Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been a domain of research focusing on what was initially called the “authoritarian personality“. The most famous work is probably the one that initiated this field of studies: The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950 and authored by Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford. Their psychological/personality-based definition of authoritarianism is the following:

a general disposition to glorify, to be subservient to and remain uncritical toward authoritative figures of the ingroup and to take an attitude of punishing outgroup figures in the name of some moral authority

Obviously, I am not wedded to this (pretty old) work, which probably had some methodological and other flaws. At a theoretical level, I am also generally opposed to overly psychologizing and individualizing approaches. There are also a number of complicated theoretical/empirical questions for any psychological-ideational analysis, such as the causal relationship between personality traits (such as open-mindedness) and individual beliefs/values (e.g. favoring equality) – i.e. whether either predetermines the other, if so which one (and how), and so on… However, I do find this attempt to theorize authoritarianism conceptually interesting, and indeed the pitfalls of reductionist psychologizing perspectives doesn’t mean individual (pre)dispositions and psychological processes can be ignored!

I also think it is a more meaningful conceptual discussion than the conventional formalist and liberal (and polsci) definition of authoritarianism as “a form of government characterized by the rejection of political plurality, the use of strong central power to preserve the political status quo, and reductions in the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting” (and lack of civil liberties such as freedom of religion) [source]. As outlined below, some of the elements of the ‘authoritarian personality’ approach – especially because of the fact some theorists from the Frankfurt School (Institut für Sozialforschung) included a critical-sociological bent to it – seem to me useful for approaching the issue of defining what authoritarianism is and means.

Other major contributions after the initial work by Adorno et al., include the works of Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, who introduced the concept of Social dominance orientation (SDO) as part of their own approach, called social dominance theory [see this video by Guillaume Deloison (French) for a recent discussion; if you don’t speak French, see the original 2006 article]; and Bob Altermeyer‘s works, which notably introduced another personality trait category called Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). SDO and RWA are two personality traits (or rather, two variables constructed for empirical analysis of various behaviors aggregated under and as either of them) that might be worth defining shortly since they are core conceptual tools of this scholarly field. As Durkitt mentions in his article, there are alternative ways to call these two factors: Anti-Egalitarianism (for SDO) and Social Conservatism (for RWA). I think these phrasings are possibly more helpful indeed, since the definitions are as follows:

  • Social dominance orientation (aka Anti-Egalitarianism):
    • a “personality trait measuring an individual’s support for social hierarchy and the extent to which they desire their in-group to be superior to out-groups” [Wiki]
    • Viciss Hackso (pseudonym) put it similarly: “The SDO scale measures the degree to which individuals desire and support social hierarchy, i.e. an unequal system where some people are superior, others inferior, and that all this should be maintained and even amplified” [translated from the French]
  • Right-wing authoritarianism (aka Social Conservatism): a covariation of/concerning somebody characterized by the three traits:
    • ‘conventionalism’: being very conventional/conformist in thought and behavior
    • ‘authoritarian submission’: being instinctively (or “naturally” – not a word I like much but what the heck) submissive to authority figures that are considered legitimate
    • ‘authoritarian aggression’: acting aggressively in their name

You can find two useful summaries and discussions of this field of research in this 2015 paper by John Duckitt and this series (and this latest post from 2019) [FR] by French group Hacking social. [I have also found a 2002 paper by Roiser & Willig that might be worth checking out] Check anarchist youtuber Saint Andrew’s video on the topic too!

Duckitt draws two conclusions from his review:

The concept of an authoritarian personality to explain patterns of relatively stable individual differences in a broad range of social, political, and intergroup attitudes and reactions emerged early in the twentieth century. Since then it has inspired a great deal of research and controversy, which have lead to two important changes in conceptualization and measurement. One change was away from trying to measure the entire range of attitudes and beliefs originally seen as comprising the authoritarian syndrome on a single psychometric dimension. These early measures, such as the F, D, and C scales, invariably failed, and this led to the discovery that this broad social attitudinal domain comprised two distinct dimensions, which seem to comprehensively organize individuals’ social, political, and intergroup attitudes and their many manifestations. The second change has come more recently. This has involved challenging the conception of authoritarianism as personality, be it one dimension or two. New theories have emerged which see the two dimensions of authoritarianism, RWA and SDO, not as personality dimensions but rather as two distinct social attitudinal dimensions expressing two sets of motivationally based social values. The main focus of these newer theories has been to clarify the values that lie at the core of ideological attitude dimensions such as RWA and SDO, how situational, experiential, and personality factors might influence these dimensions, and how and why RWA and SDO in turn affect social and intergroup behavior.

Duckitt, J. (2015). Authoritarian Personality. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, p. 260. My emphasis (italics)

Conveniently, the above quotation mentions that it’s important looking at “the values that lie at the core of ideological attitude dimensions, how situational, experiental, and personality factors might influence these dimensions, and how and why RWA and SDO in turn affect social and integroup behavior”: it might be argued that in a certain way the anarchist and libertarian socialist tradition has been talking about this – in the context of radical politics and with the horizon of social revolution – since the 19th century. I want to highlight this core anti-authoritarian message as a way to frame what we can conceptualize as the authoritarian mindset which defines most if not all of the Political Cesspool, with the bloodthirsty far right and the authoritarian left being its two most recognizable political “families”.

This is in fact the core ideological commitment of critical theory writ large, including the critical theory of the likes of Adorno and Erich Fromm (both from the Frankfurt school). Morelock says, for instance, that Max Horkheimer ” identified Critical Theory with several purposes, including interdisciplinary scholarship, intercourse between theory and empirical research, and exposition/overturning of domination” [Jeremiah Morelock in Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism (2018), p. xiv. Emphasis added]. This latter goal is the core of any and all radical emancipatory movements, from feminism to antiracist and anticolonial liberation. The anarchist tradition, especially from Bakunin onwards, has been one of the longest, and probably the most outspoken and explicit, of these anti-authoritarian movements. But what does anti-authoritarian mean? Or rather, what is it that anarchists and others call authoritarianism and consider as a fundamental barrier to global progress and emancipation? I belive it might worthwhile to bring together what was mentioned at the beginning (on the authoritarian personality – or mindset, as I prefer to call it) with what Bakunin and anarchists call “the principle of authority”.

Bakunin famously defined the “principle of authority” in Marxism, Freedom and the State as follows:

the eminently theological, metaphysical and political idea that the masses, always incapable of governing themselves, must submit at all times to the benevolent yoke of a wisdom and a justice, which in one way or another, is imposed from above

For him, this principle concerned especially what he called “the two fundamental institutions of slavery: Church and State” [God and the State]. According to the AFAQ, the type of “authority” targeted here has also been called – in anarchist and other libertarian literature – “hierarchical” authority (or just “hierarchy”) and “irrational” authority (as opposed to “rational” authority which is legitimate and recognized by others, what Bakunin called “natural influence” – e.g. being an “authority” or expert/specialist in a certain task/activity/area of knowledge etc..). The “rational” vs “irrational” distinction apparently comes from Frankfurt School Marxist Erich Fromm. As he puts it in Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics:

The source of irrational authority (…) is always power over people. This power can be physical or mental, it can be realistic or only relative in terms of the anxiety and helplessness of the person submitting to this authority. Power on the one side, fear on the other, are always the buttresses on which irrational authority is built. Criticism of the authority is not only required but forbidden. Rational authority is based upon the equality of both authority and subject, which differ only with respect to the degree of knowledge of skill in a praticular field. Irrational authority is by its very nature based on inequality, implying difference in value.

As I often like to do, splitting this concept into two halves, one social, the other political, can be useful to define more precisely what it implies. This is a normative principle – defining a standard of “what ought” to be (done), i.e., a norm, on these two levels:

  • As a social norm: the sociological truism that a system of domination requires (varying degrees of) “consent” and submission to de facto authority on the part of the governed/ruled.
    • As British anarchist Colin Ward puts it, “hierarchical systems do not solely rely on fear and brute force to reproduce themselves: it is “far more because [the oppressed] subscribe to the same values as their governors. Rulers and ruled alike believe in the principle of authority, of hierarchy, of power” [Anarchy in Action].
    • Max Weber famously defined “domination” as “the probability that certain specific commands (or all commands) will be obeyed by a given group of persons”; he said that “every genuine form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance, that is, an interest (based on ulterior motives or genuine acceptance) in obedience” [source]. For “the merely external fact of the order being obeyed is not sufficient to signify domination in our sense; we cannot overlook the meaning of the fact that the command is accepted as a valid norm” [source]. The insight from Weber is that domination (in his conception) is essentially what anarchists call hierarchical authority, but with the important caveat that it necessarily implies a certain degree of legitimacy (“the command is accepted as a valid norm”). Bakunin expressed a similar viewpoint when he said that “the principle of authority was never anything but the idealised expression of [brute force]” [Marxism, Freedom and the State]. In sociology, this conception is called a relational perspective on power and domination: power/hierarchy isn’t some thing that an individual or group simply “has”, but a social relation in which the relative “consent” from the oppressed party is a constitutive element.
    • This is also expressed in Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, which Michael Burawoy summarized as follows: “Hegemony is a form of domination that Gramsci famously defined as ‘the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent. Indeed, the attempt is always made to ensure that force will appear to be based on the consent of the majority’ (Gramsci, 1971: 80). Hegemony has to be distinguished from dictatorship or despotism, where coercion prevails and is applied arbitrarily without regulatory norms. Hegemony is organised in civil society, but it embraces the state too: ‘the State is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules’ (Gramsci, 1971: 244). A lot rests on the idea of consent, of a knowing and willing participation of the dominated in their domination.” [Burawoy 2012, p. 60. Emphasis added]
  • As a political principle: rather than a concept pertaining to a sociological dynamic, this is a political project, an ideal of how society should be organized and governed. It is basically the political manifestation or form of the broader societal phenomenon.

Both senses are relevant, and I think this can be thought as one of two dimensions of our conceptualization of authoritarianism, which thus basically represents the ideological version of this “principle of authority/hierarchy”. I think we can usefully integrate the notions of Anti-Egalitarianism (aka SDO) and Social Conservatism (aka RWA) with this first aspect of authoritarian ideology/mindset/politics.

Another meaningful contribution comes from the definition of authoritarianism within the tradition of Critical theory – as rooted in the Frankfurt School. Morelock defines their conception as the use of (physical, legal, psychological, …) coercion in order to “eliminate or otherwise subdue” difference, i.e. seeking to enforce social homogeneity [Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism, p. xiv; 140]. To clarify, he also adds in his paper with Felipe Ziotti Narita, that “we may consider a social movement to be authoritarian if it supports the increased use of coercion to counter social difference” [p. 140].

This will therefore be our second dimension or level of the concept of authoritarianism. As with the first one, it applies both to the social and the political realms. Trying to get rid of social or political difference is indeed one of the most common fundamental forms of authoritarianism in the most conventional and widespread use of the term…

My conceptual groundwork here is aimed at defining authoritarianism, and it seems to me that all the above is valuable and relevant in order to understand it fully; the two “dimensions” are especially crucial. Everyone from “tankies” to neo-nazis evidently show signs of this authoritarian mindset and the retrograde and cop-like values and beliefs that underpin it.

Moreover, Lewis Mumford’s distinction between authoritarian and democratic technics is useful [I highly recommend his 1964 article, a great read]. As summarized on LibrarianShipwreck blog, he “argued that there have been two dominant trends [regarding] technologies throughout history”:

The older of the two, “democratic technics” tended to be relatively simple, locally controlled, relying primarily on human (or animal) power, and these adapted themselves to the conditions in which they were deployed. By contrast, “authoritarian technics” were complex, situated control in the hands of distant technicians/bureaucrats/rulers, relied on harnessing large amounts of power, and instead of being adaptable to already existing conditions altered those conditions to make those conditions adaptable to the machines. While “democratic technics” could be traced back to the earliest examples of human tool use, Mumford pinned the emergence of “authoritarian technics” to the development of kingship and the organization of “complex human machines” which were deployed for creating many of the feats of the ancient world. For centuries the two types existed side by side, particularly as agricultural work continued to occupy a large part of the population, but over time new complex technologies began to emerge that centralized more and more power in the technological system (and those who controlled it). If the “pyramid builders” were the stewards of the “authoritarian technics” of old, Mumford argued that “the inventors of nuclear bombs, space rockets, and computers are the pyramid builders of our own age” – entranced by the power of their creations. Though “authoritarian technics” require the services of a devoted priesthood (made of the technical, scientific, and managerial elite), Mumford emphasized that it was unwise to focus overly heavily on the priesthood for “the center now lies in the system itself, invisible but omnipresent.” Writing in 1964, Mumford was of the opinion that it was “authoritarian technics” that were in the ascendent position.

Lest there be any doubt, Mumford acknowledged that “authoritarian technics” are frequently responsible for impressive feats that testify to the power of the system (and by extension the power of the humans close to that system), yet Mumford did not locate their success solely in their ability to inspire awe. Rather, Mumford explained the dominance of “authoritarian technics” by understanding how such technics had ironically entered into a sort of “democratic-authoritarian social contract” wherein members of the community were provided with a share of the material abundance created by the system in exchange for their compliance with it. Thus, the cornucopia of mass-produced “goods” (ranging from foodstuffs to entertainment products to consumer electronics) came to act as a powerful stand in for “the good,” in what Mumford characterized as “the bribe” offered by “authoritarian technics.” Those who accepted this “bribe,” were not an army of fools; after all, the “bribe” was only successful insofar as it appeared to be a fair trade to those who were offered it. Yet, Mumford ominously warned that “once one opts for the system no further choice remains.”

Mumford therefore concluded by saying that,

the genuine advantages our scientifically based technics has brought can be preserved only if we cut the whole system back to a point at which it will permit human alternatives, human interventions, and human destinations for entirely different purposes from those of the system itself. At the present juncture, if democracy did not exist, we would have to invent it, in order to save and recultivate the spirit of man.

[As the LibrarianShipwreck post mentions, despite the different context today from the Cold War when Mumford was writing, it still resonates in the 21st century, especially with the development of digital and internet technologies]

With all that said, it’s important to keep in mind what Harsha Walia said (context is about the far right, but this applies to our whole topic) in her amazing book about the global border regime:

Confronting racism and patriarchy must go beyond an analysis of personal traits; rather, gendered violence and racial violence, and their interconnections, are always mass structural violences. Such oppressions, and the ideologies that justify them, are the basis for the rise of the far right.

Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism

Obviously this is only a set of notes on the topic, which isn’t fixed or definitive. The more important point is that, as Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin said, we must “kill the cop in [our] heads“!