Power, The Totalitarian State, and Democracy

On December 22, 1849, a few days before Christmas, Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was sent to a firing squad by Tsar Nicholas I. For what reason? He belonged to the Petrashevsky Circle, a progressive group that aimed its critics towards tsarism and Russian feudalism. Pledged as a revolutionary threat by the Tsar, the collective was banned and many of its members ended up walled, impotent, and shot.

Put up on the terrible wall by the officers, on the verge of shooting, Dostoevsky received a court pardon. Soon after, he was sent to Siberia, in a place where he would be forced to work for four years. This episode of the biography regarding the esteemed writer of “Crime and Punishment” clarifies the following statement by the Bulgarian Elias Canetti about Mass Control and Power: “Intensified to the maximum, power presents itself in those cases where pardon is granted at the last moment. When the death sentence is about to be carried out – on the gallows or by the volley of gunfire from a platoon assigned to the firing squad – forgiveness appears as a new life”

Those with power wish to survive eternally, to turn away from death, transfer it, declare who will live and who will die. The act of saving a condemned man of it’s sentence is an unparalleled demonstration of power: life and death – the opposite poles of existence – met in a single decision of the leader. “Among men, the hand that no longer let us go is the true symbol of power,” says Canetti. And the hand that let us go at your leisure, I add. The hand that demands, refuses, points towards, turns away. The paradoxically powerful hand of power.

Sitting on a throne inside a gigantic palace, the powerful distances itself like he’s on a different space, as concerns common men, so it can grab without being grabbed. And power wants to see without being seen, wants to be omniscient like God. For this, the power, like the police in a federal investigation, must ask and interrogate to death. “Every question is an intrusion,” notes Canetti.

Before we post on Facebook, the feed asks: “what’ on your mind?”; Canetti, years before digital media, warns: “the truest secret is what goes on inside the body”. What is more internal than thinking itself? The secret is at the heart of power: armed with the secret, the powerful know more than the others – they take another step towards Olympus. In fact, the secret is immune from the common intrusion into questioning. To the Tsar, his subjects must reveal what is hidden. And just like that, power wants to remove from its subordinates the right to hide, monopolizing it.

On the novel “1984”, written by George Orwell, the “Party” led by the “Big Brother” rules one of the three sovereign totalitarian states in the world. Within the colossal governmental machine, there’s a sector called the “Thought Police” – responsible for punishing thought-crime; that is, ideologies other than those approved by the State. If such crimes is committed, because slips happen, the criminal will be punished. The prohibition of externalized opposition to the party’s agenda, common to so many Authoritarian States throughout human history, is divided into the prohibition of internal opposition.

The total State of Orwell, through Telescreens – devices present in everyone’s home capable of seeing and hearing anyone, anywhere – inspires the spies, the police, and the ruled ones themselves to obtain total knowledge from the total presence: They converge on his omnipresence and omniscience. Nothing will escape the Party’s sphere of power, especially the thoughts of the subjects – the secrets, are then, extinct. By contrast, no one has ever touched Big Brother – the supreme leader, the secret personified; they didn’t even visualize him in its mighty, except on huge posters with the words: “BIG BROTHER HAS AN EYE ON YOU!” Maybe the absolute boss doesn’t even exist to start with. In any case, his power exists: It is untouchable, although it touches everything, it is invulnerable, distant, invisible, omnipresent, and omniscient.

For aspiring totalitarian rulers, the Party and Big Brother conceived by Orwell are ideal inspirations. They know all, they hide everything. They are absolute antitheses of democratic governments, in which the publicity of power is necessary – democracy is the government of people’s power exercised in public. For the people to have effective control over the State, its actions, as well as those of government agents, must be transparent. How would it be possible for the population to control what it does not know? In democratic regimes, secrecy is the exception to the rule; officially resting in the intelligence services – at ABIN (Brazil), at the CIA (United States), and at FGD (Russia), for example, with the justification that to guarantee the public security, the necessity of secrecy is indispensable.

As such, the free and plural Press is central to a healthy democracy. One of its social functions is to reveal the secrets of power, to make it visible if it is invisible, as happened recently with the “Pandora Papers” scandal. “All actions relating to the rights of other men, whose maxim is not likely to be made public, are unjust.”, says Kant in the second appendix of “Perpetual Peace”; that is, if the action is just, it can be done publicly without negative consequences. The Press personified in journalists, asks the other powers, intrudes in the dark bowels.

The Press is considered by many as the fourth branch of the Judiciary, Legislative and Executive powers. Should any particular news outlet fail in its duty, wear masks, lie or omit, another newspaper will unveil it sooner or later. In 2021, two journalists won the Nobel Peace Prize – Filipino “Maria Ressa” and the Russian “Dmitry Muratov”. Both founded independent media in their respective countries; recognized the Norwegian awards committee, which claimed that freedom of expression is “a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”.

As described in “White Fang”, American author Jack London outlines yet another indispensable aspect to the constitution of power: Submission to orders. In the narrative, a wild wolf is progressively introduced into human civilization. For that, he loses on each page the potency, the fury, the unwieldiness, characteristics of Nature itself. And how do human beings subject the animal? First, by force, pure and simple. “Grey Beaver was a god, and he was strong. So White Fang obeyed his orders”, explains the narrator.

The wolf suffered from severe human aggression. However, little by little he lost his impetus, his natural wildness: “The captivity had softened him. Living without responsibilities will make you weak.”; suddenly abandoned by men, the fire gods, Fang was free. Human strength was insufficient to capture him once more, to subdue him. The wolf, however, chooses to sacrifice the unrestrained freedom of wild Nature for the warmth, food, and safety of the human camp: soul. By his own choice, he went to sit by the fire of man, to be dominated by it”.

Nothing is more important to survival thing than food. Whoever has food commands the dispossessed, because eating is power, is living. Nature is uncertain; the violent hand, though painful, offers a greasy piece of meat. Human injustice is countered by the indifference of the icy savage world, as hostile as it is amoral – not immoral. Jack London describes it with the frightening depth of someone who knows how it works, because he does: “It was the imperious and incommunicable wisdom of eternity, laughing at the futility of life and the effort of living. It was the wild and frozen world of the North, the merciless boreal forest”.

Elias Canetti will explain the genesis of domesticated submission to tyrants based on food bribes: “The master feeds his slave or his dog; the mother feeds her child. A person who finds himself in a situation of submission gets used to receiving his food with one hand (…) Thus, a close link was created between the granting of food and order.”; In any case, both threat and punishment are always on the lookout for the submission – The strictest of being the original sanction: death.

With plants, which produce their food, submission becomes less apparent. They, however, submit to the threatening and malicious Sun. Without it, they would be lifeless. The sun is often recognized as a symbol of power in several human cultures, the star-king shares with the Orwellian Big Brother some characteristics: both are untouchable, invulnerable, and distant.

To the eyes of subjects, solar omnipresence is surpassed only by night; everyone feels, however, that the Sun is somewhere – waiting to, in a few hours, triumph once more as the sovereign of the heavens. The British Empire – the largest in terms of land area in human history – was given the nickname “the Empire in which the sun never sets”. In a few words, the aspiration to the omnipresence and eternity of power is clear: if the mighty could, he would retain the sun on himself in an infinite day; the kingdom and the sun would be one under the tyrant’s yoke.

The Italian philosopher and writer Norberto Bobbio, in the book “Future of Democracy”, sums up the issue: “Having power means, in a nutshell, having the ability to reward or punish, that is, to obtain desired behaviors, or promising, and being in conditions of giving, rewards, or threatening, and being in a position to inflict, punishments.” The power of Tsar Nicholas I, referred to above, punished Dostoevsky with death and rewarded him with life. And what will power do to us tomorrow? What if, by chance, we do something to him?


Bibliography: BOBBIO, Norberto. The Future of Democracy. CANETTI, Elias. Mass and Power. LONDON, Jack. White Canines. ORWELL, George. 1984.



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