As you may know, I find the psychology of autocracy totally fascinating. Last week, I spoke about Lisa Wedeen’s book The Ambiguities of Domination, which raised the question: “What is the point of a cult of personality which nobody believes?” In other words, how is it that a government with an ideology that most people know is false can use that same ideology to control people? Here are four explorations of what that sort of situation does to someone and why that makes it effective.
(1) It makes people very aware of their own situation and their role. For a government to fiercely control a population which genuinely admires it is not really an achievement – almost any revolutionary system does this, and for all that the Syrians go on about Hafez’s “Corrective Revolution”, the Ba’th Party post-1970 is not leading a revolutionary government. What is really impressive is to dominate a population which doubts everything you say: not only have you forced them to acquiesce to your rule, but they are aware that they have acquiesced. The whole country is subtly but firmly told: “You don’t believe in us, no-one you know believes in us, but you are all obeying us anyway.” It’s a hideous sort of self-referential autocracy in which the government’s method of dominating is simply to already be doing so.
(2) Its sheer intensity pushes people away and makes them ignore it. This one sounds a little contradictory, but humour me. In Syria, even during the time I was there, there were posters of Bashar and Hafiz everywhere. They were not quite as plentiful as during Hafiz’s era, but they were definitely noticeable. Even though I was only there for a year, I rapidly started to ignore the propaganda and had to have it pointed out to me by my visiting friends and family. As a long-term resident, the things must become completely invisible. No matter what horrible associations you may initially have, no matter what spirals of thought and resistance it sends you into the first time, you cannot function while experiencing that 20 times a day. And so you push them away. You ignore them, and by the same token you ignore everything to do with the government. I can’t remember a time when I took less interest in the politics of a country than my time living in Syria.
(3) It totally undermines any capability for dissent. This functions in two ways: first of all, the statements and praise about the leader become progressively higher and higher. Business-speak works in the opposite way, by generalising language to the verge of uselessness – nobody applying for a job is going to claim that they are not creative. In the same way, if you say that Hafez al-Asad is not “Syria’s premier pharmacist”, then you have hardly said anything at all because no-one believes it anyway. Similarly, criticism of the government on its own terms – for example, showing that it has not accomplished what it claims to accomplish or bringing to light instances of corruption and human rights abuses – cannot in most circumstances undermine that government because the people already know. Simply by coercing people to go along with a total fiction, the government creates a situation in which it is nearly impossible to stir up opposition.
(4) Following on from this, domination becomes cheap and easy. For the Syrian government in the 1990s and 2000s it was no longer necessary to conduct acts of violence against the population – all that was needed was the threat of it. By demonstrating an ability to persuade a whole country to pretend to believe something it didn’t, to get generals to write letters to Hafiz al-Assad in blood (I saw them in the war panorama and they were definitely red ink), by merely having the power to do that, the government economises on actually employing violence. In the same way, after a certain number of years of censorship and security monitoring, people start to behave as if they are being watched and listened to even when it’s patently obvious that they aren’t. In fact, the suggestion of violence seems to have been more effective at controlling the Syrian population than its actual use.