The road from democracy to autocracy

Several factors can cause democratic societies to move towards authoritarianism. Modern and liberal welfare states bear the seed of their own transformation. These are the conclusions of a new cross-disciplinary doctoral thesis from Linköping University.

Demonstrations at Tahir square in Kairo 2011. Demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo, 2011. In his thesis, Björn Toelstede describes how several countries moved between democracy and autocracy during the Arab spring. Photo credit Karimphoto Karimphoto

Distance and hierarchy

Why do revolutions and large societal transformations intended to bring freedom and democracy so often end up bringing the opposite? Why are we prepared to build new hierarchies so soon after bringing down the old ones? There are many examples both from history – the French and Russian revolutions, and from modern times – the Arab spring of 2010-2012.

“I’ve been intrigued by these questions for several years and haven’t been able to let go of them”, says Björn Toelstede, who has worked for ten years with his doctoral thesis: Social Hierarchies between Democracy and Autocracy, while at the same time working full-time with another job.

Björn Toelstede.An independent researcher. Björn Toelstede lives in Germany and has studied for his doctoral degree while working full-time in another job.

Björn Toelstede shows that all societies, both democracies and dictatorships, are built on hierarchies, with a larger or smaller distance between the citizens and those in power. The first article of the thesis presents a diagram (a structure-behaviour diagram) divided into four areas according to the degree of hierarchy in a society (verticality), and the ability to collaborate and adapt (sociality).

He shows in another chapter how countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia passed backwards and forwards between greater and less hierarchy and between greater or less sociality during the large demonstrations and societal changes in the years 2010-2012. The less vertical and the more social a country is, the better.

“Of course, all countries are extremely different in their history, culture and tradition. But I believe that the diagram based on these two aspects can be used for all countries”, says Björn Toelstede, adding that it can also be applied to companies and other organisations.

Not just China

In the second article in the thesis, Björn Toelstede defines two risk factors that can lead to democratic societies moving towards authoritarianism. Both can be observed, and can function as warning signals that a society is going in an unwanted direction. In general, more hierarchical societies run a greater risk of developing in an undemocratic direction, and the distance between the citizens and those in power is decisive in this, as is the asymmetry in power between them.

The first risk factor is “structural lock-in”, which describes societies that cannot adapt to a changing world. The second is “efficient statism”, which describes societies in which high socioeconomic efficiency is given priority through conformity and strong governments. To put it another way: the citizens exchange, more or less voluntarily, personal freedom for a higher standard of living.

Demonstrations in Hongkong 2014.Demonstrations in Hongkong 2014 - one source of isnpirations for Björn Toelstedes research. Photo credit r-monochrome

It’s natural here to think of countries such as China, but...

“Some of the mechanisms we see in China are also active in Sweden and Germany”, says Björn Toelstede, who himself lives and works in Frankfurt.

What do you mean?

“Well, the more we increase the public welfare system, the more power we give to the politicians. The same applies when problems such as the corona pandemic arise in society: we give the politicians the job of solving it. It’s comfortable to be able to delegate the responsibility, but it can be dangerous, since hierarchies are reinforced and the asymmetry in power increases.”

Accepted by LiU

Björn Toelstede investigates in the third and fourth articles of the thesis the effects of police surveillance in a society, from a starting point partially determined by the terror attacks in France in 2015-2016. One conclusion is that increased surveillance, even when introduced for benevolent purposes, risks having negative anti-social effects. Another conclusion is that a state of emergency, which was introduced after the attacks, in the long run involves a serious risk for democracy.

The work presented in the thesis covers many fields such as history, economics, behavioural science, and political science. Indeed, the topic is so highly cross-disciplinary that several other universities in Europe failed to appreciate this, and declined to accept it as a doctoral degree. At LiU, however, the Division of Economics accepted Björn as doctoral student.

“I’m very happy that it did. Science is all about doing something new”, says Björn Toelstede.

Translated by: George Farrants

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