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Taking Exception to 'The Authoritarians'

by rdf Mon Feb 26th, 2007 at 02:55:05 PM EST

Robert Altemeyer has done an excellent job with his on line book 'The Authoritarians'. He describes the key characteristics of followers (Right Wing Authoritarians) and leaders (Social Dominants). Briefly these people are unquestioning followers of strong leaders who believe in a hierarchical social structure. There is also a high degree of correlation between such people and a belief in conservative social policies.

We have observed that the strong leaders who have emerged in the past 40 years in the US and UK, for example, have tended to believe in an authoritarian model of government. This has also been coupled with strong tendencies for a corporate-government alliance on issues such as tax policy, social services and environmental regulation. In the US these groups have also become affiliated with the most socially conservative religious sects. Many see parallels between these developments and the rise of Fascism and the Nazis in the 20th Century.

I think there are two questions which follow from the many studies that have been done on why mass movements arise. First, why now? And second, what can be done to prevent the current trends from becoming a full-fledged disaster?

I'm going to try to answer both these as speculations.

Why Now?

What has happened in the US (and in many of its allies) is that the post WWII growth has slowed. Economic measures don't reflect this properly. For example measures of wealth which have shown a sharp rise in the US and UK during the past several decades are based upon the super wealthy having become even more so. But their wealth is mostly in areas where the inherent "value" is arbitrary - stocks and real estate. A house which now sells for $1 million is of no greater utility than it was ten years ago when it sold for $300,000. Similarly the rise in stock prices does not reflect a corresponding growth in the fundamentals of the firms. In many cases the price increases have been due to bidding up share prices by speculators, or monetizing assets by borrowing against them and using the funds for financial risk taking. The rise of hedge funds and other non-productive organizations contributes to this trend.

So while the paper wealth of the super rich has gone up and raised the aggregate figures as well, the average family is living pretty much the same life style as their parents did. There may be more material goods in their lives, but how they spend their time, and what their expectations are hasn't changed much. People expect to go to school, get a job, get married and raise a family. They expect to set up a household and have some time for leisure. A plasma TV is bigger than the 15" one their parents grew up with, but this is a superficial difference.

Then what has changed? Two things. The stability of social structures has diminished. People no longer expect to work in a stable job with a predictable career path and a secure retirement. They no longer feel assured that health care will be affordable or available. They no longer know what will happen to them when they get old and infirm - extended families don't provide support now that many women are out of the home as well. This has raised the level of insecurity and made people more amenable to adopting messages from ideologues who present simple explanations to the causes of such insecurity.

In addition to changes in the domestic society there has arisen increased competition from the newly emerging industrial powers. The first wave of fear was with the rise of the Japanese economy starting in the 1960's. The patterns that US businesses had pursued for a hundred years were thrown into doubt as big industries like steel started fail. More recently the rise of China and India has started to worry the industrialized west as they start to consume raw materials and take jobs away from high cost economies.

The economic model of the west is based upon a consumerist/capitalist model. Companies borrow money to operate, process raw materials and sell the resulting output. The profit from this endeavor is used to pay back the loans and to return something to the stockholders. The model depends upon a cheap (and continual) source of raw materials and a growing market. In order for earnings to increase it is necessary to expand markets. This can be done by moving into new regions as well as creating demand from those who already have been customers. The demand creation is now the domain of the well-understood advertising and propaganda industries. Those in the west are starting to see that this can't continue for much longer. There are the usual stories about declining raw materials, especially oil, as well as the impact on the environment. So once again stress is increased because of fears of threats to our standard of living.

When social structures are under stress it is easy for ideologues to capture the public imagination. Not only do they offer solutions that no one else suggests, but they also have scapegoats picked out who are the cause of the current problems. In Wiemar Germany it was the war reparations demanded by the French, the rising power of the labor movement, and the ideas of the socialists and communists. In the US, and parts of EU these days, immigrants are a good target. During times of plagues in the past "sinners" were to blame. This argument was even used recently to assign blame for the events of 9/11.

How can we curb the ideologues?

Altemeyer deals with this in the last chapter of his book. First he, rightly, dismisses all ideas that require changing human nature either en mass or individually. Then he offers some ideas that he feels have a greater probability of success. These can all be considered a variation of improved education. Having people stay in school longer, interact with people from other ethnic or socio-economic groups, work together with others on common projects and be subjected to information offered during civil protests are all ways to get followers to consider things they have avoided dealing with before.

While a child's home environment and peers have an important effect on how one's attitudes develop we also depend upon school to educate the next generation. That we all think this is effective can be seen by how strongly people hold ideas of what, and how, things should be taught. If education didn't have a profound result then the fights wouldn't be taken so seriously. In the most extreme cases (say the Amish or orthodox Jews) the communities isolate their young so that they aren't exposed to the ideas of society at large. What is the message that schools currently teach?

There are two inter-related messages. First, is the obedience to authority. The movements towards self-directed education favored by early educational philosophers like John Dewey are increasingly being replaced by regimented teaching. Even when children are permitted to engage in activities they chose themselves, the range is limited. One can chose band or drama, but not set up a Marxist debating society. Second, is the training of the next generation of consumers. Advertising pervades the schools, not just the explicit types such as team uniforms being paid for by soft drink makers, or marketing deals for vending machines, but the way children are conditioned to identify with brands from an early age. I've seen pre-schoolers wearing clothing covered with the logos of well-known brands. They can identify these products even before they have learned to read.

So our consumerist/capitalist society demands obedient consumers and these are exactly the type of people who can be most easily led by demagogues. This won't change until society decides to change its goals. We can do this voluntarily or we can have it forced upon us by external forces such as those caused by overpopulation and climate change.

Given that most people are not leaders, real progress will only happen if a new generation of people emerges who can convince people that we must scale back our consumerist life styles and substitute other measures of success in life. Those who continue to consume in excess will soon find themselves being shamed by the change in public attitudes, much like what has been happening with smokers over the past several decades.

I don't know if it can be done, but since we have seen many cases of destructive ideologues emerge it seems possible that those preaching altruism and self restraint might arise as well. Perhaps a Gandhi only happens once a generation, but this may be enough.

Some really good points here...

I've greatly enjoyed your sequence of diaries, rdf - but this one puts it all in a gestalt nutshell

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Feb 26th, 2007 at 04:37:45 PM EST
Education at school is an old (and important) feature for the French Republic core...

 I'll write on the brand following young's in a next diary... But, teaching in a school with License, Master, Doctorate, in which the motto is to bring students to "Authorship", I'm quite discouraged by the non-willingness of the 20-24 age range to invest in themselves.

We manage (still, but for how long) in those five years to change completely their attitude toward life, society, ego, etc... But it's quite an ordeal, as when we get them, they just wait for "orders" !
They are often at loss when we allow them to choose a subject, as if it was, for them, the first time they had to choose something (sometimes it can even be on really stupid and anecdotical level, as a pen !!! )...

I believe we (as a society) focus a bit too much in diplomas ( or levels, or ranks, etc.)... Instead of basic culture!
I'm stricken, speaking with students that seems at first quite "normal" (for a student :-) ) that they often don't even know or care for the society in which they live. They can't even believe they can change, and their life, and the society with a few efforts...

One of the way we use to "break" a bit that attitude is to take them in foreign countries (as Turkey, Lebanon, South America, Asia ) and immerse them in local problems... And give them a chance to directly propose some answers to people there (it can be messy sometimes)!

 In fact they lack optimism and belief in ones... It's a whole public educational system that's sinking...!

(And don't get me on the reading part... The three R's have vanished from most programs) (a bit of ire there)!

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman

by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Mon Feb 26th, 2007 at 05:05:15 PM EST
Another piece of the puzzle:  Hillman on car culture and the stunting of children's autonomy and social development...
The reasons given by parents for the restrictions they impose on their children's independent mobility reflect a growing anxiety. Increasingly, the outside world is seen as a place where children are likely to be injured by a motor vehicle or harmed by a bully or stranger. The instinctive wish of parents to avoid their children being exposed to risk has been translated into them taking away from children their freedom - for adults it would be called a right - to get around on their own. That freedom has been replaced by their time being more and more under adult supervision and structured by adults, with a rising and worrying proportion of children's waking hours being spent indoors in front of the TV or in playing computer games. This is a sad commentary on this social change of the last few decades in that its effects have largely gone unnoticed and that fear is its inspiration.
There is a further psychological dimension to be added to the damaging effects of limiting children's exposure to the outside world unless they are accompanied by an adult. Not allowing them out on their own takes some of the excitement and adventure out of children's lives - witness the thrill they enjoy when first allowed to do things on their own. It is interesting to note from experiments on primates that damage to the development of their social behaviour by depriving them of the rough and tumble of their early years cannot be restored: survival rises with the extent of experience of risk taking.

Children's detention in their homes inculcates in their impressionable minds a grossly misleading perception of the world outside as hostile - a world in which we, as experienced and responsible adults, consider that people one does not know could well be up to no good and that their locality may contain within it elements of danger to which they should not be exposed.

Another piece of the puzzle may be summed up by a teacher who said that her music students show little inclination to put in the long hours required for true mastery of an instrument.  One asked her, "Why bother?  who knows if we'll be alive in ten years."

The Turrist fearmongering of the BushCo propaganda machine, the millennialist preaching of the rightwing religious extremists, the cult of fearful parenting, the very real precarity of our economic and ecological situation, all contribute to inflict on thoughtful children a sense of danger, despair, and futurelessness which can only reinforce the joyless hedonism of consumer brainwashing.  Nihilism is heady stuff for the young in any era -- how much more compelling it must seem in parlous times...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Feb 26th, 2007 at 08:07:12 PM EST
Advertising pervades the schools, not just the explicit types such as team uniforms being paid for by soft drink makers, or marketing deals for vending machines

barely scratching the surface here... there is so much more to this invasion of the schools.  franchise corporate junkfood in the cafeteria.  "free" placemats for the cafeteria, advertising corporate junkfood products.  advertising permanently mounted on the back of restroom stall doors and over urinals in the WCs.  students required to watch an hour of Channel One TV -- including ads! -- each day.  "free" curriculum materials using M&Ms as the items to be counted in basic math books, or branded packaged foods in all the "recipes" for home ec class. "free" science texts written by the coal industry, oil industry, logging industry, pharma industry... "free" computers provided so long as students use Web portals festooned with ad graphics.  and so on.  anything to steal a slice of attention span.

nothing is new about business interfering in schooling, as our recent Veblen bio should remind us.  control over the minds of children is the ultimate desideratum of all Authority, be it religious, State, or commercial.  but commercial interference in K-12 schooling has gone from primitive regional patronistic meddling to taylorised, global, and totalising.  I can only hope it produces a wild unintended result of product- and brand-hatred among the generation whose eyeballs and brains are being subjected to such intensive assault.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Feb 26th, 2007 at 08:17:26 PM EST
Great diary.

The decline of social structures is especially stark. I'm 31. My father is the epitome of his generation. He took on a career and it was a job for life. He and my mother have been (and appear to continue to be) married happily for life.

So that's the originals myths of my childhood. Still, parents of friends were not so lucky. Many of them lost their "jobs for life" and I have to say I believe that the continual economic instability contributed to the breakup of some of those relationships.

Moving to new jobs removed people from family and support networks.

Social liberal though I am, I have to admit that necessary advances in gender equality have also required recalibrations in the notions of family, reducing the supports for everyone (although I believe that this is a transition effect and quite small compared to the economic dislocations.)

Add it all together, stir in my childhood memories of Ronnie Raygun's Cold War and Star Wars program and you have a generation who view life as a lot more unstable and less inherently likely to be fulfilling than the previous generation.

Call me a boring old structuralist, but I suspect that changes in the welfare regime are the only place to start. Only when the fear of ill-health and destitution is reduced can things get better.

Just as an example, being here in the UK I don't have to worry unduly about health insurance. So, that's good.

Still, the general thrust of my life is that I will likely be destitute when I am old and I live in constant danger of unemployment.

The scariest part of unemployment is that it is a black hole. Once you've slipped out of work for a while, it gets harder and harder to get back in.

That reminds me about the US unemployment figures. What's so terrifying is that it doesn't track the long-term unemployed in a meaningful way, so we can't see how much of our society we've thrown on the scrapheap.

I don't want "money for nothing" but I've already hit age-related problems. The jobs I am perfectly qualified for aren't that thick on the ground and the ones where I'd need training I lose out to people who are better candidates.

Worse, the jobs that anyone could give a shot at, be they McJobs or retail or whatever, there is no shortage of candidates.

Fundamentally, the notion of "productivity" in our economy is all about using less people. But what will people do once they are not needed? The capitalist answer seems mostly to be: starve.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 02:45:42 AM EST

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