Wednesday 29 May 2013

Busted: the greatest authoritarian myth of all

The Communications Data Bill would not have prevented last week’s murder in Woolwich. I know that. You know that. Even MI5 knows that.

But here’s another authoritarian myth busted: The greatest authoritarian myth of all – that Mussolini made the trains run on time. In fact he didn’t. Brian Cathcart explained why in the Independent in 1994:
Say what you like about Mussolini, he made the trains run on time. That was the famous last excuse for Fascism, conveying the idea that while dictatorship might not be very nice, at least it got things done.
It is an argument we may hear again following the election triumph of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and its allies, who include neo-Fascists. After all those years of chaotic politics and corruption, perhaps what the country needs is the smack of firm government. Mr Berlusconi, people may be tempted to say, could be just the man to instil punctuality in those recalcitrant Italian train drivers.
But did Mussolini really do it? Did Il Duce, in his 20 years of absolute power, really manage to make the railway service meet its timetable? The answer is no.
Like almost all the supposed achievements of Fascism, the timely trains are a myth, nurtured and propagated by a leader with a journalist’s flair for symbolism, verbal trickery and illusion.
Cathcart goes on to cite several eyewitness accounts of the unpunctuality of Italian trains in the 1930s. And we now know what a shambles Berlusconi turned out to be.

But why dredge up an article written in 1994 about events before the Second World War? It is because the article concludes with an important lesson:
Typically, [Mussolini] fell victim to his own propaganda. Mussolini’s biographer, Denis Mack Smith, points out that Italy usually imported its coal by sea, but after the Second World War broke out this was no longer possible and it had to come overland. The Duce’s railway system, however, was not up to the job.
“Only two of the nine railroads through the Alps had been provided with double tracks and their capacity was estimated as equal to little more than a quarter of Italy’s peacetime needs,” writes Mack Smith.
“As the trains running on time had become one of the accepted myths of Fascism, and as Mussolini had never charged anyone with the task of planning communications in the event of war, the matter had gone by default.”
Authoritarianism simply doesn’t work, and it’s the same whether the dictatorship is in politics or business (as Jonathan Calder explains here and here). Without the benefits of an open society, poor decision-making is never open to scrutiny or tested by criticism. That is because there is no tolerance for critical thinking and people are afraid to admit failure or suggest improvements. Hence bad decisions go unchallenged. Indeed, the spectacular failure of Fred Goodwin at RBS was largely the result of his dictatorial methods and the climate of fear he created.

Despite this, authoritarianism remains fashionable in certain quarters. In a period of uncertainty, there is a temptation to believe that the answer to all our ills is a “smack of firm government” – just look at the wistful hankering for a messianic leader that surfaced after Mrs Thatcher died. Meanwhile, the television shows The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den ignore the example of Fred Goodwin and continue to encourage the idea that management is basically about being macho and shouting at people.

In our age of impatience, instant gratification and shortened attention spans, it is harder to argue for such time-consuming processes as critical deliberation or rational problem solving. So politicians assert their authority through ill-thought-out ‘initiatives’. What matters is getting things done, without stopping to ask whether these things are any good. The difference nowadays is that, whereas Mussolini declaimed to huge crowds from a balcony, today’s managerialist politicians read out a press release in a branch of Morrisons.

1 comment:

  1. Mussolini's true (sole?) positive achievement was removing Mafia from power in Sicily. It was the Americans who restored the organisation after the invasion, overruling the protests of their British allies.


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