“It takes six months to change a political regime, six years to change the economy and at least 60 years to change society.”
Ralf Dahrendorf, 1990
What is a winning survival strategy and how is it different from a strategy for everyday living?
Individuals living under oppressive regimes often express their desire for nothing to get worse. It is a wish to survive and it requires a certain life strategy that is fundamentally different from the strategies, world views, thinking habits and mental models of free societies. Can a survival strategy be used when oppression is over? Is it really just a really safe strategy or does it recreate oppression?
How is emergency morality different from the moral and ethical standards of everyday life and a free society?
Can emergency morals (or the lack of moral considerations) recreate the emergency itself?
We have long known that emergency institutions have a tendency to linger and erode civil liberties for the long run. But the other side of the story has rarely been brought to light. Can a society that holds onto its old survival strategies recreate unfreedom in the long run?
The Need for the Project
Thinking habits and strategies that help survival under an oppressive regime cease to serve you under democracy and economic freedom.
When freedom arrives, people adapt their actions according to the new circumstances relatively quickly, but the underlying thinking patterns, dysfunctional beliefs, social thinking, and mental models linger and have the potential to trigger a quick regression into authoritarian thinking at the first economic or security challenge.
Economic or security challenges have the potential to trigger a regression into old, dysfunctional thinking habits, and create a new terror-bonding reaction between people and their leaders. And once the process starts, demand for a strong leader and less oversight will meet its supply.
Scholars of democratic consolidation (Nova, 2011 – pdf) grapple with the challenge to include the soft elements of transition and consolidation: the human element.
My project started off as an attempt to unearth the fundamentals of authoritarian thinking, a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle of thought patterns – with an intention to find remedies in the shape of behavioural nudges or changes in social thinking.
It cumulates in anti-democratic sentiment, the helpless toleration of corruption, inaction in the face of state capture, and the erosion of social capital and trust.
On a preliminary research, I found a few elements of a self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling vicious cycle of authoritarian mentality.
They blame victims of oppressive measures to gain a sense of being on the side of the powerful.
They neglect the possibility in peer-to-peer cooperation in favour of seeking individual routes to influence power.
The phenomenon is not unlike Stockholm syndrome. It puts development on hold by reversing economic and political advances made during years of economic growth.
The research adopts the view that authoritarianism is a thinking pattern, a mental habit, a frame of mind that can be evoked – but we can also snap out of it.
We all know how authoritarianism is evoked. Take a populist orator, for instance. But it is not a life sentence. People shift in and out of states of mind on a daily basis, and even though this particular mental model is pervasive and deep-seated, it can be brought to the light of day, consciously evaluated and put into its place. It is a survival tool for emergencies, and not suitable for everyday living and prosperity.
If appealing to fear triggers a regression, what triggers the appetite for freedom?
This is the second question of the research.
Once the phenomenon is patiently described from as many angles and with as many everyday examples as possible, one can start discussing “authoritarian microhabits”, just as we discuss “microagressions”. Both refer to an involuntary display of old thinking patterns, that lay under the surface of rationalisations.
Every step down the road can be explained away with perfectly rational excuses.
- I did not challenge the system because I feared the loss of my job – until the economy went south anyway due to central planning and unchallenged corruption.
- I did not want to find out whether the victims of a hate campaign were actually guilty of anything – because I feared to challenge the government anyway.
The act itself is tiny, the explanations are perfectly rational. But the explanations are not the cause of the action (or inaction).
Democracy/freedom is not a static state of affairs that doesn’t require any effort from the citizens – apart from a trip to the voting booth every few years.
We make micro-decisions every day that challenge or approve the system we live in.
- We may choose to challenge petty corruption of bureaucrats or come up with perfectly rational excuses and rationalisations why we don’t.
- We can choose to blow the whistle – or name our thousands of reason why we shouldn’t.
- We can uncritically consume power-hungry fearmongering, or we can ridicule it.
- We can unconsciously identify with our leaders and vote for further suppression of our kind to keep them at bay – or we may realise that there is not much to win by voting away our own individual liberties.
- We can unthinkingly always attack the weaker and blame the victim – or we may start to entertain the uncomfortable notion that sometimes even the aggressor and the strong may have been in the wrong.
- We can dismiss the desire to improve as naive – or we can start to ridicule the cynic’s pose of wisdom.
- We can keep angrily punishing failure – or rebranding it as a learning experience.
As I said, excuses are plenty – and perfectly rational if we draw the limits of our rationality close enough to ourselves in space and time. Too bad that excuses have never solved a single problem.
What Does the Project Do?
We all know how populism and authoritarianism is created. A good and unscrupulous orator can evoke authoritarian sentiment in his audience in just a few sentences. It’s enough to remind them to their unpaid bills and they regress en masse into fearful children, waiting for an authority to deliver solutions.
Prolonged communication in this manner, the constant reminder of threats (real or imaginary), the artful manipulation of fear and helplessness triggers the good, old-fashioned authoritarian sentiment, call it by any name. The electorate starts looking for a strong leader, and think that every trouble can be solved if only they give that leader more power.
The reason of fear will of course change with time.
People start to fret outside forces and the state of the economy, but the government will soon take over as the main source of threats. By that time, however, it will be too late. The sense of helplessness will have been internalised, and it leads the victims to rationalise the abuse of power themselves.
We helplessly stand by and fret the arrival of that orator. And yet, we still don’t have the rhetoric and narration to counter it.
Mindsets, frames of mind, thinking patterns, can be evoked. Not just the authoritarian regression, but also its opposite. Authoritarianism may be helped by the gravity of fear, but it is not insurmountable.
We have given much thought to the institutional and economic framework of free societies – but never thought about the narrative of freedom. Take Eastern Europe and third wave democracies in general: Blunt government propaganda for democracy found that implicitly equating Western prosperity with democracy would be good enough to get people on board. An economic recession can thus put the entire necessity of freedom, democracy and the rule of law in question – and leaders are unafraid to offer alternatives.
“…we are fascinated by the growth of freedom from powers outside ourselves and are blinded to the fact of inner restraints, compulsions, and fears, which tend to undermine the meaning of the victories freedom has won against its traditional enemies.”
Erich FROMM, 1942
Fear of any kind (worry, terror, existential anxiety, etc.) can trigger the process. But what triggers the recovery from it?
This project sets out to find the interdisciplinary means to weaken the grip of fear.
A question well put is a question answered. If we find the angles through which authoritarianism is best understood, behavioural nudges can be devised.
- Find behavioural nudges to evoke citizen mentality and put people in the non-authoritarian frame of mind.
- If fear of failure and losing face is such a strong motivation for scapegoating and avoiding risk (and thus a break on prosperity) communication should address these underlying worries – as opposed to stating that scapegoating is not nice.
- If a societal Stockholm syndrome had blurred the lines between the points of view of the leader and his subjects, can disentangling these points of view and restoring individual viewpoints help avert an authoritarian relapse?
- What is the role of humour (especially political humour) in the maintenance and erosion of authoritarian regimes?
- If appealing to fear evokes the authoritarian little man, who neglect the possibilities in horizontal cooperation and looks above for solutions, can social capital increase resistance to fear and the lure of authoritarianism?
This part of the research will be found under Solutions.
“We forget that, although each of the liberties which have been won must be defended with utmost vigour, the problem of freedom is not only a quantitative one, but a qualitative one; that we not only have to preserve and increase the traditional freedom, but that we have to gain a new kind of freedom, one which enables us to realize our own individual self; to have faith in this self and in life.”
Erich FROMM, 1942
This not to suggest that a society should be brainwashed into loving freedom. It would be wildly immoral (on par with populism, authoritarian leadership and fearmongering itself) and also impractical. Freedom must be voluntary, or it would be sabotaged.
This must be taken into account if and when this project reaches the Implementation phase.
Every book and paper the research refers can be found in the references. If something is missing, please don’t hesitate to contact the person who sent you this link.