Paternalism and Anti-Authoritarian Authority

by Tom

Liberals despise paternalism like nature abhors a vacuum. But despite being lodged in the collective political imaginary, the metaphor of paternal authority is increasingly anachronistic and obfuscatory. In the seventeenth century, Robert Filmer’s identification of patriarchal and political power at least captured the reactionary ideological attractions of a political system notionally founded upon the individual sovereign authority of a monarch. Yet, as a concept of contemporary social analysis and criticism, it’s almost kitsch.

Capitalism’s deterritorialising tendencies — its militant indifference to traditional social structures when they are no longer exploitable for its ends, such that “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” — have catalysed the decline of the father who is sole breadwinner, public face and locus of power over his household. In other words, even paternalism in the family is no longer what it once was. Similarly, at the explicitly political level, economic and institutional globalisation has continued to corrode the power of human agency in general, let alone that invested in any single imperial figure who could act as a ‘Father of the Nation’. Thus, sentimental familialism hardly seems the best framework to understand the present production, structuration and legitimation of power.

Effusive criticisms of paternalism are not simply irrelevant, though. However inapt the vocabulary, the terrain upon which denunciations of paternalism take place is of paramount importance. At our latest Autonomy Project conference yesterday, Mark Fisher stressed the need for the left to think through an anti-authoritarian conception of authority. In this, I think he is absolutely correct; it’s the unconscious equation of authority with authoritarianism common to both anarchism and neo-liberalism which a modernist left-wing form of politics ought to contest.

We need to develop an alternative to both anarchism’s prefigurative politics and neo-liberalism’s institution of a sovereignty of desire. The former is gripped with a squeamishness about even democratic authority, and which coalesces around a paralysing obsession with anti-kyriarchicalism. Organisational mechanisms like consensus decision-making are lauded, but these are (at least, in my experience) liable to be a vehicle for those with the most social capital, bolstered by the very racial, gendered and (particularly) class privilege that they are nominally opposing. Adam Curtis’ recent oneiric documentaries — for all their other flaws — seemed to get this much right: it is no advance to replace formal democratic power with charismatic power which both produces and feeds on ressentiment.

It’d be disingenuous to draw a false equivalence between neo-liberalism and anarchism in their relationship to authority, but there are some convergences. Both are typically unduly suspicious of collective power that is irreducible to individualistic consent. Furthermore, I think that each fails to appreciate the extent to which public friction — blocks on what the individual chooses —  can be productive, and not simply destructive, of freedom and agency. Mark has previously put the point well in relation to neo-liberalism:

Neoliberal “choice” traps you in yourself, allowing you to select amongst minimally different versions of what you have already chosen; paternalism wagers on a different “you”, a you that does not yet exist.

In neo-liberal rhetoric, it is never countenanced that you might not know your own interests or be psychologically inhibited from pursuing them. Desires are sovereign, and any attempt to reshape these desires is  foreclosed — at least, outside of the pre-approved nexus of advertising, self-help and socialisation-porn TV, and the hectoring of an insufficiently ‘aspirational’  working class. To do so would be unduly paternalistic and ‘elitist’ — who are you to tell me what to want? Indeed, the tacit metaphysics of value here threatens to make the very idea of questioning the propriety of a desire not only arrogant but unintelligible. Thus, disastrously, the only legitimate authority is confined within libidinal circuits of the self.

What then is the alternative? Mark has proposed the formulation ‘democratic paternalism’ to name the end for which we should aim. He has been the first to recognise that the vocabulary is not entirely appropriate here, insofar as it symptomatically echoes the moribund form of paternalism which we need to reconfigure. I think the thought is still sound though, namely that we should embrace institutions and practices that can shape and socialise people in progressive ways, yet which are not themselves directed by a Leninist cadre but by the demos as a whole. Dan Hind’s proposals for public commissioning of media is one fruitful model Mark has pointed to. Not only would this avoid the current full-spectrum dominance of the patronising ‘unpopular populism’ of trash TV and endless bloviated newspaper columns, but giving us power is also likely to edify our preferences — if we are choosing what media content is produced then it harder to disavow our consumption of effluent. In my research on mental disorder and autonomy, I’ve been trying to develop similar models with some my Autonomy Project colleagues: if institutions need to make decisions on people’s behalf due to their mental incapacity, then the conditions for a finding of incapacity need to be entirely transparent, contestable and accountable to the populations whose liberty is most at risk as well as wider society.

In sum, we ought to reassemble authority outside of its traditional paternalistic form and within functional institutions — thereby circumscribing the potential for its abuse — rather than abandoning this terrain to impersonal forces or agents with no such scruples. This will require much conceptual and moreover practical work, but it is better than trusting the magical intervention of markets or spontaneous self-organisation.