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Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak et al: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin (2)

By Douglas Anele

For instance, if Lenin was not at St. Petersburg when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917, the history of the defunct Soviet Union would have been different from what it is today.

Similarly, if the poverty-stricken and disillusioned Bouazizi had not dramatically committed suicide, Ben Ali, Mubarak and others would have continued with business as usual. It follows that the days of sit-tight rulers who trample on the fundamental rights of the people, no matter how efficient the repressive machine they created might be, are numbered.

There comes a time, not logically specifiable in advance, when people would rise up to reclaim their freedom from oppressors. The desire for freedom, the quest to be, is ingrained in human nature, such that some genuinely courageous individuals are ready to lay down their lives for it. This consideration takes us to the problem of freedom, to the intriguing fact that sometimes a significant number of people in a country embrace authoritarianism.

The pertinent questions here are: Why do people support totalitarian rulers? Why do dictators and sit-tight rulers sometimes choose the path of self-destruction rather than give up power, as is the case now with Gaddafi of Libya. Few scholars have done more than Erich Fromm to dissect the notion of freedom and its implications for human existence. In his book, Escape from Freedom, Fromm analysed various aspects of freedom which are pertinent to understanding the phenomenon of totalitarianism or authoritarianism and peoples’ submission to it. From his analysis, we can extract the idea of freedom from, that is, freedom from those impediments that hinder us from living productively as individuals.

He also identified freedom to, which involves freedom to be what one wants to be, belong to any legitimate group one wants to belong to, or believe whatever one wishes to believe. Just as the desire for freedom is a basic human trait, there are impulses that compel us to escape from freedom and submit irrationally to authority. Indeed, in some individuals the urge to uncritically surrender to external authority is quite overwhelming. But, why does this happen? How can we explain the phenomenon of submission as antithesis of the quest for freedom and self-determination? Fromm states that, as a human being grows and gradually cuts off its primary ties to nature and biological mother, he develops a quest for freedom and independence – in other words, the process of individuation grows.

The process of individuation, which later on leads to the emergence of selfhood, if not thwarted or distorted by the socio-cultural environment in which an individual finds himself, eventuates into productive activity. However, the feeling of alienation, aloneness or powerlessness also grows with growing individuation, to the extent that in some cases, impulses to surrender one’s individuality arise to overcome the feeling of powerlessness. That is why some people crave for a “strong leader.”

In other cases, people try to overcome existential alienation through morbid quest for, and monopolisation of, political power. To be fulfilled, happy, and connected with the world, a free and independent human being needs solidarity with others, in addition to productive activity in work and love. Nevertheless, if the socio-economic and political condition on which the process of individuation depends lacks certain essential ingredients for blossoming of the self, while simultaneously people have lost those primary connections that gave them security, the lacuna makes freedom a heavy burden to bear. Hence, the individual will eagerly seek other types of human relationship which relieves the feeling of uncertainty though it deprives him of freedom.

Conditions in totalitarian societies engender this tendency, and force people to look upon their leader as a tin god with the power of life and death. But, it is a dangerous delusion to believe that the psychological conditions that compel submission to a strong leader exist only in totalitarian societies. Even in mature democratic countries such as the United States and Britain, the same tendency for irrational submission exists. As Thomas Dye and Harmon Zeigler argued in The Irony of Democracy, although the US claims to operate a democratic system, it is actually governed by elites.

The tiny minority that exercises power purportedly on behalf of the people work hard to ensure the status quo remains fundamentally unchanged. Thus, the essential difference between America and Egypt, say, is that the latter was under the dictatorship of one man, while the former is under the dictatorship of the few. The need to conform, the desire to be materially successful, the atomisation and automatisation of the average worker – in short, the skewed basic conditions under which the majority of people live and work in so-called developed democratic countries  – have created despair and anxiety among the population which constitute fertile soil for violent deviant behaviour and emergence of Fascism.

But why haven’t the unconscious sufferings of Americans led to the type of revolt that took place in Tunisia or Egypt? The answer is: America has for over 200 years developed a system whereby the President is allowed a maximum of eight years in office, thereby reducing the dangers associated with monopolisation of the topmost political office by a single individual for decades and creating the illusion of change at the highest seat of power.

Going back to the title of our discourse, sit-tight leaders are now put on notice that unlike Belshazzar’s case, people will not wait for a deity to write nunc dimittis on the wall on their behalf to proclaim the demise of a particular regime. Rather, they are even willing to pay the supreme price to liberate themselves from the manacle of totalitarianism.



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