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Posts Tagged ‘authoritarianism

“Remedies are more tardy in their operations than diseases… it is easier to crush men’s spirits and their enthusiasm than to revive them”*…



It is time to bring Tacitus and the vibrant intellectual tradition that he inspired out of the shadows. Indeed, in an era in which the recrudescence of great-power rivalry has increasingly taken on ideological undertones, the Roman statesman’s rich commentary on the grim and stultifying nature of autocratic rule is more timely now than ever. Indeed, amid an intensifying battle over competing systems of government, the raw accusatory power that quietly ripples through Tacitus’ oeuvre constitutes a formidable force in liberal democracy’s intellectual arsenal.

Having served under several emperors, eventually reaching the rank of consul under Nerva, the Roman scholar-practitioner’s reflections serve not only as a lugubrious reminder of the gloom of a life shorn of genuine freedom but also as a warning against succumbing to complacency in the face of democratic corrosion within our own societies.

Of all the Roman historians, Tacitus offers the clearest understanding of how moral resignation forms the dank loam within which tyranny takes root…

Despite Tacitus’ towering moral and intellectual influence over the centuries, his works are only rarely consulted by contemporary students of authoritarianism; we should look again: “Thrones Wreathed in Shadow: Tacitus and the Psychology of Authoritarianism.”

* “Remedies are more tardy in their operations than diseases, and as bodies slowly increase, but quickly perish, so it is easier to crush men’s spirits and their enthusiasm than to revive them; indeed there comes over us an attachment to the very enforced inactivity, and the idleness hated at first is finally loved.”   — Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola


As we learn from history, we might that it was on this date in 587 BCE that king Nebuchadnezzar II‘s  siege of Jerusalem ended in his victory, with the destruction of the Temple of Solomon (and much of the rest of the city).

Following an earlier siege (1597 BCE), the Neo-Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar had installed Zedekiah as vassal king of Judah.  But Zedekiah revolted against Babylon, and entered into an alliance with Pharaoh Hophra, the king of Egypt… to which Nebuchadnezzar responded by invading Judah again.


Nebuchadnezzar camps outside Jerusalem. The citizens starve and are reduced to cannibalism. (Petrus Comestor‘s “Bible Historiale”), 1372



“Why is man alone subject to becoming an imbecile?”*…




Donald Trump’s presidency has made the dominance of strongmen elsewhere only more vivid: in Russia, Thailand, Hungary, Brazil, Nicaragua, the Philippines and many other countries. Since around 2016, the question of where the strongman phenomenon comes from has been a constant issue for political theorists. What allows these men to rise? And why now? The answer is often wrapped up in some idea of ‘populism’. ‘The people’, so the thought goes, have gained control of ‘the elites’. This is a view of populism as essentially thuggish and anti-intellectual. The people are insurgent, and with great bluster and bravado the leader claims to speak for them.

But there is, in fact, a robustly intellectual foundation for strongman politics. Populism is not just a bull-in-a-china-shop way of doing politics. There is a theoretical tradition that seeks to justify strongman rule, an ideological school of demagoguery, one might call it, that is now more relevant than ever. Within that tradition, one thinker stands out: the conservative German constitutional lawyer and political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). For a time, he was the principal legal adviser to the Nazi regime. And today his name is approaching a commonplace. Academics, policymakers and journalists appeal to him in order to shed light on populist trends in the US and elsewhere. A recent article in The New York Review of Books argues that the US attorney general William Barr is ‘The Carl Schmitt Of Our Time’. The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt (2017) came out in print the year after Trump’s election. After decades as a political rogue, forced to launch his attacks on liberalism from the sidelines, Schmitt’s name has returned to prominence.

He was the great systematiser of populist thought, which makes him useful for understanding how populist strategies might play out in politics, as well as in the legal/constitutional sphere…

Demagogues do not rise on popular feeling alone but (as seen, e.g., in the advocacy for Brexit and in the opinions of Neal Gorsuch) on the constitutional ideas of Weimar and Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt: “Lawyer for the strongman.”

For an authoritative explication of Schmitt’s beliefs and arguments, see this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

And for an account of Schmitt’s impact beyond the law per se, on political theory and practice– his advocacy of “national greatness” and its centrality both to neo-conservatism and to the reactions against it– see “Carl Schmitt: The Philosopher of Conflict Who Inspired Both the Left and the Right” (from whence, the image above).

…for monarchy easily becomes tyranny, aristocracy easily becomes oligarchy, and democracy easily converts to anarchy. Thus anyone organizing a government according to one of the good forms does so for but a short time, because no precaution will prevent it from slipping into its opposite, so closely are the virtues and vices of the two related.    — Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses, Vol 1

* “…an animal, at the end of a few months, is what it will be all its life; and its species, at the end of a thousand years, is what it was in the first of those thousand years. Why is man alone subject to becoming an imbecile?”  — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality


As we grapple with “greatness,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1215 that King John affixed his seal to the Magna Carta…  an early example of unintended consequences:  the “Great Charter” was meant as a fundamentally reactionary treaty between the king and his barons, guaranteeing nobles’ feudal rights and assuring that the King would respect the Church and national law.  But over succeeding centuries, at the expense of royal and noble hegemony, it became a cornerstone of English democracy– and indeed, democracy as we know it in the West.

170px-Forest-charter-1225-C13550-78 source



Written by LW

June 15, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action”*…


Facial recognition

China’s facial recognition technology identifies visitors in a display at the Digital China Exhibition in Fuzhou, Fujian province, earlier this year


Collective wisdom is that China is becoming a kind of all-efficient Technocratic Leviathan thanks to the combination of machine learning and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism has always been plagued with problems of gathering and collating information and of being sufficiently responsive to its citizens’ needs to remain stable. Now, the story goes, a combination of massive data gathering and machine learning will solve the basic authoritarian dilemma. When every transaction that a citizen engages in is recorded by tiny automatons riding on the devices they carry in their hip pockets, when cameras on every corner collect data on who is going where, who is talking to whom, and uses facial recognition technology to distinguish ethnicity and identify enemies of the state, a new and far more powerful form of authoritarianism will emerge. Authoritarianism then, can emerge as a more efficient competitor that can beat democracy at its home game (some fear this; some welcome it).

The theory behind this is one of strength reinforcing strength – the strengths of ubiquitous data gathering and analysis reinforcing the strengths of authoritarian repression to create an unstoppable juggernaut of nearly perfectly efficient oppression. Yet there is another story to be told – of weakness reinforcing weakness. Authoritarian states were always particularly prone to the deficiencies identified in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State – the desire to make citizens and their doings legible to the state, by standardizing and categorizing them, and reorganizing collective life in simplified ways, for example by remaking cities so that they were not organic structures that emerged from the doings of their citizens, but instead grand chessboards with ordered squares and boulevards, reducing all complexities to a square of planed wood. The grand state bureaucracies that were built to carry out these operations were responsible for multitudes of horrors, but also for the crumbling of the Stalinist state into a Brezhnevian desuetude, where everyone pretended to be carrying on as normal because everyone else was carrying on too. The deficiencies of state action, and its need to reduce the world into something simpler that it could comprehend and act upon created a kind of feedback loop, in which imperfections of vision and action repeatedly reinforced each other.

So what might a similar analysis say about the marriage of authoritarianism and machine learning? Something like the following, I think. There are two notable problems with machine learning. One – that while it can do many extraordinary things, it is not nearly as universally effective as the mythology suggests. The other is that it can serve as a magnifier for already existing biases in the data. The patterns that it identifies may be the product of the problematic data that goes in, which is (to the extent that it is accurate) often the product of biased social processes. When this data is then used to make decisions that may plausibly reinforce those processes (by singling e.g. particular groups that are regarded as problematic out for particular police attention, leading them to be more liable to be arrested and so on), the bias may feed upon itself.

This is a substantial problem in democratic societies, but it is a problem where there are at least some counteracting tendencies. The great advantage of democracy is its openness to contrary opinions and divergent perspectives. This opens up democracy to a specific set of destabilizing attacks but it also means that there are countervailing tendencies to self-reinforcing biases. When there are groups that are victimized by such biases, they may mobilize against it (although they will find it harder to mobilize against algorithms than overt discrimination). When there are obvious inefficiencies or social, political or economic problems that result from biases, then there will be ways for people to point out these inefficiencies or problems.

These correction tendencies will be weaker in authoritarian societies; in extreme versions of authoritarianism, they may barely even exist…

In short, there is a very plausible set of mechanisms under which machine learning and related techniques may turn out to be a disaster for authoritarianism, reinforcing its weaknesses rather than its strengths, by increasing its tendency to bad decision making, and reducing further the possibility of negative feedback that could help correct against errors. This disaster would unfold in two ways. The first will involve enormous human costs: self-reinforcing bias will likely increase discrimination against out-groups, of the sort that we are seeing against the Uighur today. The second will involve more ordinary self-ramifying errors, that may lead to widespread planning disasters, which will differ from those described in Scott’s account of High Modernism in that they are not as immediately visible, but that may also be more pernicious, and more damaging to the political health and viability of the regime for just that reason.

So in short, this conjecture would suggest that  the conjunction of AI and authoritarianism (has someone coined the term ‘aithoritarianism’ yet? I’d really prefer not to take the blame), will have more or less the opposite effects of what people expect. It will not be Singapore writ large, and perhaps more brutal. Instead, it will be both more radically monstrous and more radically unstable…

Henry Farrell (@henryfarrell) makes that case that the “automation of authoritarianism” may backfire on China (and on the regimes to which it is exporting it’s surveillance technology): “Seeing Like a Finite State Machine.”

See also: “China Government Spreads Uyghur Analytics Across China.”

* Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison


As we ponder privacy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1769 that the first patent was issued (in London, to John Bevan) for Venetian blinds.  Invented centuries before in Persia, then brought back to Venice through trade, they became popular in Europe, then the U.S. as both a manager of outside light and as an early privacy technology.

venetian blinds source


Written by LW

December 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Central planning didn’t work for Stalin or Mao, and it won’t work for an entrepreneur either”*…


Amazon central planning


Applying science to social problems has brought huge dividends in the past. Long before the invention of the silicon chip, medical and technological innovations had already made our lives far more comfortable – and longer. But history is also replete with disasters caused by the power of science and the zeal to improve the human condition.

For example, efforts to boost agricultural yields through scientific or technological augmentation in the context of collectivization in the Soviet Union or Tanzania backfired spectacularly. Sometimes, plans to remake cities through modern urban planning all but destroyed them. The political scientist James Scott has dubbed such efforts to transform others’ lives through science instances of “high modernism.”An ideology as dangerous as it is dogmatically overconfident, high modernism refuses to recognize that many human practices and behaviors have an inherent logic that is adapted to the complex environment in which they have evolved. When high modernists dismiss such practices in order to institute a more scientific and rational approach, they almost always fail.

Historically, high-modernist schemes have been most damaging in the hands of an authoritarian state seeking to transform a prostrate, weak society. In the case of Soviet collectivization, state authoritarianism originated from the self-proclaimed “leading role” of the Communist Party, and pursued its schemes in the absence of any organizations that could effectively resist them or provide protection to peasants crushed by them.

Yet authoritarianism is not solely the preserve of states. It can also originate from any claim to unbridled superior knowledge or ability. Consider contemporary efforts by corporations, entrepreneurs, and others who want to improve our world through digital technologies. Recent innovations have vastly increased productivity in manufacturing, improved communication, and enriched the lives of billions of people. But they could easily devolve into a high-modernist fiasco…

But this characteristically high-modernist path is not preordained. Instead of ignoring social context, those developing new technologies could actually learn something from the experiences and concerns of real people. The technologies themselves could be adaptive rather than hubristic, designed to empower society rather than silence it.Two forces are likely to push new technologies in this direction. The first is the market, which may act as a barrier against misguided top-down schemes. Once Soviet planners decided to collectivize agriculture, Ukrainian villagers could do little to stop them. Mass starvation ensued. Not so with today’s digital technologies, the success of which will depend on decisions made by billions of consumers and millions of businesses around the world (with the possible exception of those in China)…

That said, the power of the market constraint should not be exaggerated. There is no guarantee that the market will select the right technologies for widespread adoption, nor will it internalize the negative effects of some new applications. The fact that Facebook exists and collects information about its 2.5 billion active users in a market environment does not mean we can trust how it will use that data. The market certainly doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be unforeseen consequences from Facebook’s business model and underlying technologies.

For the market constraint to work, it must be bolstered by a second, more powerful check: democratic politics. Every state has a proper role to play in regulating economic activity and the use and spread of new technologies. Democratic politics often drives the demand for such regulation. It is also the best defense against the capture of state policies by rent-seeking businesses attempting to raise their market shares or profits.

Democracy also provides the best mechanism for airing diverse viewpoints and organizing resistance to costly or dangerous high-modernist schemes. By speaking out, we can slow down or even prevent the most pernicious applications of surveillance, monitoring, and digital manipulation. A democratic voice is precisely what was denied to Ukrainian and Tanzanian villagers confronted with collectivization schemes.But regular elections are not sufficient to prevent Big Tech from creating a high-modernist nightmare. Insofar as new technologies can thwart free speech and political compromise and deepen concentrations of power in government or the private sector, they can frustrate the workings of democratic politics itself, creating a vicious circle. If the tech world chooses the high-modernist path, it may ultimately damage our only reliable defense against its hubris: democratic oversight of how new technologies are developed and deployed. We as consumers, workers, and citizens should all be more cognizant of the threat, for we are the only ones who can stop it.

At the same time that science and technology have vastly improved human lives, they have also given certain visionaries the means to transform entire societies from above. Ominously, what was true of Soviet central planners is true of Big Tech today: namely, the assumption that society can be improved through pure “rationality.”  Daron Acemoglu— Professor of Economics at MIT,  and co-author (with James A. Robinson) of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (forthcoming from Penguin Press in September 2019)– explains: “Big Tech’s Harvest of Sorrow?

[Illustration above from “The Singular Pursuit of Comrade Bezos,” also worth a read.]

* Michael Bloomberg


As we rethink “reason,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1894 (one year before Marconi’s first demo) that distinguished physicist Oliver Lodge achieved the first successful radio transmission of information via Morse Code in a presentation to the British Association for the Advancement of Science at a meeting in Oxford.  He sent a message about 50 meters from the old Clarendon Laboratory to the lecture theater of the University Museum.

Lodge continued to develop his approach, and patented several elements of it… running into intellectual property disputes with Marconi.  Finally, in 1912, Lodge, at heart an academic, sold his patents to the more determinedly-commercial Marconi.

220px-Oliver_Joseph_Lodge3 source


Written by LW

August 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Change threatens, and its possibility creates frightened, angry people*…




Ferdinand Mount has for years been a voice of the Tory establishment; he was described thusly by the (conservative) Telegraph:

Ferdinand Mount is a baronet who prefers not to use his title, a former nanny to the children of American millionaires who later headed Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street Policy Unit, the most scrupulously intelligent man ever to be appointed as an editor by Rupert Murdoch, the nephew of Anthony Powell, and himself the author of a sequence of novels, ‘A Chronicle of Modern Twilight’, cherished by all those who like their fiction to be amusing, elegant and expletive-free.

So his thoughts on Brexit and the political situation in Britain are especially tangy:

Yes, this is a right-wing coup. It is duplicitous or self-deceiving to pretend that British politics is still proceeding more or less as normal. We are told that it is ‘hysterical’ to argue that Boris Johnson’s regime is in any way comparable to the nationalist dictatorships of yesterday or today. If this is a temptation, I shall happily succumb to it as a patriotic duty. By every standard of measurement, the Conservative Party has been transformed into Britain’s own BJP. ‘Optimism with a hint of menace’ was how the Sunday Times approvingly described Johnson’s first days in power – pretty much the way you might describe the first hundred days of Narendra Modi, or Donald Trump, or Benito Mussolini. Yes, he has come to power by strictly constitutional means. So did they all. It is how they govern when they get there that counts.

First, there was the brutality of the cabinet cull. Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives pales by comparison, as do Margaret Thatcher’s most far-reaching reshuffles. Both Supermac and Thatcher took care to include up and coming ministers from all wings of the party. Johnson has included only yes-people, or placemen who have vowed omertà in advance. His rhetoric has already assumed a strongman strut. He tears up prepared speeches in favour of sunlit-uplands rants peppered with sentimental appeals to ‘the will of the people’. Implicit in this waffle is a barely concealed contempt for the judiciary and for Parliament. In his two spells in the Commons, Johnson has never bothered to shine, or indeed even to turn up much. His most significant promotion was that of Dominic Raab as foreign secretary, the only man to have issued a veiled threat to prorogue Parliament to get his gang’s way.

We are already beginning to take for granted Johnson’s abusive tone towards international institutions and foreign leaders, except those like Donald Trump who talk the same mixture of bluster and treacle. At home, we are promised more mega-bridges and bonanza buses, the sorts of project with which dictators always like to dazzle the plebs. Here, the author of Boris Island Airport and the garden bridge is at least staying true to form.

What still puzzles some people is that so many old-fashioned Tories should have fallen for such a seedy, treacherous chancer. In fact, I think Johnson has succeeded because of his amorality, not despite it. The transgressive sayer of the unsayable breaks through the carapace of conventional politics with a mixture of humour and vituperation, slang and high-flown rhodomontade. Clowning is part of the act for the leader who wants to reach beyond good and evil in the fashion Nietzsche recommended. A cartoon Superman? Yes, but they all are. See Charlie Chaplin, passim.

How long will he last – five weeks, five years? I have no idea. All I can say is what I see. And it is not a pretty sight. Our new skipper has consistently admitted that he would love to be prime minister ‘if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum’. But that isn’t what happened. He collapsed the scrum, deliberately and repeatedly, and we are all now sprawling in the mud.

From The London Review of Books‘ “How Bad Can It Get– Reflections on the State We’re In.”

Pair with this argument– rooted in the work of psychologist Karen Stenner, described in 2005 book The Authoritarian Dynamic by (a libertarian, not a Democrat, and certainly not a progressive) arguing that it’s “authoritarian fear of difference” that best explains the intolerance, often manifesting as nationalism, sweeping the Republican Party: “What Ails the Right Isn’t (Just) Racism.”  (And, on a similar note, this.)

{Photo above: source]

* “Change threatens, and its possibility creates frightened, angry people. They are found in their purest essence on the extreme right, but in all of us there is some fear of process, of change.”
Carl R. Rogers


As we brace for more bluster, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) began construction of the Berlin Wall, a guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989.


View from the West Berlin side of graffiti art on the Wall in 1986



Written by LW

August 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

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