Reflections on the 0 to 100 Scale of Authoritarianism/Anti-Authoritarianism

A few years back, I developed what I call the “0 to 100” scale as a means of characterizing the degree of anarchism or anti-authoritarian exhibited by a particular philosophy or organization. A zero would be a full-blown totalitarian regime like those of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim, or Pol Pot. “Total anarchy” would 100. Most ideologies, movements, organizations, institutions, and governments are somewhere in the 30 to 70 range. There are also a lot of paradoxes and contradictions involved. The USA is unusually libertarian when it comes to free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to bear arms (at least for the time being), but extremely authoritarian in other ways (war, drug laws, incarceration, to name a few examples).

On the far right, there are people who want to sell guns like tomatoes but impose the death penalty for virtually all crimes. On the far left, there are people who want total sexual freedom but total state control of the economy. Of course, the “authoritarian/anti-authoritarian” paradigm also includes a range of subjectivity. Leftists claim that striking workers blocking “scabs” from entering workplaces are merely protecting their legitimately owned jobs, while rightists claim they are interfering with others’ “right to work.” Anti-abortion activists claim that pro-lifers blockading abortion clinics are defending the “right to life” while pro-choicers claim the pro-lifers are interfering with the “right to choose.”

Right-libertarians tend to have a more favorable view of business while left-libertarians tend to have a more favorable view of unions, but both have been involved in extreme violence within the context of strikes and labor battles. Even today, right-libertarians and left-libertarians are constantly accusing each other of crypto-fascism or crypto-Bolshevism.

Some groups can also be internally authoritarian but externally anti-authoritarian. A great example is the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Internally, they are insular and cult-like. Externally, they are pacifists who refuse military service, voting, and participation in government. Other examples would be Rod Dreher’s proposed “Benedict Option” Christian communes, or the “Pioneer Little Europes” favored by some in the “white nationalist” milieu. Other groups can have an authoritarian ideology, but remain marginal enough that they are unable to achieve state power, while doing important work in other areas. A great example is the groups associated with or derivative of the Workers World Party, a Stalinist pro-DPRK sect, that has led and organized some of the best antiwar activism in the USA of the past 40 years. Other examples would be the Salvation Army or the Nation of Islam, cults that provide much-needed services in particular communities.

Many who claim anti-authoritarian values often practice very authoritarian values. The internal dynamics of much of the “anarchist” milieu in North America is an example (i.e. people who cannot hold a public meeting without a physical fight breaking out among contending factions). It is also doubtful whether many among certain historic anarchist tendencies like the Durruti Column or the Makhnovtchina were any less “authoritarian” than many Bolsheviks.

I generally hold to the view that disputes over conflicting values are best resolved by peaceful decentralization and mutual self-separation by the contending parties. The counterarguments to my positions are usually something like “But anarchism isn’t just anti-state!” “You only oppose big states not local ones!” “Local institutions can be authoritarian!” or “The state isn’t the only source of authoritarianism!”

There is much truth to arguments of these kinds. An individual that murders another person to steal their wallet or kills a minimum wage store clerk for the money in the drawer is clearly being authoritarian, at least on a personal level. Municipal governments are often oligarchies of local real estate and business interests. Zoning commissions or school boards can sometimes be petty tyrants. The problems with municipal police forces are obvious enough. The narrow-mindedness of many small towns is well-known. Neighborhoods can be exclusionary and clannish. Homeowners associations contain plenty of mini-Stalins. Religious communities can be internally pathological or led by sociopaths. Parents can be abusive to children. Employers can be total assholes, and smaller companies can be more exploitive of labor than larger ones in some instances. It’s also true that the cultural norms of a community or society can be so rigid as to make substantive anti-authoritarianism impossible regardless of the institutional arrangements (think of present-day Saudia Arabia or historic India).

But, once again, the question of scale matters. Zoning commissions typically do not carry out mass executions by firing squad. Sheriff’s departments typically do not have nuclear weapons (imagine Joe Arpaio with his hands on America’s nuclear arsenal!). Neither Ohio nor Target has ever launched a military invasion of another nation. The local parish does not arrest and imprison people for failing to show up for Mass. It seems a practical approach would be to foster anti-authoritarian tendencies while using detente, containment, or rollback strategies as a means of “harm reduction” when it comes to authoritarian tendencies. It’s also a good idea to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Additionally, there are as many different types of “anti-authoritarians” as there are other ideologies put together. Anti-authoritarians have as many disagreements with each other as they do with proclaimed authoritarians. And, presumably, “anti-authoritarians” are always going to have to share space with “those other people” given the differences in human personality structures and psychological frameworks. The battle is forever.

Categories: Anarchism/Anti-State

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