Sunday, June 18, 2017

Holly Case: The new authoritarians

NB: An interesting argument, but I doubt if the distinction between old and new authoritarianism is valid. the nationalisms of eternal value etc are just as ideological and totalitarian in spirit and function as the system-building doctrines of nazism and stalinism. Thus, the author contends that "new authoritarianism was no longer going to be oriented toward the future and the creation of a ‘new man’, but toward the past: past glories, defeats, and ‘lessons’ of history. The future would be about defending against enemies of ‘national sovereignty’, and demonstrating strength through vanity projects of the leader.." Stalinist myth-making about Russia's great past has been researched - it's not correct to say that an obsession with history is specific to new rather than old authoritarianisms. And if you cast your gaze towards the Indian sub-continent, you'll find totalitarianian ideologies that are rooted in perverse historical consciousness, mix religion with national messianism, and serve it all with the promise of building a new man, handsome, virile, and steeped in national glory.

Totalitarian tendencies mutate according to the requirements of the time. Case's argument about the (mis)use of the term 'ideology' by contemporary dictators who denounce all democratic politics as outdated, is also interesting, but conflates 'ideology' with 'politics'. A critique of ideology - in contra-position to truth - is indeed necessary. Such critiques may be found in George Lichtheims essay on ideology; Leszek Kolakowski (whom the author cites) on Why ideology is always right in his Modernity on endless trial; ; and Alexander Koyre's 1945 essay on the modern lie. We may recall Hannah Arendt's warning: ‘totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man… It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form – though not necessarily the cruellest – only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past. The Origins of Totalitarianism (1948). DS

We might take the demonstrative demise of strongmen such as Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and – more recently and unobtrusively – Fidel Castro in Cuba to indicate that the day of the dictator has largely passed. Alas, authoritarianism is staging a comeback. Yet it is clear to poets and political scientists alike that the new authoritarians – Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary – are not like the old ones. In his recent poem ‘Some Advice for the New Government’, the poet Adam Zagajewski gave Poland’s newly elected cabinet some mock advice on how to be a new authoritarian:

All professors of constitutional law should be interned for life.
Poets can be left alone. No one reads them anyway.
You’ll need isolation camps, but gentle ones that won’t annoy the United Nations.
Most journalists should be sent to Madagascar.

These new strongmen seem milder, less openly brutal than the likes of Stalin or Hitler. In the words of the Austrian publicist and historian Hans Rauscher: ‘Brutal, naked mass violence against subjects is, at least in Europe and around Europe, no longer declared, insofar as Putins, Erdoğans, and Orbáns govern with the consent of a becalmed people, “freed” from all critical voices.’ But the difference goes well beyond their choice of whom to oppress and how.
The autocrat of the mid-20th century was a strict and demanding father out to shape you into an ideal. He wanted you to modernise, learn self-discipline and, above all, self-sacrifice. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk addressed soldiers during the Entente attack on Ottoman-held Gallipoli in 1915, he told them: ‘I am not ordering you to fight. I am ordering you to die.’ ‘In the Soviet army,’ said Stalin, ‘it takes more courage to retreat than to advance.’Tough love was thus the signature attribute of the 20th-century dictator.\

Even when he wasn’t demanding the ultimate sacrifice, he wanted you to lose a few pounds, mothball your fez, lay some more bricks, join a state-run youth organisation (or five), learn a new alphabet (or even a new language) and call it your own, memorise some poems, songs or passages penned by the supreme leader and call them ‘history’. Even democratic heads of state once had higher expectations of their citizenry. That line from John F Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech – ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ – now sounds like an admonition from an earlier, distant century.

And dictators undeniably wielded more power to transform their subjects during that era of greater expectations. The titles applied to them made it clear who was in charge: Mussolini was called Il Duce, Hitler der Führer, and Stalin Vozhd (the leader), Atatürk’s very name, granted uniquely to him in 1934, meant ‘father of the Turks,’ and paintings and statues offered idealised images of them all. Like a stern father, the dictator seemed to be everywhere at once: omniscient, omnipotent, omni-present, an Ersatz-god if ever there was one. His image was on the wall of every government office and every schoolroom, statues and busts of him adorned desks, nooks and squares, and everything from streets to towns to schools were named after him.
Bottom of Form

Today’s authoritarians, by contrast, expect very little of their ‘children’. They do not seek to transform their subjects or mould them into an ideal. They might lightly admonish them to stop smoking and drinking (Erdoğan), or to have more kids (Orbán, Putin, and Erdoğan), but they won’t generally send them to camps or prisons, or even tell them flat-out what to do or what to think. To be sure, some things are forbidden: trying to form an alternative fiefdom, initiating a coup, betraying the inner circle, etc. Try one of these and you will quickly learn that old-school tyranny still has its safe spaces. But if you criticise the government, its policies, or the person of the leader (especially in a place – such as Twitter or the international media – where someone might actually read it), you’re more likely to be trolled and harassed by the new authoritarian’s (often subsidised) supporters than sent to the mines… read more: