Authoritarian Man: the Axis of Good

Tom Nairn
30 July 2003

I suspect that W.B. Yeats’ Spiritus Mundi must by now be disturbing all serious students of globalisation who read poetry. In The Second Coming (1921) he intuited a desert monster – with lion body and the head of a man, and a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun – the rough beast of futurity shambling towards its inheritance, quite unlike the progressive bloke liberal theorists had been looking out for.

Yeats was addressing nationalism and fascism between the two world wars. But what if that was only one episode in a longer-running drama that is now reasserting itself?

This thought is hard to avoid for anyone returning from Australia to a practically unrecognisable United Kingdom, in which a decent, married man bleeds himself to death to escape the state, nobody resigns, and the BBC stands accused (by Her Majesty’s Government as well as the Murdoch press) of peddling disrespectful lies unto other nations. Meanwhile the satrapy Leader soaks up seventeen standing ovations from the US Congress, before spending a week sorting out coalition affairs in the East Asia. This man is also known for his renditions of progressive-bloke liberalism.

The grander ‘what’s up?’ query may also be put more concretely. For two decades, the globe has heard about little but the decline of the dreary old nation-state: lowering borders, less state interference, just one market under God ... and so on. How come then, that following 11 September 2001, by far the greatest explosion of nationalism since 1945 has taken place in the United States of America – the alleged identikit for global democracy, and the motor of the globalising process itself?

Whatever became of ‘economic man’, and an increasingly prominent economic woman? They were thought to be above this kind of thing. Yet now, even after demolishing the caves of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, they have responded with a huge armed attack upon a grotesque tyranny in another continent which, however, had nothing to do with the 2001 atrocity, in a melodramatic assertion of political and military national dominance — albeit cloaked, like its predecessors, in the ectoplasm of ‘universal’ this-and-that.

The chains of greatness

One interpretation might be as follows: nationality was always far more important than liberal and left-wing ideology conceded, as indeed Professor Liah Greenfeld has argued in her The Spirit of Capitalism (2001). It mattered to progress on a deeper or structural level. And it was never essentially a concern of small or sidelined peoples.

At root, national-ism is big-headed because it has always been a great-nation phenomenon. The ‘-ism’ itself arose in the French language, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian and the American Civil War. It signaled a will to restored or newfound greatness, rather than to all-round ethnic rights or parity. It was really a prelude to, and a necessary condition of the successor ‘-ism’ of empire — even though humanity’s small battalions were then all forced to react with versions of the same creed (to the disgust of people like W.B. Yeats in Ireland).

During the inter-war era, would-be great nations like Italy, Germany and Japan, defeated or marginalised by the more successful, resorted to even more extreme forms of the same authoritarian creed. So indeed did the Russians, with their distinctive developmental variant of communism.

But when these were again defeated, it did not follow that the underlying impulse subsided with the passing of fascism and communism. With absolute certainty, we now know it did not. The Iraq war of 2003 was generally felt as having something inevitable about it — because it derived from profounder sources than the risks to US profit margins or petroleum problems.

The homo imperiosus we now confront is therefore a far more determined character than that homo economicus of whom far too much has been made in the fourteen years since the end of the cold war. Look at him on the rebound today, in those ‘more successful’ nations that had been the original leaders of the development race. These are the very early-modern liberal democracies the fascists and communists sought in vain to challenge and overtake.

But now the nations of Anglo-liberal success feel threatened in themselves. And they have reacted by pre-emptive war, as well as with the unmistakable rise of a climatic authoritarianism facilitated by the info-tech revolution (one of whose side-effects is obsession with presentation or ‘spin’, culture as power-tool). Fascism in the old sense (uniformed, rural-based, blood-obsessed) is of course beyond the pale in industrialised countries, though it remains optional in parts of Asia and Africa. However, the ‘authoritarian personality’ has recreated itself with a vengeance, and is enjoying a renaissance everywhere. These are not relapses into fascism; in the fuller retrospect of globalisation, fascism appears as a crude trial run for them.

The claims of destiny

This new-old successor was pioneered in the former number one world power, Great Britain, first by Thatcherism and now Blairism. Then it was carried forward by George W. Bush’s 2000 coup d’état, and echoed approvingly by John Howard’s war against asylum-seekers in Australia. In the United Kingdom, every trope of the present David Kelly affair illustrates the farther emergence of such heedless, ‘there-is-no-alternative’ authoritarianism.

At global level, the shift is to be sanctioned by a plebiscitary presidential election in the US next year. These states naturally defend ‘democracy’, in the sense of their respective (and astonishingly decrepit) early-modern constitutions — while allowing the latter to moulder away in practice amid mounting popular abstention (except for the Australians, who have a more authoritarian solution: compulsory voting). In all three, nationalism remains decisively more important than democracy and constitutional reform.

Just what is this pitiable spawn of ‘the West’ afraid of? In Australia and Britain, it is national identity-loss — reduction to the ranks of ordinariness. In the US, another kind of disappearance is more acutely dreaded — internal multiculturalism, plus the utter economic dependence upon ‘globalisation’ entailed by the state’s own post-1989 success.

This must be why the fate of the Romans has come to figure so prominently in that country’s current paranoia. Eventually, Rome dissolved into its own empire. But its contemporary successors are determined that Pax Americana, the world redeemed from communism, will remain theirs. To justify this manifest destiny, Weapons of Mass Destruction (moral as well as physical) will always be found in Evil hands: the mandate of globalisation thus conceived decrees that there can be but one Axis of Good.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W.B. Yeats, from Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921)

How do we work after coronavirus?

The pandemic has profoundly changed our working lives. Millions have lost their jobs; others have had no choice but to continue working at great risk to their health. Many more have shouldered extra unpaid labour such as childcare.

Work has also been redefined. Some workers are defined as 'essential' – but most of them are among the lowest-paid in our societies.

Could this be an opportunity?

Amid the crisis, there has been a rise in interest in radical ideas, from four-day weeks to universal basic income.

Join us on 5pm UK time on 20 August as we discuss whether the pandemic might finally be a moment for challenging our reliance on work.

In conversation:

Sarah Jaffe, journalist and author of 'Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone', due to be published next year.

Amelia Horgan, academic and author of 'Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism', also due to be published next year.

Chair: Alice Martin, advisory board member of Autonomy, a think tank dedicated to the future of work.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData