“You Control Information!” I: About Dictatorship, Research Time, 07/03/2018

We in the West are having a moment. It’s not an unusual moment, although we like to think it is. Democracy is a strange form of government. It’s more effective at a lot of what governments are for than dictatorships have traditionally been. But we shouldn’t take democracy for granted.

Donald Trump being the President of the United States has been quite a shock to a lot of people that way. It was a shock to me. I was a teenager when the World Trade Centre was destroyed and the George W Bush Administration went on a media blitz of paranoid jingo to amp public support to invade and occupy Iraq.

I feel like Trump's desire to be President-for-Life is so he can be
at the centre of a national personality cult. It's how he's always
thought of himself.
But even at the height of America’s popular patriotic panic attack,* W didn’t promote the greasy cult of personality that Trump has. Leftish and liberal people like I was at the time called Bush dictatorial at protests and out drinking with our friends.

* I like to date this period in American culture from about Mission Accomplished to You’re Doing a Great Job, Brownie.

His expansion of the federal government’s police forces were horrifyingly authoritarian. Folks like me were pretty pissed that he’d won re-election. But we knew he’d retire in 2009. Under Trump, that reliability is no longer a certainty. Very unlikely, because you’d need a constitutional amendment for it.** But he jokes about it. As the President.

** I hope we never end up seriously saying “Maybe.”

The crowd laughs.

What does dictatorship actually amount to? We know one when we see one. Take the really obvious examples – Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad.

What are some common features? Literal one-man rule – the leader’s directions give legislatures, security and military forces, bureaucrats their orders. That leader sits at the top of an organization that controls all other state institutions (and often large corporate institutions). Sometimes it’s a political party – the Bolsheviks, the National Socialists, the Ba’ath. Sometimes it’s the military.

And the cult of personality, the identification of the leader with the people themselves. The leader as the expression of the unified will of the people – his every action and word inspires loyalty and joy in everyone.

The sun around which turn the people of Korea.
It doesn’t matter that this is never actually true. But it’s implied and enforced that this should be – every time you get the chance to say so – what you say about the leader. No exceptions.

There are some weird cases. I think of the Kim dynasty in North Korea. Institutionally, they function like a model dictator – absolutist political party leader promoted by a cult of personality. The cultural imagery surrounding the Kims reflects that of the emperors, who ruled Korea up to the Japanese occupation, just over 100 years ago.

But dictatorship is one species of authoritarianism. Remember all those surveillance and police institutions that became so much more powerful during the George W Bush years? Those institutions are authoritarian infrastructure that can – and do too often – exist alongside smoothly-running civic democratic government.

You know a dictator when you see one. But you might not always know authoritarianism when you see it. Here’s one way of telling the differences – and I do mean differences.

Look at the flow of information.

This prologue turned out to be too long. So I’ll get to the actual argument tomorrow.

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