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Regular version of the site

Authoritarianism as the Opposite Pole of Postmaterialism

On April 10, Ronald Inglehart, founder of the World Values Survey and the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, delivered an honorary lecture at the LCSR’s 9th international seminar held as part of HSE’s XX April Academic Conference. The lecture addressed the roots of authoritarianism, its relationship to other widely investigated phenomena and its empirical linkage with contemporary politics.

Professor Inglehart demonstrated despite starting from very different theoretical bases, the Authoritarian Personality construct and Materialism/Postmaterialism tap the same underlying phenomenon, with  Postmaterialism being the opposite pole of Authoritarianism.  In economically advanced countries such as the U.S. and Canada, this Authoritarian/Postmaterialist variable plays a major role in generating support for xenophobic populist politicians. Moreover, Authoritarianism/Postmaterialism is closely linked with a phenomenon that has been measured by other investigators under such names as “Individualism-Collectivism,"  "Autonomy-Embeddedness" and "Tight-Loose cultures.”  Recent work by specialists in sociology, political science, evolutionary biology, economics, and anthropology  are producing converging findings that exploring the same underlying phenomenon, with high or low levels of this phenomenon being driven by the extent to which people grow up feeling that survival is uncertain, or that survival can be taken for granted.

Origins of authoritarianism

Evolutionary modernization theory holds that economic and physical insecurity are conducive to xenophobia, in-group solidarity, authoritarian politics and rigid adherence to traditional cultural norms-- and conversely that secure conditions lead to greater tolerance of outgroups, openness to new ideas and more egalitarian social norms.

It was natural for xenophobic and authoritarian tendencies to appear in pre-historic societies facing starvation, disease and violence. If there is just enough land to support one tribe and another tribe tries to claim it, survival becomes a zero-sum struggle and the tribe closes ranks behind a strong leader to present a united front against outsiders. Similarly, in the 1930s during the Great Depression, when people were literally starving to death, there was an outburst of authoritarianism around the world, leading to the rise of Hitler and fascist regimes.

High levels of economics and physical security in post-war era led to pervasive intergenerational cultural changes that reshaped the values and worldviews of the general public, bringing a shift from materialist to post-materialist values with a heavy emphasis on gender equality, environment protection, democracy, and tolerance for LGBT and immigrants. It has been proven that security from survival threats such as starvation, war and diseases, largely shapes a society’s norms and institutions.

Who gains from economic prosperity

Today, the economies of most high-income countries appear to be doing well with GDP per capita rising. However, the gains are going overwhelmingly to the top 10%. There is a huge and growing disparity between the country’s per capita income and its median income. Simply put, when Bill Gates walks into a hotel, the per capita income of the people of that hotel may quintuple, while their median income increases only slightly.

This trend is especially prominent in developed high-income countries that have transitioned to the knowledge society and have consequently become ‘winner takes all’ societies. As a result of technological innovations, secure well-paid jobs are getting scarcer across the board, with this trend now encompassing such industries as law, medicine, journalism, academic life, etc. This unforeseen component of the knowledge economy brings a huge rise in inequality and consequently rapidly declining feeling of security.

Emotional reaction

It appears that authoritarian reflex kicks in when survival stops being taken for granted. Vulnerability to infectious diseases, for instance, has been shown to be linked with collectivist attitudes, xenophobia and low support for gender equality, all of which hinder the emergence of democracy.

This authoritarian reflex is hardly a rational response but rather an emotional one that was built into people at the time when it was rational - at the beginning of human history. It is deeply rooted in psychodynamics and is by no means a cognitive process. Essentially, people have been misled to believe that an authoritarian leader will help them.

Surveys conducted recently in several countries explored the connection between authoritarianism and populism, finding that people with authoritarian values are far more likely to vote for populist and xenophobic leaders or parties, such as Brexit or Donald Trump.

Older generations that have seen a drastic decrease in their real income and job security tend to shift towards the authoritarian end of spectrum. At the same time, younger people adhering to post-materialist values will most probably vote for a liberal / democratic candidate and are generally more tolerant to diverse cultures.

Such attitudes can be explained by them experiencing relatively high levels of security during their formative years

What is even more important, is that the vote for authoritarian leaders is largely xenophobia-driven. This new wave of xenophobia has been brought on by an unprecedented flow of immigration of diverse cultures and rapid cultural change. Xenophobic surge can be observed even in countries such as Sweden or the Netherlands that have wide social security nets and are generally successful in ensuring better economic equality, which in theory should guarantee a high level of security and therefore high tolerance.

What’s the solution?

To reverse the political situation it is imperative for the younger generation to vote more actively—in recent years, members of the older generations have been much likelier to vote—and to vote for xenophobic authoritarian populist  leaders.

Even more basically, governments need to make changes in allocating the national income to create useful jobs in improving the environment, providing better pre-school child care, better education at all levels, comprehensive health care, and research and development, reallocating resources to improve the quality of life for everyone, rather than continuing the trend toward growing enrichment of the top one percent.

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