The authoritarian temptation

The pandemic has strengthened each and every state of the planet. However, not all states are equal: some have great authority; others replace authority by authoritarianism. It is important to emphasize this distinction.

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I quote some verses of Gardel’s old tango in reference to World War I. The purpose is to point out some similarities and some differences with our current situation, not in full world war but rather in full global pandemic. These are the verses:

Silence in the night,

Everything is already calm,

Muscle sleeps.

Ambition rests.

 [———————–_]

Silence in the night,

Everything is already calm,

Muscle sleeps.

Ambition works.

A bugle is heard,

Homeland is in danger,

With a war cry

Men kill each other,

Covering in blood

The fields of France

Today all has passed,

Plants are reborn,

An anthem to life

Ploughs sing.

 [———————-]

Silence in the night,

Everything is already calm,

Muscle sleeps

Ambition rests.

A distant chorus

Of mothers singing,

Rocking in their cradles

New hopes

Silence in the night.

Silence in the souls…

Gardel sings this tango in two registers: normality (represented by the word “silence”) and disruption (represented by the scream and sudden death). Normality can be silent (the muscle rests at night) or murmuring (the daytime and everyday normality of work, school, shopping and travels). In social life, what Moti Benyakar[1] calls “the disruptive” is manifested in three repetitive phenomena throughout history: war, plague, and hunger—the horsemen of the Apocalypse that accompany the spirited steed of death. Today, in 2020, a quick glance around the planet reveals the overwhelming presence of the three: in the Himalayas, in Somalia, in Syria, in refugees camps in Jordan or the “reeducation” camps in China and, with the pandemic, to a greater or lesser extent, in the large majority of countries with respect to the plague.

Faced with the pandemic, governments in all countries resort to prompt measures of “necessity and urgency,” and in this way, they justify an authoritarianism that would be difficult to justify in different circumstances, i.e. “normal.” Faced with a global challenge that has found a planet without a planetary government, not even with a good coordination of responses, national states must take the correspondent control measures. It is not hard to understand that this crisis strengthens the State and fosters the temptation of institutionalizing a way of acting that should be only temporary. In summary, the pandemic seen from power and in the eyes of those who have power, is a great opportunity, not previously imagined, for assuming total power. Putting it bluntly, it is “every kid’s dream,” if the kid is a fledgling dictator or the desired and promised heaven on earth for a one-party state, regardless of its particular ideological tint. The medical and healthcare challenge, in principle neutral in political terms, has however an immediate and in many cases opportunistic political advantage. To the infection blow, you answer with a turn of the rudder[2]. Danger, threat, fear are the perfect breeding grounds for power abuses

I propose to go through (some) geopolitical sectors in the current situation. In Europe there is an important outbreak of right-wing nationalism—in some cases with old fascist traits—particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. In Hungary, the government party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban has undermined democracy systematically and on purpose. He changed electoral participation rules, stuffed the courts with allied judges, and attacked independent media with censorship and the “nicer” way of buying them out through friends or figureheads. The result has been a huge concentration of power in the Executive hands and the effective end of a meaningful division of powers. In Poland, the government party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski has adopted a similar strategy, but more focused on destroying the independent judicial system.

Meanwhile, and faced with more urgent problems such as the pandemic and economic crises, the European Union as a whole, an particularly its leading countries—France and Germany—have preferred to turn a blind eye on the authoritarian uprising in Central and Eastern Europe. At other times, when the EU decided to incorporate those countries in its midst, it naively thought that the participating conditions would orientate them towards the model of western democracy. Instead, the opposite happened. New members brought with them into the European Union the virus of a strong authoritarianism acquired in their, first fascist and then communist, history. Today, and forced by the pandemic and other crises to adopt a “more realistic” attitude, European democracies must “bite the bullet” and accept what Viktor Orban cynically calls and “illiberal democracy.”

In another geopolitical zone, that of relations between China and the United States, there has been a similar evolution. American elites, originally liberal and currently nationalistic, naively hoped that by incorporating China to diverse treaties, they would be able to direct it towards a model more open to political participation and alternation. The opposite happened: China got rich, acquired more confidence in its global power, and reinforced the authoritarian tendencies within its one-party. We could say, maybe overstating it a bit, that the Popular Republic of China does not feel very popular today: it distrusts its people, at the same time pampering and monitoring them, and submits them to an authority system that does not tolerate dissidence. The 92 million members of the Chinese Communist Party are actually something similar to the old mandarinate that goes back centuries, in whose apex there is an emperor, today modestly called “lifelong president.”

In Russia, despotism is a tradition that runs through its entire history from czarism through the soviet system to the current dictatorship of Vladimir Putin. The tight control system of security teams that today dominate the economic monopolistic sectors, and turns them into vassals of the central power in exchange for accumulating wealth but without civil or political independence.  Any glimpse of such independence produces a brutal reaction from power.

In Latin America, the current rightist wave is the pendulum’s opposite extreme of a previous progressive populism. However, authoritarianism in the continent is a virus against which few are immune and that works much as the Covid-19, without party predilection and that has either remained latent or manifest throughout political history.  An exemplary case was Argentina during the Malvinas’ war. A sinister military regime managed to obtain a brief but massive popular support when it invaded the islands. Then, after failing in that attempt, such mobilization turned against the regime and forced the military to step down from power. However, periodical authoritarianism did not disappear, as in that popular saying—now turned upside-down—that should say, “Once the dog is dead, rabies does NOT disappear.”

I presented a brief summary of some regions of the planet, with the objective of illustrating the pandemic’s effect on systems of control and representation. Everywhere states are strengthened, but in turn, each State depends on its own history, which defines it almost as a fatality.

I would like to end this article with a conceptual distinction between authoritarianism and authority. Authoritarianism is the tendency to impose arbitrary decisions from the top down, with or without popular mobilization, which when it occurs is usually demagogic. On the contrary, the authority of a State is based on the confidence between a government and the people, that allows for rational and consensual decisions. The pandemic has reinforced every state in the planet, both the righteous and the sinners, both the despotic and the participatory, the rational as well as the irrational, the wise and the clumsy. However, it is important to know how to differentiate them. I propose, as example, a recent interview with a distinguished Swedish epistemologist: 

https://laverdadnoticias.com/mundo/Epidemiologo-sueco-advierte-que-coronavirus-contagiara -a-todos-20200511-0223.html

Sweden represents a system of authority able to make rational and consensual decisions, without demagogic or impromptu measures. With the pandemic, they have established a “soft and voluntary confinement.” The United States represents a very different model: on the one side, a “freedom” without responsibility and, on the other side, authoritarianism without authority and only moderated by its own incompetence or sloppiness. As it was once said in Germany regarding the Austro-Hungarian empire: Autoritarismus gemildert durch Schlamperei (an authoritarianism moderated by clumsiness).

Meanwhile, happy quarantine!


[1] . Moti Benyakar, Lo disruptivo: Amenazas individuales y colectivas: el psiquismo ante guerras, terrorismo y catástrofes sociales, Buenos Aires” Biblos, 2006.

[2] N.T. Word game in Spanish in the original “al golpe dado por la infección se responde con un golpe de timón.”

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