Democratic-Authoritarianism: Our Hidden Cultural Predicament



An old article that I sent to The Hindu, but didn’t cut for publication. So here it is –

“The more we live as ‘free individuals’ . . . the more we are effectively non-free, caught within the existing frame of possibilities–we have to be impelled or disturbed into freedom. . . . This paradox thoroughly pervades the form of subjectivity that characterizes ‘permissive’ liberal society” – Slavoj Zizek

For the past few weeks, the major topic of social discourse has been Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification as a Member of Parliament. Convicted by a Surat court in a defamation case over a certain surname remark, the debacle has sparked conversations on freedom of expression and more importantly, the future of Democracy in India. Rather than subscribe to the usual adage of arguments for Democracy, I shall proceed to make a more radical claim and defend it. Democracy, almost always and especially concerning our current plight, is no different from Authoritarianism.

Democracy, originating from the greek word demokratia, demos ‘people’ and kratos ‘rule’, is a form of government in which the citizens have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation or choose governing officials to do so. The former, aptly named direct democracy, is not found in practice, always resorting to representative democracy i.e. the latter. Such a theory, along with Natural Rights, makes an unfounded assumption, often invalid in reality. That people know what they want, that we are free to choose however we may. I reject this claim and subsequently make its radical opposite: we don’t really want what we think we want.

Ideology, according to the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, are a system of beliefs based on false consciousness. Frameworks that establish faux objectives, for society in general, and proceed to find reasons for this predetermined end. Ironically it is impossible to detect ideology when we are in it ourselves. It controls the way we think, embedded into the social reality that we occupy. In other words, it is the unknown known. For instance, the Pursuit of Happiness is often seen as the end of human life, extending its influence outside the Declaration of Independence. To quote Zizek – If there is a point to psychoanalysis, it is that people do not want or desire happiness. Not to mention countless empirical studies that consistently prove that human beings do not desire this vain pursuit.

Obfuscated by countless ideologies like the above, it makes no sense to give Democracy this transcendental value. Even when it is more dangerous than traditional authoritarianism. The traditional authoritarian leader visibly exercises power over the citizens, excluding potential challengers and engaging in political repressions amongst other things. Here, the injustice happening is apparent to every individual inside the state. Consider, on the other hand, an ideologically-obfuscated democracy. With an intelligent leader and a sufficiently capable propaganda machine, the citizens could be manipulated to democratically choose authoritarianism. Not to invoke Godwin’s Law, but take Nazi Germany. Hitler was widely popular among the german people, who made up the majority of citizens and elevated to almost god-like levels of worship. It was only the Jews, the outsider minority, who opposed him considering the inhumane punishments taken upon them.

In John Carpenter’s 1998 film, They Live, the plot revolves around a pair of sunglasses that reveal the hidden messages of objects and institutions around them. Our protagonist John Nada perceives the currency, US Dollars, as a white paper inscribed with the text – “This is your God” – upon wearing the sunglasses. An ode to the amount of control capitalism has in contemporary American society. It is my fervent objection that we, as global citizens, have elevated ideas of democracy and liberalism to transcendental levels, essentially taking the place of religious texts they replaced. Unless, and until, the sunglasses of ideology are destroyed, we are subject to a stronger form of authoritarianism – a democratic one. We are unfree precisely because we are free.

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