Fearing Tyranny

Chris Barker, Assistant Professor of Political Science, The American University in Cairo.   Barker’s first book, Educating Liberty: Democracy and Aristocracy in JS Mill’s Political Thought, was published by the University of Rochester Press. 

In 2018, I started teaching at The American University in Cairo. AUC President Francis Ricciardone Jr., past US ambassador to Egypt, gave me a book at an introductory luncheon: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

It is supposed to be easy to tell the difference between democracy and tyranny. But sober, well-educated citizens need to work to understand tyranny. This understanding does not come naturally, and if tyranny is the simplest of regimes, as Aristotle says, its particular version of simplicity and formlessness requires study. We know what democracy is—muddling through, majority rule, and civic education to make it powerful and legitimate, plus institutional structures such as rule of law and separation of powers to render it liberal. Thinkers from Tocqueville and Mill to David Runciman help us to see democracy and democratic republicanism, in all its flaws.  But tyranny is a bit harder.

The unthinkable loss of democracy is supposed to occur a certain way. Gradually, someone steals power for themselves, collecting it in one set of hands, as Montesquieu warned. Or they consistently steer the ship of state towards political slavery, as Locke warned. And, sticking with Locke, the good citizen has the star and compass of reason on their side. They can take a deep breath, expand their chest, and prepare to resist.

But that is the thinkable unthinkable. To fully understand the unthinkable unthinkable, you need more theory.

Following Aristotle’s Rhetoric, we can say that tyranny’s character is precisely that it is “undefined.” This lack of definiteness is often meant to circumvent reason and defeat theory. Repression is mean to be surprising. Solzhenitsyn gets it exactly right in the first chapter of The Gulag Archipelago. “That’s all there is to it! You are arrested! And you’ll find nothing better to respond with than a lamblike bleat: ‘Me? What for?'”

Worse, you feel that whatever happened to you, or to your colleague or student, it could have been avoided if only you had turned a different street corner, or posted one different word on social media. It feels like it’s your fault.

This must have been how Dostoevsky felt in the days leading up to his mock execution in Tsarist Russia for being a member of the Petrashevsky Circle. Futility, combined with absurdity. Why me? Why this? The lesson for America about tyranny is this: tyranny will feel like something rather embarrassing. It will feel familiar, if demoralizing. You won’t really want to talk about it, or to explain how it works. And when it finally settles in, when it is really yours and everyone else’s, you won’t think about it at all. And that is the complete marriage of the personal with the political in a form-less regime of power, one with no institutional way out. And that is tyranny.

Let me provide a couple of examples, focusing on the personalization of politics rather than the Montesquieuan or Lockean failures of institutions. These failures can happen anywhere: online, in the street, at home, in the shop or mall. The weakening of civil society is a danger to our institutions, and this lesson is best learned abroad. But it could happen here in the US.

Laws in some countries are never “void for vagueness” as they are in the US. In illiberal republics, vagueness is seen as a virtue of law-making. There may be no law against homosexual conduct or breaking Ramadan fasts or dancing on TikTok, but far-reaching laws against lascivious conduct and other laws protecting undefined “family values” are used to target everyone from the person “tempting” Muslims by eating in public during Ramadan in some GCC countries, to young female social media influencers who (it is alleged) tease and tempt men. 

The consequences for these often young people are astonishing. There is “rotation” (tadweer), where the state arrests, detains, and releases persons who have been held for the maximum time (two years), and then re-arrests them on new charges. This “rotation” leaves people in legal jeopardy for years at a time. The apple is finite—one only has one life—but somehow it can be masticated completely with an unlimited number of bites. People, even young people, die in prison. They accidentally or intentionally drink hand sanitizer, they kill themselves out of shame at morals violations when they’re released, they flee to other countries and kill themselves there. They can’t understand how waving a rainbow flag at a downtown concert brought them to this point, but there they are. This is the equal rule of law without the equality, unless you mean equal vulnerability (and the rich and connected aren’t equal in vulnerability), and without the law. This is simply “rule.”

I first learned a lesson about this sort of arbitrariness in a grey stairwell, where a mid-tier university staffer pretending to walk me out of my building finally explained why no one was answering my emails. It turned out that everyone was breaking a somewhat silly university rule, and no one wanted to admit it in print or even over the phone, because flouting it was a vulnerability – a hook, as Tim Snyder says in On Tyranny, to hang you.

He means that each piece of your private life, every readable email or article, forms part of a dossier that may be held against you. To borrow a bon mot from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, the “legibility” of citizens is an aim of a controlling autocracy. It is also realized in a hyper-accelerated way in our present-day surveillance democracy, where social super-parents can evaluate and punish every word online.

My point is not that my university is a tyrannical panopticon, but that people were afraid that it could be, because they know how power expands wherever it can. Read Shakespeare’s plays and you will get the point. Everyone is vaguely worried that, given the opportunity, every neighbor will become Richard III. And so the thoughts of the average person, the good person, hides in stair wells, or clings to lips that don’t speak truth to power. Soon enough, it’s tempting not even to speak truth to truth.

Or, take the person who skips the line, because they can – or that drives on the wrong side of the road, or pays off the cop, or is the cop paid off. Taking responsibility for the functioning of an equal, predictable, rule-bound society means not skipping the queue when you can, not using your privilege to get a vaccine early. This is a very hard test in an overcrowded, resource-scarce, deeply bureaucratic environment. In response to the myriad rules and imbecilities, sometimes it’s easier to straighten one’s back and yell at someone so you can get what you’re due. But this volubility is not speaking truth to power. It is the power of privilege. It works in a pinch, but the system ultimately fails because of it.

I’m suggesting that the feeling of being damned if you do—complying with arbitrary rules—and damned if you don’t—refusing, and so becoming an agent of arbitrariness—is still something foreign to Americans. Queuing feels like it works in the US. For Americans who abhor the traffic cop, the DMV, the IRS, they would be wise to see that the bus driver who proudly chats your ear off about routes and times is society, or a good metaphor for a well-functioning one.

But there may be a point when this doesn’t work. Consider the republican “eyeball” test defended by Philip Pettit in Republicanism and On the People’s Terms. Meeting someone’s eyes allows you to recognize them as worthy equals who mutually recognize you. However, no amount of corporeal politics, from the ubiquitous Middle Eastern high-five to the American handshake, bridges a social gap that is truly unbridgeable. The use of old Turkish titles such as Pasha holds people apart, whatever my students say. My students are used to these and other titles and honorifics. By their reasoning, if a twenty-year-old girl can be called Pasha, maybe it’s not authoritarian. Maybe it’s even democratic. But this title is almost invariably used by those of a lower caste towards those of the upper caste, and especially by the disempowered when talking to the police. They are vocalizations of a civic fabric that is torn.

Or take another case of “damned if you do or don’t.” The US has certainly had experience of late with oxymoronically-titled personal lawyers who reject the ideal of a “government of laws, not of men.” Under an authoritarian style of governance, personal politics is the norm. This is so true, that people fail to tell apart the snobbish, holier-than-thou lawyer from a lawyer (or judge or academic) who insists on doing the job, and adhering to a professional code and procedure, even when it is inconvenient or unpopular.

To think again of the lesson On Tyranny offers for America, although Snyder is definitely worth reading, his conclusion seems a bit simple. “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom,” he writes, “then all of us will die under tyranny.” This is the type of thing a man says when he doesn’t expect to die for liberty. How can you ask that sacrifice of someone, or for that matter teach it in a classroom where students could very easily be jailed for holding up a small paper sign saying “Free all political prisoners”?

My answer is that teaching theory makes a genuine contribution, and this is something that we can do, whether in the US or abroad. I’ve suggested that it’s not just our institutions that we need to learn, but also respect for robust freedoms in civil society. Opponents of conformism and authoritarianism such as Václav Havel and Czesław Miłosz, JS Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, remind us that restraint and responsibility are required by liberty. Theory then prepares us to heed George Orwell when he says, “Don’t let it happen.  It depends on you.”  

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