Needed: A new theory of autocracy

Autocrats are on the rise. Many societies, presumed to be democratic, are under the sway of autocratic leaders. Others, who had been under autocratic rule for some time and recently disposed off the long-reigning autocrat, have gone back and got a new one. 

Commentators, who initially saw such a political turn as aberrations and predicted democratic tendencies to triumph eventually, are now recalibrating their outlook. Books with titles such as 'death of democracy' are out now and those calling democracy a disorder seem to be around the corner. Protests, which are everywhere, are producing unintended consequences: Few years of battling Brexit have produced in Britain the most authoritarian right-wing government one ever imagined there would be; the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States may just help Donald Trump to scrape through again.

The commentaries on how this came about focus on the usual suspects: The great recession of 2008, inequality, effects of globalisation on communities, unrestrained use of money in politics, the rapid spread of fake news through social media, islamophobia in the wake of terror attacks and America's 'war on terror' etc. But the analysis so far depended on theories of the twentieth century vintage, connecting democracy's decline with the political weakness of the upwardly mobile middle class and the support of authoritarianism coming from the older relatively unskilled workers. In this framework, middle classes, the salaried class, remain the ballast of democracy and it's the decline of their political influence - and consequent rise of influence of the billionnaires on one hand and disaffected unemployed on the other. This is how it played out in the 1930s, the theory goes, and this is how it's playing out again.

But, as Voltaire said, history never repeats itself, only man does. Today's authoritarians are using the techniques of their predecessors but they are not the same. Middle classes - the same salaried masses that Gustav Stresseman so pinned his hopes on - today stand squarely and solidly behind their dictators. They are the ones looking for a 'strong leader' who can rubbish political equality and ride over the legal niceties to deliver a better life. This is not the politics of revolution - either right or left wing - but rather the anti-politics of money that are producing our authoritarians. Therefore, those educated, family men and women with good jobs, Facebook warriors who uncharacteristically defend the unscientific, the racist and the vulgar, are not exceptions; they are those who make the modern authoritarianism possible.

If our theory still treats middle class fundamentalism as oxymoron, then it's a theory out of sync with contemporary life. The money culture, no longer limited to the select few who played in stocks and bonds but now universal with everyone's home being an investment commodity, has changed the nature of the middle classes. The once-mighty newspaper-reading justice-seeking street-fighting warriors have become security-beevers, watching the neighbourhood premium with the corner of their eyes all the time. Therefore, all revolution is passé, all politics is too: The once utopian middle class dream of progress has now been sacrified at the altar of status quo.

And, thereby hangs the tale of our anti-revolution revolutionaries: The Trumps, Johnsons and Modis of our time. They are conservative utopians, they are battling FOR the vested interests, they are changing politics to keep the world as it is. This is true post-modern, when stillness is motion and motion is stillness. There is absolutely no point trying to work this out with the nineteenth century grand narrative of societies moving forward; The forward is backward now. In fact, neo-feudalism is even a word and books are being written about it. Racism is okay, democracy is openly challenged and countries are building walls and concentration camps with public money. Characterisation of them as mini-Mussolinis will be off the mark; a new category has to be created for them.

This is to be done with urgency. Because, unless we adjust our theoretical lense, we will keep looking the wrong way. We would keep expecting the middle classes and intellectuals to step into the vanguard role, to save democracy. But that expectation would be futile and it's they who needs fighting against. Otherwise, we would vacciliate and equivocate, while we roll back all the democratic gains won since the nineteenth century.


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