As the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded, I was reminded over and over again of the behaviour of abusive ex-husbands and boyfriends. At first he thinks that he can simply bully her into returning. When it turns out she has no desire to return, he shifts to vengeance.
Putin insisted that Ukraine was rightfully part of Russia and didn’t have a separate existence. He expected his army to grab and subjugate with ease, even be welcomed. Now his regime seems bent on punitive destruction – of energy infrastructure, dwellings, historic sites, whole cities – and rape, torture and mass murder. This too is typical of abusers: domestic-violence homicides are often punishment for daring to leave.
Everything I needed to know about authoritarianism I learned from feminism, or rather from feminism’s sharp eye when it comes to coercive control and male abusers. Sociologist and gender violence expert Evan Stark, in his book Coercive Control, defined the title term as one that subsumes domestic violence in a larger pattern of isolation, intimidation and control. (The book has been so influential that in the UK, coercive control is now recognised as a crime.) The violence matters, Stark writes, “but the primary harm abusive men inflict is political, not physical, and reflects the deprivation of rights and resources that are critical to personhood and citizenship”. This connects it directly to what dictators and totalitarian regimes do to the people under their rule – it’s only a matter of scale. And the agenda at all scales is to control not just practical matters, but fact, truth, history; who can speak and what can be said.
The antithesis of this is, of course, democracy, which is likewise a principle that works at all scales. A marriage can be called democratic if both parties exercise power equally and are unconstrained and unintimidated by the other. Equally, a marriage can be a little tyranny in which one gains and the other surrenders rights and powers through the union, which was until recently how marriage was defined legally and socially. Likewise we call democratic those nations in which national decisions are (however imperfectly) made by representatives elected by, and accountable to, the public.
At the very root of tyranny, no matter whether it’s personal or public life, lies the belief that the agency and agenda of others is illegitimate, that only the would-be tyrant should control the household or the nation. [Continue reading…]