The Road to Authoritarianism

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” (Charles Dickens: The Tale of Two Cities)

The opening words of Dickens’ novel capture the situation today rather forcefully. Liberal democracy, which has seen many ups and downs since 1688, through 1776, 1789, the 1940s-50s and 1989, is facing an existential crisis circa 2021. Human society is no stranger to authoritarian domination but its creeping engulfment of liberal democracies one after another in the absence of major wars or other crises (barring possibly the COVID pandemic) threatens the values that inspired the numerous movements for self-determination over the last few centuries. An analysis of authoritarian trends, whether in religion, society or the polity, shows that four A’s (Abnegation, Ambition, Apprehension, Apathy) nourish the growth of the fifth A (Authoritarianism).

Abnegation

Whether in social groups, religious denominations, ‘godmen’ cults or nation states, surrender of the members is the first step towards the development of an authoritarian environment. Tribal and caste loyalties and the divinity ascribed to an omniscient being, ruler or ecclesiastical organisations were prominent in pre-industrial societies. Norms and rules ostensibly handed down by prophets served to keep the masses in thrall to those in authority, with no challenge to the established order. The ferment engendered in societies worldwide over the past two and a half centuries for the establishment of the values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity seemed to have ensconced the idea of liberal democracy as the guiding principle for nation states since the 1990s. The 2008 economic crisis and the failure of most liberal democracies to tackle growing economic inequalities in their societies, coupled with a growing disillusionment with the governing elites in most countries, have deepened insecurities and led to a desperate desire for a strong man (no woman currently in sight) in countries across different continents, ranging from Trump and Bolsonaro in the Americas to Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India and Duterte in the Philippines. “The leader can do no wrong” is the mantra chanted by the glitterati and the chatterati, with enough support from sections of the electorate to see the leader and his party safely home.

This phenomenon of surrender of one’s critical faculties is rooted to some extent in the authoritarian environment that obtains to a significant extent in families, the education system, religions and the workplace. But it is equally, if not more, a reflection of the deep insecurities that confront humans as they struggle to come to terms with their lives and the desperate need to entrust their ‘souls’ to a comforting, omniscient being or organisation. The terrifying prospect of a lonely contemplation of one’s existential dilemmas is mitigated, and even removed altogether, by participation in a group with a larger purpose. A messiah with whom one can lodge all one’s worries and anxieties is the path that most such souls crave for.

However, this Faustian bargain of complete surrender of one’s soul comes with the tag of unquestioned obedience and willingness to act according to the commands of the messiah and his organisation. We have been witness over the past century to millions of humans blindly obeying the diktats of autocrats, even if it meant the extermination of countless of their fellow humans. That this was seen in supposedly “rational” societies was bizarre; that we observe its continuance today in countries with a long history of liberal democratic practices indicates that basic human traits have undergone little change despite education and exposure to liberal, humanistic values.

Ambition

Sections of society feel that they never got their just due in a liberal environment. These could range from academics with a pronounced right-wing orientation (as in India) to disgruntled politicians in opposition parties to those in the permanent employment of government who are of the view that their talents were not recognised. However, there are also many other individuals, from sectors ranging from the media, entertainment, academics and the bureaucracy, who smell the coffee in hitching their stars to an ideology that loathes liberal democratic ideals and places emphasis on adherence to nationalism, in its narrowest, exclusivist sense. Expediency rules the day: echoing the mantras of the ruling dispensation and providing unquestioning (and unthinking) “intellectual” and administrative support to the ideas propounded by the ruling dispensation enable these individuals to rise to and continue in positions of power and influence in the ruling order of the day. But ambition, to be really successful, must be accompanied by a willingness, indeed a fanatical urge, to outdo other potential competitors in anticipating the wishes of the leader (what, in Nazi parlance, was termed working towards the Fuhrer). This includes blindly implementing hairbrained schemes of the leader, unquestioningly harassing dissenters and opponents of the regime and indulging, repeatedly, in nauseous and fulsome praise of the thoughts and actions of the leader.

Apprehension

In this third category fall those who, though not really sold on the vision of the leader and his party or not ambitious by nature, fear the adverse consequences of not being seen as loyal to the ruling regime. These could include bureaucrats who fear being sidelined or media tycoons who fear that action may be taken against their empires. This group includes many political leaders who, apprehending executive action against them, find it more convenient to join hands with the ruling party. It may also cover those who participate in activities approved by the regime to avoid being perceived as not sympathetic to the ruling ideology.

Apathy

By far the largest segment of societies moving towards authoritarianism comprises those who choose to distance themselves from taking any ideological position. Their horizon comprises themselves and their immediate families and they are unwilling to, in any way, be seen as supporting or approving actions that may be perceived as inimical to the interests of the ruling group. Their attitude manifests itself most starkly at election time, when they vote for the leader’s party without any real conviction or understanding as regards its programmes and ideas. They will parrot the WhatsApp views of their neighbours, family members and friends, who are enthusiastic votaries of the ruling ideology, though they themselves would be hard pressed to explain what it is about the ruling dogmas that attracts them. The Eichmanns of the world arise from this category: even when sending Jews to the gas chambers, he was not moved by any emotion but merely saw himself as efficiently executing his job.

When the above four categories of individuals predominate in a society (generally with a combination of more than one of the four traits), the descent down the abyss of authoritarianism can be fairly rapid, even though the warning signs were probably there for decades prior to the actual denouement. The consequences for liberal democracy can be disastrous. Institutions charged with maintaining checks and balances on unbridled executive power are the first victims, as the regime sets about stripping them of their powers and packs them with its apparatchiks. Civil society is the next target: a combination of saam-daam-dand-bheda is employed to persuade / purchase / dissuade / divide people in this sphere to ensure that no effective dissent remains to question the actions of the government of the day. The stage is then set for the executive to fashion laws and rules to meet its ends: the rule of law, as understood in a liberal democracy, ceases to operate.

The real tragedy lies in the ratchet effect of the change brought about in society. Societies that go through these traumatic transitions to authoritarianism find it much harder to reestablish a liberal democracy years later. Institutions, once destroyed, are not so easily established again. The psyche of a people that has undergone a metamorphosis from a liberal underpinning to an authoritarian grip will take years, if not generations, to change. After all, it has taken not even seventy years after the trauma of the Second World War (and thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall) for serious crises to develop in liberal democracies. How people endowed with wisdom and foresight handle this existential threat to liberal democracy will determine its trajectory for the rest of this century and probably future centuries.

4 responses to this post.

  1. What a beautiful and incisive analysis Ramani !! I have always enjoyed your writings and the thought behind those. May God bless you.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Varsha Joshi on December 9, 2021 at 9:57 am

    This is so well written and rational that the message leaves me profoundly disturbed.
    Where does one start to heal such a wounded system.
    Regards.

    Reply

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