Olli Tammilehto wrote this article in April, 2017. You can republish it in English or in any other language but you should first inform the author.

Authoritarianism and real democracy

Two spectres are haunting the world – the spectre of authoritarianism and the spectre of real democracy. These two powers have infiltrated every level and every sector of society. They are manifested in personal relationships and informal contacts, in workplaces, in the factual working of bureaucratic organizations, in the scientific community and in governments. The infiltration gives rise to daily struggles inside human beings and between them, among organizations and amidst each of them. For example, in science real democracy in anchored in the principle that knowledge formation should be founded on the unforced force of the better argument. However, the principle is in a constant conflict with the authoritarianism manifested in the hierarchical organization of universities and research establishments.

It is a common phenomenon that during economic crises authoritarianism – even fascism – makes headway on the governmental level. When the societal terrain gets rough, governing structures change to “off-road gear”. Yet, on the other hand, the crisis of capitalism gives a great opportunity to democratically orientated social movements. The accumulation of capital takes place more and more by dispossession, and the ability of the system to integrate the majority of people by monetary rewards weakens.

The present crisis, too, gives and has given an impetus both to authoritarianism and real democracy. However, it seems that in most countries the spectre of authoritarianism has more power. Why is it so?

One obvious culprit is mass media. As Herman and Chomsky have shown even in countries posing as liberal democracies mass media constitute a propaganda system: an appearance of pluralism is created by allowing a spectrum of opinions while many important view points and pieces of information are censured. The range of allowed views has been curtailed during recent decades. Media creates an illusion of naturalness of the present institutional arrangements and distorts the view about real threats falling on us. When it seems that “There Is No Alternatives” and Muslim terrorists are the principal threat to our life, discontent created by the crisis is channelled to pseudo alternatives of strong leader and racial scape-coating.

Internet seemed to offer an escape from the domination of mass media and corporate power behind it. Yet, with the rise of big Internet companies like Facebook and Google, the web is more and more used as a sophisticated propaganda system with individually tailored content to influence each user most effectively.

These forces creating authoritarianism seem to be out of our reach, and reminding of them tends to create hopelessness. However, one cause of authoritarianism is certainly within our reach: that is what democracy loving people do to further authoritarianism.

It is common to be satisfied with formal democracy and not care about the fact that in practice the demos has only miniscule possibilities to influence things happening around it. When an individual has acquired a democratic mandate to lead an organization, it is regarded as perfectly normal that she or he acts in a manner that resembles an authoritarian leader. Workers and customers in a democratically sanctioned organization are usually not in a better position to have their voice heard that those in business corporations. The really existing democracy is only a thin layer covering rather authoritarian body. Some 50 year ago there were a short period when democracy was thought to be also a matter of internal working of organizations but after that complacent attitude concerning democracy as it really is, has gained ground.

However, outside the formal workings of any organization the spectre of real democracy is haunting it. Local and workplace struggles against top-down decision making are common. Yet they are regarded as aberrations and usually only a minority is taking actively part in them. Therefore the hidden curriculum in most organizations is to learn obey and bow down to decisions made in the upper echelons. This internalized disposition is one of the reasons why an authoritarian political movement can in suitable circumstances get hold of masses of people.

Accordingly one of the possible ways to hold back and turn around the authoritarian political tendencies is to try to change the concept and discourse of democracy. Rather than regarding democracy as a formal thing we should see it as a social way of life which seeks to disperse concentration of power in every instances of social life. It means questioning hierarchic organizational structures and trying to find inherently democratic structures. These ideas are not new in the history of social movement but they must be activated, refreshed and expanded.


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