News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Authoritarianism and Despair

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Authoritarianism and Despair

John Dean's recent book, Conservatives Without Conscience, has evoked much debate among conservatives, as well as political commentators on both sides of the political spectrum. Although it has not yet gained wide discussion in the MSM, it has made the rounds of the blogosphere.

I have not yet read Dean's book so the following will not be a book review as much as it is the investigation of certain themes that I have addressed before in this blog, themes which seem associated with Dean's main thesis. This thesis, according to many discussions, is that those who call themselves neoconservatives and their Bushite followers are uniquely prone to authoritarian models--either as leaders or as followers. ...

Authoritarian is another one of those terms like fascism that is used in so many ways by so many different political interests that it's almost useless without giving it some more profile. I tried to do this in my tract on fascism, seeing it from my own personal experience with my father, a self-avowed Nazi.

In a similar way, the term authoritarian, as either a noun or an adjective, needs further context to provide it some pith and meat. Context does not only give emotional and intellectual depth to the term. Context also helps to see a way to counter the authoritarian personality and its associated evils.

A potential problem with writer's like Dean's work is that it might lead us to look at the authoritarian from the outside. While this is important because it helps to identify and perhaps locate what authoritarianism is and where it occurs--much as a scientist pinpoints a subatomic particle so that they can further analyze it--this is just a first step in a process that must work in a direction not known by scientists. This direction is from the outside in--in to one's personal life and motivations, not from the outside out--out to the world before some form of inner analysis and reflection.

That such a direction is required is apparent from the criteria identified by studies used in assessing authoritarian personalities themselves. That is, as Dean's own title indicates, it is conservatives without conscience that one must focus on. The context for the question of authoritarian personality involves a distinctly subjective state: conscience.

This is not as obvious as it seems. One tendency by those who interpret these scientific studies on authoritarianism is to forget the subjective factor and to ascribe to human beings an innate, "hard-wired" tendency to authoritarian expression. But if the focus is conscience, then that would seem to rule out any hard-wired, biologically determinative cause. That is, if we understand conscience as a subjective state that is not purely caused by environment or genetics or anything else. Further, it means that we are talking about something that humans respond to the commands of--if they are listening.

A concise formulation of the view that authoritarianism might be biologically determinative comes in the following commenter from an anonymous poster at Glenn Greenwald's review of Dean's book [misspellings have been corrected]:

But you know, this has got me to wondering if politics is at a very deep level determined by DNA.

We are hierarchal animals just like our chimp cousins. Across any given population maybe the genetic urge toward hierarchy is a continuum. Maybe democracy came about in part because the human population in those areas were less inclined to strict hierarchies and could live as loose clans.

Maybe in some ways the New World self selected for humans with less strong hierarchy genes as many came here to avoid the rigid class systems in Europe. The gene pool was being stacked with those who could deal with the free flow of democracy and its birth in the New World with the Revolution.

To me, republicans act like male chimps living under the thumb of a very dominate alpha male. It may not even bee a matter of having a super male, but their DNA pushing them toward absolute obedience to the hierarchy.
This means the following: What the studies on authoritarian personalities show is that people give up their moral decision-making to authority figures. That is what makes them dangerous. They would rather listen to someone with a white coat on and electrocute someone to death than make the decision to follow their own conscience.

One of the findings of the authoritarian studies is that those prone to exhibit this personality dysfunction express a desire for certainty and a reality beyond question. These factors create a certain anxiety, it's inferred, and the authoritarian alleviates that anxiety by putting their trust--and thereby their conscience--into the hands of a figure who asserts a world-view that radiates absolute truth and veracity.

Many have taken these inferences as indicating a lack of reason or rationality on the part of the authoritarian-prone personality. These conclusions are drawn from the supposed fact that authoritarians will not listen to/accept examples or facts that apparently contradict the views espoused by their leader or their own absolute understanding of the world.

Philosophically at least, these conclusions seem unwarranted, if only because they miss a very basic point about all world-views. That is, all world-views are provisional and open to debate--even the ones asserted as fact by scientists. Depending on tools and conceptual paradigms, the absoluteness of all assertions is simply untenable. Every assertion has its counter-assertion, every fact a counter-factual. Except perhaps at the level of natural phenomena which follow rigid laws of necessity, little in the world of human action could not be "otherwise than it it was or is," to paraphrase Aristotle's Rhetoric.

Be these comments as they may--and as controversial and open to discussion and perhaps discounting--the point about authoritarianism is that people who give up their moral decision-making to authoritarian thinking or leaders do so out of an immense sense of anxiety. I would go further and call it a deep sense of despair. They despair not only over their own material welfare but even more importantly over themselves. In a very real sense they despair over who and what they are.

In this despair over themselves, they therefore turn over their conscience to others and their messages who seem most like them and who set their minds at rest. Those who can alleviate the despair by various means--whether appealing to material comforts, patriotic sloganeering, scapegoating, warring against others who are different--it is these that those in despair follow and give up their consciences to.

As human animals we are all formed and shaped by our environments and genetics. There is no way around that. Yet, it also seems true of the human animal that it has capabilities other animals do not. These capabilities include language and thought. Along with these go reason and reflection, as well something that some call conscience.

Conscience itself seems to be an ability–rational, yet somehow above reason because its source appears above and beyond human rational–to discern when we are acting in a way that is wrong. It is wrong not because it goes against our material interests but because it betrays something more essential to who or what we acknowledge as being more ourselves than what our material affairs and interests add up to.

Having given up their moral decision-making powers, they are open to manipulation by authoritarian leaders who are eager to play into their fears and anxieties about who and what they are. Fear that group, destroy that nation, hate the world–all these endanger who and what I am. What the authoritarian personalities do, of course, is to give up their freedom to easy answers and deceptive certainties. They are unwilling to live with a despair so great and act in despite of it, that the allegiances they make and the prescriptions they write often result in not only self-deception but a greater deception perpetrated towards and against others.

Having said this much, it is important to recognize that few of the those who echo Dean’s observations on authoritarianism identify the true causes of the despair and its associated anxiety. These writers seem content on identifying the symptom, ascribing it to a psychologico-biological cause and then note its various political ramifications and exploitations. This is almost as bad saying it spontaneously generates itself.

You do not have to look too far to find a reasonable answer to one of the sources of authoritarian anxieties as described above. In his work on the modern workplace, Richard Sennett documents the precarious insecurities many people face in their jobs. Sennett shows that the precarious work conditions promote insecurities in situations where character-building frameworks are required. Character here refers to the emotional and intellectual make-up that is required for ethical decision-making.

By promoting a workplace that allows no true basis for character-building, the modern business also promotes a state of despair within its workforce. People working under these conditions are not only unsure of themselves, they are also uncertain about their families and their welfare. These conditions promote despair and uncertainty to such an extent that those who experience it search out any type of certainty that will allay their fears and suspicions.

Anything that fills the vacuum of their lives and defines the world for them in a rigidly concrete way. And the more rigid and circumscribed that world is in opposition to others only makes it easier to emotionally attach oneself to that vision of the world. Indeed, this comparing ourselves with others and defining ourselves against or with them is perhaps a constituent part of how we become selves in the first place.

Yet, there are some things to bear in mind with regard to those who despair in these ways, as opposed to those who would set themselves up as judges. I mean those who seem to think that they themselves are immune to despair. In a minimal sense, I would say, the authoritarian types are at least–however minimally--aware that there is something to despair over. Those who would set themselves up as judges, however, perhaps do not even reach this level of self-consciousness. Self-assured in their reverence of reason or science’s certainties, they refuse to acknowledge that even these cannot provide the type of conscience that is required for attaining a true self-awareness.

Related Links

No comments: