Commentary

Autocracies vs. the living

What makes someone incompatible with autocracy?

Post continues from here.

When borders can be crossed (exit) or at least the treatment of individuals be influenced by said individuals (voice), there is no need to break in and get “institutionalized”. But when either of those things are are taken away – and they tend to be taken away in autocracies – a weird thing happens with people’s minds.

Weird, that is, if you don’t understand the people and their desire to maintain the illusion of control over their lives. It is a false sense of control, but people tend to seek the sense of control, not the real thing when they tell themselves that one can live in an autocracy, one just has to follow the rules. In fact, the unpredictability of the powerful is just as prevalent in an autocracy as it is in a prison, where the guards may resort to unprovoked violence to keep prisoners on their toes. (Unpredictable violence is a known brainwashing method of cults and abusive staple of domestic violence. It is also a power tool of autocracies. The fear from more unpredictable violence makes people fall into a pattern of obedience to the oppressor – and only hope that he won’t become violent again. But without any control over the situation.) 

But people slowly sinking into the urine-warm mud of autocracy tend to try loyalty first, even if that means changing their minds about what they want and replacing it with what is wanted of them, or changing their minds to want the inevitable. Unlearning how to want, as if they were in a prison. But that is a one-way road – less and less likely to solve the original problem that is the autocrat.

Apart from exit and voice, the third choice is loyalty in Albert O. Hirschman’s original theory. Not the pretense of loyalty, but the actual thing. Just as Stockholm syndrome is not the pretense of bonding with the kidnapper, loyalty to the inevitable is not the pretense of loyalty. For its victims, it feels real.

Remembering how to want is a painful thing under oppression. Even if just tiny things that cannot be had. It makes you hurt every single time you can’t get what you want. From that point you have three options: exiting oppression, trying to make it go away – or the third one, the most prevalent one. The one that is so ubiquitous society has collectively forgotten about it: changing your mind to what what is wanted of you. It is a survival mindset. Not conducive to prosperity – that is why autocracies impoverish and decline.

But when freedom eventually replaces oppression, this survival mindset becomes a problem.

The thing that made people well-adjusted to unfreedom,  to survive under the confines of oppression, suddenly becomes a dysfunctional coping mechanism under freedom. Just as Brooks felt fear after leaving the confines of a high-security prison, survivors of dictatorships find it difficult to cope with freedom. If they embrace it, they have to mourn for their life lost under unfreedom. Their best years. Everything they have learned to be true in survival is dysfunctional during life.

If they try to keep the same survival strategies that worked under dictatorship – bribes, backstabbing, sucking up to political strongmen and turning their backs to persecuted friends and minorities – they do not work. If they try the same strategies to run a business – monopoly, regulatory privileges, bribes – they will fail.

Developing a talent to second guess the mind of your oppressors, dissolving your sense of self to see things from his point of view, to take his interest (his sovereignty) more at heart than your own, the ability to serve with a smile makes you succeed in imprisonment, in an abusive marriage, or under oppression. In this context, success merely means being a bit better off than fellow inmates, enjoying a few privileges, but always at the mercy of the oppressors because the sense of control over whether you are beaten is illusory. But these coping tools make you fail under freedom.

It is hard to unlearn unfreedom – especially since many have no idea what it actually consists of. We cherish many aspects of our unfreedom as valuable in their own right – and that creates taboos that hinder our development under freedom. But just like prison friends hinder our thriving when we are set free, mental taboos internalized under unfreedom weigh us down and hinder our advancement under freedom.

But how to be rid of them if we don’t even know what they are? How to clean our minds while we don’t even know it is spoiled? How to let go of the mental bars we have come to cherish? Easier to just freeze in fear. Lash out or to shut down. We have no kidnapper to adjust to, no cult to dictate what we want and what we hate, but also no ability to want things for ourselves – but we still have the choice of exit. Maybe we always had the choice of exit. And that makes our loyalty even more embarrassing, and freedom a hateful reminder of that. And if fear can turn into hate – can hate turn into fear?

Just like The Shawshank Redemption, We the Living had three major characters representing three different approaches to oppression. The protagonist, Kira Argounova, never relented. She kept her ideals intact even when she was in no position to live by them, continuously seeking escape.

Her two lovers represented two pathways under oppression. One true believer, who later came to see the problems with his loyalty, and a rebel, who eventually buckled under the burden of oppression and sold out. Oppression ruins people, and the relationship between them. Betrayals, the need to betray each other, the need to lie in order to survive – these are not parts of any love story.

Only Kira remained adamant and attempted escape on foot through the closed borders. She couldn’t escape, but her mind had always remained free. She did all she could to be able to live that freedom, but she died during an attempted escape – her own prison break. But ultimately, because she never resigned and changed her mind to match her oppressors’ will, she has always been free. So when she was dying in the snow field at the border, she smiled.

“She smiled. She knew she was dying. But it did not matter any longer. She had known something which no human words could ever tell and she knew it now. She had been awaiting it and she felt it, as if it had been, as if she had lived it. Life had been, if only because she had known it could be, and she felt it now as a hymn without sound, deep under the little hole that dripped red drops into the snow, deeper than that from which the red drops came. A moment or an eternity – did it matter? Life, undefeated, existed and could exist.”

Or as The Shawshank Redemption put it in bumper sticker:

“Get busy living – or get busy dying.” 

Featured image: Alida Valli as Kira Argounova in the 1942 film adaptation of We the Living (dir:  Goffredo Alessandrini), an 1936 novel by Ayn Rand

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