Yesterday, I talked about what distinguishes dictatorship from authoritarian government. You can have authoritarian institutions in a democratic government, which I know can seem intuitively weird.
But I came of age through the W Bush Presidency, so I saw this paradox in full force. Elections continued, different old and new media companies warred on each other, congressional majorities were toppled.
committed massacres and war crimes there. President Bush the Elder began over-arming local police forces with surplus military vehicles and weapons.
So authoritarianism is more than dictatorship. Yet the two share so much in common. Trying to parse the differences that count can be confusing. And in today’s political climate, your opponents often exploit your confusion on some points to delegitimize everything you say. So let’s be careful.
Félix Guattari’s concepts from his philosophical inquiries into politics, communication, and political economy can help us here. It starts with how he developed his concept of semio-capitalism.
It's an annoying word, but it does describe an important current of the global economy today. Individual acts of communication are directly monetized. Because money can be made from acts of communication, we’re encouraged to communicate constantly.
As more information flows through our networks, it generates more capital for the companies that control those networks – the hardware like cables and servers, the software like social networking sites and messaging apps.
A lot of the capital communication generates remains pretty concentrated – compare the fortunes of Mark Zuckerberg or Microsoft to the income of even a pretty top-of-the-heap YouTube celebrity. But this media environment can be a very democratic field. If we understand democracy in its sense of (generally) productive social conflict and chaos.
As most of us know by now, radically anti-democratic forces have had remarkable political success by organizing through high-intensity, decentralized communication networks.
But their success was contingent – a very complicated history that required a lot of luck to unfold as it did. There were some elements in the movement – like the anarchist ideologies of many Anonymous hackers – that could have harnessed themselves in radical democratic fashion.
What makes it ironic? Return to the nature of communication in dictatorial governments. In straight-up dictatorships, as I said yesterday, the directives of the Leader are translated into orders for the relevant institutions, corporations, and citizens. The primary mode of communication is the order.
That’s what brings straightforward dictatorship into the same category as the more insidious form of authoritarian government that can happen in democratically-run institutions. Police and military institutions also issue directives that are to be followed as orders.
The only difference between a dictator and an authoritarian institution is that the orders of a dictator come from a person, and the orders of an institution come from an office. Legitimacy of directives in dictatorship depends on who speaks. Legitimacy of directives in authoritarian institutions depends on what speaks.
Authoritarian communication is inherently about transmitting and following orders. What are the conditions for this kind of political communication to work properly? The most important one is clarity. The directives need to be understood comprehensively, never misunderstood, if the authority of a dictator or an authoritarian institution is to be followed properly.
But the communication networks of semio-capital – of monetized, scale-free, decentralized networks – are purposely chaotic. Control, uniformity, and clarity of messages is damn near impossible in such an environment. Just ask any corporate public relations worker whose branded promotional tweets provoke a firestorm of insults, jokes, and brand failures.
The problems of modern capitalism – at heart – flow from the problems of oligarchy. The concentration of wealth, material power, riches, property of all sorts, and prestige among a small group of people, while the vast majority have to struggle and suffer for ever-more-meagre earnings.
But the capitalization of communications did result in an inoculation against state or corporate authoritarianism. In the productive chaos of modern communication networks, people themselves produce so much noise around authorities’ directives that clarity – and so following orders – becomes practically impossible.