“Dear people from the future”, wrote Steve Silberman in a tweet a few weeks ago. “If you’re thinking, “They didn’t even know what was about to hit them”, actually we did. We did.”
While more and more people see the growing signs of authoritarianism in many regimes all over the world, overall they are only a tiny minority. I don’t know why theses signs are not obvious to all, as actions and words in US, UK, Turkey, Poland scream at us to remember the not so distant past when similar or even identical actions and words brought incredible darkness over the world.
I recently realised that ideas I thought are common knowledge are in fact not when, after the death of Fidel Castro, Anne Applebaum a must read author for those interested in the Communist totalitarian regimes, reminded us that Castro was a dictator and a populist not very different from those situating themselves very much to the right.
The statement that the extreme political movements are more similar than different was to me obvious. I thought that even for those lucky enough not to experience life under the extreme right or extreme left, this must have been made obvious in the history lessons somewhere in 8th grade. To my surprise the reactions to Applebaum’s comment varied from denial to straight abuse. Could it be that people don’t know this?
My experience of living in Communist Romania, helps me to immediately spot Newspeak and see the intent behind the actions of aspiring authoritarian leaders. If they lean towards the left or right, they all use the same methods and I’ve seen the methods at work before. To some, my concerns seem like an exaggeration, however I see the same wariness from people who lived in different authoritarian regimes: Roja Bandari, umair haque or others who have studied these regimes in depth: Anne Applebaum , Sarah Kendzior.
As Bandari wrote, if you expect for a special sign that a dictatorship is definitely being established, there will be none. There is “no ominous music played in the background.”
There are however many incremental signs and they should not be ignored. In this post I will address only a few major signs which are already manifest:
- the language used to spread the new ideology,
- the manufacturing of consent under the so called “the voice of the people”and simultaneously pointing out towards the “enemies of the people.”
The language used in the public discourse in authoritarian regimes is very peculiar. It is hard to point in which way is different though as you feel like you understand something however you are not left with any facts, just with an impression of something. Seems familiar in the post truth, post fact world? Also, the transformation of the language is gradual otherwise it would strike people as very odd.
Orwell captured perfectly the transformation of language at the intersection with ideology in his Newspeak. He was very aware that such metamorphosis is not inoffensive, it is intentional, and an essential tool of an authoritarian regime.
In the communist regimes this transformed language was often called the wooden language. Even if I grew up surrounded by it in the public space, I could not point what made it different from the language we used at home or in the close circles of friends. As a young adult I discovered Françoise Thom book “La Langue de Bois”, and it was a shock to understand how precisely the wooden language was manufactured and used as a mechanism for mass control. The rules of this artificial slang applied to all aspects of a language from vocabulary to syntax and tone and it led to almost identical results in languages from Chinese to Russian and French.
We are facing new forms of Newspeak and Wooden Language now and it is very important to pay attention to them and recognise them.
Without much analysis, below are only some features of the wooden language as described by Thom, in the hope that they would help you identify similar changes inflicted now to other languages in countries under the threat of authoritarians.
- A “wooden language” uses a very small number of words but their meaning and frequency is unusual. The choices of words and their use becomes clear if one identifies the very few ideas, central to that specific ideology. In the communist regimes, one idea was that the world was necessarily divided in two adversary and irreconcilable camps and as a consequence the language used was one of war even when talking about agriculture. There was always a “fight for” something, a “battle” and a “strategy”. A consequence of this dualism was that all the words were pre-loaded with meaning and every word had also an opposite, which applied, to the other camp. If by chance a word remained neutral it was qualified by an adjective, so there was not doubt about its ideological meaning. There was no “I” or “you” in the wooden language but only “we” or “us” as a marker of implicit or explicit opposition to “them”. Another idea evident through poor metaphors was of “organicism”. The words were borrowed from the living world and applied to the party plans. The ideology was “mature”, the “capitalist society was putrid” but most importantly it created impression that the ideology pushed forward is a “natural” and necessary step and it is bound to come to life.
- Nouns were preferred to verbs because through conjugation, verbs were more precise regarding the time of the action.
- The frequent use of passive and impersonal forms together with the imperative created a weird but compelling impression of both legitimacy and urgency due to its similarity with a scientific discourse (impersonal forms) and slogans (imperative).
The questions I would suggest to ask yourself when judging a weird ideologically loaded text would be:
- What are the most frequently used words and how their meaning is distorted. “I have words, I have the best words” Trump says. His “best words” are few. According to Kevin Kruse, the most used words of Trump are You, Money, Easy, Free, Results, Save, Guarantee — the words of a salesman. His sentences seem to be uttered by a 5 years old playing a make believe scene: “I’m very rich, I have a lot of money” or “I have a lot of money because I’m smart”. He offers lots of guarantees and we should be very wary of what he tries to sell us “I’ll get Mexico to pay for it one way or the other. I guarantee you that.” or “Another plane was blown up, and I can practically guarantee who blew it up.”
- What are the one or two ideas which permeate the text beyond its declared intent? Us vs them? Whites vs all the rest? Christians vs all the rest? Do you feel any hidden threat that the author makes you believe is real?
- Is the text precise? Does it mention specific times and actions? Do you identify any slogan like sentences — easily repeatable but meaningless e.g “Brexit is Brexit” or “We want a white, red and blue Brexit”. Across the pond, Trump’s language has even less precision than any known wooden language. His followers are not left with any facts or content but with a feeling, a state, which somehow makes them feel good.
- Does the text draws on the legitimacy of scientific research without however identifying the source and the authors? In December, a group called “Change Britain” announced a “new research” and estimates that there is a “prize” of 24 billion a year, only of we leave EU’s single market and customs union in a move that they call “clean Brexit”.
“New research by Change Britain shows that a huge £24 billion a year prize is on offer if the UK Government pursues a ‘clean Brexit’ and decides to leave the EU’s single market and customs union”
Judging by the rules of the wooden language this phrase uses loaded words. The “research” mentioned is not published in anyway similar to the way serious research is published — naming the authors, disclosing possible conflicts of interests or going through peer reviews. However the newspapers will mention the article as “research” bestowing over it a legitimacy that only scientific work deserves. The 24 billions are a “prize” easy to get and the Brexit is “clean” a positive word hiding the disastrous consequences that such a move would have.
- How the syntax of the language is being altered? Again, the syntax of Trump’s language follows no rules. His incoherence sickens those not mesmerised by him however many feel that they are witnessing a prophet speaking in tongues. Something magical happens there.
The extreme case of Newspeak nowadays is the language of fake news. This surpasses in my view the wooden language, which was at least spoken or written by identifiable individuals. The fake news, as damaging as they proved to be for our democracies, are more powerful carriers of poisonous ideological agendas as the writers have no fear or responsibility of damage to their image or careers. The problem of fake news manifests itself differently in US, UK or the rest of Europe. In US people found themselves quoting news from inexistent publications like Denver Guardian simply because it is plausible that such a publication exists.
In UK people tend to be devoted to certain publications without much crossover between them. To me, Daily Mail and Sun are full of false or at least exaggerated headlines created with the clear intention to agitate and worry their audience to non–existent issues. I assume that in time, people continuously exposed to news delivered in this manner re-calibrate their inner compass about what is normal language so Daily Mail language is the language of their truth.
In other European countries the problem of fake news takes the form of the so-called translations from other languages however from non-existent sources. Only those who can read in other languages can cross-check the validity of the news and usually they are not those in danger of being fooled.
The Voice of the People
Societies don’t have one voice but many. People have very different ways of living and it is very difficult in general to find an idea that everybody supports.
Following elections in democratic systems one would say that people “expressed their vote” and the government would govern for all, including those who did not vote for them. When a government feels the need to appropriate the result of elections under the name of “The Voice of the People” they most probably want to justify a certain position for which they know they don’t have the support of the whole society.
“Though such votes are portrayed as popular governance in its purest form, studies have found that they often subvert democracy rather than serve it. They tend to be volatile, turning not just on the merits of the decision but also on unrelated political swings or even, as may have happened in Colombia, on the weather.
Voters must make their decisions with relatively little information, forcing them to rely on political messaging — which puts power in the hands of political elites rather than those of voters.
Something which strikes me looking at the few referendums which happened in the past twelve months is that because the referendums are called for by those in power, they also have the power to control the narrative, to formulate the question, to decide who has the right or not to vote in the referendum and thus to have a high degree of control over the result. The Thai military government asked for the modification of the Constitution, Orban’s Hungarian right-wing government asked that Hungary does not respect refugees quotas recommended by EU and UK Conservative government asked if we should leave EU. The referendum questions reflected the agenda of those respective governments while the magnitude of changes required go beyond the typical mandate of the executive.
Colombia, October 2016: “Do you support the final accord to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?”
UK, June 2016: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of European Union or leave the European Union?”
Thailand, August 2016 “1) Do you approve or disapprove of the draft constitution?
2) Do you approve that for contributing continuity of the country reform according to the national strategic plan, it should be stipulated in the Transitory Provisions of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand that for the duration of 5 years from the first sitting of the National Assembly under this constitution; the joint sitting of the two chambers of the National Assembly shall convene to consider approving a person to be appointed as the Prime Minister?”
Hungary, October 2016: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”
All the questions above are loaded and would deserve thorough discussion and debate. Most importantly they are usually not one issue but many and the society is divided upon them. By repeatedly invoking the “voice of the people” the governments manufacture a consent, which does not exist, and a mandate, which they otherwise would not get.
The Enemies of the People
Those who invoke “The Voice of the People” to justify their actions, also decide who “The Enemies of the People” are.
In Romania, the concept of “enemies of the people” and “enemies of the social order” was brought by the Soviet occupation in ’45. For the next 4o years, over 2 million people went through the political prison system — all “enemies of the people “— and this does not count those who were killed outside of it or who were not incarcerated or their extended families which through blood ties gained the status of “enemies” too.
If you look at the statistics and try to understand who were these 2 million people and how the waves of “enemies” have been identified, named, shamed, disempowered, imprisoned and killed you’ll notice that they were people who understood how the society works and who had a voice in their community. They were lawyers, judges, professors, teachers, religious leaders, entrepreneurs. The experts. There is no coincidence that the Supreme Judges and experts in various domains are the first to be labelled “enemies of the people”.
We can choose to watch relaxed how Daily Mail labels the UK Supreme Court Judges “enemies of the people”, how Amber Rudd, the UK Home Office Minister asks to “list the foreigners” and “shame” the companies to hire them or Trump’s administration asks for lists of climate scientists or public servants working on women issues or how “well intentioned” citizens build professors watch-lists. I cannot however take this lightly.
History shows us the division between the true “voice of the people” and those who find themselves suddenly “enemies” of the society they live in, is a gradual but dynamic process. It has consequences and we are already too far on this path.
So, dear people from the future, we know what hits us. What we don’t know is how to let the others know what we see. How do we convey to others that we’ve seen the damage before and it is not something that can be voted easily out?
Dear people from the present, if you are in US, UK, Poland or Turkey and you see the dangers of the authoritarian regimes rising, the key is not to run to the other extreme being it left or right. They are the same.
Hold the Centre.
Amazingly enough, this is the most difficult thing to do.