David Makinson 1961

Authoritarianism and Anti-Authoritarianism

Source: “Broadsheet” # 15, May 1961;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.

In anarchist and libertarian circles you often hear certain actions and institutions described as authoritarian, and on this ground disliked, and you also hear libertarians describe their own position as anti-authoritarian.

Now I want to ask: When is an action or institution an authoritarian one? and when is an action or attitude an anti-authoritarian one? -- and I want to ask these questions for three main reasons:

Firstly, to make it clear what anarchists and libertarians like and dislike when they say they like and dislike anti-authoritarian and authoritarian attitudes.

Secondly, to enable the solution of questions as to whether certain actions are authoritarian (or anti-authoritarian) or not in particular to enable us to examine the truth or falsity of the two claims:

“Strikes, whatever their causes, and whatever the motives of the strikers, are always anti-authoritarian.’’

“Every action of the State is necessarily authoritarian.”

Thirdly, to see what reasons there are for taking an antiauthoritarian position

1. When we describe an action as being authoritarian, all we can mean if we are speaking literally is that it is an attempt to make a person do something that he does not want to do by penalizing him in some way if he doesn’t. Correspondingly we say that a person has authoritarian attitudes if his attitudes betray a readiness to be authoritarian in his actions; and we say that a person or institution is authoritarian if their actions are habitually authoritarian.

If this is what an authoritarian action is, then it is nothing but a coercive one; and an authoritarian institution is nothing but a coercive one.

The coercion may take any number of forms, distinguished from each other by the nature of the penalties imposed, and by the rationale presented for it. For example, when a son or daughter leaves home, an attempt could be made to bring him or her back either by cutting off all money or friendship, or by sending the police after him. Here we would distinguish between two kinds of authoritarian action by distinguishing between the types of penalty imposed. Again, the parent who sent police to bring home his son might justify his actions by saying that a child ought to obey his parents until he is twenty-one, or by saying that he

knew better than his son what was best for him ... Here we would distinguish between two types of coercion by distinguishing between the rationales presented for them and we might do this by saying that in the former case the parent is acting in both a patriarchal and moralistic way, whereas in the second case he is acting paternalistically.

2. If this is what authoritarianism is, what is anti-authoritarianism? A person has an anti-authoritarian attitude if he refuses to be authoritarian himself, and if he dislikes authoritarianism in other people – that is, if he refuses to coerce others into doing what they would not otherwise want to do, and dislikes seeing others use coercion to make people do things. Then we can say derivatively that an anti-authoritarian action is one which is not itself coercive, and which is aimed at preventing other people from being coercive.

Anti-authoritarianism so defined should not be confused with what might be called contra-authoritarianism. The distinction is a fine but important one. A person is taking an anti-authoritarian stand if (and only if) he dislikes all coercion and refuses to be coercive himself. A person is acting in a contra-authoritarian way if (and only if) he refuses to submit to such coercion as is being used upon him. So taken, the two classes--of anti- and contra-authoritarian people -- are not identical; they intersect. There will be many people who are contra--but not anti-authoritarian: though refusing to submit to the authority of others they may not stand opposed to the exercise of authority in general, and may in fact be quite willing to acquire and use it themselves. A good example of the person who is contra -- but not anti-authoritarian is the peasant turned bandit of pre-industrial society. Again, there will be some who are anti -- but not contra-authoritarian: they may not be coercive themselves, and dislike all coercion but be weak-kneed when faced with the authority of others, and always submit to it.

3. Once we arrive at this point it becomes clear that very few actions indeed are anti-authoritarian. For while many are aimed at preventing some group from acting coercively, in almost all cases--and in even a greater proportion of the successful cases--the prevention itself is carried out coercively. Unless it takes the form of persuasion, the prevention is always carried through by penalizing or threatening to penalize in some way the initially coercive party, and this is itself coercive and authoritarian.

Let us take an example. It has been held that all strikes are anti-authoritarian. Now it is true that in almost all strikes the strikers are fighting against the power and authority of those employing them, and are so acting in at least a contra-authoritarian way. But less often are the strikers attempting to reduce the authority of the employers--usually they are interested solely in winning certain well-defined demands, such as a rise in wages, a reduction in working hours, or an improvement in working conditions, and once this is won they are quite content to let all other decisions revert back to the hands of their employers. There is no attempt to deprive the owners or managers of their right to make decisions, there is only an interference in a few of the decisions made.

Even those strikes which are attempts to deprive the owners, or managers of at least part of their power to make decisions are not genuinely anti-authoritarian, and this is the aspect of the example which brings out the general point above -- that attempts to deprive people of authority are nearly always carried out coercively. For the strike is a weapon, and weapons are coercive instruments. The strike is carried out because it hurts the employer -- it hurts him by interrupting his production schedules and makes him unable to produce goods on time for his customers who may seek their supplies elsewhere. The interruption of output hurts in another way too: there is usually a considerable burden of costs which still has to be borne even when most of the workers are out on strike and production has fallen. The value of the sales lost as a result of a strike is greater than the wages of the workers participating in it. By so hurting the employer the strikers make the satisfaction of their demands the less unpleasant of two unpleasant situations: they obtain their demands by penalizing the employer if he does not grant them. Quite apart then from the pressure which strikers usually put on those from their own ranks who wish to remain at work, strikes involve coercion or attempted coercion: coercion that is, not of other workers but of employers. Any other form of industrial action, other than persuasion, is similarly coercive: go-slow tactics, deliberately poor workmanship. absenteeism, and sabotage all are weapons used to force the employer to give in.

In this case then we have an action which while an attempt to deprive someone of power, attempts to deprive them by means of coercion, and so is not genuinely anti-authoritarian.

While on the subject of strikes, I might as well mention a second way in which even those strikes which are attempts to deprive the employer of some of his decision-making power rather than interference in his decisions, fail to be genuinely antiauthoritarian. They fail to be so in that, while they are attempts to deprive the owner or managers of power, they do not aim at abolishing that power, but at transferring it to either the State, an already existing union, or an as yet unformed council of employees. Such strikes are attacks, not on authority, but on the existing holders of authority; and they aim at transferring it to new holders.

The conclusions I have drawn from this consideration of strikes are two:

(1) That strikes are never anti-authoritarian, in that seldom are they even attacks on the authority of the employers, and that even when they are so, they are always themselves coercive and also attempt to transfer power rather than abolish it.

(2) That here we have an example of a general situation: all those apparently anti-authoritarian actions which are more than simple persuasion are themselves coercive and so not antiauthoritarian.

4. While Sydney libertarians describe their position as antiauthoritarian, their actions suggest that their position is in fact closer to the similar but different one taken by Max Nomad, which he has called a support for permanent revolution (see Aspects of Revolt, p. 17), and which has also been described as a stand of permanent protest. Permanent protest, if you want to call it that, is not the same as anti-authoritarianism. The person who takes the stand of Max Nomad is in permanent opposition to the ruling groups. Accepting the doctrine that society is always governed by minorities, who subject the interests of the remainder to their own, he is ready to fight against these groups, whatever they are. In Nomad’s words:

“I am fully aware of the fact that all successful upheavals against the political and economic structure of every social system invariably lead to the enthronement of a new privileged stratum of former ‘outs’ as against the hitherto all powerful ‘ins’; yet I believe in a permanent struggle against all these systems -- present or future -- as the only means of achieving a greater degree of cultural freedom and of raising the standard of living of the underprivileged” (Aspects of Revolt, p. 4).

What Nomad does not do is refuse to use coercive measures in this struggle, and limit it to persuasion.

He writes:

“ ... there is a difference between submission to what is, sociologically speaking, inevitable, and the resigned acceptance of one’s position as imposed by a definite historical situation ... What improvements in their lot the masses have obtained in the course of history are due to their struggles under the leadership of those ‘out-elites’, or would-be oligarchies, which in the process would obtain or attempt to obtain power for themselves. And whenever these ‘out-elites’, having become ‘in-elites’ or oligarchies, turned their back on the masses, a new ‘out-elite’, hungry for power, takes up the cause of the masses, and so on, ad infinitum. The majority may be a ‘pedestal’, but that pedestal is subject to ever recurring quakes, shaking or changing oligarchies standing on top of it, occasionally lightening the burden carried by the pedestal” (Aspects of Revolt, pp. 14-15).

If this is the stand we take, then it is not inconsistent with that stand to use coercion in our struggle. It is not inconsistent with such a stand to go on strike In an attempt to win something from employers; or even to use the power of the State in trying to lower rents by taking the landlord to the Fair Rents Court. It is notable in this connection that in the recent anti-arbitration posters arbitration by the State in industrial disputes was opposed, not because it would put the workers in a position where they can use the authority of the State in support of their aims, but on the contrary ground that such hopes are in fact illusory, and that by agreeing to arbitration the workers would be giving away power.

The point I wish to make then, is that Sydney libertarians confuse permanent struggle with anti-authoritarianism. By their actions they show that they support a permanent struggle against those in power, using in this struggle certain weapons or instruments of coercion -- in industry notably the strike. But they have misrepresented this position by describing it as anti-authoritarian with the consequence that they have been led to deny the authoritarian nature of the weapons which they have in their hands.

The position which misrepresents the activities of Sydney libertarians as anti-authoritarian derives its plausibility from the fact that there are certain spheres of activity in which libertarians oppose the exercise of any authority by one person over another-- the most important spheres being those of belief and of sexual activity. Libertarians do stand opposed to the regulation by force of people’s beliefs, and this expresses itself mainly in opposition to censorship in any form. Libertarians also stand opposed to the legal and non-legal penalties which are attached to homosexuality, adultery, and even to simple fornication. Nor would they, despite their own preferences, wish to turn the tables and penalize continence. But neither of these attitudes constitute anti-authoritarianism. They constitute an opposition to the exercise of authority in certain spheres, but to be against the exercise of authority in certain spheres is not to be against the exercise of any authority at all. The liberalism of libertarians does not make anti-authoritarians out of them.