Saturday, October 01, 2005

Authority and Objectivity

In recent weeks I've frequently used the word authoritarian to describe the actions of the Blair government. I'm sure I'm not the only one, not by a long shot. The thing is though, I normally make a conscious effort not to use labels like authoritarian. For one thing, I think name calling is an unpleasant and over used political tactic. Given some of my recent rants, you'd be forgiven for being sceptical but it's honestly true. My outbursts could perhaps be regarded as a symptom of the increasing levels of extremism which the Blair government provokes.

There's also another reason why I try not to use a word like authoritarian. It's my attempt to avoid the problems caused by the fact that one man's authoritarian is another man's freedom fighter. Unlike terrorism though, there is a reasonable level of agreement as to the definition of authoritarianism. It occurred to me today that it might be possible, at least theoretically, to objectively state whether the Blair government is authoritarian or not. All I need is a consensually agreed definition of authoritarianism, and I can give it a go. Step forward Wikipedia. Here are the sections I found relevant:
The term authoritarian is used to describe an organization or a state which enforces strong and sometimes oppressive measures against those in its sphere of influence, generally without attempts at gaining their consent and often not allowing feedback on its policies.
Well, you could argue that Blair does attempt to gain consent for his policies and is therefore not authoritarian. But I'd argue there's a problem. Let's consider the example of ID cards. Blair is undeniably attempting to persuade us that they're necessary. The question I would ask is how the government will react if it fails to gain consent on the need for the cards? I don't think many people will disagree if I say that this will have almost no effect on the policy. So, consent is sought by the government, but policy is unlikely to change if that consent is not forthcoming. As such, I'd say Blair the authoritarian is looking justified so far.
Authoritarianism often arises from the governing bodies' presumption that they know what is right or wrong for the country and from intolerance of dissent. The government then enforces what it thinks is right, often with use of considerable force and sometimes in blatant violation of human rights. Dissenting voices are ignored, or, more strikingly, are considered to be plotting against the best interests of the country.
Bespoke tailoring there, I'd say. Anyone disagree?
Typically, the leadership (government) of an authoritarian regime is ruled by an elite group that uses repressive means to stay in power.
And again.
Authoritarian regimes typically grant wide powers to law enforcement agencies; in an extreme, this leads to a so-called police state. Authoritarian regimes may or may not have a rule of law — in the former case, laws and procedures exist and are applied, though they may seem intrusive, unjust or excessive; in the latter case, laws do not exist, or are routinely ignored, and the actions of the government are at the whim of the leadership.
I refer the right honourable gentleman/lady to the answer I gave yesterday. Laws ignored? Whims of the leadership? It all sounds disgustingly familiar.
Authoritarian governments are generally (but not always) prone to corruption. One reason is that in such regimes, criticizing corrupt behavior is, at best, useless (since the officials will be retained in position), at worst, risky (since officials may retaliate against those who denounced them).
I call David Blunkett to the stand.

Case proven, I'd say. Lock them up and throw away the key. From now on I shall feel absolutely no reluctance in calling the Blair government authoritarian (subject to a comment finding a flaw in my reasoning anyway). It appears to be entirely justified.

Btw, I noticed a couple of other definitions on Wikipedia. These are meant a little less seriously (only a little mind).
Police State: A police state is a state in which the government maintains strict political or social control over the population without adhering to the rule of law... Political scientists tend to prefer a.. narrow definition of "police state," limiting it to those regimes which:
* are centralized enough to be considered a state;
* employ the power of the state without the restraint of law; and
* employ the power of the state to repress political dissent within society (although the importance of this element is sometimes disputed).
Quite. And now, the clincher.
Dictator: In modern usage, the term "dictator" is generally used to describe a leader who holds an extraordinary amount of personal power, especially the power to make laws without effective restraint by a legislative assembly.
Like a glove. Send him down...

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