The rising tide of dictatorship

The primary concern at the moment must be this: to come to grips with the idea that either we face the end of a free world, or put all our hope in our democratic impulse to overcome the rising tide of tyranny

May 17, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 08:56 pm IST

‘Lessons from history fade away and nations continue to repeat their slip-ups’

‘Lessons from history fade away and nations continue to repeat their slip-ups’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana

The great tragedy of our times is the failure to come to grips with the decline of democracy and its failure to accept the new age of autocracy and its democratising of violence. In the context of the present decline in the very idea of democracy, there is a need to reflect on the changing political dynamics in a post-industrial age. In particular, the genealogy of fascism as experienced in the traditional forms of dictatorship and the evolution towards the contemporary notions of the brute power of the state not only overtly refute or sneer at democracy, but rather go to great lengths to deceitfully annex democratic practices.

The revelation about the evil capabilities of the human race were shown in the post-Holocaust era. As Hannah Arendt points out in her book, Origins of Totalitarianism, “We can no longer afford to take that which is good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dream of our tradition.” This is abundantly obvious from the wreckage of the two wars and the rise of fascism scarring the deep-seated liberal philosophy prevailing in Europe. Humanity’s capability for evil casts a murky shadow on our vision of history where the triumph of democracy always seemed inevitable.

An era of strident nationalism

It is ‘not true that humanity cannot learn from history. It can and, in the case of the lessons of the dark period between 1914 and 1945, the West did. But it seems to have forgotten those lessons. We are living, once again, in an era of strident nationalism and xenophobia. The hopes of a brave new world of progress, harmony and democracy, raised by the market opening of the 1980s and the collapse of Soviet communism between 1989 and 1991, have turned into ashes’.

It is a common fact of history that it often repeats itself, especially when people forget that war or dictatorship or ethnic belligerence are not a solution to any conflict. Revolutions, like those in France and Russia, that gave an individual absolute power, as in the case of Napoleon and Stalin, respectively, inevitably nosedive as failed empires under brutal dictatorships. Similarly, widespread corruption, high crime rates, governmental incompetence, and the rule of law fail to awaken humanity to the realisation that such conditions are a harbinger of the imperceptible rise of “strong man” politics.

Similarly, dictatorships accompanied by violence and death are forgotten by the public which blindly begin to put faith in a leadership that projects competence and ability to advance welfare of the people and the country through camouflaging violence only to evoke affection and respect from the masses. It is a clear fact of history that societies learn nothing from the tyranny that a nation bears. After Stalin’s brutal regime of secret police and leader worship, Cuban revolutionaries allowed their charismatic revolutionary leader to seize absolute power, disallowing any political opposition. Suppression of information to this day is widespread, and independent journalism is prohibited in Cuba.

It stands to conclusion then that humanity still has not learnt from the brutal regimes that brought violence and bloodshed in their wake, giving way to newer forms of tyranny. Lessons from history fade away and nations continue to repeat their slip-ups.

To fully comprehend the history of dictatorship, one has to examine the various shades and tones in which they surfaced from time to time. Though the idea of authoritarian power remains eternal in man’s ambition, the complexion may change while the hubris of power remains. To understand the changing face of despotism, Spin Dictators, by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, elaborates through serious research on the abuse of modern communication technology by authoritarian regimes for propaganda, giving birth to manipulative and not bloody dictatorships of the past. Understandably, the use of brute force in the past gives way to the use of technological means to subjugate public opinion. Hitler and Stalin are replaced by Russia’s Putin, Peru’s Fujimore, Venezuela’s Chavez, Hungary’s Orbán and Turkey’s Erdoğan.

A subservient media

Over the last few decades, violence has reduced substantially as a weapon for retaining power. Advancement in technology is strategically employed to manipulate and govern public opinion through deceit, lies, and deceptions under the smokescreen of safeguarding the institution of democracy.

In exchange of reliability and acceptance, “non-democratic leaders” allow a certain amount of dissent in the independent media; outright censorship is replaced by indiscriminate regulations and law suits; elections are made to look fair and honest, through money, manipulation and the creation of a cult leadership that go all out to create a mass appeal. Mass incarceration or extermination has gradually morphed into majoritarian brute force, supported and propped by a subservient media that tactfully spins a public discourse which, at its face, seems to be democratic but in reality is far right wing in its sociopolitical barrage of the public. This is apparently different from North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, or Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, who openly use subjugation, expurgation and physical punishment to remain in power.

Vladimir Putin, for example, has given up the charade of posing as a democratic leader. The Ukraine war has let the cat out of the bag. Public opinion now has turned substantially antagonistic. Vladimir Putin, therefore, no longer falls into the category of non-violent dictators of the present. Guriev, writing in the Financial Times in April, has revised his appraisal of Vladimir Putin’s place in the diversity of autocrats and despots: “Putin’s regime has completed its reversion from a 21st-century spin dictatorship to a 20th-century dictatorship based on fear.” As in the detention and extermination of his political opponent Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s dexterous manipulation gave way to brute force.

Doublespeak and censorship

Right-wing intellectuals indeed, continually endeavour to strengthen the discourse of nationalism through the politics of image building and exceptionalism which captures the attention of the gullible masses. The triumphalism of the supporters of democracy now seems to be a distant cry, giving place to an outright authoritarianism that stands out as the single-most defining feature of global politics. Criticism is conveniently pushed to the fringes while the dominant party discourse remains in full force, incessantly brain-washing the public with doublespeak and “sensible censoring” through sophisticated means of surveillance and propaganda. A channel supposedly airing free debate is merely eyewash for showcasing a certain amount of democratic inclinations of the despotic leadership through a superficially credible appearance of democratic adherence in all policy making.

The zeitgeist of the post-Holocaust brutality that looked with hope at the world of justice and freedom awaiting humanity has fallen by the wayside. Our primary concern at the moment must, therefore, be to come to grips with the idea that either we face the end of a free world or put all our hope in the undying forces of democratic impulse in humanity to finally overcome the rising tide of tyranny.

Shelley Walia has taught cultural theory at the Panjab University

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.