If you lived in an authoritarian society, how would you know? What would be the signs to look for?
Those are tough questions without easy answers. Here is one way to think about it. In a fully non-authoritarian free society with a well functioning social and political democracy, you wouldn’t expect to see:
Elections that look like banana republic spectacles, mainstream media consolidation and collusion, concentrated wealth and power…
Vast government secrecy, unaccountable government officials, growing executive power, increasingly centralized corporatism, a military-industrial complex where the defense industry is the single largest sector of the economy, agencies that operate outside the law, police state mass surveillance, COINTELPRO and similar tactics, two-tiered legal system, tough-on-crime policies that target minorities and the poor, mass incarceration that imprisons more African-Americans than were in slavery at its height…
Global neo-imperialism, military interventionism and adventurism, endless wars including wars of aggression, torture prisons and extreme rendition, such things as the School of the Americas and the arming of dangerous militant groups, an international drug war used to extend power into other countries, overthrowing of democratically elected governments, the killing and harming of millions of foreign non-combatants, multiple long-term alliances with authoritarian governments…
So, when you see such things and begin to suspect that your society isn’t entirely non-authoritarian, then what is it? Maybe authoritarian? Does it matter if it seems like soft authoritarianism, in that overt and violent oppression is rare for most citizens? Even if that is the case, might you not worry that soft authoritarianism would lead to hard authoritarianism? Should we fear more the authoritarianism that might take over or the authoritarianism that is already here?
Let me put the original question in context. How many people in Nazi Germany knew they were living in an authoritarian society? When Hitler brought law and order back to the country, when the economy was revived and industry was booming, when infrastructure was rebuilt, did it feel like authoritarianism?
For the majority of Germans, much of life went on as before for a long time. The trappings of a liberal society remained in place. There were still relatively free markets, factories producing a variety of consumer goods along with stores that sold them, grocery stores with shelves of food, restaurants, bars, theaters, etc. People still owned their own houses, their own cars, and their own land. They still went to work, church, and school. They still socialized on weekends, distracted themselves with entertainment, and took vacations.
The main aspects of society continued in a fairly normal fashion, at least for certain segments of German society. That was particularly true for middle class professionals and upper class capitalists. But even most workers were too busy with their lives to think much about any of it. The worst oppression, the concentration camps, slave labor, and such was hidden from public view. The average German never saw it or was forced to acknowledge it.
This was confirmed after World War II. When Germans were interviewed, many said that they didn’t know what was happening at the time. How were they supposed to know?
If you had been there, are you so sure that you’d have figured out how bad it was? Probably not. And if you figured it out, would you have joined the resistance? That is doubtful. How many Americans noticed or were bothered by the hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian Americans who were registered, interrogated, or put into camps? Not many. Did most Americans know for sure what was happening? No. Did most Americans want to know? Of course not.
Sure, in Nazi Germany, there were rumors that people would have heard. There are always rumors and sometimes claims of proof: leaked info, eye witnesses, whistleblowers, etc. One hears about them in our own society, on talk radio and alternative news media. But that kind of thing is easy to dismiss and rationalize away. Only cranks and conspiracy theorists entertain such thoughts. The government offers official statements to explain and the mainstream media often reports it verbatim. Most want to believe what they are told. Most want to think of themselves as good people in a good society.
Are the citizens living under authoritarianism responsible for what the authoritarian government does? Does it matter if the authoritarian government is outwardly democratic and claims to act in the name of those citizens? Should average Germans have fought back and overthrown the Nazis? Should earlier Americans have fought back and overthrown the government that made possible mass slavery of African-Americans and genocide of Native Americans? What should Americans have been doing for these past decades as authoritarianism slowly established itself? And what should Americans now do? Who is responsible?
If you realized you were living in an authoritarian society, what would you do? Blame others? Or take responsibility? How bad does it have to get before it’s intolerable? How many innocents harmed is too many? If we aren’t at that point yet, how close are we? How do you know when your society is at a point of no return? Then what?
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To think about authoritarianism, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Imagine you were a different person living a different life in different conditions faced with different problems and issues.
If you are white, imagine being non-white. If you are well-educated, imagine having little education. If you are economically comfortable and secure, imagine being poor. If you are fully employed, imagine being unemployed, underemployed or marginally employed. If you have a nice house or apartment, imagine living in slums or being homeless.
If you have lived your life free of oppression and fear, imagine experiencing police brutality on a regular basis, imagine being and knowing people who were shot by police or imprisoned. If you are a US citizen, imagine being an undocumented immigrant who lives in hiding or imagine being a poor brown person who had your country invaded and occupied, your home bombed, your family killed, your wedding drone attacked, and your government toppled. If you are a Christian, Jew, or atheist, imagine being a Muslim or someone perceived as a Muslim who lives in fear.
If you descend from generations of white privilege, imagine being a minority living in a community with fresh memory, sometimes still living memory, of stolen land, genocide, persecution, slavery, chain gang labor, Jim Crow, sundown towns, internment camps, race wars, and so much else. If you spend most of your time not thinking about such things, imagine being constantly reminded of continuing racism that is systemic and institutional often personal and sometimes violent and always demoralizing, imagine being constantly reminded of hate crimes, dog whistle politics, deportations and mass incarceration, imagine living in fear of the police or immigration officials.
Imagine all of that. Would you have the same view of authoritarianism? Would you have the same view of your government? Would you fear more about future possibilities that might or might not happen or would you fear more present realities continuing endlessly?