The Seven Pillars of Authoritarianism

  • “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” – Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom, August 1914
  • “I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality…” – Goethe
  • “The river of fire flowed past the French Embassy whence, with heavy heart and filled with foreboding, I watched its luminous wake.” – Andre Francois-Poncet, Ambassador of France to Germany, quoted in William Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an autobiographical account of the exploits of British army man T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole in the 1962 David Lean starrer Lawrence of Arabia) draws its title from the Book of Proverbs. In todays’ world, the growth of authoritarianism in liberal democracies across America, Europe and Asia bring to mind the fateful words of the British Foreign Secretary, except that what we are increasingly witnessing is the feeble flickering and extinction of liberal democracy across the globe. This is by no means a Black Swan event; rather it reminds one of the frog getting roasted in increasingly hotter waters till it is too late to avoid the scalding. The path to authoritarianism is paved with the cobblestones of the veneer of democracy. What explains the inability of significant sections of the population in many liberal democracies to learn from past history? The answers lie in the seven modern pillars that support authoritarian structures.

  1. The need for an authority figure

Voltaire’s famous statement “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” can be paraphrased into its twenty-first century version “If a strong man does not exist, it is necessary to create one”. Human beings are exposed to authoritarian tendencies right from infancy – the family, education system, job hierarchies, religious dogma, fear of the police, etc. Independent thinking is punished at different stages of life, sometimes severely. Repeated chastisements, perceived or real, at the hands of an authority – father, teacher, boss at work, policeman, God – convince a very large section of humanity that it is better off submitting to a “superior” force. The myth of the need for a “strong” leader is built on the gradual erosion of religion as an institutional authority over the past four hundred years. With no traditional belief to cling to, the modern human has shifted his/her allegiance in the past few decades to either the different versions of Marxism or to those claiming to provide alternative spiritual paths.  The greater danger arises when this unquestioned submission to an authority figure transmutes into blind reverence, more so when the authority figure is a political leader. Dr. Ambedkar’s prescient warning of the dangers of going down this path find resonance in what goes on in a number of democracies around the world today: “Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

  1. Narrative based on a mythical past and a glorious future

The majority group which brings the leader to power needs to have a point of reference in the past when it was a dominant force and exercised firm control over society. Centuries when other groups exercised political and economic power have created bitterness in the minds and hearts of this group. Hence the hearkening back to a past that was perfect, one where milk and honey flowed in the land of one’s birth. The invader is blamed for all the infirmities that apparently hobble the majority community and prevent the nation from attaining its true pedestal in the world. This emphasis on the perfect past is buttressed by the contention that a glorious future awaits citizens of a culture who are proud of their superior heritage.

  1. Cashing in on insecurity and fear of the “other”

The failure of the neoliberal framework to address the problems of inequality and joblessness has led to disenchantment with existing governing elites and the yearning for a messiah who can lead the flock to the Promised Land. The messiah paints a picture of the rosy future s/he will bring about. Since the objective conditions that obtain in the economy and society are unlikely to bring about any appreciable improvement in the economic conditions of the populace, recourse is taken from the outset to identify an entity which is the ‘enemy’ of the dominant group that the messiah claims to represent. This ‘enemy’ could be one outside the country’s border, such as a hostile neighbour. But history and current events point to many instances where this ‘enemy’ is a group within the country’s borders, which aligns with the perceived ‘enemy’. This group is often a minority population, based on race, religion or ethnicity, which is accused of having received favoured treatment from political dispensations of the past. To these are added other sections of the ‘discredited’ elite, often liberals, intellectuals and academics.

  1. Working towards the leader

The task of the leader to achieve complete control is facilitated by factotums who anticipate every wish of their leader. The system operates on a logic where the leader does not have to spell out his/her wishes. Very often, the leader may not even be aware of the undemocratic excesses that are executed in his/her name. With the media being muzzled or playing to the tunes of the ruling regime and its leader, the ‘truth’ is often hidden from view. The political and administrative machinery strains its sinews to project the image of the leader as omniscient and omnipotent, even without any compulsion being exercised on it. Such ‘‘workers’’ fall in three categories. The first comprises those who blindly revere the leader. Nothing s/he does can ever be wrong. In this grouping are often those who have the intrinsic need for domination by a strong authority figure. It is not surprising that many who started their lives as ardent Marxist followers reach the extreme right wing recesses of the polity in their later years, as their need for authority trumps the use of reason and skepticism. The second group are the rank opportunists, who have perfected the art of switching masters during their tenures in politics, the bureaucracy, mass media or other civil society institutions. In the third category fall those who fear the adverse consequences of opposing the diktats of the state or voicing their opposition to patently illegal acts by organs of the state or non-state actors. When these three attitudes permeate those in the ruling elite, a situation develops where the decisions of a small coterie at the apex will be blindly obeyed without the rationale being questioned. This may well see repeated flip-flops in decision making, as inadequately thought out policies are first rushed through, then rolled back and finally implemented in a revised, piecemeal manner.

  1. Only doing my job, not aware of the larger picture

The Eichmann syndrome is very much visible in sections of the bureaucracy, including the police, which reassure themselves that they are only following orders. What they conveniently overlook is that these orders often violate not only existing laws but also constitutional principles, as well as eternal human values, which are the bedrock of a democracy. The political theorist Hannah Arendt has termed this phenomenon the “banality of evil”. Adolf Eichmann helped organise the deportation and mass murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime. As I have brought out in an earlier blog (The Evil That Men Do Lives In Them), “…Eichmann was no more than a mediocre bureaucrat executing as efficiently as possible the orders he received from above. It is chilling to contemplate that the Holocaust was the product of the thoughtless actions of numerous individuals: there was never any reflection by them on the consequences of their actions, no stirring of what we term as “the voice of conscience”. The Magistrate who blindly signs a proforma detention order or the police officer who registers a case on directions from others without ascertaining the true facts are symptoms of this malaise. The history of the forced sterilisations carried out by the bureaucracy and police in different parts of India during the 1975-77 Emergency period is still fresh in memory.

  1. Looking the other way

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” A democracy unravels through the indifference and inaction of the bulk of its citizens who rationalise their failure to protest or stand up for the truth by pointing to their insignificance and their inability to make any difference to the current state of affairs. This preoccupation with the future of oneself and one’s near and dear leads to a situation where the violation of the democratic rights of others and the emasculation of independent institutions charged with safeguarding democracy do not raise even a whimper. Such silence is seen as tacit support by those who seek to alter the democratic framework of society and emboldens them to pursue their goal of absolute control. It is reflective of modern societies that their educated, “intellectual” elites have little acquaintance with the Constitutions of their respective countries, leave alone having heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is as though overweening consumerism has consumed all the finer elements that comprise human existence.

  1. Destruction of the system of checks and balances                                             

            A major fallacy in many liberal democracies today is the mistaken perception that elections equal democracy. In actual fact, a democracy is better defined by the events that occur in the interregnum between two elections. Chief among the characteristics that constitute a democracy is the independence of institutions that act as a check on the arbitrary exercise of executive power — the judiciary, media and other statutory bodies that conduct elections and monitor the actions of the executive in different spheres. What marks out present day authoritarian regimes from those of the twentieth century, notably Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China, is their ability to control and manipulate independent institutions within the facade of a seemingly functional democracy. Elections are held regularly, there is a judicial system in place and the executive appears to function within the four corners of a constitutional structure. Institutional capture by the state (what some authors have termed as colonisation of the state) is revealed in the insidious manner in which independent institutions function. Whether motivated by adulation (for the ideology of the ruling dispensation), fear (of possible reprisal by the state) or anticipatory collaboration (in the expectation of future rewards), institutions hitherto deemed to be independent comply with the wishes of the government of the day. Ultimately, it is individuals who determine the strength of institutions and their ability to withstand the pressures of the executive. When individuals are compromised, either through blind belief, fear or prospects for self-advancement, institutional health suffers. Such a development during the tenure of a particular regime has its deleterious effects, which continue into the future and imperil the continuance of liberal democracy in a country.

Epitaph for liberal democracy?

            It is significant that the written Constitutions of the two largest democracies in the world — the United States of America and India — start with the words “We, the people”. Implicit in this is the clear assertion that it is the people of the country who have resolved to govern themselves in accordance with the provisions laid out in their Constitution. Both Constitutions stress the liberty of the Individual. In fact, the cornerstone of both the Constitutions is the centrality of the Individual, as against the age-old practice of giving the privileges of the social order primacy over individual rights. Securing these rights requires a vigilant citizenry, aware of and watchful over any transgression on these hard-earned rights. As the foregoing paragraphs bring out, it is the individual who will determine the character of democracy. When the individual chooses to forego this privilege, won after centuries of arduous struggle, it can truly be said that the death knell of twentieth century liberal democracy has been sounded.

13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by vijay kelkar on April 17, 2021 at 3:33 pm

    Dear Ramani ,A stirring piece , but despair not . India’s diversity plus her peasantry will be the saviour of India’s democracy .Regards  ,vijay kelkar 

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    Reply

  2. Posted by ashwinimehra on April 17, 2021 at 5:46 pm

    Exquisitely written! Very true. Thanks

    Reply

  3. Posted by Thanksy Thekkekara on April 18, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    Dear Ramani,
    This piece is an eye opener and so very relevant today.
    Congratulations!
    Regards
    Thanksy Thekkekara

    Reply

  4. Posted by Thanksy Thekkekara on April 18, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    Dear Ramani,
    This piece is an eye opener and so very relevant today.
    Congratulations!
    Regards
    Thanksy Thekkekara

    Reply

  5. Posted by Meenakshi Datta Ghosh on April 19, 2021 at 7:17 pm

    Posted by Meenakshi Datta Ghosh on 19th April 2021.

    Dear Ramani,
    A remarkably succinct piece of work. Enjoyed
    reading it. Congratulations
    Best wishes,
    Meenakshi Datta Ghosh

    Reply

  6. Posted by bch1950 on April 21, 2021 at 11:15 am

    Insightful as always!Hope you are keeping safe. Mumbai and Delhi se

    Reply

  7. Posted by Debashish Mitra on June 16, 2021 at 11:45 pm

    Excellent! 👍

    Reply

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