Sunday, January 13, 2008

Why we tolerate dictators

By Kuldip Dhiman
WHEN Joseph Stalin died in 1953 after a quarter-century of brutal rule, he was not only the indisputable master of the then Soviet Union but also of other Soviet bloc countries, covering nearly two million square kilometres with a population of 1,34,188,000. Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Mao, Peron, Ceausescu, Suharto also ruthlessly controlled their people for decades and finally ruined their countries. In comparison, no democratically elected leader can boast of such a long reign. And the way Castro, Gaddafi, Saddam and Milosevic are carrying on in spite of all efforts to dislodge them, the question arises: how do these tyrants manage to hold on to power for so long, and more importantly, why do we tolerate them? Moreover, with the recent coup by the army in Pakistan, the question naturally arises — could a dictator grab power in India?

Fear psychosis has been used by tyrants because they couldn't be bothered with public welfare. But with the spread of education and communication, tyrants can barely rule their subjects unmindful of world opinion. Much to their dislike, dictators now have to maintain a veneer of respectability. In line with Plato's concept of the 'Philosopher King', they have to appear intelligent and cultured. Since most of the modern dictators are neither philosophers nor kings — Stalin was the son of a cobbler, Hitler of a minor official, Gaddafi of a Bedouin, Milosevic of a school teacher — to gain acceptance and respect of the masses, they have to rely heavily on ideology so that they are seen as saviours of their country, not usurpers.

For the first year or so after grabbing power, it is generally smooth sailing; things appear to be moving in the right direction, and the country seems to be doing well because there are no strikes or demonstrations. People breathe a sigh of relief, especially if the previous democratic regime was incompetent. At last there is someone who gets things done, they think. People are lured into a false sense of security. But after the euphoria of the 'promised utopia' wanes and people begin to see the true colours of their new ruler, the rein of terror begins as it was witnessed in the erstwhile Soviet Union, Cuba, China, Uganda, Nigeria, some Arab countries and the banana republics.

In The Prince, the bible of all despots and dictators, Machiavelli tells us that once power is acquired, the state could either be governed with love or fear. But 'since love and fear can hardly exist together, it is far safer to be feared than loved.' Napoleon was in full agreement with Machiavelli when he declared, 'My dominion is founded on fear. If I abandoned the system, I should immediately be dethroned.... When a king is said to be a kind king, his reign is a failure.'

To justify their misguided ideologies, dictators quote philosophers out of context, and even misinterpret them deliberately. And while doing so, they have no compunctions at all about using the doctrines of even those thinkers who are against totalitarianism. William James, Henri Bergson and Freidrich Nietzsche had quite unwittingly played an important part in the shaping of later etatist-authoritarian thought, although all the three of them were bitter critics of totalitarianism. And ironically, Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909), the philosopher whose doctrines were directly borrowed by Jew-haters like Mussolini, Hitler and the Communists, was actually a Polish Jew! He believed that the state originates in conquest and is maintained by power, force, and intimidation. Without power or force, the state would cease to exist.

While terrorising anyone who shows signs of dissent, dictators use propaganda to keep the ordinary masses under control. Hitler's propaganda methods typify the ones used by other totalitarian regimes, and even democracies use these techniques effectively. "It is possible by means of shrewd and unremitting propaganda", Hitler wrote, "to make people believe that heaven is hell, and hell is heaven". To get the most out of it, propaganda must be "aimed always and primarily at the emotions, and very little at men's alleged reason". "Propaganda", he stressed, "had no more to do with scientific accuracy than a poster had to do with art.... The greater the mass of men to be reached, the lower its intellectual level must be." Propaganda must deal with a few simple points driven home by endless repetition — tell a lie a hundred times and it gets believed. Too many issues confuse the masses. This technique is used successfully during elections even in democratic countries such as India: every party has usually only one basic election issue, be it the Emergency, communal disharmony, external threat, Ayodhya, Kargil, or the nationality of a candidate.

Another cardinal principle of propaganda is that rational arguments must never be used. Rational thinking means asking questions, but when people start asking questions, anarchy follows. So it becomes imperative to crush the inquisitiveness of the masses. The eighteenth-century Swedish-German philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, said that if you wish to control the masses, you must fashion them in such a way that they simply cannot will otherwise than you wish them to will. This is by no means an original thought, because more than two thousand years ago, Plato advocated a lot more cruel methods to control the masses in his Republic. He believed that infants should be separated from their mothers as soon as they are born, so that the state can bring them up as ideal citizens. Although dictators would love to follow this wonderful advice, even an utter fool can see it is impractical. So they create youth wings instead, thus transforming an entire generation of loyal men and women who would die for them without asking any questions. Macaulay suggested that many an army had prospered under a bad commander, but no army had ever prospered under a 'debating society'. Hence, the so-called freewill freedom of thought and expression must be crushed totally, because the will becomes really free when its freedom in the ordinary sense has been totally destroyed. To Gumplowicz the notion that man is a free being is absurd. "This fancied freedom and equality is incompatible with the state and is a complete negation of it."

And if any one dares to disagree with the state ideology, he must be crushed pitilessly. Here Nietsche's writings come in handy:"A man loses power when he pities," he wrote, "Pity thwarts the law of development which is the law of selection. It preserves that which is ripe for death; it fights in favour of the disinherited and the condemned to life. By multiplying misery, quite as much as by preserving all that is miserable, it is the principal agent in promoting decadence."

The ultimate propaganda technique the authoritarian rulers use is the principle of the big lie. "With the primitive simplicity of the masses a great lie is more effective than a small one,"Hitler says, "because they (the masses) often lie in small matters, but would be too ashamed to tell a great big lie. Hence it will never occur to the broad mass to suspect so large a lie, and the mass will be quite unable to believe that anyone could possibly have the infernal impudence to pervert the truth to such an extent." Hardly an original thinker, Hitler clearly borrowed this from Aristotle who contended that the masses could be impressed by "the magnificent lie." China has used this method so successfully, that 10 years after the army massacred 155 students, and injured many more at the Tiananmen Square, many Chinese don't believe that it ever happened."No, our army couldn't have done that," they say even after evidence is shown to them.

But all propaganda is useless if the leader does not keep the masses motivated. No one can go on ruling forever by merely promising to provide the populace with the plainest physical wants such as food and clothing. As soon as their bellies are full, people start demanding other things such as better education, better conditions, and worst of all even freedom. Hence, a more effective way of swaying the masses is to keep them busy by appealing to some vague dream of glory, empire, nationality, or religion, and external threat. Awaken in their minds a chauvinistic sense of racial, religious, and cultural superiority, and then tell them that their superior race or religion is threatened by other inferior races or religions. Create so much distrust, hate, and insecurity that people begin to believe that their world would end without their leader. Tell them that in the struggle for existence only the strongest and the best survive — in other words kill or be killed. To justify this belief, they again go back to Nietzsche who believed that war and courage have done more great things than charity, and every natural gift must develop itself by contest. Mussolini twisted this out of context and made Italians believe that strife is the origin of all things, and the day when "there would be no more strife would be a day of melancholy, of the end of things, or ruin.... Peace is hence absurd or rather it is a pause in war."

The political scene in India now is not very different from what it was in Europe when Mussolini and Hitler and the Communists came to power. People are quite sick of frequent changes in government; it makes them uneasy and insecure. Lurking in the shadows of political heavyweights, there might be one unassuming party worker or a dissatisfied general who might assume total control of the country. Yes, it is highly unlikely to happen, but political sociologist William Montgomery McGovern warned us over 50 years ago:"Wherever there is widespread belief that dictatorship is the best form of government, it is not difficult to find persons to fill the office of dictator; and wherever there is a widespread dislike of dictatorship, it is difficult, if not impossible, for such persons as Mussolini or Hitler to seize the reins of power." Didn't we get a taste of authoritarianism not too long ago when the entire nation of nearly a billion was rendered impotent for 18 months?

Going back to the original question — why do we tolerate dictators and, perhaps, even love them in spite of being aware of their cruelty and ruthlessness? The ordinary masses are only too happy to be goaded like a herd of cattle, too selfish and too preoccupied with their own safety. As long as they are safe, their families are safe, their jobs are safe, and as long as their own existence is not directly threatened, they hardly care who is ruling them. Or perhaps they even get some sort of masochistic pleasure out of the whip of a dictator.

Mussolini was once asked if it was possible for a dictator to be loved by his people. He said yes it was, because the "crowd loves strong men. The crowd is like a woman."

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