Monday 18 October 2021

On the Appeal of Authoritarianism — and Its Risks


On March 30th, Hungary's populist leader, Viktor Orbán, obtained the indefinite recognition of special powers from his parliament, to the shock of many in Europe, and indeed in Hungary

By Keith Tidman

Authoritarianism is back in fashion. Seventy years after the European dictators brought the world to the brink of ruin, authoritarian leaders have again ascended across the globe, preaching firebrand nationalism. And there’s again no shortage of zealous supporters, even as there are equally passionate objectors. So, what has spurred authoritarianism’s renewed appeal? Let’s start by briefly looking at how authoritarianism and its adversarial ideology, liberal democracy, differ in their implied ‘social contract’.


One psychological factor for authoritarianism’ allure is its paternal claims, based on all-powerful, all-knowing central regimes substituting for the independent thought and responsibility of citizens. Decisions are made and actions taken on the people’s behalf; individual responsibility is confined to conformance and outright obedience. Worrying about getting choices right, and contending with their good and bad consequences, rests in the government’s lap, not in the individual’s. Constitutional principles start to be viewed as an extravagance, one that thwarts efficiency. For some people, this contract, exchanging freedom for reassuring paternalism, may appeal. For others, it’s a slippery slope that rapidly descends from the illiberalism of populists to something much worse.


Liberal democracy is hard work. It requires accountability based on individual agency. It requires people to become informed, assess information’s credibility, analyse arguments’ soundness, and arrive at independent choices and actions. Citizens must be vigilant on democracy’s behalf, with vigilance aided by the free flow of diverse, even contentious, ideas that enlighten and fill the intellectual storehouse on which democracy’s vibrancy depends. Often, individuals must get it right for themselves. They bear the consequences, including in their free and fair choice of elected representatives; ultimately, there are fewer options for offloading blame for bad outcomes. The rewards can be large, but so can the downsides. Constitutional bills of rights, the co-equal separation of powers, and the rule of law are democracy’s valued hallmarks. There’s likewise a social contract, though with allowance for revision to account for conditions at the moment. For many people, this model of democratic governance appeals; for others, it’s disorderly and ineffectual, even messy.


It requires only a small shift for the tension between authoritarianism and the personal agency and accountability of liberal democracy to end up tilting in authoritarianism’s favour. Individual perspectives and backgrounds, and particular leaders’ cult of personality, matter greatly here. With this in mind, let’s dig a bit deeper into what authoritarianism is all about and try to understand its appeal.


Authoritarianism was once seen more as the refuge of poor countries on far-away continents; nowadays we’ve witnessed its ascendancy in many developed nations too, such as in Europe, where the brittleness of former democracies snapped. Countries like Russia and China briefly underwent ‘liberal springs’, inquisitively flirting with the freedoms associated with democracy before becoming disenchanted with what they saw, rolling back the gains and increasing statist control over the levers of power. In other countries, what starts as extreme rightwing or leftwing populism, as in some quarters of Asia and Central and South America, has turned to authoritarianism. Strongmen have surrounded themselves with a carefully chosen entourage, doing their bidding. Security forces, like modern-day praetorians, shield and enforce. Social and political norms alter, to serve the wishes of centralised powers. It’s about power and control; to be in command is paramount. Challenges to officialdom are quick to set off alarms, and as necessary result in violence to enforce the restoration of conformity.


The authoritarian leader’s rationale is to sideline challengers, democratic or otherwise, turning to mock charges of fraudulence and ineptness to neutralize the opposition. The aim is structural submission and compliance with sanctioned doctrine. The leader asserts he or she ‘knows best’, to which flatterers nod in agreement. Other branches of government, from the legislature to the courts and holders of the nation’s purse strings, along with the country’s intelligentsia and news outlets, are disenfranchised in order to serve the bidding of the charismatic demagogue. Such heads of state may see themselves as the singular wellspring of wise decision-making, for some citizens raising the disconcerting spectre of democratic principles teetering in their supposed fragile balance.


Authoritarian leaders monopolising the messaging for public consumption, for the purpose of swaying behaviour, commonly becomes an exercise in copycatting the ‘doublespeak’ of George Orwell’s 1984: war is peace; slavery is freedom; ignorance is strength (slogans inscribed by the Party’s Ministry of Truth). Social activism is no longer brooked and thus may be trodden down by heavy-handed trusted handlers. Racism and xenophobia are ever out in front, as has been seen throughout Europe and in the United States, leading to a zealously protective circling of the wagons into increased sectarianism, hyper-partisanship, and the rise of extremist belief systems. In autocracies, criticism — and economic sanctions or withdrawal of official international recognition — from democracies abroad, humanitarian nongovernmental organisations, and supranational unions is scornfully brushed aside.


Yet, it may be wrong to suggest that enthusiasts of authoritarian leaders are hapless, prone to make imprudent choices. Populations may feel so stressed by their circumstances they conclude that a populist powerbroker, unhampered by democracy’s imagined rule-of-law ‘manacles’, is attractive. Those stresses on society might range widely: an unnerving haste toward globalisation; fear of an influx of migrants, putting pressure on presumed zero-sum resources, all the while raising hackles over the nation’s majority race or ethnicity becoming the minority; the fierce pitting of social and political identity groups against one another over policymaking; the disquieting sense of lost cohesion and one’s place in society; and a blend of anxiety and suspicion over unknowns about the nation’s future. In such fraught situations, democracy might be viewed as irresolute and clogging problem-solving, whereas authoritarianism might be viewed as decisive.


Quashing the voice of the ‘other social philosophy’, the ‘other community, the ‘other reality’ has become increasingly popular among the world’s growing list of authoritarian regimes. The parallel ambiguous wariness of the pluralism of democracy has been fueling this dynamic. It might be that this trend continues indefinitely, with democracy having run its course. Or, perhaps, the world’s nations will cycle unevenly in and out of democracy and authoritarianism, as a natural course of events. Either way, it’s arguable that democracy isn’t anywhere nearly as fragile as avowed, nor is authoritarianism as formidable.



Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith.

In my view, the danger of authoritarianism of all kinds is that it creates a bottleneck for information, and information is what one needs in order to govern in a way that ensures social and environmental balance. An information bottleneck would be characterised by your description of authoritarian governments as ‘all-knowing central regimes’, which hinder ‘the free flow of ideas’.

Perhaps it’s the age-old temptation to think, ‘I know better,’ and with that, the fear of surrendering oneself to the ideas of those who (one thinks) might not.

I would add theocracy to the mix, since they also create information bottlenecks, and democracies which mask authoritarianism. They have some sly ways of doing that. I would consider that I live in such a democracy.

Keith said...

One of my peeves, even in democracies, builds on your point, Thomas, about ‘information bottlenecks’: that is, the too-often intolerance for ideas that run counter to presumed orthodoxy, even in the halls of academia. Professors and students have been known to censure contrary points of view by denying certain speakers the opportunity to appear on campus unharassed. Surely, if there’s anything that contradicts the principles of democracy it is the ‘fear of ideas’ and denial of access to the podium — an authoritarian-styled disavowal of the fundamental right of freedom of speech. The ‘information bottlenecks’ of which you speak. If there’s any place ideas should flow easily, it’s universities, where young people ought to be urged to be intellectually curious, and given the opportunity to critically analyse a rich cross-section of points of view, even those that might make one feel uncomfortable.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

As seminary students in Africa and Europe, we would take up contrary positions, and radical ones, to stir up debate (and no doubt attract some attention). I wouldn't dare to do that now.

As a seminary student in the USA, my first lecture was on Critical Openness, by Prof. Richard Erickson. I keep a copy of his lecture. The argument ran something like this: all our sins are forgiven, therefore there is no sin to be committed in debate. One should not be afraid to share even erroneous views.

docmartincohen said...

The feeling I get from this is that the freedom to think requires access to unfiltered information from whichever viewpoint you choose to investigate. It is this ability to choose the question you want to ask that is most challenged by today's societies, so adept and sophisticated in feeding us information - yes - but information that has been already shaped to perform a particular task. I was reading a book by some rather partisan philosopher-historians, pursuing a very clear agenda, but on one point I agreed with them: the things that we call philosophical theories are also political programmes… world views that we imbibe whole without being able to step outside them.

Thus, today, the emphasis in authoritarian societies - which yes, seem to have spread across the world (starting with Francis Fukuyama's earnest praise of the triumph of democracy! - on control of the media and also - let us not forget - education.

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