[Photo: Kaja Smith]
The ancient Greeks and Plato had this idea of the philosopher kings. In their kingdom, the people enjoyed all freedoms and were governed by wise, benevolent rulers—and by them alone. In practice, this never happened because every supposedly benevolent ruler eventually came to a point where he saw his power under threat. If he is unwilling to share power, he cannot allow demonstrations, the founding of parties, or critical opinions. He needs to curtail the freedom of his citizens.
Today, autocratic tendencies are intensifying worldwide, with China under president Xi Jinping often being seen as a vanguard. The economic success of the People’s Republic has made autocracy a real option for some states. Even in the EU, where membership criteria prescribe a stable democracy, undemocratic values are experiencing a revival in states like Poland and Hungary, as well as in the thought of right-wing populist parties.
Paradoxically, in order to sustain their power, autocrats will resort to means usually associated with liberty and democracy. Take elections as an example. Virtually every autocratic state holds elections to uphold the pretense of participation, transforming people and opposition into accomplices. Whoever doesn’t play along becomes a target. A second example is internet access. In China, for instance, almost everything is being handled online. This renders life more convenient, but the state is eavesdropping, censoring, and intervening when it gets critical. Moreover, cooperation among autocracies has tightened. They join forces and help one another cope with sanctions.
The rise of autocracy has surprised many. After the fall of the Soviet Union, political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history”. He thought that sooner or later, every state on the globe will eventually democratize and people will live freely and in peace. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a premature assumption. It gives us a headache to think about the many people who still do not possess the right to speak and act freely. Our wish is to overcome the remaining autocracies one day. And to overcome them, we need to understand them.
Note: This text was originally published in the latest issue of Leibniz magazine. Read it in German here.