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Authoritarianism is a thinking habit, not a personality

Authoritarianism is a thinking pattern, a mental habit, a frame of mind that can be evoked – but we can also snap out of it.

Authoritarianism: personality, mindset, or a frame of mind?

‘Authoritarianism’ or ‘authoritarians’ are often regarded as an unchanging personality trait in people. It may very well be the case for some of the sufferers, but certainly not for all of them. Such an approach is not helpful.

Authoritarianism is not a life sentence. Not a personality type (as seen in 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. This is why I keep referring to it as ‘authoritarian thinking’, which is a mouthful but doesn’t suggest resigned determinism. It is something we all practice from time to time when we lose courage, when we see no results to our actions, or when we resign to something. In other words, when we feel helpless in an uncomfortable situation.

Just as populism (‘authoritarian thinking’) can be evoked by an unscrupulous orator, its opposite can also be achieved if we create the necessary narrative framework. We tend to reactively trace the narrative path towards dictatorships and genocides – after the event. But in order to get on top of things, we need better definitions of dictatorships than ‘whatever marks itself with a swastika’. What goes wrong in societies before the cataclysm? And I mean in society, in the minds of the people – I don’t just focus on the strongman himself, no matter how tempting, catchy, or how many copies my book would sell with his name in the title.

A populations’s submission in the mindset of authoritarian thinking requires more than just a scary enemy/threat/scapegoat/them. It requires the internalization of learned helplessness, the painful realization that an individual is not unable to have an impact, unable to defend himself and his loved ones, only a strongman can help. It takes years of work to develop this kind of thinking, this sense of political helplessness that translates into political depression and manifests itself in the angry support of collectivist, tribalist, identitarian demagogues of choice. But no matter how active it looks like from the outside, the authoritarian mind is deeply passive, having given up on the possibility of making an individual impact. Feeling helpless and trying to get around the painful sensation by empowering politicians, by appealing to the crowds, by identifying with whoever appears to be strong and able to make an impact.

When I set out to read everything that has been written about the way people succumb to fearful unfreedom, I have quickly dismissed the term ‘personality’. The term smacks of determinism. 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-based 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 the self-perpetuating thinking habits behind poverty.

I apply the same approach to internalised authoritarianism,or authoritarian thinking. Although often 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 the dragon – an invisible threat they cannot fight themselves (since it is not here) and against which they feel painfully helpless. People unaffected by the fearmongering watch the events unfold in equally helpless horror -making the not-fearful segment of the population feel equally helpless, but against their own fellow citizens. The crowd has been put into the authoritarian state of mind, so nothing can be done, even the non-fearful argue.

In reality, people shift in and out of states of mind (or thinking patterns) 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 who you ask. Address someone’s inner entrepreneur and ask him whether he could take care of himself and his family and he will say yes. Address the same person in his personality as an extremist voter, remind him of economic concerns, immigrants and threats – and ask him again. The same person will produce vastly different answers.

Populist demagogues make sure to address their audience in their roles as helpless, protection-needing children. They don’t have to say it out loud – it is enough to compose a speech as if you were talking to such people and thus imply it. The unspoken, underlying message carries much more impact than the spoken words that can be analyzed.

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.

Authoritarian thinking can be more deep-seated than other mental models, but it is still just a mental model, a thinking pattern, a cluster of thinking habits that always result in the same conclusion. But its mechanics can be brought to the light of day, consciously evaluated and put into their place. Painstaking work, but the only one that works.

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 own raison d’être – oppression, threats, enemies.

Uninterrupted prosperity and security would maybe allow people never to have to ask these difficult questions – but decades of peaceful and uninterrupted prosperity that calms (and spoils) an entire generation rarely occurs.

  • 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. Politicians won’t help with that.
  • 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

What is the opposite of an authoritarian system?

I am more than aware of the controversy surrounding the term ‘democracy’. It can be reduced to dumb 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. Common use of the word ‘democratic’ covers a wide range of things from ‘cheap’ to ‘equal’ or ‘anyone can access it’.

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 and it is detrimental to efforts to bring about freedom.

Political systems can be put on a scale between absolute freedom and absolute unfreedom, with no actual country on the two (imaginary) extremes. (What people call political left and right have nothing to do with anything, apart from both sets sets of opinions and their chosen wedge issues are designed to be detrimental to freedom.) Freedom rankings might change over time and we can go into endless arguments over the criteria of a free society. 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

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.

Authoritarian thinking works like the weighted anti-anxiety 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 these purposes, democracy is some sort of freedom, a political system that is less oppressive than its predecessor. A system that is meant to benefit the many, not the few – or even better, a neutral system that doesn’t interfere beyond necessity, a system that would be craved by people who don’t feel helpless in their own lives, and who feel that they can take care of things themselves most of the time, thank you very much.

Using only the term ‘democracy’ implies that once certain 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 retain our freedoms.

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