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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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 everyday democracy.

For instance …

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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.