Downward Social Mobility and Authoritarianism


Authoritarianism’s Popular Base

Inexorably linked to self-identity molded by the social environment, political identity, shaped by social class and the hegemonic culture, largely determines the individual’s participation in the political arena. Not the only factor that shapes political behavior, social mobility along with cultural conditioning is the catalyst to molding political identity. In the age of mass politics where bourgeois political parties inculcate the idea that sovereignty rests with the voting masses rather than with the elites determining the political class, sociopolitical mobilization becomes especially important amid the prospect of downward social mobility affecting the middle class and workers.

The twilight of the merit-based upward mobility, especially among younger people, has shaken public confidence in the Western liberal value system. Erosion of such confidence has been taking place just as neoliberal politicians in the past four decades were promising a better life for millennials and generation Z taking the hardest hit from downward mobility. The direct historical correlation between downward social mobility and the rise of authoritarianism points to the chasm between what the political economy promises and what it actually delivers. This holds true for all countries, including the advanced capitalist core operating under the umbrella of a pluralist representative government where the promise of upward mobility is the elusive goal.

Following the deep recession of 2008, the transition from a liberal model to one that incorporates characteristic of authoritarian regime has been most striking especially in countries that underwent austerity whether under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund-sponsored or nationally imposed. Resulting in income transfer from the lower income groups to the highest, austerity created popular resistance that in some cases has been met by policies typically identified with authoritarian regimes.

Needless to point out, the socioeconomic elites demanding income redistribution from the bottom up fully supported austerity measures as part of recovering capital lost during the recession. Consequently, the focus of bourgeois politicians was whether to further legitimize the authoritarian model as a means of managing the neoliberal political economy, or maintain vestiges of pluralism and a social safety net that projects the image of a democratic society. Ultimately, the core issue was the manner with which to manage growing inequality amid downward social mobility, while maintaining a popular voting base.

Contrary to popular belief, which the right wing media and apologists of authoritarianism promote, it is not the working class as much as the middle class that supports authoritarianism amid downward mobility. This was the case with the transition from liberal democracy to Fascism in Italy in the early 1920s and in Germany in the early 1930s. As the middle class realized that downward socioeconomic mobility entails descending to the level of the working class, the reaction was to rhetorically castigate the capitalist elites and globalization, while seeking solutions in an authoritarian political party to rescue them from the downward cycle through repressive measures at the expense of the working class and dissidents advocating more equitable income distribution. Anti-globalization in the form of nationalism became the rallying cry of authoritarian politicians in the quest to mobilize popular support amid disillusionment with the political class.

The realization that a liberal pluralist society no longer yields upward mobility entails insecurity about the future and disillusionment with the core value system of Western liberalism on the part of the middle class and workers alike, regardless of whether their political identity is with the right center or left. Inability to maintain living standards amid rising cost of living, and insecurity about the future drives the petit bourgeoisie to embrace the mythology of right wing rhetoric promising upward mobility through authoritarian measures. Populist right wing politicians and advocates of authoritarianism deflect the public’s attention by offering culture wars as a substitute for policy that would reverse downward social mobility.

Following the lead of right wing politicians and media, the middle class blames “liberal elites” for pursuing globalization, and the exploited working class for demanding social justice through varieties of ways including unionization, equal pay for equal work, etc. Besides failing to assess accurately the contradiction of capitalism’s creation of social injustice, the middle class aspiration to become a capitalist, combined with the fear that it could reduced to working class status are elements that authoritarian politicians and propagandists exploit. They offer voters “someone to hate”, namely, marginalized social groups and a select few billionaire advocates of globalization, with China as the new Cold War enemy on which to default calamities befalling the working class.

Besides a segment of the middle class supporting authoritarianism as a political solution amid downward social mobility, a minority of the working class has a similar reaction with a different focus. Invariably “labor aristocracy”, that is, the higher paid working class, espouses the same position as the petit bourgeoisie on authoritarianism, thus projecting the image that workers make up the popular base of the right wing. Lower-paid workers generally support centrist or progressive policies, while the lumpenproletariat remains apathetic, thus susceptible to rightwing propaganda. More characteristic of the higher paid working class than the middle class, anti-immigration and anti-minority attitudes, which authoritarian politicians and right wing media propagate to deflect focus from the political economy responsible for downward social mobility, become the catalyst for mobilizing mass support.

The higher the level of downward mobility, chronic rather than ephemeral owing to cyclical economic contractions, the more intense the xenophobic, racist, and misogynist attitudes on the part of higher-paid white workers who feel threatened by the marginalized low-wage migrant and minority workers. In addition, low-wage laborers in Asia and Latin America are the other enemy, rather than the multinationals exploiting such labor. Not just right wing media and politicians, but mainstream liberal politicians and media analysts contribute to this phenomenon by focusing on culture wars rather than global capitalism undercutting the working class in all countries, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, etc.

The tendencies of the petit bourgeois and upper working class elements is to oppose the liberal pluralist institutional structure which they see as an obstacle to upward mobility. In addition, they argue against the multilateral world order and in favor of a strong nationalist identity. Ironically, the goal of progressive and reactionary workers and the middle class converges in so far as both sides advocate upward mobility. However, they differ sharply on the means of achieving it and who is at fault for the underlying problem. Progressives see social justice as the overarching solution for society, while reactionaries support hierarchical authoritarianism that would serve narrow class interests.

Downward Mobility and the Rise of Authoritarianism in the US

After the recession of 2008, sharp downward social mobility coincided with the rise of right wing populism in a number of countries, among them India, Brazil, Hungary, Austria, Poland, and US. The recession took place against the background of chronic widening income gap globally. China was a notable exception owing largely to the government stimulating internal demand to compensate for the drop in exports – balancing the export-oriented growth strategy with income distribution designed to lift millions out of poverty. India also made inroads on the global social mobility rankings, but not nearly at the level of China that ranks 45 as compared to 76 out of 82 countries, below Brazil and slightly above Pakistan.

In developed and semi-developed countries, expectations for horizontal economic growth translating into upward social mobility never materialized, despite corporate bailout economic recovery. On the contrary, downward mobility was the new reality with which to contend amid vertical economic growth. During the presidential election of 2012, Obama candidly admitted that economic recovery from the recession was in full swing but the richest 1% benefited, while the bottom 70% suffered continued decline of income.

Whether under the auspices of the Internal Monetary Fund (IMF) or imposed by individual governments, since 2008 austerity measures contributed to capital concentration, while hastening downward mobility as government focused on corporate bailout and varieties of corporate subsidies. Reacting to anger from the middle class and workers, traditional conservative political parties around the world, including the US Republican Party, moved to the camp of right wing populism at the local level gradually capturing national leadership. Going as far as to embrace aspects of classical interwar Fascism, they further inculcated skepticism into the political consciousness of the public regarding the legitimacy of the liberal institutional structure intertwined with globalization.

Rhetorically oppose globalization, while embracing national capitalism, right wing political parties presented themselves as advocates of the middle class and struggling workers whose income had stayed the same in real terms for decades. Injecting skepticism about globalization-based liberal world order, the right wing often wrapped rhetoric in outlandish conspiracy theories about the liberal political and social elites trying to create a world government. The result of such propaganda was a weakened centrist bourgeois consensus and polarization not just the political arena, but all institutions. Combined with the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s right wing presidency encouraged right wing populism at home and globally. The symbolism of his populist right wing presidency contributed to wider global skepticism about the social order and elites that transcend national boundaries whose goal is one world government.

More than a century after US Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs declared that the existing social order founded on inequality was immoral and unsustainable, the Republican Party had fully embraced aspects of Fascist ideology, questioning mainstream institutions as part of the “deep state”, liberal elites whose interests were linked to China, and progressive dissidents trying to impose egalitarianism and erase American identity of rugged individualism as depicted in the mythology of exceptionalism about the inherent superiority of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant capitalist. The goal behind the Republican Party’s move to the authoritarian camp was and remains to maintain a mostly white popular base and win elections amid a sharp rise in socioeconomic inequality, with the help of voter suppression laws among other means such as redistricting laws. Instigating culture wars, legislating voter exclusion at the state level, and publicly supporting white supremacy groups, the new reactionary Republican Party invokes religion, nationalism, and militarism as cloaks of traditional conservative values to obfuscate and distract from the underlying class struggle.

Considering that downward social mobility is continuing without prospects of reversing course, the right wing populist electoral challenge is to capture a popular base among the middle class and workers. For its part, the Democratic Party has addressed rising socioeconomic inequality by defending the bourgeois institutional structure, pledging to defend the pluralist society and restore some social safety net measures. To protect the privileged capitalist class while suppressing aspirations of the working class and the dwindling debt-ridden middle class, both political parties are committed to corporate welfare capitalism under different political models.

Both parties distance their ideological and policy positions from the progressive social justice platform; both use the military industrial complex as leverage to maintain a domestic culture of fear of the “foreign enemy”, while maintaining a global competitive edge rapidly eroding. The Republican Party no longer makes any pretenses about its commitment to authoritarianism. For its part, the Democratic Party is desperately fighting to conserve the status quo ante with a heavy emphasis on “identity groups” including blacks, Muslims, Hispanics, LGBTQ and others, as a substitute for social justice that would encompass all and address the growing income inequality and downward social mobility.

As income distribution becomes more uneven amid capital concentration, right wing populist support from the middle class and a segment of the working class will continue to grow in the US and other countries. In part, this is because the left is weaker and more divided than the right. Vacillating between pluralist liberals like President Joe Biden and progressive candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders, the latter with no chance of winning, the progressives are invariably co-opted by the bourgeois center which needs progressive popular support to win but largely ignores the progressive agenda.

Despite division within the rightist camp between traditional conservatives and advocates of authoritarianism, the right is stronger than the bourgeois-co-opted left. This is not only the case in the US but in most countries, as elections have become a dilemma of “the lesser evil”. While there is division within the conservative camp, it reflects the division among some capitalists concerned about losing a segment of the diverse consumer base if society alienates liberals and progressives who make up the majority of the population. Liberal politicians use the issue of pluralism to emphasize that it is not smart business to alienate both workers and consumers in a world economy where race, ethnicity, gender, religion and lifestyle must be considered.

Although at ease about their stability within a pluralist liberal regime and with globalization, most corporations vehemently oppose the progressives that demand social justice, upward mobility, equality, and a functioning democracy where government is accountable to the people instead of Wall Street. The divided liberal-progressive popular base is a key reason for the stronger right wing political movement, especially given the active or tacit support of capitalist behind the right wing. This entails the constant move of the entire political arena to the right amid continuing downward social mobility. In the next economic downturn, the US already has a political party with the ideological and political makings of a native-style Fascist Party. Given the expanding local and state-base of the populist right wing, it will be very easy for any number of Republicans to rise to power as Fascist in ideology and policies, while claiming to represent democracy.

Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.



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