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The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism and the Tyranny of Experts
by Salvatore Babones
(Polity Press, £9.99)
SALVATORE BABONES'S basic argument in this book is that liberalism’s focus on extending rights has transferred political power in Western countries from the people and their representatives to an “expert class” who identify and define those rights.
In his view, this apparently constitutes a new form of anti-democratic authoritarianism to which right-wing populism is a necessary corrective, the latest incarnation of a venerable US tradition of resisting such moves.
It's an argument that is flimsy and misleading. Babones's claim that Trump himself cannot be considered authoritarian rests on arbitrarily reducing authoritarianism to deference to a higher authority. Since Trump recognises no authority other than himself, Babones argues, he cannot, by definition, be authoritarian — no matter how much he facilitates police violence, floods the prisons or brutalises migrant children.
And the argument that it is experts who create rights is a falsification of history. New rights are invariably the result of generations of struggles by the oppressed themselves. Gay rights, women’s rights, the civil rights of black people — which of these was the “creation of experts” rather than
the result of years of hard-fought struggle? Which does Babones consider so objectionable? He never tells us.
Throughout this short text, Babones ensures that capitalist class power is completely airbrushed out of the picture. Just as fascism has always done historically, Babones redirects popular anger at the status quo away from the capitalist class and towards a surrogate — in this case, so-called experts.
Thus we are told that “the scope of public life that falls under the purview of electoral politics has steadily diminished” as “unelected institutions have come to control large swathes of public life.” This is true. Privatisation has indeed removed large swathes of economic life from popular accountability and into the hand of corporations.
But this is not what Babones means and privatisation is not even mentioned. His complaint is rather that governance is delivered by “standing bureaucracies” and “expert staff,” thus replicating the Thatcherite refrain that led to the real problem in the first place. This very process of redirecting popular anger against neoliberalism in order to facilitate more of the same is playing out under Trump right now.
According to Babones, populists — Donald Trump included — “have demanded that entire realms of public policy be brought back into democratic politics.”
But what he is referring to is simply the weaponisation of the likes of trade and development policies on behalf of US corporations. Meanwhile, charter schools, benefit cuts — effectively transferring welfare provision to private charity — and even potentially wholesale privatisation of the military ensure that “unelected institutions’... control of public life” continues apace.
Trumpian obfuscation at its finest.
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