Hegel remarks…. that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Karl Marx 18th Brumaire.
I get reminded of this quote on a daily basis when people make comparisons between our current age and the 1930s, in particular between Trump, Johnson and the rise of Hitler. The warning signs of a shift to authoritarianism aren’t hard to find; contracts going to government cronies; politicians and their mates breaking the rules and not facing consequences; voters who accept being lied to, and then vote for the liars, voter suppression, repressive policing. The recent award of peerages to genocide deniers and Russian oligarchs illustrates that the UK Government are no longer bothered about hiding their contempt for democratic norms.
In fact open contempt for democratic norms is a hallmark of authoritarianism, something Trump is a master of.
Trump of course isn’t Hitler. Hitler had a detailed and obsessive ideology that all were expected to adhere to. Trump is a vapid narcissist who is making it all up as he goes along. I honestly wish that schools taught a wider range of authoritarians than just Hitler, so we had a better range of reference points. Franco, Salazar, Tojo Hideki, the Ustache, the Iron Guard.
People tend to get Marx’s idea of history repeating itself wrong. History doesn’t repeat itself or follow predetermined patterns because of some magic force. History repeats itself because humans are essentially historical creatures. At times of uncertainty we look to the past for answers or clues, and in doing so we repeat ourselves:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.
Marx was writing of Louis Bonaparte recreating himself as Napoleon III, but the same is true of Boris Johnson desperately invoking Churchill, or Jeremy Corbyn’s’ fans presenting him as a new Attlee or Ghandi. Donald Trump fantasises openly about joining the greats on Mount Rushmore, while comparing himself favourably to Abe Lincoln.
I recently tried to visit the Berlin Museum special exhibition on the works of Hannah Arendt. Sadly the access system was so authoritarian that I couldn’t get in, nor could any other visitors. I did however read her classic “Origins of Totalitarianism” in between riding an e-scooter and eating at hipster burger bars.
Most people know Arendt’s most famous line from Origins:
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
We live in an online world where it no longer matters whether something is true or false, merely whether it matches your prejudices, or validates your political identity. It is easy to see how totalitarianism flourishes on line.
But I was struck by the passage which comes immediately before the above quote:
The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought.
The lonelier we are, and the less contact we have with our fellow human beings the easier we are to control, the weaker our touch with reality, and the more likely we are to tend to authoritarianism. Totalitarian rulers thrive when we lose touch with our fellow humans, and they use isolation as a tool to control populations. The most powerful tool the Stasi had to break down dissidents was isolation.
Ive been thinking about lonliness a lot. My dad has alzheimers and I spend time every week with him, visiting all the places that old people like – garden centre cafes. I was struck that the older people I meet whose lives are defined by loneliness and anxiety.
Rapid social and technological change have created an anxious, neurotic, lonely and unhappy group of voters, who feel that their values aren’t respected and they have lost control.
The current wave of authoritarian populists target these lonely and unhappy voters, and know how to push their buttons. Trump connects with these voters brilliantly because despite being born a millionaire he is just as insecure and neurotic as them, obsessed by petty little grievances. Dominic Cummings the same – a lonely, insecure, sad little man who knows exactly how to push the buttons of other lonely anxious people.
Above all they feed off loneliness – people losing contact with people outside their immediate group, feeling lost and isolated, looking for an identity.
one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result.
Demographic and technological change has created an anxious, neurotic, lonely generation with carefully nurtured grievances and jealousies. People feel lost in a world that doesn’t share their values, while
Newspapers like the Daily Mail have been exploiting those anxieties and grievances for decades, pushing peoples buttons. This gives the growing force of authoritarianism a familiar feel. We’ve seen this stuff so many times that it feels familiar to us, even if it is awful.
But the internet has accelerated this process, exploiting non digital natives. Social media provides authoritarian populists with new methods to disseminate propaganda – non-digital natives are easily manipulated by click bait on-line content. Trump and the Brexit campaign explicitly targeted these voters groups; while the remain campaign talked about the economic consequences of Brexit and the practical difficulties of negotiating trade deals the Leave campaign produced vast amounts of misleading content pushing peoples buttons on identity and security
One of the ways that people compensate for this loneliness and lack of identity is through on-line communities. People create and share identities which reinforce each other; Trumper, Corbynite, QAnon, Brexiter. Through participating in these on-line identities the loneliness recedes a bit, and people get a sense of validation – being the first to share some particular link or meme wins approval and likes from their comrades.
Commonly when I talk to people about the way they interact with on-line material the response I get is cynicism. Specifically people assure me that their cynicism protects them from being manipulated on line. They don’t believe a word any politician says any more, they reassure me, believing that this immunises them.
In reality cynicism is gullibilities best friend. Once you believe that there is no truth to be had from politicians all you have left is trusting your gut instinct, or choosing to believe whatever fits your ideological preference. This makes the individual easy to manipulate, and is why authoritarian politicians encourage voters to be cynical about politics.
This is the new political landscape, and it is leading us into a new era of authoritarian government in the UK, just as it has in India and Turkey
The UK will not become an authoritarian state in some coup d’etat, with ignorant armies appearing over night.
It will happen as a slow series of crisis, Covid, Brexit, each of which bringing a new centralisation of powers. Scandals, once shocking, will become normal, and checks and balances on executive power will be eroded slowly. Once governments are freed from accountability corruption and incompetence flourish; we already have clear signs of that in Johnson’s administration even if they aren’t as clanging as in the US.
But we are on a journey which is very hard to stop – the main opposition party is still crippled by it’s own 5 year embrace of authoritarian politics, and the civil society groups that would fight the emerging oligarchy lack cohesion.
Each step on the journey will seem familiar, reassuringly familiar to some voters, almost comforting.
While all of this seems very new the expolitation of lonliness and insecurity by authoritarian politicians would be familar to Hannah Arent.
History it seems does repeat itself. Over and over. Tragedy and farce.