“The road to tyranny is paved with pebbles of silence, fear of others, division, lies, national myths of imaginary threats, and the coarsening of rhetoric.” Richard Flanagan.
Macbeth can be seen as a play that illustrates the acquisition of power by a good man who becomes corrupted by the lust for total unleashed control. As Lord Acton asserted “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The Play illustrates the Latin phrase: libido dominandi , an insatiable lust for power and dominance.
All great writers attempt to illustrate the filthy secret at the heart of all power grabs by exposing its inherent hypocrisy. Absolute power is seldom given; it is seized. Power is only what we the citizens allow it to be. In Catch-22, asked what the authorities could do? The reply: “whatever we can’t stop them from doing”.
Power is not only an aphrodisiac, it is pornographic in that the perpetrator enjoys dominance in owning people, telling them what to do and exercising the power to punish disobedience.
Ozymandian invincible power asserts:
“Look upon my works, ye mighty and despair”.
Lady Macbeth demonstrates that behind every bad man, there can be a woman who is even worse. Lady Macbeth considers her domain, not as a home, but as “my battlements” and has supreme confidence in their untrammeled security;
“What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?"
By her steely resolve and supreme confidence she urges Macbeth to consolidate the impunity of their position of power.
Macbeth realises secure power craves absolute power - without that - fear and paranoia prevail.
To be thus is nothing; But to be safely thus.
Power can either be used for the common good or for self-serving interests.
“Power without benevolent purpose is pointless”. (Malcolm Turnbull)
Some become so entranced by power that principle becomes a wan afterthought. In the corridors of power, machinations of carefully played hands of opportunism prevail. In each case, any crises can be blamed only for expediting matters.
The Czech writer Milan Kundera once observed that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.’
Joseph de Maistre remarked:
“Every nation gets the government it deserves."
Banquo suspects Macbeth has murdered Duncan, yet he still pretends loyalty to Macbeth:
“Thou hast it now, king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
as the weird women promised,
and I fear thou playedst most foully for’t”.
But he still effusively professes his loyalty to Macbeth:
“Let your highness command apon me,
to which my duties are with a most indissoluble tie for ever knit”
However, this pledge of loyalty is not convincing, as Macbeth suspects his former comrade, as he fears Banquo may challenge the throne:
“To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus:
our fears in Banquo stick deep
and in his royalty of nature reigns that which would be feared.”
Once you gain power, if you have to maintain your power by brute force, people come to resent it, so by Act IV, the wheel has come full circle and the general consensus develops that Macbeth is a despised tyrant:
This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongue. (Malcolm)
Menteith: How does the tyrant?
Caithness: “Some say he’s mad; others that lesser hate him…do call it valiant fury”
Lord: Commenting on the revolt against the tyranny of Macbeth:
“Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,”
Macbeth becomes aware of his legacy; Tyrants die ignoble deaths; Mussolini, hung upside down in a petrol station where he was pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables, Hitler, suicided in his isolated bunker. Macbeth too must now pay the price of his lack of principles:
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
Malcolm gives us the final summation of his legacy:
This butcher and his fiend like queen.
An honest take on the history of the world acknowledges that power accrues to a select few even in most democratic societies. The last warlord standing after a battle attributes their success to a god thus claiming God’s anointment, giving themselves divine powers. All religions assume superior deities dispensing power to select masters, requiring submission as a sign of belonging. Populist Revolutions like the French and Russian, disestablished the church as one of their first acts of seizing power.
Napoleon and Putin reinstated religion to re-consolidate their power.
Ancient Greece #
Solon is credited with wresting power from the few to the many. Despite this, people have struggled to take power into the hands of the governed only to a limited extent. Democracy is lauded as lip service, but disavowed in practice. Liberty demands eternal vigilance.
The people of Athens, suffering under the capricious and arbitrary jurisdiction of aristocratic judges, wanted Solon to use his popularity and his power to make himself a tyrant. Solon, who was a wise man, replied that “tyranny is indeed a very pleasant peak, but there is no way down from it”.
Solon ruled Athens for one year, expecting his reforms of wresting power from the aristocrats and vesting it in the lives of the people to last at least ten years. Five years later most of the power had aggregated back to the upper classes.
Thucydides was the first Greek historian to attribute the success or failure of mankind’s actions to themselves, rather than a dispute between the gods.
The funeral oration spoken by the Athenian leader Pericles to commemorate those who died in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, with its brilliantly inspiring praise of Athenian democracy in its full flower, prospering and triumphant through its voluntary self-control, its mutual responsibility, its reverence for the law.
Thucydides, without making a point of the devastatingly subversive turn that his history is about to take, refutes almost everything Pericles said, everything that was self-deceiving and hollow. In the summer after the oration, Thucydides reports, Athens was afflicted by the plague, and its democracy collapsed into “a state of unprecedented lawlessness.” Those who survived cared only for “the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure,” and “no fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence.” Self-satisfied virtue is easy in prosperity, less so in crisis.
‘The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply.’
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (Penguin, 1972; pp. 242–245)
Authoritarian societies #
Societies collapse into extremism, eventually evolving into authoritarianism – Rome’s Caesar, England’s Cromwell, France’s Robespierre, Russia’s Stalin and Putin.
Power; a patriarchy will always be more interested in saving face than facing truth. The price of a patriarchy is that it cannot admit any weakness — which means, intellectually, that it can never admit any fault, any error, any mistake, no matter how small. Which is why, even at this late stage, even now, American thinking refuses to really question capitalism, supremacy, or violence, as organizing principles for society. To do so would be to undermine patriarchy itself, wouldn’t it? Ah, my friends — now you see the problem. A society can save face or it can face truth — but it cannot do both.
Hannah Arendt gave us an insight into the totalitarian mindset in all its glory; ‘the banality of evil’ was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.” Arendt pairs privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. “When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving”.
Perhaps the unfolding reality is too much for tyrants to absorb, when the strata of society sought to prop up power, turns against them.
Early forms of government were authoritarian, with top down exercise of power. Good governance depends on strong leaders utterly committed to the common good by checking the power of the higher classes ensuring parity of income.
Thomas Jefferson warned:
“certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, those entrusted with power have, in time, by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, the minds of the people at large.
With the rise of democracy, power ideally was ostensibly devolved and distributed equitably, however in reality, the powerful managed to preserve their privilege by manipulating the political process. The poor, disadvantaged and inarticulate are stymied. Power accrues to the rich, entitled and those who can control narratives.
“To the unscrupulous go the spoils,” Wealth, power and professional distinction aren’t always functions of anything as simple as merit. They can be the fruits of less savory qualities.
“The road to tyranny is paved with pebbles of silence, fear of others, division, lies, national myths of imaginary threats, and the coarsening of rhetoric.” Richard Flanagan.
Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises.” Umberto Eco wrote in The New York Review in 1995.
“Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances.”
Eco outlines various defining qualities of fascism, among them: the cult of tradition, a fear of difference, obsession with a plot, and a contempt for the weak.
“These features cannot be organized into a system. Many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”
Tyranny can be incipient, insidious and incestuous
To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.
John Howard maintained that to gain and keep power, one had to control the narrative. And narratives do not have to reflect reality. What Nietzsche and Goebbels understood as telling lies often enough so that people are willing to believe them.
Joseph Heller explains how perception management works:
“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, the Chaplin saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honour, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”
Success requires single-mindedness to control the narrative, to frame the debate. Careful staging, strategic plotting some scheming and Machiavellian pragmatism did the trick and made it happen. Tyrants speeches are full of hollow platitudes, empty motherhood statements, banal rhetoric, but shamelessly laced with ruthless unscrupulous lies, disparaging and smearing opposition legacies and policies.
Marshall McLuhan noticed:
“Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat, not light, is the intention.”
Noam Chomsky warns us that “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
Adolf Hitler had already discovered that: “Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”
Psychiatrist, Dr Lissa Johnson acknowledges professional listeners, developing listening skills, need some work. “We can only succeed if we discover an ability to listen to voices other than their own. Problems are the direct result of their refusal to do that."
As any good listener will know, real listening involves hearing not what you want to hear, as our leaders seem prone to do, nor simply the words that are being spoken, but the underlying meanings, themes, feelings and implications. This, in turn, requires putting oneself in the other person’s shoes, which listeners call perspective-taking.
The next level of listening entails reflecting back the themes and underlying meanings that you have gleaned, in order to enhance attunement and check your understanding. We call this reflective listening.
Given the level of mis-attunement to the people, to help authorities with their perspective-taking skills, here are some messages they might have deciphered. And to help them with their reflective listening, here are some honest reflections* they might have offered in response.
*And one thing psychologists know is that tyranny and atrocity thrive on bystanders. Passive, silent, submissive, obedient bystanders, without whom atrocity cannot survive. So if you care about Justice, free press, rule of law and tyranny, don’t be silent. Don’t be complicit. Speak up. *Dr. Lissa Johnson – New Matilda
Provenance of Language #
To preserve freedom, we have to become guardians of our language, our institutions and our leaders. We have to keep them alive and working. That means being very intentional about using words. Hannah Arendt urges us, for example, calling lies, “lies.” - not a “misstatement,” The definition of “lie” involves intent—a lie is a statement made with the intention to deceive. The euphemisms, misspoke, misstatement clearly connote a lack of intent.
Using words to lie, destroys language. Using words to cover up lies, however subtly, destroys language. Validating incomprehensible drivel with polite reaction also destroys language. This isn’t merely a question of the prestige of the writing art or the credibility of the legal domain: it is about the basic survival of trust in the public sphere.
The next Coroner or Judge who characterises a death in custody as “regrettable” or “unfortunate”, without effective enforcement, should be peremptorily impeached.
Here is what Confucius had to say on the topic:
If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.
The Enlightenment led to a more rational view of how we can only be governed by the consent of the governed. Sir Isaac Newton was devoted to scientific methods of investigation where observation, experimentation and deductive reasoning replaced blind faith. This is misunderstood by power freaks.
“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty." Thomas Jefferson
The American model justifies open rebellion of tyrants:
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Thomas Jefferson
Democracy is an imperfect system. It is easily undermined and debauched.
W. H. Auden was unflinchingly honest about the folly of the modern world – the wilful blindness of the powerful – with a single line:
“The little natures that will make us cry”; and his description of a tyrant needs no explanation in the Trump/Kim Jong-un era:
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
“The thin and precarious crust of decency is all that separates any civilization, however impressive, from the hell of anarchy or systematic tyranny which lie in wait beneath the surface.” Aldous Huxley
“It is a truth wearily demonstrated by history that acts of tyranny condoned against some will finally become a tyranny visited on all.” Richard Flanagan
Post modernism perhaps created the most radical disillusionment of history of the world, even greater than existentialism. In postulating that all values are relative, in effect it advocates an extreme form of nihilism, subverting all core values. This gives today’s authorities the licence to act without compunction. Regardless of how evil Shakespeare’s characters are, most of them have remorse, affecting their conscience. Modern leaders feel at liberty to act unconscionably. John Gray
Large-scale fascist violence threatens democracies throughout the world.
As Larissa Behrendt’s film After the Apology showed, the violence in Australia is structural and bureaucratic, the racist and genocidal practices of mass child removal continuing since the intervention. That is something far more serious than a two-line motion. Fascist violence on a mass scale will be starting across the world soon enough. It will be here some time after that. — Guy Rundle
Only Pauline Hanson’s incompetence has delayed the development of a fascist movement in Australia. But it will come.
Australia’s more regressive elements in society appear to be gaining the upper hand. They believe they are leading a war against an abhorred pluralist democracy. The backlash is against immigrants and refugees, legal abortion, even marriage equality, rekindling uncomfortable memories of the decay of democracy that preceded Europe’s descent into repression of the 1930’s.
Most democracies are experiencing months of conflict, suffering, political insanity, ungoverned hateful ideology and administrative intransigence.
Madeleine Albright warned against Fascism after four years as America’s chief diplomat, her life and views were again shaped by encounters with tyranny.
She engaged with Kim Jong-il, father of North Korea’s current jailer-in-chief, and found him, new book, cordial, courteous and “pretty normal for someone whose father’s birthday is celebrated every year as the ‘Day of the Sun’.”
Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian autocrat, “did not fit the stereotype of a fascist villain” and liked to “act the innocent” even as his security forces attempted the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.
Hugo Chávez, the late ruler of Venezuela, was “very charismatic” and initially seemed to hold promise for his country when he supplanted “a bunch of tired old men that were very elitist”.
When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first came to power in Turkey, he was a refreshing change from rule by people “who live in big houses, or occasionally the military”. “These people initially did have some feel for the working class and then power went to their heads – all of them.”
One chapter of her new book is about Vladimir Putin, whom she found to be “so cold as to be almost reptilian” but also a man of considerable, if dark, talents. “He’s very smart. He’s played a weak hand really well. He has a larger agenda which is to separate us from our allies and it begins by separating central and eastern Europe from western Europe.”
With the benefit of hindsight, she accepts that the west was slow to understand that Russians felt utterly humiliated after the cold war and ready to succumb to a nationalist strongman promising to make them great again. She recalls a Russian man complaining: “We used to be a superpower and now we’re Bangladesh with missiles.” Putin, she tells me, “has seen himself as the redeemer of that man”.
I wonder whether her first-hand encounters with despots had led her to identify any common personality traits. She laughs: “I’ll tell you – you’ll be surprised when you hear this – they seemed different when I met them.” She cites the example of Viktor Orbán, the self-styled “illiberal democrat” who rules Hungary. She first came to know him in the 1980s during Hungary’s struggle for liberation from communist dictatorship. “He was everybody’s favourite dissident. He was funded by George Soros to go to Oxford. He’s the one who started Fidesz, the youth party. The age limit for the youth party changed as he got older,” she adds with her hallmark waspishness. Orbán’s transformation in office has taken her by surprise. “I didn’t, I don’t think any of us saw this coming.”
Where we might be going is the chilling theme of Fascism: A Warning. The book is a cry of anguish about the global resurgence of authoritarianism and a lament over the decay of the liberal internationalist politics to which Albright has devoted her career. The work is also an act of homage to her father who wrote books about the perils of tyranny and worried that Americans were so accustomed to liberty – so “very, very free,” he wrote – that they might take democracy for granted. She quotes Primo Levi – “Every age has its own fascism” – and makes her case with observations about the autocrats she has dealt with and brisk histories of past dictators and the horrors that they unleashed. A devil’s portrait gallery includes Benito Mussolini, the original fascist, and Adolf Hitler, the most destructive. Then there’s Donald Trump.
Benito Mussolini, the original fascist, and Adolf Hitler, the most destructive. Then there’s Donald Trump.
The central message of John Gray’s Straw Dogs is as stark as it is startling. Human progress, declares Gray, was a myth. “If we thought we were steadily becoming more civilised, then we were delusional. Instead, human beings are “weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing”.
In The Silence of Animals, John Gray broadens his focus to take in the search for happiness and the belief – again, deluded – that man is a freedom-loving animal.
Rather, he says, it’s tyranny we often seek – with rather more zeal than we like to imagine. “Tyranny offers relief from the burden of sanity and a licence to enact forbidden impulses of hatred and violence.” And then there’s the human attitude to silence, which gives the book its title. “Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion.”
The normal course of history is ethnic and religious conflicts, conflicts over resources, secret treaties and great power politics.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about John Gray is that he thinks all progress is a myth. In fact, he happily concedes that in lots of ways life now is a lot better than it was, say, 200 years ago. “What I’m really saying is that a lot of people nowadays cling to the idea of a slow evolution of human history – something I believe is more fantastic than the belief that God will raise us from the dead.”
Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Gray wrote an article jokingly suggesting that if we were going to wage wars of liberation to modernise people, we should also modernise torture. This prompted a predictable chorus of infuriated shrieks. “But what happened? In the blink of an eye the world’s pre-eminent liberal democracy rehabilitated torture, reclassifying it ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’.”
Under George Bush and Dick Cheney and an army of like minded minions who was able, through a unique combination of discipline, guile and luck, to bend reality to their will. America was irreversibly changed. Obama failed to reverse its toxic culture. No one responsible for the greatest collapse of the American economy was held responsible.
Blair, Howard and Bush believed a sense of subjective certainty is all that is needed for an action to be right. If deception is needed to realise the providential design, it cannot be truly deceitful. John Gray
No one gets a free pass regardless of high and mighty you are. You get the same scrutiny as everyone else. Deal with it.
Denial of human dignity #
Shelly: There’s a certain level of Ozymandian arrogance at play, together with its “sneer of cold command”, a boastful, “look on my works, ye mighty and despair,” while nothing besides remains
Orwell: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”
Auden, in The Shield of Achilles, portrays a world to come in which totalitarian societies dominate and the worth and dignity of the individual human being are lost. He warns those who stand by, decent though they may seemingly be, and say nothing are guilty.”
Plato and Socrates argued that the best defence against tyranny is laughter and ridicule. We hope to retain some semblance of sanity long enough to laugh at human folly.