The Return of the Strong Man | Salil Tripathi

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At a crucial point in Bertolt Brecht’s play, Life of Galileo, Andrea laments: unhappy the land that breeds no hero. At which Galileo, challenged and harassed, responds: unhappy is the land that is in need of a hero.

Galileo was speaking truth to power – the power of the church and the state, which, when combined, personified authoritarianism. We remember Galileo today for confronting that power, just as we recall the image of the lone man standing in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square thirty years ago (who was then taken away and has not been heard of since), as we face the reality of what George Orwell warned us about – if you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.

That is a profoundly pessimistic view, but a look around the leaders who meet at world summits these days reveals how close we are to that reality – where those who like stamping on the faces of dissenters are in power, and those who shout back are in retreat: Donald Trump in the United States, Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, Recep Tayyib Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel, and arguably, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, are all leaders who do not like dissent, who want to centralise power, who challenge the norms, and who respond to the “need” for a strong leader that a vocal section of many societies has been expressing.

The United Kingdom, with its ‘mother of parliaments’, and where I live, is no different. As I write this, a tiny segment of the population – members of the Conservative Party – are in the process of electing a new leader who will become prime minister, determined to pull the UK out of the European Union, diminishing the nation, and possibly splintering it. But we are in the age of leaders who want to appear to be strong.

It is the age of authoritarianism.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the United States, his UN representative was an academic called Jean Kirkpatrick, who was a Democrat before she switched to the Republican party. She made a distinction between authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. While sounding self-serving, there was logic in the distinction – it may be possible to do some business with authoritarian regimes, but nearly impossible to do so with totalitarian regimes. There is some room for dissent to exist in authoritarian regimes, but none, in totalitarian regimes. Instinctively, that might make sense, until you try to figure out which is which. In Kirkpatrick’s reckoning, Latin American military dictatorships – many of them right wing – were authoritarian. The fact that several of them transitioned to democracy in the late 1970s gave credence to her argument, because she characterised totalitarian regimes as Communist. Back in the early 1980s, the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc seemed invincible. Recall the French writer Jean-Francois Revel’s 1983 book, How Democracies Perish, which suggested that the unified decisiveness of communist governments would always triumph over disjointed and quarrelsome democracies. The year 1984, that Orwell warned about, was on the anvil; post-Brezhnev Soviet Union seemed stubborn in dealing with dissent at home and critics abroad; and the western alliance seemed disunited. And yet, in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev would take over the Soviet Union, unveil his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), and attempt to reshape the Soviet Union, and unleash forces that led to the Eastern Bloc shaking off the Soviet cloud over them. By 1989, most of Eastern Europe had cast off the communist shadow; in 1990 the two Germanys had united; by 1991 the Soviet Union became history. All of that showed the limits of Revel’s pessimism.

But we seem to be in an era of the rise of authoritarian leaders, even in countries that are nominally democratic. These leaders are elected democratically, but they go on to implement laws or undermine norms that govern democratic structures and forms, to undermine democracy, and consolidate power. Duterte in the Philippines is taking on the church; Modi in India is enfeebling institutions that can provide checks and balances and looking the other way as right-wing forces that support him terrorise minorities; Erdogan in Turkey has exploited a still-unexplained coup to jail thousands of dissidents; Xi is attempting to remake China in his image, becoming the most influential leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping; Putin is able to influence political parties across the world, shaking up the world order, and arguing that liberal democracy has outlived its purpose; Bolsonaro wants to extend this reactionary revolution in Latin America; Aung San Suu Kyi has little time for human rights, now that her own rights are no longer at risk; Netanyahu acts with impunity; Orban is challenging the values that underpin the European Union; and Trump is, well, being Trump.

These leaders are effective and are able to resurrect authoritarianism because the promise of 1989 has been belied. Francis Fukuyama prematurely declared that we were at the moment he called “the end of history” – not as in an end to conflict, but the end of history as understood – a socio-political concept that stated that a specific set of political, economic, social changes would occur leading to a point at which socio-cultural evolution would come to an end-point. Fukuyama spoke too early; Samuel Huntingdon in fact spoke of the ‘clash of civilisations’ that would follow inevitably in the ideological vacuum that emerged from the fall of Communist governments. But the churning that followed created upheavals – as markets opened, companies from the industrialised world looked for new markets and new locations where goods could be manufactured cheaply, mainly in Asia – China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India boomed, luring jobs away from the industrialised world at a rapid pace. While the rich countries had safety nets, they were not sufficient and the ‘losers’ of globalisation saw market-based economics as an enemy. To confront that phenomenon, they needed a new leader, one who would speak of those left behind, those who wanted to maintain things as they were.

The result? The rise of populists who said: forget the vulnerable elsewhere; build walls to keep out migrants; change rules and empower the leader who can stare back, who can shout, who can build armies, who can protect, and who can rule with a firm hand.

And so we are where we are – where authoritarianism appears as a virtue to many voters who want to forget the past and want to condemn everyone to repeat it. It seems as if we are in the 1930s again.

We have to listen to the canaries in the coal mines.

Salil Tripathi, Writer – Journalist – Human Rights Busybody // Chair: Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International //, Books: Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull 2009), The Colonel Who Would Not Repent (Aleph 2014, Yale 2016), Detours: Songs of the Open Road (Tranquebar 2015). Forthcoming: The Gujaratis (Aleph)

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