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The lure of authoritarianism

This blog posts begins with the user-posted question : "is authoritarianism EVER justifiable? (like now in a pandemic)"

Before I begin my reply, I'd ask you to guess what my reply will be, in the scale of YES / NO. Two possible answers, which one is Erkka going to pick? Yup, the answer is yes. Authoritarianism is justifiable, because it is possible to present a story which justifies authoritarian rule. For the sake of example, let me introduce three easy stories, each of them adequately and competently justifying authoritarian way of organizing a human society;

Story 1. The success of any project is determined by the skills of the persons carrying out the project. And organizing a human society, making decisions and dictating laws - that is a fundamental project because without such measures we would collapse into chaos. Therefore the rules need to be dictated by the skilled. And skills, they are like gifts, a gifted person is a skilled person. As we all know, gifts are like presents, delivered by Santa Claus riding a sleigh. In front of the sleigh there are reindeers, and the leader of the reindeers is Rudolph The Rednose Reindeer. Rudolph knows where to go, so he goes first and the rest of the reindeer follow. That way they successfully carry out the incredible complex task of delivering Christmas presents to all around the world. Santa and Rudolph know how to deliver gifts. And here am I, the supreme leader of our human society, the authoritarian leader, and I'm a justified leader because Santa said so. I was delivered this gift, this present. No lesser mortal should question this wisdom, for this is the ever-lasting mythological order of things. People get to keep the presents delivered to them. I was delivered the gift of being a skilled supreme leader, I am Rudolph The Rednose of humans, everyone follow me!

Story 2. If you start stacking stones, you will eventually have a heap of stones, in a shape more or less resembling a pyramid. In a pyramid there will always be the topmost stone, one single stone at the peak. Therefore a human society must have a top as well. The king. A stable society is organized into a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, and on top of the hierarchy there is the supreme ruler whose authority should not be questioned by the inferiors.

Story 3. One there were three stray cats. One of them played a violin, the second played a drum, and the third was a judge. A long long time ago, approximately on 31st of December 1999, the cats stumbled upon a capital city of a great country. The first cat played a violin, the second cat played a drum, and the third cat pointed at a former Secret Police officer and declared: "This person here is going to be the unquestioned supreme leader of this great country. This is a fact, hereby declared by Me, The Judgemental Cat, and no human being should question this!". The person who got pointed at nodded in agreement and went ahead to become the authoritarian ruler of that country.

All of these stories are logically sound, offering a clear justification for there being an authoritarian leader for this or that country. But what happens if a citizen of this or that country happens to doubt the given story? What if one says: "This story is just silly!". Well, in an already established authoritarian society the regime has means of silencing the rebels who dare to question the authoritarian hierarchy. Treason is the worst of crimes, a good citizen is a loyal patriot! So, the problem with authoritarianism is that no matter how silly the stories used to justify it, the structures of economical and political power are so built that they can ultimately be backed by violence. The nature of authoritarian rule is not to ask for justifications. Once established, the authoritarian regime is willing and able to justify itself simply by saying: "Either you obey or face the unfortunate consequences!" This is said using more or less concealed metaphors, but the basic message is always the same, no matter the type of authoritarian rule.

So, for the sake of the story, let us assume that even though authoritarianism can be justified by some silly story, we happen to feel that we don't want it. Then what is non-authoritarianism? If we topple the tyrant, if we jail the king, then we do have liberty and power to the people, right? I mean, in the real world, if we want to get rid of thing X, we often need to replace it with something else. Sickles got abandoned once scythes became available, and scythes got abandoned when horse-pulled machines arrived, and horses got abandoned when tractors came, and eventually a number of old-fashioned machinery got replaced by the modern combined harvester. So, if you are a primitive farmer using a sickle to harvest your crops, you can't just say: "Can a sickle be justified? I don't like this sickle, it is boring and hard work. I will throw away this tool, for this tool is oppressing me!" Or, of course you can always say that and ditch the sickle. But if you can't replace the sickle with anything better, then your options are: to harvest with your bare hands, or using a simple knife, or quit eating crops and go back to hunting, fishing and gathering wild wood. Notice that I'm not saying that any of those options would be morally superior or inferior. Sickles and combined harvesters are just different means of doing the same work, the one is slow and depends a lot of working hours, and the other is quick and efficient but depends on a supply chain of manufacturers producing the machinery and spare parts and fuel etc.

Using this metaphor, let us assume that there are different ways of organizing a human society. If one way doesn't work, it needs to be replaced by something else. So the big question with authoritarianism is: Does it work? Can it be replaced by something else? If so, what is that 'something else'?

Let me tell another story;

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There was a big rowing boat powered by pairs of slaves operating the oars. The boat was commanded by a captain who decided where to go. They rowed from a coastal city to another, buying and selling stuff. The captain gave the rowers just barely enough food to keep them alive. The rest of the profit he kept for himself. But slowly the rowers started to question this order of things. They started to secretly whisper each other: "This can't be right! We need to topple the tyrant!". So they did, in a seemingly spontaneous uprising they overthrew the captain and celebrated their freedom and liberty. First they agreed to share the profits evenly for everyone. Then they started to discuss where to row next. Each had an opportunity to voice their opinion. And they all had differing opinions. They kept on discussing and arguing without reaching a conclusion, until the boat drifted ashore. There was no coastal city there, just plain desert. "This doesn't work!" they said. So, instead of an endless discussion they agreed to hold an election to choose a new captain. They decided a rule that each month there will be a new election so that a bad captain would be replaced by a better one. That way any captain has an incentive to serve the best purposes of all the rowers, hoping to get re-elected instead of replaced.

After the first free election the new captain decided they go to Aborrstad to buy dried fish. They rowed with joy, a month passed and they had not yet reached Aborrstad. A lot of rowers were unhappy, so they elected a new captain. The new captain decided they go to Zachol to trade glass beads for high profit. Dreaming of those huge profits the rowers kept on rowing. After a month the captain told them cheerful stories of the immense profits waiting for them in port of Zachol, and they re-elected the captain. But after another month of rowing they were still in the middle of the sea with no sight of a coast. The rowers went unhappy and elected a new captain. That captain took a look at the map, and decided they go to BugaHuga, the nearest coastal town. There they will buy fortified wine for everyone. What a good plan! They went rowing, but after a month most of the rowers got disappointed and elected a yet another captain. This time the captain didn't declare where they are going to. Instead, the captain just maintained their previous course. And after a week or rowing they reached BugaHuga, bought a lot of wine and had a good party. Everyone was happy and praised their current captain. (The previous captain didn't say anything, for she felt that the fresh captain took all the credit for reaching BugaHuga).

After weeks of partying they realized that they are running low on cargo, and they need to go somewhere else to trade. They re-elected their good captain. But the captain had no idea where they should go. Previously he had just maintained the course set by an earlier captain. This time there was no previous plan. The captain kept on telling the crew merry stories of all the places they are going to visit. But eventually some of the most skilled rowers started to suspect that the stories are just stories, and they are circling aimlessly in the sea with no solid plan. Those rowers tried to tell this to everyone, but the others didn't want to listen. "You say that only because you are bitter and you'd like one of you to be the captain. Don't be jealous! Our current captain has done a good job and deserves to be the captain!". They were running low on supplies. The skilled rowers were afraid that soon they will all starve. So they planned a coup and established a junta to rule the boat. With clear commands and stable plans they navigated from a coastal city to another, buying and selling stuff. After the initial shock the rowers started to agree with the new order of things. Elections became just a mere ritual of re-affirming the authority of the junta. And in the absence of political alternatives the junta gradually started to give the rowers less and less, keeping more and more of the profit for themselves. That way the once-free former slaves had got their new masters.

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I think that in the real world there are a number of political leaders who tell their people: "Now look at those futile and weak Western Democracies! They can't make decisions, they are like boats circling aimlessly on the sea, internally divided, weak and confused. Yet they think they should rule the world, because they are supposed to be morally superior! What idiocy! Do we want to be like those countries? No! We want to be strong and pround! Enough of bowing to others, it is time for us to rise to our heroic glory, to make others afraid of us because we are so mighty and powerful! And a powerful country needs a heroic, strong and stable political rule. Democracy is just uncertainty and turbulence, so here comes your saviour, the hero, the high king of the powerful country!" And so the authoritarian rule grabs the power. This or that story why just in this situation the nation needs a strong leader (to make their country great, again. This, as you might quickly guess, is a reference to China which wants to be a global superpower led by a stable authoritarian rule. Also, it seems that China is not the only country with that kind of a plan.)

But don't get me wrong. Personally I'm not here to say that authoritarianism is on the rise because democracy doesn't work. To me that sounds like saying that "let's go back to sickles because this and that early model of a scythe had some faults in them!". I'm a realist, and I think I have to admit that in a way authoritarianism does work. A lot like a sickle does work - only that there are also better tools to harvest crops. And authoritarianism has a lot of inevitable side-effects which I deeply dislike. (Do I need to name some of those dislikable side-effects? Maybe I'm not going to do that in this post, for I assume that many of my readers already agree with this. And those who actually are fans of authoritarianism, they are not going to change their mind because of my personal feelings.)

I'm not an expert of political science, and I haven't been that interested in following political debates. But, based on a few impressions especially in the internet, it sometimes seems to be that a lot of "political philosophy" seems to be about blaming others, and pointing out the faults and horrors of this or that political idea or movement. I kind of a understand that - we need to recognize what does not work. And we need to question the official stories to see what is actually happening. Like, do we want to believe the merry stories told by the captain, or should we take a look at the navigation to see if we are actually going anywhere or just lost in the sea? I don't know but personally I have had a feeling that Western Democracies have not managed to fully deliver their ideals and promises. In so many ways there still (or again) is an oligarchy in disguise, and some other forms of subtle but strong authoritarianism running under the market brand of 'democracy'. Yet, I have a feeling that this is not going to change if we focus on being angry at all those failures. For, personally, I have a feeling that there is not going to be a perfect political theory justified by a set of logical arguments. Instead, maybe we need something simple like "let us respect each other", and then the rest is just about polishing the practical details and adapting to the local situation. (Just like a scythe needs to regularly sharpened to keep it fully functional, so any society needs to regularly self-correct its own structures, checking if this or that detail is still up to date and serving the function it is supposed to work). I have a feeling that no amount of righteous scorn, no amount of attacking the politically misguided citizens is going to take us to a society based on mutual respect.

But then, who am I to preach anything? Honestly, I have do idea on how to best organize a society. And, actually, that is one of the major reasons I have chosen a semi-hermit lifestyle, being only partially connected to the society around me. Living alone I don't need to compromise with others who might have differing opinions. I can just make my own decisions, enjoying the freedom of my solitude. But I do hope that collectively the humanity keeps on looking for new tools, new ways of organizing a society. For I do believe that a society based on mutual respect is fully possible and a realistic alternative for our collective future. Just like sickles were not abandoned because someone told people that sickles are bad or unjustified - sickles were replaced by scythes once those better tools became available. I don't know but I have a feeling that this might be the way; that new alternatives are invented and refined, and eventually they replace the old ways. When it comes to organizing a society, this process might take several generations, for to me it seems that we are in the middle of the process of (re)inventing a society which is based on mutual respect, peace and co-existence. The lure of authoritarianism seems to be on the rise, but I hope that it just serves to expose those not-so-nice elements of the authoritarian rule, so that the demand for respectful alternatives will eventually grow bigger than the lure of authoritarianism.

One final guess; a necessary ingredient of a respectful society is the art of listening. We are never going to fully agree on everything. So we need to develop ways of listening and understanding those who have differing opinions. I do believe that an ideal solution is not any watered-down compromise between some supposed "extreme opinions", but that it would be possible to find a greater synthesis - a lot like in the post about relativism we saw different stories and could mentally travel from a story to another seeing how this or that way of counting a number of trees is valid. I think we could need something like this when it comes to politics as well. Not rival parties fighting on who gets to decide, but more like a gathering of people trying to broaden their perspectives so that the big decisions would appear understandable to a lot of people. And, also, if we are not going to leave decision-making to trained experts only, then we, the ordinary people, the electorate, also need to have our own responsibility in learning to listen, learning to understand the world in better detail and in broader horizons. Now it seems that 'democracy' has become a lot about different people yelling how they have a right to their opinion for they happen to feel strongly about it. Sure, everyone has the right to have their own opinions. But to build a functional society we also need the skills and the willingness to listen to others, to find new stories with emphasis on what is common to every human being, instead of focusing on those things which make us stand separate and divided. For example, we all depend on the Planet Earth being habitable. So let's work together to keep it so, instead of fighting on who gets to exploit more of the natural resources.

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Comments

Kiitos Erkka, for this. The examples are great points of view I hadn't considered. Always good to change the point of view, right?
Well, well. Now here we are, back to Australia, fleeing the lunatic/fascist Brazilian leader. Feeling so bad for all those people who don't have the same scape possibility. What could we do for them? I wonder.

GIo

I wish your new life in Australia is good! And that you can find ways to feel settled, finding local connections there!

But the thing with political leaders with fascist tendencies - that sure makes me feel helpless. As I might have written in some of my earlier posts, in my own life this kind of themes were one major factor in my wish to find a semi-hermit life in the woods. I felt that instead of a political change I want to pursue change in personal level - for after all my own life is that what I'm fully responsible of. Yet, at the same time, I kind of a believe that a broader change is possible when more and more people find ways for personal change, feeling empowered and radiating encouragement for their fellow human beings.

I wish I could vote for you, Erkka.

Hehe!

At the moment I'm too tired to find a serious answer, so I'll tell a silly detail instead; Several times I've volunteered at the local polling place, and participated in the counting of the votes. In Finland it is a tradition that no matter what the election is for, in every polling place there always are some votes cast for Donald Duck.

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