The Banality of Autocracy
by Michael Brenner on 31 May 2024 0 Comment

The title is a play on Hannah Arendt’s famous account of the Eichmann trial in 1966.


Every large, organized society is marked by lines of contention. The basis for that differentiation can be ethnic, religious, economic class, ascriptive status (caste), or ideological.  Today, in America, we are observing a new modality. It takes the form of a line of contention between those who hold positions of power /authority and those subject to its application.


So stated, there is nothing novel about this. The peculiar feature is a broad if loose sense of identification, and therefore, of empathy and support that cross all boundaries of organization: public or private, function /mandate, location in society. Simply put, there exists an implicit bond among those who exercise institutionalized power despite the absence of any designation, or even recognition of its existence.


This is a generalized phenomenon that has become pervasive throughout American society. Individual manifestations of a growing resort to arbitrary action by persons in leadership positions have not gone unrecognized by discerning observers. The scope and depth of this trend, however, eluded us. Now, shaken by the ruthless display of institutionalized force on the part of those suppressing dissent at our country’s complicity in a state’s mass murder, the scales are dropping. Reaction is still at the foghorn stage: something dangerous is out there. We need to focus the searchlight to get a fix on its qualities and meaning.


Two features immediately stand out: the uniformity in diverse places of the reactions to a surprising, bold type event; and the spontaneity of those reactions. They are not scripted or orchestrated by some superior person or authority. While the tone may be set by political elites, there is no centrally designed plan being implemented. Nor do these institutional leaders constitute a community in any conventional sense.


So, what is the common denominator among university authorities at different levels, politicos, media honchos, think tank commentators, Evangelical churches, police departments, and business moguls? That is a tricky question to answer. The heteroclite persons and groups noted share little – or anything - in the way of ideology, political program, ascriptive features, financial interests or partisan allegiance. In specific regard to the student demonstrations, most don’t even have pronounced views on the controversial matters at hand.


Whatever identifications or sympathies individual actors might have, they are less than compelling. We have no evidence of their being personally absorbed with Israel’s ambitions or the status of Jews in American society.  As for the plight of Palestinians: “That’s no concern of mine.” The irreparable damage done to the United States’ standing in the world?  “That’s a complex issue, above my pay grade.”


As for alleged anti-Semitism, it is the reddest of red herrings. Apart from the few predictable creeps, it hardly exists in today’s America. Jews’s integration into all spheres of American life is the cardinal truth. To speak of anti-Semitism at universities like Harvard or Columbia or NYU is the ultimate absurdity. To put it crudely, they are as “Jew-friendly” as you can imagine – outside of Brandeis and Yeshiva universities. Anyone who has had an association with one of the aforementioned institutions is fully aware of that.

Harvard, for its part, has had three (and a half) recent Jewish Presidents (including the current hardline interim President) along with Jewish Provosts and Deans. At Columbia, it is estimated that roughly 40% of the student protestors were Jewish – engaging in actions that a majority of the House of Representatives among other of our elites, nonetheless, officially have denounced as anti-Semitic.


[The issue of anti-Semitism has been grossly distorted by the successful campaign of Israel and its blind backers to instil the idea that criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism. The ancillary proposition that all true Jews are unwaveringly loyal to the Israeli state reinforces that canard. Unsurprisingly under these circumstances, there is an increase in the incidents of vulgar expression of antipathy toward one or another.]


The inescapable conclusion is that the wielders of institutional power are moved by a deep need to protect their personal position of authority per se. Everything else is secondary. Whatever the matter at issue, whatever their individual traits, they are driven to secure that status – all else is contingent. Even the oaths of office taken by those holding governmental positions are subordinate. Free Speech and Free Assembly may be rights engraved in the Constitution they are sworn to uphold, but those are abstract principles eclipsed by what they feel strongly is the imperative to conserve the discretionary power to act arbitrarily – a prerogative that is at the heart of their sense of worth.


To reiterate: in aggregate, these persons have no common cause, no common interest, no sense of community. They do serve as models for each other – wittingly or not, they do emulate each other, they encourage each other, they facilitate the acceptance of each other’s arbitrary behaviour every time one of them “gets away with it.” However, their actions are individual. In short, the narcissistic behaviour of a nihilistic society.


These persons know neither guilt nor shame; in this sense, they acknowledge no social norms whatsoever. What they do recognize is the power of others (e.g. Boards of Trustees /Regents, big donors, legislators) to inflict pain on them. They yield to external pressure as subordinates to dominants. But not to inner conscience or out of concern for whether they are respected by wider society. Hence, formal condemnation by a majority of faculty is brushed off like dandruff.


Hence, a university President can be rebuked to his face at a commencement ceremony by mass walkouts, by the vociferous condemnation of a student speaker, without blinking an eye. Indeed, proceeding according to the sterile script as if nothing is happening.* Oblivious to their public demeaning; for the only thing that counts is maintaining their grip on authority without countenancing dissent – dissent that by definition is illegitimate and lacking intrinsic meaning.


It follows that persons in authority distance themselves from criticism directed at other authoritative figures – except, of course, where there is direct competition as among politicos. Appeals to conscience fall on deaf ears; an ethic of responsibility to the public good exists only in the vapid rhetoric of hortatory speeches to alumni or to potential sources of financial largesse.


University Presidents refrain from pronouncing judgments on anyone or anything, with the exception of DEI issues. Leaders of the American Medical Association speak not a word about how the abusive practices of our for-profit medical system are denying access to or degrading health care. Leaders of the American Bar Association (and its strong state associations) are silent as the federal and state courts engage in grossly unprofessional and /or unconstitutional behaviour. Mainline religious denominations ignore compelling ethical questions raised by private or public actors at home and abroad (except for a select number of hobby horse issues). For all of these holders of positions of authority, leaving their comfortable institutional cocoons where self-regarding behaviour rules and is certified is no longer a natural action.


This trend will be accentuated and accelerated. It already is receiving powerful impetus from illicit doings at the highest political levels. There, audacious actions that know no limits or restraints are unravelling the fabric of our constitutional republic. Large segments of the Republican Party now reject the core precept that we abide by the outcome of elections. They declare themselves as bound only by their subjective judgments as to whether the process conforms with their biased view of ‘fairness’. Senior judges arrogate to themselves wide powers to tip the scales of justice in favour of their preferred parties.**


States pass a myriad of legislation that is unconstitutional on the face of it but manage to enforce it as the law of the land while the burden falls on plaintiffs to challenge it. The owners of social media forge a comprehensive apparatus that censors messaging – stigmatizing or banning outright even distinguished public figures who happen to violate the strict algorithm set boundaries of permissible speech, as set with the clandestine guidance of Washington security agencies. This self-granted mandate is accepted passively by our enfeebled civic community.


These practices in the abuse of authority, in the arbitrary application of institutional power, reverberate throughout society. Habituation to them works upwards as well as downwards. That is to say, persons whose life experience and observation are dominated by small bore instances of these abuses will find it normal to do the same when they attain high positions. At the moment, a generation of students’ encounter with the abusive use of arbitrary power is affecting how they will conduct themselves years from now – admittedly, some for the better; many for the worse.


The most consequential effects will not be structural - all the forms must appear to be the same so that the serious changes are veiled (to paraphrase The Leopard). Rather, it is the political culture that is undergoing radical transformation in the direction of unconstrained actions taken with impunity in a setting where accountability becomes more and more problematic. The software of our constitutional democracy is being hacked.



* Here is a video of that dramatic moment at the Harvard Commencement when the impressively articulate Valedictorian tore to shreds the interim President and other university dignitaries. While she herself cuts a very impressive figure, the most revealing feature of the video is the reaction of those very people seated a few feet behind her. Inert and unperturbed, they were numb. The only sign of animation is one of the worthies fiddling with the pages of the ring binder holding his speech – perhaps checking to make sure that it contains nothing that might be used against him by a Congressional Committee or the Corporation Governors. That picture of the vibrant young student juxtaposed to the uncomprehending visages of the Dead Souls says it all.


**The harsh reality is that some judges, from the Supreme Court downwards, are starting to resemble the stereotypical Southern magistrates of yesteryear who used the law as a tool for suppression and for entitlement.

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