The republican and democratic orders in the modern world, with their rule of law and guarantees, at least officially, of citizens’ freedom, have not eliminated the most powerful atavistic tradition of hierarchical systems: authoritarianism, both as a practice and a way of thinking. Although it has been changed by more than two centuries of liberal history, authoritarianism is present in institutional democracy through the idea (carried out in daily practice) that social order and peace are only maintained through the imposition of power by some over others (through the use of force, when necessary) as the natural and traditional order of things.

Under authoritarian thinking, when individuals are allowed to act on their own particular instincts and interests, the result is disorder, instability, anarchy and chaos. It is therefore necessary that social order be protected by the authority vested in the state and the power structures. In all political systems, including formal democracies, this authority is morally legitimized by a particular hierarchical structure, led by the powerful sectors, whether those consist of a social order (class) or one based on birth (race). This traditionally greater power may represent God (even though we live in a secular world), tradition, blood (race or social class), wealth, morals, institutions, the economic system, conventions, military power, elected officials or electoral majorities. In the case of authoritarian revolutionary regimes, the authority as a stabilizing entity usually consists of new power groups that legitimize themselves through the founding of their ideological order. In other words, the main function of the state — according to the authoritarian ethos — is to maintain the existing social (and political) order on behalf of a clearly defined internal social authority. And it is obligated to act decisively to stop or prevent the outbreak of dissident social conduct that could potentially be destabilizing and damaging to that order.

Authoritarianism presumes that all societies have internal and external enemies, so the state is obligated to maintain a police and military force capable of protecting citizens and the social order. According to the authoritarian mentality, which is still with us today, human beings, due to their destructive nature, tend to promote social chaos if they are allowed to act freely on their natural impulses, which tend to be irrational. Only through the imposition of effective measures of social control by a duly constituted political authority representing a higher moral authority (accessible to privileged groups, but not the mass of the population) can the negative effects of anarchic and self-destructive behavior by citizens be avoided, when they “illegitimately” take political action.

Effective control of social conduct rests on two parallel and complementary ideological pillars: on one hand, a formal legitimacy for a particular authority (regime) validated by the political culture, and on the other hand the capacity and political will to use force, and even violence, when it is considered necessary to protect public order. The authoritarian tradition, therefore, assigns to the state, and only to the state — in representation of the dominant sectors — the responsibility for protection from internal and external enemies, giving the state a monopoly on the use of violence. This monopoly on violence is one of the pillars of the modern state and constitutes one of the principle forms of legitimization of the state, whether to maintain military forces, police and prisons or as an instrument of political repression. The monopoly on violence and the will to use it when believed to be necessary is also one of the fundamental practices of the “state of exception.” (The state of exception is the authority retained by the sovereign state to set aside the rule of law and act outside the law.)

But the main strategy of authoritarianism is not the use of repression and censorship, or forcing citizens to conform through force and fear. Placing the value of loyalty and obedience above individual freedom and the ability to act rationally, or in other words above citizen activism, gets citizens to make the official policies and ideas feel like their own, to the point that they do not see these ideas as imposed on them but as logical and natural. The official propaganda of the state and ideological control by the dominant sectors are strategies that are preferable to openly repressive measures, which can have the opposite effect of inciting opposition. In other words, for the authoritarian mentality, propaganda is an exponentially more important tool than direct control of institutions, the imposition of official policies, external censure, repression and punishment (although these latter tactics are always active by the state, especially in dealing with revolutionary outbreaks or social dissidence).

The authoritarian mentality also tends to be hostile toward social plurality, so it privileges the promotion and imposition of a homogenous culture as a normal measure. It proposes that this order truly represents the historic and natural national community. In Spain, for example, the dictatorial and authoritarian Franco regime (1936-1973) called itself a national Catholic movement whose mission was to restore the hierarchical norms of traditional Catholicism in social and state institutions. The social policies adopted by the Second Republic (1932-1939) in recognition of cultural, territorial and group diversity, along with social efforts to overcome traditional patterns of privilege and exclusion, were considered by Franco’s followers as causes of disintegration, disorder and decadence. Today, although the constitutional democracy has been restored in Spain, there is still a lot of resentment among the traditionalist (authoritarian) sectors toward the cultural and autonomy demands from Basques and Catalans and the efforts by traditionally excluded sectors to be recognized as equals. Another contemporary example is the reaction by the United States to immigration from Latin America (including Puerto Rico), which is considered a culture outside the mainstream of U.S. society, which is defined as Protestant, white and Anglo-Saxon in origin. In other words, social and cultural pluralism continue to face a long and hard road toward social and political change in the face of traditional atavistic authoritarianism.

Another example of a state with obviously authoritarian tendencies is China, the emerging power of the 21st century. In recent years, the Chinese state has refused to take responsibility in key issues such as global warming and human rights. Claiming that it is up to the state, and not the citizens, to determine what is in the common good, China is an example of a formally communist structure coexisting with brutal capitalist impulses that are transforming the country’s economy in giant strides, but not necessarily paving the way for democratization.

The practice of using propaganda to hide ideology behind technocratic demands and cultural ideals firmly located in tradition and the nature of things is a modern habit that was present in the openly totalitarian regimes of the 20th century (Nazis, Fascists, Francoists and Stalinists) and continues today to be the explicit goal of hegemonic systems, including Western powers (the wealthy countries on the planet). What makes today’s propaganda more effective than the openly imposed practices of the past is that it is ever more subtle and comes not just from the state, but also from the global economic structures, from the corporate world, with its multi-million-dollar advertising and public relations tools and with support from civic and educational organizations and especially from allies in the media. The objective, however, remains the same: to discourage citizen activism, critical thought, disobedience and, above all, dissidence.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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