The Temptations of Tyranny

When Shigalyov, one of the revolutionaries in Dostoevsky’s Demons, lays out his “system of world organization,” he admits that he got “entangled in my own data.” Confronted with the brutal logic of his idealism, he is forced to concede that his conclusion “directly contradicts the original idea from which I start.” His starting point, familiar to generations of revolutionaries, is the idea of “unlimited freedom.” Rather than taking Shigalyov to the Utopia he imagines, it leads him down a path that ends in “unlimited despotism.” Far from being disturbed by this unpalatable discovery, Shigalyov resolves his cognitive dissonance with a deepened sense of the correctness of his vision: “apart from my solution of the social formula, there can be no other.” The revolutionary agitator sees his ideals collapse into their opposite, but even this does not damage the certainty with which he clings to them.

A hundred years after the publication of Demons, a different group of revolutionaries stormed the gates of the ancestral home of Confucius in Qufu, China. In July 1966, Red Guards desecrated the graves of Confucius’s ancestors. They smashed coffins, plundered them for jewels and relics, and hung human remains from trees. One witness recalled the “stench of the corpses. It made you want to vomit.” The Red Guards decapitated statues of Confucius’s friends and family, before toppling the statue of Confucius himself, placing a dunce’s cap on his head and dragging him through the streets to the accompaniment of the humiliation and beating of his followers. This gruesome procession ended when the revolutionaries threw the statue onto a fire. Mao’s Cultural Revolution—with its promise to eradicate Old Habits, Old Customs, Old Culture, and Old ideas—had begun.

Two events. One fictional. One historical. The same idealistic descent into tyranny. What Shigalyov described in Demons is the Platonic transformation of freedom into bondage. In The Republic, Plato described how, in democratic societies, the “insatiable desire for freedom ... prepares the ground for tyranny.” The more free people become, the more they resent limitations on that freedom and condemn the always insufficient progress already made as oppression. As hierarchies collapse and order breaks down, people lose structure and meaning. The parent fears the child, the old fear the young. A tyranny of silence suffocates free speech as citizens self-censor out of fear that their views may be seen as “disagreeable or despotic.” It’s in this climate that the tyrant emerges with the promise that he alone can deliver Shigalyov’s “unlimited freedom,” the people willingly fall into the embrace of “unlimited despotism.”

In Spider Eaters, a remarkable memoir of her role in the Maoist Cultural Revolution, Rae Yang describes how students at the most elite schools, colleges, and universities attacked and killed their teachers. In 1966, as the statue of Confucius was being desecrated and destroyed, Yang was a 15-year-old pupil at an elite school in Beijing. As part of China’s elite, she was aware of her status and contemptuous of those who did not share her privilege. She boasted that only two pupils in her school were from worker’s families and mocked students who failed to get into the best schools, describing them as “definitely inferior.” However, Yang’s teachers often refused to validate her self-image. She received this as a humiliation, and when the Cultural Revolution broke out, she vowed to “have my revenge.” That revenge took the form of Struggle Sessions, beatings, and support for the murder of class enemies, including her teachers.

The explanation for this descent into tyranny is to be found in our nature. Today, as human bodies appear to be little more than abstractions, it is impolite to discuss the nature of our species. However, as Shigalyov and Rae Yang discovered, the desire for an ideal to be true does not make it so. In his remarkable book, Hierarchy in the Forest, the anthropologist Christopher Boehm reflects on the inevitable failure of the Communist ideal. In his exploration of dominance hierarchies among chimpanzees, human foragers, and tribal societies, Boehm concludes that Marxism led to terror because its “social engineering was inept: the blueprint was not laid out with an accurate view of human political nature.” Human beings, he went on, have always lived with “some kind of hierarchy,” and the desire to erase them misreads our nature. When this ignorance is tied to an ideology that essentialises group identity and collectivises guilt, the result is the tyrannical exercise of power clothed in the garments of freedom and justice. Such ideologies are always accompanied by an eschatology of liberation—when class enemies, the bourgeoisie, white supremacists, or patriarchs are defeated, perpetual peace will reign on Earth.

As Boehm notes, despite its disastrous impracticality and scientific naivety, this collectivist ideal captures “the hearts of resentful underdogs everywhere,” who imagine that, by casting off their oppressors, they can end oppression itself. A glance at any moment in history should be sufficient to refute that assumption. To take one of countless examples, a 2,000 year old Vedic text known as Manusmriti divides people into four castes—Priests, Warriors, Merchants, and Servants—and more than 30,000 sub-castes. Beneath these castes lie the Dalit (literally, the “crushed” or the “broken”). They are the wretched foundation upon which the entire edifice of caste is built. Yet even the lower will, when opportunity arises, exact vengeance on the lowest. In 2002, inter-communal violence in Gujarat led to a massacre of Muslims by Hindus. Dalits and members of indigenous tribes were bussed in to participate in the massacre. Reflecting on these events in Field Notes on Democracy, Arundhati Roy observed that those who have been “despised, oppressed and treated worse than refuse by the upper castes for thousands of years, have joined hands with their oppressors, to turn on those who are only marginally less unfortunate.”

In my 20s, I managed shelters for the homeless—my first experience working with severe poverty and deprivation. My first job was in a “wet shelter” which meant that residents were allowed in if they were under the influence of drink or drugs. They couldn’t “use” on the premises, so they went outside to take their drug of choice and then came back in again. On the streets, the homeless appeared to me as an undifferentiated mass of misery. Every one of them had a tale of abuse, deprivation, self-destruction, or bad luck to tell. At night, they slept in a dormitory and their sleep was punctuated by groans, screams, and nightmares. Yet, life in the shelter was defined by its dominance hierarchies: who got to sit on the best chair, who had their social security money taken, who was beaten and humiliated. When I went on to work with younger groups, dominance was marked by even greater aggression and violence. Order in the shelter was maintained by an alliance between those lowest on the dominance hierarchy (the majority) and workers such as myself who acted as law enforcers. The stability of the shelter depended on this fragile coalition being strong enough to protect the weakest and most vulnerable whilst also providing the possibility of employment and housing for those capable of finding a way out. This is a microcosm of the task we face in liberal democracies.

This thirst for dominance is universal, which its why such societies live in a state of perpetual siege. For Christopher Boehm, the way to prevent this thirst becoming tyrannical is to turn to what Steven Pinker called “the better angels of our nature.” In practice, this means creating what Boehm calls “reverse dominance hierarchies” in which subordinate groups form coalitions to curb the power of despotic individuals. However, Shigalyov, Rae Yang, and generations of idealistic revolutionaries focus their rage against individuals only insofar as they represent groups defined as “oppressive.” When the struggle for freedom is framed in this way, it inevitably sinks into vengeance, collective violence, and—if left unchecked—genocide. As Yang’s own elite status within Maoist China showed, members of the cultural elite will readily identify as underdogs in order to exact retribution against real or imagined enemies. And when they get their hands on the levers of power, it is inevitable that they will repeat—and sometimes intensify—the very forms of oppression they once fought.

If Shigalyov marked the path from “unlimited freedom” to “unlimited despotism,” the Grand Inquisitor in The Karamazov Brothers, Dostoevsky’s last great novel, highlights the weakness in the human soul that makes such a journey possible. Ivan Karamazov tells the story of a Grand Inquisitor who visits Jesus in prison. Mocking Jesus’s belief that “man cannot live by bread alone,” and that people desire, above all, to be free, the Inquisitor says, “I tell you that man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born.” If a tyrant relieves us of the burden of seeking liberation, and if we surrender our individuality to the will of the group, the rewards of that submission and the vengeance we can wreak upon real or imagined enemies will be worth the price of liberty. Currently, historically marginalised groups are attempting to restrict free speech, which was instrumental in elevating them to a position of cultural dominance. Freedom is easily discarded when power beckons.

The antidote to the temptations of tyranny cannot, warns Boehm, be built on an identitarian ideal. It can only be achieved through “the glorification and empowerment of the ordinary individual.” This does not require a perpetually static status quo or the toleration of rigid dominance hierarchies. Rather, it means the ongoing evolution of those hierarchies as they become more open, more tolerant, and less despotic over time. This is the incremental change that defines the improbable and fragile success of liberal democracies.

However, the more tolerant we become, the greater the temptations of tyranny. These temptations led James Madison, the fourth US President, to ask in Federalist No. 51, “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

After emigrating to the United States, Rae Yang learned to “cherish freedom and value human dignity.” Imagine, then, how disheartening it must be for many Chinese Americans, who followed Yang’s path in fleeing the Cultural Revolution, to find its impulses replicated in a free society. In February 2021, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Greater New York criticised the drift towards authoritarianism in American education. In an open letter, they denounced demands that third-graders “check themselves off on a list of victimisation categories,” a requirement that reminded one Chinese parent of “Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution.”

As illiberalism sweeps the Western world, we would do well to bear in mind how readily we can succumb to Shigalyov’s “unlimited despotism.” The eschatology implicit in the revolutionary overthrow of an entire social order tempts us with its promise of unlimited freedom. But it takes only a shallow excavation to uncover what Nietzsche identified as “the blood and horror at the bottom of all ‘good things.’”


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/11/13/the-temptations-of-tyranny/
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I would recommend reading Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem for the early depiction of the Cultural Revolution alone. But his other quite incisive revelation was that it is societies cultural elites who are most likely to want to burn the world down and build something new in its place. In this vein, I think it’s useful to look at the Western cultural shift through the lens of class struggle. Progressives are three times as likely to be born into the top 10% of income in society, and this before we distinguish between identitarian cultural progressives and economic progressives who tend to focus more on class-based unfairness, and are more likely to be composed of a more representative cross section of the socio-economic spectrum.

This Reason article shows the true direction of the identitarian push: amongst white liberals it does nothing at all to increase empathy towards poorer Blacks and actually significantly reduces empathy towards poorer whites. If the modern University lets wealthy white kids off the hook, expiating themselves for any sense of guilt they may possess for the privileged circumstances of their birth, then we can see that this indoctrination towards race and away from class encourages an unearned sense of superiority over others which is so strong and systemic that it deserves its own word- the supercilious made into a process, or superciliation.

If we imagine America to be a nightclub, then what has effectively happened is that a select few generally middle class Latinos and African Americans have been jumped to the head of the queue and let into the VIP lounge in order to let the wealthy white people feel good about themselves, whilst poorer and less privileged Blacks and Latinos are left to wait outside in the cold with their white brethren, expected to behave like the economic serfs that corporate America has always required to make a profit.

Ironically, there is a way to help African Americans, Latinos and even poorer whites. It’s called vocational education and it should start at 14. In 2019, there were over 7 million well-paid blue collar jobs standing vacant in the American economy, and this is before one considers that the American housing industry has never recovered to its 2007 levels and is critically short on producing the types of smaller single family homes which would be ideal as a first step on the ladder, and would slowly drive demand further up the value chain.

A part of the problem lies with the Teaching Unions. They don’t want to see vocational training in their schools, and don’t want to accept that some kids simply can’t be turned into future scholars, or that they work in a system which perversely underperforms some groups for reasons entirely unrelated to money. But the larger problem is the Democrat shift away from class and towards race- when a class-based approach, and the formation of a ‘stepping stone’ generation is exactly what African Americans, Latinos and poor Whites need into order to power the two parent family communities which can be transformative. Blue collar and trade professional men are exactly the types of husbands and fathers that America needs to power the type of social transformation which every other American demographic needed to achieve the ability to compete on a level playing field. America is a cake which is missing several of its most vital ingredients.

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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And yet you continue to routinely endorse the idea that the US in particular and the West in general is fundamentally racist and needs to be reformed by enlightened beings such as yourself.

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No I don’t. But what I do recognise is that there are some social circumstances into which people are born into which are analogous to a well with smooth walls and without a ladder, from which only the truly exceptional can escape, and some ethnicities are born into these circumstances with greater frequency than others. The conservative fallacy is to imagine that it is all a matter of values when the right materials (such as economic opportunity for those who don’t do well at school) are just as important. The liberal fallacy is to try to reverse the effects of this situation of degradation long after irrevocable damage has been done.

Ironically, the approaches which are most likely to a remedy are also the ones liberals despise the most. Teaching girls that they need to wait and find a good man with which to settle down is anathema. Strict, high discipline schools produce results which are significantly better than the best any exclusive private school can achieve- with poorer Black British outperforming the best the white children of elites can manage. After all, our universities only care about the grey matter- we never really went for affirmative action.

I use the structural or systemic racism phrase because it is a shortform. But although this might appear like a concession, it affords me the opportunity of arguing that almost none of the structural racism is dependant upon the existence of racism or implicit bias. Of course racism exists and there is such a thing as affinity bias in hiring, but almost every disparity can be examined and put down to reasons far more complex and elusive than simple racism- even though the solutions themselves can be quite simple.

Stricter schools. Vocational training. Creating sufficient numbers of young men willing to become well-paid blue collar workers and trade professionals, when currently America can only fill these roles by importing foreign workers. 25% of construction workers in America are foreign-born. I’m not saying that America shouldn’t have high inward migration- because no advanced economy produces highly cognitive workers in sufficient quantities and there are plenty of academic and vocational fields which kids don’t want to study in.

But when you have a significant portion of young men not being guided into gainful and productive employment and tens of millions of jobs which could quite easily be done by most of them, it’s time to examine just how completely America has failed to provide a decent industrial policy. Germany can do it, as can several other Northern European states. Australia was historically good at it, although recently they have diluted their Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List to include a plethora of blue collar and trade professional roles, leading to a rise in resentment more typically found in other countries.

The answer is not race-specific policies but class specific-policies. This is one area which the market will never address- because it is a hell of a lot cheaper to import workers off-the-shelf than it is to be involved somewhat in their training. Of course, this does not mean that the requirement shouldn’t be put out to tender to the private sector, because this is one thing that government is terrible at, just like so many other things. The only thing which is required is about a 10% to 20% pairing back of higher education, and the diversion of the funds to skills training.

You see linguistic concession as surrender, I see it as a necessary hurdle to repair the absolute dysfunction of the West. It is as true in my country as it is in America (even though technically I am half-American- which I am currently declining due to the Obama Era Expat tax policy- one American actually described it as ‘dodging a bullet’).

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I was interested to check out this book of ancient Chinese wisdom, so I looked it up . . . While I appreciate that sci-fi does offer insights to what is or what may be, it’s still fiction.

A quick romp through the history of civil wars and revolutions should dispell your belief that it’s the elites, cultural or otherwise, that do the burning of existing societal structures.

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Not they just lead the revolutions. The Bolsheviks were a highly educated, if poor, elite and they had little in the way of popular support initially. The Cultural Revolution was in large part fuelled by students. The disingenuously named Peasants Revolt’s in my own part of England, was largely caused by the second sons of aristocratic families, chaffing at the disinheritance of primogeniture. Pope Urban’s first crusade was attempt to focus this cultural elite aggression outwards towards an external foe, as a means of stopping the internecine small scale local/family wars which were endemic to Europe at the time.

Champagne Socialism has a history which goes back far longer than the wine, although before Marx it at least had the virtue of having more honest aims.

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The short answer is that if you adopt their rhetoric you are also adopting the definitions and axioms that support the rhetoric. You aren’t going change anyone’s mind doing that. You’re dealing with fanatics and true believers. They are blind (immune?) the sort of arguments you are attempting to make.

I see your point, I also see the same relationship of an idealistically minded malcontent group leading the disaffected class in other “revolutions”, would you describe Hitler and Mussolini as “cultural elite”? How about the US Founding Father’s? (Please no one go “you’re comparing the Founding Father’s to Hitler!” The context is social relationships that bring about revolutionary changes, not goodies and baddies).

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Hitler’s father was a civil servant, a custom’s officer- and he himself had pretentions of being an artist. Mussolini’s father was a blacksmith who worked part-time as a socialist journalist and his mother was a schoolteacher. It is a mistake to think of elite in terms of wealth- cultural elite in the modern context is in almost every way composed of those who were once referred to as the counterculture- the fact that they are now the establishment or have proven themselves capable of a duality of existence where their professed ethos doesn’t match their life choices which informs of us a certain hypocrisy, shouldn’t blind us to the fact that their is an unbroken line in terms of where these people are drawn from.

Using the old NRS social grading system revolutionaries are drawn from the C1 grade and above. They key seems to be well-educated parents. Orwell intuited this in 1984 with his observation that nobody cared about what the proles thought because they were largely irrelevant to who ruled society. And as to Hitler and Mussolini, it is often those who have pretentious aspirations to membership of the cultural elite class who are actually far more dangerous than the Champagne Socialists.

This is one of the reasons why the former leaders of culture, the aristocrats and landed gentry were always deeply suspicious of intellectuals before they were sidelined, usurped and left as an irrelevancy by the wayside. If we want to talk about those who don’t fit the bill then we would have to look at Stalin and Mao Zedong. But in both instances we would have to class them as successors to previous revolutionaries. Lenin’s preference was for Trotsky an intellectual closer to Lenin in class and thinking, and there is ample evidence to suggest that Zhang Wentian and Mao Zedong were at odds, both in terms of their class cultural attitudes and levels of education.

Revolutionaries are drawn from the intellectual class, the highly educated who are frustrated by a world which will not recognise their unbridled genius and so turn to demagoguery to win by guile what merit won’t recognise. The Bolsheviks may have shot and bayoneted the Romanovs, but they were led Yakov Yurovsky who attended the River District Grammar School until his father forced him to quit to join a trade as an apprentice to a watchmaker. Yet another frustrated intellectual- notice how they all also seem to loathe their fathers?

The Founding Fathers weren’t revolutionaries in the truest sense. They didn’t seek to overturn the British system of governance but rather to simply make it fairer for people like them. Don’t forget Washington turned down becoming King. It’s the main reason their project was so successful.

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It seems to me that we’re getting to the point at which everyone gets to be a revolutionary, the only prerequisite being a high level of dissatisfaction with the current order. The success for a prospective revolution remains getting enough of the population behind you, which itself requires widespread dissatisfaction.

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Do you have evidence for this assertion? The only relevant story I could find involved opposition to the Trump administration’s repeal of an Obama-era rule that regulated low-quality, for-profit vocational programs.

I agree with you about the importance of vocational training – I’m looking for evidence that teacher’s unions are part of the problem.

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Well, it’s not something that they specifically oppose openly but a careful sifting of what vocational education may entail reveals certain biases which mean that in practice unions would impeded its implementation.

The first thing to consider is how political bias plays into decision-making. No Child Left Behind was disastrous for vocational education, but then it’s successor the Every Student Succeeds Act didn’t do anything to remedy the situation, and Teachers Unions obviously supported this one, for political reasons.

This highlights another problem. The Left tend to be more prone to blank slate thinking, and when we do see vocational education ideas, they tend to focus on technical education with a view to providing jobs which are at least at the level of requiring the ability to perform cognitive repetitive tasks. This simply isn’t feasible- vocational training need to encompass a broad range of cognitive abilities- from plumbers and electricians to janitors and farriers, as well as bakers, butchers, roofers and joiners.

Critics may argue that such vocational training is easy to provide in relatively short training courses, but the problem is that this doesn’t impart the appetite to undertake such training as an integrated system would, and it certainly wouldn’t provide the extended male mentoring which would be one of the hidden agendas of such a program (and one of the reasons why it’s been so successful in Germany). Apart from anything else, we are talking about male surrogacy, so kids don’t feel to seek out alternate male mentors in the form of gangs and street dealers.

Next, we have the issue of class and the socio-economic spectrum. Vocational education is of greatest utility to the bottom 60% of the spectrum, heavily skewed towards the bottom 40%. In Germany, the accusation has been made that it looks in class inequalities, because it always those kids whose parents with low educational levels who end up in the 70% who don’t go to university, for understandable reasons.

Teachers basically aren’t compatible with providing high quality vocational education- any attempt to do so would inevitably result in some broad reversion to historical shop programs- a retrograde step. They may have a role to play as coordinators, and it would also be a good idea to have two days a week allocated to increasing literacy and numeracy, but a large portion of the week would need the kids either migrating off-site for placements or with trainers brought in from local enterprise to instruct them.

School choice. It’s the only feasible way to run it. Vocational training is at its most valuable when it teaches specialised skills and these would be either dependent on the local economy, or involve instruction in trades which are mobile and not tied to an absent local economy.

CBA’s. Many CBA’s from Teachers Unions attempt to protect teachers from an over-scrutiny by headteachers and others in the classroom. Often advance notice has to be given, and inspections are limited to a certain number of times per school year. One of the key factors in providing effective vocational training, and this will include reliance on certification in some circumstances, and direct supervision with interventions when doing it wrong, in others.

The Department of Education was expressly set-up for the explicit and sole purpose of raising academic achievement, measurable through performance in exams and standardised tests. It is a task the Department has singularly failed at, and if anything, most teachers I have communicated with, consider the bureaucracy a hindrance at every level. Whether the Teachers Unions are going to support the local bureaucracy will depend on which party controls the bureaucracy…

At a theoretical level they may not state their opposition, but at a practical level whichever way you look at it, the Teachers Unions are likely to be opposed, if for no other reason than a large part of a successful program would displace their membership, even if only by 5% to 15%.

As an aside, we have the same problem with computerisation of the civil service and NHS. It usually entails training up civil service or NHS admin and managers to be IT consultants for the projects. The projects need specialised knowledge of bureaucratic systems as well as the required level of computer knowledge. It’s why they always fail to deliver, and are largely scrapped as unworkable.

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Personally, I think a lot of the drive to get rid of vocational training programs in public schools is not so much union driven as it is the idea that one cannot succeed without a bachelor’s degree at the least. IMHO, this belief that only college can ensure success in life comes mostly from the left. Recall the heavy emphasis on college loans during the Obama presidency. I am willing to stand corrected if someone wants to show me conservatives who feel as strongly as President Obama did about going on to college, even if it meant taking out burdensome loans.

I was saved by industrial arts programs at my high school. I was fortunate enough to have instructors who demanded students understand some engineering, math, how to correctly use tools and generally how things work. I was a lost soul in those days, and these programs pulled me out of most likely becoming a drop out. They paved the way for me to go on to another several years of post-high school education. Although I went into non-engineering academics, these programs made it clear to me that there are many people who would benefit from high school vocational training plus another 1 or 2 years at a community college. High paying jobs that aren’t being filled is my proof. I will argue that even those who go into academics will benefit immensely, having taking some industrial arts classes in high school. I cannot begin to express how much metal machining, welding and basic electricity has contributed to my success at home and at work, even though my professions had little to do with the industrial arts.

It is this drive to attend university at all costs that has caused high school vocation programs to wither. If this is being driven by the liberal side of the political spectrum, then it would be interesting to ask why this is so.

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