Dictatorship has, in one sense, been the default condition of humanity. The basic governmental setup since the dawn of civilization could be summarized, simply, as taking orders from the boss. Big chiefs, almost invariably male, tell their underlings what to do, and they do it, or they are killed. Sometimes this is costumed in communal decision-making, by a band of local bosses or wise men, but even the most collegial department must have a chairman: a capo di tutti capi respects the other capi, as kings in England were made to respect the lords, but the capo is still the capo and the king is still the king. Although the arrangement can be dressed up in impressive clothing and nice sets—triumphal Roman arches or the fountains of Versailles—the basic facts don’t alter. Dropped down at random in history, we are all as likely as not to be members of the Soprano crew, waiting outside Satriale’s Pork Store.
Only in the presence of an alternative—the various movements for shared self-government that descend from the Enlightenment—has any other arrangement really been imagined. As the counter-reaction to Enlightenment liberalism swept through the early decades of the twentieth century, dictators, properly so called, had to adopt rituals that were different from those of the kings and the emperors who preceded them. The absence of a plausible inherited myth and the need to create monuments and ceremonies that were both popular and intimidating led to new public styles of leadership. All these converged in a single cult style among dictators.
That, more or less, is the thesis of Frank Dikötter’s new book, “How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century” (Bloomsbury). Dikötter—who, given his subject, has a wonderfully suggestive, Nabokovian name—is a Dutch-born professor of history at the University of Hong Kong; he has previously written about the history of China under Mao, debunking, at scholarly length and with a kind of testy impatience, the myth of Mao as an essentially benevolent leader. “How to Be a Dictator” takes off from a conviction, no doubt born of his Mao studies, that a tragic amnesia about what ideologues in power are like has taken hold of too many minds amid the current “crisis of liberalism.” And so he attempts a sort of anatomy of authoritarianism, large and small, from Mao to Papa Doc Duvalier. [Continue reading…]