The Old Order Is Failing, But Only Authoritarians Are Putting Forth An Alternative: Jared Yates Sexton
Welcome back to Lucid! Mark your calendars for our next Q&A, this Friday, April 15, 2022, 1-2pmET. All are welcome. You will receive a registration link Friday morning. Registration is free. I look forward to seeing you there.
I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Jared Yates Sexton, who is the author of the book American Rule: How a Nation Conquered The World But Failed Its People and the forthcoming The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Present Crisis. He is a professor of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): It seems as though many things happening now are exposing the ways in which the way we live isn't really sustainable in terms of the environment and economic inequality. Even before the pandemic, 2019 was a record year for protests all over the world. I know you think about these things a lot, so that's a big opening question for you!
Jared Yates Sexton (JYS): It is interesting to watch a lot of the people who are paid to keep track of these things and explain them. I thought a real telling moment was when David Brooks wrote an article in the New York Times in which he threw up his hands and said, I have no idea what's going on. These are people who are paid six figures to talk about this stuff.
A lot of people had faith in this global order and what neoliberalism was supposed to achieve. They truly believed that it was going to be everlasting, and that free markets and unfettered capitalism were going to lead the way to some sort of utopia.
And, of course, that idea was inherently flawed. Neoliberals thought that human beings were incredibly dangerous and mass politics was going to be the destruction of everything. And as a result, you needed to move away from democracy and from governmental systems that helped people, or were even interested in the fate of people. So this system that was created to get rid of ideology and any sort of belief.
With austerity and capitalism gaining more power and control over the world, there were always going to be challenges, but now we're dealing with a potential collapse of this system. And all it took was for one of the actors within that system, Vladimir Putin and the authoritarian movement that he represents around the world, for it to act counter to what the system believed was supposed to happen.
RBG: We’re living through this truly historic time. The pandemic helped autocrats in many ways, but it also exposed all of the callousness of neoliberal capitalism.
JYS: I think it absolutely exposed the limitations of the system. When it really comes down to it, the neoliberal order says that the government has no responsibility beyond bailing out corporations and banks that are failing, to protect capitalism and property. And beyond that, just making sure that people go to work and stay within the lines and rules.
These moments during the pandemic, in which we started talking about essential workers, and Donald Trump more or less said good luck to the states to deal with it --we're still dealing with the fallout from that.
Whether it's pandemics or ecological problems, such attitudes undermine any remaining faith in the order. I think this is one of the more pressing issues that we have. The only alternative to this system is being forwarded by authoritarians, by neofascists. They are saying that liberal democracy has failed. It has no ability to move forward. It can't answer the problems of the day. You have to bring in a strongman, you have to bring in a Caesar who will rise above these problems.
RBG: That's definitely a thesis of my Strongmen book, It's been extraordinary to see so many authoritarian dynamics unfold in a democracy as the GOP has transformed into a far-right party under Trump’s thumb. It reminds us of how these leader-follower relationships and this kind of corruption can happen anywhere. And that's been very sad to live through, but very interesting if we put our analytical hats on.
JYS: I think you and I are similar in being fascinated by how power moves and what it does and how it obscures itself and the narratives that it tells to legitimize its oppression.
With the GOP we are watching a neofascist ideology: this is more or less what they are espousing at this point. The idea that liberal democracy is weakness. And that liberal democracy and multiculturalism brings the destruction of traditions and morals and culture. And as a result, you need an illiberal regime. You need protected citizens.
In this case, it's White evangelical men, and what they're looking for is something that has already been established, in Viktor Orban’s Hungary. They're looking to create a state in which their power is no longer challenged and “natural” hierarchies will be re-instituted. Really frightening stuff.
This is part of an international movement. It is happening in every major Western power. They communicate, they share resources and coordinate information. And that makes them incredibly dangerous.
RBG: I think it’s really important for people to see that what's going on in the GOP is part of a transnational movement. The fact that during the Ottawa convoy so many sitting GOP politicians felt it was okay to advocate for a movement that had a fringe that wanted to topple Justin Trudeau's government. This is subversive action.
JYS: I thought that the trucker convoy was really misrepresented. It was depicted as a grassroots protest that sprung completely out of nowhere. Well, particularly as capital is more and more concentrated, those “spontaneous” phenomena don’t exactly exist anymore. This was funded, organized, and orchestrated by the wealthy donors who also funded January 6th, who also funded the attack on public education and the attack on democracy.
The Republican party has more or less been reduced to a public relations front for those people. And they basically go out and churn up populist rage. So you have these faux populist movements being funded by the wealthiest few to create the illusion that there's an uprising.
People do have a right to be upset about this current order. It's exploitive, it's cruel, it's oppressive, but it's being used as a weapon by people who are trying to overtake it for their own purposes. And I really don't feel like the people who are supposed to be diagnosing this have even the beginnings of a handle on it.
RBG: The faux populism worked well to sell Brexit. One of the biggest and saddest things about information warfare is you get people to act against their own interests, as in Brexit, or in getting Americans to want the end of their own democracy, or discard basic public health practices so disease can be spread and the population weakened. So how do you see things evolving in America?
JYS: I think that there are a few possible scenarios that could play out based on the information that we have and what history tells us. I am hopeful, watching thousands of Russians go out into the streets, saying enough is enough. Meanwhile, in America, you have a lot of people who are walking off their jobs, who are suddenly forming labor unions, and pushing back against oppressive employers.
People are paying attention more than they probably ever have before. And while I'm a major critic of American media, I see the press now publishing stories about attacks on democracy. They're slow, they're behind by years, but they're starting to understand.
But it is not a foregone conclusion that things are going to turn out well. History tells us that these authoritarian movements don't just go away. I think what the invasion of Ukraine represents is that that old order is being tested with a replacement.
We need to understand very quickly and with as much faith as we possibly can, that there has to be an alternative, and there's going to be a new era. And we’d better get moving with an alternative, as opposed to just fighting on the ground and diagnosing what's going on.
I think that we can emerge from this with something better and more human, but right now, the only alternative is authoritarianism. Unless we answer it with something else, the future could be very bleak.