Undefining Authoritarianism

I just saw a very interesting paper by Jennifer London at the 2014 meeting of AALIMS, entitled “Understanding Authoritarianism as a Dynamic Category of Practice: Ibn al-Muqaffa‘’s Legacy for the History of Political Thought.” (It is not for distribution, but you can find it if you look.) The paper argues against an interpretation of authoritarianism as a category in the standard positivist sense, but rather as a dynamic category of practice (in the Brubaker sense), and does this through a close analysis of how one particular author conceptualized order and rulers’ divine authority (farr).

What I found interesting is the effort to critique the use of authoritarianism as a category of analysis. The targets of this critique are actually pretty old by now, because in the past 20 years, among political scientists, the word authoritarianism has actually lost meaning. It was once the case that authoritarian regimes were understood to be regimes with particular features. This is the case, for example, in Linz’s Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes.

Political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism, without elaborate and guiding ideology, but with distinctive mentalities, without extensive nor intensive political mobilization, except at some points in their development, and in which a leader or occasionally a small group exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones.

Linz was clear that authoritarianism needed a definition: it was not the residual category of all regimes that are neither democratic nor totalitarian. However, his definition of authoritarianism has disappeared in the contemporary literature. In the newest literature on authoritarianism, there is no definition of authoritarianism itself, it is rather the category of all regimes that are not democracies. Authoritarian regimes = non-democratic regimes = dictatorships. In contrast to Linz’s positive definition, this is a negative definition.

There is a large and growing literature on varieties of authoritarian regimes (see my critical intervention here), but the definitions of these categories do not require a positive definition of authoritarianism itself. I’m not sure that it’s a problem that we no longer have a positive definition of authoritarianism, it strikes me as important to recognize that the definition has changed.