(*: Man refers in this article to the species homo sapiens and has no gender connotations)
“Après nous le déluge” (Madame de Pompadour) “Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” (The Second Coming: William Butler Yeats) “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” (Voltaire)
The apocryphal quote attributed to the mistress of Louis XV of France sums up the attitude of sections of the population to the demise (and the removal from the earth) of a strong, autocratic personality from their midst. One saw it in Uzbekistan, where one despot was replaced by another; why, even in a state like Tamil Nadu, which is part of the noisy, fractious democracy that is India, it was difficult for people to come to terms with Amma’s Anno Domini. The Pandava Yudhishthira was spot on in his reply to the Yaksha’s question “Day after day countless people die. Yet the living wish to live forever. What can be a greater wonder?” This futile desire of the masses to immortalise their icons is reflected in the conviction of those worshipped that they are destined to live, if not forever, at least into the distant future. This is possibly one of the reasons why there is no attempt at succession planning, though the fear of a far more competent successor may well weigh on the mind as well. Be that as it may, what is more worrisome is that more and more societies, especially those with a tradition of liberal democracy, are turning towards perceived “supermen” and “superwomen” to tackle the vexing problems of the twenty first century.
It is not as though there have been no dominant ruling personalities in history – just think of Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great and Napoleon. What distinguished the despots of the twentieth century from their predecessors was the access to technology that enabled them to so totally dominate the minds and actions of their subjects. Stalin, Hitler and Mao, and an assortment of lower-scale tyrants, could impose their will on every citizen, using the reach of communication technology to create an atmosphere of unpredictable terror and herding together citizens into camps and communes (for reeducation, ethnic cleansing and indoctrination) in numbers never contemplated in earlier centuries. Superior weapons, instruments of terror and ideology-brainwashed bureaucracies eliminated millions in the name of future utopias. The inevitable end of the controlling autocrats led to the unravelling of their tyrannical systems. But Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall have not quite led to the expected explosion of democracy. In fact, China continues to combine a liberalised economy with a highly restrictive political system and Russia, after flirting with democracy for a few years, is headed for a one-man, one-party dictatorship for the foreseeable future. Authoritarian regimes are thriving in many countries in Asia, and Africa and Latin America swing between democracy and absolute rule.
What, however, gives greatest cause for concern is the growing tendency for citizens of liberal democracies to readily jettison the basic tenets of democracy – pluralism, tolerance, free expression – in a world where they perceive themselves as insecure, in the economic, political and social senses. It started with the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, led to the political earthquake of last year in the USA and is now spreading slowly but surely across Italy, France, Holland and Germany (although the citizens of France have thwarted it for the time being). A figure from the right end of the political spectrum is emerging in every democracy who promises heaven on earth to his leaderless flock. So what traits characterise such men (and women) and which environments provide the best soil for their growth and entrenchment in a society? I can think of six such elements:
Megalothymia is defined by Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man) as “the desire to be recognised as superior to other people”. This desire for recognition typically aims at dominating others and bending them to one’s will. Mostly observed in the political class, but equally recognisable in corporate chieftains, top bureaucrats and orchestra conductors, this trait manifests itself in the conviction of the megalothymic person that he has a unique mission to fulfil during his tenure on earth. Fukuyama argues that even a person like Socrates stressed the need for a class of courageous and public-spirited guardians who would sacrifice their material desires and comforts for the common good. But Socrates was also clear that the megalothymic tendency needed to be curbed if the political order was to be preserved. Liberal modern democracies attempt this discipline through the existence of countervailing centres of political power and the second, third and fourth estates (the legislature, judiciary and press respectively) and what could be termed the fifth estate (viz. civil society).
The unique mission of the megalothymic leader has, since the early twentieth century, taken the form of engaging with the transformation of the very structure of society. Communism and National Socialism represented ideologies that had their own visions of the future course history should take. Forced collectivisation and gulags in the Soviet Union, the solution of the Jewish question in Nazi Germany and its wartime acquisitions and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in Communist China were efforts to direct societies in specific directions envisioned by the Great Leader, with the terrible consequences being borne by millions of people in the half century from 1925 onwards. Recent actions or intentions, like extra-judicial executions in the Philippines, demonetization in India, promoting the Islamic way of life in Turkey and the proposals of the new President of the USA to reduce immigration and restrict individual choice in personal matters like abortion and same sex marriage also bear the imprint of social engineering imposed from above.
In the effort to impose his vision on society, the Leader has, always, to be steadfast in the certainty of his convictions. George Orwell’s “Big Brother” is always right. No opposition or dissent is tolerated, with likely competitors being dealt with through purges (Bukharin), assassination (Trotsky) or reeducation (Deng Xiao Ping). We can observe this trend in political life in India, both in national and state-level parties, where heresy (opposition to the Leader) is punished by banishment from the party and political exile. Democracies have this cardinal virtue: as the philosopher Karl Popper put it, governments can be replaced in a bloodless way, acting as a salutary check on the hubris and vaingloriousness of potential autocrats.
The megalothymic personality is quite likely to display authoritarian tendencies. What encourages this trait in him is the display of an authoritarian predisposition in the population he rules over. Karen Stenner (The Authoritarian Dynamic) has pointed out that, in times of perceived normative threats, this authoritarian disposition is activated and leads to support for the authoritarian who promises a return to a secure, glorious past. Support of the majority of the population is not required; it is enough if a vocal, aggressive section of the population backs the autocrat, with the rest of the population either too divided or disinterested in offering any meaningful opposition. The minority then employs extra-constitutional, vigilante methods to terrify the general population through its unpredictable responses, as Hitler’s Storm Troopers did in the early years of his rise to power.
The regime of the strong man requires the development of an insular approach, with the ‘other’ identified as the source of threat. Policies are tweaked to restrict the freedoms available to specific groups, related to association, livelihood, movement and expression. Media outlets are encouraged to spread an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. The results are already visible in the world’s two largest democracies, where vigilante groups and individuals are dispensing “street justice” to the victims of their ire, innocent citizens who are merely going about their daily lives.
Institutional capture begins with the electoral process. Adverse domestic economic conditions, an insecure external environment, joblessness, inflation and (increasingly in many countries) a harkening back to past glories, religious dogma and perceived historical injustices bring electoral majorities to the strong man. With the legislature under control, other institutions are subtly subverted. The media, which is already overwhelmingly under business control, is slowly moulded to conform to the vision of the strong man and to hail the utopia he is bringing about. Packing the senior judiciary with persons whose ideological stances mirror those of the ruling dispensation enables dilution of the one check on executive power. The civil service is kept in line through side-lining independent professionals and promoting those committed to the ruling ideology. Above all, the control over pedagogic content is ensured through staffing educational institutions with loyal apparatchiks and rewriting history to mould the minds of the coming generation to accept a worldview vastly different from that of their preceding generation.
The emergence of the strong man in society after society comes at a time when liberal democracies are coming under increasing threat. Those who have benefited economically and socially from the efforts of past governments readily run down the achievements of these previous governments and place the blame for all ills on the inertia and corruption of the past. With a largely technocratic approach to life, and discounting the liberalism and pluralism that have been the fundamental bedrocks of prosperity, the citizens of the “Brave New World” yearn for certainty and security, forgetting that it is they who have the power to make or unmake their future. In this environment of disenchantment and hopelessness steps in the strong man fulfilling the dire prediction of Yeats “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”