Authoritarianism Functions in Everyday Practices That We Can Change

Announcements about the arrival of authoritarianism now abound in mainstream media. I’m sure you’ve read your share. This article offers something a little different: a focus on how authoritarianism functions in our relations with one another and how each one of us can embody relationally democratic practices. Now, more than ever, we need to drag our attention away from the spectacle of authoritarianism-as-regime and its drumbeat of inevitability by understanding how authoritarianism functions in practices between us that we can change. …

Authoritarianism in the U.S. is not new, however. State-level authoritarian practices have existed here since the beginning. Severe power imbalances founded the American legal story. Our white forefathers committed genocide, murdering and enslaving native inhabitants of the land, stealing as much power as they could from those brown bodies. Our economy was born on the backs of slaves: the state stole as much power as possible from Black and brown bodies, further empowering itself and those who claimed authority and control of the state’s resources.

The power relations that founded our institutions, our laws, our systems and processes, and “the people” could not have been more severely imbalanced.

American racism is a form of authoritarianism. So is classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and speciesism. Each has as its core feature an imbalanced power relation. Each imbalanced relation functions in (racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, and speciesist) practicesthat are entrenched in systems and processes and also present relationally between individual human beings. …

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A Little of What Happened When I Invested Everything in Five Years of Time

Near the end of a two-year sabbatical, and two weeks before the earth shifted on its axis 11.8.2016, I drove away from my Richmond, California home the day it closed escrow and two days later, took possession of my new property in Cave Junction, Oregon. Cave Junction is in Southern Josephine County, which is in the Southwest part of Oregon about 20 minutes north of the California border. It is one of many red rural counties in Oregon, and the poverty is like nothing most urban dwellers in the United States have ever personally experienced, except to drive through. (It took months for my urban orientation to adjust enough to really see and understand–to feel–this kind of poverty.) …

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Relationally Democratic and Authoritarian Practices

Democracy is a big human experiment in organized power-sharing. Democracies are representative forms of government in which electoral processes and systems share power with all the people.

Authoritarianism is a big human experiment in organized power-stealing and hoarding. Authoritarian regimes steal power from all the people in the form of violations of human rights: stealing the right to liberty, to autonomy, to free expression, and to life. Authoritarian regimes hoard the stolen power of the people in its government and in private bodies.

Relational democracy and authoritarianism, however, are different: they are embodied cultural practices that create conditions within with democratic governments and authoritarian regimes either succeed or fail.

When humans are relationally democratic — they share their power to generate and maintain forward momentum — they also tend to support democratic governments. When humans are relationally authoritarian — they steal the power from others to generate and maintain their forward momentum — they also tend to support authoritarian regimes.

We can see relational democracy and authoritarianism in human interactions, in everyday, mundane tasks. Relational democracy is relational authoritarianism’s polar opposite.

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 earned 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. Being relationally democratic 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 purpose. We are able to engage full, effectively assess situations, and live without fear of poisonous ideas.

Living democratically means being able to confidently generate and maintain 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.

pain is love

“How can anyone watch those images of children in cages and not be outraged?”

They can watch and support caging children and imprisoning them in camps because they’ve been taught from a very early age that some things are necessary for love. Power has taught them that, often, pain is necessary–physical pain–so they understand they’re loved. Pain, their bodies believe, also demonstrates how much power loves them. (“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love you,” he says as he holds your hands out of the way so he can hit harder.)

The sharper the pain, the brighter the bruises, the warmer the love.

Those children—now adults–begin a lifetime of enduring pain, of accepting it as love. Disconnecting their empathy is necessary for survival: their natural need to connect and feel other humans’ pain overloads their hurting body’s capacity to endure their own pain, to absorb the “love.”

Now, concentration camp images wake those child-adult bodies, shock them into remembering. Trigger them. They feel the pain as it comes in the form of searing recognition: they are flooded with the same feelings of helplessness and terror they see all over the faces, in the eyes, and on the bodies of those caged children.

Of themselves, they demand, in fearful anger, “Why? Why are they coming here? They have to know what’s going to happen to them! Why would they put themselves in this danger–it’s just stupid! Why?!”

Secretly, their child-self implores the doomed children to stay away: “it’s not safe for you here, he’ll hurt you. stay away. hide.”

Out loud, in the noise and heat and screaming about invaders, they shout their support: “Go home! You don’t belong here! If you’re in a cage, you brought that on yourself! There’s a legal process! If you violate it, you are a criminal and we have to imprison and prosecute you! You will destroy our country and we love our country! Locking you up is necessary to protect it!”

Pain masquerading as love kills the empathy necessary for outrage.