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On the Road to Attractive Authoritarianism

by Pankaj Mishra, 11 February 2009

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The Guardian, 11 February 2009

Behind the violence in Gujarat, Gaza and Iraq is the banality of democracy

The moral deviancy of our elite no longer shocks. What is dispiriting is its tacit endorsement by electoral majorities

In his memoir, Secrets, Daniel Ellsberg describes how he decided to risk years in prison by leaking the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret record of American decision-making on Vietnam, to the New York Times. Hoping that his wife, Patricia, would help him make up his mind, Ellsberg showed her a few memos on bombing strategies crafted by his former superiors at the Pentagon. She was horrified by some of the phrases in the documents: "a need to reach the threshold of pain"; "salami-slice bombing campaign"; "the objective of persuading the enemy"; "ratchet"; "one more turn of the screw". "This is the language of torturers," she told Ellsberg. "These have to be exposed."

I recalled this scene while reading about Israel’s objectives in its assault on Gaza, as defined by the country’s political and military leaders and its western supporters. Speaking to a delegation from the Israeli lobby Aipac, President Shimon Peres confirmed that "Israel’s aim was to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel". Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, who had previously explained that the US invasion of Iraq was meant to say "suck on this" to the Muslim world, agreed that "the only long-term source of deterrence is to exact enough pain on the civilians".

Perhaps it is no longer shocking that elected leaders and mainstream journalists in democracies seem to borrow their tone and vocabulary from Ayman al-Zawahiri and Hassan Nasrallah - after all, the war on terror, now officially declared a "mistake", unhinged some of our best writers and thinkers. What is more bewildering and dispiriting than the moral deviancy of our political elites is its tacit endorsement by large democratic majorities.

Democracy, loudly upheld as a cure for much of the ailing world, has proved no guarantor of political wisdom, even if it remains the least bad form of government. In 2006 the Palestinians voted for Hamas, whose doctrinal commitment to the destruction of Israel makes peace in the Middle East even less likely. Given the chance, majorities in many Muslim countries would elect similarly intransigent Islamist parties to high office.

But majority opinion in older and presumably more mature democracies often doesn’t seem much more sensible: the violence approved by it makes much of the devastation caused by terrorists and dictators seem minor by comparison. Initially, at least, Americans overwhelmingly supported George Bush’s catastrophic forays in the Middle East. Operation Cast Lead was blessed by a remarkably high proportion of Israelis, who since 1977 have freely elected a series of leaders - Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon - tainted by involvement in terrorist groups and war crimes, and appear ready to extend their imprimatur to the obstreperously racist Avigdor Lieberman.

When last week in Ha’aretz the Israeli historian Tom Segev judged Israeli "apathy" towards the massacre in Gaza as "chilling and shameful", he brought on deja vu among Indians. In 2002 the Hindu nationalist government of Gujarat supervised the killing of more than two thousand Muslims. The state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, who green-lighted the mass murder, seemed a monstrous figure to many Indians; they then watched aghast as the citizens of Gujarat - better-educated and more prosperous than most Indians - re-elected Modi by a landslide after the pogrom. In 2007, a few months after the magazine Tehelka taped Hindu nationalists in Gujarat boasting how they raped and dismembered Muslims, Modi again won elections with contemptuous ease. Though prohibited from entering the US, Modi is now courted by corporate groups, including Tata, and frequently hailed as India’s next prime minister.

As the Israeli right looks likely to be the latest electoral beneficiary of state terror, it is time to ask: can the institutions of electoral democracy, liberal capitalism and the nation-state be relied upon to do our moral thinking for us? "Trust in the majority," they seem to say, but more often than not the majority proves itself incapable of even common sense.

It is true that thoughtlessness and apathy rather than malicious intent on the part of majorities helps their representatives to perpetrate or cover up such atrocities as Gujarat, the blockade of Gaza, or the occupation of Kashmir - forms of violence less obvious or written about than 9/11, Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai. But this doesn’t make thoughtlessness and apathy less destructive in actuality than the malevolence of despots and terrorists.

Hannah Arendt’s phrase "banality of evil" refers precisely to how a generalised moral numbness among educated, even cultured, people makes them commit or passively condone acts of extreme violence. Arendt marvelled at "the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness".

Shallowness and ignorance have been our lot in the mass consumer societies we inhabit, where we were too distracted to act politically, apart from periodically deputing political elites to take life-and-death decisions on our behalf. We were shielded from many of the deleterious consequences, which worked themselves out on obscure people in remote lands. The free world’s economic implosion is bringing home the intolerable cost of this collective deference to apparently efficient elites and anonymous, overcomplex institutions.

It is too easy to blame Bush, who told Americans to go spend and consume while he ratcheted up pain levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the grotesquely overrated technocrats running banks and businesses. As the New York Times columnist Frank Rich reminded Americans last week: "We spent a decade feasting on easy money, don’t-pay-as-you-go consumerism and a metastasizing celebrity culture. We did so while a supposedly cost-free, off-the-books war, usually out of sight and out of mind, helped break the bank along with our nation’s spirit and reputation."

The prosperity many democracies enjoyed lulled citizens into political torpor. The prospect of economic collapse has persuaded a majority of Americans to exercise more individual judgment than they showed while re-electing Bush in 2004. But collective failures of the kind Barack Obama spoke of in his stern inaugural speech will continue to occur among citizens of other democracies - and they will have no Obama to exhort them to personal responsibility.

In any case, economic disasters or foolish wars are hardly guaranteed to bring about large-scale individual self-examination or renew the appeal of truly participatory democracy. They are more likely to make authoritarianism attractive, as European democracies in the 1930s and Russia in recent times demonstrated. Many Indians and Israelis seem set to elect, with untroubled consciences, those who speak the language of torturers and terrorists. More disturbingly, these corrupted democracies may increasingly prove the norm rather than the exception.