By Charles Cockell.
Freedom is about dignity, but it has the simple character of being less tedious than tyranny. That’s a perfectly good reason to embrace it.
There are many good reasons why autocratic regimes usually fail to hold on to the support they crave. There are centuries of books dwelling on the virtues of freedom. Two and a half thousand years ago, Thucydides gave us his account of Pericles delivering his funeral oration in Athens, imploring the citizens to cherish the idea of equality before the law. Tracts that can fill libraries have poured forth with more modern writers such as Isiah Berlin warning of the terrors of state central planning in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom.
Yet what many of these writers don’t point out is that a simple reason why dictatorships don’t appeal to most people is that they are just plain boring.
Witness the crowds welcoming the Ukrainian Armed Forces back into Kherson. It’s absolutely the case that most of them are just happy to be back in Ukraine. Some perhaps did think a bit more politically about how good it is to be once again under the legislation of Ukraine’s parliament. But I also suspect that most people welcomed the soldiers back because they were elated to be rid of that cloud of oppression that settles over every system of government that brings with it repression of free thought.
I’ve never been in a city liberated by military forces from an occupying power, but I have been present in two countries when a communist dictatorship either renounced its monopoly on power, or finally left power, and I’ve witnessed first-hand how that dark cloud can dissipate in a matter of hours. In some respects, it does have similarities to a liberating military force sweeping through a country and deposing a ruling power.
The first time was in Poland. As a young 21-year-old undergraduate, I was in the country in January 1989 on the evening that General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist party leader at the time, announced that talks would begin to end the communist monopoly on power. They would also work with Lech Wałęsa to legalize the trade union Solidarity, a pivotal part of the country’s pitch towards a free market system.
Actually, to be honest I don’t remember too much about the speech. I was a little worse for wear on good Polish vodka, which I was enjoying with friends in a student accommodation block. The TV flickered away in the corner spewing out the usual live broadcasts of party committees interspersed with videos of happy citizens on bridges or in fields looking elated at having exceeded the five-year plan. I wasn’t glued to the screen.
But when Jaruzelski did make the announcement – an almost non-event of a statement among some general chitter-chatter of party business – the implications were as profound as they were obvious. He had essentially triggered the end of the Eastern Bloc. Although at that time we did not know how far this would eventually go, the latent potential in his decision was immediately clear.
The next morning, when I wandered the streets, the atmosphere had palpably changed. I wouldn’t say a festival atmosphere. But it was as if a choking cloud which made it difficult to breathe had vanished. People chatted with an abandon and a carefree zing in their voice that I hadn’t seen before. The caution and the sideways looks had been vanquished.
A year later, when I arrived in Mongolia on July 31st 1990, two days after the first free elections in that country after 69 years of communism, I saw the same thing. There was no doubt that the shadow of autocracy still loomed large. One of us, a band of four students who had managed to wrestle our way into the country to collect zoological specimens after five years of persistence, tried to take a photograph of a group of Mongolians gathered round a chess board as they placed their bets on the winner. Perhaps still wary of secret police gathering evidence, they saw the camera, swore profusely, and ran off, scattering the board and the chess pieces all over the street. But it was also the case that the streets were a hum of free gossip and smiling faces.
Within days, democracy had injected life into people. During our expedition, the head of biological sciences at Ulaanbaatar University, Ganzurig, a tall lanky ecologist who had voted for the tiny new Mongolian Green Party, spent much of the time making fun of Demburen, the Dean of Natural Sciences and a staunch, loyal, card-carrying communist. In olden days, Ganzurig would have ended up in prison; now he had his chance for a bit of taunting.
After a week or two of being relentlessly teased, even Demburen began to loosen up, drop his hard communist stares and take life a bit less seriously. He even started to laugh when he knew that a joke was about to come his way. It struck me then that through all the complex political philosophy, economic arguments, and sociological analysis, fundamentally the problem with dictatorships is that they are immensely dull. And it only takes a day, perhaps a week in Demburen’s case, for the humanity and joy to come back once they fall apart.
If the dreariness of dictatorship can evaporate so quickly, it can’t be caused by institutional arrangements, since they take time to dismantle. It can’t be the result of the political system, because at least in Poland, the night after Jaruzelski’s announcement, the communists were still in power. So what exactly is that aura of repression?
Actually, I don’t think it needs a phalanx of university professors to work this out. Any political system that seeks to impose a certain view of the world on its population cannot tolerate dissent and because of that simple fact, it seeks predictability. But the best bits of humanity are not predictable. The teasing joke, the prod at politicians, the raucous insult, the outrageous display of individualism in a wild hair cut or a crazy idea. These things bring variety into life and break the monotony. Because they threaten to tip the apple cart, dictatorships can’t stand them. So it follows that autocracies, in seeking to keep the lid on humanity, use every means to crush these expressions. The result is an extraordinary level of tedium.
One shouldn’t be too idealistic. If I set up a political party that seeks to imprison our King and start a revolution in the UK, I bet I will attract some interest, and possibly of a quite vituperative kind, from the state. But all things considered, in political and economic systems where people are free to express views criticizing every and any policy of the government, a generally liberating culture is let loose in society.
That feeling of freedom permeates into every aspect of the community, from the flags people hang outside their houses, to the things they feel safe to say on the street, to the criticisms they are willing to openly air about their leaders. It’s quite simply the unfettered spirit of human discourse run free. That is why, if the center of a dictatorship is dismantled, or even announces its intention to disassemble itself, as Jaruzelski did, the sense of liberation sweeps through a population within hours. We see the same thing when military forces sweep out invaders from a homeland.
One cannot overestimate how important this is to the human condition and to the happiness of individuals. Even if one could construct entire political and economic frameworks justifying this or that type of authoritarian regime, we should be happy to dismiss them all on the basis that they make people servile and unhappy, no matter how cogent the intellectual argument for the system itself appears.
One wonders why people don’t point this out more often. I suspect it’s because it seems frivolous. If you’d said to Karl Marx, “Look Karl, Capital is a good book, I love the arguments and I’m sure members of the working class will be better off. But under this new-fangled communist system of yours, can I still compare the leader to a lettuce without ending up in prison? That’s the important thing here, Karl” it would have seemed rather silly.
We underestimate how crucial the simple notions of happiness and free minds are in assessing and judging political systems. We should be confident in holding them up to this measure more often. The frivolity of free minds is better than the tedium of tyranny.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.