Strongmen and Fragile Democracies

David Kaye in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

AquestionoforderIn his introduction to Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (1990), Eric Hobsbawm argued that nations are “dual phenomena, constructed essentially from above, but which cannot be understood unless also analysed from below.” We need to pay attention to this view “from below,” he wrote, to the “assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people.”

Hobsbawm would have approved of this new book by Basharat Peer. In A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen, Peer gives us two parallel renderings of the abuse of nationalist symbols by the powerful, sharpened and humanized by the impact this abuse has on real people living their lives in the nations their leaders imagine. Yet Peer does more than merely describe the people of India and Turkey as victims: he shows them to be active agents, sometimes supporting nationalist strongmen but all too often caught up in a maelstrom of repression, stigmatization, and violence. Peer describes how Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose from humble origins to become leaders of their respective countries, and the “terrible human toll” their leadership has had on fragile democracies and their citizens. But he also shows that their messages have found adherents among the people, often the poor but also, sometimes surprisingly, the elite and moneyed classes.

The title promises to address why the “return of strongmen” is “a question of order,” but the book, essentially two conjoined works of reportage, does not really focus on how Modi and Erdoğan were driven by principles of order in the conventional sense (e.g., public order, law and order, economic order). These are not leaders who emerged from an environment of domestic chaos or failed-state strife, despite the economic inequalities and obvious repression and violence they exploited. Instead, according to the evidence Peer presents, Modi and Erdoğan are driven by an immediate hunger for power and an ambition to alter history, to reimagine their nations’ values and place in the world.

More here.