Two Reluctant Cheers for Authority


In today’s discourse you will almost never come across someone self-identifying as ‘authoritarian.’ In fact, the word seems merely to exist as a straw man for half baked and childish libertarian ‘political tests’ which are superficial and designed to make literally everyone on the planet think they are secretly libertarian. Of course, my own test based on the same axis is much better as it captures the essence of everyone and everything in all times and places which ever once had a political opinion of any kind.

But maybe the term authoritarian requires at least a partial resurrection. Coming off of the heels of a century of unprecedented state-directed terror this may seem odd, but that was also then, and this is now. As John Gray so accurately points out in The New Statesman, it is the stateless parts of the world which are the problems now more than the overly-governed.

This is not to say we need an overreaction which apologizes for the excesses of the NSA or admires the more terrifyingly over-regimented societies on the planet. As Gray reminds us, this is not a question of good and evil and freedom versus slavery. All political stances are in fact the decision of who to regulate and who not to, rather than some simplistic quest for freedom for beautiful caged birds who write poetry standing at odds against regimented hordes of riding crop wielding jackbooted thugs. A regime which is free to one kind of person can be unfree to another and vice-versa. So if merely to call for a recognition that the state is still the best form of self-organization we have, and that we should not be so quick to topple those of others lest we threaten backlashes which can make our own less free is to be authoritarian, by all means, let us be ‘authoritarian.’

Personally, I fear the political backlash to terrorism more than the acts themselves. They are far more likely, proportionally, to affect me directly. But it also means we have to be serious about what kinds of freedoms we want and don’t want. And we also have to acknowledge that most likely we will not be the ones to decide. What is relevant right now is that authoritarianism may very well make a come back, and that doesn’t have to be *all* bad. And no, I don’t even think terrorism will be the main reason it comes back, but rather ecological catastrophe. Whatever terrorism brings us now in debates on state power is merely the prelude to a greater debate on responding to a rapidly changing planet.

And this is where authoritarianism might be selectively helpful. We have already seen how some kinds of regimes in sectarian-divided countries keep minorities safer than they would be otherwise by being undemocratic. We also know that authoritarian states have a pretty good record at crisis response. Particularly on environmental issues. The world’s largest polluter and most rapidly developing country, China, is also the one going through a crash course in large scale sustainable energy which puts its rivals and some developed countries to shame in ambition and hopefully effect. But let us go further.

When Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’ came out in 2005 I was a sophomore history major in college and a fan of all things Diamond (in many ways I still am-this post was originally going to be ‘Hooray for Determinism’ after all before recent events changed its nature when I got around to it-though I might still write such a thing)  and also a libertarian. Having that simple (and oh so American) world view, I found myself invigorated by the challenge he presented. The two large scale examples he presented of a state successfully responding to ecological crisis were both very authoritarian states. One, the Dominican Republic, a blatantly racist and fascistic government under Raphael Trujillo, and the other, the mega-centralizing hyper-bureaucratic Tokugawa Shogunate. These were the states which he lauded for foresight. Two opposite poles of me were in a delicious conflict over what position to take on this issue.

Well, in about three years I made a full recovery from libertarianism and I knew the answer. Though to be fair, the materialist always lurking inside me probably made this inevitable. Libertarianism is, at its core, a type of Taliban-style liberalism of just taking one non-material ideology and ramping up it to 11 with philosophical purity as its key point. With this discarded, I could acknowledge that Trujillo may have been one of the biggest dicks to ever live, but a broken clock and all that. One doesn’t have to endorse a Shogunate as an ideal type of government to acknowledge there are many things that particular one did right, from public health administration to education and infrastructure. And of course, a national forestry system with an eye on conservation-in the 17th Century no less!

Weak states and loose confederacies are better at doing many things than stronger more centralized states. And I will always defend federal style systems as ideal for learning about the divergences in policy execution in the laboratories of regions and adapting accordingly. But crisis response is not one of them. Terrorism is only the tip of the iceberg. It is the less media sexy but slow burning fuse of ecological collapse which will drive state reaction in the long term. And we might just find certain types of authority useful.

After all, many of the greatest periods of multicultural cohesion have been under monarchies and pre-victorian empires. Many on the far right betray their true colors when they imply that a society which can accommodate many kinds of people is a threat to the social cohesion of democracy. Maybe they are right in some instances, but the Roman Republic appeals much less to me than the Roman Empire does. I would give up the vote before I would give my access to material goods of diverse origin and interaction with people of greater backgrounds. I doubt there will ever be such a dramatic either/or choice and I am largely playing devil’s advocate here, but should such a turn come, I will chose multicultural authority over monolithic democracy. History makes a better case for it in terms of overall case studies. Sure, one can always say most people are political idiots in any context, as it is I have already railed against the naive cosmopolitanism of liberalism on this very blog. But as a lesser of evils, wouldn’t you rather have a variety of idiots than the same kind repeated over and over again? Awash in a sea of vatniks or their American or whatever equivalent is a future far too boring and horrible for any type of interesting person to even fathom.

Previously, I waxed poetic about my love of the Heavy Gear setting for looking an a non-utopian science fiction of international relations. One thing I always really liked about the setting is that the Southern Republic was the best representation of a complicated authoritarian order. It was a zero tolerance regime for criticizing the government, but in exchange it was a patron of the arts and a subsidizer of the common citizen. It also allowed social libertinism unseen in other competing states of the setting. This reminds me of the Tang Dynasty, the early Mongol Empire, High Rome or any other period of effective cultural flowering. Of course, being able to the criticize the government is a right I would loathe to lose, but let us be honest-for most people food, sex, and housing matters most. If one can’t have it all one can get their priorities in a proper hierarchy. Principles be damned in the face of impoverishment or even in compromising the epicure.

As I stated at the start, this isn’t a post glorifying state power. It is a post building upon Gray’s call for a mature discussion of what freedom and authority really are without devolving into enlightenment baggage of good and evil and free and unfree. The world moves fast and change is constant. State collapse increases the negatives of this and as our biodiversity collapsed and our rapacious need for resources grows unchecked, its time to move beyond lame establishment narratives of NGOS and hippie activists saving the planet through fundraising and talk about what might be necessary for states to do.

And not to do.

P.S.: I love the Shadowrun games and find them (and the original rpg setting) a pretty brutal look at what a technological yet stateless society would look like. It aint pretty, even with all the cool magic and creatures. Its a setting which is clearly influencing one of my present creative projects in fact so it is on my mind. So, I leave you with the most recent (and best) entry in the series very good soundtrack. It gets much better in the second half by the way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s