Friday, July 22, 2011

The Illusion of the Independent Dictator

At the end of a previous posting „Grown Men Do Not Need Leaders“ there was a question which is reformulated here: Although in most (Western) democracies there are independent institutions controlling the power of the elected governments (like e.g. supreme court, financial regulation or consumer protection), how come that it doesn't work the way Popper believed it should? (And how come that more and more people have the impression of being faced with a democracy solely on paper, a faked democracy?)
One of the replies to this posting was: „it doesn't work without leaders! People need a leader, a strong hand guiding them!“

One could have expected other objections like that - in practice - the mentioned institutions are neither free nor independent. Thus, the reply is surprising on the one hand. On the other hand, it is not surprising at all, because one can still hear it so often. If you go to Russia for instance, you will hear it all the time. Putin is said to be Russia's hero, because he's the strong hand Russia needs and he prevented the country (or the empire) from further breakdown – in contrast to the much hated Gorbatchov and Jelzin in the nineties. Also in the US, you can hear the call for a strong leadership in ever election campaign and people are often disgusted by fruitless congressional debates. The more chaos, the more demanding the wish for a strong leader. Sometimes it appears to be a kind of reflex … it seems you can't kill it. But it's not a reflex. It's an illusion.

Let's go back to 1944, when Karl Popper's „The Open Society and it's Enemies“ was about to be published. Hitler and Stalin were still in power and they were the epitome of strong leaders – no one can doubt that. Popper stated the theory of (uncontrolled) sovereignty as follows: „that political power is practically unchecked, or for the demand that it ought to be so; together with the implication that the main question left is to get this power into the best hands.“ (chapter 7/I)
But before he starts to argue against this theory, he calls in question the picture of the independent/almighty leader some people were still maintaining at that time. And it is these simple remarks questioning an old and problematic concept – not even arguing against it- which make Popper's writings still so valuable.

„Without entering into a detailed criticism, I wish to point out that there are serious objections against a rash and implicit acceptance of this theory. Whatever its speculative merits may appear to be, it is certainly a very unrealistic assumption. No political power has ever been unchecked, and as long as men remain human (as long as the ‘Brave New World’ has not materialized), there can be no absolute and unrestrained political power. So long as one man cannot accumulate enough physical power in his hands to dominate all others, just so long must he depend upon his helpers. Even the most powerful tyrant depends upon his secret police, his henchmen and his hangmen. This dependence means that his power, great as it may be, is not unchecked, and that he has to make concessions, playing one group off against another. It means that there are other political forces, other powers besides his own, and that he can exert his rule only by utilizing and pacifying them. This shows that even the extreme cases of sovereignty are never cases of pure sovereignty. They are never cases in which the will or the interest of one man (or, if there were such a thing, the will or the interest of one group) can achieve his aim directly, without giving up some of it in order to enlist powers which he cannot conquer. And in an overwhelming number of cases, the limitations of political power go much further than this.“ (Popper [1945], chapter 7/1)


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