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The Anti-Authoritarian Society is a Myth

By Marika Formgren

Some always decide more than others, but it is only when the hierarchy is clear that there is accountability. In 1983, William Golding won the Nobel Prize in Literature. My father gave me The Lord of the Flies. I was only nine years old but recognised patterns of behaviour in the novel from my own life. "Just like this", I thought, "is how children react when there is no sensible adult to control things."

Basically, I still think the same way.

Fine speeches about journalism speak always about "limiting authority". Democracy requires that rulers are limited. But then it must be clear who is in power.

In Sweden today, that is not always easy to determine. The concept of authority has fallen into disrepute. Nobody wants to admit that one is, or obeys, an authority figure. The word authoritarian is only used negatively to describe perverted politics or a sadistic teacher a la Caligula.

Anti-authoritarian ideas have always existed, but got their big break with the New Left in 1968. The promise that was given then was that we would all be liberated by overthrowing the authorities. We would finally be free and equal, if only we replaced authority with democracy.

I argue that the anti-authoritarian society is a myth. The leaderless utopia where everyone decides everything together does not exist. There is always one who determines more than the other. I will return to why, but first something about what has happened since the anti-authoritarian breakthrough.

Hans Zetterberg has described society as a three-legged stool: state-market-civil society. The state has democracy: voting. In the market, trading takes place: one pays or gets paid. Civil society takes care of raising children: someone who can do or knows more transmits norms and insights to someone who can do and knows less.

Those who raise children are and must be an authority. Therefore civil society is governed by an authoritarian principle, unlike the state's democracy and the market’s trade. And that is why civil society and its education are seriously injured by the anti-authoritarian paradigm.

Civil society has been displaced since the politicians in 1974 wrote in the new Constitution that "the idea of democracy [should] be the guide in all areas of society". Bourgeois governments have not changed this. When the Social Democrats sought to replace civil society with "democracy" (i.e., politically controlled organisations), bourgeois governments then wanted to get more of the market into civil society. The debate over grants for help with homework is illustrative.

The Social Democrats say that all help with homework should be given tax-financed by teachers in school. The Alliance says it will create new jobs if parents who buy homework help for their children receive a tax deduction. No one points out that it is a natural part of parenting to help children with their homework, and that in many parts of the country there are voluntarily organised groups for help with homework. Both sides are blind to the civil society.

Anti-authoritarian ideas are as strong today as in 1968. They have changed our school system fundamentally. That a professor at the Stockholm Institute of Education wrote the book SprängSkolan! (Break the School!) is no accident – the school has been described as an oppressive institution where the teacher's authority over the students has been interpreted as a master-slave relationship. After assiduously working to obliterate all traces of authority in the school, we now see the consequences: poor academic achievement, poor working atmosphere and teachers will be reported if they try to maintain order. Recently, a PISA survey showed that Swedish students are good at neither creativity nor critical thinking. Although the anti-authoritarian prophets promised that these abilities would flourish in the ‘democratic’ school, it is the students in authoritarian school systems in East Asia that are best at creativity and critical thinking.

These ideas have spread even to the workplace and the marketplace. "Flat organisations" have been a trend concept since Jan Carlzon in 1985 wrote the management book RivPyramiderna (Tear the Pyramids Down). It is argued that in today's knowledge society, where worker competence is the most important asset, traditional hierarchical organisations have become obsolete. Now we ‘network’ in flat organisations where the manager has become a ‘leader’, who, instead of making decisions and bearing the ultimate responsibility, will enthuse and inspire his or her colleagues. The words are important. Some old words have been banned and replaced by new ones. Managers and employees have become leaders and colleagues. Reform teachers have wanted to wipe out the words teaching and teacher. In both school and working life, value systems have become more important than regulations.

Views on parenting and child rearing have changed. Parenting magazines preach (Jesper) Juul’s gospel of Your Competent Child, and when children who have not been told off at home cannot discipline themselves in a school where they do not get told off, parents and schools blame each other for the chaos.

Views on parenting reveal the anti-authoritarian premise that people are born civilised. Becoming an adult has always been about freeing oneself from authority, to become independent so that one can do without parental care or teacher guidance. But, before the anti-authoritarian breakthrough, upbringing meant that the maturing individual internalised the fundamental ideas of the authorities (which has been called the superego, morality, conscience, empathy or common sense). The child was seen as a not-yet-civilised human being who must be nurtured in these ethical qualities so they become an internalised part of the adult personality.

Today, when these anti-authoritarian ideas characterise the view of raising children, it is considered offensive to reprimand a child who behaves badly. Without tools, parents and teachers cannot get children to understand what is unacceptable behaviour. The result is, at worst, that adult individuals who have not developed their own view of right and wrong, think that they can do anything they want. Much like Karlsson on the Roof.

The anti-authoritarian epoch is narcissistic and self-fulfilling. And this has led to a parenting crisis. People who get to do everything they want, who refuse to take responsibility and become as ‘boring’ as parenting requires. Giving in to every sudden infatuation with more and more ‘plastic’ relationships as a result, is one example.

If someone has the audacity to criticise parents who expose their children to ever new ‘plastic’ mums, ‘plastic’ dads and ‘plastic’ siblings, that person may hear that it oppressive. The tool is norm-criticism, the latest branch of the anti-authoritarian tree. In Sweden today, there are so few authorities in the form of individuals or institutions left to fight that the anti-authoritarians give themselves authority figures in the form of ideas, i.e., norms. Anyone who argues that children can get hurt by this throwaway view of relationships is, according to the norm critics, representative of the oppressive togetherness norm.

That partner-swapping parents shout "oppressors!" if someone is critical, is a variation on the theme. Adults parents protest when their kids get homework, when they are get packed lunches on an outing, when they are not allowed to have their cell phones turned on during class, or do not get time off school for a trip to Thailand. Adults – parents or not – readily complain over their "tough working lives", "work-life balance" and all the "demands".

The stress of demands, the inability to sort and prioritise between important and unimportant, is perhaps the result of an anti-authoritarian upbringing. Because when the person raising you is strict and demanding, it is so you will eventually be able to be strict with and make demands on yourself. And part of being able to be strict with and make demands on yourself is knowing when it's time to take it easy and give yourself a reward.

If most demands lead to one becoming "offended" or "oppressed" or "burned out", there is an area where adult people in Sweden like to push themselves hard: body improvement. They run and workout, they are 5:2 and low-carb. In this one area, it is a virtue to be strict with oneself, and it says something about narcissism in our times that it is more important to look good naked than to put moral or intellectual demands on oneself.

The problem with this flat organisation, or the so-called ‘anti-authoritarian’ system, is the difficulty is to single out and demand accountability from those in power who, I think, always exist. They hide behind the notion that "everyone is involved and decides". When the power cannot be singled out and scrutinised, we have a democracy problem. Here, the journalistic speechmakers are right.

Paradoxically enough, journalists themselves are an example of a powerful group that often refuses to acknowledge its power over politicians’ communication with voters, saying that the phenomenon is exaggerated.

I myself am a journalist and am aware of the media’s power, which makes me particularly allergic to colleagues and media executives who pretend that we are powerless. But I have seen many examples that show that power always exists, and that hidden power is readily abused while being simultaneously denied.

During my school time, I had some teachers who took the anti-authoritarian ideal of student democracy and student participation particularly seriously. Their lessons were always messy, and I have knowledge gaps in subjects where teachers said that we students would "seek our own knowledge". When the teacher refuses to be an authority, my experience is that it is not the decent and fair students who take the informal leadership, but those inclined towards nastiness and bullying. It was grotesque when we had bullying problems in class, and the teacher let us students work it out, “democratically”, by holding a trial. The teacher sat quietly, despite verbal abuse.

When I, in 2006, made ??a magazine all about workplace bullying, I saw several examples of the perils of unclear leadership. The bullied people that I interviewed confirmed the researchers’ findings: workplace bullying is especially common in female-dominated workplaces, in the caring professions (health care, education, care and church). Such workplaces are often characterised by unclear leadership and a culture of social equality; everyone should be equal, no one may stand out. Therefore, it is often the brilliant teacher or nurse who becomes the victim of bullying. The bullies, for their part, are mostly led by the informal leaders of the workplace. When the abuses do come to the formal boss' attention, she usually takes the side of the bullies. Maybe because she would rather sacrifice a good employee than risk offending the informal leader, who, in practice, calls the shots in the workplace.

My conclusion is that there is a ‘manly’ and a ‘womanly’ principle of leadership, organisation and hierarchy. By that I do not mean that men are essentially a certain way and women another, but that the principles mirror properties associated with traditional gender roles: that men are rational and competitive, while women are empathetic and care-orientated.

The ‘manly’ principle is traditionally hierarchical with clear authority and chain of command, as we see for example in the military. Everyone knows who is the boss of whom, and although subordinates may oppose, it is the manager who ultimately makes decisions and is responsible. Whoever takes the initiative in such an organisation can quickly rise in status, and the manager who makes a disastrous decision can just as quickly go out. The people in the organisation do not need to like or be like one another, the rules and hierarchy is so clear that differences and personal antipathies are irrelevant.

The ‘womanly’ principle is the ‘flat’ organisation. It is described readily in positive terms: "everyone's creativity is welcome", "everyone can join in and decide and take responsibility", "we see each other as people and not cogs in a machine". The downsides are talked about less. When the manager is a friend and decisions are made on a consensus basis, conformism arises. Everyone must be equal, and not only in the execution of the tasks. Since decisions are based on consensus, and values are ??in the place of authority and rules, everyone has to be equal in as many ways as possible. This ‘cosiness’, in addition to seeking intimacy, deprives managers and employees of their integrity. It becomes difficult to separate work and personal life when one's private personality is seen as part of one’s workplace equity.

That most of the bullied people I interviewed had an immigrant background was not due to racism. Individuals from other cultures stuck out too much in the ‘womanly’, flat, conformist organisations.

Therefore, it is a misconception that flat organisations promote individualism, whereas hierarchical organisations suit collectivists.

Just as authority has become a dirty word, collectivism has too. Sweden is often said to be the world's most individualistic country, which is underlined by our ‘state individualism’ and that the Swedes, according to the World Values ??Survey, are the people who value self-realisation the highest. But individualism is conditional. Since flat organisations are based on everyone sharing the same values, ?? individualism becomes a form of independent questioning that is seen as dangerous and something to be avoided.

In a hierarchical organisation, it is often stated that a collective will accomplish something that an individual cannot, and that the leader's authority is necessary to coordinate and control the collective. A symphony orchestra, led by a conductor, and the army led by a commander are two examples of strictly hierarchical organisations. It does not mean that musicians and soldiers are ‘collectivists’ who cannot think independently. On the contrary, perhaps humans have a need to balance collectivism and individualism. Research evidence about how good people feel singing in a choir can be so interpreted. In a choir, the point is to strive to blend together different voices into a choral sound. If the singers are talented, and the conductor has the musical expertise and authority to lead, the experience can be almost spiritual. Maybe it's not just down to the music's healing power, but the atomised modern man's joy in a moment where he gets to be part of a whole that is greater than the individual.

That one, in a hierarchical organisation, is part of a whole, means one’s integrity is intact and that one doesn’t need to be friends with the boss, "fit into the gang", or advertise one’s personality – I think leads to two things: a generally better psychosocial work environment (workplace bullying, as mentioned earlier, occurs frequently in female-dominated workplaces with unclear leadership). And also that one has the energy to actually be a "unique, independent individual" when one is not at work. What if the parties are shrinking because more people have jobs where they have to show commitment to the values ??and the leader? There will be more desire for political evening meetings after a working day at the lathe, than after a working day of ideology-soaked teamwork. The latter is already like a party meeting.

Naturally, it is good that many authorities have been kicked off their pedestals. Hardly anyone wants to return to a society where the priests kept the people in their severely moral grip, or where the king, the mill owner or officer could commit abuses by virtue of their authority.

The question is what we get instead. I am in fact saying that the anti-authoritarian society is a myth, as some always decide more than others. Therefore, I think it's better to have clear, transparent hierarchies, so that everyone knows who is the boss and that he or she can be limited, be held accountable and, if necessary, be replaced.

Another question is what happens to those in power, the elites, when they do not need to account for and take responsibility for their power. My understanding is that ‘good’ authority is based on knowledge and experience, i.e., meritocracy.

But in The Elites’ Rebellion and the Betrayal of Democracy, Christopher Lasch criticises this meritocracy. He argues that, in earlier times, inherited authority worked better because the one who inherited the authority also inherited the realisation of the responsibilities and obligations that came with it. Today's meritocratic elites are disconnected from this; they do not care about the people or the employees that are their responsibility and only look after their own interest. Today's elites believe they have no obligations to anyone, because they have worked themselves into their positions, according to Lasch.

I think that, in those cases where inherited authority worked well, the reason was that the heir acquired the right knowledge and experience. At the same time, Lasch is right that there are many elite representatives who seem to view their personal welfare as superior to that of their voters, employees or customers.

The solution is not to go back to inherited authority. When authority is inherited, children are raised to take responsibility, regardless of whether they inherit the throne or work in a field. Today, many children are raised, regardless of their descent, to think that the one who reaches an elite position can escape liability by claiming that we live in an anti-authoritarian society. But, with clear hierarchies, the limitation and accountability of elites can compensate for the lack of education in responsibility.

The best thing, of course, would be if all children were brought up to take responsibility. But this requires us to puncture the myth of the anti-authoritarian society. Parents must dare to be authorities if they are to raise children, and they must be recognised as authorities by their surroundings. Education cannot be replaced by democratic votes or market payments.

When such education does not occur, because it is considered ‘undemocratic’, people grow up without training their civilised abilities (responsibility, sense of duty, morality, reason). Therefore, a displaced civil society can eventually damage the other social arenas: the state and market. Their functionality is based, of course, on civil society doing its job of raising trustworthy citizens.

Arguing for clearer authority, therefore, has two dimensions. In politics and business there must be clear authorities so that they can be scrutinised and criticised, so that democracy can work. In civil society, the authorities must be recognisable and be clear, precisely because they are not part of the democracy. If civil society's authority figures become clear, we can puncture the myth that everything can be democratic. But, most importantly, we can make possible the education that is a prerequisite for continued civilisation.

NR 4 2014

Axess Magasin

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