Informal musings on the self-organisation of authoritarianism

You know how everyone has realizations they make far later in life than is normal? This is one of mine. Nonetheless, in the possibility that this essay might be helpful to someone who was similarly slow on the uptake, I’ve decided to share it.


I’ve come to realize that most pro-authoritarian action can be self-organised- it doesn’t need intervention from actual authorities, although it may benefit from such intervention. People simply act on what they perceive as their joint interests with the powerful, in the hope of social, psychological or material rewards.

We’re all aware on of this process on some level, but I think it is worth moving to the forefront of our mind. What I believe, but cannot prove, is that it may be the largest engine of entrenched authoritarianism.

Some examples:

1. A wealthy man buys a newspaper. He never says “don’t run negative coverage on me” but hey, the journalists and editors aren’t stupid! No one wants to be the person who wrote an article criticising the boss. Maybe the boss even wishes they were a little more critical of him, just to create the appearance of neutrality- but none of them dare. Just to be safe, it might be best to moderate the criticism of billionaires generally.

2. A  new government makes things easier for a specific industry for the purpose of encouraging investment. The industry has never told them to do that, it never offered a deal whereby it would invest more in exchange for regulatory changes, but politicians -rightly or wrongly- imagine it to be true.

3. The right wing fan of a politician starts a fight with a counter-protester at a rally. Publicly the politician has said they don’t want fighting, but their loyal supporter imagines this is not their real position, which they must conceal due to “political correctness” or somesuch.

4.  Larry works quite a bit of unpaid overtime. He imagines this will impress his boss. His boss hasn’t asked for it. Perhaps he even wishes he wouldn’t, concerned about possible liability and OH&S concerns. Nonetheless Larry puts in more hours, imagining he will win greater approval.

5. This one is more speculative, but I can’t help but think that many authoritarians are trying to please some internalised father figure they’ve created by expressing the right sentiments, partially obviating the need for actual authority figures to tell them to do things.

6. Jessica wants to be an entrepreneur. She rails against socialistic government and the man in Washington who takes from the sweat of the business owner’s brow. She joins her local young Republican chapter. She imagines this is what entrepreneurs think, and how they act, thus she believes she is making herself more like her heroes.

So, because they imagine it will win them either emotional or tangible rewards, or both, people organise on behalf of the existing authorities. The authorities need not lift a finger for this to happen, in some cases they might even wish it wouldn’t. No paper trail is required.  It’s a somewhat dark take on the Taoist idea of ruling through inaction.


As a strategy for ruling class individuals, saying little that is clear but allowing people to meet what they believe to be your needs, particularly suits those power figures who rely on the appearance of infallibility. Letting others organise around your desires without explicitly intervening allows you to simply disown those actions which would embarrass or fail you.

Sometimes action by the powerful is synthesised with self-organising authoritarianism through the use of oblique and deniable statements and requests. For example, Henry the II’s infamous utterance:

““Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

As long as I can remember I’ve been aware that kings play this sort of game, but what I want you to consider is the possibility that this sort of game isn’t just a feudal curiosity, it’s the very substance of any system of power.


At the risk of being the cliche of the half-educated social science student, allow me to compare this to Foucault’s adaptation of Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon as a metaphor for social discipline. In the Panopticon one disciplines oneself by not performing transgressive actions, because one never knows when someone might be watching- even though it is unlikely they are.

Whereas the Panopticon focuses on punishment, the phenomena we are interested in here is a bit broader, because reward plays a role as well, indeed it is the larger part. Also, the shaped behaviour is as much about the concrete interests of powerful people as norms as such- this isn’t just about power in the spaces between people, but explicit, enumerable ruling class.

Of course all this could be wrong, and this brief excrusus into Foucault is probably ill-advised because it’s really not my area.


Indeed self-organised authoritarianism may actually end up being rewarded- even without the intervention of an authority. It may self-organise its own rewards. After all, rewarding those who have served the master well seems like something the master would approve of. This means that even if you know better, participation in it might still be rational, a sort of social version of the economic concept of a rational bubble.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s