: increasingly coercive measures to tackle the so-called culture of worklessness
+ classic authoritarian response to the riots/ failure to restore civil liberties after Blair years (TPIMs etc)
○ recent return of penal populism with Patel saying future offenders should literally feel terror/ renewed discussion about increasing sentence lengths etc./ restrictions on early release…
o Development of identity politics, cancel? culture, no dissent on left
o But also, attempt to redefine positive freedom as empowerment:
§ popular control of public services
§ economic democracy
§ political democracy