Authoritarianism

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Authoritarianism is a political stance supporting forms of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. Civil liberties are subordinate to the state and there is little or no reliable constitutional accountability under an authoritarian regime.

See also:
Fascism
Nazism
Totalitarianism

Quotes[edit]

Violence is the whole essence of authoritarianism, just as the repudiation of violence is the whole essence of anarchism. ~ Errico Malatesta.
The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians. ~ George Orwell
Driven by an inherent logic of force and brutality, authoritarian regimes—particularly those with delusions of imperial grandeur—commit atrocities with indifference and even abandon. And they bring their populations along with them, willingly or unwillingly. ~ Shadi Hamid
Authoritarianism corrupts society. Because punishment and reward are made into arbitrary instruments of the state, citizens have little incentive to pool resources, cooperate, or trust others. Survival is paramount, and survival requires putting one’s own interests above everything else, including traditional morality. ~ Shadi Hamid
That the more authoritarian organizations survive and prevail goes generally unnoticed because people focus on the objectives of organizations, which are many and varied, rather than on their structures, which tend to be similar. ~ Robert Shea
However sugarcoated and ambiguous, every form of authoritarianism must start with a belief in some group's greater right to power, whether that right is justified by sex, race, class, religion or all four. ~ Gloria Steinem
  • Most traditional societies produce an authoritarian personality, but some produce an innovative one, which leads to change.
    • Bert N. Adams and Rosalind Ann Sydie in Sociological Theory (2001), p. 449
  • Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want--which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal. In my day, authoritarian fascist and authoritarian communist dictatorships posed the biggest threats to democracies, and eventually lost to them in wars both hot and cold. But authoritarianism itself has not disappeared, and I'm going to present the case in this book that the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation.
  • As many have pointed out, the Republic is once again passing through perilous times. The concept of a constitutional democracy has been under attack--and by the American government no less! The mid-term elections of 2006 give hope that the best values and traditions of the country will ultimately prevail. But it could prove a huge mistake to think that the enemies of freedom and equality have lost the war just because they were recently rebuffed at the polls. I’ll be very much surprised if their leaders don’t frame the setback as a test of the followers’ faith, causing them to redouble their efforts. They came so close to getting what they want, they’re not likely to pack up and go away without an all-out drive. But even if their leaders cannot find an acceptable presidential candidate for 2008, even if authoritarians play a much diminished role in the next election, even if they temporarily fade from view, they will still be there, aching for a dictatorship that will force their views on everyone. And they will surely be energized again, as they were in 1994, if a new administration infuriates them while carrying out its mandate. The country is not out of danger.
  • Authoritarian followers seem to have a “Daddy and mommy know best” attitude toward the government. They do not see laws as social standards that apply to all. Instead, they appear to think that authorities are above the law, and can decide which laws apply to them and which do not--just as parents can when one is young. But in a democracy no one is supposed to be above the law. Still, authoritarians quite easily put that aside. They also believe that only criminals and terrorists would object to having their phones tapped, their mail opened, and their lives put under surveillance. They have bought their tickets and are standing in line waiting for 1984, The Real Thing. There might as well not be a Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. And when the Military Commissions Act of 2006 is used to deny people the right of habeas corpus--one of the oldest rights in western law--it is unlikely that right-wing authoritarians will object to the loss of this constitutional guarantee either.
  • You’ve got to feel some sympathy for authoritarian followers at this point, don’t you, because they get nailed coming and going. First of all, they rely on the authorities in their lives to provide their opinions. Usually they don’t care much what the evidence or the logic for a position is, so they run a considerable chance of being wrong. Then once they have “their” ideas, someone who comes along and says what authoritarian followers want to hear becomes trustworthy. High RWAs largely ignore the reasons why someone might have ulterior motives for saying what they want to hear; it’s enough for them that another person indicates they are right. Welcome to the In-group! As Gilbert and Sullivan put it in The Mikado, “And I am right and you are right and everything is quite correct.” But everything is not correct, for the authoritarian follower makes himself vulnerable to malevolent manipulation by chucking out critical thinking and prudence as the price for maintaining his beliefs. He’s an “easy mark,” custom-built to be snookered. And the very last thing an authoritarian leader wants is for his followers to start using their heads, to start thinking critically and independently about things.
  • We know a lot about authoritarian followers, but unfortunately most of what we know indicates it will be almost impossible to change their minds, especially in a few months. Here are some things established by experiments. See if you recognize any of these behaviors in Trump supporters. Compared with most people:
    They are highly ethnocentric, highly inclined to see the world as their in-group versus everyone else. Because they are so committed to their in-group, they are very zealous in its cause. They will trust their leaders no matter what they say, and distrust whomever the leader says to distrust.
    They are highly fearful of a dangerous world. Their parents taught them, more than parents usually do, that the world is dangerous. They may also be genetically predisposed to experience stronger fear than people skilled at “keeping their heads while others are losing theirs.”
    They are highly self-righteous. They believe they are the “good people” and this unlocks a lot of hostile impulses against those they consider bad.
    They are aggressive. Given the chance to attack someone with the approval of an authority, they will lower the boom.
    They are highly prejudiced against racial and ethnic minorities, non-heterosexuals, and women in general.
    They will support their authorities, and even help them, persecute almost any identifiable group in the country.
    Their beliefs are a mass of contradictions. They have highly compartmentalized minds, in which opposite beliefs live independent lives in separate boxes. As a result, their thinking is full of double-standards.
    They reason poorly. If they like the conclusion of an argument, they don’t pay much attention to whether the evidence is valid or the argument is consistent. They especially have trouble realizing a conclusion is invalid.
    They are highly dogmatic. Because they have mainly gotten their beliefs from the authorities in their lives, rather than think things out for themselves, they have no real defense when facts or events indicate they are wrong. So they just dig in their heels and refuse to change.
    They are very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. They think they are right because almost everyone they know and listen to tells them they are. That happens because they screen out sources that will suggest that they are wrong.
    Because they severely limit their exposure to different people and ideas, they vastly overestimate the extent to which other people agree with them. And thinking they are “the moral majority” supports their attacks on the “evil minorities” they see in the country.
    They believe strongly in group cohesiveness, and being loyal. They are highly energized when surrounded by a crowd of fellow-believers because it makes them feel powerful and supports their belief that “all the good people” agree with them.
    They are easily duped by manipulators who pretend to espouse their causes when all the con-artists really want is personal gain.
    They are largely blind to themselves. They have little self-understanding and insight into why they think and do what they do. They are heavily into denial.
    I hasten to add that studies find examples of all these things in lots of others, not just authoritarian followers. But not as consistently, and not nearly as much.
  • We understand quite well who Trump’s followers are. The October 2019 Monmouth Poll reported in Authoritarian Nightmare found they are the most prejudiced people in America. Their prejudices and many other shortcomings are rooted in authoritarianism, and studies show that authoritarian followers have many emotional and cognitive weaknesses which explain why they are longing for a strong leader who will take their side against the “others” they find threatening. They are highly fearful, ethnocentric, and have uncritically copied the ideas of the authorities in their lives. Their beliefs are highly compartmentalized, even contradictory; they use many double-standards in their judgments; they have lots of trouble distinguishing good from bad evidence; they are highly defensive and dogmatic; they have little self-insight, and a host of other imperfections. Demographically, the two pillars of Trump’s base are white Christian evangelicals and white male blue-collar workers. Both groups score highly on a measure of submission to authority named the RWA Scale.
    American authoritarian followers formed strong emotional bonds to Donald Trump in 2015 because he shouted their grievances and screamed out their fears, giving voice to things they were thinking but keeping bottled up within themselves. (They still think “He says it like it is,” when he was undoubtedly the biggest liar in the history of the presidency.) Trump supporters, being highly ethnocentric, have also formed strong bonds with each other and provide the widely noted “echo chamber” for each other that reinforces their own opinions. They believe strongly in group solidarity, and their desire to be a good member of the In-Group helps explain their enduring loyalty to him no matter what he does. In many respects, Trump’s followers have built a fence around themselves and formed a cult.
  • When true freedom covers the earth, we shall see the end of tyranny - politically, religiously and economically. I am not here referring to modern democracy as a condition which meets the needs, for democracy is at present a philosophy of wishful thinking, and an unachieved ideal. I refer to that period which will surely come, in which an enlightened people will rule; these people will not tolerate authoritarianism in any political system; they will not accept or permit the rule of any body of men who undertake to tell them what they must believe in order to be saved, or what government they must accept.
  • As I said in my inaugural address, we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s. American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.
    • Joe Biden, "On America's Place in the World," as quoted in Vital Speeches of the Day, 87(4), pp. 70–73.
  • They are the driven crowds that makes the army of the authoritarian overlord; they are the stuffing of conservatism ... mediocrity is their god. They fear the stranger, they fear the new idea; they are afraid to live, and scared to die.
  • Hierarchic and authoritarian structures are not self-justifying. They have to have a justification. So if there is a relation of subordination and domination, maybe you can justify it, but there's a strong burden of proof on anybody who tries to justify it. Quite commonly, the justification can't be given. It's a relationship that is maintained by obedience, by force, by tradition, by one or another form of sometimes physical, sometimes intellectual or moral coercion. If so, it ought to be dismantled. People ought to become liberated and discover that they are under a form of oppression which is illegitimate, and move to dismantle it.
    What happens next? We don't really know. There are people who think they know the answer. I'm not one of them. My view is, we don't understand very much about human beings or human affairs, so anything that would be done has to be experimentally tried, but I think there are some leading ideas that make some good sense.
  • The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, unfolding around the world as I write these words, will likely be remembered as an epochal shift. In this extended winter, as borders close, as lockdowns and quarantines multiply, as people succumb and recover, there is a strong sense that, when the spring finally arrives we will awaken in a drastically changed landscape. Those of us now in isolation, in spite of our fear and frustrations, in spite of our grief ⁠— for those who have died or may die, for the life we once lived, for the future we once hoped for ⁠— there is also a sense we are cocooned, transforming, waiting, dreaming. True: Terrors stalk the global landscape, notably the way the virus ⁠— or our countermeasures ⁠— will endanger those among us whom we, as a society, have already abandoned or devalued. So many of us are already disposable. So many of us are only learning it now, too late. Then there is the dangerous blurring of the line between humanitarian and authoritarian measures. There is the geopolitical weaponization of the pandemic.
  • After months of chaos, isolation and fear, the desire to return to normal, even if normal is an abusive system, may be extremely strong. The stage is set for this desire to be accompanied by a frantic revanchism. Will we want someone to blame, especially those of us who lose loved ones? Must there be blood, figurative or literal?: a baptism by fire so that the old order ⁠— which, of course, created the conditions of austerity and inequality that made this plague so devastating⁠ — can be reborn in purified form. Of course, things will never be “normal” again: some of us, the privileged and wealthy, may be afforded the illusion, but this illusion is likely to be carried on the backs of the vast majority who will work harder, longer and for less, suffer greater risks and fewer rewards. The debts of the pandemic, literal and figurative, will have to be repaid.
  • On the other hand ⁠— or maybe at the same time ⁠— we can also expect that, among the powerful and among the rest of us, there will be calls to reject the “return to normal,” but in order to embrace something even worse. It is likely that the chaos and deaths of the pandemic will be blamed on too much democracy, liberalism and empathy. Now that states are flexing their muscles and taking full command of society, there will be many who do not want the sleeve to be rolled back down. We may yet see, in this crisis, the use of repressive force on civilians ⁠— as it is already being used on migrants and incarcerated people ⁠— and I fear that it will be seen by many as justified, a human sacrifice to feed the Gods of fear. In the wake of the pandemic we can be sure that fascists and reactionaries will seek to mobilize tropes of ⁠— racial, national, economic ⁠— purity, purification, parasitism, and pollution to impose their long-festering dreams on reality. The vengeful romance of the border, now more politicized than ever, will haunt all of us in the years to come. The “new” authoritarians, whether they emphasize the totalitarian state or the totalitarian market ⁠— or both ⁠— will insist that we all recognize we now live ⁠— have always lived ⁠— in a ruthless, competitive world and must take measures to wall ourselves in and cast out the undesirable.
  • Other times, authoritarianism may come by stealth, cloaked in the rhetoric of science, liberalism and the common good. Meanwhile, there will almost certainly be efforts by those vastly enriched and empowered in the last decades, notably in the intertwined technology and financial sectors, to leverage their influence and resources, as well as the weakness and disarray of traditional institutions, to lead the reorganization of society along neo-technocratic lines. They will continue to generously offer the services of their powerful and integrated surveillance, logistics, financial and data empires to “optimize” social and political life. This corporate dystopia can wear a human face: basic income, hypervigilance for new epidemics, personalized medicine. Already they arrive, bearing gifts to help us in this emergency: tracking disease vectors, banning disinformation, offering states help with data and population management. Underneath the mask will be the reorganization of society to better conform to the hyper-capitalist meta-algorithm which, though driven by capitalist contradictions, will essentially be neofeudal for most of us: a world of data and risk management where only a small handful enjoy the benefits. We will be told it is for our own good.
  • To be sure, an 83 percent approval rating almost certainly overstates Putin’s support. Individuals may understandably hide their true preferences from pollsters, as a culture of paranoia spreads across the country. In tandem with reports of erstwhile Putin opponents embracing the war, however, we can fairly assume that a large number of Russians, and perhaps a clear majority, are indifferent to the atrocities committed in their name. What, if anything, should we make of this?
    Of course, the question of evil—and why ordinary people incline toward it—is an old one, destined to repeat itself with stubborn insistence. As my podcast co-host, Damir Marusic, an Atlantic Council senior fellow, recently wrote, “Putin is a wholly authentic Russian phenomenon, and the imperialist policy he’s pursuing in Ukraine is too.” This is right, but only up to a point. We simply don’t know what individual Russians would choose, want—or become—if they had been socialized in a free, open democracy, rather than a dictatorship where fear is the air one breathes. Like everyone else, they are products of their environment. Authoritarianism corrupts society. Because punishment and reward are made into arbitrary instruments of the state, citizens have little incentive to pool resources, cooperate, or trust others. Survival is paramount, and survival requires putting one’s own interests above everything else, including traditional morality. In such a context, as the historian Timothy Snyder puts it, “life is nasty, brutish, and short; the pleasure of life is that it can be made nastier, more brutish, and shorter for others.” This is the zero-sum mindset that transforms cruelty into virtue.
  • In short, authoritarianism twists the soul and distorts natural moral intuitions. In so doing, it renders its citizens—or, more precisely, its subjects—less morally culpable. To be fully morally culpable is to be free to choose between right and wrong. But that choice becomes much more difficult under conditions of dictatorship. Not everyone can be courageous and sacrifice life and livelihood to do the right thing.
    The invasion of Ukraine was very much Putin’s creation, his idiosyncratic bid to reimagine Russia. It is unlikely that something similar would have happened in his absence. While Russians have now hardened against their Ukrainian neighbors, early reactions to the war tended more toward surprise and even shock. Putin, after all, had repeatedly denied that he was planning to invade. This is why many of the Russian troops deployed to Ukraine did not seem to initially grasp that they were entering a war zone. If a referendum on an invasion of Ukraine had been held months ago, there is little reason to think that Russians would have been particularly enthusiastic. Putin’s war enjoys considerable popular support now, but that’s because it is too late to imagine an alternative. The war is a fait accompli. If Russians wish to continue living in their country and not get on the wrong side of things, acclimating themselves to this new reality is the best option, if not necessarily a moral or brave one.
  • Russians may be unique, just like all peoples are, but this does not mean that they are uniquely bad. Or, to put it differently, being good is hard if you live under an authoritarian regime. As the war rages on and anti-Russian sentiment grows, the temptation to see the Russian people as perpetrators rather than victims also grows. But to view them this way obscures something more fundamental: They too are victims, because they have been gradually stripped of their status as free moral agents. This is by design. Authoritarian leaders aim to implicate their own people in their crimes, which in turn allows them to both spread and dilute political responsibility. If responsibility is spread across the population, then so is guilt. To repudiate Putin would mean repudiating themselves.
  • This is yet another reminder of the elemental distinction between autocracies and democracies that President Joe Biden has highlighted in a series of speeches and other public statements. Americans have no trouble seeing Russia and China primarily as national-security threats and challengers to the United States, in part because they are. But there is a deeper divide—one that cuts to the very core of what it means to be a citizen and even a human being. Dictatorships elevate the nation and the leader as ultimate ends, while mere individuals have no inherent worth outside of their service to the state.
    Driven by an inherent logic of force and brutality, authoritarian regimes—particularly those with delusions of imperial grandeur—commit atrocities with indifference and even abandon. And they bring their populations along with them, willingly or unwillingly. This is what makes them doubly dangerous. It is also why the struggle ahead of the United States—and all democratic nations, whether they realize it or not—is likely to be a long one. As systems of government and ways of organizing society, democracies and dictatorships are irreconcilable. In a better world, coexistence might have been possible. But that is no longer the world we live in.
  • Violence is the whole essence of authoritarianism, just as the repudiation of violence is the whole essence of anarchism.
    • Errico Malatesta, "Anarchism, Authoritarian Socialism and Communism" in Fede (28 October 1923); also in What Is Anarchism? : An Introduction edited by Donald Rooum (1992, 1995) p. 59
  • Liberalism has the idea that democracy is its invention, that liberalism had to come about for democracy to exist... Democracy is old, very old; it is an attitude of man… Democracy is an imminent attitude, but one that has always been in crisis with authoritarianism. So democracy can never be considered to be finished or perfect, the end of history does not exist, historical steps exist. Maybe today conditions are being created--thanks to digital mass-communication—that are going to foreshadow a kind of democracy that today we cannot imagine. I don’t like the idea of the exploitation of man by man. I believe that one day human civilization will overcome this somehow. But that is not to say that I favour the state as the owner of everything, no, no, no. I can’t conceive of that. I lean a lot towards self-management, with all of the risks it entails for any important institution. It is not exactly the state that should manage things, it’s the people that have to manage them.
  • Authority has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race. All through history mankind has been bullied by scum. Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadows about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power. The worst off-sloughings of the planet are the ingredients of sovereignty. Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy, the whores are us.
  • In popular terminology, a libertarian is the opposite of an authoritarian. Strictly speaking, a libertarian is one who rejects the idea of using violence or the threat of violence — legal or illegal — to impose his will or viewpoint upon any peaceful person.
    • Dean Russell, in "Who Is A Libertarian?" in The Freeman, Vol. 5 Issue 5 (May 1955) published by Foundation for Economic Education
  • That the more authoritarian organizations survive and prevail goes generally unnoticed because people focus on the objectives of organizations, which are many and varied, rather than on their structures, which tend to be similar. Whenever people see a problem, an opportunity or a threat, their first reaction — even before saying, "Pass a law'" — is, "Let's start an organization."
    But the more an organization succeeds and prospers, the more it is likely to be diverted from its original ideals, principles and purposes.
  • However sugarcoated and ambiguous, every form of authoritarianism must start with a belief in some group's greater right to power, whether that right is justified by sex, race, class, religion or all four. However far it may expand, the progression inevitably rests on unequal power and airtight roles within the family.
    • Gloria Steinem in "If Hilter Were Alive, Whose Side Would He Be On?" in M.S. magazine (October-November 1980); later in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983)
  • [C]ontrolling reproduction has always been the first step in any hierarchical or authoritarian government. Those who are authoritarian or hierarchical in their outlook in this, you know, still patriarchal time look to control the one thing they don't have as the first effort in creating a hierarchy.
  • We are at heart so profoundly anarchistic that the only form of state we can imagine living in is Utopian; and so cynical that the only Utopia we can believe in is authoritarian.
    • Lionel Trilling, notebook entry (1948), published in Partisan Review 50th Anniversary edition (1985), p. 510
  • Most fundamentally, I would see Anarchism as a synonym for anti-authoritarianism.
    • John Zerzan, in Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (2008), p. 67
  • The Napoleonic rule which followed within a decade after the French Revolution is generally conceded to be the prototype of modern dictatorships. It was the forerunner not only historically, but psychologically as well, for it demonstrated a principal function of dictatorship as a psychocultural emergent: a reversion to authoritarian rule after a too drastic attempt to impose democracy on an authoritarian culture. Napoleon's assumption of the role of dictator and then emperor, with the wholehearted support of significant segments of postrevolutionary French society, illustrates a fact that has been true of virtually every dictatorship since then: the inability of an authoritarian culture to absorb too much self-government too suddenly without reverting, at least temporarily, to some form of paternalistic-authoritarian rule. From the first French Republic to the German Weimar Republic, it has been proved again and again that, while the outward forms of democracy may be achieved overnight by revolution, the psychological changes necessary to sustain it cannot.
    • G.M. Gilbert in The Psychology of Dictatorship (1950), pp. 4-5.

External links[edit]

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