The authoritarian state and the family

A couple of comments I read/heard recently have got me thinking about the different kinds of authoritarian states there are and their relationship to families. One was someone talking about life in Communist Hungary and how it came to influence the very things you could think and talk about. It was hard to trust anyone. He had a friend from school he used to discuss jazz with; he found out after the fall of communism, when the secret police files were open, that that friend had been forced into working as an informer and his own comments on music had been noted. In this kind of surveillance culture there were massive amounts of self-censorship; it became hard even to think certain things, since these could never be expressed safely.

As a contrast, I came across the opening of a book review in the New Statesman (

Contrary to a notion common in the west, in Arab countries no opinion is too dangerous to express. People say whatever they want to say – they simply do it in private. Those who try to disclose in public what is meant to be shared only with a small circle of trusted friends, especially if it relates to political or religious matters, could pay a high price. Samir Kassir, who was murdered last year, was one of these.

It seems to me that these represent two very different traditions in authoritarian states (both of which could be equally brutal to political opponents). One seeks to penetrate all of society, right into the most intimate relationships (the classic totalitarianism), another seems to allow more autonomy at the personal level, while still maintaining a wider oppressive structure. A couple of recent articles on Iran seem to emphasis this second tendency (,,,1937510,00.html), showing a world where such illegal acts as premarital sex and watching satellite TV are normal activities, within complicated frameworks of deception and pretence. This itself obviously has a disconnecting impact on society and mentalities, but not in quite the same corrosive way as totalitarianism.

I started wondering both why such a ‘soft’, public-only authoritarianism developed and whether it was possibly more successful at political repression than the ‘normal’ totalitarian state. The conventional view is that any relaxation of repression by an authoritarian state will lead to its downfall: it is the state trying to lessen its iron grip where the system collapses totally (like Gorbachov’s communism), whereas the obdurate hardliners continue for ever. (See e.g. Ian Bremmer, The J Curve Yet I wonder whether some of these limited authoritarian states might not be more successful than traditional communist ones. Even Iran looks more politically stable than reformers would like it to be. (As the Wall Street Journal concludes: ‘How can you have a revolution when everyone is watching TV?’). And countries such as Singapore seem so far to be successfully combining economic and some social liberty with political repression.

The examples from around the world also suggest that this kind of public-only authoritarianism works best where there is a fairly strong cultural tradition of repressive/controlling families, for example in Mediterranean/Arab culture, Confucian influenced East Asia (or indeed pre-20th century Western Christen culture). Perhaps what happens is that the state is allowing the privatisation of control/repression here. There certainly seems to be some kind of trade off, since the totalitarian state often seems to be connected to a suspicion of the family: communism, in particular, from Soviet Russia to Mao’s China, being noted for the encouragement of denouncing your own family/close friends. Such a surveillance society, with the state invading private life, tends to be associated with the left, since they often have the most suspicion of the family. Sometimes this is justified: the idea that the family should never be questioned has led to a lot of domestic violence and abuse over the years. The Iranian mullahs don’t actually need to penetrate to the bedroom to check for misconduct: they can rely on grannies to do this for them. But there are also some occasions where right-wingers are enthusiastic to regulate private life: rules preventing private homosexual acts, for example, or the threat in the USA to subpoena women’s health records to check on abortions. (Ferdinand Mount, a conservative journalist, wrote an interesting book, The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage (London, 1982), which pointed out that the family wasn’t simply subversive of socialist values. It could also be hostile to more ‘conservative’ social movements, such as Christianity or Edward Burke’s wish to co-opt family love into developing patriotism.)

Meanwhile, in the recent discussion of Britain becoming a ‘surveillance society’ I think there’s possibly been too much focus on the technology of cameras etc. Perhaps more problematic is the growth of a culture that encourages denouncing of others, even those close to us. The government has certainly encouraged this, with John Reid wanting Muslim parents to spy on their children,,1876865,00.html), but I think the proliferation of ‘report a cheat’ lines has merely tapped into a deep-seated urge by Britons to inform on others (such as those who use their hosepipes illegally). Unfortunately, if a real authoritarian state ever did come to Britain, it would probably be at the more totalitarian end of the spectrum.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s