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7 December 2023updated 21 Dec 2023 12:12pm

The new authoritarian personality

What is driving the resurgence of the libertarian far right?

By Oliver Nachtwey and Carolin Amlinger

The political success of libertarians is arguably the most astonishing phenomenon of these strange times. They traditionally privilege individual freedom over, and at the expense of, collective freedom. But another emerging characteristic, one also shared by its most prominent adherents – such as Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and the anarcho-capitalist and Argentine president-elect Javier Milei – is that their libertarianism is infused with authoritarian tendencies.

Like neoliberals, libertarians are sceptical of the democratic state, not as a threat to smoothly functioning markets, but as a machine that restricts individual freedoms. Neoliberals use the state to strengthen the market, whereas libertarians consider the state itself, the authorities and their regulations, to be invasive and harmful. They also mobilise against multiculturalism and what they perceive to be enforced solidarity with vulnerable groups, such as asylum seekers or minority groups, and many were vehemently opposed to the lockdowns and other biomedical requirements, such as mask-wearing, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Libertarian prophets are not new – the 20th-century writer Ayn Rand is the best-known exponent. What is new, and worrying, is that in Germany, and across Europe, the libertarian social base has expanded significantly in recent decades. A new social character is emerging in modern Western societies: the libertarian-authoritarian personality – a dark by-product of late modernity.

In the preface to The Authoritarian Personality (1950), the Marxist critical theorist Max Horkheimer spoke of “the rise of an ‘anthropological’ species we call the authoritarian type of man”. This person combined rationalism and anti-rationalism, and is “at the same time enlightened and superstitious, proud to be an individualist and in constant fear of not being like all the others, jealous of his independence and inclined to submit blindly to power and authority”. The emerging libertarian-authoritarian personality shares some elements with classical authoritarianism, but does not submit to conventional values, such as discipline, orderliness and diligence. The new authoritarian personality is the paradoxical result of advanced individualism, growing demands for political participation, and access to higher education.

[See also: There’s nothing moderate about “centrism”]

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The tendency to reject rules or new laws is increasingly prominent in Western societies. It is a consequence of what researchers call the hyper-empowerment of individuals. Liberal modernity has given rise to numerous institutions – ministries, ombudsmen, labour rights and so on – that improve people’s way of life. More people are being socialised in a post-authoritarian, liberal environment. They were raised in a permissive environment in which authoritarian values such as discipline and unquestioning obedience to power played a lesser role at school, university and at work.

But thanks to their better education, modern libertarians are increasingly sceptical of institutions because they believe they know better than the experts. On the one hand, information access has become democratised; on the other hand, the result of scientific advancements and disciplinary specialisation is that individuals have a poorer understanding of the world that surrounds them.

And yet, people nevertheless want to be equally recognised subjects, albeit not so much with respect to their knowledge, but rather with respect to their opinions. Here is the basis of libertarian authoritarians’ post-truth politics: the inability to know the changing world around them and a yearning for political participation. The authoritarian personality wants all opinions (especially their own) to be taken seriously. In late-modern conflicts over freedom, such as the wearing of masks, vaccinations and climate measures, libertarian authoritarians validate their views with proto-scientific evidence, rumours, conspiracy theories and fake news.

Watch: Simon Wolley and Graham Smith join the Westminster Reimagined podcast to discuss the future, and fate, of British democracy

Neoliberalism, which since the 1980s has portrayed political and social institutions as harmful to markets and individuals, is also an underlying factor behind the rise of this libertarian authoritarianism. Although individuals are as free now as never before, social restraints have not disappeared. Setting oneself apart from the crowd, achieving self-realisation and self-improvement – these requirements are often imposed on us. For example, in many professions, having your own social media profile is no longer optional if you want to stand out. It is a necessary part of competing in the labour market. All this takes place in an anxious world in which social and cultural norms constantly change, and late-modern individuals take offence if they can’t fulfil their aspirations for self-development. With their orientation towards self-realisation and authenticity, they seek immanence: that is, they don’t want to change the world, they want to improve themselves – and desire stability in alternative forms of transcendence precisely for this reason.

Where does this longing for transcendence come from? Late modernity is a capitalist modernity, which, as a permanent process of rationalisation and secularisation, constantly gives rise to what Georg Lukács called “transcendental homelessness”. Modern humans have lost any spiritual sense of meaning. For Lukács, reading novels was one way of dealing with this problem. One can immerse oneself in literature and imagine a different world. Today, the growing numbers of esoteric communities and other forms of spiritual sense-making indicate there is considerable demand for transcendence.

Fourth card featured in the Rorschach test, a psychological test in which a patient’s perceptions of and responses to a series of abstract inkblots are recorded and analysed by a psychologist. Photo by Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The anti-lockdown querdenken movement in Germany is an expression of the new libertarian-authoritarian personality. A coalition of anthroposophists, former supporters of the Greens, activists from the old ecology movement demonstrated together with supporters of the hard-right Alternative for Germany party, sovereign citizens and conspiracy theorists. They share a distinctive aggression, superstition, destructiveness and cynicism about vulnerable groups. But they are neither conventional nor submissive to authorities. On the contrary, they often reject all and any social authorities, above all the state and “mainstream” experts. The only authority they recognise is themselves. Freedom is an unconditional value, and they refuse to reconcile it with – let alone restrict it for the benefit of – the freedom of others. They conceive of this freedom as their sole right, which only they dispose of – a kind of reified freedom. They own their freedom like a commodity. In this sense, they are libertarians because they consider their own individual freedom to be absolute.

Yet this is simultaneously the proof of their authoritarian inclination. They devalue those who represent or adhere to a concept of freedom that differs from their own. It is this form of aggressive discouragement that makes them libertarian authoritarians.

Criticising state measures that restrict freedom is legitimate and sometimes even desirable. But what emerges from our research in Germany (though the same tendencies can be observed across Europe) is that the form of criticism is permeated by conspiracy theories that traverse right-wing thinking. The conspiracy theories – such as “the great reset”, or that Bill Gates is trying to forcibly vaccinate the world – were also the basis for fantasies of punishment and violence against experts, politicians and opponents.

Despite their intense critique of liberal democracy, libertarian authoritarians consider themselves democrats. At the same time, they are usually not the fascistic personalities that Horkheimer’s colleague Theodor Adorno considered high-scorers on his F-scale personality test. Today’s libertarian authoritarians have been democratically socialised and profess participatory values. That said, they often have few reservations over standing alongside fascists. They are so disappointed with democracy that they become vulnerable to the authoritarian drift, not only taking a temporary right-wing turn but maintaining such a stance in the long run.

[See also: On the responsibility of intellectuals]

Libertarian authoritarians’ anger is directed against the modern state. It is still a class state. Some social groups, among them men of an advanced age, are losing their uncontested position of power, which they perceive as a loss of freedom. Society’s democratisation, inclusion and equality efforts restrict those subjective freedoms they previously enjoyed in their class and status hierarchies.

Many libertarian authoritarians also consider themselves victims of supposed progressive usurpers (“left-liberal cosmopolitans”), who have seized power over the state, the universities and the media. To them, this entails a new divide: the antagonism between the illiberal rule of the left-liberal elites and the democratic majority, between a higher-educated centre and a hard-working periphery.

Things that could be said or done in the past which are today considered unseemly has little to do with the decline of freedom of expression, but rather with how those affected at the time lacked the (social) power to object to such statements or actions; and that people complied in a kind of anticipatory obedience – many did not even think of protesting against sexist conventions or racial slurs. It took the civil rights movement for the N-word to disappear from the active vocabulary, and for the legal discrimination of women to no longer be taken for granted. Today, freedom of expression is even greater, as more groups of people can express their opinions publicly.

But discrimination continues – inside households, in the appointment of executive positions and, particularly, regarding income. And yet the realisation of equality, at least in normative terms, has never been as advanced as it is today. The emotional charge of current conflicts is not the result of a new hypersensitivity, but of power struggles fought over questions of morality. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out the problem in his book on American democracy in the 1830s: the greater the equality of individuals, the greater the conflict over the remaining differences.

The expansion of democratic inclusion and equality, however, comes at a price, which is causing today’s battles over freedom. Social rights were dismantled along with the move towards democratic inclusion. For workers, the unemployed and the poor, this signified a reduction of their individual liberties. For the established elites, the inclusion of previously excluded groups amounted to a loss of power. In this new power struggle, left-liberals often act exactly like those who have now partially lost their privileges: just like elites. By pursuing a “progressive neoliberalism”, while ignoring material social issues, left-liberalism not only allowed libertarian authoritarians to present themselves as the representatives of “ordinary people” – right-wing populists, too, are eagerly seizing on this opportunity.

The rise of libertarian authoritarianism is also a consequence of the weakness of the left and social movements. It has often lost its anti-establishment appeal. Many people no longer see the left as sufficiently critical of the state and the media. It is no longer seen as a legitimate representative of a collective criticism of power and a productive counter-knowledge. Social movements such as feminism and the anti-nuclear movement have repeatedly rationalised criticism of power; libertarian authoritarians selectively align themselves with the conspiracy-theory knowledge that only serves to maintain their general suspicion of the (now: left-liberal) elites.

Late-modern societies have entered an era of polycrisis, when all efforts by the political elites to contain the various crises lead to a permanent state of emergency – in which only fictions of normality are maintained. However, because liberalism prevents any real transformation of capitalism or any enlightened thinking about alternatives, it is becoming increasingly paternalistic, and intervening more deeply in individuals’ lives, such as in the fight against climate change. The austerity policies of the last 25 years also play a part. Citizens were repeatedly told that there was no money, but in crisis situations (such as the financial crisis) there was always enough money. This has produced a deep alienation among citizens, fuelling the rise of libertarian authoritarianism and new forms of ungovernability.

[See also: New millennium fascists]

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