The content in this page is not produced by Prachatai staff. Prachatai merely provides a platform, and the opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of Prachatai.

The psychology of authoritarianism

Authoritarianism as a form of government has been analyzed in some depth by the political scientist Juan Linz, and the relevant Wikipedia page provides four qualities of such governments according to Linz:

(1) "limited, not responsible, political pluralism"; that is, constraints on political institutions and groups (such as legislatures, political parties and interest groups),

(2) a basis for legitimacy based on emotion, especially the identification of the regime as a necessary evil to combat "easily recognizable societal problems" such as underdevelopment or insurgency;

(3) neither "intensive nor extensive political mobilization" and constraints on the mass public (such as repressive tactics against opponents and a prohibition of anti-regime activity) and

(4) "formally ill-defined" executive power, often shifting or vague.

The Thai military dictatorship embodies all four of these qualities as a), there is at present very limited political pluralism, meaning no democratic legislature, while neither political parties nor interest groups are able to meet; b) there are multiple emotional appeals to reconciliation, unity, and even ‘happiness’; c) political mobilization is discouraged through the 1970’s era ‘no groups of five or more meeting’ law while charges of sedition and lèse-majesté are presently being levelled against students and psychologically disturbed individuals; and d) Section 44 of the Interim Charter (the ‘rule by diktat’ clause) is so vague as to practically define arbitrary executive power.

Additionally, what is interesting is the psychology of populations which support authoritarian governments. For example, there is some evidence that authoritarianism is entertained by women in countries with less gender authority where some individualism is encouraged, with women actually supporting traits such as obedience because they are more likely to survive in such male-dominated environments.

The world’s leading authority on authoritarian psychology is the Canadian-American psychologist Bob Altmeyer, who has written a book about it, available here. According to Altmeyer, authoritarian followers possess the following characteristics:

1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;

2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and

3) a high level of conventionalism.

Considering the first point, authoritarian submission, Alteyer notes that it is normal for people to submit to authority. The problem emerges when people support an authority which is clearly corrupt, dishonest, or unfair. In such circumstances, authoritarians are still likely to follow the letter of the law and to bow, sometimes literally in some cultures, to authority. Examples abound from history, including Americans who believed Nixon was innocent of the Watergate scandal even after he accepted a pardon, Germans who, after 1945, did not believe Hitler had ordered the Holocaust, and Americans who believe Saddam Hussein had significant links to al-Quaeda and that George Bush was perfectly justified in flouting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and ordering illegal warrantless wiretapping.

Authoritarian submission in Thailand is almost total. Practically no-one is on the streets protesting about the fact that Thailand is one of the world’s few military dictatorships. This may be due to the Theravadan Buddhism (which would be unfortunate as I am a Theravadan-leaning Buddhist), due to the sensitivity of the succession, or due to the fact that Thailand’s security apparatus is reasonably efficient and inspires fear due to a history of torture, disappearances, and imprisonment. Probably the largest protest has been the so-called F5 cyber-protest against the single internet gateway which would create the Thai equivalent of the Great Firewall of China and greatly facilitate internet censorship. This may be the first large-scale middle-class protest and was met by General Prayut publicly criticizing the clerk of the Cabinet for ‘incorrectly’ stating that the idea had passed the cabinet and simultaneously threatening to track down every F5 protester – presumably an indication that the protest had some effect.

Turning to the second point, authoritarian aggression, authoritarians act with hostility when they believe that they have both might and right on their side, i.e., if they are following or imposing the law, and if they have overwhelming force on their side. Typically, authoritarians sentence people to more years in prison and support both torture and the death sentence. Psychologically, this is because they believe the crimes are more serious than they are, because they actively dislike “common criminals” (as opposed to authoritarian leaders who break the law, whom they admire), and because they enjoy punishing people, in the belief that they get “what they deserve”.

In Thailand, the most obvious example of this is the Thai lèse-majesté law, which has been keeping Prachatai’s reporters extremely busy recently. There is nothing quite like it in the world in terms of length of sentences (15 years per offence), nor has there been for over a century, with only two countries in the world having their own Wikipedia page for lèse-majesté (the other being Norway, with one major case since the nineteenth century). The only country with stricter lèse-majesté sentencing is North Korea, which apparently executed North Korean Minister of Defence Hyon Yong Chol for the crime on 30 April 2015 using an anti-aircraft gun. Moreover, the Thai military has set up an ‘Army Cyber Centre’ to intensify the online monitoring of sites for lèse-majesté offences, having already censored tens of thousands of websites.

Moving to the third point, conventionalism, this is the belief that everyone should follow the same norms and beliefs of the government or of fundamentalist religions. The classic example is a religion that strongly advocates “a traditional family structure of father-as-head, mother as subservient to her husband and caretaker of the husband’s begotten, and kids as subservient, period”, according to Altmeyer.

Ninety years ago, the Siamese government was accused of attempting to try to convert Thai Malay Muslims to Buddhism. And just recently, many Thai people have essentially accepted a completely new, military-bestowed Buddhism-derived values system for the education system, the “12 Core Values of Thai People”. Though these values follow decades of similar cultural value sets assembled by the Office of the National Culture Commission and would probably have been accepted by the Ministry of Education even under a democratic government, there were protests due to their being imposed by the military – though only by children such as Nattanan Warintawaret.

Indeed, the main danger of Thai authoritarianism is that it will influence the education of Thai children and thereby produce more authoritarians, consequently dumbing the hapless products of the Thai education system down to the same level as those of the Lao PDR, an authoritarian Stalinist totalitarian regime – which according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015, the Thai education system has already surpassed in awfulness.