Russian President Vladimir Putin at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum on May 25, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Bobylev/TASS
Russia's Vladimir Putin says his country has approved the first vaccine for Covid-19. Credit: AFP

Observing recent geopolitical developments, in many countries one might recognize an increasing tendency of the people diverting from democracy, as we know it, toward a “strongman democracy,” not run by politicians perceived as acting in self-interest, but by a strong man with strong values, who gives populist answers to the people’s demands and fears.

Where do these fears come from? They are age-old and deeply rooted in human nature. But why are these fears virulent nowadays? One argument: Populists stoke these fears and deliver simple solutions, exploiting the people and their fears for their personal agenda.

Others explain it differently: Populists could not arise in the first place if globalists hadn’t done such a poor job of taking care of the people and their living standards for years. This has paved the way for populists, fueled by policies of globalist corporate elites, backed by media elites, who don’t care for the people, and ironically profit the most from the same globalism they promote.

Generally speaking, political figures, who speak the language of the people, are defamatorily called “populists” by the very political establishment that itself has lost its connection to the people it is supposed to represent.

While Asia is taking the lead on the world stage, Western democracies are losing their predominance and are following the global trend of strongman leadership, in an effort to hold or regain the upper hand.

When talking of strongmen, it’s a matter of equality to refer to strong women as well. Anything else would be chauvinist. So if one takes equality seriously, as I do, “the strong man” is equal to “the strong woman.” This implies a power equilibrium.

But in Western media a disservice to the idea of equality is often done, as “powerful men” are feared, but “powerful women” are not feared but even welcomed. This inequality can not only be considered as belittling women in their “potential” when in power, but as sexist itself and founded on a sexist “women are the better men” premise, often used for a disgraceful battle of the sexes purposes. It’s essential to keep in mind: Communal life demands mutual respect of both sexes. We have to be clear about that, as it’s different in large parts of the world.

Those familiar with Asia know about the old strongman’s high status in Asian cultures, which, regardless of your preference, is a social reality in Asia, though there have been strong women in charge in various Asian countries as well.

While Asia is taking the lead on the world stage, Western democracies are losing their predominance and are following the global trend of strongman leadership

What can history tell us? It’s definitely not a new phenomenon – it dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. What can Plato tell us about today’s world?

In the eighth and ninth book of his Politeia, Plato describes the stages of political development: Aristocracy is followed by timocracy (financial aristocracy/nouveau riche), oligarchy and democracy, and over time all the values become corrupted, and seniors avoid using their wisdom for leading the youth, shy away from traditions, abstain from setting rules, giving guidelines, or leading by example. They are only interested in pleasing the youth, trying to look young and flexible, not old-fashioned and strict.

This process of cultural dissolution leads to a disoriented youth, entangled in arbitrariness and meaninglessness, desperately longing for guidance, meaning and rules, which seniors refuse to provide. So in democracy the individual gains the most freedom possible, which eventually leads to mob rule. Therefore, according to Plato, after democracy comes what?

The Politeia tells us that from democracy on its knees the strongman arises as “an answer” to the youth’s call for order, guidance and meaning. The young, shouting for the strongman, for the dictator, welcome him and his proclaimed guidance, as he promises to reinstall law and order, an order represented by his values. So the strongman fills the power vacuum of disorientation in democracy.

Not seen as one of the corrupted weak leaders in democracy, the strongman restricts the arbitrary freedoms with his strong framework of traditional values he apparently represents, in stark contrast to seniors, who are lost in arbitrariness and relativity, unable and unwilling to guide. According to Plato, that is when democracy leads to tyrannis, the rule of the tyrant. The lines might be blurred between the “strongman democracy” and dictatorship, but arguably the “strongman democracy” is only the transition toward dictatorship.

Grotesquely, the exaggerated focus on arbitrariness and freedom is questioning traditions in democracy the many wished for eventually leads to disorientation of the people and loss of cultural integrity. This vacuum of disorder, created by devaluing of values, finally evokes the longing of the many for “the strongman,” promising to fix the situation with law-and-order policy, to destroy the net of corruption of the privileged well-connected, and to drain the swamp of corruption and immorality.

So after democracy has passed its peak, a system increasingly entangled in corruption, internal struggles and decadence, with its people in disarray and a culture having lost its integrity via exaggerated individualization, which undermined the cultural foundation of collectively shared values based on collectivity and common sense, then while pointing at an enemy at the gate, the Shiva-like strongman comes in as the “Great Disruptor.”

Regardless of one’s stance on all this, I miss references to old wisdom, such as Plato’s Politeia, in so many geopolitical analyses of experts in leading panels, who busily create fancy analyses of today, outdo each other in superficiality and “invaluable” assessments, backed by nothing more than their lack of knowledge of history.

We need more philosophers with an awareness of history joining the dots and keeping the big picture in mind.

Immanuel Fruhmann

Dr. Dr. phil. Immanuel Fruhmann is an Austrian philosopher and educationist specialized in philosophy of science and language, cultural and social philosophy, as well as adult education, with years of experience in analysis of geopolitics and giving philosophical and educational insights to the public. He is psychotherapist in training and works as coach and consultant as well as writer. Fruhmann is a Knight of the Order of St George, a European Order of the Imperial House of Habsburg-Lorraine,...

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