Authoritarianism: GUEST POST by John Burnheim

Image result for authoritarianismArguing with an American ex-Australian now resident in Canada, I contested his view that, of the three countries, America is the least and Australia the most, authoritarian. In part it was a verbal difference. I was taking “authoritarian” in the established pejorative meaning: Valuing authority for its own sake often used to describe totalitarian regimes or certain personalities or cultures.

I was pretty sure that he was following an American usage that is descriptive of the degree of governmental activity in regulating daily life. But the pejorative content of authoritarian is not so easily shrugged off, especially in America where there is a widespread belief that government is at best a necessary evil. What follows is my attempt to sort out some of the issues. In any event below is the text of an email I wrote him:

I did find the distinction you mention between structure and culture very useful. I think of a social structure as a bus that is supposed to run its route by a timetable. Anybody can use it, if they accept it’s operating conditions. On the whole it is in the interests of the citizens if the bus does what it is supposed to do.

Even though it must involve quite a lot of use of authority, it is not authoritarian until running the system becomes an in in itself, imposed whether people like it or no by an authority that claims to act in a superior interest. In any majoritarian democracy, it is inevitable that some people feel that some authoritative decisions are authoritarian, but that may be a matter of a tolerable defect in a wider context.

Culture is the behaviour of the bus driver and the passengers, regulated either by explicitly accepted rules or by reasonable expectations. There are always reasons for most rules that are generally accepted as beneficial. Often the reason is simply that people don’t like to have to change their habits. Even those who would prefer a different rule at least know where they stand. That is social authority.

It becomes authoritarian when the predominant objective of enforcing or changing the rules is to control behaviour as an end in itself or for ends that are irrelevant to the particular purpose of the activity in question. Authority is least authoritarian where it maximises the appreciation of expressive behaviour that is spontaneous and unpredictable. Democracies may be authoritarian if they love regimentation and discipline or insist on religious observances in non-religious contexts.

A country may be structurally strongly regulated, but not authoritarian and in culture pretty anti-authoritarian. I think particularly of France and Belgium as I knew them long ago and of Australia in its present form.

However, what worries me about this sort of picture of national cultures is that it concentrates on national culture as a unity when in fact it has many independently developing and often conflicting strands. I want to insist that the old image of the nation as a person must be supplanted by that of an ecosystem consisting of many diverse systems and linked in a host of divers ways to the global ecosystem. More importantly still, many of those strands are developing on a global scale as both informal communications and structural practices. They are more powerfully influenced by cosmopolitan factors than by local indigenous traditions, leading to worldwide conflict between conservative and cosmopolitan forces at every level of our social structures and behaviour.

What worries me most about this situation is that the conservatives, seeing the old ways threatened, are driven towards authoritarianism. Nothing must be conceded to a cosmopolitanism seen as also unitary and authoritarian, a plot to take over the world.

I think the only way out of this dangerous situation is the diversification of authorities at every level from the local to the global and the concomitant diversification of decision procedures in relation to their subject matter, participation and sanctions. I don’t like my chances of success. We love simplicity and emotional security.

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25 Responses to Authoritarianism: GUEST POST by John Burnheim

  1. Matt Moore says:

    My take is somewhat different. Authoritarian states are characterized by their unwillingness to entertain rival sources of political power and authority. Their defining characteristic is their jealousy, not their discipline.

    Measuring a state’s authoritarianism simply by the number of rules it has seems… odd. Most authoritarian states do not have a lot of rules. The rules they do have are brutally enforced (“obey the rules”) and may also be deliberately ambiguous. You can’t let people get too comfortable.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that authoritarianism is emerging at a time when Western societies are getting more diverse.

    And to one of your points, John, I do think that we are seeing the emergence of “authoritarian democacies” – altho these tend to call themselves “illiberal democracies” and rather than regimentation or discipline, it mostly about groups outlawing their opponents in the name of “the people”.

  2. paul frijters says:

    I see these things a bit different again, but since I agree with John that its really just about how one interprets the word authoritarian, there’s not too much point in swapping definitions.
    Where it gets more interesting is if we think of underlying reasons for changes in authoritarianism, by which I mean use of command-and-control hierarchical relations. I think the increased inequality in Australia has lead to more obedience training in schools and large organisations, instilling the habit of being master or slave, ie the hierarchical mindset.
    You might have other theories. As Machiavelli put it, in every society there are elites who want to enslave the rest. The interesting question is why they are winning at the current time.

    • Matt Moore says:

      Paul – What forms do you see this obedience training taking?

      Let’s break this down into some tractable parts.

      School teachers are no longer allowed to inflict corporal punishment on their students. But what has increased is the surveillance of students and the testing regimes applied to them. This is not necessarily a bad thing – my brother’s dyslexia was mostly unrecognized throughout his 80s schooling and He suffered because of that.

      What is important is that all this is not framed as “disciplining” but as ensuring students reach their full potential, etc.

      In the workplace, there are different currents going on. There is ever greater surveillance of workers in the name of productivity. This is especially true of manual and unskilled workers. For professionals, there is a greater focus on measurement (with KPIs). But there is also a discourse of well-being, personal fulfillment, bringing your whole self to work, etc. And a rhetoric of innovation, diversity, flatter structures, anti-hierarchy, etc.

      Meanwhile, the Australian public’s view of institutions (traditional sources of authority) is mixed. Trust in political, media, religious and financial institutions is low. But people like health professionals. And respect for the police has actually increased.

      This productivity morality – where your personal focus is always encouraged to be about happiness as personal economic effectiveness – is not authoritarianism as we have traditionally known it.

      In some ways, it succeeds because it is not wholly wrong. Professionals whine about loss of autonomy but historically they have been unaccountable. Students with issues are missed less often.

      Why does it succeed? Because it cloaks it’s reinforcement of hierarchies under a mantle of individualism. Whether you succeed or fail is down to you as an individual – and your merit – rather than the system in which you act.

      But I suspect I have said nothing you haven’t thought already.

      • paul frijters says:

        Hi Matt,

        you’re too kind.

        Yes, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors going on, but my definition of authoritarianism is relatively easy to spot because it focuses on what people have to do, ie how much time does one spends complying with something quite specific. The top does the specifying, the bottom complies.

        As you say, surveillance is up. So too is reporting: employees have to fill in lots of forms in which they report what they do and others have done. The lines of ‘accountability’ (read: command and control) have become more defined and more explicit. Loss of autonomy basically means loss of trust in individual expertise and greater command by those at the top.

        So too at schools. Pupils now need permission slips for lots of stuff, ranging from school plays to class outings to religious education. More tests that pupils have to do and that determine more of their future. Free play time is rarer. Structured activities in which someone says what is going to happen is more common.

        You are right that it is not the teacher that has more power. Rather, its the school principal and the education ministries that have usurped more power. This is the general trend: more concentration of power at the top, less in the hands of professionals or even line managers. In some cases, the number of layers of hierarchy have increased (eg in universities where the number of layers is now ridiculous) and in some they have reduced, yet that is not what matters. What matters is more how much is about doing as you’re told/proscribed.

        Habits of obedience and top-bottom are also propagated via ‘leadership courses’, ‘the 10 rules of succesful people’, the treatment of people at airports and sports events, etc. In all cases, I think there has been an increase in the suage of cattle-treatment, whereby individuals are told to comply with top-down rules, with lots of eager little enforcers gleefully pushing the rest along to do so. that too is now more normal at schools, with prefects, class champions, and what-not creating divides within classrooms between those part of the hierarchical structure and the obeyors.

        And yes, hierarchy has its advantages. Its strongest side is that it can enforce common rules and common protocols amongst a large number of practitioners relatively quickly. Nation states need hierarchies to get things done. The question is one of the optimal mix, ie how much is hierarchical versus team-based and autonomous (based on common goals).

        I can truthfully say I have not yet been in a Western country where obedience is so ingrained and seen as a virtue as in Australia.

        • Matt Moore says:

          I have not done an exhaustive survey of obedience across Western cultures so I can’t comment on that.

          I’m going to push back a little on your picture here. Kids used to sit in class and learn subjects by rote. My father tells stories of the Secondary Modern sink schools he attended in Birmingham in the 1950s. They were not of a wonderful palaces of intellectual freedom. He and his peers were absolutely being shaped into factory fodder.

          My own son gets a fair amount of freedom. And the pedagogy is much less “authoritarian” than it was back in the 1950s.

          As for workplaces, I still maintain that there are multiple things going on. Some workplaces are ever more surveilled (esp. if you are working class) but many organizations don’t have a clue about the productivity of their staff or how to improve it. They flail from one initiative to another. One noticeable trend over the last 5 years has been the falling out of fashion of the performance review.

          I’m not saying that I disagree with you. Just that reality is contradictory.

          • Matt Moore says:

            As I think I’ve noted here before, I am heavily influenced by the Neo-Machiavellianism of Jeffrey Pfeffer: – so I am suspicious of narratives where technology emancipates us from power structures.

            At the moment, the most interesting efforts at new organizational structures are coming out of Silicon Valley. Most of them will be terrible failures. But that’s the way that experiments work.

          • paul frijters says:

            Hi Matt,

            i dont mind going another round on this.

            Pupils in the 50s as now have to follow a curriculum designed by others. Not much change there. And the first few years of schooling now happen earlier in life so as to more deeply instill the importance of being quiet when someone else speaks. In some ways, what in the 1950s still had to be drilled via school (quiet unless permission) is now so ingrained that parents by and large already have done this (ie the pre-school years are now more strict). Also, dont forget that kids now go to school much longer and they are schooled (people are taught to think and behave in a certain way).

            The content of the word freedom is more arbitrary than authoritarian so I’m not touching it here. Not much freedom in how I would interpret that word!

            Workplaces are mixed bags, agreed, but their size has increased on average and their internal rule-setting and monitoring is much more extensive. Regulations have definitely increased, both internal and external. And of course we have gone from many small shops and many independent shops to franchises and chains, with accompanying increase in hierarchy.

            I am struggling to think of a sector that has arguably seen reductions in authoritarianism in Australia. Perhaps the rise of the self-employed? Maybe at the top of some professions, ie the medical specialists who have risen to the top of the medical tree?

    • Matt Moore says:

      Hi Paul

      The more I think about it, the less happy I am with “number of rules in formal legislation” as the only indicator for authoritarianism.

      On that basis, the choice of being a 16th century UK peasant (or a 19th century UK factory worker) vs our modern day existence is a non-brainer. We should totally go for the joyous freedom of the peasant!

      Except that the peasant wasn’t free. They were constrained by the feudal expectations of their role. By the power of the local lord. By the dictates of the Church. By the surveillance of their peers (a lot of surveillance goes on in villages). Most of all, by their internalization of the norms of their role. They were also constrained by their lack of financial resources.

      Going back to my definition of authoritarianism (which is rooted in the political science literature*), Authoritarianism is a Jealous God. Authoritarian societies seek to limit the freedom of action of their subjects. And legal frameworks are only one of way of doing that (altho they are a powerful way).

      So going to your question about which professions are “freer”. That’s less about the rules associated with them and more about the market power they command. Good IT programmers, project managers, business consultants – these people command market power and have considerable freedom of action. They can swap employers at will. Shelf stacker at the local supermarket – not so much.

      From what I can tell, my son does have free time and play time at school. School leaving age for my father was 15. For my son it will be 17 (which is not a huge difference). I think the content and methods of the curriculum do matter – simply saying “some else decides them therefore nothing has changed from the student’s point of view” isn’t satisfactory. You also seem to implying that parents did not used to discipline their children – this is untrue. Children were expected to be “seen and not heard” at home and at church.

      Going back to our previous discussion on identity, if you were to ask ambitious women, gay people and immigrants how they feel about the changes in society over the last 50 years – what would they say?

      Now I think that there is a Foucauldian case to make that “disciplinary power” has shifted from outright violence to surveillance. So I think we agree on a lot. But I still think some of your claims are overly simplistic. So I’m not sure we’re going to get any further. I also think that if you’re going to avoid the topic of “freedom” when talking about authoritarianism then you are going to continually run into problems.

      *And by that I obviously mean Wikipedia.

      • paul frijters says:

        I feel we can go many rounds without getting anywhere! :-) What you call simplistic are my summary claims, devoid of the 1,000 qualifications and addendums one can add to any summary claim. the interesting question is not really whether one can niggle about them, but what your alternative summary claim would be.

        The key thing is the definition I have in mind, which is just how much of the time a person spends complying with dictats from above in which he/she does not meaningfully participate.

        This is different from the notion of ‘being free to do what a person wants’, which arguably is an extreme form of freedom only the hermit on an island enjoys. Living amongst other humans always comes with restrictions imposed by the desires and designs of others. My definition hinges on the distinction between more team-based forms of human organisation (circles of reciprocity as I like to call them) and more hierarchical forms of human organisation, whereby bosses can demand unreasonable things and one has to comply anyway. A key difference is that circles of reciprocity have a joint identity that counts its members as ‘roughly’ equals. A hierarchy does not.

        Take your medieval peasant. Indeed, the hierarchy of the church and the feudal overlord would have been inescapable. Yet, for most of the time and most of his/her life, the peasant would have lived in a community of near-equals who traded with each others informally and formed kinship groups. They identified with the village and even with the religion as a whole. So the lived reality would have been far less one of obeying and much more one of joint production and joint celebration of shared gods. Depending on the particular area and century you choose, peasant life could be quite pleasant. We know they were often healthier than city dwellers! Indeed, the argument has been made that the idea of communism in the 19th century was carried primarily by people coming from very communal villages to the hierarchical cities and imagining a utopian world as a huge village.

        Hence my focus on time spent complying with something specific as a measure of modern-day hierarchy.

        So parent-child relationships and community-member relationships are, in my book, not completely hierarchical. The children and members have agency (at least, from a certain age) and can actively negotiate and influence. So whilst these close relations certainly try to exert power over each other in all kinds of ways, the fact that they share a common identity separates those relations from a hierarchy.

        I feel we can go on forever here though :-)

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Thanks for this Paul,

          That thing about the ‘connective tissue’ of common identity makes a light bulb go off for me – can you point me to any writing about it.

          It seems to me that this is the story of my life on this planet. I arrived into a culture which was quite unifying. The sense of ‘class’ was probably as strong or stronger than now, but when I went to the footy I felt at one with the predominantly working class people there. And I’m upper middle class.

          Today there’s much less ‘connective tissue’ allowing people to share an identity. My kids generation talks about ‘bogans’ and generally resents the chip on their shoulder. They don’t feel connected by a shared identity.

          Ditto for the way in which governance is now by rules, principles etc, and not by some broader more real thing which is a shared culture.

          Meanwhile things that were implicit in the culture are made explicit. At least according to my memory organisation’s ‘purposes’ were largely implicit. Now we define them in corporate retreats.

          A lot of things that were provided as part of the ether are somehow atrophying, and replaced by stuff that we don’t really feel – though we go through the motions – often not admitting (even to ourselves) that that’s what we’re doing.

          I’d be interested in your reaction to these thoughts. And of course that of others.

          • paul frijters says:

            More reading? Yeah, chapter 3 of that big book of mine talks a lot about this. :-)

            Chapter 4 and 5 talk a lot about the phenomenon you describe: from shared smaller identities (villages, neighbourhoods, extended families) to personal relations with the larger entities (the state). That comes with more feelings of isolation and not really being connected to the person on the street, stadium, etc. I give descriptions, theories, the lot.


          • Matt Moore says:

            “but when I went to the footy I felt at one with the predominantly working class people there”

            I’m sorry but that statement immediately triggered memories of this:

            I think we can underestimate the amount of social conflict that we had in the recent past. The history of Western states in the 20th century was one of sustained social conflict – labour unrest in the 20s and 30s, the anti-Communist scares of the 50s, civil rights in the 60s, labour conflicts (again) in the 70s and 80s.

            And if we had a common identity, it was often based on the exclusion of others.

            Both David Runciman and Ezra Klein have, in very different ways, encouraged us to remember this conflict.


            All that said, I think social cohesion is decreasing. Robert Putnam wrote a rather chunky book about this. The decline of both organized religion and political parties as mass movements is linked to this.

            But it is something that I feel profoundly ambiguous about. Because a major reason (perhaps the major reason) for this decline in collective action has been that we don’t need each other as much on a day to day basis as we used to. We in Western societies are mostly wealthier and safer than at any other time in human history.

            I think there are negative consequences to this. But descriptions like the one above generally portray it purely as a loss, rather than the flipside of an unusually successful point in human history.

            I am also reminded of the ominous work of Walter Scheidel (which I’ve mentioned here before but no one’s biting on that one).

        • Matt Moore says:

          Hi Paul

          I don’t have a summary statement on this nor I am embarrassed by that situation.

          The village. I did not grow up in a medieval village. But I did grow up in Baptist Church in the provincial UK. My experience of small, tightly-knit communities is that they are not governed by extensive legislation. But there are lots of rules – “the done thing”. These small communities are great provided you do the done thing. They are horrible (and potentially lethal) if you don’t. And of course, it’s impossible to argue with the done thing.

          But you can argue with a law. You can debate a law. You can change a law. Because laws are explicit rather than implicit, they are often more tractable. The done thing can and does change but this is harder. Because it is not just a human-drafted law, it is reality.

          My experience of small communities is that there are also status games, pecking orders and hierarchies. And they are prey to charismatic leaders. Now because such communities and the resources they have are small, such gradients in material status are also small, but they are keenly felt none the less.

          People don’t just move to cities for economic reasons. They move to become the kinds of people that villages won’t let them be. This is not a case of “cities good, villages bad” because both forms of life require trade-offs, there are benefits to both and there are better and worse examples of both. But I think you are underestimating the Tyranny of the Tacit.

          “A key difference is that circles of reciprocity have a joint identity that counts its members as ‘roughly’ equals. A hierarchy does not.”

          Overall, I don’t see a sharp distinction between the “circle of reciprocity” on the one hand and “hierarchy” on the other. You can share elements of an identity (religious, geographic, professional) and hierarchies can still exist.

          I think a more productive set of questions are around what this means for the choices that we make as individuals and groups. What do we do differently as a result of these insights?

          • Matt
            About 16 years we moved to a smallish town much of what you say rings true – though I’d guess that Braidwood back then might have had a bit more of the Quality of Sprawl than a small UK Baptist village would have( and more links to the outside world as well ).

            Perhaps a measure of authority levels or authoritarianism could be ;how much many of a societies laws, mores, and regulations need ( or are perceived to need?) a lot of active widespread policing-enforcement?

  3. Peter WARWICK says:

    The more I think about it, the less happy I am with “number of rules in formal legislation” as the only indicator for authoritarianism.

    This is a little off topic, but I remember a study done by a UK person (some time ago and I cannot remember the fine details), and the study was about statue law in many countries. The study involved counting the number of pages of statute law (over some 30 countries) over a period of 50 years. The study did not count the number of words (an impossible task), nor deeply analyze the contents of each page, but simply counted the number of pages.

    The study concluded that the number of pages of statute law grew by some 8% every year (compounded) for 50 years. The study did analyze some pages, particularly in the last 15 years of the 50 year cycle, and found that a good proportion of laws were amendments to previous laws, and that compounded to amendmens of the previous amendments, and even amendments to the previous amendments to the previous amendments. So it was a case of the laws disappearing up its own arse. A lawyers wet dream.

    I am posting this to augment the argument that if “laws are the ultimate authority”, then we are a very authoritarian country. And that is compounded by Australias three levels of government. There is good money in the law.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      This argument comes up in the context of claims that we are over-regulated (which we are in many respects). But the volume of legislation or regulation is a poor reflector of this for another reason which is that the world is becoming more complex and so regulation must become more complex.

      I liken the growth of the volume of regulation to the growth in the file size of software. As it gets more complex and has more features it grows.


      Which is a bit of a worry since our own minds and our legal system don’t obey Moore’s Law :(

      • Sure.
        However a mystery is why is it so hard to remove ‘code’ even when it’s bloody obviously out of date ?
        for example from WA news of about five years ago:

        “Spuds have become a political hot potato in Western Australia as the state opposition seeks to stamp out the nation’s last remaining potato regulator.

        Arguably an anachronism in today’s capitalist world, WA’s Potato Marketing Act of 1946 – and its subsequent regulator, the Potato Marketing Corporation of WA – trace their history back to the shortages of the Great Depression and post-war food security.

        The corporation not only controls what potato varieties can be grown and sold, but who grows them and how much they are paid.”
        I think that this has, finally been delt with , but why did it take so long?

      • Peter says:

        NG, agree that the sheer volume of legislation (lets use pages as the measure) does not in itself, constitute a measurement of authority (note AUTHORITY not AUTHORITARIANISM).

        If the 3 levels of government were to let the dog/s off the chain, we could be in real trouble – all those pages to rely on.

        Australians are fairly (but sometimes begrudgingly) respectful of AUTHORITY, but would man the barricades at AUTHORITARIANISM.

        Hence the dogs are kept on a fairly short leash.

      • Nicholas
        After the war my dad did law under the returned soldier training scheme. He then joined the Public Prosecutors office and was sent to Broken Hill to prosecute shopkeepers for selling bread on Sunday (in about 1955-56).
        Dad on his return thought, fuck this.., and applied for a job in NSWPWD and he went on to be PWD assistant director so I guess that stupid regulation has some pluses:-)

  4. Tend to think of Authoritarian regimes as meaning : no rule of law, detention without trial, disappearances at midnight, thought crimes etc.

    While many of Australias ,too too many ,rules and regulations are annoying and at times counterproductive – can’t really agree that Australia is a capital letter authoritarian country .

    BTW In WA selling a lightbulb on a Sunday is legal, but selling a lampshade on a Sunday is not legal ( think this is still the case, it was so only a few years ago) I would be surprised if there have been any recent prosecutions under that law.

  5. Matt Moore says:

    An example of where increased rules do seem to be authoritarian:

    Ostensibly the increased detail of the rules was to increase “transparency” and yet they have had the opposite effect.

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