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On Authoritarianism. A Review Essay

  • Michael Meng (a1)

A product of the nineteenth-century age of “isms,” authoritarianism describes a worldview that promotes the establishment of a hierarchical relation whereby one person or group dominates and governs another without recourse to either physical force or persuasion. Authoritarianism is the advocacy of authority as a source or origin that compels voluntary obedience without question. A person has authority if he or she can command someone to do something without having to do anything other than issue a command; which is to say that the person who obeys recognizes the authority of the person who commands as legitimate or correct. The word authority comes from the Latin, auctoritas, which Cicero employs to characterize the distinctive influence of the Senate in ancient Rome: “Power is with the people, authority with the Senate.” Whereas power (potestas) is political and relies on force or persuasion to command obedience, authority enjoys unequivocal obedience as a source beyond the contested realm of politics.

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1 My definition of authority stems from the work of Alexandre Kojève discussed here, and Hannah Arendt cited below, who both suggest that authority pertains to the capacity to compel obedience freely without recourse to physical force or persuasion, the latter both being signs that the authority of the one in command is no longer recognized as legitimate or correct by the one being commanded. One might view Max Weber as having anticipated this understanding of authority in Economy and Society (1922), where he argues, “Every genuine form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance, that is, an interest (based on ulterior motives or genuine acceptance) in obedience.” Yet, in “Politics as a Vocation” (1919), Weber does not distinguish physical force from authority quite as clearly as Arendt and Kojève do when he defines the state as having a “right” to use violence. (For Arendt and Kojève, to repeat, recourse to force indicates a failure of one's authority or “right” to rule [2]). Another difference among Weber, Arendt, and Kojève lies in their respective approaches. Whereas Weber seeks to develop a theory for the nature of authority, Arendt's historical approach expressly does not. (The matter is more complicated with Kojève, who argues in his Hegel lectures of 1933–1939 that authority arises historically in the context of the master-slave relation, but then a few years later develops a non-historical understanding of authority in The Notion of Authority.) See Weber Max, Economy and Society, vol. 1, Roth Guenther and Wittich Claus, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 212; Kojève Alexandre, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Bloom Allan, ed., Nichols James H., Jr., trans. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), 330 (this is a partial translation of Introduction à la lecture de Hegel [1947]); and Arendt Hannah, “What Is Authority?” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin, 1993), 91141 .

2 Cum potestas in populo, auctoritas in senatu sit. Cicero, De Re Publica De Legibus, with English translation by Keyes Clinton Walker (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928), 492–93. Translation modified.

3 As Machiavelli Niccolò instructs, “One must know how to color one's actions and to be a great liar and deceiver. Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived.The Prince, Bull George, trans. (New York: Penguin, 1999), 57. Il Principe comes from princeps, meaning first, which was the honorific title preferred by Augustus.

4 While not dealing with Virgil and the issue of narrative, Arendt emphasizes the connection between auctoritas and “the sacredness of foundation,” in her essay, “What Is Authority?”

5 Dostoevsky Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov, Pevear Richard and Volokhonsky Larissa, trans. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990), 254 .

6 Ibid., 254.

7 Ibid., 252.

8 For a survey of this debate, see Kershaw Ian, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, 4th ed. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 81108 .

9 Weber, Economy and Society, vol. 1, 243.

10 For a brief discussion of the history of authority and Christianity, see Marcuse Herbert, A Study on Authority, De Bres Joris, trans. (New York: Verso, 2008), 1234 ; originally published in 1936 as Studien über Autorität und Familie.

11 Arendt's Hannah The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1968 [1951]) is the classic study of this conventional view of authoritarianism.

12 By non-constitutional, Svolik means “any type of exit from office that did not follow a natural death or a constitutionally mandated process, such as an election, a vote by a ruling body, or a hereditary succession.” Such changes in leadership plausibly went against the will of the incumbent (4). The examples of the French, Russian, and East European revolutions would seem to contradict this conclusion at first blush. But in each of these cases, popular unrest toppled regimes significantly weakened by economic challenges, war, and/or other factors (e.g., the Chernobyl disaster in the case of the collapse of Soviet Communism).

13 In the case where a person or group of persons does not recognize the authority of the dictator (in the name of recognizing another authority), then the dictator must recourse to force or terror of some kind; that is, the dictator must inspire fear to compel acquiescence. See Kojève Alexandre, “Tyranny and Wisdom,” in Burns Timothy W. and Frost Bryan-Paul, eds., Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016), 308 .

14 Schmitt Carl, The Concept of the Political, Schwab George, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). The katechon, from the Greek κατέχον meaning “holding,” is a cryptic force described in 2 Thessalonians 2 that precludes the apocalypse from prematurely occurring against God's divine plan. I interpret the katechon in Schmitt's thought to mean delaying the end of history (i.e., preserving history as the political struggle between friend and enemy). For a somewhat similar take, see Hell Julia, “ Katechon: Carl Schmitt's Imperial Theology and the Ruins of the Future,” Germanic Review 84, 4 (2009): 283326 .

15 I do not have space here to explain Foucault's historical argument in detail. In nuce, he makes a tripartite connection between power, truth, and salvation. See his later works, especially: On The Government of the Living; Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice, Brion Fabienne and Harcourt Bernard E., eds., Sawyer Stephen W., trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); and Security, Territory, Population, Davidson Arnold I., ed., Burchell Graham, trans. (New York: Picador, 2007).

16 Hence, the writing of histories (or genealogies) becomes expressly political for Foucault. As he put it, the present condition is “constituted, and thus can be unconstituted, by politics” (Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling, 267). See Koopman Colin, Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

17 Histoire comes from the Latin historia as a translation of the ancient Greek ἱστορία (investigation/account/narrative).

18 Arendt Hannah, Love and Saint Augustine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); this text is a revised and translated version of her published dissertation, Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation (1929).

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
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