Everyday authoritarianism

Democracy is a big human experiment in organized power-sharing. In political literature, democracy is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, dictatorship is democracy’s opposite.

Authoritarianism is a big human experiment in organized power-stealing and hoarding. In political literature, authoritarianism is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, “personal liberty” is authoritarianism’s opposite.  

Everyday authoritarianism, however, is different than an abstract political theory. It exists in human relations, and you can see it in the everyday interactions and the mundane tasks. Living everyday authoritarianism means stealing power from other humans, on a relational level, and hoarding it. Its opposite is agency.

For instance:

  • When your professional processes are not transparent, you steal power I use to understand fully.
  • When you give me inaccurate information, intentionally, you steal power I use to make sound decisions.
  • When you take my time or expect me to use it for your purposes, you steal my power to spend it on what my family needs.
  • When you purposely exclude, you steal power I use to participate.
  • When you refuse acknowledgement, you steal power I use to connect.
  • When your cynicism leads, you steal my power to be openly optimistic.
  • When your doubt blindly stands in front of my credibility, you steal my power to access those benefits
  • When you withhold emotion, you steal power I use to engage.
  • When your fear is weaponized in my direction, you steal power I use to confidently move through the world.
  • When you pretend to know what you don’t, you steal power I use to assess effectively.
  • When you willfully ignore new information and rely on your own outdated assumptions, you steal my power to protect myself from old, poisonous ideas.
  • When you block access to resources, you steal my power to feed my life. 
  • When you refuse to say my name, you steal my power to exist.

When you steal my power, you steal my forward momentum, and my power to progress. When you steal my power and hoard it, you systematically lock down my agency. When enough power is stolen and enough humans’ agency is locked down, everyday authoritarianism supports an authoritarian state, a political culture. Gramsci had it right: we do it to ourselves.

Living democratically every day means sharing power. Living a democratic ethic means moving through the world, authentically engaged, without knowing the outcome. To live democratically is to help create the conditions for the possibility of trust, of vulnerability, of creativity in everyone you meet. To share power on a relational level is to create the conditions for the possibility of unlocking everyone’s agency.

Living democratically means that all of us can make sound decisions, we can understand fully, we are able to spend our time on our purposes; we can participate, connect, live optimistically, move through the world with self-esteem; we are able to engage fully, effectively assess situations, live without fear of poisonous ideas. Living democratically means being able to confidently drive our forward momentum. It means being able to feed our lives. It means a just human existence. It means we all share “the right to pursue happiness.”

Democracy cannot be imposed. It cannot be elected. It cannot be bought. It cannot be attained through prayer. It must be lived in bodies, in relations, in all of us. Every single day.


Other scholars who have studied or commented on everyday authoritarian practices

Brian Porter-Szűcs, Everyday life under authoritarianism in Poland, 17 July 2018

Insa Koch, Everyday authoritarianism in Britain, 2018

Nur Amali Ibrahim, Everyday authoritarianism in Singapore, 8 March 2018

Marlies Glasius, Authoritarianism is in everyday practices, May 2018

Emily Walton’s “misrecognition” in a US rural culture, 4 November 2019

Tom Pepinksy, Everyday authoritarianism in Malaysia, 6 January 2017


rally

“Hi! So, what’s the messaging for tonight? Will we reference Roger Goodell’s decision to force the players stand? Will we show the people of color here that the dems have their back? I’m so ready to lend my voice!”

She’s excited. The GP dem chair texted her with info about a big anti-hate rally. Said she could stop by the dems HQ to meet others, then head over. After the militia meeting in the park and the white supremacist posters all over town the last month, we’d finally say something, loud, so that the people who are targets in this county know we’re not passively standing by. That we have their backs. That we will stand and say so publicly. Her body and spirit cannot bear another day of silence.

She walks alongside the woman from HQ, whose pace forces her to jog intermittently.

“I don’t know!” the rapidly walking woman responds. She’s smiling, eyes forward.

“Okay! So, do we have an overall theme? A focus, maybe? The Goodell decision connects to all the stuff in town.” 

“I don’t know!” The HQ woman repeats, and she just keeps smiling and walking. Very fast. This time she also offers a shoulder shrug.

We’re coming up to the stairs of the city hall building. There are 30-35 other people here. That many people could really make some noise, get some attention, if they wanted to. Such a good turnout for this place. (A protest a few years earlier drew militia members, who stood around the 7 or 8 protestors, intimidating them into silence.) Her heart starts to rev up. The HQ woman veers off to meet up with some other folks.

She stands in front of the protestors at the second rally of her life (her first was last month in CJ). Little groups are gathered on the landing in front of the building, loosely forming a semi-circle around a man passing out flyers to them. She walks up to the man, who seems to be in charge.

“Hi! I’m Sarah! Brian texted me to join you. I’m so glad we’re all here! Can I ask what the messaging will be tonight? How we’ll do this?”

He’s probably late 60s early 70s, maybe more years. She notices now that they all have some years. Lots of white hair. That’s cool. She also notices it’s only white people. That’s par, and not so cool, but we’re in Josephine county. Whatever. She’s ready to stand alongside anyone who will publicly object to the blatant white supremacist politics inflicted on the NFL players who kneel in honor of dead black men, women, and children who have been murdered by white badge-carrying men and women.

“What do you mean” he replies. Not really a question, adding that “oh here comes the kid” tone. The “slow it down missy” tone. The “she’s just overwrought” tone. The “she’s been watching too much cable tv news” tone. She’s heard it literally thousands of times since moving here.

She smiles, trying to connect with him. She looks around at the others. “I thought we might reference Goodell, you know, and show the people of color here what the Dems and Josephine county Indivisible is all about. Maybe we could stand on the corner where all the cars are driving by. We could raise our fists, shout our support for the players, shout our support for people of color, for free speech.” She looks back at the man, hopefully, waiting.

He doesn’t respond to her. He looks at her as if she’s speaking another language, one he doesn’t understand. His face looks like it hurts his head to listen to her. He turns and starts handing flyers out again.

She notices now that they’re all just kind of looking at her, all the people with the years. As if she’s from another planet.

Her rage rises. The months and months of silence she’s been forced to endure. The disconfirmation. The wall of NO she slams into on a daily basis. She doesn’t really give a fuck what they think of her at this point. It really just does not matter.

“Isn’t this an anti-hate rally? Rallies are where people raise their voices and bear witness. Let’s raise our voices. Let’s speak truth to power, even if power isn’t listening. Because it’s good for us. Because it empowers us. Even here. Especially here! We need to raise our voices to show support to the people of color in this community. We need to join hands with them, empower them, show them we’re here. If we don’t speak up, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves as white people and Dems and Indivisible people. It’s our job to speak up!”

They look at her. They say nothing. The man passing the flyers stops a second to squint at her again, then walks with his bag of flyers to another group, away from her.

“Come on! We have a responsibility as white people in this community. We have a responsibility to speak up and support those who are targets in this community. The posters. The militia barbeque last week. We need to say something. That’s what the good guys do. That’s what Dems do. That’s what we’re about. That’s who we are!”

“Why, so we can be like them?” The woman’s disdain hits her between the eyes.

“What?” She looks around. They just stare.

“Who?” She asks no one in particular. Stares.

She’s confused. It’s like they can’t hear her words. They feel her urgency, know she’s frustrated, but it’s like they can’t see her or hear what she’s saying. Like being in a dream when you can’t run.

It is slow. As she expresses her outrage, her shame at being a white person like these people who won’t stand up for what’s right, the loose circle of groups begin creeping backwards. Like the whole loose circle is moving in the opposite direction. They are looking at her and backing up, very slowly. 

She realizes they think she is mentally ill.


why

The idea was to plant and grow better people. She knew they could change, the people here. She’d seen it first-hand. A phrase dropped here or a word placed there; an idea left lingering after an interaction. And then she would come back and hear the word or phrase used by someone who’d found it there and the whole world lit up. She could see how to get in, how to be useful. She imagined what they might be able to do with an idea or two, radically different than what they’d experienced their whole lives. Ideas that could lift human beings out of toxic actualities.

Top-down, power-scarce systems and processes isolate human beings. Education is limited and curriculum controlled by authorities. Information is also limited, often outdated, and recirculated like stale air conditioning air. Internet access is scarce, and the only company in town shuts its tower down on Sundays. Television content is served up only by Sinclair. Nothing—what they know, how they know it—is in their control. And that’s normal. It’s the way things have always been done here. 

Enforcement of top-down power traumatizes human beings. Punishment styles range in severity, but each punishment or threat relies on re-triggering the cause of the trauma: isolated helplessness in the face of overwhelming power. Enforcement threats often paralyze adults who, as children, lived in families where all the power was the father’s to use as he pleased, to punish. Childhood punishment serves to enforce authoritarian power when its trauma is re-triggered. Authoritarianism functionally recycles the trauma it creates to force human beings into compliance with top-down structures and processes. And tyrants.

“Why don’t they just stand up, speak up, take care of themselves? Why can’t they just resist? Why don’t they see how cruel their leader is? Why don’t they see he’s betrayed them? Why can’t they change their minds? They’re adults—why can’t they act like them?”

Why, indeed. 


a rural

The gold went first. That warm light. It took months to recognize it for what it was. Surprisingly, the sudden shift to cold LED white isn’t really evident to the eye. Seeing is in the reflection, though; off the slant, if you will. Thousands of blown out shots. A monochromatic gray-green backdrop in the valley. Lightened blue eyes from shooting straight into the sun. Color that fades in weeks. This is not a basking sun. It is a force that demands respect, without question. It is the authority. Submission is the only appropriate response. Nothing democratic here.

An overwhelming sea of whiteness. Of white people. Visceral, immediate, consuming. Something to be endured. Drowning in white people. No eye contact from anyone not white. Difference must be passing-careful or withdraw entirely to feel safe or trusted. To embody a full range of expression. To have any chance at a lasting sense of well-being. To have the choice to feel fully human. Whiteness is the authority. Submission is the only appropriate response. Nothing democratic here.

Power is scarce. Steal for it, lie for it, cheat for it; debate, fight, kill. No collaboration. Nothing student-centered or client-centered or customer-centered or patient-centered. No power-sharers. No old people sharing power with young people. No one practicing with power. No. No. No. An enduring wall of no. This is not a place for the soft, the sensitive, the young. There is no place in a power scarce culture for vulnerability, for the grey areas, for uncertainty. They eat their young. Power is the authority. Compliance is the only appropriate response. Nothing democratic here.


jack and nick

Nick, Jack’s brother, knocks softly several times, hears his brother’s voice, then opens the door to the garage. She stands behind Nick, reading the warning messages childishly scrawled on the closed door. The opening door reveals a scene that has existed since she moved to her new property; this is a condition she has lived next to for months, without knowing it.

She can’t take in all the detail. It hits her in the face, the hard cold dark concrete reality. Buckets full of urine, foamy on top, line the walls. Garbage everywhere, some in weirdly neat configurations. Partially eaten food. Lots of soda cans and cups. Feces. An illuminated lamp on a small side table otherwise covered in cups and napkins and wrappers. (No drugs; Jack’s disease is mental illness, not addiction.)

Jack slowly, almost inexplicably, unfolds; he stands up, his tall thin frame rising and emerging from behind a big open umbrella lying on the concrete. He’s created a little private spot where it appears he spends most of his time. He is wearing badly ripped fishnet stockings and ancient high-heeled strappy flip-flops. A filthy short denim skirt hangs under a tee-shirt almost as long. In this hard hypermasculinist place. 

Jack is skin and bones, literally a walking skeleton. Nick tells her that Jack has started walking into traffic again on the highway. The roar of trucks blasts her from the side, about 25 feet to her right, as she meets Jack for the first time. 

During their short conversation, Jack keeps his head tilted down while his long curly hair covers his face. (Nick quietly left the room as soon as he opened the door. He is walking in a square now, around and around a large manhole cover, next to the highway. He will do this for the next 2 hours. Sometimes he heads to the market in town, where he stands in front, smiling and flapping and singing like a small bird for the shoppers going in and out. This is new behavior, just having freshly arrived in the last month.)

Jack twitches, jerks, peeks through his long curls a couple of times—eyes quickly darting up at her, then back down at the floor. Jack is present, Nick is mostly not, and they are living in circumstances she’s only read about, hideous circumstances. And there is no help for them in this place. None.

These are her new neighbors. Turning away is impossible.


a note

A Note to Solitary Researchers in Hostile Field Environments (HFE)

As a solitary researcher, you’ll find yourself in social and professional environments designed to annihilate your sense of self and lock down your agency. Living and working solo, navigating loneliness, and surviving isolation all require a set of skills. While you’re away from home (some of you for several years), the following can help you develop that skill set.

First rule of isolation: Don’t tell anyone you’re isolated. Seriously. You might think a response would be compassionate, maybe an, “Oh, wow, no one should be isolated—I’m sorry about that!” Instead, most assume that there’s something wrong with you, that you probably deserve to be alone. They may assume you have no one because you’re dishonest or mean or stupid. They may tell you with their intentional turning away that you’re not worth anyone’s time. Being honest about being solo is being stupid. So don’t do it.

Then,

  • Get comfortable with pain. That no one knows you will drop on you regularly, even if you pretend it won’t. Work on those legs—you’ll need their strength to keep you upright. Or, you may choose to just let the pain fall, drive you to your knees, and pin you further in your isolation. Either way, get used to pain.
  • Get comfortable talking to yourself. Just let go. Be both sides. Be all sides. Let those convos rip—where they go will surprise you, especially when you’re the only one listening, the only one responding. (A small round blue mirror worked for me.)
  • Get comfortable finding many ways to express yourself. If you have a lot to say, the round blue mirror will only get you so far. You will need to find new creative modes and vehicles for your expression. You may ultimately find that you are not a writer or a photographer or a teacher: you may find that you are an artist–a learner–who always looks for new creative vehicles for sharing your new modes of expression.
  • Get comfortable with the fear of blinking out. When you don’t exist for others, disappearing becomes a real possibility, if not an actual one. (Right? I mean, if a human screams from her isolation, but no one hears–or they hear and choose to ignore her–does she exist? I don’t think so.) If you exist in no world but your own, post to Instagram; get a LinkedIn profile so you can show up in searches; make yourself a website so you can obsessively check stats. Pretend existence is better than none. Or if an imaginary existence online isn’t possible because you’re not connected to the electronic world, go outside. You always exist among the trees.
  • Get comfortable getting to know yourself in ways you never thought possible. Think of isolation as a time to get closer to who you really are, without all the human interactions. Without the expectations, the treadmills of busy; without the imposed outside standards. Who you find may surprise you, and maybe even in a good way.
  • Get comfortable telling yourself stories. Since no one keeps isolated humans in the loop, you’ll need to create stories for yourself to make sense of things. Let your imagination run through those fields of daisies. Isolation can produce extraordinary self-storytelling. You’ll find that, really, everything is a story. And, in your isolation, your narrative could be groundbreaking.
  • Get comfortable learning your mind’s resting places. All those spots your mind sits when it’s not working, where it rests and contemplates? You’ll become acquainted with them all. All the other humans you used to know may join you. All the conversations, the arguments, the humiliations, the joys will make appearances. Your fears will find you there. So will self-knowledge. And, you’ll create new resting places, maybe decorate them for the arrival of guests someday.
  • Get comfortable always being the stranger. Humans categorize, especially when overwhelmed with information. Strangers are big truckloads of new information, and if they can be ignored, life is easier to navigate, especially with all our other demands. You’ll find that humans make it easy to ignore strangers, to disrespect them, exclude them. This is a good time for self-storytelling: you are the mysterious stranger who isn’t really a stranger, after all, but someone who knows this place intimately, from another life, and has come back to reckon.
  • Get comfortable never seeing yourself in anyone else’s eyes. This one will be especially difficult for those of you who’ve had many human mirrors, who’ve had others to tell them who they are, reflect back their power. There are no human mirrors in isolation, only wooden human walls and opaque closed doors. No reflections. Make your own.
  • Get comfortable keeping your own history. Start gathering all the pieces of your life now so you have some coherency in your own mind. That is the only place your history exists: in your own mind. Be sure to note those birthdays, the holidays, the goals reached, the milestones. With no one else to notice or to hold your history, you must do that work for yourself.
  • Get comfortable with no physical human touch. If possible, hire a CMT, sit in hot baths, hug yourself. The lack of human contact in isolation means finding other ways to feel like you exist and affect the world around you. (An electric chainsaw worked for me.) Keep in mind if you hurt yourself, you’ll need to take care of that on your own, too. In isolation, there is no friend to call. Sick? Hurt your foot? Get out of bed. Hop around the house. You got this.

Remember that the work you are doing is crucial and worth the isolation and hostility. Try not to shut down, even after the thousands of rejections you’ll experience: your ignored smiles, your dismissed waves, the lack of eye contact with you, the invisibility created when they refuse to say your name, your blown off attempts at small talk, the perpetual gatekeeping, the blocked access to resources, the dogs they let run at you, the sideways looks they give you, the “no” you will hear over and over and over.

Try to remember that shutting down is the problem and that your work will help recreate human connection in hostile environments. Remember: isolation is a relation that can be changed. And, even if no one ever says your name in an HFE, you exist in the work you do, the good you leave behind, and the kindness you offer.