On March 23, 2020, Boris Johnson declared a de facto state of emergency in Britain. Despite the gravitas the then-prime minister knew he was supposed to project, Johnson was unable to keep a smirk from creeping onto his face. Retrospectively, this hint of unseriousness anticipated “Partygate,” the scandal that would doom Johnson’s premiership: Even as his government obliged citizens to cancel their Christmas gatherings over the winter of 2020, it was later revealed, Johnson and his associates held a series of festive gatherings at 10 Downing Street.
Similar incidents, in which leaders disregarded the harsh policies they had imposed on the populace, occurred everywhere from California to Canada to Austria; again and again, world leaders were photographed removing the masks that they forced on us as soon as a photo op concluded. In other words, the aspiring authoritarians of the Covid era lacked all authoritativeness. Nevertheless, they wielded enormous power that was widely, if not universally, obeyed. Older authoritarian ideas of the flawless leader are a thing of the past; we now confront the authoritarianism of the imperfect leader struggling, and often failing, to live up to his own strictures.
To be sure, this new model of authority is also in evidence beyond the political realm—for instance, in the workplace. We are now faced with the phenomenon of CEOs crying while announcing layoffs, seemingly in an attempt to reveal their vulnerability and that they are “normal people.” As Ashley Frawley has documented, the mainstreaming of mindfulness as a managerial technique is dependent in part on accepting a key article of faith: Everyone is flawed and in deep need of understanding and encouragement to reflect and improve.
Such deployments of “the strength of weakness” by authority figures may seem counterintuitive, but on one level, they have an obvious cynical logic: It is more difficult to criticize someone who preemptively owns up to his own weaknesses, even if he does so in a disingenuous way. In the political realm, however, the self-disavowal of authority is symptomatic of deeper shifts.
In Europe and Britain, this paradoxical new mode of rule, in which the rulers repudiate or undermine their own authority, emerged out of the material transformation of the structure of states and the political relations that constitute them. Following the defeat of the organized working class in the 1980s, the European Union represented the particularly European institutionalization of that defeat. Nations no longer derived authority from their citizens, but from their membership in the bloc. Or as Chris Bickerton has put it, the European Union shifted the site of political relations within the state from nation-states, characterized by strong “vertical” relations of political representation between citizens and governments, into member-states, dominated by “horizontal” relations between national elites and their foreign counterparts.
A similar transformation, in which authority is outsourced to multinational organizations, has occurred unevenly across the world; the European Union is only a particularly egregious manifestation. The increasing orientation of ruling elites to transnational policy networks such as the European Union provided a way to rule what Peter Mair called “the void”: the political vacuum left by the hollowing out of entities like mass-membership political parties and trade unions, where political participation and representation of broad interests had previously occurred. As the basis of authority shifted away from the old “smoke-filled rooms” of domestic interest representation toward diplomatic forums and “global civil society,” the state’s political authority with the population inevitably waned.
As political representation has decayed, and the locus of authority has shifted outside the nation, more and more citizens have ceased to feel that laws or policies are in any sense theirs. Instead, they experience these as mere impositions. Governments become ever more authoritarian but also lack the authority that comes from meaningful citizen representation. This authority-lite form of rule can persist only by excluding alternatives to the status quo—recall Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” to neoliberalism—and through the politics of fear.
This is why the shift from the laissez-faire “post-political” era that began in the 1990s to the draconian Covid measures was, in retrospect, so seamless. Because the representational basis of the state’s authority had collapsed, there was no one to stand up for the people who would obviously be harmed by lockdowns, because their interests were simply no longer represented in policymaking. Instead, governments and experts consulted other governments and their experts, justifying their policies with reference to “the Science.”
The erosion of political representation also helps explain the crucial role of the official promotion of fear. Importantly, this wasn’t the fear promoted by classical authoritarianism: the fear of external enemies, paired with the fear of state coercion in response to any dissent. Instead, our outsourced authoritarianism now promotes, above all, fear of other citizens, as spreaders of a respiratory virus or of viral “misinformation.” In the final analysis, it is the same fear that underlies contemporary anxieties about the climate: fear, that is, of the effects of other citizens’ supposedly excessive reproduction and consumption. The problem, ultimately, is other people, and the answer, yet again, is to cede more power to experts and multinational oversight entities.
Our states are able to behave in ways that really are authoritarian, but they do this without authority. This is a paradoxical situation, where citizens’ rule-following lacks a secure political foundation. It also goes some way to explaining the rapidity and relative ease with which Covid rules were imposed. People wanted to be good citizens by following meaningful and rational rules, which is precisely one of the things they are deprived of by the current order. Hence we saw in Britain a groundswell of popular will to act rather than passively accept lockdowns, with nearly a million people signing up in just a few days for a “volunteer NHS army” (which was never meaningfully deployed by the government).
Britain’s Covid experience threw into especially stark relief the difficulty of escaping the new mode of authority. The country’s withdrawal from the European Union—promoted, above all, as a means of “taking back control” over the nation from foreign entities—was finalized just over a month before the pandemic was declared. Even so, British Covid policies took the same shape as they did across most of Europe. Britain continued to act as a member-state after formally leaving the European Union, with the government taking its policy lead not from any internal political process, but from the actions of other governing elites. What this proves is that even if EU member-statehood evolved as a way of managing the problem of decayed political authority, Brexit was only a necessary condition of solving the underlying problem, not a sufficient solution in itself.
Contemporary authoritarianism grows in proportion to the decline of political representation. The only antidote to our authoritarianism without authority isn’t a politics of “resistance” or anarchistic disavowals of authority, but a positive project that looks to rebuild authority on the only stable basis: citizens’ desire to collectively self-rule and take control of our lives together.