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The Vicious Cycle of Authoritarian Thinking

“…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

On a preliminary research, I found a few elements of a self-reinforcing cycle of mentality. Thought patterns and mental models that are often self-contradictory, but have one thing in common: They rationalise might and abuse of power and justify citizen inaction. They are also prominent in one’s social thinking.

Theodore Adorno in his 1950 book, The Authoritarian Personality listed the character traits he later included in his controversial F-scale, a test meant to measure a person’s proximity to what he called a “Fascist” or authoritarian personality. His list is heavily influenced be the then fresh experience of the War, as its name suggests[1], it is also overly deterministic in its approach, but it provides an insight into the self-reinforcing cycle of authoritarian thinking. These included conventionalism, authoritarian submission (obedience to high status), authoritarian aggression (hostility to lower status), anti-intellectualism, anti-intraception, superstition and the use of stereotypes (a form of deterministic thinking), power and “toughness”, destructiveness and cynicism, projectivity (mainly in the form of prejudice), and exaggerated concerns over sex.

The determinism exhibited in that book as well as using the word ‘personality’ do not help the case of unlearning it. This is why this research refrains from such deterministic references and refers to the problem as ‘authoritarianism’, as in a thinking pattern, a mindset or a frame of mind.

This research sets out to flesh out the elements of contemporary authoritarianism, the self-reinforcing cycle, and attempt to find inflection points where these thinking habits or mental models can be hacked. Because they are not personalities and they are not unchangeable.

Many of the elements sound innocent enough in isolation, or at least forgivable, but they support each other and fly on the wings of social conformity. In combination, they weaken society’s resistance to the abuse of power and authoritarianism.

The cycle can be evoked by circumstances – and so can its opposite: the desire to live freely and the courage to it. Learn to control fear and treat uncertainty in its place.


The relevance to the research lies not merely in the consolidation of new democracies. Societies often outsource large parts of their functions to government voluntarily, like in the case of 20th century welfare states. During the confusion caused by recession and worsened by the feeling of adopted helplessness, these societies are more prone to fall for the lure of populism and new authoritarian leaders, who further reduce the realm of citizen control but cannot solve economic issues nonetheless.

The sense that things can be taken care of without government may be a powerful tool to reverse harmful economic trends. But to achieve that one must provide an alternative to state provision or top-down solutions from government.[1] Habits can rarely be dislodged without new, alternative ones. This is where social capital comes in.

“We forget that, although each of the liberties which have been won must be defended with utmost vigour, the problem of freedom is not only a quantitative one, but a qualitative one; that we not only have to preserve and increase the traditional freedom, but that we have to gain a new kind of freedom, one which enables us to realize our own individual self; to have faith in this self and in life.”

Erich FROMM, 1942

[1] Consider the cases of ageing German villages. With dwindling populations and scarce access to healthcare and public services, inhabitants self-organise to arrange medical care (and other public services) in their villages. They now have to fight thick German regulations that were originally put in place to ensure their safety and proper care – but now stand in the way of securing even the necessary or available amount of care. (German Demography – Ageing but supple. The Economist, March 15, 2015)

[1] Its chapter dealing with prejudice focuses almost entirely on prejudice against Jews, dedicates entire chapters to the study of Anti-Semitism, and studies how religious beliefs and ethnocentrism have contributed to the rise of Nazism (or Fascism, as it is referred to). Seeking statistical correlation between the tendency to “fascism” and intelligence and education is prominent throughout the book. So is focus on harsh, authoritarian upbringing as a possible reason of developing authoritarian views and predisposition to cruelty. In other words, victims of authoritarian oppression are likely to become perpetrators of authoritarian aggression or perpetuators of authoritarian systems. (ADORNO 1950)


One thought on “The Vicious Cycle of Authoritarian Thinking

  1. Pingback: Frames of Mind | Dare To Be Free

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