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Should The Left Do Authoritarian Populism Like The Right Does?

Written By: - Date published: 10:17 am, June 21st, 2017 - 54 comments
Categories: Donald Trump, International, Jeremy Corbyn, uk politics, us politics - Tags:

Another election for UK Labour, another (close) loss. Sigh. But wait! There’s France’s Macron! Can’t he be the leftie anti-Trump? He now has as big a majority in his government as Trump’s Republicans do.

So what if the left had an authoritarian populist in power and got some stuff done?

Why can’t the left generate candidates like Donald Trump who upset diplomatic orders, dominate public discourse, and set out an alternative view for an advanced rule-based democracy?

With climate change, environmental degradation, property crises, poverty crises, and decades of vision-free national policy, isn’t real force necessary? Can the left yearn for executive authority?

Or is this just wrong to imagine? Jeremy Corbyn, for example, appears to be a Labour leader without demagogic capacity, preferring detailed policy prescriptions retold in his trademark grey-whiskered scruffy style for public consumption.

Part of the answer is in the history of the left over the previous century. It’s been really easy to tar the left as being on a continuum that supported spectacularly bloodthirsty revolutions in Russia, China, eastern Europe, central Asia, central Africa, south-east Asia, and beyond. We don’t need another Stalin. Too few of the left foreswore revolution, so that tarring has been easy. So why does a leftie Trump seem so hard to imagine, so off-putting? Isn’t this the kind of scale of disruption that the world needs, from the left?

The first answer is, of course, no-one needs a leader as rude or ignorant. Successful politics is about more than making omelettes with eggs. It’s possible to achieve really useful stuff diplomatically, and it’s hard.

The second, is that every country is different. National leadership matters because countries still matter. Each historical and social context demands a different response, within its own democratic framework.

But it’s easy to feel frustration. With the comprehensive economic and societal restructures that New Zealand has gone through, there’s a real question about why we have not seen the rise of more radicalised populist parties. Moderate policies over 6 elections here have generated very moderate results here. What we are seeing across many developed economies is a politics responding to sluggish or declining growth, resistant high real underemployment, no wage and salary growth, declining regions, and whole manufacturing economic bases of social life simply shipped out. Worse than here.

What is being observed through much of Europe, the UK, and the USA are manifestations of a rising tide of right-wing populist politics that really is taking power. And the left, to be honest, is being left behind in every country I can think of.

In little old New Zealand, rather than observing New Zealand First rise to pre-eminence here, they remain between 9-12% and have never been a challenge to the largest two parties. Why?

Let’s look at a couple of comparators.

Singapore is about the same size in population, and is like us a very young nation with a sensitive local population significantly displaced by immigrants. Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party won the country’s general elections, but earned its lowest percentage of the popular vote since coming into power more than half a century ago.

Lee Kuan Yew, father of modern Singapore, could be seen as a populist authoritarian leftie. His policies about media influence, housing ownership, state ownership, and highly prescriptive economic policies have formed a different kind of society than that which we could imagine or countenance here, but it is strong, dynamic, and filled with public ownership.

But their elections are getting more competitive. There are signs of political liberalisation and maturity. Their context for elections is a paternalistic and technically rational administrative state, reasonably credited with the republic’s remarkable success and largely insulated from political pressures, united by one leader with immense charisma and drive who determined to stay the course, crush opposition, and embed his political successor and his policies. So “populism” in that sense really means a much stronger democracy than they have yet had.

Singapore – clean, meritocratic, pragmatic – has had its origins set down a particular form of democracy and state that is different to the liberal democratic trajectory.

And then there’s France. Macron is no hard leftie. He wants a harder, stronger, more self-reliant Europe. So does Trump. But Macron once taught philosophy and can cite Moliere from memory – doesn’t that make him at least bourgoisie-sympathetic? Hmmm. He’s certainly supportive of climate change: “Lets Make The Planet Great Again”. But that’s comparing him to Trump’s refusal to deal in facts. Macron’s economic policies on employment would fit pretty well with those of Prime Minister Bill English – although that’s comparing to the still highly regulated labour conditions found in France. Macron’s first bill will be aimed at “moralising” French politics by imposing term limits and barring MPs from hiring family members or working as consultants. You could almost describe it as … draining the swamp. I also suspect that the United States and United Kingdom will no longer be able to effectively outsource foreign policy to Merkel’s Germany with a more assertive Gaullist in France.

There’s still some small hankering for a Trump of the left: a great roaring charismatic figure rising up the unwashed and downtrodden, dominating and reviving the fortunes of the left. That is, do what the right have done better. I still hear assumptions that the hard left will rise again as leftist party machines get their ideological mojo back on track. Instead the world is demonstrating that there will be more countries who are run by centrist pragmatists with strong personalities and outsider status parties.

Since 1990, our own Prime Ministers have been exceedingly well mannered and only mildly clever even when pushed on the international stage, and also very careful to implement societal change through technocratic means not force, supported by MMP coalitions that widen their social mandate.

The historical memory of the left is more sensitive to charges of authoritarianism than the right. Maybe that’s just for old people. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the left needs its leaders to always obey the system they have created: the rules-based order of the state must function more perfectly for the left than the right, because they need the restraining force of the state’s legal instruments against the market a whole bunch more than the right does. Because the left needs the system more, the leftie leader must always defer to the system more. Perpetual taming.

But there are looming crises that the left cares about that are particularly hard to solve without really discomfiting paradigm-smashers like Donald Trump. If Trump succeeded as Lee Kuan Yew did by bluntly smashing norms to sweep aside the paralysis of ideological and political deadlock, and installed a technocratic government focused on performance and results, upon which actual legitimacy of popular support are staked, then that question of “the leftie version of Trump” will arise again.

54 comments on “Should The Left Do Authoritarian Populism Like The Right Does? ”

  1. mordecai 1

    “But wait! There’s France’s Macron! Can’t he be the leftie anti-Trump?”
    It seems authors on this blog are having a bad week with facts. Macron is not a ‘leftie’. He was a member of the Socialist party of France until 2008, but has recently distanced himself from any connection with socialism. Macron is pro-business, pro-trade, and a self described centrist.

    • Ad 1.1

      OMG I spent a full paragraph explaining all that, and in more precise detail. I even compared his parallels with Trump policy positions. Read the damn post.

      • mordecai 1.1.1

        You claimed macron is a leftie. He isn’t. Oh, and BTW, the socialists got trounced in the French elections.

      • One Anonymous Bloke 1.1.2

        You’re wasting your time. Mordecai doesn’t do English Comprehension. He’s now fixated on the “fact” that you said Macron is a leftie and no amount of explanation will change that.

        You can spell it out in tiny words, point out that the question “But wait! There’s France’s Macron! Can’t he be the leftie anti-Trump?” is what we hu-mans call “rhetorical”, whatever.

        None of this will make the slightest difference other than to provide an ongoing illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

        • McFlock

          He’s pretty funny though.

          He’s a bit like Trump’s lawyer referring to the investigation, then accusing the interviewer of putting words in his mouth when the interviewer simply repeats what the guy said. Complete refusal to reflect on self. And when all else fails, pretends to lose any knowledge of the English language 🙂

  2. greywarshark 2

    Jonathan Pie might like the idea of forcing something useful to people through.
    Papering over Poverty – one of his good rants with good points.

    • Ad 2.1

      Jonathan Pie is just Bomber with even less governance experience.

      • Lara 2.1.1

        Oh no, come on now. Jonathan Pie is entertaining. Bomber, with all his “comrade” BS is just annoying.

        And Pie does tend to make rather a lot of sense really.

  3. McFlock 3

    There be dragons.

    Thing is, for every Mandela who steps down constitutionally, there are a dozen Mugabes or whomever. Authoritarianism can end well, but almost never does, and I also think that the “good” authoritarians have likely been fondly remembered as the bad they did is oft interred with their bones, papered over by the bumper-sticker “made the place tidy and built up the economy”. Be interesting to see the opinions of people who got on the wrong side of them.

    • Ad 3.1

      Can a future leftie government go far further than Helen Clark or other incrementalist governments while not resorting to non-authoritarian means?

      I think the first question before you get into government is: what can you achieve within the limits of the powers you have?

      Then figure if you have appetite and will to achieve even more by getting even more power.

      • McFlock 3.1.1

        The Triumph of the Will is all well and good, but I think that above a certain level the strength of will and what that enables one to sacrifice in order to achieve your ends becomes inconsistent with the nominal ends you had when you started that journey.

        The left is about cooperation, socialism. Not about dictation. “What I say, goes” is inconsistent with “liberty, equality, fraternity”.

        • Ad

          God I just wish that had been true in the history of the lefts’ governments across the last century, I really do.

          I even wish that had been true of social democrat governments.

          I would like to think there were definitional limits that ruled out the human will to power, capitalised or not. We are all too human. Left or right.

          This is the right debate to have though.

          • One Anonymous Bloke

            I think you’re missing a fundamental feature of social democratic governments: they have to survive against the forces that would tear them apart.

            The opposition isn’t supine when the left is in government. Far from it.

            • Gosman

              This is the excuse most totalitarian leftist governments use to excuse their oppressive policies. “We had to protect the revolution from the reactionary forces arrayed against us”.

              • One Anonymous Bloke

                Really? How fascinating.

                Meanwhile, I was talking about social democratic governments. That’s why I said “social democratic governments”, to give readers a hint that that was what I was talking about.

                You really are fucking useless at reading, as well as being a lying hypocrite.

          • In Vino

            Consider also that the field was always slanted, given Capitalism’s hostility to the very idea of socialism/communism. And a determination to stamp it out.

            Socialism/communism was only ever tried in poor countries, never in the industrialised rich countries. (Russia was big enough to have industry, but on income per capita, always remained a poor country.) (And don’t quote Argentina, which, like NZ, was rich from primary industry for a while. But primary industry provides only a temporary window. Rich countries need heaps of heavy industry.)
            Secondly, Socialism/communism has never been tried in a country with democratic traditions. Russia had a history of despotism under the Czars, and it is well argued by some that Stalin was the most recent of the great Czars. Despots took over and destroyed the socialistic ideals of all those revolutions.

            No fair trial ever held. Right wing rednecks who claim that socialism/communism is a proven failure are simplistic morons who have no depth of historical knowledge.

            • RedLogix

              Socialism/communism has never been tried in a country with democratic traditions

              Exactly. Look at how long it took to get from the Magna Carta to the modern Westminster democracy. And how much blood got split along the way.

            • dobby

              the latest attempt in Venezuela hasn’t worked either. What’s the excuse there?

              • Stuart Munro

                Perhaps you should have a look at the failures of non-socialist states to give you some perspective. In principle Venezuela should resemble Saudi, with significant oil-financed social spending. But instead a corrupt elite decided to contest ownership of the oil assets – resulting in simmering instability.

          • McFlock

            It’s not that the will to power is inconsistent with any definitional limits, it’s that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

            So some people who might have started out with noble causes, like Mugabe, lose all their original principles after being in total power for a while. That’s why Mandela is so spectacular: he achieved his goals and walked away.

            To continue the theme, once you look into the abyss of power through force, the abyss looks back into you…

  4. gsays 4

    the reason we don’t see these people is that they are worn down by the status quo then torn apart by fellow comrades for not being right on enough.

  5. One Anonymous Bloke 5

    Corbyn suggesting requisitioning private property in response to the centrist mass murder at Grenfell. He’s quite capable of wielding authority if you ask me.

    • Ad 5.1

      Aye well, let’s see when he’s actually in power.
      I’ve seen plenty talk poetry on the hustings and hear it go straight prose when in power.

    • Incognito 5.2

      Hmmm, are authority and leadership one and the same?

  6. Stuart Munro 6

    First Dog on the Moon was addressing this question or a related one just the other day.


    • Ad 6.1

      Yup that’s pretty awesome cartooning.

      When Winston Peters can still look like the Tom Jones of politics, there’s something missing.

  7. AB 7

    Occasionally for amusement I read comments on the Daily Telegraph. A number of people commenting there see Corbyn as a rabble-rousing, populist Marxist. Whereas I would have thought he lacks the rhetorical and verbal firepower to be a traditional populist of that sort. I’m thinking for example of the speech that landed Eugene V. Debs in jail during WW1 as a contrast to Corbyn’s polite, reasonable meanderings.
    However he does seem to be popular if not ‘populist’ – perhaps when the ‘rabble’ is ready to be roused it takes only a light touch. So maybe we shouldn’t typecast our populists so much, I think they might come in many forms.
    On authoritarianism – a primary goal of the left should be to limit the unaccountable private power of one citizen (or corporation) over other citizens. This makes left wing ideology anti-authoritarian in its purpose. But if private power can be broken only by state power, how do you avoid becoming the thing you oppose? In reality though, most ‘left’ governments don’t even get to run up against this dilemma because they are so timid when it comes to challenging private economic power due to the damage that can be inflicted by disinvestment and capital flight. I don’t see this situation changing any time soon – even a Corbyn-led government would be very, very cautious on this front.
    So a populist left- yes, but an authoritarian left just isn’t a possibility right now.

    • Ad 7.1

      Yes I would agree with you generally – what I am pointing to is a democratic dilemma. The crises are growing in force, but it appears as if only the right has the will to seize and break power structures.

      I don’t agree that this statement: “a primary goal of the left should be to limit the unaccountable private power of one citizen (or corporation) over other citizens” means that left wing ideology is anti-authoritarian in its purpose.

      It is leftie governments formed the modern instruments of state, together with its massive and grinding Leviathan of coercive instruments. And for the left, it is the state that needs the power and the courage to challenge markets and regulate them to rebuild coherent society again. The left have had plenty of authoritarian governments that have done this.

      • McFlock 7.1.1

        Authoritarianism works in countries that have systems which support monolithic party blocs, parties that can have a majority without coalition or compromise.

        The “left” tends to shun monolithic blocs, fracturing into a thousand pieces on the continuua of incrementalist to revolutionary and authoritarian to acentric. Tories like monoliths more.

        A left-wing government thats authoritarian just enough, but not too much, is a very rare beastie indeed.

        • Ad

          I’m not sure about that first point. Corbyn and Sanders come from pretty different political cultures. I’m not sure bloc formation is the ground for authoritarianism. The ground for authoritarianism is fertile whenever there are both sufficient crises to warrant a population willing to take commands, and when charismatic leaders rise who can play with these crises towards popular command of a singular public agenda.

          We definitely have a personality deficit on the left in New Zealand. Winston still looks good, and that’s a pretty low bar. Joyce looks interesting, English is looking coherent, Little just appears little.

          I still don’t trust a future Labour-Green government to have the will to wield the instruments of power that are still available. Even in housing, where they are making the largest promises. In fact after this amount of time I don’t think there are public servants left who can remember how to really crack heads across Departments.

          • McFlock

            Corbyn and Sanders both work in variations of FPP systems where it largely comes down to Party A vs Party B, rather than having to find common ground between any mixture of Parties A through F on an issue by issue basis.

            Labour and the Greens recognise that it’s not a case of them having a single will to wield power, it’s a case of everybody’s different wills working together to push the mass in a different course. It’s not as efficient as one propellor, or all propellors pointing in the same direction, but that’s the reality of politics: some party propellors point more left or right than others, and it’s the combined force that determines the eventual direction.

      • One Anonymous Bloke 7.1.2

        …leftie governments formed the modern instruments of state, together with its massive and grinding Leviathan of coercive instruments.

        The coercive instruments were there long before that; cf: The Code of Ur-Nammu, Magna Carta etc… no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition either.

        • Ad

          Let’s stick to the postwar state for clarity of discussion please.

          • One Anonymous Bloke


            If you insist, I’m pretty sure Nixon, Thatcher, Pinochet, Reagan, Bush, Bush, Milosevic, Netanyahu and Howard had something to do with the formation of the modern instruments of state too.

            That is to say, they took paradigms that have existed for millennia and chose the ones that suited them best.

      • AB 7.1.3

        “leftie governments formed … grinding coercive instruments”
        I think it’s useful to distinguish authority that is based (even distantly) on democratic processes, from authority that isn’t. They are different in nature even if it may not feel like it if you are on the receiving end.

        “it appears as if only the right has the will to seize and break power structures.”
        I think the will to do so may come from having the power to do so. Easier to break structures that you are already a member of (e.g. Trump)

  8. Stuart Munro 8

    I think a moderate authoritarian left government would play rather well right now – the problem is more the crowding out of such possibilities by other parties who style themselves left.

    The rationale that was used to loot assets like rail and electricity generation has proven to be utterly false; these could be renationalized without a murmur except for the whining of far-right bloggers.

    • Ad 8.1

      Could you imagine a Rogernomic-force and Rogernomic-speed government of the left?

      • One Anonymous Bloke 8.1.1

        Sure. I can also imagine how stupid and disruptive such a government could be unless it took great pains to keep its head well pulled in.

        Democracy actually works if you apply it. Consultation produces far better decisions than diktat.

      • Stuart Munro 8.1.2

        Yes – but not among contemporary parties as I see it at present.

        The market at all costs movement is clearly a failure, so a streamlined version of what we had pre-Rogergnomics would presumably provide measurable gains.

        However, the appeasement of significant monopolist interests by major parties, seafood and road transport for example, suggests that they would struggle to find the political will however blatant the need.

        Labour is not producing reformist/economist leadership, so a clear template for that kind of reform is not coming from them.

        The Greens have many excellent policies, but not a raising grassroots prosperity tide driver like Rewi Alley’s Gung Ho.

        Winston would be amenable to such a process so long as he is in the driving seat (It’s good to be the king!) but plays his cards too close to his chest for any predictions to be made.

        The Gnats are simply too corrupt to function at all, much less contrive a coherent reform.

        ACT is merely a flaccid vesicle of adipose tissue – it’s reforming days are behind it.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 8.2

      There might be a bit of capital flight too, unless said return of stolen and fenced property was managed very carefully.

      • greywarshark 8.2.1

        We would have to be mot careful. Chile was big gungho and was taken out by its generals with USA assistance, as their interests had much to lose and wouldn’t stand for it. The USA will be back for another practice run of possible intervention here in October.

  9. BM 9

    MMP rules out NZ ever having to suffer the trump like fuckwitteries America is facing.

    Left or right, any asshat who wants to be a dictatorial wanker is pushing shit uphill, our political system and ratios doesn’t allow it.

    Which is NZ has been so centric for the last 20 years, that’s all you can be in an MMP environment.

    • Stuart Munro 9.1

      Rubbish – Key was every bit as irresponsible as Trump, he just didn’t tweet his meltdowns to the whole world. Both equally worthless – no governance happened.

    • Draco T Bastard 9.2

      MMP rules out NZ ever having to suffer the trump like fuckwitteries America is facing.

      We just had one such fuckwit retire.

    • Ad 9.3

      If that were the case, we would expect other countries with similar electoral systems to also have strong politicians like Trump from rising. I don’t see any evidence for this claim.

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