R. Smilde 1961

On Authoritarianism – A Reply

Source: Broadsheet # 16, June 1961;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.

While there do not appear to be any inconsistencies in Makinson’s analysis of anti-authoritarianism (Broadsheet No. 15), there are two important ways in which I think that analysis is faulty. The central contention of the article, the premise from which particulars flow, is that authoritarianism is nothing but coercion, literally speaking. Since this is simply incorrect, in my view, the whole analysis is at fault from the beginning. Its location is wrong. Secondly, even if the main contention were true, there is another objection I wish to raise, namely, that Makinson mistakes psychology for social theory. His touchstone, his “definition formula, is the attitudes, intentions, and motives of the participants in authoritarian actions. Even when he applies the words “authoritarian” and “coercive” to an institution, he talks of the institution as being motivated in the same way as an individual is. Most libertarians hold that institutional factors have considerable force in society, and that institutions cannot be simply regarded as reflections of the minds of people.

The two objections I want to take up are not separate from one another. It is Makinson’s “psychological” approach which accounts, at least partly, for his assumption that “authoritarian” and “coercive” are the same. Had I been asking the same questions as he asked in his article I would, from the very beginning, have separated “When is an action authoritarian?” from “When is an institution authoritarian?”

On the first point, it is quite clear that the word “authoritarian” derives from the notion of authority. There is one sense of that notion which states simply that to recognize someone or some group as an authority is to recognize that he or it are expert in a particular field. One cannot quarrel with the fact that there are experts, but there is another feature of authority which this view does not cover. In practice one cannot recognize an expert until one knows something about the expert’s subject, that is to say, the expert’s statements and his field must be open to inquiry and open to challenge. And one of the features of authority is that it denies that very thing, denies that its statements are open to challenge and that its subject is open to inquiry. We find, then, that experts make authoritative statements, but when expertise is joined with inviolability, with any notion of sacredness or unchallengeability, then we have a situation which we call authoritarian.

It is because the strongest institutions in our society operate in precisely that way that libertarians, among others, describe that society as an authoritarian one. One cannot challenge in any thorough-going way, the constitution of the country, the supremacy of Parliament, the dogma of the Church or the superiority of the head of the household – unless one “leaves the field” altogether. (In the case of lesser authorities, one can leave the field both literally and in the sense of rejecting the framework in which operate. Politically, one may reject the power struggle, but the aegis of the State is nevertheless inescapable.) It is no accident that it is precisely in the fields of politics and theology that claims to expertise are most suspect, and it is in those same fields that one finds an extensive use of ritual and mystification and of limited access.

In a society composed of varied and often conflicting interests, it is obvious that the simple claim to inviolability is not enough to establish authority. Authority has also to be powerful and have means of enforcement. In the case of the State, which is unique in that its legislation holds for everything within the bounds of a geographical area, authority is clearly reinforced by a coercive apparatus. It is no accident that the State claims a monopoly on violence (though it does not have it) and is in fact the most violent institution in society. If one looks only at the effect of certain actions, and not at the nature of the institution itself, then it is easy in the case of the State to equate coercion

and authoritarian as Makinson does. It is not easy in the case of the Churches, which have a limited sway, superficially at least, only over people who adhere to them and which have (therefore) rather nebulous means of enforcement.

It seems that Makinson has arrived at a very wide definition of what is coercive (authoritarian) in order to cover those lesser authorities which do not have the power that the State has. In the process he discovers coercion in any situation of conflict, as long as one of the participants has hurtful intentions. I would like to examine in detail two examples which he proffers and see how those two situations appear if we accept a different view of what is authoritarian and reject the intentional view of social facts.

The first example deals with the case of a parent who withdraws financial support from a son who has left home. The intention is to bring the son back, but what is the situation like? By leaving, the son has broken through an authoritarian relationship with his parents. One of the factors bolstering the father’s authority was the son’s financial dependence. When the father withdraws monetary support, that action is, regardless of motive, a further step in the dissolution of the old relationship. Considerations such as the possibility that the father was not acting in his own best interests, or that of the father’s authoritarian personality, his way of thinking, do not alter the bet that one particular authoritarian family relationship has broken down and that one particular son is now independent in some important respects. Where does one find the coercion (authoritarianism) in this situation? It is there as an important feature only if one is doing psychology, and on that score I would maintain that coercive behavior is only one part of the complex mechanism we refer to as an authoritarian personality.

Secondly, we have the example of the strike. Here again, Makinson’s yardstick is the hurtful intentions of the strikers. Rejecting this criterion and adopting those used in the first example, is no prima facie evidence to suggest that there is anything about the downing of tools, about a concerted refusal to accept certain conditions of employment. The action of striking is often described as violent, aggressive, authoritarian, but these are loose descriptions which run together several distinct ideas. The notion behind them is that somehow any positive action is an authoritarian one, a view which does nothing to illuminate social facts.

In the case of the strike, Makinson goes further. He claims that libertarians see all strikes as anti-authoritarian, and uses this claim to reinforce his view that libertarians cannot describe themselves correctly as anti-authoritarian in any consistent way. The claim is not true. In so far as strikers always find themselves in conflict with some authority, usually the State via arbitration, the strike is anti-authoritarian in a particular way. It would be better to borrow Makinson’s phrase and describe the strike as contra-authoritarian, since libertarians mean something more by anti-authoritarianism than one particular clash with an authority. In examining strikes libertarians do look for signs of consistent antiauthoritarian behavior. In the detailed accounts of actual strikes to appear in the Broadsheet, strong emphasis was laid on the difference between the B.H.P. strike with its top-level organization and its demands for Government intervention and the glass workers’ strike which had no authority behind it, including the union itself.

In his criticism of strikes, Makinson emphasizes that strikers aim at transferring power from one authority to another. Accepting for the moment the criterion of intention, it is a very wide view indeed which describes the making of decisions, particularly on one’s own behalf as authoritarian.

The mistake of equating coercion with authoritarianism is one which anarchists frequently make. The mistake stems from a process of stripping authority of the illusions which are necessary to its existence. Part of the attack on those illusions is to lay heavy emphasis on the coercive apparatus which is also necessary to the existence of authority. But those illusions are social facts nevertheless, and seeing through them does not remove them from the social scene. (While on this point I would like to remind Makinson that criticism is also a “weapon.”) The most damaging feature of the coercive-authoritarian equation made by Makinson is that it leads to the impoverishment of social theory. It prevents us from examining social facts, from inquiring into the nature of authoritarian society with its necessary concomitant, servility, and from discovering what if anything can be meant by anti-authoritarianism as a social phenomenon.