#152: Democracy vs. Tyranny, or: How Does It Feel to Live in a Dictatorship?

Monument to Giordano Bruno in Rome:
(To Bruno – From the Age he Predicted – Here Where the Fire Burned)

We are seeing continuing criticism of current democratic countries become more and more prevalent. This is, of course, legitimate. Criticism is necessary, it is patriotic, it is the core of what makes democracy democratic. Without it, we would not see any improvements over time. All democratic countries have their faults, have histories that continue to contribute to injustice, and need to deal with current and future challenges in an atmosphere of constant and persistent division, opining, sabotaging of leadership, and even outright nitpicking. Being a leader in a democratic country is a tough job. But in fact, if understood correctly, all citizens in a democratic country are a leader: This is what popular sovereignty means.

It is up to us, each of us, how to shape our common future. If there is any meaning of democracy, it is this: Democracy is the ability to shape your individual destiny, as part of a community for which each citizen holds responsibility. As part of this community, of course, not all your desires and hopes and wishes will be made possible just as you would think. But if we all work together on a shared vision of society, we can create a world in which all of us can feel valued, both supported and challenged, imbued with agency, ensured of the application of justice for all, and enjoying a maximum of individual and civic and political freedoms while still respecting public goods and a shared responsibility for society. As a citizen in a democratic country, you can walk through life with the certainty that you are a sovereign member of society. Even as non-citizen, you would feel protected by the laws ensuring common-sense justice and respect. In a democratic society, your life is predictable, and you will share in the future of the country. You can trust that every injustice, small and large, may eventually be resolved. It may take time, but the arc of history – as Martin Luther King jr. has stated so famously – will indeed bend towards justice.

Justice requires truth, and a continuous quest towards truth. This is how democracy and science are deeply interrelated. Science is a process of permanent and inbuilt error-correction. We are aware that there can be no absolute truth except the power of permanent critique: if you seek truth, you need to question yourself, and be allowed to question everything around you. This critique is not destructive but part of the process to seek out the truth, to make us all better, and improve not just our understanding of reality but also our very democracy. Only within this constant quest for truth – enabled by constant critique – will we find the freedom enabling us to live the best possible life.

This may seem utopian, and it probably is when it comes to the question whether this democratic promise maps with the life experiences of every resident, citizen or not. We are all imperfect beings, and our society will always be imperfect. Yet we should all know by now that utopia is never a reality, but always a promise: Thus hope and hopefulness is part and parcel of democracy. Not without reason has Ernst Bloch rephrased the idea of utopia as the “Principle of Hope.” While our society is not perfect, we can always work to make it better, and we can – together – walk on this path to a perfection that will never come, but will drive us nevertheless towards it.

These principles – sovereignty, community, freedom, truth, justice, trust and hope – mark the core of democracy. Because we are not perfect beings, and our system cannot be perfect, we need to curtail our most selfish impulses. We need to curtail the desire of the majority to dominate the minority, just as well as the need to create compromise and workable solutions. This is why every democracy needs a republican structure with a separation of powers – legislative, executive, judicative – and systems of checks and balances. Larger countries will also benefit from federalism. Various levels of federal, state and local democracy will need to ensure that citizens feel that their voices matter, and democracy is not too abstract. Democracy is the principle, republicanism is about how to make it work.

So much for democracy. How does this work in a dictatorship? Some dictatorships seem livable, especially once you know how to adapt and be silent at the right moments. But if we want to understand the core of a dictatorship, it helps to resurrect the ancient term. A “dictator” was indeed a democratic institution in the Roman Republic – a short-term appointment of a ruler with extended executive powers during a crisis, something akin to what the War Powers Act in the US could be used for. Such a dictatorship would, however, be contained within the republican framework.

When we speak of what commonly counts as dictatorship today, we probably should use the proper term, which is “tyranny.”

Remember the seven principles mentioned above – sovereignty, community, freedom, truth, justice, trust and hope? Now remember Dante’s description marking the entrance of hell: Abandon all hope who enter here – lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

This is what tyranny, modern dictatorship, totalitarian government, whatever you call it will look like:

  • Sovereignty? You don’t have it. Your life is in the hands of those running the government. Your plans for the future are irrelevant, your criticism of the powers that be will have to be muted if you want to live your life, and if you want to be part of the power structure, you will have to abandon your morality, you will become complicit in the crimes of the government.
  • Community? Does not exist. You will be under supervision of the government, and you will need to consider all your friends, even family, as potentially corrupted or corruptible. Trust at your own risk. It will be someone you know who will be playing the role of Judas Iscariot.
  • Freedom? You will have the freedom to do as you are told. Don’t even think your own thoughts, they may betray you when speaking.
  • Truth? The only truth you will hear is what the government determines to be true. Critique or criticism will not be allowed and be equated to sedition. You will live a life situated within nothing but lies.
  • Justice? There will be a superficial sense of criminal justice – even dictatorships will have to deal with murderers and rapists – but anything remotely political will be subjugated under the interests of the leadership.
  • Trust? Trust no one. Your life depends on it.
  • Hope? If the government is doing their job well, you will have no hope. Apathy reigns, and when you see the odd person trying to stand up to injustice, you will think that they are stupid for doing so.

Your entire being will be one of resignation to the inevitable. Your life is the life your leaders are allowing you to have. The only escape will be whatever will be deemed unpolitical – maybe classical literature, film and music if they are not political. Nature may be a refuge. You better keep your religious thoughts private, unless they align with the state-endorsed belief system – but even then, you better not hope for a loving god or justice in the hereafter.

I had the displeasure to grow up in such a system, and the fortune for that time to be limited. And yet, to this day, my mentality and sense of self are still influenced by my early years. Should you, dear reader, ask yourself why I am so unrelenting and maybe unreasonably defensive of democracy, it is because I have seen the alternative. You should not desire it.

No person living under tyranny understands why anyone would reject democracy.

The good news is: Tyranny is like a spell binding a country together in a fog of hopelessness. Yet everyone, subjects and leaders alike, suffer from it. The smallest occasion, the most insignificant seeming thing may break the spell. And once it breaks, once truth can enter into the equation again, it will fall like a house of cards. One day is all it takes.