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The Left and Authoritarianism
Why I disagree with Eric Levitz
Yascha Mounk has initiated the Persuasion project, which I have subscribed to and suggest you check out, because I think it—or something like it—is necessary. Eric Levitz has already written a piece for New York magazine decrying it, but his examples and reasoning process end up demonstrating the need for such a project.
What project exactly? That very question is part of the reason why such a project is necessary. Mounk talks about philosophical liberalism and a free society, but in the inaugural town hall talked about how those terms have their limits. He notes—and I agree—that “The primary threat to liberal democracy is posed by the populist right.” However, the big caveat that this is not just a right-wing problem. And that idea—that there’s a tendency on the left that needs to be combatted—is what Levitz objects to.
While Levitz perfunctorily acknowledges there are some illiberal tendencies, he asserts, “The idea that The Nation is sympathetic to authoritarian leftism, meanwhile, is facially absurd, while the DSA’s commitment to democracy is reflected in both its name and tactics.”
Let’s unpack that.
While not decisive, the reference to “Democratic” in DSA’s name is not really a strong point of evidence, since anyone familiar with the new wave of active DSAers would know it’s common to view the past of the organization either with indifference or with contempt, dismissing them as “libs” with a curl of the lip. If it weren’t difficult to change the name and to agree on a new one, I’d bet anything he last convention would’ve in a heartbeat.
Of central importance, however, is that on the most important democratic question facing the country—the removal of Trump from office, the convention mandated that no one other than Bernie could be endorsed, and the national leadership body both mocked impeachment and refused to even consider encouraging members in swing states to vote for Biden. While many, if not most, individual members will likely vote for Biden, I do not know of a single chapter that has taken the position that Trump needs to be removed from office. Saying “I’m for democracy” and refusing to take the most consequential action available to you in its defense is not evidence that there isn’t a problem on the left to worry about.
And this isn’t just a matter of position on how to vote, but how that position is argued for. Jacobin published this piece by one of its staff writers repeating disinformation that Biden is “experiencing rapid cognitive decline.” This is one of Trump’s only attacks on Biden, and when one sees selectively edited videos on twitter purporting to demonstrate this, one can never tell if it’s from a rose twitter or MAGA account.
As for The Nation, some of its own writers and supporters were so concerned about its articles denying that the Russian government intervened in the 2016 election that they wrote a letter to the publisher saying, “To emphasize this particular angle in Nation coverage over the conduct of the Trump administration is a dereliction of our responsibility as progressive journalists.” Lest one think this was just a one-off complaint based on some political disagreement or an isolated event, one should examine Alexander Reid Ross’s thorough review of the pro-Russian disinformation ecosytem here. Note especially:
By building a bridge from the political margins to the mainstream, The Nation continued to make pro-Russia disinformation palatable to larger audiences interested in the merging of left and right. Through [Aaron] Maté,The Nation became one of the last sites connected to the public assertion that Russia did not meddl[e] in the 2016 elections….
Jacobin, for its part, would not want to be left out and wants us to believe the MAGA version of “Russiagate” (now “Obamagate”), which is that “the real conspiracy” is that the Democratic Party and “deep state” colluded with Russia to sabotage Trump (see, for example, this piece headlined “Democrats and Mainstream Media Were the Real Kremlin Assets”). I guess the commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence is a victory for justice in that view, rather than yet another abuse of power and de facto admission of guilt from Trump.
When such views are given prominence in two of the most-read left publications, then I think there’s reason to be concerned.
If Jacobin and The Nation are willing to come to the defense of Putin, is Levitz willing to admit there might be a problem? But we haven’t even gotten to what they do when the authoritarian government claims to be socialist.
Take Venezuela and Bolivia. While both publications publish a range of views—and some invoke that general principle to defend their publishing Trump-enabling disinformation on Russia, I have not found pieces in either defending the democratic rights of people in either state. The DSA’s official statements not only evinced no concern for the democratic rights in either country but expressed solidarity with the authoritarian governments without a word of criticism (on Bolivia, on Venezuela.)
In both cases, the government trampled on the constitution they had created (which had already been changed to give the presidents more power, such that if they had been right-wing, US-aligned governments these same publications would have mocked the US as hypocritical for having such undemocratic allies). Yet it was only the constitutionally-based resistance that these publications labelled as a “coup.”
And this goes beyond just the question of constitutionality. After virtually every civil society group had abandoned Morales—including the main trade union federation—the only institutions left to defend him were the police and military. The military called on him to resign and he did. To call this a military coup by focusing on that fact in isolation would mean the Egyptian military’s call on Mubarak to resign in 2011 was just as evil.
After all, what would it have meant for Morales not to have resigned? Given the split with civil society and his rejection of constitutionally-constrained power, it could only have meant relying on military repression. The parallel here would be Sisi’s massacres and repression of civilians in 2013, which in the course of a few months destroyed the ability of civil society to function. That is what Morales staying in power would have meant and could only have meant. But Levitz doesn’t see a problem that needs to be dealt with when calling for that is a common, if not hegemonic, position on the left.
The role of Russia
While positioned on the “left,” the case of the Morales and Maduro governments isn’t separate from the question of Russia’s global project to undermine liberal democracy. To chose a particularly distasteful example, those three governments all signed a letter defending China’s government’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” and explicitly defended China’s concentration camps as being “vocational education and training centers.” I’m sure the Uyghur Muslims would feel much better if they understood the arguments of the DSA, Jacobin, and The Nation.
Sarcasm aside, the role of Russia is important to understand, not just as an issue in and of itself, but because it’s serving as an organizing center to bring together leftists and rightists to undermine the global liberal order (see this article, for instance, but for more in-depth work, check out Tim Snyder, Casey Michael, and the work by Alexander Reid Ross I cited, along with his other work on this). These aren’t just random twitter accounts or isolated incidences. In fact, someone with these views just led the British Labour Party for four years.
Corbyn and Sanders
If Levitz isn’t alarmed as what some of the left is doing, then I think he should look more closely at Jeremy Corbyn’s record. Corbyn never met an anti-Semite he didn’t like—as long as they said “I’m criticizing Israel”—yet he somehow never found a serious word to say against Syria’s Assad, who actually did to the Palestinians there everything people like Corbyn claim Israel is doing to them. (While it’s common on the left to dismiss the charges about Corbyn and anti-Semitism, I have yet to see a rebuttal to this thorough and careful report: “Institutionally Antisemitic: Contemporary Left Antisemitism and the Crisis in the British Labour Party.”)
And to take just one other example: when Russian agents attempted a political assassination in Britain, Corbyn asked the government if they had sent the poison to Russia so they could test it. When it’s a US or British war crime, Corbyn never demands similar levels of evidence before issuing a condemnation, much less does he demand that they themselves should be the judge of the evidence against them.
This is not the place for a full analysis of Corbyn, but I hope I’ve indicated there are reasons to be concerned. Bernie Sanders is not as ideologically hardened as Corbyn, but displays some of the same tendencies that undermine liberal democracy.
During the campaign, Sanders said that the reason the Washington Post was critical of him was that he criticizes Amazon for not paying taxes: “I wonder why the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why.” He later claimed that they timed a story to make him look bad before the Nevada causes (link). Why they would’ve waited till then instead of releasing it before Iowa makes no sense, but more importantly, he had no evidence or argument to make such a claim.
Many people probably don’t have a problem with him saying all of this, but I think that itself is part of the problem. This generic, evidence-free attack on a media institution undermines democracy. Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead, in A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, do an important job of explaining how such conspiracist attacks degrade liberal democracy. Sanders can so, “Oh, of course I support the free press” but the damage is done. Trust is eroded, and the likes of Trump are further empowered.
Why a project like Persuasion is necessary
Levitz states that “there is no sizable progressive constituency arguing for the abolition of liberal democracy.” I hope I have demonstrated the problem of confining the definition to explicitly advocating the end of liberal democracy, but I do agree that there is no sizable constituency on the left committed to this goal, explicitly or implicitly. But this is exactly why a project like Persuasion is needed, because these other tendencies—illiberal, conciliatory toward Russian imperialism, authoritarian populism, etc.—are increasingly dominant in left publications and institutions despite not having a constituency. Corbyn didn’t win election to head British Labour because he’d pal around with Putin and anti-Semites, but despite that.
I also don’t think he lost because his program was “too left’ or something like that. Levitz interprets Mounk as advocating for “the middle ground between reactionary right and radical left.” Opposing authoritarianism should be a leftist value, but as the Cold War showed, that can necessitate a fight within the left. During World War 2, it was the socialist Norman Thomas who warned against the sanitized picture of the kindly “Uncle Joe” Stalin and warned of Stalin’s imperial designs on Eastern Europe (see Gary Dorrien’s “Norman Thomas and the Dilemma of American Socialism” in Economy, Difference, Empire). And as Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight ably recounts, it was leftists—socialists, former socialists, and union leaders, all committed to the expansion of the New Deal—who founded Americans for Democratic Action to wage the fight against conciliating Stalinism—with the New York Times criticizing their project as unnecessary.
With a global wave of authoritarianism and a global left that inconsistently resists it when it’s not outright defending at least parts of it, I think something has to be done. What does Levitz think?