You can’t get a job, a passport, a loan, a mortgage, insurance or a good school place for your children.  Why?  Because the totalitarian state has deemed you ‘untrustworthy’.  It’s in a good position to know because it has been monitoring what you read, who you talk to, what you buy, where you browse, what your political views are and what taxes and bills you pay.  Oh yes, and where you’ve been.  Plus what your friends say about you online.  It has taken all that information and turned it into a social credit score for good citizenship.

A summary of 1984?  No, a description of what every inhabitant of China faces from 2020.  If you don’t live in China why should you worry?  Because China (and Russia) are spreading their global influence and advocating authoritarianism as an alternative to Western democracy and countries are already signing up.

But how come?  Who in their right mind would want to lose their freedom?  Well, it’s not difficult to see why some leaders find the idea of enduring and unbridled power together with no criticism or consultation appealing.  But why would large sections of a population?  Germany kept voting for Hitler, remember.

Regression, dependence and projection

You could fill a library with the answer to that question.  But for now let’s note that there’s a psychological appeal to authoritarianism.  People can regress to a quasi-childlike state and become dependent on a parent (even if he is popularly called Big Brother) who knows best, thinks for them and makes their decisions.  They can be looked after.

In the process they can project all their own strength, potency, skill, talent and wisdom onto that figure.  It saves them having to wrestle with those things themselves.

Conscience and morality – often annoyingly complex and messy things – can be located in the leader too.  That person and the system they’ve created can decide in black and white what’s right and wrong.

Idealization

Idealization can also play a powerful part.  To understand it, we need to think about the universe of an infant.  When a baby comes into what feels a scary world it’s vulnerable to its own anxiety, hatred and aggression.  So it gets rid of them, as it were, and experiences them not as coming from inside but from outside, in the person of a bad mother.  These feelings merge with experiences of a real mother being, of course, less than perfect.

As well as getting rid of bad things into the mother, the baby also puts its own feelings of goodness, warmth and love into its mother to create a presence that it can experience as protective and safe.  Again, the good is joined in reality by actual positive experiences of the mother.  In this way, the baby effectively experiences two mothers – one bad and one good.  When things are going well it’s the good mother who’s there but when the baby’s needs aren’t immediately met because the mother isn’t readily available for whatever reason, then it’s the bad mother.  Above all, the baby has to keep the bad one away from the good one and also away from itself – for fear that annihilation will result.

If the infant’s development goes well it will gradually come to feel that the good is stronger than the bad and will also feel better able to defend itself.  It will then become less afraid of its own bad impulses and more able to take them back inside.  In this way it gets a more realistic view of itself and of its mother who it comes to recognize as a whole person.  There’s not a good and a bad mother but one mother who’s the source of both good and bad.

Idealization in grown-ups

Realizing that people and situations contain both good and bad is a sign of emotional maturity.  But throughout life we all have stressful times when we revert temporarily to the earlier phase of splitting into good and bad.  This infantile process is the root of idealization and its opposite denigration.  We think someone’s absolutely marvellous, for example, or a total nightmare.  Or the one followed by the other because wherever you get idealization sooner or later you usually get denigration.  But some people operate predominantly in this primitive splitting mode and that leaves them wide open to idealizing a strong leader.

Not altogether surprisingly, authoritarian leaders themselves are often among those who split between good and bad in this way.  They then encourage others to idealize them as leader and to hate who they hate.  An enemy is often required by the leader because of the split within themselves that gets projected outwards onto the world.  Not only that but it may be a useful protection because, given the tendency for denigration to follow idealization, there’s danger for the authoritarian leader.  If things go well they get all the praise but if things go badly (for example on the economy) there’s no one else to blame.  So a designated foe can be awfully useful.  You can take your pick from history.

Coming soon

I said at the start that it’s clear why some leaders are attracted by authoritarianism.  But there are also more hidden reasons why that may be so.  Watch this space …..