Thinking Like a Tyrant
We Must Understand the Current Evil
I wrote recently here about the fact that we find ourselves in an historical moment involving monumental evil — the kind of evil that we, as a human race, have not seen on a global scale for eighty years. And I argued that we can’t fully understand where we are in this thicket of darkness and unknowing, unless we are willing to understand and face the nature and sources of this evil. I’ve witnessed an example of evil personally, and it is a global example, that shows how the current cruelty has a context.
Something that is slowing down many people from fully grasping what is upon us, is that they are making mistakes in their reasoning about events, because they are engaged, naturally enough, in what intelligence analysts call “mirror imaging.” That is, because most of us are decent people with basic compassion at our cores, and are not sociopaths or psychopaths, we tend to “mirror image” in assuming that others are also driven by basic human motivations such as empathy, altruism, and kindness — or even just by the basic notion that other human beings are also deserving of life, self-determination and dignity. How can such brutality be imposed on us? How could others be at the helm of such vicious policies?
But this assumption, that those currently influencing events and making certain key decisions, are “like us” — is a fatal error.
I’ll explore here, evil achieved by cultivating an elite within metanational corporations; and in a later essay, evil achieved by faceless nonprofits; and in a final essay, evil done by compartmentalization and contractors.
To understand this moment, in which a brutal tyranny is being enacted upon us in lockstep globally, by many otherwise familiar and formerly benign-seeming Western leaders and philanthropists and investors — men and women we thought we knew — we have to begin to “think like a tyrant.”
I am not talking about anything arcane or occult. I am not talking about a Q-Anon fantasy of a few elites running the world.
I am talking here, rather, about the global elites whom I know and among whom I have lived for forty years, and about events that I have witnessed.
I am talking about what the German-Jewish philosopher of totalitarianism Hannah Arendt called “the Banality of Evil.”
To understand what is happening in the current global lockstep of tyranny (I until recently would say, “toward tyranny”), we have to understand that certain subcultures, certain leaders and certain ideologies simply don’t have these core values at heart; and we must face the fact that these monsters are not just Nazis long dead, or members of the CCP far away, taking out their brutality on their own distant, silenced populations. Some monsters are very near to us; some monsters are wearing lovely suits and chatting away about their kids, or about their renovation hurdles, at dinner parties; and some kinds of monstrosity and sociopathy are actively cultivated by the norms and networks that are all around us, albeit half-hidden at elite levels, and systematized and accepted at very high levels.
Meta-National Postwar Organizations
One source of the kind of global cruelty we see in medical fascism today derives from a postwar stratum of power. I’ll explain.
Paradoxically, meta-national organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations, agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and global corporate and investment communities, founded after the carnage of the Second World War, have served to create a class of global elite policymakers, nonprofit leaders, and bureaucrats, who are able to engage in cruel and oppressive policymaking precisely because they are no longer part of the communities whose lives are affected by what they have done.
All these meta-national organizations purported to foster a more peaceful, cooperative world — one that would blunt enmity between historical adversaries (such as France and Germany). Most made the case that this meta-national organizational structure would far more greatly benefit ordinary men and women in the street, than did the poor, battered, dysfunctional nation-state, with its rotten history and its bloody impulses.
The first half of the 20th century, with its two catastrophic World Wars, seemed indeed to reveal conclusively to the world the dark side of nationalism, and the tragic limits of the nation-state; the period seemed like a textbook lesson in how decision-making at the level of nation-states led inexorably to bloodshed and to racist, cruel jingoisms.
The problem, though, as it turned out, is that you can’t have accountability to citizens or a real democracy if you do not have a democratic nation-state. Another problem is that it spawned a class of distant, unaccountable deciders.
As faulty and limited as the post-1848 modern secular Parliamentary nation-state doubtless is, it is the most perfect form of government yet created, in its accountability to a set group of people — that is, to the citizenry of a constitutional democracy bounded by national borders.
Metanational organizations, though, rapidly created superstructures that made decisions above the heads of citizens of nation-states. Quickly, the unelected deciders of the EU Parliament became more important and powerful than were the Parliamentary leaders at the national level in Greece or Portugal or Spain. Quickly, citizens of various European countries lost the skills of understanding how their local and national levers of power worked, and citizens were encouraged to leave it all to the bureaucrats at a level high above that of national Parliaments.
But nationalism within a bounded nation-state, though it can surely be excessive or perverted to the dark side, also has bright and constructive and protective aspects. Positive nationalism, within an accountable, Constitutional nation-state, allows people to care about and act on their own futures; to be motivated by allegiance to their own families, their own communities, their own landscapes, their own histories, and their own cultures. Andleaders have to face their citizenry.
Seeing the positive aspect of nation-states does not in any way have to be a racist or an anti-immigrant position. America at its best, as a “melting pot”, welcomed people of all backgrounds and faiths as citizens. But then, American citizenship immediately had responsibilities and rights.
By the same token, it is not necessarily racist to celebrate what is brightest about French culture and history, if one is French; to revel in Dutch holidays and cuisine and rituals, if one is Dutch; to celebrate the beautiful culture and unique history of Morocco if one is Moroccan. If “French” or “Dutch” or “Moroccan” or “American” are defined as citizenship rather than as race, then the culture expands and welcomes the new; and what is “French” or “Dutch” or “Moroccan” or “American” for that matter, simply evolves.
But a discourse was propagated — by global elites, who benefited from this discourse — that shamed well-intended, anti-racist people, especially in the West, for being in the least bit proud of or loyal to their nation-state or their specific national culture. And a discourse was propagated that shamed any right-on member of any nation-state, also in the West, for worrying about what might happen if there were any limits at all on national borders.
But just as you cannot have a Constitutional democracy unless you have a discrete citizenry, of whatever background, race or faith, who are initiated into that nation’s culture, language, history, rights and responsibilities, so you cannot actually have a functioning, accountable Parliamentary democracy if you have open borders, and voting by non-citizens. Simply as a practical matter, you can’t. You have something nebulous, but it is no longer a representative democracy within a nation-state, and it absolutely dissolves the accountability of ever-more-distant leaders, to the people.
The handing-over of voting rights to a million non-citizens in New York State recently, sounds superficially like a right-on blow for “equity” and for anti-racism; but it is actually, as are fully open borders, a tyrant’s dream; as the effect is simply to dilute the power of citizens and the accountability of leaders to a discrete set of powerful citizens, within the discrete boundaries of a specific nation-state.
By the same token, the democratic nation-state is by necessity accountable to its people in a way that metanational organizations simply are not. The people in a nation-state can vote out corrupt leaders. They can change course when it comes to bad policies. Indeed, they can put corrupt leaders in prison, or in the case of the United States, they can execute leaders who have engaged in espionage, or committed treason to the nation-state.
Their leaders must, in short, whether they wish to or not, see their own people and worry about their reactions. There is thus a natural limit on the cruelty and oppression with which an elected leader in a constitutional nation-state, can get away.
Not so with leaders in the postwar world of meta-national organizations and global nonprofits. Nothing need constrain their cruelty, once they go bad. The same is true for economic global elites: on the economic level, too, global networks and alliances also left national allegiances and national accountability behind.
What happened in the seventy-plus years since the end of the Second World War, is that an elite international class of technocrats, EU bureaucrats, global nonprofit leaders and international investors has developed, in which allegiance to the relationships, programs, profits and outcomes of that global class is more immediate and important to its members, than are any of the relationships, allegiances, rights, property and outrage of their fellow countrymen and women.
To these people, the nation-state — even one’s own nation-state of origin — is an artifact; a secondary, sentimental add-on. What really matters are other global elites in one’s social circle and business network, and the valuable relationships one can create with them. One’s “ordinary” countrymen and women recede and become theoretical. And the constant message one receives from one’s peers and from the elite meta-national culture, is that those “ordinary” men and women simply are not as smart or well educated as one’s meta-national peers, and so it would be a disaster to let them make their own decisions. One is saving them from their own fecklessness, ignorance and shortsightedness, by deciding for them.
What does this have to do with cruelty?
As the Milgram experiments showed, if you are far from seeing the victim whom you are harming, and you have an authoritative directive to harm that victim, then easily enough, “normal” people conveniently become monsters and abusers. And thus, many global elites who are lovely people one on one, nice to their kids, and so on, can execute vast cruelty without even noticing.
That is the situation of the new elite class and the cultural and economic environment I am describing below. It set the groundwork for the extraordinary global cruelty from these meta-national elites to men and women in the street. It set the stage for the cruelty of the lockstep “COVID policy” in which we presently find ourselves.
I will never forget being in a company car in 2015, heading to BBC’s political flagship show, “Newsnight.” It was driven by the BBC’s longtime driver. As a reporter, I always talk to drivers in those circumstances, because the elite men and women whom I described above, often literally do not “see” drivers, waitstaff, cleaners, and other mere mortals. So drivers and waitstaff and cleaners tend to hear everything and know everything.
It was an important week, in which the people of Greece, who were distraught at having had policies of “austerity” forced upon them by the EU, were about to engage in a referendum. The papers were full of elderly Greek men and women who were weeping or in despair because the proposed policies would wipe away their retirement savings. As is common, the European newspapers were portraying the people of Greece, in opposing austerity, as spendthrifts, as ignorant, as having brought their economic disaster upon themselves, and as needing to be rescued by the policies of those wiser heads above the level of their national leaders’ decisionmaking.
I couldn’t help thinking: maybe it will be the case that rejecting “austerity” policies will turn out to be an economic mistake for the people of Greece. But I knew about referenda: and if there is a majority vote in a referendum, it is by law the will of the people, and in a democracy, their decision must be enacted. So you can have your opinion about whether austerity would be smart or not in this context, but if the people have a real nation-state, their referendum will, willy-nilly, determine what happens in their country; and if the people’s decision turns out to be a mistake — well, it is their mistake to make, with their own country, in their own Parliament.
“Oh no,” explained the driver. “The EU ministers were in this car before you. The referendum is purely cosmetic. It will be ignored. Whatever happens, they are going ahead with austerity.”
I was dumbfounded.
But as it turned out - the BBC driver was exactly right. The people of Greece voted against austerity. But they were not to get it.
Later that week, back in New York City, I was at a dinner party. It was hosted by a major hedge fund manager. His clients were Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian, and other international investment funds. At the party were his colleagues: British, Swedish, Chinese, French, and Belgian hedge fund managers and investors.
My host, an otherwise lovely guy, trained of course in the Ivies, was apoplectic — furious — at the rank and file men and women of Greece. He did not yet know what the EU ministers knew. He knew that the people of Greece had rejected austerity, but that he had hedged in the opposite direction. Now he was enraged at those weeping grandmas and grandpas, and at their resistant, angry sons and daughters, for having temporarily messed up his bet on austerity. He was literally pale with fury. His fists clenched as he spoke about the Greek referendum. How dare they, was his attitude. The fools.
The mansion where we all gathered that night had been built by robber baron at the end of the 19th century. The dining room was staffed by beautiful actors/waiters and actresses/waitresses in black pants and spotless white shirts. They served us charmingly a lovely plaice en robe dinner, with sides of grilled asparagus and heirloom beets. The ceilings were twenty feet high, and wreathed in shadows. The walls were adorned with a melange of images of Italian Renaissance princelings, luscious still-lives from the 16th century Netherlands, and portraits of late 19th century American society doyennes.
The conversation was sprightly. To my right, a Norwegian investor spoke about the play that was the latest avant-garde sensation on Broadway. To my left, an artist friend of the host and hostess described movements in the New York art market. Everyone was educated, pleasant and cultured. The money guys were all agreeing with the host about the perfidy and “bad” behavior of the stubborn people of Greece. The wine flowed, red and white; it was beyond excellent. No one at that table was visibly evil. There were no secret signs, or shadowy gatherings, here. If this were a movie, you could not identify a villain. No one was part of a “cabal.”
But it was clear: these people did not need to gather in the shadows or to be part of a cabal. Why would this group need a secret sign or a secret meeting? They simply owned the global stratum in which they operated; and they were only accountable to one another.
Neither did anyone there, expressing his or her views about the events of the week, think there was anything wrong with wishing to override and ignore the democratically expressed will of an entire nation of citizens who had articulated their wishes lawfully.
Thus, the whole nation, all of the people of Greece, were being treated with extraordinary cruelty and contempt by these distant, non-Greek men and women — in part because these men and women would never see them or have to face them or ever answer to them.
At the end of the evening, I was introduced to a brilliant young woman, a protege of my host’s. She was from a small, poor democracy in the global South, and educated as well in the Ivy League. My host showed off the young lady’s knowledge and acumen about financial markets, in the context of a discussion about the “reckless” behavior of the Greeks, and their nonsensical referendum.
Did she think her own fellow countrymen and women should have a say in outcomes about their economic futures? I asked her gently. I truly wondered what her views would be.
“No; the ordinary people of any given country don’t have the skills to make the right economic decisions for themselves or their nations. We should be deciding for them,” she explained to me calmly, with all the confidence and certainty of a now-privileged twenty-something.
“That’s right,” my host confirmed proudly.
The Greeks never got their referendum outcome. There was a famous U-turn, and austerity was imposed against the wishes of the people. Many elderly Greek men and women were driven into abject poverty in their retirement. Many businesses were lost.
Not much later, I was at another dinner hosted by the same man, and attended by roughly the same group of people. Among the guests, though, now, was someone new: a former Greek politician who until very recently had been at the center, first, of the fight to reject austerity, and then, of the baffling U-turn.
He looked flushed, proud and ashamed at once, and he was being introduced around like a captured prize.
Who knows what promises were made, what arrangements attended this outcome, this new alliance? But that former national leader must have seen a level of influence and wealth far above what mere allegiance to his fellow citizens, mere decency, could have gotten him.
And my host — he and his colleagues got, in the end, the outcome on which they had placed such a big, big bet.
That’s why I am often called a “conspiracy theorist” — I have simply been, my whole adult life, in those rooms in which the very rich or the very powerful quietly arrange that chance or other — legitimate — stakeholders, will never have the opportunity to harm their prospects.
That night the wine continued to flow — and a new constellation was part of the social mix.
Too bad about the hundreds of thousands of “ordinary” Greeks, many of them elderly, now ruined for the rest of their lives.
This is just one example of how great evil — evil at a national level — can easily be done: by distance, and by condescension, and by the creation of a meta-national community who see and hear and are answerable only to each other; but who do not see, or in any way respect, the rights of nations; or the rights of self-determination of elders, of voters, of property; of you or of me.
So — evil is not what you think. It need not be a goose-stepping soldier, or an official knocking at your door, wearing jackboots. To understand how COVID policy can be so coordinated and so cruel and so Neo-fascistic, we need to understand these realities.
Evil can come in the form of a well-dressed man or woman, far from any traditional loyalties or decencies, passing you the sherry.