June 21, 2023

As history speeds ahead in the Age of AI, it is also being thrown abruptly into reverse. Authoritarian rule is our current Zeitgeist, spreading across the globe from El Salvador to Myanmar.

This isn’t, in fact, all that surprising. The more capitalism shatters traditional pieties, disregards frontiers and uproots whole communities, the more strident become the defenders of family, religion and fatherland. The more narratives of God, People and Nation are spurned as outdated, the more potently they return.

Those for whom identity is flexible confront those who know who they are only too well. For every Texan CEO knocking back free booze in the VIP lounges of airports, there’s a bearded patriarch with a rifle for whom the Other is to be found just over the river. There are some glamorous nightclubs in Istanbul, while around Mardin and Diyarbakir in the Kurdish south-east of Turkey people pray on the pavements and donkeys wander through filling stations.

Tradition and modernity are complicit as well as conflicting. A world of constant flux and restless innovation is in danger of eroding the values by which it legitimates itself. This wasn’t a problem for the Victorians, who despite the pace of social change and the clamour of the marketplace still clung to certain eternal verities. They were aware that you couldn’t legitimise what you did in purely secular, pragmatic terms, not least if it included herding people into slums and workhouses. Instead, there were certain foundational principles to which they could appeal, from the laws of God to the sanctity of the family and the supreme value of the individual.

Precepts like these were particularly important if you were trying to run an empire, a discreditable affair for which you need a whole raft of high-minded rationales. It’s true that there can be an embarrassing gap between your principles and your practice, as there is in today’s United States. Having spent the week bribing officials and shafting your competitors, you gather in church on Sunday morning to celebrate the metaphysical aspect of your existence. On the whole, however, the two sides of your life peacefully coexist, rather as Jacob Rees-Mogg is Victorian toff and modern entrepreneur in a single surreal person.

There are limits, however, to this coexistence. Sooner or later, the fluid, unstable, provisional nature of life in the shopping mall and marketplace is likely to infiltrate the moral sphere as well. It’s then that people begin to talk about postmodernism. Eternal verities drop away, and along with them the stout foundations on which you used to rely for defending your way of life. Talk of God, Progress and the Destiny of the Nation starts to sound hollow in the world of Tesco and Google. It served capitalism well in its earlier, more triumphalist phase, but it doesn’t ring true in the era of Britain’s Got Talent. Instead, moral values become relative and subjective: you may object to serial killing, but personally I find it a lot of fun. This kind of thing may be harmless among friends, but it’s no way to run a country. To do that, you need a firmer framework and a tighter consensus, not least at times of political or economic crisis. Yet what if you have just relativised all that out of existence? What if modern capitalism saws off the branch on which it is sitting?

It’s at this point that turning to nationalism, populism, religion and traditional ethics has its appeal, whether in Ankara or Washington. It’s particularly attractive if you are confronting an enemy such as Islamism, which has no trouble at all with moral absolutes and metaphysical foundations. You don’t want to be left ideologically disarmed in this struggle, even if you’ve done most of the disarming yourself. So large patches of the globe shift towards authoritarianism, which isn’t necessarily the same as coercion. In the recent Turkish elections, for instance, millions of people have just consented to be coerced, or at least consented to a political regime which works in large measure by authoritarian means.

Like any other form of government, such regimes will only survive in the long run if they can persuade enough citizens to identify with them. People must feel that their identity is at stake in supporting this power. They must find themselves reflected in the Leader, as a child may see itself in the fond look of its parents. Because power, law and the state are abstractions, it’s easier to get people to internalise them if they take on tangible form. In autocratic states, power is incarnate in a single figure; but this means that some of the people might identify not with power itself but with the individual who represents it. To avoid this happening, Nature in its infinite wisdom has made a lot of those individuals either faceless or repulsive. Erdoğan, who looks like a harassed, slightly down-at-heel schoolteacher on the point of retirement, is an example of the former. Adolf Hitler was an ill-favoured little runt, Stalin looked like a crafty walrus and Mao was in sore need of a spell in the gym.

Most of these men were dictators, not just authoritarians, and the power of a dictator is absolute. The word “absolute” means free or unrestricted, which includes being unrestricted by circumstances. To say that torturing a baby is absolutely wrong is to say that it’s wrong irrespective of any circumstances you might specify in order to justify it. Absolute power is power which is in principle unconstrained. It may rein itself in, or even show mercy and compassion, but it does these things only when it feels like it.

Nietzsche believed that the Superman should treat ordinary folk with kindness, but he saw this as an act of condescension, not as a moral obligation. It is a form of sovereignty which rests entirely on itself, and is therefore arbitrary. If it had to appeal to law or custom or tradition to validate itself, these things would take precedence over it and it would cease to be absolute. Besides, there are no laws for how the law is to be established in the first place, which means that law has a close affinity with lawlessness. Many political set-ups rely for their stability on people coming to forget the blood and tears in which they were born.

Because absolute power is unrestrained, it can be hard to distinguish it from anarchy, even though it is often anarchy which it is out to suppress. The two are sides of the same coin. In Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where The Wild Things Are, the hero Max becomes king of the wild things, a phrase which contains a crucially ambiguous preposition (of). Does it mean that Max is king over the wild things or the wildest thing of all? The answer, needless to say, is both.

The absolute and the anarchic are also related in another sense. Absolutists are people who fear that the only alternative to rigid laws and precise regulations is total chaos. Unless you have a rule forbidding players to pass the ball back to the goalkeeper, then — key phrase — before you know where you are, all the players will be passing back to the goalie all the time and the game will never get started. One might call this the essence of the authoritarian mind-set. Allow people their freedom and they will abuse it. The fact that they aren’t really people without it is overlooked. How could you possibly have pavements on which people can walk in opposite directions at the same time? Everyone would obstruct everyone else and nobody would ever get anywhere.

It is logical, then, that Shakespeare’s autocratic Lear is accompanied throughout most of the play by the anarchic Fool. There is more than one sense in which the two are terrible twins. For one thing, anyone who wants to be a king must be a fool, at least in Shakespeare’s day. This is one reason why Lear is mad. Monarchs attract envy and aggression, which is why tribal chiefs in pre-modern societies are sometimes ritually beaten during their coronations. This didn’t happen to King Charles, but he still managed to look like a helpless victim throughout the ceremony, as a group of men around his throne kept doing things to him and he just had to sit there and take it.

For another thing, the Fool’s debunkery strips the mask from his master’s authority, showing it to be just as arbitrary as his own antics. The problem with sovereignty is that, being perched on a height, it can’t see itself in the eyes of other people, and so can’t have its identity confirmed by them. This is why Lear begs for someone to tell him who he is. Without dialogue with others, selfhood simply implodes, which is another reason why Lear is mad. In one or two of his other plays, Shakespeare seeks to repair this situation by drawing on the legend of the ruler who moves incognito among the common people in order to learn about their daily lives. Today, minus the incognito, this is known as a walk-about.

Those who are driven mad by power in our own time aren’t so much kings or politicians as celebrities. Like Lear at the beginning of the play, they are told only what they want to hear, and thus see themselves mirrored everywhere they look. Only by encountering otherness can one know who one is, and thus retain a degree of sanity. Otherwise, like a certain famous entertainer, you will end up asking your assistants to stop the wind from blowing.