A Refracted Mirror: Consensus Building In Autocratic Regimes

I have long been a student of autocracy and its workings, as my passionate commitment to egalitarian practices has made me a recognized and determined enemy of tyranny from my youth. Today a conversation about Saudi Arabia prompted me to think on how different autocratic regimes appear on the inside and on the outside. I have already commented about this phenomenon once before from the perspective of solidity [1], but I would like to examine the problem again from a different angle, and offer insights on how autocracy works in practice, and why it is not always recognizable as such to those who are themselves in autocratic regimes.

Autocratic regimes are a refracted mirror, like looking at an image in the pool. The surface of the water in a pool causes light waves to bend, so that images (and their locations) appear very different whether one is in the pool or whether one is looking inside the pool. Nor is water the only medium that causes this refraction to occur. It also occurs in the field of political philosophy, where people, their motivations, and their political systems appear far different based on whether one is an insider or an outsider. An insider often sees a normal image while an outsider sees something distorted. Changing status from an outsider to an insider, or an insider to an outsider, also changes the way you view the same phenomena.

Let us examine this phenomenon in two ways. First, let us examine the nation of Saudi Arabia. To the outside world, Saudi Arabia does not appear to be a very free country. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is punishable by death, foreign maids are kept in conditions approaching if not actually reaching slavery, and are frequently beheaded, women are prevented from driving vehicles, and the government appears to be an unholy mixture between a gerontocracy [2] and a barbaric theocratic monarchy. Suffice it to say that the thought of setting foot in Saudi Arabia is not something I would feel very comfortable about, and I’m a pretty daring world traveler (I would feel safer in Somaliland and Northern Cyprus, for example).

However, I have within my circle of acquaintances someone who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, and he tells a very different tale. He tells a story of kings and men making decisions by consensus in family councils, of a great deal of freedom in discussion, and a country where he felt comfortable and free. Such a Saudi Arabia is not the image I have when I think of the country. And yet I believe he is telling me the truth. That is because I have enough experience of my own in dealing with autocracies and how they work to understand that they are very different on the inside and on the outside. That is to say that they are a refracted mirror that appears very repressive for outsiders but very comfortable to insiders. The act of being granted inside status in such a regime (as my acquaintance was, by his ability to participate in the consensus-building family councils) itself makes the regime and how it operates feel and appear far less repressive and far less repressive. Indeed, what is autocratic can appear to be very egalitarian without losing its essential core of autocracy in how it appears to outsiders.

How is this possible? In fact, it’s very straightforward. That said, before I go into explaining the case intellectually, I would like to give a personal example that explains why the question interests me in the first place. I was born in the Worldwide Church of God during what was known to insiders as the period when Worldwide was “back on track” in the early 1980’s and what people like myself considered the “reign of the Ayatollahs”. (The relationship between the unholy theocratic autocracy of Iran or Saudi Arabia and that of the Worldwide Church of God, and many of its splinter groups, is not coincidental. Nor is my interest in it accidental.) Largely because of my own horrific childhood, I became driven to understand autocracy and tyranny and how it worked, and how I might avoid being its victim again, when I was able to speak up for myself and do something about it. It should be noted that my intense hostility to abuse of power and authority has tended to self-select me as an outsider when it comes to autocracy, as both those who support and those who rule in tyrannical regimes have tended to view me automatically and instinctively as an enemy.

Nonetheless, I have seen enough of how autocracies operate to realize that they are not what meets the eye. For outsiders to the Worldwide Church of God, the word “cult” gets thrown around a bit too freely. And when one examines the mental images of people drinking kool-aid in mass suicides, that is a bit over-the-top. But in an essential way (shared with, say, monarchies or theocracies in general) there clearly is a cult of personality in a vast majority of the Church of God culture. I do not share it, but I have suffered from it and I recognize it. Some truths cannot be spoken; some doors cannot be opened; some rails cannot be touched. When that is the case, one is dealing with an autocracy, regardless of its form of government. For the form is but the avatar; it is what is inside that matters. On the outside, the Worldwide Church of God (and many of its offshoots) have tended to seem like very barbaric autocracies. Marriages were broken up because someone had made an ill-advised marriage decades before conversion. Communication in sermon messages is, in times of crisis, often in code because some people know what is really going on but those people do not want others to know before their plans are complete and successful. People were told whether they could or could not wear make-up, how long their dresses had to be, how long their hair could be, what kind of sugar or flour they could cook with. Clearly this was an autocratic regime, and so it was.

But it did not appear so to those who were insiders. If you are an insider in an autocratic regime, you do not see the wizard behind the curtain. You do not feel your arms pulled by a puppeteer. Instead, you feel a very friendly atmosphere of meetings, hunting trips, conferences, frequent and friendly dinner conversations, golf outings, and the like. You see promotions through the ranks based on loyal service (which you do because you genuinely support what you feel as your party, your group, your organization). You see yourself supporting a group of orderly, orthodox men against rebellious upstarts or intellectual revolutionaries who want to destroy your order and bring chaos and heresy.

If you are an insider, you do not see an autocracy as such because no system of rule can survive without buy-in or some kind of recognized legitimacy. Likewise, no autocracy can survive without a lot of willing helpers. Unless the leader is a total psychopath (and even then, sometimes), there have to be a substantial amount of “willing executioners” to make any autocratic regime function. There has to be an (often intensely feuding) inner circle where people fight over positions and titles and succession plans so that they can be the next in command when the old man drops dead and opens the top chair. There have to be ways, whether blood or tenure, where the intense political competition of insiders is not translated into opportunities for advancement for (unsuitable and potentially disloyal) outsiders. In addition, there has to be a way to train up leaders after one’s own satanic image (unfortunately, this is not very difficult) that can serve the essential lower ranks of leadership. These people are often cultivated for loyalty (and truly, it is not hard to be loyal to those who give you power and titles) and often do much of the grunt work necessary for keeping such regimes operating. Nonetheless, we must be careful to remember that the vast majority of this is done voluntarily, through genuine consensus, rather than by coercion.

This is not always sufficiently realized or appreciated. In autocratic regimes, there is a great deal of self-worth that is derived from positions of authority. When one’s sins are overlooked mercifully (but carefully recorded for future blackmail purposes), where one’s livelihood and self-respect depend on one’s position above the oppressed common herd, and where one receives a great deal of (genuine) enjoyment from the social rites of being an elite, even a subordinate one, those of us who preach and (at least attempt to) practice egalitarian behavior seem (and are) a genuine threat to one’s well-being. Clearly, such people must be stopped at all costs if one is to preserve one’s own dignity and honor, all of what makes life worth living. For when you are inside the pool and look at, you see what others take as the minimum acceptable freedoms as chaotic and anarchial and disorderly. Before one can see autocracy as outsiders see it, one must become an outsider (which is often a very painful process). To see autocracy as an insider, all one has to do is be seduced by its spectacle, and by its far less autocratic operation (than appears the case for an outsider). It is a rare person who can see it from both angles–see how it operates in practice (which is consensual, through meetings and agreements, and often filled with fierce internecine conflicts and personality conflicts over titles and power) as well as how it appears from the outside (as a monolithic edifice, as so many autocratic regimes love to build out of stone) as well as how it treats the common people (as sheeple to be exploited and dominated and controlled).

The picture of an autocracy is hard to understand, and it is hard to do justice to its complexities and enigmas. Few people even try, unless their own personal experience leaves them no opportunity to understand the absurdity of their lives than to understand why and how they suffered so, and why so many people seem to go along without seeing what is so terribly wrong. For one cannot make other people see the horrible truth about autocracies in how they operate towards outsiders, or convey to those who are on the outside how such a system could appeal to anyone. All one can do is seek to understand as best as one can for one’s self, so that one sleeps with one eye open, and remains ever vigilant against oppressing other people as one hates so much to be oppressed.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/the-termites-of-history/

[2] Gerontocracy is a word I coined some years ago describing “rule by old people.”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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16 Responses to A Refracted Mirror: Consensus Building In Autocratic Regimes

  1. David Lewis says:

    We often do not realize that some of the worst tyrannies were often very popular. Hitler and Stalin had tremendous support. Half of iRAN voted for AHMADINEJAD and maybe half of Libya supported Qaddafi to the bitter end!

    • Precisely. If we see tyranny only from the outside we will never be able to account for its appeal without insulting the character or intelligence of the people who support such regimes.

  2. Alex Zajac says:

    An excellent book that was recently published deals with this topic by examining why people voluntarily support tyrants, “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters” by Jason Sterns. It attempts to chronicle the disasterous wars in the Congo over the last 20 years by asking many of the perpetrators of the violence. The late President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo said back in 1996 that everyone in the country was guilty, on some level, of, “Dancing in the glory of the monster,” reveling in and participating in the Kleptocracy of Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko.

    • That does sound like an excellent book. Too often those who are foes of tyranny spend their time demonizing the rulers (who are certainly evil enough) while not sufficiently understanding the way in which any government (regardless of how oppressive or wicked) receives legitimacy and popular support. By making cardboard two-dimensional villains we fail to see just how evils get perpetuated, and fail to see those same evil tendencies within ourselves or guard against them when we too are faced with the Faustian bargains that such governments offer to their people in times of crisis.

  3. Brian says:

    Enjoyed the analysis. For years I have been amazed and embarassed that my church experiences have taught me so much about dysfunctional and oppressive behavior. My father used to point out that God allows us these experiences so that we are determined NEVER to treat others the same way.- Brian

    • Your father sounds like a very wise man–that is exactly the lesson I would draw from it. The fact that there are so many dysfunctional and oppressive regimes in the world mean that understanding them is very useful in such pursuits as political philosophy and international relations that I have a personal interest in.

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