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|Posted July 21, 2003|
by Louis Menard
|Can you force people to love freedom? Issue of 2003-28|
Few puzzles in political philosophy are more daunting than the Problem of the Loyal Henchmen. The Problem of the Loyal Henchmen is a subset of the more familiar Problem of Authority. Why does authority command obedience? A man who tells you to pick your gum wrapper up off the sidewalk is generally ignored; a man in a uniform who makes the same request, even if its the uniform of a bus driver, is instinctively obeyed. People wearing white lab coats and carrying clipboards, with no other evidence of expertise, have succeeded in persuading subjects in psychology experiments to act in the belief that they are torturing other human beings. In these cases, people can persuade themselves that the authorities they obey are benignthat picking up litter and torturing other human beings in a laboratory are in the interests of civic order and scientific progress. The Problem of the Loyal Henchmen arises when people willingly obey authorities everyone knows to be evil. Why, after the villain has fled in his private submarine, and while the high-tech palace crashes and burns, does the last unincinerated member of the villains private militia risk his life to take a shot at James Bond? Loyalty to Blofeld? Loyalty to the principles of Blofeldism? What could that mean?
Some distinctions are helpful. First, there are dictators and there are dictators. Political science has distinguished two types, totalitarian and authoritarian (t. & a., in foreign-policy shorthand). The definitions were established in 1956 by a Harvard professor, Carl Friedrich, and his co-writer, a recent Harvard Ph.D., Zbigniew Brzezinski; their book, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, was for many years the authority on authoritarianism. Friedrich and Brzezinski identified six criteria that a regime must meet in order to qualify as totalitarian: an official, chiliastic ideology; a single political party; a centrally directed economy; party control of mass communications; party control of the military; and a secret police. Authoritarian dictatorships are bad, but totalitarianism is the more dangerous phenomenon. Friedrich and Brzezinskis classifications lost favor in the nineteen-sixties, when they began to seem a hypocritical way of distinguishing between dictatorial regimes (generally right wing) that were friendly to American interests and dictatorial regimes (generally left wing) opposed to those interests. The terms were revived, to much attention, in 1979, in an essay in Commentary by Jeane Kirkpatrick, who went on to become Ronald Reagans first Ambassador to the United Nations.
No doubt the American government operates with a double standard when dealing with autocratic regimes, tolerating Saudi abuses of human rights while condemning Cuban abuses, for example. But Friedrich and Brzezinskis distinction was not meant to be a distinction simply between degrees of oppressiveness. They considered authoritarian and totalitarian states to be different types of regimesto be, in some sense, antithetical. As Friedrich put it in an early article, Totalitarianism is precisely the opposite of authoritarianism. . . . In a totalitarian society true authority is altogether destroyed. He meant that a key feature of totalitarian societies is the absence of any reliable legal or political structure. Totalitarian rule is experienced as arbitrary rule: the citizen never knows when the knock on the door may come. Another name for this is terror.
One writer who identified terror as the essence of totalitarianism was Hannah Arendt. Arendt started writing The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1945, the year Nazi Germany was defeated. The book was published in 1951, at the time of the Korean War, and it immediately became a staple of Cold War thinking. Friedrich and Brzezinski were political scientists; Arendt was a philosopher. She was interested in the politics of totalitarianism, but she was also interested in the metaphysics, in totalitarianism as a mode of being in the world. Terror, she argued, may be experienced as arbitrary, but it is not arbitrary and it is not lawless. Every despot exercises power arbitrarily; all dictators are outside the law. The distinctive feature of totalitarian societies is that everyone, including (in theory, anyway) the dictator, can be sacrificed in the name of a superhuman law, a law of nature or a law of history. Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men but toward a system in which men are superfluous, she said. In Nazism, everyone is subordinate to the race war; in Bolshevism, to the class struggle. Man-made laws and political institutions are temporary shelters for vested interests, to be flattened by the winds of destiny. And the winds never cease. Hitler did not talk in terms of his own lifetime. He talked in terms of the next thousand years.
Why do nations veer down this path? This was the question Arendt tried to answer. She believed that totalitarianism was a distinctively twentieth-century phenomenon, made possible by the emergence of two social groups, which she named the mob and the masses. The mob is made up of the refuse of all classes: disempowered aristocrats, disillusioned intellectuals, and gangsterspeople deprived of access to mainstream social and political life, and motivated by a politics of resentment. From the mob is drawn the leadership of totalitarian movements. The masses are the troops. Arendt thought that the masses were the product of capitalisms destruction of the class system, and its replacement of the citizen, who is motivated primarily by fellowship, with Homo economicus, a figure motivated solely by rational self-interest. But rational self-interest is an inadequate foundation for selfhood. We need the sense of fellowship to sustain the sense of self: relations with others are what give our own lives meaning. Mass man is deracinated, alienated, atomizeda balloon tethered to nothing. He is not a political creature, since politics requires shared interests. He is not really interested even in himself, since his sense of self is so attenuated. He is therefore readily enlisted in movements that preach the annihilation of the individual in the name of a superhuman law.
The mysterious part of totalitarianisms appealand here we return to the Problem of the Loyal Henchmenis that its official ideology can be, and usually is, absurd on its face, and known to be absurd by the leaders who preach it. This is because the mob is made up of cynics; for them, everything is a lie anyway. And the masses hostility is free-floating. It has no concrete object: the masses are hostile to life as it is. The more extreme and outrageous the totalitarian ideology, therefore, and the more devoid of practical political sense, the more ineluctable its appeal. Totalitarian rule, Arendt argued, is predicated on the assumption that proving that a thing is true is less effective than acting as though it were true. The Nazis did not invite a discussion of the merits of anti-Semitism; they simply acted out its consequences. This is why documents like the memorandums for which Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion continued to be believed even after they had been exposed as forgeries, and why the Moscow Trials were defended even by people who knew that the confessions were fraudulent. Its why some of the defendants in those trials went uncomplainingly to be executed for crimes they had not committed. And it gives plausibility to the henchman who sacrifices his life to take a final shot at James Bond. Blofeldism, an impossible and megalomaniac belief in world domination, is a perfect parody of Nazism and Stalinismjust as empty and just as deluded, although, thanks to 007, not nearly as deadly.
Totalitarianism, authoritarianism, the mob, and the masses are abstractions, but they do real work in the world. The purpose of Benjamin Alpers timely book, Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture (North Carolina; $19.95), is to enumerate, by surveying political theory, journalism, and popular culture from the nineteen-twenties through the nineteen-fifties, the various uses to which some of these terms have been put. Parts of Alpers book overlap an earlier study, Abbott Gleasons Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War (1995), but Alpers has some fresh sources and some new things to say.
Arendt is sometimes credited as the first person to make the case for equating Fascism and Communism as regimes of the same type, and for refusing to make a moral distinction between Hitlers Germany and Stalins Russia. She was not the first (and she did not claim that she was), but it is true that, from the nineteen-thirties on, many Western intellectuals insisted on making such a distinction, and were still doing so as late as 1982, the year Susan Sontag scandalized some of them by referring to Communism as Fascism with a human face. As Alpers shows, the fortunes of the term totalitarianism, a word coined in the nineteen-twenties to describe Mussolinis regime, were for many years tied to the debate over the true nature of the Soviet Union. Communists never regarded Fascism as a brother regime; one of the worst things you could call someone in Stalins era was a Fascist, just as the worst thing you could call someone in Hitlers was a Bolshevik (Jewishness was implied in the term). During the period of the Popular Front, from 1935 to 1938, when the Communist Party sought alliances with progressive groups in the name of anti-Fascism, it was therefore unseemly to suggest any similarity between Communism and Fascism as forms of government. This changed abruptly in August, 1939, when the Soviet Union signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany; it changed again in 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia and the Soviet Union became Americas ally. And then it changed once more. By the end of the war, people in the American government were referring to Soviet Communism as totalitarianism, and the notion that Communism was the moral equivalent of Fascism was dominant in American official discourse during the first two decades of the Cold War.
Looking at movies and novels of the forties and fifties, though, Alpers makes an interesting observation. In the popular notion of Fascism, all Germans are Fascists; in the popular notion of Soviet Communism, there is a difference between the leadership and the people. Every German, in popular culture, is a closet Nazi; ordinary Russians are closet democrats. Communism is an oppressive ideology. Fascism is a sickness in the soul. The implication is that you can liberate the subjects of a Communist regime, but the subjects of a Fascist regime are incurable. This distinction goes to the question of why people follow authority. Do the loyal henchmen obey the dictator out of fear or out of conviction? When the pistol is no longer pointed at their heads, do they reveal their true identities as liberal pluralists? Or was it the pistol that they loved all along?
People have suggested that the war on terror that the United States declared after the attacks of September 11th fills a rhetorical and ideological vacuum left by the end of the Cold War. Once again, the liberal democracies face a global threat. Once again, the world can be divided in two, which is at least a relief to thought, division by two being one of the simplest arithmetical calculations. The analogy between the war on terror and the war against Communism is sound as far as it goes. But this one is, after all, distinctly a hot war. September 11th was widely interpreted as a second Pearl Harbor: its the Second World War that the United States seems to want to be fighting. And for a number of commentators who support the warDaniel Pipes, in Militant Islam Reaches America; Paul Berman, in Terror and Liberalism; Thomas Friedman, in his Times columns, collected in Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11the Nazi example is just as relevant.
Then who is the United States liberating when it deposes the ruling cliques in Afghanistan and Iraq? People who obeyed out of fear, or people who obeyed out of conviction, or out of partial conviction, or out of hatred for the alternative? In the mid-century literature on totalitarianism and democracyErich Fromms Escape from Freedom (1941), Arthur Koestlers Darkness at Noon (1941), George Orwells 1984 (1949), Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.,s The Vital Center (1949), Arendts Origins of Totalitarianismthe key idea is that modern life has produced a new kind of human being: mass man, or, sometimes, totalitarian man. In 1941, Time announced the triumphant emergence of a new human type, totalitarian mansuperbly armed, deliberately destructive and dominant. Germany alone didnt produce this type; Russia didnt produce it. Western civilization produced it. Alpers is surely right when he argues that the critique of totalitarianism by writers like Arendt is of a piece with their critique of popular culture, which they attacked as culture manufactured for the mass of unindividuated individuals, atomized beings able to feel alive only in their frenzied response to empty celebrity. A consistent theme in the anti-totalitarian writings of the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties is It can happen here. The sources of Fascism are in the human soul, not in economics, Lewis Mumford wrote, in 1940. There is a little bit of the fascist in every one of us, and a good deal in some of us, Max Lerner said. Mass man is not forced to be a Fascist. He wants to be a Fascist.
This construction has returned in the popular phrase the Arab street. The fictional man on the Arab street has all the features of Arendts mass man: an outcast from modernity, deprived of access to political and economic goods in his own society, adrift in a secularizing world, utterly credulous of preposterous and impractical doctrines. He believes that the Israelis are responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, just as the followers of Hitler believed that Jews and Gypsies were non-human. He embraces, in the name of a higher law, a cult of death. But if all this is so, how, exactly, is the Arab street supposed to be turned into Main Street? The promise of Operation Iraqi Freedom was that the Iraqi people would embrace American-style political and economic freedoms. The Administration assured the world that the United Statesor, rather, coalition forceswould occupy the country only until the Iraqis were able to choose their own government. When initial indications were that the Iraqis were inclined to choose a theocracy, the plans for the occupation quickly changed. Can you force people to be free?
It is an old conundrum. The philosopher Bernard Williams, in an article published in the journal Philosophy & Public Affairs, shortly before his death this year, puts the hypothetical case of the happy slave. If a slave wants none of the things that his servitude prevents him from having, is he free? And if he is persuaded by his liberators that he does want those things, has he then been made free or has he simply been made into a slave by his liberators? Suicide bombers present the same puzzle. Suicide is voluntary, and implies freedom of choice. But it is hard to understand the actions of suicide bombers without some notion of indoctrination, and if the suicide bombers were indoctrinated then they did not choose freely. Similarly, the instinctive American response to people who demand to live in a theocracy is that those people are not choosing freelythat a genuinely free person would never willingly exchange his lot to live under the thumb of an autocratic priesthood. There is every reason to believe that the great majority of Iraqis living under the regime of Saddam Hussein were not happy slaves. It does not follow that the things they wanted, the things that Saddam and his henchmen prevented them from having, were liberty and democracy as Americans understand them. Should wedo we have a duty tocompel them to live democratically?
Fareed Zakaria thinks that we do have a duty but that we should not be in a rush about it. His argument, in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (Norton; $24.95), is that liberty and democracy are not identical values. Everyone knows that you can have a liberal autocracy: as long as the ruler permits civil and economic freedoms, a society may be liberal without having a representative form of government. Zakarias point is that you can also have democracy without liberalismwhat he calls illiberal democracy. He believes that this is an increasingly common political regime. As of this writing close to half of the democratizing countries in the world are illiberal democracies, he says.
Zakaria is not against democracy. He is against the democratization of democracy. Although Zakarias print and television appearances over the past two years may lead readers to assume that his book is about the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, most of it is about what Zakaria regards as the excessive respect for pure democracy in the United Statesthe reliance on polling, the popularity of ballot initiatives, the insistence on making all institutions answerable to the public. (He somehow neglects to discuss the most obvious counterindication to this trend, the 2000 Presidential elections, in which the man declared the winner by judicial fiat lost the popular vote by a significant margin.)
Still, Zakaria does have some observations about the Middle East. The chief one is that if elections were held in most Arab countries today the resulting societies would be more illiberal, not less. The [Arab] monarchs are more liberal than the societies over which they reign, as he puts it. In his view, democracy properly appears rather late in the process of democratization. First, you need some degree of prosperity, which Zakaria quantifies as a gross domestic product of between three thousand and six thousand dollars per capita. (Once rich, democracies become immortal, he adds, not altogether convincingly.) After that, you need a market economy and civil liberties. When these foundations are in place, democracy becomes sustainable. There is some realism in this argument. There is also, perhaps, too much faith in the current notion that illiberal societies can free-market themselves into nice, stable, liberal onesan approach that the former Soviet Union does not seem to be having much luck with. One feels, too, that liberty and democracy are not so easily pried apartthe one requires something of the other all along the lineand that, in any case, no single formula fits all societies. Sometimes autocracies give way peaceably to democratic regimes, and sometimes bloody revolutions are necessary.
Also, of course, not everyone on the planet, even after having been fully undoctrinated, wants the same social goods. Arab rulers, on the whole, might be said to want capitalism without democracy; Arab people, to all appearances, want democracy, or at least self-government, without capitalism. Conceptions, on both sides, of the desirability of liberalismcultural pluralism, civil liberties, religious tolerance, separation of powersseem, by Western standards, limited. One thing we can be fairly confident that people in the Arab world want, since it is what we would want if we were in a comparable position, is not to be told by someone else what to want. It is the threat of outside control that makes terrorists and political strongmen possible. The devil at home is, many times, preferable to the angel from across the seas. Choosing to live with the devil does not change peoples DNA, though. If circumstances can make dictatorship attractive, new circumstances can make it hateful. When the war is over and the dictator is deposed, the Nazi and the Baathist have a way of melting into something indistinguishable from the ordinary apolitical citizen. There are frightened people; there are ignorant people; there are angry people. But totalitarian man is a myth.
The surest path to the top for a would-be dictator is to assure people that their fate is being determined by strangers, by people who are, in some fundamental way, unlike themselves. Several years ago, Riccardo Orizio, an Italian journalist, began to track down former dictators who are now living in disgrace and largely forgotten, and to interview them. The result, Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators (Walker; $22), is fascinating. Orizios subjects are not just ordinary, run-of-the-mill ex-dictators. They are: Idi Amin, of Uganda, now enjoying life as a guest of the Saudis; Jean-Bédel Bokassa, of the Central African Republic, known to the people of that country as the Ogre of Berengo; Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Soviets Polish puppet; Nexhmije Hoxha, who (with, until his death, her husband, Enver) ruled Albania for nearly fifty years; Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, who got run out of Haiti in 1986; Mengitsu Haile Mariam, the Marxist-Leninist dictator of Ethiopia; and Mira Markovic, the wife of Slobodan Milosevic, who is currently on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. (Manuel Noriega, from his Florida prison cell, politely declined a meeting, on the ground, as he put it in a letter to Orizio, that he was by no means yet in the category of forgotten dictators. God, he explained, has not yet written the last word on manuel a. noriega!)
Each ex-dictator is mad in his own way, but what almost all of them insist on, in their interviews with Orizio, is that everything they didthe torture, the starvation, the looting of the nations wealth, the murder of political opponentswas for the good of their country. The alternatives were chaos, colonization, or slaughter. These men and women were, in their own minds, patriots. They validate John Adamss old warning that power always thinks it has a great soul. The degree of cognitive dissonance involved in being a person who oppresses people out of love for them is summed up in a poster that Baby Doc Duvalier had put up in Haiti. It read, I should like to stand before the tribunal of history as the person who irreversibly founded democracy in Haiti. And it was signed Jean-Claude Duvalier, president-for-life.
When Orizio asks his dictators about their crimes and excessesBokassa and Amin have both been accused of cannibalismthey mostly pass the stories off as the lies of their enemies, but when they do offer an explanation it tends to boil down to what the evil duke says in James Thurbers The Thirteen Clocks: We all have flaws, and mine is being wicked. Personal excesses are not the point. The point is that order and autonomy were preserved. Most of them say to Orizio what Saddam Hussein is no doubt saying to whatever loyal henchmen may be remaining to him: Look at my country now! The henchmen are nodding solemnly in agreement. Is it because they agree or because they are afraid not to agree? Possibly they no longer know the difference.
Reprinted from The New Yorker's Web site on July 21, 2003.
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