By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
In America we’re naturally in favor of democracy. Our country had its roots in freedom loving institutions, popular voting and the wide distribution of powers among all classes of people. Some of these traditions were derived from England, but most from much further back, from the Roman Republic and from Ancient Greece. Yet, autocracy rules in much of the world today in national governments, but also in business operations and family living. Autocracy is defined as a one-person rule, but that does not exist except in beehives and ant nests. One rules with the consent and loyalty of at least a segment of the population. Autocracy is efficient, although harsh when opposed; that is why it is by far the most common form of government in companies. Employees don’t commonly elect the board or the chief executive. Families fare better with one person making the decisions, whoever wears the pants; a fifty-fifty marriage is likely to get hamstrung. I, therefore, write in praise of autocracy– with some reservations.
My reservations are that an autocrat must pay attention to the needs of the people and not be unduly oppressive. The king, chief, company executive, husband or wife, must listen to their subjects closely and see to their needs. Any population of living things needs to survive, defend itself from enemies within and without, grow and prosper. The ruler must submerge selfish desires to the goals of the community to avoid eventually falling to a rebellion from within or to foreign intervention.
Isocrates in ancient Athens, Greece, wrote about the advantages tyrants or autocrats have over democracies. The tyrant can make quick decisions and marshal resources for action in war or other emergency faster than an elected official. Opposition to actions taken is less likely from the people because all media under the autocrat’s control. If the war is unsuccessful, the tyrant will not be removed easily and can continue efforts, perhaps to success. Only when results sour outrageously will the populace rise up against the dictator. The German people did not greatly oppose Adolf Hitler while he was alive leading the remnants of his forces. More recently, President Putin remained powerful and popular despite sanctions from the West causing much hardship among the people. He retained Crimea for Russia and got a foothold in Eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s party, United Russia, controls nearly everything in the country: the press, business, parliament, courts, police, and all government offices. All serious opposition figures are quickly put down; only minor protests are allowed. This situation is not healthy for the body politic in the long run, but for a time it helps organize the people into a cohesive unit for any fight. The nation moves along as a conscious being.
It may be that a society is a conscious being, individuals united by language, contact, and culture. Our individual mind is the expression of billions of neurons in the brain communicating and acting together to perform needed functions for survival. We can sense the consciousness of a people in large gatherings, such as parades, celebrations, and battles, even sporting events. Survival for the tribe is the purpose of such a consciousness and after survival, dominance over other human tribes.
In a democratic society such as that of the United States government is also organized for defense and survival, but power is more widely distributed among the people by means of popular voting and freedom of the media; but not so widely distributed as touted. All societies are managed by an elite: those with property, popularity, influence, intelligence, technical training and education. These few people are behind the desk of our elected officials, from the President down. The rest of us follow their lead. The United States is less of a democracy than it’s generally believed to be, while Russia is democratic only in appearance, where elections and a parliament are shams.
President Putin’s regime emerged after a period of upheavals, economic and political disasters, and confusion following the downfall of he Soviet Union. People rally behind a strong leader at such times.
How does autocratic power generally come about in a society? A person with a strong will, someone dedicated to the national ideal, someone with powerful oratorical skills, with charisma, finds followers by spouting stimulating ideas how to improve the country. Followers submit their lives to the will of the leader, thus achieving relief from personal responsibility to take action on their own—a process empowering the leader. “Thy will be done, not mine,” the faithful intone.
Jesus Christ had obvious charisma, guiding his disciples with a firm hand. His authority over them was nearly unquestioned. Judas Iscariot was the exception in his loyal following.
The follower on the other hand enjoys is gratified and relaxed from the demands of the will to act, to push ahead for personal gain, leaving that gain up to the leader’s largess, the person with power. The follower extinguishes his ego, submerging that in the group, achieving liberation from personal isolation, merging into an integrated unit with the other disciples.
We saw the autocrat rise thus in the lives of Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and many other historical figures. The leader maintains order in the nation and drives it to grow, prosper, and achieve might, pleasing most people. A few individuals object to their loss of freedom and oppose the leader, only to be imprisoned, killed, or exiled—a standard procedure in Putin’s Russia.
At the end of the eighteen century AD, Napoleon was the defender of the French Republic attacked by surrounding monarchs. Later he became First Consul in a rule by a three-man consulate and eventually Emperor, now
oppressing others who objected to his authority. Many liberals throughout Europe, among them Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, admired the early Napoleon as the defender of liberties, but despised him later as Emperor and aggressor on other nations.
Yet, Napoleon appointed five prominent jurists to organize a legal code which became common throughout continental Europe during his his rule, a code largely prevalent today. For this act, I praise Napoleon’s autocracy.
Not only political institutions, but also religious institutions often tend to be authoritarian and hierarchical. That is the case for the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Churches, and certainly for the various branches of Islam. The Pope is elected by the Cardinals, but thereafter he rules with a firm hand for the rest of his life, just like any other dictator. He manages with decrees. The Church becomes an effective instrument of power in his hands, dispensing psychic comfort and moral guidance to millions of people in many nations.
Protestant churches tend to be more egalitarian, often run by lay ministers. They are founded quickly and sometimes go under even faster. Each branch of a protestant church, funded and administered locally, has more independence and freedom of action from its central authority than do the Catholic churches.
Some church wards are like extended families for their members, sharing meals and recreational activities. The family itself was in the past largely the domain of the father, the autocrat of the dinner table. Life with father was a fond memory for many people and for others a nightmare. The father would return from work in the evening, gather round his children at the dinner table with the wife serving the meal she prepared. Father would sit at the head of the table to enjoy his dinner, occasionally lecturing his offspring or inquiring about their experiences during the day.
With the father being an autocrat, family life tended to be more orderly than it is today. If father, however, was not a good person, family life under his thumb could become a corner of hell, especially if he was given to drinking, gambling, or womanizing, abusing the wife and beating the children.
Father’s autocracy in the family, the same as in a nation, led to happiness and prosperity in cases where the autocrat was wise and benevolent, not so if he was incompetent or corrupt.
Otherwise, the whole family looked up to the father as the their leader. When a family was extended with children, grandchildren, and their spouses, the old man was the patriarch, lending his wisdom and wealth to the welfare of all who followed his leadership, except the prodigal son.
After all, our genes program most of us to be followers, few to be leaders with ability, drive, and charisma. Few are the entrepreneurs or business executives, government officials, and high priests. Many are the workers, 95% of the active population in America–versus 5% who are owners of corporate stocks or other business assets.
We can’t all of us be chiefs; most persons have to be farmers, technicians, or warriors for society to work.
In some countries today and most countries in the past, noble knights and land owners managed affairs with loyal servants, with a king holding sway over the nobility. We see in some areas today, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Iraq, tribal chiefs and other warlords fight each other for dominance in their province. The chiefs maintain local order, but the nation is in chaos until a powerful person prevails with diplomacy and war.
Such was the outcome in Syria with the Assad family and in Iraq with the Baathist leader Saddam Hussein, whom U. S. President George W. Bush deposed with the unwise and unnecessary invasion of that country. Saddam maintained order in Iraq as Colonel Gaddafi did in Libya. Their removal fractured these countries into warring factions. The cure for dictatorship was worse than its cruel disease. We should be careful not to apply our own standards for governance to people with a fundamentally different culture from our own.
The military in any society certainly need to be authoritarian to function effectively in war and battle. Authority rises from private to commander in chief or president through sergeant, lieutenant, captain, major, colonel, general, and field marshal. Obedience to the superior officer is unquestioned along the ranks. You obey or are sent to the brig. On board a ship, the captain is the absolute ruler. Sailors do not vote for the captain and behave as the captain tells them to behave or they are declared mutineers, sometimes hung without ceremony. Any other arrangement could cause the loss of ship, crew, and cargo at sea in a storm or enemy engagement.
What if the captain or general makes a mistake in his decision? What if he or she is incompetent and has come up the ranks because of political connections? In that case, the leader pays dearly with loss of position and prestige, even with loss of life. U. S. General David Petraeus, much admired for his work, lost his position because of an indiscretion with a lady from the press. In ancient times, generals who lost a battle would sometimes be punished with death; those who succeeded paraded in triumph before the populace. General Douglas MacArthur received such a triumph in New York City, even after being relieved of his command by President Truman during the Korean War.
Grave are the consequences also for a nation led by an autocrat who overreaches and fails, such as Napoleon or Hitler. During his wars in Europe Napoleon sacrificed the lives of one million Frenchmen out of a population of fifty million. Hitler’s foibles were even more disastrous for Germany. These men had no compassion for the lives of their fellow countrymen, even less of course for the lives of enemies. But while they were successful in conquest they were praised to high heaven.
Praise should go to those leaders who provide enduring values for all humanity—peace, justice, and prosperity.
False leaders constantly arise as do false prophets. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” A great leader, a philosopher king in Plato’s sense, provides a vision and a realization of enduring wealth for the people. If a society is like an advanced organism, it needs a central nervous system. In a human, the brain and mind within it is supreme or should be supreme. The mind does not ask the limbs for guidance but forces the limbs to appropriate action. The philosopher king with the love and consent of the people directs the movement and disposition of the people, not the other way around. In many democracies, demagogues lead he people astray with false promises that will not work. In America these days we see such behavior in the campaign of Donald Trump for the presidency.
Demagoguery is democracy’s greatest danger. An ignorant public, acting on emotional grounds, believes a false politician’s half truths about solving national problems. We can deport 12 million illegal immigrants. We can seal our borders completely. We can raise tariffs to imports as other nations lower theirs to our exports. We can spend less on defense by having our allies pay more. None of these solutions work without negotiations which are always bilateral with other people.
Despite the merits of autocracy which I have praised, the risk of dictatorship is when the ruler becomes disabled, produces incompetent heirs,
or becomes corrupt with great power. Eventually, the ruler is brought down by revolution but not without much destruction and bloodshed. It is so happening in Syria and other places.
In the film, “The Madness of King George,” at the time of the American Revolution, the king’s doctor attempts to treat his condition and says to him, “You are the regulator of the nation; but who shall regulate you when you fail?”
For this last reason, I subscribe to democracy with all its faults as I praise autocracy for its merits. In a democracy the people remove from power incompetent or corrupt leaders simply by voting without much disruption in the life of the country. In a true democracy all offices are for a term, after which a leader must be re-elected; we have never had any president for life in America. Thus we remain the world’s longest living democracy.