A significant hallmark of an authoritarian government is the way it uses the power of the state to bully people.
The spectre was raised a century ago by Franz Kafka, whose unfinished novel The Trial summed up the whole problem. In the story, Kafka’s narrator was arrested and put on trial – all without even knowing what the charges were.
The concept was intentionally surreal, one of Kafka’s hallmarks: but the concept of an all-powerful state taking away even the right of the individual to know what they had been charged with was one familiar even in his day. When he began writing it in 1914, for instance, Tsarist Russia was being run as a police-state – a characteristic retained when the Communists took it over three years later (before Kafka had finished writing the novel). And there had been many instances of such conduct through history – not least in the ‘witch hunting’ of the medieval and early modern period.
The other point of his story was the way that the mind-set of state bullying also gives permission for its functionaries to unleash their own tendencies towards bullying. After all, it’s a no-risk strategy: if you take away somebody’s ability to defend themselves, you can have uninterrupted target practise on them, all without fear of comeback. This is largely why bullying is so widespread in general: it’s easy, it’s risk-free, and the person doing it always wins. What’s not for the bully to like about it? And in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the state is a very powerful device for removing that power of defence from innocent citizens.
Strange though Kafka’s writing is – particularly once translated – he had a point.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017