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The Shaky premise of authoritarianism

Taye Negussie (PhD)


Since we ordinarily associate authoritarianism with a political system bent on subjugating and repressing its subjects – so conceived rightly – and, as such, we tend to overlook as it reigns in a number of other human institutions.  


As a matter of fact, the abusive parenting in family life, exploitative economic relations, the imposing and alienating carrot-and stick management system, the behavioral educational scheme aspiring to shape and remold humans could all be viewed as authoritarian in every sense of the term.    

The underlying premise that binds all authoritarian systems together apparently lies in the assumption of determinism – a doctrine which holds that human action is not based on one’s free-will, but is rather a consequence of the working of such forces as external physical conditions and circumstances beyond the control of the individual.


The deterministic view utterly disregards individual’s capacity to take an independent stance toward any conditions whatsoever; it denies the power or ability of the individual human mind to choose a course of action or make a decision without being subject to restraints imposed by seemingly omnipotent external forces.


The question is: is this indeed a valid and credible assumption reflective of the true and real human nature as we know it? Definitely, this compels us to embark on a quick revisit of the historical context that yielded the deterministic assumption in its modern version.


The advent of deterministic assumption as concerns modern authoritarian institutions can be traced to the conception of behavioral sciences in the 17th and 18th centuries. As we might be well aware of, these centuries were the period that heralded the ‘fad of science’ as the utmost credible source of human knowledge. So, the leading exponents in these fields of enquiry, then, had to earnestly argue and show that their intellectual enquiries indeed meet the requisite criteria of science so as to earn a seat in the emerging highly venerated ‘club of sciences’.


One of the overriding legitimation criterions to the status of science was the claim – modeled after natural sciences – that the operation of phenomena in the claimant line of inquiry strictly adheres to the presumed mechanistic laws of natural order and predictability.


Thus, the realist philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries who speculated about human behavior had to superimpose the assumption of mechanistic law on human mind which subsequently led to the realization of behavioral sciences.


However, the mechanistic assumption on mind was refuted from the outset by humanist philosophers arguing that what influences human actions is not the working of a stable physical mind but rather a fleeting human consciousness.


The humanist view now appears to be vindicated by insights gleaned from, among others, uncertainty principle and chaos theory in the field of quantum physics that apparently challenged the conventional view of the ‘fundamental law of cause and effect’.


Subsequently, the classical debate on human consciousness or free will once again has reinvigorated anew. In the ongoing current debate, the proponents of free-will hold that mental phenomena being anarchistic by nature – as also observed even in physical phenomena by the aforementioned state-of-the-art scientific theories – could not be patterned into mechanistic physical law. The premise of this argument lies in the recognition of the element of spontaneity in the human mind that operates outside any possible scientific law.


In passing, this reminds us an often-quoted maxim by the noted French philosopher Michel Foucault, “Don’t ask me who I am and to remain the same.”


Now many intellectuals have interpreted this spontaneity to be free will, or at least a measure of self-determination that people feel themselves to possess and by which they make moral judgments – an affirmation of the passionately-held view of the classical advocates for human freedom, liberation and democratic governance. 


The notion of free-will or choice is also a prominent theme that has predominated a great deal of writing in the now rising field of existentialism. In the view of most existentialists, humanity’s primary distinction is the freedom to choose. Existentialists have held that human beings do not have a fixed nature, or essence, as other animals and plants do; each human being makes choices that create his or her own nature.


According to the renowned psychiatrist Victor E. Frankl, choice is  central to human existence, and it is inescapable; even the refusal to choose is a choice. Of course, freedom of choice ought to be accompanied by real sense of commitment and responsibility. When individuals choose freely their own pathway, Frankl argues, they must accept the responsibility and consequence of following their freely chosen pathway wherever it leads.


From the above arguments, I guess, one would well discern the serious limitations compounding the assumption of the deterministic doctrine – imposing an inevitability on a mental phenomenon which is too uncertain, arbitrary and fleeting – that has informed and guided the operation of, sadly enough, not less number of human institutions which are both good as well as ill-intentioned ones.    

Obviously, some skeptics might dismiss the notion of free-will on the ground of lower level education, precarious economic condition, or racial, ethnic, religious and gender prejudices to deny people the freedom to choose their own course of actions.  


However, a closer look into the hitherto existing history of human struggle – the anti-slavery movement, the various revolutions to topple archaic socio-political systems, the liberation war against colonialism, the protest and the struggle against despotic rulers, fascism, communism, the ongoing gender, minority and environmental movements – would certainly affirm to be a struggle between those who strive to subjugate and control versus those who resist or stand up against any external manipulation and domination on their thoughts and actions.          


One of the most common strategies that repressive institutions deploy to prevail over the minds of others is usually by infusing ‘herd-mentality’ that stifles independent thought and free-will action. But this ‘collective illusion’ is usually an ephemeral phenomenon that would dissipate as people become more clear-headed and self-conscious.     


In conclusion, let me quote once again Victor E. Frankl by way of reaffirming the central thesis of the present piece: “A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining; what he becomes….he has made out of himself.”


This maxim speaks so loudly about the fact that any attempt to dominate and control others is, at best, a futile exercise that is bound to end as soon as people win back their natural capacity for independent thought and free-will moral actions.    

The writer can be reached at


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