May 7, 2022    PhilosophyPolitics

Why So Many Countries Are Stuck With Authoritarianism

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, I’ve been wondering why many countries cannot eradicate authoritarianism. What prevents them from achieving liberal democracy? One common answer is religion. Richard Dawkins would probably take that position, but I believe it’s much more fundamental.

I think there are two components to it. One is that many people believe some things or people are inherently superior even if they consciously claim otherwise. The other is that their desire to escape existential pain, like self-doubt, is overwhelming. Combine these two; we have a world full of people who want to be ruled by superior people in order to alleviate their existential pain.

In Western philosophy, there is a term that describes this belief in inherent superiority: “Logocentrism.” It originally referred to the existence of the irreducible essence of everything. This essence gives birth to countless other derivative words and concepts. For instance, speech was seen as the origin of writing in the West. The former, therefore, was deemed superior to the latter. Even today, face-to-face meetings are often perceived as more meaningful than email exchanges, although, in reality, they both have pros and cons.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida meticulously criticized Logocentrism in his book “Of Grammatology” using this particular example of speech and writing. The problem with Logocentrism is that this search for “origin” never ends. If writing is a signifier, speech is presumably signified, but ultimately the latter is still only a signifier. The words in a dictionary only refer to one another. There is no original word that spawns or anchors meaning for the rest.

Derrida then applied the same strategy to “Deconstruct” other assumed hierarchies in our culture, and the word “Logocentrism” came to mean a form of prejudice that relied on privileging one concept over the other. I believe this Deconstructive view was growing in the West even before Derrida. He just popularized it. In the UK before him, Wittgenstein was articulating the same concept in his later work. (And, he didn’t invent it either.)

I argue that it is this Deconstructive view that is required for a liberal democracy to take roots in society. The key ingredient of authoritarianism is the belief that certain things or people are inherently superior to others. The reason communism turned into authoritarianism in Russia and China isn’t so much that communism is inherently authoritarian. It’s the other way around; it’s because Russian and Chinese cultures were authoritarian that they turned communism into authoritarianism. They believe that some people are inherently or naturally superior, so it makes sense for them to leave these paternal/superior figures to make important decisions for them. The same logic holds true for religious people. They would rather have their religious leaders or God tell them what is right and wrong. By adopting communism, Russia and China only swapped one paternal figure for another, like Jesus for Stalin.

If we look only at religion for the cause of authoritarianism, it’s misleading because China and North Korea are some of the least religious nations in the world. We need to look at people’s need for paternal authority, Logocentrism, or belief in inherent superiority. To put it the other way, we need to measure how Deconstructive, or not, each culture is.

In Europe, France and the UK led the way, and the US drew inspiration from them. Some have swapped God with Reason or Science. They, therefore, are still reliant on something being inherently superior to the other, which means the threat of authoritarianism still exists. They could swap their paternal figure from Science to something else if the situation demands/requires it. In the US, wealth inequality is driving some authoritarian leaders, like Donald Trump, to become popular.

Deconstructive philosophy is not a Western invention. Japan has always been Deconstructive. It embraced Buddhism and created the most Deconstructive version of it because, I believe, Japan was already Deconstructive. (Roland Barthes discusses the Deconstructive nature of the Japanese culture in “The Empire of Signs.”) “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” represents the Deconstructive aspect of Buddhism, but it’s not embraced by many cultures and practitioners. Most of them idol-worship Buddha as God or paternal authority. In Zen, the Buddha is irrelevant. It is so committed to detachment that it warns against attaching to the idea of detachment, which is the same as telling you to kill the Buddha, a self-defeating pursuit.

This means Japan could embrace an authoritarian leader if it wants to (which is why it can have an effective army if the need arises), but at the same time, it can also embrace liberal democracy (which is why it embraced the system Americans installed). It may look like a seismic shift from the outside, but it wasn’t since they never put much stock in any authority that could guarantee peace or fortune. You can see this in the depictions of gods in Hayao Miyazaki’s animations. They are neither good nor bad. Gods take on a variety of forms, like forest, wolf, or deer, beautiful or hideous, and they can be malevolent or benevolent. Humans fear them and worry about appeasing them. They are not invincible either; many of them die in Miyazaki’s animations. The Japanese accept the fact that life is a series of ups and downs, not linear progress toward happily-ever-after. If something seems practically superior, the Japanese have no qualms about dropping everything and switching to it en masse. It can look spineless or selfless from the outside.

Many countries have a democratic government, but only on paper. India, for instance, was recently downgraded to “electoral autocracy” by Sweden-based V-Dem Institute and “partially free democracy” by US-based Freedom House. Most people around the world like the idea of democracy but are not ready for it in reality. Just because you like the idea of being an architect, it doesn’t mean you have what it takes to be one. Likewise, most people still cling to a paternal figure in their lives because it can relieve much of their existential pain. It takes two to tango; authoritarianism consists of those who like to rule and those who liked to be ruled.

If democracy is used simply to choose your paternal authority, it’s no different from religion or theocracy, where you choose whatever God appeals to you the most. I think this is the reason many nations go back and forth between democracy and authoritarianism. Their natural attraction toward authoritarianism gets in the way of eradicating corruption, gangs, and interference of religious figures in politics. Liberal democracy is not possible if the people are still reliant on paternal figures.

Even among non-believers, many have strived to resurrect God in other forms of authority. For liberal democracy to work, people must overcome this attachment to a paternal figure, which does not mean you must reject religion. Quite the contrary, if you are not attached to it, you will be able to accept or reject God. Militant atheism like that of Richard Dawkins is just another form of authoritarianism. (He wants Science to be the paternal figure that tells us what is right and wrong.) For some liberal democracies, this Deconstructive philosophy came naturally, while it was a struggle for others.

Liberal democracy is not inherently superior to authoritarianism. It is subjective, but who admits that they want to live in an authoritarian state? Even Putin and Xi Jinping claim to represent their people. If given a choice to move to any country in the world, most people will choose one with liberal democracy. The migration patterns prove it. Even if China seems peaceful and prosperous now, it’s only a matter of time before its leader becomes isolated and paranoid; if not the current one, then the next one. It’s a predictable pattern of authoritarianism. And, when that happens, almost overnight, one man can destroy everything that the people have built. Authoritarianism is a fortress built on sand. We are supposed to grow out of it in our teens.