ON TYRANNY: TWENTY LESSONS FROM THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
By Timothy Snyder
“History can familiarize, and it can warn.” So begins Timothy Snyder’s little book full of timely lessons, cautionary tales, and general guidelines drawn from the darkest days of the twentieth century (think, primarily, Hitler and Stalin) “adapted to the circumstances of today.”
It’s much the same warning that has been sounding since antiquity. Polybius may have been the first to come up with a formal theory of the descent from democracy into tyranny, but it’s a subject that has since gone on to become a staple for statesmen and historians to return to. How do we prevent a state collapsing into barbarity?
Snyder’s primer is obviously targeted at the threat to democracy he sees being advanced in the Trump administration and recent political developments in Europe like the Brexit vote. Such red flags should put us on our guard. But given the nature of such a book, with only a few pages given to each historical lesson and the moral to be drawn from it, one wants to immediately jump in and register some caveats.
The first lesson, for example, is “Do not obey in advance.” What this refers to is “anticipatory obedience,” which means that when people give in to government encroachments on their liberty the government is emboldened to go even further. Meanwhile, whatever freedoms have been given up cannot easily be regained. In other words, there’s a ratchet effect: when tyranny meets with little initial resistance “the first heedless acts of conformity [can] not then be reversed.”
True enough, though I think Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority don’t fit with this particular historical lesson all that well. They weren’t about anticipatory obedience. A more troubling question, however, has to do with the nature of the authority being exercised and where the biggest threats to our freedom may be coming from. For example, we freely give up far more of our personal information and privacy to companies like Google and Facebook than we do to the government – companies that, according to recent reports, are far from innocent when it comes to playing the game of political influence and power. Personally, I’m more concerned about where our first heedless acts of conformity have led us in this regard than I am by any power we have granted to public bodies. The police can only get a sample of your DNA in most countries with a court order (it’s a form of search warrant), but people apparently will now pay corporations to take it from them. This strikes me as a carelessly and dangerously misplaced trust, and an act of anticipatory obedience that will be hard if not impossible to reverse in the future.
I don’t want to suggest here that Snyder is blind to the threat of the Internet. Indeed, this is a major theme that runs throughout the book. In later chapters he emphasizes the importance of print over digital news, of maintaining a private sphere of life and drawing a line between when we are seen and when we are not seen, and of “practicing corporeal politics” (that is, organizing and interacting with real people). What I’m getting at instead is the way tyranny isn’t limited to our political institutions.
Speaking of those, the second lesson is to “Defend institutions.” Again, this is fine as a general principle but it still raises questions. Defend all institutions? Even those that are corrupt, dysfunctional, or antiquated? I’ve been all for abolishing Canada’s senate for years. What if institutions have become so sclerotic they are no longer capable of addressing current crises, and our constitutions are only guarantors of an unresponsive status quo? Are we stuck with a first-past-the-post election system forever? Is there nothing the U.S. can do about its gun laws because of the Second Amendment? Not all political institutions are worth keeping, at least in their present form.
Third up: “Beware the one-party state.” This strikes me as wanting to shut the barn door after the horses are out. If you live in a one-party state the game is already over, and (as Snyder notes) few people know in advance if they are voting for the dismantling of democracy in a last free election. As anti-democratic in spirit as Trump clearly is, I don’t think anyone thought that 2016 was the end of the line. Of course, those more cynical (or realistic) might say that most Western democracies are already one-party states, as only a certain social and economic elite is represented by the political system. This is especially the case in first-past-the-post systems where the ineluctable tendency is toward a two-party system where both sides are in broad agreement on policy with only some minor differences in tone. I don’t think Snyder is advocating for proportional representation though.
I won’t go through the whole list in order. Instead, I’ll register a broader reservation.
Snyder is swimming against the tide of the times. I think he realizes this, but I’m not sure he understands just how strong the countervailing forces are. I’ve mentioned his distrust of the Internet and his call to return to print: “Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.” I heartily agree with him, but at this stage of the game I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t going to happen. I don’t mean to subscribe to what Snyder calls the “politics of inevitability” here (meaning there is no alternative to the way things are) but I think we have to limit our plans for change to the possible and the not-so-heroic.
As I say, I think Snyder realizes how hard resistance is going to be. We can see another example of this in his emphasis on the need for personal effort. Lesson 8 calls for the individual to “Stand out,” while the final lesson is to “Be as courageous as you can” (the only explanation of which is that “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny”). Standing out and being courageous, however, are not easy. Few of us, by definition, are heroes, and in any event heroes don’t always have much of a political impact. Those who stand out don’t always draw others to their cause and have rarely been much of a threat to tyrannous governments. The Nazis were not overthrown by conscientious objectors and protests against their regime but by losing a war. Communism collapsed on its own, and those who opposed finally won by pushing at an open door.
Another example of swimming against the tide of the times comes in the call for more political activism among groups. I think this is a little more likely, or at least possible, than people separating themselves from the Internet and reading books again, but it’s still mostly wishful thinking. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone pretty much wrote the epitaph for civic involvement, and it only summarized trends in place before the Internet came along. Unlike some, perhaps many, I do not see the Internet as truly connecting people, as it seems to me to mainly promote more social isolation and apathy.
Does this mean we are doomed to fall into tyranny again? Nothing is inevitable, but I think we’re in trouble. I say this not because of any of the bad habits Snyder adumbrates but because of looming crises that will undercut, and indeed are already undercutting, our democratic systems. When tyranny comes it will be in the guise of an answer to these threats: economic and environmental train wrecks that will put severe pressures on governments around the world. In coping with these crises the lessons of the twentieth century will, I think, be of limited utility except to make the road to ruin better lit and more familiar.
Review first published online April 22, 2018.