- Axiomatic disputes doom any revival of premodern authoritarianism today, but that seems to make recent authoritarian movements impossible, which history denies.
- My thesis is that neo-authoritarianism is easier to initiate but much harder to sustain than its premodern version.
- Premodern authority relies upon cooperative institutions nurturing trust in static social conditions; this trust relies upon institutions to deliver mutual advantage in static hierarchies, but change characterizes contemporary Western societies and institutionalism is in decline.
- Twentieth century authoritarians could not revive these conditions, nor could they be revived today even when neo-authoritarians are moved by their invariable failures to totalitarian measures that disdain and destroy trust.
- Persons today subscribe to different axioms of moral commitment requiring a self-agency that is entirely incompatible with a complete submission of trust, so cooperation is always provisional, frequently inspected, and sometimes reallocated, each revocation also a reactivation of self-agency; the entire process is more active than submissive and can be termed “sanction” rather than “trust.”
- Moreover, neo-authoritarians operate in a temporally fluid environment that glorifies the past and disdains the present; it invariably promises a utopian future, but this flux precludes a continuous surrender to trust.
- Fascism in Europe exploited this view of past, present, and future fully whereas communism in the USSR was entirely future-oriented; however, in the recent past, Vladimir Putin has reverted to the model of idealized past, victimized present, and glorious future, as did Donald Trump.
- Whereas premodern authoritarianism used institutions to perpetuate tradition, neo-authoritarians face a complex axiomatic dilemma: appealing to premodernists by promising to revive old traditions and lavishly praising past glories while somehow rejecting the corrupted institutions that allow hypocrisies and present decadence.
- Neo-authoritarians are fully opposed to the informative institutions of modernism because these necessarily invoke the participatory self-agency of individuals and thus preclude the trust the neo-authoritarian requires.
- Neo-authoritarians’ pragmatism and promise to erase old institutions appeal to postmodernists who desire wiping away traditional hypocrisies and corruptions.
- Lacking institutions to actualize promised changes and opposing existing institutions performatively, neo-authoritarians use personal authority as a substitute for institutional authority, capitalizing on their celebrity to accomplish their ends, but this substitution is insufficient to accomplish the radical agenda they promise and so quickly disappoints pragmatic postmodern fans despite the attraction of celebrity; additionally, the axiomatic suspicions of postmodernists involving any use of power will render their support particularly fickle.
- Existing axiomatic contention prompts a deep popular dissatisfaction which the neo-authoritarian exploits by temporal appeals and erasure of institutions; these will sabotage the neo-authoritarian’s program and instill more doubt that shatters trust; soon after being given power, he will see no alternative to its ruthless exercise in totalitarian repression to force trust, which is nonsensical.
- This use of force will at first be applauded by some fans as indicative of his passion and willingness to go to extremes to root out externalized threats, but because it will further instill doubt, tear down institutions, and cause social instability, this raw exercise of power will offer diminishing returns to the proto-totalitarian and will disenchant a large percentage of his supporters.
- One casualty of the totalitarian drift will be premodern institutions, particularly religious ones, which offer both moral and pragmatic objections to increased uses of force.
- On the other hand, pragmatic applications of terror will cripple modernists who might still rely on their institutions to oppose a much more agile foe.
- At some point in the totalitarian crackdown, celebrity will prove insufficient to power a continued fandom, contempt for institutional power will hobble even terrorized foes, and the mass media that created his celebrity will oppose him if it is not suppressed.
- Even if the totalitarian navigates these difficulties, the final institutional problem of succession will remain, for celebrity is difficult to transfer to a designated successor when trust has been utterly shattered at all levels and the institutional competence necessary to fulfill authoritarian promises has been deconstructed.
- The same axiomatic conflicts and shifting temporality that make a revival of successful authoritarianism unlikely today may at some point in the twenty-first century shift so as to make it possible, though it is unlikely ever to be built upon the kind of trust that proved so successful in the past; alternatively, the penetration of world-wide media might open opportunities for a consensual, secular public morality that has so far eluded us.
The goal of all authority is submission of preferential freedom in trust. Until the Protestant Reformation (1517 -1688), the workings of authority were well understood because every exercise of power in civil society depended upon its use. The hierarchical nature of premodern life relied upon a downward flow of power from the Source of all things through civil functionaries who also exercised a diffused clerical role as God’s agents on earth (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). A willing acceptance of that downward flow of power made it all work, but such a submission will be thought by contemporary modernist or postmodernist observers to be difficult to understand and impossible to maintain. This is a clue to the axiomatic shift in thought that makes the premodern world seem so foreign to our own lives (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). When we trace down that clue, we open a Pandora’s Box of twentieth century struggles and confusion caused by and worsening an ongoing moral crisis.
Concisely put, two revolutions of thought shifted the assumptions persons brought to their justifications for any declaration they might think true or good. These revolutions shattered the consensual moral order: the public set of accepted ends and means by which truth is judged and goodness sought. The oldest of these is premodernism, which began its long decline in the Protestant Reformation of 1517 (see “Premodern Authority”). Its axioms of commitment relied entirely on trust in traditional institutions, but the generations-long crises of religious authority that marked the Reformation began trust’s decline (see “Modernism’s Midwives”). The replacement axioms that were finally worked out valued individual experience and universal reasoning to warrant declarations, but for reasons I touch upon below and more fully develop in other analyses, that set of axioms also faced headwinds by World War I (see “The Victorian Rift”). The twentieth century may be seen as a long battle over premodernist and modernist axioms, which produced by the 1970’s a viable third set of axioms to resolve axiomatic inconsistencies and hypocritical accommodations. Postmodernism, whose foundation for justifying declarations championed private experience and private reasoning as axiomatic, struggled to make sense of the public moral crisis, finally articulating its own values set in the 1970’s, and these have thoroughly permeated Western societies (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”).
Today’s authoritarianism is usually seen as a kind of retrospective realization of the value of premodern authority to provide a public moral consensus that is painfully absent today. But I wish to argue that even if contemporary authoritarianism were what its revivalists desire, they would not long accept it for axiomatic reasons they rarely inspect. But if that is true, we have to ask why it was so frequently revived in the recent past. Contemporary unease with trust makes it difficult to understand why the twentieth century has seen more than its share of authoritarian regimes, and why as trust disappears from contemporary life, authoritarianism grows even more appealing in struggling democracies. I wish to argue that recent appeals are fundamentally distinct from our ordinary understanding of authoritarianism both in theory and in practice, and that the same forces that make those appeals popular in our current climate also make their long-term success extremely unstable, especially in comparison to the traditional structures of authoritarianism they seek to reclaim.
To put ourselves in the mind of a premodernist, meaning a person living before the Protestant Reformation (1517 – 1688), requires us to view all social interactions as hierarchical, ordained by God, and essentially static. This was far more easily done in an age when education meant maintaining traditions rather than disputing them. More importantly, premodernists in every society implicitly applied a teleological understanding to their situation, seeing all relationships as ordained by God and maintained by his surrogates. This trust, which thoroughly transfers agency to superiors whom persons consider better able to choose than themselves, relies upon two conditions. First, trust must be continually nurtured by cooperative relationships that allow it to suppress the central human function of preferential agency (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument”). Second, a profoundly conservative atmosphere had to be cultivated so as to allow institutions to maintain the delicate social balancing act of cooperative welfare. Not only did this suppress rivalries at the top of the hierarchy; it also blocked subordinates’ noticing a competitor whose challenge alone must erode their trust and restore their self-agency, either to reallocate trust to their original authority or transfer it to a new one.
I wish to prove that both of these conditions were violated by authoritarian movements since World War I, and that these violations so eroded trust that authoritarians invariably were forced into totalitarian force, which is fundamentally incompatible with any trust at all. This inevitable shift produced nihilism rather than a return to traditional order, and fanatical belief rather than submissions of trust. These differences accumulated to a prescription for moral collapse rather than regeneration, and they cumulatively worsened modernism’s ongoing failure to provide public moral consensus even in what were considered successful democracies. Neo-authoritarianism more than failed to restore public moral consensus; by invariably drifting into totalitarianism, these new authoritarians further damaged the possibilities of consensus in the wake of their failures by confirming postmodernists’ charge that all applications of power are inherently abusive, a charge which has deeply damaged institutionalism in Western life.
For millennia before the Protestant Reformation so damaged social trust in Europe that authority was permanently crippled, an event we know as modernism, institutional authorities took full advantage of the power of social stability to justify maintaining their power. What recommended the hierarchical institutions of the premodern order was in large part the inarguable judgment that they had always existed and so might be expected always to continue. This is not to say that change, even radical change, did not occur but rather that it always involved a transfer rather than a total revocation of trust. Authority changed, but with rare exceptions of anarchy, it nearly always simply relocated. Trust had to be revoked to be reallocated, but so long as theocratic order was the appeal, the resubmission was guaranteed to be seamless because the divine order was still the ultimate, eternal, and beneficent source of legitimacy. A rational justification for granting that legitimacy or inspecting its operation became impossible once trust was granted and would remain unnecessary so long as trust was maintained.
To understand how tradition itself was seen as a reason for trust, we must briefly and broadly review the operation of self-agency. It is in the nature of preferential freedom, which is the invariable activity of the human mind, to examine experience for hypothetical utility. We always seek to exploit our options, to find and use their potential value to our own ends. This hypothetical choosing can be expressed in the form of an if/then sentence in which the “if” clause defines some goal we judge good and the “then” clause the option we subsequently select from present experience as the best means to achieve it (see “The Act of Severance”). Though rarely discursively expressed, we live our lives and form our characters through an endless progression of such thoughts that, if brought to full consciousness, might read this way: “If you want to see what the next sentence says, you will read on past the period that ends this one.” A submission of trust, though, requires a different calculation. It is the very definition of trust that the hypotheticality of an experience is severely reduced. The “if” option is surrendered to the authority deemed more capable to define the good that the beneficiary’s experience might offer. If you allow authority to remove the “if” clause from a hypothetical sentence, you are left with the categorical clause, which then becomes an imperative. Accepting imperatives marks the operation of trust. Preferential agency is reduced to the “then” operation of actualizing the goal authority specifies, and even that attenuated freedom might be surrendered fully in trust, something we might observe in a novice learning a skill from an expert (see “Expertise”). We can fully observe this operation in the trusting obedience of small children who are not given reasons to comply with parents’ directives and are often told how to comply. Children operate in a severely restricted sphere of preferential freedom involving their choosing only whether to obey. But energizing that decision is rarely done because even allowing it to activate natural freedom restores decision-making agency. This voluntary submission of preferential freedom, this inertia of agency, is the meaning of trust. Trust is disrupted when something changes, and every parent of today’s adolescent recognizes when that first happens. Doubt may arise from a sudden familial crisis, but if children are spared that painful event, their own maturation changes their lives by making them aware of their power to direct their own choices. Parents wonder where their cooperative child went during what is often a difficult transition. Today, we regard this process as a natural growth to independence, but this outlook is in truth the greatest bequest of the modernist axioms that emerged from the wreckage of the Reformation rather than an inevitable outcome (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). One reason premodernism seems so remote to our understanding is that we no longer retain the adult trust that characterized the largely stable institutional structures of life before the Protestant Reformation of 1517. I have previously explored in some detail how the categorical structures of religious authority discourage hypothetical reasoning, replacing the “if/then” calculus with a much simpler imperative commandment that conflicts with modernist self-agency (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts”).
There is no doubt that the theocratic nature of premodern societies was largely responsible for the trust that subjects submitted to their rulers at the cost of their own preferential freedom. Nor can we doubt that the repeated crises of religious authority that liberated individual preferential freedom were so devastating to the social order that it took centuries to work out the axioms and warrants that might replace theocratic authority. But winning that self-agency came at a cost. The modernist revolution that began in the seventeenth century failed to provide a public moral alternative to the trust that suppressed both agency and doubt (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”). The greatest casualties of this failure were consensual warrants for public moral goods. Because modernity has waged a protracted revolt against tradition on the grounds of individual self-agency, it has produced a slow-motion deflation of authority. But even in the midst of the campaign, modernists were forced to face the increasingly obvious result of that revolt: their own repeated failures to provide a successful alternative to traditional authority’s power to inspire trust in public order and common goods. The absence of replacement public moral warrants allowed crown, caste, church, tradition and the manifold institutions they dominated to cling to a kind of zombie relevance even in the face of technological revolution, mass communication cultures, and great societal realignments after the Reformation wars. It is ironic that modernism itself kept the old authorities in the game, for it could not articulate a coherent and consensual secular morality while old institutions continued to offer the shelter of tradition in the storm of uncertainty that progress induced. They invariably framed their appeal in moral terms appealing to trust (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). In modernism’s failure to find a moral system conducive to its axioms of commitment, we find the reason that authority took five hundred years to die. We also find the roots of its counterfeit revival, neo-authoritarianism.
By the turn of the twentieth century, modernism’s moral failures combined with institutional authority’s final collapse to produce a full-blown crisis in the West. Because they had been increasingly marginalized by the power of modernism’s greatest products, natural science and popular literate cultures, premodern institutions have fully failed over the century that began with World War I. It revealed their absolute incompatibility with modernist axioms of self-agency. But because they have now been fully smashed, modernism’s failure has been all the more starkly highlighted in Western life (see “Modernism and Its Discontents”). The twentieth century has been given many names: the Age of Anxiety, The Lost Generation, The Era of Anomie. They indict the lack of public moral consensus and its difficult consequences.
In retrospect, it is all too obvious that twentieth century authoritarianism was an anachronistic effort to revive an essential public moral consensus, and this, of course, must rely on a revival of public trust, which in turn would depend upon a submission of the capacity to choose one’s own truths and goods. But this absolutely essential concession was doomed even before it could be asked for, and the resultant neo-authoritarians who pleaded for it very quickly had to adapt their appeals to a far different set of axiomatic compromises that are even more impossible to implement.
Whereas traditional authority relied upon cooperative relationships that emphasized mutual obligation and fixed status among clearly defined social functionaries operating in an intentionally static social context, contemporary authoritarians rely upon a template of exaggerated temporality. And whether it involves present, past, or future, authoritarian appeals that employ a temporal component will stir constituents’ alarm and force decision rather than lull agency. Premodern authority entirely depended upon trust that in turn relied upon continuity and institutional legitimacy. Exactly the opposite reliance has moved recent authoritarians, who have had to make change their friend.
Their first focus is invariably on dissatisfactions with the present. When they first speak to potential supporters, would-be authoritarians must emphasize and exaggerate existing problems with present order. In an age of moral crisis, these are legion. In contractarian democracies, governments are the final arbiters of private hypotheticality, which explains why all public dispute ends in courts. The libertarian impulses contractarian democracies have unleashed have never been harnessed adequately to the public good (see “Two Senses of the Common Good”). Without consensual public goods, private utility governs public discourse, producing moral anarchy and threatening civil order. Anyone who opposes my private interests may be seen as obstacle or enemy easily caricatured and villainized, so grievances are easily exploited by unscrupulous political opportunists. They invariably see their first task as building social cohesion around some externalized threat. Mass propaganda techniques simplify the alienizing of the other while unifying target audiences. This effort — whether aimed against Armenians in Turkey, counterrevolutionaries in the Soviet Union, Jews in Germany, or persons of color in the United States — is a source of friction within societies because it seeks to raise public dissatisfaction with present societal arrangements so as to prompt the changes authoritarians recommend. The social churn this agitation creates is necessarily inimical to trust because the “privileged” population is constantly reminded that the targeted “enemies of the state” are a threat to the social order. And because contemporary societies are truly morally disordered, the danger of such exploitative divisiveness is real even if the blame is misplaced. This would seem to make the neo-authoritarian’s job easier, but the very act of solidifying support necessarily must erode the surrender of agency that defines trust. So the stronger the propagandistic barrage assaulting present societal arrangements, the more cognitive dissonance is created among receptive audiences who are urged both to surrender self-agency to authority and retain it to oppose an increasing threat to their private welfare. We are used to this dissonance. The appeal to trust exploits it, but rather than soothe it, the static thus produced only makes choosing common goods even more difficult.
The neo-authoritarian exaggerates discontent with the present by glorifying a better past and future. Present threat is pitted against past glories and future social perfection. Because it activates the mind to comparative judgments, this obsession with temporality is diametrically opposed to the timeless conservativism of traditional authority that lulled trust and discouraged doubt. Neo-authoritarianism has thrived in an atmosphere of uncertain change, revolution, and defeat, so it understandably promises certitude, millennial peace, and triumph, none of which it can deliver. Its most potent appeal is nostalgic in tone and fulsome in utopian promises because the past in retrospect seems more stable (and in terms of complacency was more stable) and the future in foresight more promising. In sum, we can say with confidence that premodern authority had existed to forestall change, neo-authority to hasten it.
Mussolini revived Roman imperial symbolism to remind the newly-formed Italian nation’s people of former magnificence, the very word “fascist” an allusion to Rome’s symbols of power. His Lateran Pact with the papacy of 1929 finally settled the half-century conflict between Catholic popes and Italian rulers, but at the expense of Catholicism’s moral duty to denounce persecution of Italian Jews. Such an abdication of responsibility was the attenuated finale of religious authority’s thousand-year competition with civil rule for popular trust and its later opposition to modernist axioms. Reading Pope Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus of Errors illustrates just how implacable that opposition was, but it was too late for religious authority’s resuscitation. Pope Pius XI”s humiliation at the hands of the fascists was the final blow of an erosion that had begun with Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas day of 800. It was a continuous struggle over apportioning divine authority between civil and religious leaders, but the trendline generally favored the civil ruler over the spiritual one. It is perhaps best symbolized by Napoleon, the forerunner of later neo-authoritarians, recreating Charlemagne’s ceremony but grabbing his crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII in a too-literal proof of the erosion of religion’s moral force. Like Mussolini a century later, Napoleon could not quite ignore religion’s capacity to induce a surrender to trust, but he could make clear how degraded it had become in comparison to his own popular appeal. What no one seemed to notice was that political authority without religious moral approval could not survive without some reasonable replacement for the moral consensus that religious authority had always provided, one deeply soothing to trust and resistant to doubt because its composited truth and goodness claims are mutually supportive. Modernism’s axioms came at religion’s expense and ensured its final humiliation, but in the absence of that divine surety and modernism’s sorry record of replacing it, neo-authoritarians of the twentieth century often invented a counterfeit, a tribal mythology rich in religious symbolism implicitly competing with established religious authority.
History proved an exploitable resource for jingoistic dictators who romanticized the past to control the future. Marx had envisioned communism as a kind of industrial feudalism, and his affection for a vanishing pastoral existence unspoiled by “dark, Satanic mills” is evident in The Communist Manifesto. Hitler used junk sociology to position “Aryan” Germans as the only European race to have escaped the pollution of Slavic and Roman bloodlines in the Dark Ages, to which he added mythic Teutonic glories of Wagnerian scope. Even today, Putin appeals to the pre-Christian dawn of the Russian nation to remind his people of the glories of ancient Kiev, which he calls “Russia’s cradle.”
What was greatest about these nations’ past was that it was not the humiliating and fractious present. And what made the past great was unanimity of moral purpose. With a new vision, a commitment to restoration in the midst of humiliation, past glories could be revived and even surpassed. Who wouldn’t surrender her will to such a grand vision, especially since no twentieth century follower steeped in self-agency could conceptualize the nature of the surrender?
The nostalgia of twentieth century authoritarian regimes was a romanticized fiction based on lost majesty and intentional deception, but it had real reason to regret the present. Italy and Germany were the last Western nations to nationalize and so had missed the great imperial race of the post-Napoleonic world. They were particularly eager to proclaim their military and historical superiority in the mad scramble for power and prestige that began the twentieth century. War, depression, and national humiliation paid them for their efforts, and their consequences stimulated popular dissatisfaction with political institutions and national shame for the senseless slaughter of the Great War and its miserable aftermath.
Even while saturating fanatics with technicolor nostalgia, neo-authoritarians dangled a perfected future if only partisans might endure a bit more present sacrifice. The humiliations of World War I were a launching pad for the thousand-year German Reich. The new Italian imperium would put Roman glory in the shade, never mind the Abyssinian debacle. Japan would end its embarrassing isolationism and assume its rightful place as the master of East Asia and equal to the West, a claim made explicit in the Meiji appropriation of modernist methods after 1868, presaged in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, and vivified in the invasion of China.
But the most entrancing futurist promises were those made by Russian revolutionaries in the shadow of defeat and German humiliation. They were based on the “scientific socialism” of Marxist class struggle. No one would have been more surprised to see communism take hold in the pre-industrial vastness of Russia than Marx because he had prophesied the necessity of a capitalist stage from which communism would arise. Capitalism, like modernism itself, had hardly penetrated the Russia of 1917. Its native theorists at first had little use for Marx’s nostalgia or any romanticizing of a traditional regime without “land, peace, and bread.” But because Marxism was a Western innovation, adherents initially assumed that any appeal for endorsement of their revolution to Russian farmers, soldiers, and workers would have to be a modernist one, a classic appeal to an informative interaction with political ideas. But these had been predictably repressed by a long tradition of premodernist authority engaging the timeless trust of a long-suffering Russian people. The intelligentsia in Russia had flirted with modernism since the days of Peter the Great, but if social progress was happening over the long centuries when modernism changed the Western world, it was not noticed by the poor for whom, “God is great and the Tsar is far away.” For an agrarian people only freed from serfdom in 1861, trust and resignation perhaps were indistinguishable because both dulled hypotheticality.
The first battles of World War I were fought on Russian soil. If the generations of anarchists and revolutionaries had not revealed the decrepitude of all of Russia’s institutions of authority, Tannenberg and the German advances did. Russian draftees marched to the western front armed with broomsticks and wooden rifles. The slaughter indicted every institution, the Romanov government most of all. It is little wonder that in the midst of a war and an always sputtering economy now choked by war’s demands, revolutionaries found an increasingly attentive general audience eager to transfer trust to a utopian future of comradeship and plenty. But it was impossible to align Russia with the classic Marxist prediction, so the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks condensed the Marxist dialectic to the last phase Marx had predicted: the rise of a cooperative proletariat everywhere in the world, the withering away of corrupt institutions of repressive authority, all to be followed by a perpetuity of peace and plenty.
I will similarly condense the incongruity of pitching a thoroughly modernist scientific socialism to a premodern audience unfamiliar with modernist axioms of self-agency. It was the Bolsheviks who first intuited the disconnect. After the February Revolution had deposed the Tsar and established a democratic Duma, the Mensheviks continued to hawk mass education of the proletariat. Lenin and the Bolsheviks realized that courting a modernist revolution and awakening individual agency would take too long for a nation still at war and surrounded by hostile capitalists, whereas transferring trust could be an immediate and single reallocation. The “bourgeois phase” of the Revolution, aka the dawning of modernist axioms, would have to be abbreviated. In action, it was aborted. To be the self-styled “Vanguard of the Revolution” required ignoring the Russian people’s judgment and instead seeking a simple transfer of trust. Modernism in Russia lasted four months. For the next seventy years, Soviet leaders attempted either to discount or diminish its core axioms so as to soothe the people’s trust. Though their entire project had lost the “scientific” sheen of inevitability (at least objectively if not in the fears of capitalists), “socialism within one country” was cobbled together to maintain popular trust and forestall modernist self-agency. But this effort on its own terms was inconsistent and could hardly be reconciled to the Soviets’ fevered attempt to otherwise modernize a backward state surrounded by enemies. The effort to make the USSR a modern nation built on trust rather than self-agency — later repeated by communist China — was among the most glaring of the last century’s impossible ambitions. It is an effort the West has both feared and attacked with the proudest products of modernist self-agency: democracy and capitalism. Those efforts were aimed at crippling the Bolshevik experiment, but its internal contradictions were crippling enough already. One might wonder how its leaders, so steeped in theoretical calculation, could think it would work.
They pinned all of their hopes of sustaining trust on changing the natures of the persons submitting it. Whereas Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin selectively applied Marxist ideology, they wholeheartedly embraced one central thesis: the creation of the “new man.” Karl Marx considered himself a thorough modernist, a social scientist. His magnum opus, Das Kapital, had sought to explain how human nature had been liberated from the bondage of religion, had evolved self-agency, only to have been enslaved to the new bondage of capitalism. In his view, human nature had first been molded by traditional cooperative arrangements and then again molded by the clear-cutting march of capital. This plasticity convinced him that human nature is entirely formed by economic environment. In the right conditions, it might be reformed yet again by appropriating the means of production, leading to a cooperative environment of mutual sanction and voluntary cooperation based on active endorsement rather than authority. The new man would embrace a new notion: modernist trust. Premodernists were right to feel threatened by this vision, for in it, economic environment would provide the moral guidance that church authority had in premodern life. Marx promised the new man would be thoroughly modern in fidelity to reason once freed from the exploitations of institutional authority, his hypothetical agency fully liberated. Once accomplished, he would willingly relinquish hypothetical agency to the public good in trust, which would never face doubt. But this new mold threatened modernism even more, for in Marx’s vision, the common good would shape preferential freedom to its own ends. Individualism would serve social ends, and do it happily because it would be trained to conform itself to the general will, thereby reconciling self-agency with trust. Bolshevik leaders took this concept of a new man seriously as a generational goal. But in dealing with the present world, their new man had to remain a glorious prediction to the grim realities of twentieth century Soviet life. Given the incoherence of their vision and the whirlwind of modernizing it created, it is unsurprising that a failure of trust was the most dramatic change the Soviet Union endured in the storm of social, political, and psychological experimentation that preceded World War II. Marx’s “new man” remains a chimera.
A temporal quality also marked Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again”: a reflexive rejection of U.S. progressives’ insistence that America face its modernist failures and hypocrisies. The standard twentieth century obsession with temporality emerged in predictable appeals to past greatness and future glory, all now said to be threatened by an influx of persons of color responsible for U.S. decline who, Trump predicted, would accelerate national decay if allowed entry. The tribal appeal to white America was explicit and stark: restore the mythologized glory of rugged individualism or surrender to parasitic decline already hollowing out modernist institutions and destroying traditional ones.
The loyalty of Trump’s base is a striking contemporary example of what is perhaps the most crucial difference between traditional and neo-authoritarianism, one firmly rooted in the axiomatic conflicts of the twentieth century. Neo-authoritarianism had to manage the collapse not only of premodern institutions that attempted to forestall change but also modernist ones that existed to direct it.
Premodernists had defended institutionalism because they understood its formative power to perpetuate trust. Traditional institutions could defend a surrender of agency that opened minds and hearts to their power, one purpose of which was their own continuance and that of the environment in which they operated. In discharging long-established functions, institutions served as the distribution centers for systemic operations in which individuals served as anonymous machinery molded to fit predetermined roles. On this point, it must be specified that no defense of institutions’ formative functions could be mounted until modernism could emerge to offer an alternative. Before the Reformation, no person acting from within a cocoon of trust could have established the perspectival distance to think authority required any defense. Modernists had found traditional institutions to be suffocating of their self-agency and stifling of progress, and so they established new ones with which to establish informative interactions designed to improve both the persons and the institutions they partner with. The most prominent was representative government itself. Universal reason provided the axiomatic space for these interactions to occur in public spaces so that participants could endorse institutional improvements and evaluate them. The modern capitalist corporation is a prominent example of this vision.
This method of informative interaction is well-suited to pursue utilitarian goals which universal reason establishes, but it proved incapable of providing a larger or ultimate public moral outlook that might steer a utility of furthest ends for whole societies (see “The Utility of Furthest Ends”). The hypocrisies and self-serving that resulted from attempting to reconcile utilitarian pursuits that demanded active agency and traditional moral ones that demanded a surrender in trust opened modernism to legitimate condemnation for leading Western nations and the world empires they dominated into moral bankruptcy and World War I. This crisis threatened modern institutionalism as well, for the axiomatic clash of premodern and modern understandings of the role of institutional authority grew increasingly obvious and disruptive to either axiomatic approach that attempted to repair it. Traditionalists grew increasingly strident in seeking a surrender of individualism to trust and openly exploited the inherited power they enjoyed in the new atmosphere of change. When possible, they sabotaged the engines of modernism, in some cases literally (“sabots” were the handmade shoes guild workers threw into shoemaking machinery). Modernists not only had to invent the machinery for a new social order but also operate it in a bifocal atmosphere in which their legitimacy was continually challenged, reformed, and assaulted. Every institution from church to capital formation and from army to university was engaged in a struggle over utility — its negotiated modern function — but also over legitimacy — a product of its disputed status. It was clear that neither formative institutions nor informative ones had established a working basis for public moral consensus, and their longstanding conflicts inevitably led not only to a loss of trust in the premodern sense but also to a loss of sanction in the modernist sense as institutions’ failures grew more obvious.
One particularly noteworthy failure was the most widely accepted theoretical basis for representative government itself, contractarianism, whose internal contradictions were an unforced error of modernist principles that perverted the institutions necessary to make governments of the people work (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?”) Its theoretical foundations were difficult enough, but democratic institutions also endured the axiomatic moral struggles every institution faced in the modern age. In the broadest sense, informative institutions could never make clear to their constituents whether they sought trust or sanction. blind acceptance or critical inquiry, submission of hypothetical agency or retention of the capacity to seek one’s own goals even in opposition to the institution’s. Predictably, constituencies of institutions compromised on this impossible dichotomy by alternating trust and doubt in a cycle of bestowal and retention as persons gave and withdrew their support to all the institutions that function in complex societies, foremost among these the final recourse of modernist moral failures: civil laws themselves (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). In this sine wave of submission and withdrawal, there was no consensual sweet spot. Some went all in for trust in tradition in response to authority’s demand for it. Most persons, bewildered by the axiomatic crises they could neither avoid nor resolve, simply moved back and forth between submission and suspicion (see “What Makes It True”). Regardless of proclivities, this effort was a prescription for social unrest not only between institutions but within them. It was not sustainable (see “What Counts as Justification”).
One alternative to institutional trust is personal trust, the kind that comes naturally to children and their custodial parents. But consider the difference between the two. Because we possess an irrevocable felt preferential freedom, the submission of trust is necessarily a personal bestowal, but the power thus surrendered may be exercised either by one or by many, informally or through long-established process. The temporal effect is dramatically different if the process can be institutionalized so as to fix the surrender of trust into a cultural matrix. Premodernists had made a one-time and generational submission of hypothetical trust seem not only possible but inevitable to those who knew no alternative. Growing up in that environment then consisted of a simple and seemingly natural trust that begins with personal obedience to parents but then transfers with their encouragement to longstanding institutions that sustain it through one generation after another. Marx was right that a social environment can suppress hypothetical self-agency, though incoherent to think it could be transformed to a version of trust. To the premodern mind, traditional institutions thus loomed large as determinants of categorical moral law that God had established and long tradition had sanctified. After the modernist revolution, these traditional authorities sustained cultural practices four hundred years past their expiration date.
By their nature, modernist institutions must seek active approval — sanction— from participants, who may engage a momentary trust but everyone involved expects that utility will also be inspected frequently by a process of doubt, change, and renewal. This cycle refreshes institutions through the critical application of universal reason and allows them to adapt to rapid changes in direction and purpose. These informative interactions necessarily operate in a climate of cyclic doubt. For modernism’s entire history, these institutions abraded against traditional institutional authorities that not only discouraged doubt but forbad it as heretical and who rightly saw change itself as disruptive to established power. This societal dissonance damaged trust further, of course, and to this suspicion was added unforeseen issues arising from the rapidity of social change itself that modernism found difficult to sort out regardless of other tensions. In the undulation of extending, inspecting, and withdrawing trust that is the twentieth century model, the cycles of trust began to evaporate as suspicion of bad faith grew. One consequence is postmodern cynicism, detachment, and alienation from institutionalism itself.
Modernists groped for an applicable moral theory that might provide a utility of furthest ends to justify and direct their more immediate preferences. It is heartbreaking to read the baby steps early thinkers took in this direction, for the moral consensus that was scorched in the Reformation nightmare had longevity and categorical power, and no one could posit a replacement that might even remotely seem consensual in the midst of theological dispute and rising secular alternatives. It took centuries for those alternatives to mature into a thoroughly modern Western world. By the eighteenth century, utilitarianism became the first thoroughly modern effort to establish moral consensus. It required foreshortening the moral horizon so as to seek common cause on short-term utility (see “Three Moral Systems”). Its failures taught some theorists to further shorten the horizon of preference all the way down to immediate experience, producing the dominant twentieth century outlook, pragmatism (see “(The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). But experience is as individual as perspective and cannot provide a common outlook without serious distillation by critical reason. Empiricism became modernism’s method to accomplish that unveiling of experience, a process that itself only became clear in the mid-nineteenth century. By then, moral failures had already tainted modernist efforts to find public moral purpose, and they were further tied into Gordian knots by the truth-finding success of empirical science. Scientific methodology, disciplines, and research only gradually learned to abstain entirely from any but quantitative analysis so that universal reason could reach consensus. That left out moral judgment (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”).
The vacuum that became apparent after World War I resolved over the twentieth century into a legitimate postmodern critique that was nevertheless inconsistent on its own terms and intentionally incompatible with older axioms of commitment (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”). The most valid charge highlighted the bad faith of institutions reduced to seeking to perpetuate their own power without furthering a long-term public good that postmodernism could not define, except to insist that, whatever it is, that it be distributed equally. The charge of bad faith was impossible for premodern institutions to dispute and difficult for the modern ones that had accommodated tradition and had failed to rise to the challenge on their own terms. Informative interactions were further inhibited by the many cross purposes that institutions serve in satisfying their short-term interests, particularly in competitive capitalism. These could hardly be reconciled without a defining systematic public end of preference, something modernism has still not produced.
The postmodern movement spread its critique through popular culture at first and academia by the 1970’s (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”). Its attack on tradition was particularly brutal because it failed to establish the difference between premodern and postmodern institutional authority, endlessly condemning the former for its hypocrisies and self-serving and the latter for its accommodations to them. This generalized condemnation produced an equally broad contempt for institutions altogether. It devastated institutional trust, which had already been reduced by modernists’ insistence on sanction as an intentional cycle of provisional trust punctuated by analytic doubt. But since advanced societies cannot function without expertise and competence in institutional applications, the century-long collapse of informative relations with institutions resulted in a total collapse of support in them by the mid-twentieth century, whether they were traditional or modern. Postmodernism’s overly generalized contempt eventually affected all exertions of power in any seeking of the good that were not based on equal volunteerism. This position is incompatible with both hierarchies and majoritarianism, and it dismisses expertise and competency as impositions on egalitarianism. Postmodernists regard all such necessities of progress with a deep suspicion of bad faith. Their hallmark expression is aesthetic irony. This situation is unsustainable, and modernism has merited a harsh critique for its moral indifference.
Personal authority has filled the void. In truth, it has been made stronger by the emergence of mass entertainment cultures that made celebrity more visible and desirable. But celebrity by its nature is unconnected to the furtherance of truth or goodness. It is an aesthetic achievement unmoored from judgments of utility. At the most basic level of aesthetics lies the purity of delight, so we might suspect that as long as celebrities continue to focus on tickling their fans’ fancies, they will remain attractive but unqualified to lead . More often, the opposite happens as political leaders seek the media spotlight so as to gain fame, using it to implement political goals but also erasing the line between stump and stage and buying into performative rebellion against their own institutions in doing so.
Two contemporary developments have further clouded the issue. First, we now think of art as a means of estranging us from our environment so as to see it in a new light as part of an overall social critique (see “Three Portraits”). This effort has dominated twentieth century mass cultures as an implicit moral condemnation. In effect, it is not an aesthetic at all but rather a means of social utility, a practice to make change. Postmodernists have fully embraced this alienist aesthetic to make themselves media stars, so rejecting existing systems has become one qualification for anything but the most sentimental celebrity. In this sense, every glam rocker and auteur has been engaged in political action. The alienist critique is a fundamentally postmodern one rooted in performative acts of independence from suffocating institutions and the hypocrisies they create. Its mass media success has saturated popular cultures with contempt for institutionalism, something politicians have embraced all too enthusiastically. They may be identified by their use of performative opportunities to show their independence from and superiority to the institutions they theoretically represent. This stance alienates their supporters from any existing order but turns political celebrities into media stars.
It is no accident that our mental pictures of the old, grey men who huddled around the maps at Versailles in 1919 are far less vivid than those of Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler, men who used their personal magnetism to enormous effect. But the very force of their personalities, their power to bind trust by their will, obscures the impossible dilemma their personal authority creates. As a facsimile of premodern trust, their celebrity must involve a submission from their fans, but it also must set them above any institutional restraint and mark them as ubermenschen. The rosy visions of “workers’ paradise,” the “New Roman Empire,” and the “Thousand Year Reich” relied on the personal authority of their founders, not on institutions that might realize their visions. Indeed, the hypocrisies and accommodations of institutionalism composed the villain of their narratives, the cause of present decay, and so they tried to sweep away such obstacles by their force of will. They disdained any modernist institutions for another reason: because such organizations rely upon informative relations that empower individuals rather than a surrender in trust that personal authority requires.
This dilemma was richly illustrated by the presidency of Donald Trump, who ran on the slogan “Only I can fix it.” His disdain for institutionalism disparaged even his own political faction and its levers of power he might have moved to “make America great again.” We cannot know whether his intentions sprang from anything deeper than a love of the spotlight. Nevertheless, he tapped into a fully postmodern distrust of authority that was so deeply engrained in his supporters that they wished to “drain the swamp” of institutional Washington. But Trump’s performative antics brought the U.S. no closer to the reactionary dream of a white America because he simply refused to institutionalize change in his mad scramble to stay in the spotlight. Though largely incompetent, his critique did accomplish a major goal: it accelerated the decline of those institutions that got in his way by highlighting the moral rot that had been attacking them at their foundations for a century. Modernist “institutional guardrails” crumpled under his verbal assaults and their own vacant moral cores. Trump’s opponents, like those who opposed other authoritarians in the twentieth century, greatly underestimated the destructive power of populist disgust with institutionalism and the power of personal authority to turn the spotlight of celebrity on its failings, at least in part because they had been so eaten out by hypocrisy, inconsistency, and axiomatic dispute.
Fanatical supporters of today’s authoritarians are blind to the necessity of institutionalized competence to actualize their ambitions for the simple reason that broad institutional competence has been rare in their experience. That problem was irreconcilable, but it could be disguised by another recourse recent authoritarians always resorted to, one that could delay but not deny their inevitable failure.
Ask yourself this question: what is the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism? These terms are frequently used interchangeably, but in their workings, they could hardly be more different. Contemporary cultures often think institutional authority is axiomatically abusive because it seems always focused on maintaining its power. This suspicion is well-founded so long as postmodern axioms are assumed. The implicit assumption at work here is the sanctity of private experience and the natural freedom that is thought to be its effect, rather than its cause (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). The virtual circle justification schema that results can only locate moral warrant in a privately created reality in which reason itself is thought to be formed by private experience privately processed (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). If true, this conclusion makes each person the sum total and passive product of an endless train of privately-received experiences. But that same deterministic aggregation of experience makes her also the unique possessor of the reasoning capacity those experiences determine. Postmodernists see no contradiction in imagining the individual a product of experience yet determinative of the options experience yields. They are steadfast in defending the individual’s right to decide upon the preferences that follow and to arbitrate the coherence of the goodness schema that results (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”). But if everyone’s private reality is sacrosanct, any use of power whatsoever that is not consensual can rightly be called coercive, so any dispute between persons can only be resolved voluntarily or by imposition or surrender. This odd consequence of postmodern thought explains its obsessive attention to and deep suspicion of any exertion of power whatsoever. Combine the ingredients of postmodern notions of power and the abuses of tradition, and then mix it with the other conflicting axiomatic approaches of premodernists and postmodernists to authority in the public square, and you will be served a toxic stew of resistance to institutions and the power they apply. What results for all who are affected by these presumptions even in the best of circumstances could never be called “institutional trust” and its performative results could never work under perceived restraints.
This problem has mortal implications for neo-authoritarians. In physics terms, “power” can be defined simply as “the ability to effect change.” So contemporary authoritarians find their personal charm less motivating to inspire real change than they might wish, for all the fervor of their supporters. Considering that they are admired precisely for their broad promises of social revolution, how can they leverage their celebrity into actual accomplishment? History shows their response begins with manipulating the intense trust of their supporters into a deep suspicion of “the other” sufficiently to convey at least some initial change, though not the turnabout they promise. But if you have followed the analysis so far, you will see that blame and threat activate anger, anxiety, and fear even in the most rabid fans, so trust quickly evaporates into self-agency — which to postmodernists is ultimate — to examine threats. This re-acquisition implies that today’s authoritarians have only a brief span of obsessive loyalty to exploit before trust is lost, which begins within months rather than years. So they can hardly be blamed for risking trust by using political power to crush not only the institutional authority that might be expected to resist them but also any internal opposition that might oppose them in the future. Thus do authoritarians become totalitarians.
This predictable consequence is magnified by other factors. Mass movements were hardly a twentieth century invention, but their power has been multiplied by events. Technologies and mass media make reaching and motivating citizens easier. Police state surveillance makes finding (or creating) enemies much more efficient, as the Gestapo, the Cheka, and other infamous tools of repression have proved. Immigration and wealth disparities threaten the poor, and the available solutions have been exaggerated and lampooned into incoherence. Almost any group can be scapegoated, but scapegoating is necessarily an active obsession that provokes a spiral of fury. The initial transformation to totalitarianism will be welcomed by the favored audience, and their trust is strong enough to remain unruffled by extralegal political activity. They see a rapid and often brutal use of political power as an implicit repudiation of political impotence and they applaud it. In the beginning of repression, it seems to them merely more of what they had extended trust to accomplish. The budding autocrat may not notice the moment when he begins disdaining trust so as to attempt to maintain it. And we must remember that the kinds of celebrities who go down these paths to power are rarely moved by ethical concerns. As the Nazi play says, “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I release the safety of my Browning.” Nothing could better reflect the dominant pragmatism of Western cultures than this shift from authoritarian trust to totalitarian force.
But this change, so characteristic of all neo-authoritarians, is merely one more axiomatic trap. Just as the proto-totalitarian must wait until he has solidified his support before exercising his full power, so too does gradual intensification of hostility solidify opponents, who may now use many of the same media platforms to oppose the threat. This consolidation of opposition is rarely sufficient to counter the increasingly ruthless efforts of the state, but it is enough to move state power increasingly toward repression. Again, temporality rules what slowly becomes a literal power struggle. The glorified past and perfected future become mere polemics of distraction. The neo-authoritarian no longer manicures language and his resistance to institutional restraint expands to all forms of opposition. Victimization becomes far less of an abstraction, and universal dread supplants social anxiety as change accelerates. Even though it may happen erratically, the spiral toward violence stimulates axiomatic reactions.
The first cadre raising alarms to the totalitarian drift will be the modernists because their assumptions are challenged even by the first appeals of neo-authoritarians. Modernists will ardently defend institutionalism, using their diminishing authority to leverage current mechanisms of legal restraint while falling into an increasingly futile effort to inform the populace of the rising threat. Neither effort will suffice to stop the coming storm in part because the erosions occur with increasing rapidity and brutality while the defenses require much more time to move the ponderous levers of institutional power against a more nimble foe. While institutions are too weak to provide the necessarily moral rebuttal, they are sufficiently challenging to provoke the proto-totalitarian to shift from attacking their incompetence to challenging their existence. Modernists frequently fail to see how completely their world view is being attacked. They are still operating under the illusion that convincing arguments and reasonable dialogue will moderate the neo-authoritarian’s efforts to reform institutions when what he always sought was a rejection of rather than an appeal to universal reason. By the time a totalitarian shift begins, they have already lost. The moral phrasings of their efforts to preserve their institutions seem quaint and blatantly hypocritical in light of their past performance. Modernists are hapless in the temporal flux.
The parades, flags, and rapt crowds are compelling even today as ubiquitous spectacle of the neo-authoritarian appeal. Before the honest student of history condemns Germany’s cooption of vaporous moral order, one ought to study how crowds can be moved to violate their most strongly stated values. Studying the Holocaust magnifies the mystery of how a thoroughly modern state could fall into thralldom that led to such human miseries. But, we may be pardoned in asking whether those modern institutionalists of the Weimer Republic — battered by defeat, Depression, and dissonance — could have asserted any systemic values with clarity and conviction sufficient to drown out the passionate intensity of the massed fans for whom self-agency was a burden they were eager to lend to someone who knew what to do. The moral vacuum made the moral stain possible, and buffeted by events and social dissonance, too few modernists felt sure enough to offer a full-throated alternative. Every leader was a Chamberlain and every citizen a quisling until the threat was made mortal.
If modernists failed to use their agency to oppose Hitler and other twentieth century totalitarians, what happened to the traditionalists, and particularly to the established religions that had for so long proclaimed themselves the solution to the moral decay they had warned of?
Remember that the temporality of the authoritarian appeal has a Janus quality: idealizing past greatness as repudiation of the present while prompting future glories. Any idealization of the lost past pricks the premodernist’s interest. She opposes modernity and the self-agency it brings, and in the neo-authoritarian she sees the way to crush what modernity has wrought. In the authoritarian’s confident voice, she hears the means to surrender trust at last to a leader capable of bringing back an imagined social comity. Even as authority shades into violent repression, the traditionalist complies. Having submitted her trust at last to an authority, even if a personal authority, and thinking the modernist traditions she had seen as usurping trust and enabling present misery, she has some reason to lend her voice to the new order, especially if it clothes itself in traditions’ trappings.
The dominant premodernist mechanism for trust is religious. The authoritarian intuits this and repeats his promises of prescriptive goods with patristic intonations. His appeal is intentionally to trust, not to universal reasoning, so he speaks in categorical imperatives. Modernists strain to follow his reasoning but find they cannot leap over warrantless assertions and empty conclusions. They listen intently for the standard evidentiary chain they have come to expect. But no appeal to reason, no empirical proof or expert testimony, comes through. Every declaration is spoken ex cathedra: no apologies, course corrections, or retractions interrupt the jumble of imperatives. The more outrageous the assertion, the more rapt and unshakeable the support of fans because each clarifies values and further suppresses even the possibility of preferential freedom. Rally goers use telling language. They are swept away, enthralled, entranced. Reason is self-agency’s friend but an existential threat to trust, so to ignore or confound reason is a powerful tool. And it is even more powerful for the celebrity who has never needed it for his ascent to power but who does know the aesthetic of audience appeal through emotional intensity. Doctrinal religion also relies upon the emotional aesthetic, and its congregants are highly susceptible to such language. A major difference is that traditional authorities had offered a timescale of eternity to preach a morality of furthest ends that permeated all subordinations of power. But having surrendered self-agency and been lulled by repetitive promises to restore what has been taken away, the faithful are given a facsimile of perpetuity. By the time neo-authoritarianism falls into totalitarianism, this same timeless beatitude is brought down to earth and reaffirmed with all the mind-soothing monotony of the Catholic rosary. A thousand-year Reich or the withering away of exploitative institutions may not be eternal, but it will do to change the present. The totalitarian’s appeal to premodern trust is a combination of anachronism and conceptual displacement: anachronistic to an age steeped in modernism and displaced because it is politics-by-dogma.
The Catholic and Lutheran Church’s response to Naziism in the early 1930’s illustrates the fundamental problem. Most priests and bishops opposed Hitler initially on moral grounds, but no institutional response moved German Catholic hierarchies to heroic opposition. In Reichstag voting, most Catholics at first opposed the National Socialist Party, but Hitler’s anti-Semitism, rabid nationalism, and opposition to godless communism won them over. The Catholic Centre Party in Germany supported Hitler in the Reichstag elections of 1933.The German Evangelical Church, which had long and close institutional ties to the national government, also offered only token resistance. If we ignore the heroic efforts of some German Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we can see why many good Catholics and loyal Lutherans supported Hitler’s rise to power. Institutional religious authorities failed to use moral appeals because they were unsure their congregants would listen. His appeal resembled their own in warrant if not in content, so they watched as their modulated authority was sucked away by Hitler’s moral conviction. Such a personal transference would have been unthinkable before institutional trust had suffered its breakdown and religious authority had begun to crumple. Pride in Prussian self-discipline and duty had sent millions of German draftees over the top to be mowed down by machine guns and blown apart by howitzers. That was 1915. A mere twenty years later, a slovenly Austrian corporal could make the state his instrument, a transfer so complete that a new gesture was created to symbolize it (the stiff-necked German military were allowed to retain their traditional salutes, the “Zig Heil” being required of all civilians and novel institutions like the Gestapo). Riefenstahl’s film “Triumph of the Will” demonstrates that Hitler had finally fulfilled Louis XVI’s failed ambition: he was the state. So long as totalitarian measures targeted their enemies and defended their interests, the devout laity could get on board. As for their clergy, a reflexive defense of tradition and a moral objection to totalitarian power was attenuated by more immediate interests: retaining their fading prerogatives and possessions by not framing a stark moral alternative. Pragmatism and moral anomie had thoroughly disabled even the most traditional moral arbiters, who may have ground their teeth and issued token opposition as their countries’ leaders gave full-throated proof of premodernism’s final surrender.
This craven reaction characterized most Christian denominations before World War II and after it. The Roman Catholic Church accommodated Mussolini’s roundup of Jews and “deviants.” Putin’s slide into totalitarian repression has been supported by the Russian Orthodox Church that he revived from dormancy and which he continues to champion as a source of Russian identity.
With some historical perspective of fascism’s defeat, premodernists began to intuit that totalitarianism proved not that authority had finally won the battle for public morality but rather had lost it. Moral dissonance and institutional fecklessness let good Christian Europeans commit atrocities with a clear conscience and still pray in their churches during the Holocaust. It allowed Orthodox Serbians to attempt geocide against ethnic Albanians. Evangelicals in the U.S. overwhelmingly supported Trump’s separation of families at the Mexican border and caging of young children there in 2018. Their pastors were either silent or supportive of the effort. A forfeiture of trust in their faith moved congregations in the 1930’s to violate the morality of their own denominations. Fifty years later, even the high clergy no longer expected their own congregations’ trust, so they did not bother to ask for it.
The moral decay they decried from the very beginnings of modernism had been worsened in large part by their efforts to resist it. This catastrophe was hardly unprecedented, for tradition’s reluctance to cede its moral authority to modernist self-agency had been the first major reason for the crippling of moral consensus that opened space for neo-authoritarianism in the first place. And the modernists’ failures to articulate a public moral rationale to fill that space was their downfall. When the neo-authoritarians tried, their failures only opened the vacuum further, and the drift to totalitarianism was the predictable response.
Events since World War II have accelerated the pace of change and widened the perspective of formerly unsophisticated public by exposure to unfamiliar cultures, but this temporality and the potential threats it implies have been complemented by a complete victory of individualism and, since the turn of this century, even greater threats to modernist institutionalism. Moral consensus seems far more difficult. The world was shocked to see such total moral vacuity in testimony at the Nuremberg trials in 1946. What Arendt called “the banality of evil” showed the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda and the soullessness of the Nazi defendants. While that judgment was accurate, it was not comprehensive enough. Moral failure was as much the cause of Naziism as its consequence. And the nightmare of the century that made words like Holocaust and genocide commonplace has deprived us of comprehending or even using the words evil or moral. Is it even possible to imagine today’s audience being shocked by anyone’s amorality? Isn’t it more likely that amorality is just what we would expect?
A new axiom of commitment was articulated by academic and human scientists in the aftermath of World War II, though its constituents have long shadowed modernist axioms. Premodernists and modernists have demonstrated their inability to contain the inevitable drift from neo-authoritarian failure to totalitarian tactics. Would postmodernist axioms move a more successful response?
Regrettably, the answer must be that even a set of presumptions articulated in the wake of a totalitarian world war would advance a totalitarian drift rather than preclude it. It is fitting to use language whose meaning is consensual. Moral language cannot survive postmodernism’s solipsistic outlook that sees self-agency as the ultimate arbiter of private goodness convictions that are immune to others’ judgment in the public square. Postmodernists are right to avoid using the term morality since it implies “systematic” arrangement of the “ends of preference.” That kind of judgment requires perspectival distance and common reasoning, and postmodernist axioms deny the possibility of both, preferring safer and more soothing language. Today, we say totalitarianism is inappropriate (see “Tangled Terms”). Pragmatism is a far more powerful force than it was a century ago. Postmodern ideas have so permeated cultures that by the 1980’s, postmodernists themselves abandoned heroic resistance to the dominant culture and began proselytizing inescapable cultural determinism and the identity values it requires as more appropriate to proper selfhood. They will likely not object to a dictatorial trend in the future, in part because they despise the hypocrisies of traditions. They understandably focus on hypocrisy. Intentional self-deception is the only public offense postmodernists can reconcile to a moral understanding that is determinedly private. But postmodernist approaches have actively support a totalitarian drift for two additional reasons. First, they are eager for change from what they see as stagnation and decay caused by those hypocrisies and are unlikely to regret a leader who cuts corners to force change. Secondly, their reflexive hostility to institutional authority is likely to be as pragmatic as the totalitarian methods they support. In a force of wills, they reason, why should my value set submit to others, even if they are in the majority? This is the Nietzschean response of the postmodernist in the public square.
If all three axiomatic positions fail to find an effective response to neo-authoritarianism and the totalitarianism it falls into, why say such movements must fail in the twenty-first century?
Again, temporality will force a reckoning. Whatever exploits moral chaos will fall victim to the axiomatic conflicts that have created it, and as change quickens and disorients us even more and both premodern and modern institutions falter and pragmatism more thoroughly guides preferential freedom to ever more immediate utility, it is only appropriate that we have learned the relativity principle of relativist morality: the faster and more force one uses to make change, the more inertial resistance one will feel. When change is promised and most importantly promised to be intentional, trust may be extended. But when what changes doesn’t look like what was promised and when it flails about, trust will also falter. When change is forced, trust fails. Moral chaos increases the same social unrest that first opened opportunity for neo-authoritarianism to rise. As the public realizes that even totalitarian force cannot bind what axiomatic dissonance has sundered, societies threaten to fall again into moral chaos, which produces actual chaos. This threat takes down contemporary authoritarians, and it always provokes a pragmatic response
From the beginning of their rise to power and long before they begin to move to total control, neo-authoritarians learn personal authority — the kind that most resembles fandom — is a fickle bestowal. It is not religious authority that moves a zealotry in contemporary life that was unimaginable in the recent past (see “Belief in the Public Square”). The religious inspiration that moves premodernists today is belief, not authority (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). Today’s supporter submits trust but cannot long continue submitting it because she jealously guards her capacity to reallocate her attention whenever she chooses. And that includes whatever she chooses to believe in. It is certainly true that she may devote her full trust to the authoritarian she accepts as her earthly savior, but the cyclic nature and pragmatic focus of personal authority will challenge her trust once she gets past the sugar high of finding an authority whose intensity at first rekindles the bliss of childhood surrender who knows what to do. But moral chaos offers too many temptations to doubt, and doubt must be actively managed, even if only for reallocation of trust. Her own desires continually lie athwart the surrender to trust, causing an increasing cycle of rationalizations and excuses to try to reconcile suspicion and surrender. Her own fears press in too, also magnified as totalitarianism rises. William James, a founder of pragmatism, observed that we want to be right less than we want not to be wrong, and this aphorism captures the devolution from trust to belief. What began in surrender ends in denial. The deep trust the premodernist wishes to submit to something worthy of her submission dissolves into a pure but failing desire to avoid disillusionment in the face of disappointment.
The postmodernist supports the neo-authoritarian from the comfort of his virtual circle. His trust is always personal and provisional with his intimates, so he has few qualms about the same kind of reallocation of belief. His hostility to the proto-totalitarian comes earlier because his trust is always easily given and because it is jealously guarded as something given rather than earned, capricious. The same fractious devotion the postmodernist feels confident to submit to his own set of convictions moves the premodernist to bestow her temporary trust, but the same convenience of withdrawal and suspicion of bad faith move both as well. The axiomatic cause of their difference is that the premodernist enters trust in hopes of restoring a public moral authority while the postmodernist enters trust in the hopes of denying it to increase her personal freedom. These goals are so incompatible that they either become apparent in the face of the totalitarian drift and provoke a popular rebellion or provide sufficient social unrest to power yet another cycle of totalitarian oppression. And if the totalitarian seizes this opportunity to balance upon popular fear and rage, he has a chance to continue for quite some time, so long as he can stoke the emotions that he has thus far so efficiently exploited.
And he will be mightily assisted by external threats that are no longer trumped up, for neighboring governments are likely to see the consolidation of power as a threat, which history has verified, and they will react with just the kind of threats the dictator has been exaggerating all along, thereby verifying his prescience. Ever pragmatic, the totalitarian will see an opportunity to blame the same failures that moved his repressions in the first place on an external threat that is no longer imaginary. But having once had trust shaken, each renewal will be harder for the public to summon. This is the moment when belief comes to the tyrant’s service, for so long as he can vivify the threat, he can keep alarmed and patriotic (or devout) followers believing that he is the only thing standing in the way of reactionary reversals of the supposed gains he has endorsed. Again, the celebrity who is adept at claiming the spotlight is better at this stage than the grey functionaries who have done the work of trying to keep government minimally operating. Media stars have to keep reinventing themselves or risk losing their fans, and the same is true of this stage of dictatorship. Examining the North Korean (1949), Chinese (1968) and Iranian (1979) histories reveal that the combination of celebrity ruler and “perpetual revolution” have extended the life of dictatorial governments whereas the Soviet Union’s decline was in part a result of the colorless rule of an institutional bureaucracy invented over the course of the short history of that communist nation. Almost every postcolonial Latin government has seen this narrow pathway to totalitarian longevity rise and fall, the most obvious of which is Fidel Castro’s very long rule over a Cuban government perennially facing a mortal threat from the north. If this view is correct, the kind of public disillusionment so obvious in Soviet “republics” was forestalled as much by the U.S. threat as by Castro’s colorful demeanor. With the Castro brothers aged out of the fray, the future looks grim for totalitarian rule in Cuba.
The power of belief is deeply antagonistic to comity in public life because it defends agency while denying public accountability. It clashes in its recognition of the personalism of its commitments, but all sides also feel free to withdraw and transfer commitments without regard to external moral standard or long-term consistency. Pity today’s authoritarian who finds himself the beneficiary of such bewildering support that begins in adulation and ends in antagonism, especially in light of his need for the spotlight, but pity him quickly, for he will soon begin his totalitarian repressions and then he will have no pity for you.
And he faces a final problem that must prove ultimately fatal to his ambitions. Even when he finds the sweet spot to reimage the past, attack the present, and paint a rosy future, and even when he manages to massage the temporality of his appeal enough to attract his fans by his personal authority and retain it by their active approval in a cycle of doubt and renewal, what can he do with his power? To exercise it, he has to move distant levers across his domain, but the aesthetic nature of his appeal is mismatched to the institutional competence that effective change requires. It is true that totalitarians then resort to military coups and cooption of existing institutions, but the same forces that allowed the trust will cause opposition to its continued exercise. Repression and terror will suppress dissent but is nothing like the personal authority that prompts celebrity, as dictators find to their regret. The result is a new cycle of repression, but as this only finalizes the doubt that prompted the earlier cycle, it is unlikely to be effective. And if despite all these difficulties, the modern authoritarian still manages to stay atop his makeshift pyramid so as to maintain decades rather than months of power, he faces the final and humiliating institutional obstacle: transferring power to a successor. The act itself will prompt crisis because the personal authority that attempts the succession is as non-transferable as the classic movie’s popularity is to its remake and the same suspicion of delegating power to potential rivals that hindered his efforts will now darken his means of succession and submit his chosen heir to cynical doubt and dismissal, sometimes more from within his camp than from the populace because of suppressed jealousies and score-settling.
Because temporality so affects the axiomatic interactions presented in this analysis, two final remarks seem timely.
First, I hope it is quite clear that societies that have yet to go through the religious Reformation that doomed premodernist authority or the cultural revolutions that have so damaged modernism will axiomatically still be as receptive to traditional authoritarian trust in the political realm as they continue to be in their religious life. Such has always been the nature of theocracy, though no hermit kingdom can completely escape some corrosion of trust and the power of choice that contemporary mass media communicates so well (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?”). Ever since the imperial scramble began in the nineteenth century, observers could watch the axiomatic conflicts play out between modernist self-agency and premodernist trust, nearly always in the patronizing and exploitative behavior that postmodernists have rightly called out as hypocritical. Since the post-World War II decolonializing and especially since the nearly total penetration of consumer cultures, postmodern influences have been put into the mix. Wherever today’s totalitarian tries to corral his opposition, one can find the same axiomatic conflicts underlying political ones. Many former colonial nations attempted traditional authoritarianism as a failing effort to forestall the challenges of modernism, but they have been no more successful in resisting individual self-agency, mass commercial cultures, and scientific outlooks than modernists have been in countering postmodernists’ threats to their institutions.
Second, the same temporality that traditional authoritarians successfully suppressed, that neo-authoritarians have tried and failed to use to their own advantage, will only further accelerate. The total saturation of every phase of life with entertainment media will only increase, which presages even more political entertainers with broader geographical reach. The coming worldwide penetration of media will also bring synthesizing change from every culture on the globe to the largest possible audience. It is also possible that this cultural synthesis will result in a real moral consensus built upon active sanction of revived institutions harnessed to some public consensus. That is the optimist outlook, but the twentieth century forces us to entertain a pessimistic one. It could be that the same temporal shifts that have made life so difficult for contemporary authoritarians continue, so though fatal to neo-authoritarianism today, new and unpredictable crosscurrents in the cultural winds might present a more favorable climate later in the twenty-first century. And because these changes occur outside of the narrow focus of experts and could never be predicted by human sciences, they would probably first be noticed in a new form of authoritarian appeal that would attract and hold the trust of mass audiences by some technocratic, artificial intelligence, or pharmaceutical novelty. Any such success would need to be understood as yet another temporal shift of axiomatic interactions and a new breed of threat to public moral life.