Let me explain what I mean by ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘democracy’ / ‘freedom’ in this project.
Authoritarianism: personality, mindset, or a frame of mind?
‘Authoritarianism’ in this context is not a life sentence. Not a personality type (Adorno), or some sort of genetically determined syndrome.
It is a mental model, a way of thinking, of framing the world that is deep-seated but not unmovable.
Just as populism can be evoked by an unscrupulous orator, its opposite can also be achieved if we create the necessary narrative framework. This is the primary aim of this project.
I have quickly dismissed the term ‘personality’ to use. In 1950, Adorno was clearly influenced by the thinking of his age – as well as the horror that was the Nazi system, its birth and grasp over the hearts and minds of Germans – when he used the term ‘personality’ to describe his controversial F-scale. It is almost as deterministic, as making it into a race or ethnicity-based trait. It is demeaning and wrong. It also sounds like there is no way out.
Buchanan used the term ‘parentalism’ to describe the state of mind I was looking for, but didn’t dwell on the subject whether it was changeable or a fixture of human nature, or any group of humans in particular.
With ‘personality’ excluded, I opted for ‘mindset’ . But I still met opposition, claiming that it is something permanent, something hard-wired into the DNA of thinking.
No matter how cautiously put, calling a type of thinking ‘authoritarian’ appears to imply that it is unchangeable. Browsing through synonyms, neither really captured for every reader what ‘authoritarianism’ or ‘authoritarian thinking’ should be in my reading:
The research adopts the view that authoritarianism is a thinking pattern, a mental habit, a frame of mind that can be evoked – but we can also snap out of it.
The 2015 World Development Report by the World Bank has finally adopted a new, interdisciplinary approach to fighting poverty: It is no longer considered the mere absence of resources. It is a self-perpetuating thinking, a series of micro-decisions and considerations that have the power to recreate poverty. The report applies the nudge theory, as well as the (commercially well-established) science of habit formation to identify and challenge the building blocks of this self-perpetuating thinking behind poverty.
I apply the same approach to internalised authoritarianism. Although forged during a lifetime of conditioning and taking the shape of a life strategy, authoritarian thinking can be brought to the attention of the conscious mind, evaluated and put to its place.
We all know how authoritarianism is evoked. A populist orator reassures his audience that he would protect them from hordes of immigrants breaking into their homes and using their bathtubs as toilets (someone actually said this). People unaffected by the fearmongering watch the events unfold in helpless horror and can argue very convincingly that it couldn’t be stopped. The crowd has been put into the authoritarian state of mind, so nothing can be done, they argue.
In reality, people shift in and out of states of mind on a daily basis.
Do I react as a rational researcher or an irrational woman? A careless son or a down-to-earth father? A rules-come-first public servant or an outside-the-box, self-made entrepreneur? A self-made entrepreneur or a follower of a populist politician? Depends on whom you ask. Address his inner entrepreneur and ask him whether he could take care of himself and his family and he would say yes. Address the extremist voter and remind him of economic concerns, immigrants and threats – and ask him again.
Frames of mind can be evoked by orators, communication, perceptions, or social and peer pressure. Resisting them requires awareness as well as a very conscious effort to choose another frame of mind instead. Authoritarianism is more deep-seated than other mental models, but it is still just a mental model. It can be brought to the light of day, consciously evaluated and put into its place.
It is an important task, because the reactions we give under the influence of authoritarian thinking routines have dire consequences. Authoritarian thinking is a survival tool for emergencies and oppression, and not suitable for everyday living and prosperity. It can also recreate its raison d’être.
Uninterrupted prosperity and security would maybe allow people never to have to ask these difficult questions – but decades of peaceful and uninterrupted prosperity that spoils an entire generation rarely occurs. Hence the need for this project.
- Forums of political behaviour (broadly speaking) should be furnished with reminders and behavioural triggers that help our self-respecting, better selves to take the mental driving seat.
- Communication to counter populism and extremism should apply much better crafted implied messages, based on the actual concerns behind authoritarian voices and behaviour: fear, anxiety, uncertainty, distrust, victimisation, learned helplessness, the need to scapegoat, the fear of failure and the glorification of cynicism.
Democracy / Freedom
To the horror of those who enjoy dwelling on definitions I have used these two words almost as interchangeable throughout the paper.
I am more than aware of the controversy around the term ‘democracy’. It can be reduced to majoritism or enriched with the rule of law, etc. to mean what we call a liberal democracy. Some even use it as a synonym to equality. In my book about the consolidation of democracies I have dwelt on the issue in detail. Scholars have come up with hundreds of definitions for democracy (Diamond, 1991). I have personally collected a few dozen of them, just to make a point to my students.
Political systems (or countries for that matter) are not binary in terms of freedom or dictatorship. Democracy is just a rallying cry of politicians. The democracy/dictatorship dichotomy appeals to the imagination of those, who like to see the world in the comforting simplicity of black and white. But it does not help thinking.
Political systems can be put on a scale between absolute freedom and absolute unfreedom, with no actual country on the two (imaginary) extremes. Rankings might change over time and we can go into endless arguments over the criteria. But I leave that to those who make a living out of it.
This project concerns itself with the freedom that is outwardly there but is not yet fully internalised.
“…we are fascinated by the growth of freedom from powers outside ourselves and are blinded to the fact of inner restraints, compulsions, and fears, which tend to undermine the meaning of the victories freedom has won against its traditional enemies.”
Erich FROMM, 1942
It is hard to see and arguments could be made that it is a purely academic concern, because people eventually internalise their new realities and learn the ways of the free. Besides, we have no time for this, when matters of security and the economy pose a much larger threat.
“It takes six months to change a political regime, six years to change the economy and at least 60 years to change society.”
Ralf Dahrendorf, 1990
But I am going to argue that internalised unfreedom is an obstacle to peace and economic prosperity. Not only is it lurking in the recesses of everyday thinking and behaviour, it can cause a relapse into full-blown authoritarianism the moment economic or security concerns make people run for the safety of their trusty, old worldviews.
Authoritarianism is like the comfort blanket for those who grew up under it, and a sneaky trap for those, who had never seen institutionalised unfreedom turning against them. Form the perspective of authoritarian mental habits, it hardly matters whether freedom had been grabbed by an authoritarian regime or voluntarily surrendered to a pampering welfare state – whether it was blamed on warfare or welfare.
For the purposes of this research, democracy is some sort of freedom, a political system that is less oppressive than its predecessor. But I would refrain from using only ‘democracy’. It implies that once economic and political institutions are in place, there is nothing left to be done. It would implicitly suggest that it takes an active, willful and aggressive intervention to turn the development of freedoms around. Sadly, this is not the case.
Freedom is an active state of mind. When it comes to political freedom, it requires the active vigilance of citizens to ensure that a nation doesn’t relapse into oppression. A trip to the voting booth every few years does not suffice. Active demand for the work of government transparency NGOs, the willingness to protest and sometimes to blow the whistle is necessary, challenging corruption and bureaucratic stupidity are an absolute must if we’d like our freedoms to stay.