Dé Luain, Márta 09, 2009

Expect Trouble In China Soon

"The petition system provides people with the semblance of an appeals process that top leaders hope will keep them off the streets. But for officials at all levels, it seems, the appearance of order — measured by reducing the number of petitions — is an acceptable approximation of actual order." http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/09/world/asia/09jails.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=todayspaper

Surely the happiest lesson of our age is the discovery that Orwell's eternal boot in the face is a near impossibility. The scenario described in 1984 requires a ruling elite wholly unencumbered by any illusion that power has any object but itself. The truth of the matter is that tyrants and authoritarians are hopelessly addicted to illusion; completely obsessed with the idea that society is analogous to the family, that the individual's loyalty to society is based on the same things that make one loyal towards one's parents, gratitude for the protection and sense of identity they provide.

A quick study of modern dictators makes it clear that they consider themselves the literal fathers of their nations with perfect sincerity. Joseph Stalin never bothered appointing a successor. He was convinced that the Soviet Union couldn't possibly function without him and that his own death would be the communist apocalypse. Robert Mugabe, with his Homeric threats to those who would remove him from power, seems to believe he can become some sort of godhead if he can only manage to die as president of Zimbabwe instead of retiring to some beachfront resort.

The NYT article I quoted is about the Chinese government's practice of detaining and sometimes torturing those who file official grievances against local officials. (The right of 'petitioning' the central government goes back to imperial days.) Judging from the amount of trouble they go through, it seems clear that Chinese officials sincerely believe that silencing a complaint effectively prevents that complaint from having ever existed.

The prevalence of religion and chop-down-the-cherry-tree hero sagas in all human societies makes it clear that we need our self-justification myths. Orwell's nightmare of evil geniuses who enjoy dominating for its own bestial sake is impossible because it is the authoritarians among us who need these myths the most. They are the ones who will tear down civilization brick by brick if it would make civilization's reason for being as physical and tangible as the wall in front of my face. To make truth something more real than the electric currents that pass from the logical to the emotive centers of our brains, this is the motivation of the tyrant and those who acquiesce to him.

If an authoritarian regime holds power for an extended amount of time it will eventually forget that there had ever been any competing notions of truth. The collective subconscious of the ruling elite will start to believe that they have the power to will its truth into being while at the same time willing unpleasant or contradictory truths out of existence.

To put it more simply, multiple generations of official propaganda will eventually produce a generation of elites who believe their own bullshit. Orwell's fear was that this belief in official bullshit would gain an intractable hold on the masses, and it seems this does indeed happen in some places for short amounts of time. But of course any regime that zealously believes itself to be inerrant will invariably become corrupt and inept, so that the average citizen will eventually suffer too much outrage to her own self-justification to be able to share the official delusion, regardless of how much pride or sense of security she may have originally gained from embracing Leviathan.

We in the USA have just booted out a regime that embraced its own bullshit with record alercity. We Americans have made the happy discovery that a government that is receptive to its people (though some of us would argue that it is not as receptive as the people think) is actually good for order. Very few countries, rich or poor, have gone as long as we have without a total societal collapse. Even our civil war was remarkably well-organized as far as those things go.

When elites are forced to compete for power in some structured and peaceful way, it forces society to rewrite its self-justification myths as it goes along. This on-the-run sophistry is completely necessary and good. It is what has allowed a society that was avowedly and violently racist to become one in which Martin Luther King is used to sell big macs and, oh yeah, that last election was sort of a big deal.

It's hard to imagine how Africans, women, Latinos, Natives, etc. would have ever brought themselves to express their rage peacefully unless they had some way of knowing that it could do some good. they were able to see a society that jerry-rigged itself as was necessary and was even willing to give up some old sacred piety from time to time.

Authoritarians, along with their authorasexual followers, have always believed in the slippery slope idea that allowing a little bit of dissent here and there will eventually produce chaos. The truth is exactly opposite. A population that cannot express its sense of being wronged will not accept their governments stated reasons for being entitled to rule over them, even more dangerous is the fact that a government of people who believe their own bullshit, unresponsive to the people, will lose all touch of what is happening beneath their feet, so that they will try to reign over society as it existed thirty years ago, or perhaps never at all.

We have seen how this can happen even in a democracy, a party in power that truly believed it could win fifty one percent of the votes forever, wholly ignorant of how dependent they were on the Electoral College and the amplified voice it gives to rural, traditionalist areas. If a regime subject to election can become so blind to what threatens it after eight years, how long can the communist Chinese remain in the dark about the popular discontent under their own feet?

Probably until the peasants break down the palace gates while drunkenly fornicating on top of tanks. That's just history.

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