“It was written that I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
On Tuesday (March 1st, 2016) my new book The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship will hit the Kindle electronic shelves! This is a study on dictatorial and extraordinary powers, with particular emphasis on the meaning of these for a world in which both populism and the rule of law are held to be paramount. For the last week or so, I have been sharing excerpts from the book but in this blog I wish to share some personal feelings about writing the book.
As with my other two books the book was essentially a research project. Now any research project is broadly enjoyable which is not to say that it is always enjoyable. There will always be days when you really aren’t in the mood to research, there will be times when something has been pored over and over again until you reach the point where the subject has lost the wonder it initally held, and there are also going to be vast periods of ‘stamp-collecting’ where you just need to gather in facts without those facts really offering any insight.
Generally, though, it must be said that researching is as joyous a pursuit as there is and no sooner has one research project being shelved than another one is looked forward to. Researching material is often like breathing air with increased levels of oxygen and it is usually the case that my brain would be set alight in such a way as I feel I could walk for miles simply on the nutrition of what has been digested.
Now, research I have done for my latest book has tended to more of the oxygen-rich intellectual air and less of the humdrum. As compared to my previous two books, the research project never lost its lustre; the material was simply far, far, too interesting. Furthermore, a supreme advantage was that the material was fairly ‘well-defined’ so that I could spend more time reading and writing and less time mining. By contrast, in my first book, I had to trawl through a lot of literature to get to where I wanted. It is fairly easy to determine where to look when philosophizing about dictatorship, which mightn’t be the case if you were doing a book on sovereignty or the state, these being the topics of my previous two books.
So the study was always riveting. The other side of this riveting study was – what I could best describe in a rather cliched manner – an ‘abyss’ feeling. While researching, and indeed while writing, the limits of power came into view and those limits are where dictatorship starts. When the State is stretched to breaking point (or even if there is a fear the breaking point is imminent) the very calculable and stable order we take for granted is set aside. Then you peer into pure uncertainty. At the same time as power reaches its height and its utmost dominance, there is also a complete vacuum of anything we would understand as rights, justice, or civilian predictability.
At times I had to stop myself writing just to take it all in because I realized that the legal vacuum and the power surplus can happen anywhere. History demonstrates this quite clearly and we would be foolish to think that dictatorships are only reserved for economically under-developed countries. Three of the countries I focused on for the study, the US, UK, and France, have resorted to emergency powers regularly and, as I write, France is in the second phase of its nationwide emergency declared in the wake of the Paris attacks in November. The disturbing aspect of this is that it seems that our existence – in the legal sense of the word – hangs by a slim thread.
And then there is the even more disturbing conclusion which seems inescapable. It appears, based on historical analysis, that the next few decades may be as bad or worse than the 20th century. That is because dictatorship follows democratic norms in its train and democracy is still spreading globally (although the enthusiasm for democracy is probably less than it was 15 years ago). If dictatorial regimes were part and parcel of the upsurge of populism before, there is no reason to believe this will change in the future.
So, while I thoroughly enjoyed my writing and researching of The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship the other side of that – no matter how self-centred it may sound – is that all has been changed for me personally and changed utterly.