Anatomy of humans is not very distinct from the anatomy of human society. Like human biology, a society also has an intrinsic biological and psychological structure wherein it follows the pattern of human evolution. Like growth of a human child with distinct cognitive ideas and practical behaviors prevailing at a particular time which guides his life and which evolves and develops further as time progresses, society also follows a similar pattern.
The ideas and behaviors in terms of politics, social system and economic dispensation in the life of society cannot be considered as perennial because these ideas and behaviors share a similarity with human evolution, in that they also have a shelf life and after a certain period of time they are rendered redundant. Subsequently they have to evolve with changing circumstances in order to keep the society stable, prosperous and to meet the modern challenges.
Political systems and tendencies they promote are such ideas which the society has to scrupulously deal with in accordance with changing times. If a society clings upon those ideas and behaviors far too long which have outlived their efficacy, then it is certain to invite nothing but a social catastrophe upon it. Social tendencies and the character of politics which defined hunting and gathering in pastoral societies could not have governed the social and political life of agrarian societies.
If a society clings upon those ideas and behaviors far too long which have outlived their efficacy, then it is certain to invite nothing but a social catastrophe upon it.
However, as we have witnessed with the advent of industrial societies, the culmination of World War II, and with the initiation of the process of decolonization, some societies which emerged in the ashes of colonialism – partially owing to their colonial past and with efforts of international powers for neo-imperialism and partially owing to the inclinations of their own political elites – tended towards nature of politics and social life which characterizes the empires of agrarian societies.
Be it a democratically elected leader or a despot who has taken over power through the barrel of the gun, authoritarian tendencies can be found in both types of leaders. In short term this may seem to be in the interest of the state but it inhibits democratization of politics, growth and diversification of economy, vibrancy in social and intellectual culture and may also incur an absolute national decadence in the long term. Albeit politics is the first casualty of authoritarianism but once it achieves political power it creeps into every fabric of society, hampering the natural evolutionary process.
Albeit politics is the first casualty of authoritarianism but once it achieves political power it creeps into every fabric of society, hampering the natural evolutionary process.
Aside from these disastrous impacts, authoritarianism also results in profound damage upon institutions of family, education and religion. Swiss psychologist Alice Miller known for her idiosyncratic works on parental child abuse, asserted regarding severe repercussions of authoritarian tendencies in family institutions in her blog: “Every dictator torments his people in the same way he was tormented as a child. The humiliations inflicted on these dictators in adult life had nothing like the same influence on their actions as the emotional experiences they went through in their early years. Those years are “formative” in the truest sense: in this period the brain records or “encodes” emotions without (usually) being able to recall them at will. As almost every dictator denies his sufferings (his former total helplessness in the face of brutality) there is no way that he can truly come to terms with them. Instead he will have a limitless craving for scapegoats on whom he can avenge himself for the fears and anxieties of childhood without having to re-experience those fears.”
Moreover, an authority figure also finds it as a necessity to weaponize education and religion to prolong his tenure and cultivate a culture with a morbid sense of public responsibility and which suppresses critical thinking. In Pakistan, General Zia-Ul-Haq regime was a testimony of this cultural authoritarianism whereby General Zia owing to the strategic environment and for his tenure to linger on, inculcated myopic nomenclature in legislation, religion and education, and facilitated such ethos which outlived him to this day. But, as said above, authoritarianism is not limited to dictatorial regimes.
General Zia-Ul-Haq regime was a testimony of this cultural authoritarianism whereby General Zia owing to the strategic environment and for his tenure to linger on, inculcated myopic nomenclature in legislation, religion and education, and facilitated such ethos which outlived him to this day.
It is a mindset which also governs many democratic governments as the case with contemporary India. Prime Minister Modi was elected, and his party continues to win state elections because of his rhetoric of hybrid form of nationalism which combines and consecrates Hindu religion with Hindu culture in a liberal India. India under Modi designates critique of state policies as sedition and dissent of increasing state-sponsored religiosity as blasphemy. Mob-mentality is encouraged and supported by people in the government. A sort of cult of personality is being developed around Prime Minister Modi. All these measures are prodigies of the social, political and institutional crises which awaits India in the near future.
Arab awakening of 2011 introduced us to the mayhem and confusion which decades long dictatorial governments could cause. After 6 years, countries which were engulfed into the Arab Spring are in a perpetual state of internal armed and political conflagration as the case with Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Only Tunisia secured a relative stability amidst the chaos which surrounds it. And it was also largely due to the fact that in the aftermath of revolution, the largest Islamist party in Tunisia had to amend themselves in order to fend off any armed conflict with other opposition parties.
In imperial China, a punishment named Lingchi was practiced in which convicted criminal’s flesh is sliced off gradually until death follows. In English vernacular it is called ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’. Authoritarianism, be it in democracy or dictatorship, is the manifestation of this concept whereby institutions of legislation, judiciary, police, education, religion, economics, politics, accountability, and family are gradually sliced off from the flesh of society until there remains no flesh. Thus, society dies a painful death in terms of its disempowered institutions, prevalence of foreign culture, and subjugation by other nations.
Hassan Zaheer is a postgraduate in Sociology from the University of Karachi with specialization in Sociology of Religion and Politics. He is currently working as a Non-Resident Research Associate with the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR), Islamabad, where he works on the intersection of ideas, strategy, religion, and politics, and their influence on state and society. His areas of interests are social contract, history of ideas, authoritarianism, political economy, international relations and strategic studies with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Eastern and Western Europe and Asia.