Essay

How the powerful turn bad

Print edition : April 10, 2020

Adolf Hitler, whose rise to power was enabled by Gemany’s former royals and a conservative aristocracy. Photo: AP

George W. Bush. Even societies with long experience of democratic governance succumb to the charm of the “strong” leader only to find that the leader has feet of clay. Photo: LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS

Margaret Thatcher. Even societies with long experience of democratic governance succumb to the charm of the “strong” leader only to find that the leader has feet of clay. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Tony Blair. Even societies with long experience of democratic governance succumb to the charm of the “strong” leader only to find that the leader has feet of clay. Photo: ADAM BUTLER/AP

Donald Trump. Even societies with long experience of democratic governance succumb to the charm of the “strong” leader only to find that the leader has feet of clay. Photo: Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg

Stories of bad emperors of past ages show how the acquisition of power may not so much corrupt as allow our own worst qualities to slide out and harm us.

There is a strange allure of the powerful. History shows how hero-worship turns heads and the powerful become wicked. This is especially true of a society which has little tradition of democratic governance. The examples of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump show that even in societies with long experience of democratic governance and deep popular commitment to democratic values, people do succumb to the charm of the “strong” man only to discover his feet of clay. By which time a lot of damage is done. Those who help in the rise to power of the strong are devoured by them when they acquire supreme power.

David Motadel demonstrates that Adolf Hitler could not have grabbed total power but for the support of the former royals and a conservative aristocracy. He might have added the democratic socialists who, like very many in Britain, preferred Hitler to Communist Soviet Union, which they dreaded and loathed. His article entitled “What do the Hohenzollern Deserve?” in The New York Review of Books (March 26, 2020) is an eye-opener. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor of the Hohenzollern dynasty, fled by train into exile in the Netherlands on November 10, 1918, after Germany’s defeat in the First World War. He bore no small responsibility for it.

David Motadel records that German Conservatives “helped Hitler to power in 1933” and explains it thus: “Crucial to Hitler’s ascent to power was a coalition between the Nazis and Germany’s old conservative elites, who hoped they could use and control him for their own ends. It was they who arranged Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor, plotted in the backrooms of gentlemen’s clubs, in officers’ messes, and at dinners and shooting parties on grand estates. The German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher demonstrated as early as 1955, in his Die Auflosung der Weimarer Republik, that it was their actions that destroyed Weimar democracy, not an inevitable political crisis. ‘What is more disturbing to our peace of mind,’ Hannah Arendt noted around the same time in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘is the unquestionable attraction these movements exert on the elite, and not only on the mob elements in society.’ Hitler’s regime was supported by a broad spectrum of right-wing groups, including the royalist right, which were united in their hatred of liberal democracy, communism, and Jews. The Nazis were initially eager to get backing from the monarchists. It was only after their consolidation of power that they lost interest in the former royal family.”

Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969 and governed with the support of Communists and Socialists. She rode to power on the plank of “Garibi Hatao”, and then discarded the allies and the ideology. She grabbed power in the guise of a bogus Emergency. Her fall was foretold.

Narendra Modi won allies when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat—businessmen, industrialists, Hindutvaites and others who yearned for a “strong” leader. The Old Guard was shoved aside. He became Prime Minister in 2014 and set about fulfilling the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) triple agenda—a uniform civil code, Ram temple in Ayodhya and the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution.

But his calculations have begun to go awry. Kashmir is spinning out of control. The agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) has put him on the defensive. The sheen of international prestige has worn off. But he has assets. The RSS does not like men who acquire a persona of their own. A senior functionary has already sounded an alarm. But the constituency of Big Business and Hindutva is intact, though frayed. Large sections of media—print and, more so, electronic—vie with one another to praise Modi. The Cabinet system is destroyed. The civil service is suborned. The Supreme Court, mostly a frail reed, is increasingly quiescent. The opposition is fractured. But public opinion remains a decisive factor and public opinion has begun to turn against him.

C. Rajagopalachari sensed all this years before Independence. While in jail, he made the following entry in his diary: “Elections and their corruptions [sic], injustice and life power and tyranny of wealth and inefficiency of administration will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. Men will look regretfully back to the old regime of comparative justice and efficient, peaceful, more or less honest administration.

“The only thing gained will be that as a race we will be saved from dishonour and subordination. Hope lies only in universal education by which right conduct, fear of God and love will be developed among the citizens from childhood. It is only if we succeed in this that Swaraj will mean happiness. Otherwise it will mean grinding injustices and tyranny of wealth.”

At the end of the Constituent Assembly’s labours, Dr B.R. Ambedkar warned that it was “quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact…. If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing, in my judgment, we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives…. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha…. [They are] the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”

Road to degradation

The rest is so strikingly relevant to the situation today as to bear quotation in extenso: “The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy; namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions’. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot, Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For, in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

Let us go to the original source, John Stuart Mill: “There are nations who will not voluntarily submit to any government but that of certain families, which have from time immemorial had the privilege of supplying them with chiefs. Some nations could not, except by foreign conquest, be made to endure a monarchy; others are equally averse to a republic….

“But there are also cases in which, though not averse to a form of government—possibly even desiring it—a people may be unwilling or unable to fulfil its conditions. They may be incapable of fulfilling such of them as are necessary to keep the government even in nominal existence. Thus a people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for reserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions; in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty” (John Stuart Mill, Representative Government, 1861).

Mill adds: “Of what efficacy are rules of procedure in securing the ends of justice, if the moral condition of the people is such that the witnesses generally lie, and the judges and their subordinates take bribes? [Or are supine.] Again, how can institutions provide a good municipal administration if there exists such indifference to the subject that those who would administer honestly and capably cannot be induced to serve, and the duties are left to those who undertake them because they have some private interest to be promoted? Of what avail is the most broadly popular representative system if the electors do not care to choose the best Member of Parliament, but choose him who will spend most money to be elected? How can a representative assembly work for good if its members can be bought, or if their excitability of temperament, uncorrected by public discipline or private self-control, makes them incapable of calm deliberation and they resort to manual violence on the floor of the House, or shoot at one another with rifles?…

“Whenever the general disposition of the people is such that each individual regards those only of his interests which are selfish, and does not dwell on, or concern himself for, his share of the general interest, in such a state of things good government is impossible.… Government consists of acts done by human beings; and if the agents, or those who choose the agents, or those to whom the agents are responsible, or the lookers-on whose opinion ought to influence and check all these, are mere masses of ignorance, stupidity, and baleful prejudice, every operation of government will go wrong; while, in proportion as the men rise above this standard, so will the government improve in quality; up to the point of excellence, attainable but nowhere attained, where the officers of government, themselves persons of superior virtue and intellect, are surrounded by the atmosphere of a virtuous and enlightened public opinion.

“The first element of good government, therefore, being the virtue and intelligence of the human beings composing the community, the most important point of excellence which any form of government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves.”

The historian Professor Josiah Osgood did not select, translate and publish the Roman biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquilius’ biography Lives of the Caesars for fun. It covers altogether 12 Caesars beginning with Julius Caesar. Prof. Osgood has selected four instructive cases – Julius Caesar, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, and Nero (How to Be A Bad Emperor: An Ancient Guide to Truly Terrible Leaders, Suetonius, Princeton University Press, 2020, 288 pages). It is part of a series published by the Princeton University Press very creditably, titled Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers. It comprises 10 studies, including Cicero’s How to Run A Country.

Fascination with great power

Prof. Osgood reveals the purpose of his work in detail. “What is the purpose of gathering together Suetonius’ stories of bad emperors? One answer is that they help to explain features of our own time. Our fascination with great power and with great personalities owes something to the Romans, even to the Lives of the Caesars in particular. Suetonius spawned many sequels in antiquity and beyond, and through translation and adaptation—including Robert Graves’ famous Claudius novel—he has given us a sense that to be a Caesar is to be outsize, outrageous, out-of-this-world. It is no coincidence that one of Las Vegas’ longest-running casinos is called Caesars Palace.

“We are shocked by Caligula’s cruel put-downs or Nero’s mania for performance, but we also find their transgressions just a little bit pleasurable—find the men themselves almost entertaining. In the twenty-first century, we see better than ever how politicians can build movements around their personalities. Suetonius helps us to understand why. In giving free rein to their own desires, Caesars may tap into our hidden wishes too.

“But then they pull us up short. We see just how badly they dealt with the challenges they faced, for the buck did stop with them. In a reversal of the usual self-help formula, How to Be a Bad Emperor becomes a guide to how you can be a good leader, whatever your role in life. Caesar refusing to stand to greet the Senators when they come bearing honours: a lesson in how to treat colleagues. Tiberius trying to win glory from a disastrous fire: a reminder that you shouldn’t always try to take credit for your accomplishments. Caligula brutalising those around him, even forcing his father-in-law to cut his throat with a razor; brutalise, and you will be brutalised back. Nero meeting the threat of rebellion by loading his wagons with organs for the theatres and concubines with buzz cuts: your pet projects may fatally undermine you and your organisation.”

Reading Lives of the Caesars from cover to cover can be daunting; so many details are included. The stories of the bad emperors and the weird worlds they constructed make for an entertaining selection. They are also a meditation on how the acquisition of power may not so much corrupt, as the old adage has it, as allow our own worst qualities to slide out and harm us. Unrestrained power may be thrilling, but in the end proves ineffective. The polity is wrecked; the people are deceived.

History teaches by analogy, not identity, Henry Kissinger often remarks. No two cases are identical. Ancient Rome presents a different case. We are concerned not with the details of their abuse of power, murders and sexual excesses but with their techniques, which the reader will find relevant. They are disturbingly identical to those we have seen in our times, as the reader will discover for himself—take allies, win power, discard them and rule ruthlessly.

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