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Authoritarian Governments: Tracing the History

Over the course of the last few years, political discourse in India has taken an interesting route. People have had problems with almost every Government, yet at present, there seems to be a uniquely intriguing view held by those criticizing the Government, which holds resemblance only to the criticisms about the Indira Gandhi Government in post-independence India. As the world’s largest democracy, individual liberty is something that most citizens identify as essential. Yet there has been a large amount of discourse over the past few months based around the central question: “Are we now living under an authoritarian regime? Are we in a situation where our individual liberty is being curtailed?”. Under these circumstances, people naturally put forward a host of diverse arguments trying to understand and find links between the Government and fascist or authoritarian regimes. The discourse with relation to this has been raging on ceaselessly. Keeping this in mind, I also started considering the aforementioned questions, being particularly interested in digging up what authoritarian regimes really are, and the ideas around which they are based. It struck me that like any political ideology, authoritarianism has evolved and gradually branched out. Over the course of the last 5 centuries or so in particular, thinkers (mostly those in Europe, where political discourse was becoming incredibly popular among academics) started giving theoretical arguments related to the need for iron-handed Governments. Analyzing these arguments, as well as the political background which led to such ideas being formulated, might help us derive conclusions about whether our system can really be described as authoritarian or not, and this article does aim to put forward the most important theories relating to this in recent history.

Proclamations for princes:

The context: The popular term “Machiavellian” owes its origin to the 16th-century Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. The word is fairly descriptive of Machiavelli’s personal views on statehood and conflict: an inherent requirement to be deceptive and ruthless. He held such views primarily due to the social atmosphere he lived in. European states, such as Italy in the 16th century are often thought of as battlegrounds for conflicts fuelled by the church. Empires around and beyond Europe were seeking to extend their territories, which worsened the situation. In the midst of this, rulers like Cesare Borgia attempted to brutally consolidate territories in Italy. Seizing this opportunity, Machiavelli turned towards advocating for ways in which states could be ruled while minimizing internal conflict or dissent.

The ideology- Each and every International Relations student would have gone through their Machiavelli phase. It’s the outspoken and unique lure that Niccolò Machiavelli’s writing held that made him such an inspirational figure in Realist theory. “Il Principe” holds semblance to a crash course for princes on how to rule in a way that their authority is stable and unchallenged. Somehow, the rather grim take on morality, which differed radically from the beliefs held by the church and the mainstream orthodoxy, was presented in a witty and almost satirical manner. It weaved a narrative that attached immense value to the state, so much so, that the people within the state could be disregarded if the survival of the state were at stake. For this, the leader obviously played an instrumental role, by distancing himself from morality, being deceptive, and in general being ruthless. The rationale obviously echoes a nationalistic attachment, of the state over all else. Machiavelli did not hold back in airing his belief that to be revered, rulers had to set an example by harshly shutting down any form of dissent. This sets a very obvious basis of inspiration for authoritarian leaders, and their justification regarding the morality of their decision making, intermittently linked with attachment to their nation-state.

The Idea of Contract:

The context- The backdrop for this tale is the raging civil war in England. In the 1630s, King Charles I was embroiled in a messy conflict with the Parliament, as to the extent to which his power can be extended in unusual circumstances. King Charles had completely neglected the Parliament and collective decision-making. He tried to rule all on his own, in the wake of depleting funds. Later the new Parliament stepped in giving rise to the civil war which ultimately led to Charles 1 being beheaded. Naturally, the debate on whether the parliament was essential or not was enthusiastically taken up by political thinkers, one of whom was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes had been employed as a tutor in the Cavendish family (One of the members was the Earl of Devonshire). Naturally having spent a large amount of time with a family involved in politics, Hobbes was influenced by their views, which were in support of King Charles 1. Being inspired by philosophers such as Thucydides further inclined Hobbes to defend absolute sovereignty, as an academic. Hence it is easy to see why he put forward the political ideals which he is renowned for.

The ideology-Like Machiavelli, Hobbes took a state-centric view. In other words, Hobbes suggested that power should be concentrated within the sovereign state (the fancy name used by Hobbes for this was “Leviathan”). What’s interesting about this is the chain of thought leading to this conclusion. Hobbes argued that the distinction between life in nature and in society was the existence of a contract between citizens of a nation and the Government/ruler. He pointed out that a stateless society or a society with a weak state would lead to constant internal conflict because humans are inclined towards self-centered and combative behavior in the midst of anarchy. Hence, the contract effectively meant handing over political decision-making power to the sovereign to avoid such a predicament. The power of the sovereign would be unquestionable and extremely broad, to maintain stability. Hobbes’ view on human behavior was complemented by the belief that media, religious centers (emphasis on the church), and university lessons could all be censored relentlessly by the sovereign if he viewed these as seditious.

The Fascist problem:

The context- Following the Great War, the global economy is in shambles, and people in Europe are discontent (to say the least). They line the streets and buildings screaming for change, craving blood as revenge for the injustices and terrible political/economic conditions they were facing. In the face of this, popular, radical, and extremely charismatic leaders were inadvertently glorified. They spoke longingly and convincingly about the glory of the nation, of the purity of the people there, and their superiority to all other groups. That is how the stage was set for the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. For Mussolini in particular, the trigger was also the socialist uprising in Russia. Ideologically, the Fascists despised the socialists, as did the conservatives in power in Italy. In desperation, the politically right-wing-oriented citizens turned to the Fascist party, in the hope that they would prevent the events which had taken place in Russia, as Marxist beliefs spread like wildfire across Europe.

The ideology- To truly understand fascism, it is imperative to understand the ideas of Giovanni Gentile, an Italian Politician and contemporary of Mussolini, who was deeply inspired by Hegel. Deeply inspired by Hegel, Gentile wrote in length about “actual idealism” and how education should be shaped, completely neglecting individuality and individual differences. He also pushed the idea of oppression of the weak by stronger states. To avoid abstract social misconstructions caused by the human mind, Gentile felt that strong Fascist leaders were required to keep everyone under control, in most aspects of life, with an iron hand. Benito Mussolini gladly stepped into this role, as a totalitarian who effectively had complete authority over both the political as well as economic spheres in the nation.

The Age of U-turns:

Hegel’s dialectic theory is a concept which has consistently continued to resonate true in a plethora of political, economic, and social context. This idea that any system is permanent and can last only as long as its flaws don’t manifest, or in other words, the pattern of thesis-antithesis-synthesis has been applied by many theorists, most notably by Marx. The dialectic theory is based around the observation that any political ideal or principle deep-rooted in a system has a number of inherent flaws, which are not entirely distinctive at first. Gradually, these flaws start becoming more obvious and reduce the efficiency of the system. Ultimately, they pile up and amalgamate till the system collapses within itself. Kind of bleak, right? The thing is that this ties in well with the modern context. There remains a lot of discourse and discussion within the media with regards to the reason underlying the rising number of authoritarian governments. Most notably, there are the nations that followed socialist policies till the late 20th century, before replacing the system with capitalism. China follows a breed of state-driven capitalism, whilst Russia was dependent upon oligarchy to fuel their economy during the famous unipolar moment. Such a change in the system (undergoing economic shock therapy) is not an easy procedure since new disparities and free-market chaos create a tense and potentially fragmented social atmosphere. Therefore, it makes sense that such nations have comparatively authoritarian governments, to ensure the fluid transition into a capitalist economy, with the state rapidly driving growth. In liberal democracies, people are returning to more nationalistic ideals, after years of liberal policies which they see as too moderate (hence the rise of Trump, Brexit, etc.).

Identifying common patterns:

It is intriguing to observe commonalities between all the aforementioned examples and principles, but it is also difficult to do so. one recurring factor is that almost all these ideas were formulated in the midst of major political events which were leading to internal/domestic unrest or general discontentment. In a sense, all these ideals reflect the desire to end the strife by ensuring powerful and unquestionable authority, which would make fragmentation within a nation very difficult. Another similarity is that implementing any such radical idea requires strong, charismatic, and even slightly over the top leaders…people with carefully crafted images and speeches, who are almost portrayed as superhuman. The third similarity is how each principle is in response to a previous system that was unable to make a large proportion of the population content. This could be because the system was either outdated, inherently controversial, or too moderate. What is clear is this: Authoritarian might not benefit everyone, but there will always remain those in favor of it, who may even give perfectly valid arguments to support ideas. Some might even say that such systems become necessary at times. To take a page out of “The Dark Knight”, it might be something we don’t deserve, but something we need. Somewhere or the other though, finding a balance may prove necessary, as proponents of authoritarianism will continue to deem it a necessary evil. Is it present in the Indian context? That is something subjective, which can only be derived by studying and drawing comparisons with the ideas that have been presented over the years, and the circumstances in which they are applicable. Nonetheless, these concepts have intrigued academics for generations, and it is interesting to see whether they still hold steady in a practical vein. Before calling a system fascist or authoritarian, it is imperative to understand what such terms entail. In any case, the jury is still out on the answer, and the only way to find a definitive answer is to observe how events unfold and make comparisons to historical ideas.

“It is much more secure to be feared than loved” – Machiavelli


Dhruv Bannerjee


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