Ms Alison Dare
Director of Humanities
When I was at school and university in the 1980s and ‘90s it was my firm belief that history followed an upward trajectory. It was as inevitable as the laws of nature that we were heading toward a better future—one that was more free, liberal and democratic. Given the times in which I lived, this assumption seems perfectly reasonable. The year 1989, my second year at university, saw momentous changes around the world. Pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall, democratisation in Hungary and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia made me think that Liberalism always triumphed over Authoritarianism. This conviction was only reinforced when, in 1991, we witnessed the dissolution of the former Soviet Union which was followed by a new era of arms reduction.
As a teacher of History, I sometimes have to remind myself that my students don’t necessarily think the same way about the past as I do. Being born on the other side of what Francis Fukuyama coined, ‘the end of History’, theirs is not a world neatly defined by power blocs. In the lifetime of my students, history seems to have done an about turn. In what has been described as a ‘democratic recession’ (Diamond, 2018), we are now witnessing the abandonment of the principles of shared rule in favour of an authoritarian version of national destiny. Author and journalist Edward Luce (2017) tallies 25 democracies that have failed around the world since the turn of the millennium. In addition to Russia and Venezuela, Luce asserts ‘Turkey, Thailand and Botswana and now Hungary are deemed to have crossed the threshold’. Even in the United States, as the nation heads to the polls, the stability of the democratic system is being conjectured.
How might history help us to understand this trend? The most obvious place to look is the rise of fascist movements in the early twentieth century where there are some compelling similarities between the rise of Fascism then and the emergence of authoritarian governments now. While the two ‘isms’ are not the same thing, they do share some commonalities—it might be said that Fascism is always authoritarian but Authoritarianism is not always fascist. Whether one always slides into another depends on how history is viewed—as either following neat patterns of repetition or being more random in its unfolding. Just as in the early twentieth century, when we saw the emergence of the political strongman, the charismatic leader who seemed at the time to have captured the adoration of the masses, so too now are we witnessing hyper-masculine leader in whose person the nation can be made to rise again. In the face of increasing globalisation, these leaders preach insularity; their ultra-nationalist messages, reinforced via social media, make appeals to an imagined past when things were less complicated. Underpinning the vision, is a silencing of opposition primarily through attacks on journalists, a strong platform of law and order, and ultimately the threat of force.
Most states in Europe that succumbed to Fascism in the early twentieth century had little to no experience of democracy to start with. In such a context and with minimal resistance, power was seized by the strongman, the ‘saviour’ and the embodiment of the state. One key difference between yesterday’s strongman and today’s is the role of the people in their rise to power. Most authoritarian leaders in the world today have been democratically elected by a willing populace. Obviously the reasons people chose authoritarian systems are complicated and multi-factorial. In some cases, those elected leaders change their agenda once in power, while in others elections are being manipulated, terms extended beyond legal limits; information distorted. Thus, while people have agency, the nature of that agency is not straightforward. Furthermore, as political scientists Andrea Kendall and Erica Frantz (2017) assert, ‘Populist-fuelled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce…Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore typically provokes only fragmented resistance’.
While twentieth century Fascism provides some insight for understanding modern day demagogues, an exploration further back in time is also instructive. The rise of ancient Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus (Mussolini’s inspiration), is a salient study in how a system of shared rule can slide backwards into the rule of one. Rome’s Republic was never a full democracy in a modern sense, yet it was a system of shared rule; the word Republic—Res Publica—meant the public business. Embedded in this system was the core principle that power was shared and that it was short in tenure. Given the checks and balances that were created to preserve this system as well as the almost sacred importance it held for the citizens of Rome, it seems baffling that they let this system go.
While Augustus gained ascendancy over his enemies through sheer force on the battlefield—defeating the last of his enemies at the battle of Actium in 31 BC—it was through a series of settlements made with the Senate, the traditional custodians of the Republic, that he structurally transformed the Republic into an autocracy. In the second settlement of 23 BC, the Senate granted Augustus the bulk of the Empire as well as the Republican government itself. In the words of Roman historian Cassius Dio, ‘…the Senate voted that Augustus should be tribune for life and gave him the privilege of bringing before the senate at each meeting any one matter at whatever time he liked, even if her were not consul at the time; they also permitted him to hold once for all and for life the office of proconsul…’ (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 53.32.5-6). Constitutional authority was now arguably nothing more than a façade. Augustus’s power now equalled that of any Hellenistic monarch; he alone came to represent the state—he was above the law.
To understand why Rome’s Republic collapsed, we can (and should) examine charismatic leaders, but we should also pay attention to those who willingly gave up their power. Why was the Senate (those traditional custodians of the Republic) so ready to place in the hands of one man all the powers of the state? Maybe they were worn down by the years of civil unrest. Perhaps, they had become immune to and intimidated by the powers of strong individuals, men such as Pompey and Caesar who had already significantly undermined the principles of shared rule. Whatever the case is, somewhere along the way, the conviction that the Republic was worth fighting for was lost.
The notion that democracy is the inevitable and permanent outcome of history’s forward march is a particularly Western blind spot. The Roman Republic lasted for 482 years—a significantly longer time than the ancient average of 200 years. In Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the trial and execution of Socrates spelt the end of their most crowning achievement. It was for this reason that Plato, Socrates’ most famous student, renounced democracy because in the end, democracy is only as strong as its citizens. If the citizens are ill-informed, the citizens will be unable to make informed decisions and hence the system will fail. Ultimately, democracy requires an educated populace and one that is willing to work hard to maintain their freedom.
Cassius Dio. (1987) The Roman History. The Reign of Augustus (I Scott-Kilvert, Trans.). London: Penguin Books.
Diamond, L. Facing Up to the Democratic Recession. Journal of Democracy 26, no. 1 (2015): 141–55. Retrieved from https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/facing-up-to-the-democratic-recession/
Luce, E. (2017). The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Great Britain: Little Brown.
Frantz, E., & Kendall-Taylor, A. Why Populism Is a Pathway to Autocracy. Institute of Diplomacy and Global Affairs. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.acg.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Why.pdf