Authority and Authoritarianism

Authority and authoritarianism are difficult concepts to sort out, and the device of four fold tables, once popular in sociology, can help in doing that.

Authority is the sense that being subordinate is the fitting and proper way to feel and behave, whatever the consequences. Indeed, subordination can be perceived as the only way it is possible to feel and behave in that there is no way to live without having an authority to govern one’s life, whether that is the authority of God or a government or an ethical code. Kierkegaard, of course, is the exemplar of the thinker who places such authority in God, His authority beyond the moral plane in that one should even be willing to sacrifice one’s own son if God demands it. Governments provide an authority that is like that, though they reserve only to wars as the times to demand ultimate sacrifices, governments most of the time treated by their citizens and subjects as perhaps beneficial authorities or as troublesome nuisances. Mostly, Constitutional documents are ones which are cited when one of their provisions are in dispute, but it can be said, in the United States, that the ideas of due process and equality before the law make up a set of common concerns that are of interest to most citizens. Kant is the one who most clearly posits a moral code as the ultimate authority in that the introduction of the word “should” into a sentence is sufficient excuse to demand all of the sacrifices required of a believer: to turn one’s friend into the police, to treat someone with disdain as an evil doer, to guide one in everyday undertakings. Far from being a proponent of a common sense allegiance to practical morality, such as when one is advised to do what the job dictates rather than decide to assume responsibilities for which an employee or a person may not know enough about to carry out successfully despite all good intentions, Kantianism can lead to an absolutism that says “I was just doing my job” or “Mine is to obey and not know the reason why”, although to give Kant his due, he did not have to contemplate how to morally act in Hitler’s world even if he had the historical example of Calvin’s Geneva before him. Kant didn’t think an authority would be unreasonably cruel.

It is very difficult to determine where the boundary lies between reasonable authority and obedience to authority as an end in itself. Theodor Adorno tried to provide a basis for judging where people stood on a psychological scale that was supposed to measure what he called “the authoritarian personality”. He was in the United States at the time and so influenced by the qualitative methods of the time and although his study of that name, which came out in 1950, was very influential, it fell into one of the traps of opinion research. The items he asked his respondents to agree or disagree with, such as “The businessman and the manufacturer are more important to society than the activist or professor.”, were clearly located in the political climate of the time, given its dismissal of “eggheads”, and so asked people about matters that would be nuanced differently a generation later and so it was in the nature of the project that it could not be replicated or used as part of a series which would show whether authoritarianism was getting better or worse over time. And yet Adorno’s work struck a chord because there did seem to be something universal about personalities that were so taken with authority that they would follow leaders to any extreme. There must be something in common between those who supported Hitler, Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump even though they would heatedly reject the idea that they were in any way aligned with the perpetrators of earlier outrages, however angry they were with the awful people that spurred their own disdain and hatred. And since not all Republicans, after all, are authoritarian, even if their policies would harm the poor, there has to be another way to define the categories.

One way out of this impasse is to distinguish between two kinds of authority and then to see what happens when they are conjoined or exist in isolation. Subjective authority concerns the sentiments Adorno tried to measure: a feeling of subordination as the proper feeling to hold, whether that is to a political leader or to a sense that Christianity is basically about surrendering one’s will to God’s will. Objective authority is a sentiment about the state of the social structure, the degree of hierarchy imposed on people not so much so that they know their place, like a peasant knows his place with regard to his master, but so as to discriminate who has sufficiently greater authority so as to give commands, a sargeant having more power than a corporal, an assistant plant manager more power to instruct than a line foreman.

Think of what happens when the two types of authority are combined. We have the kinds of society that are found in the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and in the North Korea of our time. It is possibly most familiar to Americans as the slavery system that existed in the anteBellum South where slavery was not just the social structure but where the powers that be insisted was the right and proper way for a society to be and insisted that the slaves recognize the legitimacy of their subjugation. Self-respecting slaves, mindful of their own positions but proud of them, were a danger, but all slaves were always aware that their relative privilege could be abrogated at any time by a master who took umbrage at some behavior. Slaves lived in perpetual fear, as did Russians and Germans who might not vouch strongly enough for the elite’s cause, even if ordinary life was easy enough for most Germans until the Allied bombings got heavy.

Now think of what happens in those societies which are based on objective authority but not subjective authority. They are more benign, even if not to the modern taste. Old regime France was like that. Subjects expressed fidelity to a monarch generous in his gifts of land and prestige, while also holding allegiance to a religion not at all demanding except for the ceremonies of rites of passage that were not at all demeaning. This is what is generally meant by authoritarianism: a regime that uses brutality only against its overt enemies rather than to terrorize some element of its own population. It is the sort of regime, as in Taiwan and in Spain and in South Korea, that can gradually transition to democracy, while regimes that combine subjective and objective authority, such as Nazi Germany or Albigensian France, cannot.

Other versions of this kind of authority, which is rightly considered Conservative in that it says the grand order of nature is inevitably hierarchical, is a Tory cultural Conservatism that recognizes a clear ordering of cultural products, and recognizes a canon of greats against which inferior works are to be compared, and whose experience is the sign of an educated man. Or a moral Conservatism, sometimes identified with Edmund Burke, whereby only gradually are new things absorbed into the everyday good sense of the usual ordering of things. There may be a time when equal rights are owed to African Americans, but go slow in proclaiming such a time has come because that will unsettle what is already established as right and proper in the way social hierarchies are arranged. There is also the Conservatism of small town America, where the relation between the social classes is purportedly stable, and there is no use for FDR’s introduction of “Big Government” to stifle and structure traditional family relationships, but where, a generation or two later, Social Security is seen as part of the natural order of things and so not to be trifled with. That is very different from a Populist creed which distrusts all authority as elitist because such authority is based on knowledge rather than mean sentiments towards both elites and minorities.

Now, what happens when we restrict the subordination purely to the subjective? Here we are indeed in the presence of what Adorno would call a personality type, one that sees harshness as an inevitability of life and projects onto that sense various political metaphors to have it make sense. There are people who think of themselves as Social Darwinists because, in some sense, the might of a species makes it right that it should survive; there are people who have confidence in the wisdom of the stock market in that they think the market cannot lie, however topsy turvy it may be because it always gets right the balance of forces at work in the economy. Both Darwin and the market are true to a sense of life that sees nature, whether biological or social, as having its way and all we can do is bend our wills to the inevitability of these new gods, never mind that the stock market can be controlled by legislation and never mind that the diversity of the species can be overcome by science. Mankind is not stuck with cleft palates nor with diabetes, those ailments to be abolished only when the species evolves so as to be rid of them. People can dispense with these abnormalities via surgery and early infusions of insulin. But biological evolution and the ups and downs of the stock market remain as metaphors for separating the inevitable cruelties of social and biological nature from those less important things that people can alter.

And what of a world with neither subjective nor objective authority? That would be a world of equality, something not found very much in nature unless one clings to the Aristotelian idea that men are roughly equal in natural power and so turn to politics as a way by which to overcome that in that a few people in combination can put down a single person and so out of this government arises. One way or another, people establish some sense of equality even if that is the result of a combination of the prestige of the idea and the laws to enforce it over against the natural tendency of people to see society as hierarchical, always a matter of authority in that so many things, like wealth or intelligence or beauty, are differentially distributed among the population and so lead us to believe that it is in the natural course of things that some people or groups of people are superior to others and ought to be.