Authoritarian Blindness

Five Things You Need to Read Today

1. Authoritarian Blindness

How soon we forget the big lessons of the Cold War.

There is a weirdly persistent tendency to think of dictatorships as strong, orderly, and effective, when all the evidence indicates that they are weak, chaotic, and hugely inefficient.

This is not just a lesson of the Cold War. I’ve recently been reading the memoirs of Albert Speer, and I have been continually astonished at his descriptions of the chaos, the blindness, the total lack of planning in the Hitler regime. Germany may have a reputation as a nation of engineers, but it was led by a failed artist who liked to sleep in late, make decisions with his gut, and have his subordinates tell him only what he wanted to hear.

The Soviet Union had the same tendency to be blind to what was going on within its own borders because the people were silenced by fear and all information was filtered through a corrupt bureaucracy.

Now the outbreak of the coronavirus is teaching us the same lesson. The government of China initially ignored the outbreak until it spread so far that they had to shut down vast regions of the country, which is having a big impact on its economy.

This has led to some speculation that the current crisis could take down the increasingly totalitarian regime of Xi Jinping by breaking the implicit “social contract” in which the Chinese people agree to trade away political freedom for prosperity. I’m not so sure, at least in the short term. For example, this crisis has already caused the showdown in Hong Kong to be put on hold. Moreover, I don’t think any dictatorship has ever really suffered from having an excuse to put the country on lockdown, prevent its citizens from gathering in public, and detain anyone who seems suspicious—medically, or otherwise.

So it will take a while to figure out what the long-term effects of this particular event will be on Xi’s grip on power. I’m more interested in what it reveals about the wider phenomenon of “authoritarian blindness”—the inability of dictatorial regimes to figure out what is happening in their own countries.

Zeynep Tufekci, a critic of authoritarian rule in her native Turkey, describes this phenomenon.

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