In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill speaks of pre-democratic societies as containing a fundamental opposition between the rulers and the ruled. Those in power exerted force on outside threats, true, but they were just as likely to exert their power on their own subjects on a whim. Even those who accepted such power structures did so pragmatically, viewing their leader as “an animal of prey stronger than [outside threats], commissioned to keep them down.” Mill’s account is a little simplistic – what about hierarchies of power and existing social power structures? How did they interact with the single leader Mill talks about? Regardless, it seems credible in a broad-brush kind of way, and it raises an interesting question: how did the prevailing attitude towards the powerful change from ‘necessary evil’ to ‘special friend’?
Let’s look at a few theories. First, the benevolent leader theory: that the attitude change simply reflects reality, and that the leaders we have now are significantly kinder and more generous than those in early societies. If, like me, you lean towards anarchism, then you’ll probably think this theory barely worth considering. Still, it’s a theory that many people subscribe to. I won’t recapitulate the many attacks on state power here – if you’re genuinely interested, do a Google or check out the blogs that I link to. I think this theory can safely be dismissed.
Secondly, the gradual change theory. This is the one Mill gives: that at the beginning of representative democracy, people were convinced that this new kind of government would actually represent their interests (and maybe it even did, for a time.) Then they legitimately identified with their rulers. However, as government power grew and became corrupt (or as the inherently corrupt nature of government power revealed itself, depending on how cynical you are) this attitude remained the same. Mill doesn’t mention this, but it’s pretty obvious that the rulers would have encouraged this attitude because it led to the removal of blocks on their power. As he writes, “the nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of it tyrannising itself.” This theory is plausible, but if you accept it you’ve got to accept Mill’s assumption that in pre-democratic societies leaders were viewed as a ‘necessary evil’.
Finally, here’s my idea: Stockholm syndrome theory. Stockholm syndrome occurs when people are subjected to a powerful captor. Despite the danger, eventually the captives come to interpret their continued existence as a gift of life from their captors. A similar, although less extreme, situation occurs to anyone born into a powerful state. The sword of Damocles hangs over every citizen’s head – higher, perhaps, than above a hostage, but still there. At any moment the state could arrest you, freeze your assets, imprison you, or simply start a war and conscript you into military service. It’s difficult to live with this; so difficult, in fact, that many people don’t. None of that could happen, they reassure themselves, because the state is my friend. In fact, it is me – after all, didn’t I vote? Rather than discouraging identification, the constant threat of state power is a powerful incentive for people to see themselves in their rulers. (Feel free to draw your own parallels between this and fleeing existentialist despair into the arms of a loving God.)
My theory is psychological rather than historical, and thus avoids the problems with a historical theory by running afoul of the problems with a psychological one. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that both my and Mill’s theories are correct to a certain extent, supporting and reinforcing each other. Practically, though, it’s hard to correct – or understand – a mistake that’s rooted in history. Using a psychological perspective might be a better way to expunge the last vestiges of state-identification from ourselves.