"Authoritarian" is an analytically useless concept

It's just an inflammatory label used to shut down debate.

  
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Guess the term: some scholarly works of history and political theory use it in specific and coherent ways, but almost no one else does. Instead, its primary role in our discourse is to demonize political opponents and shut down debate by vaguely invoking the memory of Nazi Germany and other violent, repressive regimes. In this use, it appeals to a concept that is just too vague and subjective to explain or describe anything; in this use, it never moves the conversation forward or contributes to any kind of substantive analysis. It seems to be favored, in practice, by bomb-throwing demagogues and juvenile college partisans who want to vilify people and ideas without engaging in meaningful criticism.

If the word that comes to mind here is fascist then you have undoubtedly heard a Republican talk at some point in the past six years; delegitimizing this term has been a major project on the right since at least 2015.

But curiously, this description is an even better fit for a term it is almost never applied to: authoritarian. As with fascist, there is indeed a relatively obscure literature that defines the term authoritarian in ways that are specific and rigorous enough to be useful. But if fascism-so-defined is an endangered species in our discourse, meaningful use of authoritarian is virtually extinct.

As we usually encounter it in the discourse, authoritarian is analytically useless. It brings to mind images of Nazis barking orders and Big Brother propagandizing on the big screen, comparisons that understandably trigger a fight-or-flight reflex in decent people; but it gives us no real way to evaluate whether these comparisons are fair or reasonable. Understood literally, any imaginable form of authority — sensible or unreasonable, beneficial or malevolent, legitimate or illegitimate, trivial or expansive — can be related to history’s greatest monsters insofar as both are authoritarian.

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Another point in common with fascism and authoritarian: both suffer less from a lack of definition than from a surplus of definitions. There are almost as many authoritarianisms as there are political traditions, which means that even though they use the same term they are often describing very different and often incompatible ideas. Let’s look at some of them.

  • The Frankfurt School uses authoritarian to describe a certain kind of personality, or rather a kind of psychological complex. Its political and cultural expressions are often quite unpredictable, and even innocuous; interest in astrology, for example, is authoritarian and can be directly related with the rise of early twentieth century fascism. In fact, the Frankfurt School occasionally uses the terms authoritarian and fascist interchangeably, which brings us to a broader tendency.

  • Particularly in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, a whole genre of writers like Arendt and Orwell set out to explain the horrors of early twentieth century fascism as a problem of a certain kind of authority that has certain kinds of powers. In “What Is Authority?”, for example, Arendt objects to the liberal “confusion of authority with tyranny, and of legitimate power with violence,” but insists that she does not have in mind “‘authority in general,’ but rather a very specific form”.

  • The anarchist tradition, of course, makes “authority in general” its central concern — though even among anarchists the takes are notoriously diverse. Chomsky, for example, insists that there are cases where authority can be justified, and specifically argues that “the state…provides devices to constrain the much more dangerous forces of private power.” Proudhon, meanwhile, writes that “Authority, Government, Power, State, — these words all denote the same thing…there will be no liberty…till in the political catechism the renunciation of authority shall have replaced faith in authority.” (Confessions p.7)

  • In contrast with Chomsky, libertarians and Objectivists argue that private power should not be understood as a kind of authority at all, that capitalism is in fact a direct expression of liberty, and that authoritarianism should be exclusively understood as a problem of state power.

There is no real through-line in any of these theories of authoritarianism; or if there is, it is utterly trivial, achieving consensus on only the most blatant and obvious problems (once again Nazi Germany comes to mind). So it’s revealing that in conversations about authoritarianism, there is rarely any effort whatsoever to establish a shared intellectual framework, or to even clarify what framework one is operating in. When the Objectivist casually refers to taxes as authoritarian, this is not a real attempt to communicate some underlying analysis that one can accept or reject; it’s no different from when an Objectivist refers to taxes as fascist. Both are much better understood as exercises in guilt-by-association with oppressive regimes.

Even when it comes from perspectives other than Objectivism, authoritarian usually suffers from the same kind of problem. Disagreements about whether something is authoritarian usually express a conflict between different political perspectives; but instead of talking about those perspectives directly, the speaker just assumes them in the way he uses authoritarian and expects his critics to accept it.

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Within capitalism, the term authoritarian seems to play a special role. Since it vaguely gestures towards some abstract, in-general problem that can afflict both public and private power, it seems in that sense ideologically neutral, existing outside the petty dogmatisms of capitalism and socialism alike. For this same reason, descriptions of the state as authoritarian suggest a false equivalence with the authoritarianism of private power, as if both are the same in consequence and justification. Contemporary debates about Covid vaccination requirements, for example, routinely suggest that a mandate imposed by the state is authoritarian in the same sense as a requirement imposed by private employer.

And yet at the same time, the libertarian account of authoritarianism is still ideologically dominant. By default, our discourse usually proceeds as if there is really no such thing as private authority; within capitalism everyone associates voluntarily, and can move on to a new job, advance to a new position, or find another business to patronize at their leisure. To the extent that authoritarianism has infected the private sector, this is understood as a problem of state authority insofar as it is acknowledged at all; the dystopian menace of employers demanding vaccinations, for example, only really started to make headlines given the possibility that the government would require them to do so.

There are always much more rigorous and productive ways to talk about these problems. When we are talking about the private sector, for example, we can get extraordinary insight into the power dynamics at work and the roles of various actors within a system of authority if we specifically talk about capitalism; if you have a problem with employer vaccination requirements, for example, you can talk about how this is really just what happens when workers do not control the means of production and have to bow to the will of some rich capitalist who does. When we are talking about the state, we can talk specifically about whether and how state authority is diverging from democracy’s mandate, or we can talk about whether some “right” to not be vaccinated should outweigh the common good. None of these conversations need to resort to vague rhetoric about authoritarianism — and in fact, when you see that term emerge, it’s often a good sign that these substantive conversations are being avoided in favor of hyperbolic, demonizing attacks on the state.