Authoritarianism Is Everybody’s Problem

It’s on every side of the political spectrum

I’ve noticed a sharp increase in the number of stories of authoritarianism of different kinds in a variety of places. From college campuses to our city streets and state legislatures, authoritarians are imposing their will on the people, and for the most part we’re not doing much about it. Why not, and how much harm will this cause in the long run? To examine this phenomenon properly we’ll have to discuss the causes, the effects, and areas affected.

The causes

Authoritarianism is caused by anxiety; people are frightened by changes taking place in the world around them and, in an effort to maintain the status quo they look to someone — anyone — whom they believe will impose order on the chaos that threatens to upend the world as they know it. This explains the rise of Donald Trump. That he’s a bit of a loose cannon is beside the point to his supporters; he’s a cannon, people!

The madness that drives people to authoritarianism

Authoritarians are everywhere; they’re not “caused” by anything, that’s just how they’re wired. I’m a bit of a control freak myself so I completely understand the desire to Make Them Behave so I can have a quiet life in which the trains run on time, the bins get emptied when they should and all is well with the world. Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to make anyone do anything. However, I do find that when someone else is in a position to bring about the outcome I desire, I’m willing to submit to them in a trade-off in which I cede control to them in exchange for getting the situation I’m in sorted out. This is the madness that drives people to authoritarianism.

The boogeyman and the witch-smeller pursuivants

Anyone, then, who wants to get into a position of power, needs to make people anxious, name the problem, then promise to solve it. The fear of the boogeyman — and of being accused of being in league with the boogeyman — can and does cause people to flock to a protector figure. Enter the witch-smeller pursuivants, whose job it is to ensure that They behave. And by “them” I mean “us.” You see, daring to question the dominant (or pseudo-dominant) narrative can easily get you into trouble with the witch-smeller types.

Creating the problems to solve

Contented people don’t have time for authoritarians; when WWII ended, Winston Churchill lost the next election and the Labour Party got in and gave us the NHS and the welfare state. While the system was fairly non-restrictive, austerity continued into the 1950s. It was only when austerity measures ended that the economy took off and the famous phrase, “You’ve never had it so good!” was uttered. Since then, the rise of OPEC and their control of petroleum, we’ve been embroiled in wars and have aided oppressive regimes, which then turned on us, in an effort to achieve energy security by increasing our influence over people who control petroleum. The results have not been pretty. But why not simply turn our attention to other sources of energy? Post-colonial paternalism coupled with incumbents desiring to maintain the status quo plus an emergent military-industrial complex ensured that we’d remain hooked on petroleum for generations instead of developing new energy production technology. Their intrigues created the unrest we see in the Middle East today and the boogeymen we have been taught to be afraid of were created by them. Making us afraid of them and keeping us in a state of fear makes us more amenable to the imposition of tyranny by the tyrant we know in exchange for protection from the tyrant we don’t.

The effects

The effects of authoritarianism on a population is generally twofold. On one hand you see resistance, on the other, acquiescence.The result of this split is the division that allows authoritarians to conquer. Even the most egregious authoritarian can’t hold power without the aid and consent of his or her associates and accomplices.

Resistance

People who have historically had bad personal experiences with authority figures tend to be more resistant to authoritarianism than those whose experience has been generally good. The effectiveness of the resistance is dependent on how it is directed and what it is directed at; ineffectual resistance, i.e. that which doesn’t particularly threaten the authoritarian regime, can actually benefit authoritarians by giving them a boogeyman to distract the population with. The most popular boogeyman with our government here in the UK is terrorism. They’re using the threat of terrorism to push the IP Bill through even though it’s more about surveillance of the civilian population by everyone who wants access to the information than actually tracking terrorists down. Note that anyone who actively opposes the IP Bill is presented as either being naive and irresponsible or in league with the terrorists. This is is a classic bait-and-switch move and I’m sad to say it works on the hard of thinking.

Acquiescence

Those of us who don’t push back against authoritarianism either don’t want to question the status quo or are actively defending it. The active defenders do so for several reasons I’ve identified:

  • they hope to gain a position of power in the regime if they promote it
  • they are true believers in the regime’s ideology because it suits their personal prejudices
  • they honestly believe that the regime promotes order and prosperity

It’s important to note that I don’t accept that there is any such thing as brainwashing. Using such a term limits personal agency to people who engage in behaviour within parameters set by people with a paternalistic attitude towards them. That individuals and groups are willing to give up their free will and subordinate themselves to a Glorious Leader in the hope of obtaining a reward for obedience at some point in the future is a choice, however misguided. The decision to do so is entirely their own. Even if they are reared in an echo chamber, sooner or later they will find themselves in a position in which their values and beliefs are called into question. This presents them with a choice: question the status quo or carry on as before. The decision to do either, whatever the influence, is proof that people can’t be forced to believe what they don’t want to believe; they choose to believe whatever appeals to their personal value system. If their Glorious Leader lets them down or the system they subscribe to doesn’t work for them when they need it most, they will either make excuses to carry on for fear of losing their personal investment or reject the leader or system outright. Rejection may take a while, particularly if they’re deeply invested, and may then turn into active or passive overt or covert resistance.

The areas affected

Some of the people I’ve discussed this with smugly assert that their team wouldn’t do tha-a-at. Oh, yes they would. Authoritarians are everywhere on the political spectrum; anyone who insists on imposing their will on the rest of us citing $boogeyman or $moral standpoint is authoritarian, whether we agree with the premise or not. Let’s take a look at some of the areas affected.

The War on _____.

When wars are waged authoritarians don’t care too much about collateral damage, there’s a principle at stake and this will be vindicated when the war is won at last — in theory. However, since every authoritarian construct exists to perpetuate itself the last thing they want is to win. In America, the asset forfeiture program is supposed to deprive evil drug lords of their revenues and the opportunity to enjoy them. What it actually means that if a cop believes your gains might be ill-gotten he can confiscate them without even arresting or charging you, then you have to sue to get them back. Of course, if you dare to question the at-will seizure of money and property, you must be a criminal apologist.

Social justice

The advent of laws that govern our speech has already resulted in police over-reactions in which they high-five each other for successfully picking low-hanging fruit. I mean, seriously, how much of a threat is a bad taste joke to anyone? Police held some random prat in the cells overnight for teaching his girlfriend’s pug to do a Nazi salute when he said, “Sieg heil,” then posted a video of the results on YouTube. That this twerp had the dog salute to “gas the Jews” is not what this discussion is about, it’s that merely being a prat, however epic, can get you sent to jail. Put it this way — I doubt that anyone had vivid flashbacks to horrible incidents or suffered physical ill effects as a result of the distress caused by some twerp teaching a dog to be offensive in order to troll his significant other. That’s not the only blot on the social justice landscape. Do you know that in New York you can be arrested for not using the pronouns that the person with the big hairy hands, the five o’clock shadow, the Adam’s apple, and the pert bazongas wants you to use? If you’re a college student be careful what you say or the Bias Response Team may invite you to join them for a little chat. On the flip side it’s no joke being gay in the USA. Outside the coastal and cosmopolitan areas where members of the LGBT community are less likely to face discrimination, if you’re gender non-conformist don’t make it obvious. Merely being a woman makes you a suspect, even in Britain; if you have a miscarriage you might get arrested. Oh, and in America if your rapist makes you pregnant he may have paternal rights. Binary thinking and liberal usage of boogeymen fuel these states of affairs; the lack of nuance in discussions about them prevents resolution as the people with the most power in these situations have the most to lose if they’re resolved.

The internet

From search algorithms to copyright to advertising, every aspect of the internet is being scrutinised for opportunities for authoritarians to bend it to their will. Facebook was accused of downgrading conservative movement commentary in its trending feature but the truth is the trending feature is influenced by what people are discussing. Nobody is obliged to discuss Glenn Beck or whoever feels entitled to attention on the internet. I must admit he made an excellent point in his blog post, The Most Disturbing Thing About My Meeting With Mark Zuckerberg:

We were there because of this ONE accusation on Trending Topics.
I sat there looking around and heard things like:
1) Facebook has a very liberal workforce. Has Facebook considered diversity in their hiring practice? The country is 2% Mormon. Maybe Facebook’s company should better reflect that reality.
 2) Maybe Facebook should consider a six-month training program to help their biased and liberal workforce understand and respect conservative opinions and values.
 3) We need to see strong and specific steps to right this wrong.
It was like affirmative action for conservatives. When did conservatives start demanding quotas AND diversity training AND less people from Ivy League Colleges.
I sat there, looking around the room at ‘our side’ wondering, ‘Who are we?’ Who am I? I want to be very clear — I am not referring to every person in the room. There were probably 25–30 people and a number of them, I believe, felt like I did. But the overall tenor, to me, felt like the Salem Witch Trial: ‘Facebook, you must admit that you are screwing us, because if not, it proves you are screwing us.’
What happened to us? When did we become them?

What he doesn’t understand is that by othering people one disagrees with, one sets up the conditions that will put one in bed with them sooner or later. I’ve seen this with radical feminists and it’s really funny: they claim to absolutely hate the patriarchy but side with right-wing religious zealots on bathroom laws because they hate trans people more. This puts them and Glenn Beck on the same page.

Conclusion

The idea that any one ideology or spot on the political spectrum holds a monopoly on authoritarianism is bogus and should be ignored for the nonsense it is. Neoliberalism doesn’t set us free, it makes us slaves to our corporate masters, obliged to get passes and permission for everything we do for fear of falling foul of the law. Socialism doesn’t set us free because it demands that we sublimate ourselves to the state at the cost of our personal freedom. Liberalism doesn’t set us free because it demands that we accept the unacceptable for fear of being labeled that most socially abhorrent thing: a bigot. Libertarianism doesn’t set us free, it subjugates us to the whims of the market on the assumption that voluntary transactions alone should govern our relationships on a personal and corporate level.

So, then, what can we do? I’d say “think for yourself” since that’s where change begins.