Autocrats can hardly be defeated. But they can defeat themselves. This is how.
The Hungarian government announced that they will shave off the top five floors of communist high-rise buildings. Because they can. This should give you an idea how out of touch they are at this point in time. And if things keep going according to their plans, it will only get worse.
On the deep end of this slippery slope, we find dictators like Mao writing poems about his disastrous but grand plans to build megalithic dams – but having no money nor engineers to pull it off because he destroyed the economy with the Great Leap Forward and had the engineers killed in his primitivist Cultural Revolution.
You can recognize delusional plans by their grandiose nature – and the delusional belief that the only reason it was never done before is that no one even thought of it before. Like killing off all the birds to save seeds or installing micro-furnaces in every household. Top-down enforcement of one man’s mania results in misery and wide-scale destruction.
This is an excellent moment to reflect upon the fours reasons autocrats cannot last and create more instability than scary-scary freedom ever could.
1. Having grand, simplistic ideas
A kid with the grand idea to shave off the top of brutalist skyscrapers would be dismissed at best. A strongman won’t even be questioned.
Dictators are in the habit of having simplistic ideas that just never occurred to anyone before. As they get more full of themselves, they start to genuinely believe that others were just too stupid to have such a great idea. And their people are in their jobs exactly because they won’t tell them they are wrong.
Last week, Orbán’s right hand minister, Lázár announced (out of the blue) that the government wants to demolish the top floors of ugly, communist high-rises. This is not their first swipe at those houses, and they are no-ones favorites. But the simplicity and grandiosity of the plan sounds like communist times when comrades in Moscow decided, for instance, that industrialization is in order, so let’s just install heavy industry to – completely flat and mineral-poor – Hungary. Because.
And just as the first secretary must have been applauded for his ingenuity by the cadres back then, there was no one to stop Lázár from announcing such nonsense.
The floor removal plan in an excellent corruption opportunity, makes little to no sense, and it isn’t thought through. How they will get rid of the inhabitants of which there are plenty, we know not. It tells more about Orbán’s disdain for those eyesores in his land than about economic rationality.
Nutty startup billionaires do this kind of thing all the time, but at least they are not spending public money on it – and can’t push it through unwilling civilians. They just waste their wealth on a few of these outlandish ideas, redistributing it while doing so.
2. Autocrats are unable (and unwilling) to put themselves into others’ shoes
Because it becomes unnecessary for their political survival.
The paradox of power dictates that the very skills that helped you gain power will erode once you gained power. At the beginning, for instance, you were good at reading the room. It helped you gauge the enemy and satisfy your bosses, it helped you move ahead in the hierarchy, helped you become popular. But then, you gained all the power. There hasn’t been anyone you needed to read in a long time – and you forgot to look at things from others’ perspectives.
“Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”
–Jerry Useem: Power Causes Brain Damage, The Atlantic
In the end, you find yourself confused when a crowd gathered to celebrate you is booing you instead, and your loyal men who licked your ring a week ago deliver you to the firing squad – instead of safety. What went wrong?
“Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they 〈chronically powerful people – ed.〉 rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation.”
–Jerry Useem: Power Causes Brain Damage, The Atlantic
3. Fire people who dare to say no
…and mistake people with a “can-do attitude” with people who never say no.
When such a harebrained idea is proposed under an autocrat, there is no one to voice concern or ask questions. Orbán is legendary for not letting people near himself. (Consequently all Orbán-whisperers are powerful and enriched themselves on their privilege.)
Orbán is also known to be frustrated with people who tell him that something cannot be done – and assumes they are either 1) short-sighted, 2) don’t have vision, 3) sabotaging his greatness.And to a certain degree he may be right. Some people are more focused on the obstacles than the possibilities. They are prone to list all the possible obstacles before they even meet them. They present you with an endless list of problems that might occur – and work on that list more than the solution. Analytically, they might be perfectly correct, but their approach tells more about their culturally internalized helplessness than the possibilities ahead of them. But not all of them.
So I understand Orbán’s urge to surround himself with only yes-men. It is easy to convince yourself that they are just wrong. But just because someone says yes boss, they are not necessarily right. And more importantly, they don’t know how to do it. They will definitely say yes, then go out, kick an ass below themselves, intimidate their subordinates – and make sure 1) they get a big cut for themselves, 2) get credit if it succeeds, and 3) there will be someone else to blame when it doesn’t.
But the biggest problem with yes-men in the long run is that they don’t ask back and don’t correct your mistakes. How could they? Most of them don’t even know what you’re talking about.
Yes-men may be immediately satisfying and pleasant to have around, but they don’t care about the craziness. Because they are all loyalists, so they couldn’t care less. Not just about the country, but about the success of the idea. Their priority is (no, not their boss), but their own, short-term benefit.
A loyalist’s career is short, so they need to be greedy and amass as much wealth in their short career as they can. Because without free market exchange of value for value and without the rule of law to protect your property, even your king’s current favor is a fickle thing. You might fall out of it suddenly. And then you will want a nest egg. Preferably abroad.
4. Pick loyalists, instead of competent people
Trump made the news with his demand for loyalism above all among his own men. That is a really bad sign.
Replacing experts with ass-kissers is nothing new in history. In Hungary, it happened right after Fidesz came into power in 2010. Orbán had a complete blueprint to take over and capture the state infrastructure, and they started implementing it immediately. One of the first visible signs of something seriously wrong was when they replaced everyone in public administration, down to the last receptionist. This is not an exaggeration. Apart from the complete shake-up of ministries’ organisational structure, even the lowest-ranking bureaucrats and the service personnel was replaced, down to the kitchen staff in the canteen. The new ones were loyalists. Their top and only reason to get the job was that they didn’t belong to anyone else and they were willing to do anything.
To be precise, they were willing to do anything when they were ordered – and did absolutely nothing when they weren’t. No responsibility taken, none permitted. Things can rot on their watch, but they won’t ever lift a finger to fix them unless told so. The only thing they ever spend time on is office politics.
Many fresh graduates found themselves in serious positions after the 2010 elections, some had no clue what his (newly minted) ministry was doing. Another graduate I met couldn’t decide which job to take because “he had no clue which one does what”, but he wanted as high as possible and he had the connections so he was going to become a high-ranking bureaucrat straight out of university. I will be the last one to argue against young people’s promotion, but this was not about youth and dynamism. It was about blind, unquestioning loyalty, fueled by ignorance an inexperience.
Many I knew left their fancy jobs once they discovered – to their horror – that they were expected to sign fraud and carry out shady or downright illegal things. Like manipulating statistics, staging fake public procurement tenders, lying to people, or intimidating subordinates into doing so.
Loyalty to a leader benefits the leader – not the country. And sometimes not even the leader.
The removal of the top five floors of privately owned communist high-rises is an idea Orbán borrowed from Putin. That doesn’t make it any less depressing.
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Featured image: Megaossa aka Radek Ossowski