At first glance, the idea that dictatorships and optimism go possibly go hand in hand seems a jarring idea. Isn’t totalitarian control dark and gloomy and iron-fisted? Well, yes. But such systems are based on the premise that utopia looms on the horizon — a paradise of efficiency and purity and cooperative comradeship (or whatever particular ideal that dictatorship favors)!
For a dictatorship to work, it is paramount that the citizenry be pliable, and to a certain extent, obedient to the demands (whether physical or mental in nature) made upon them. It is this obedience that is the ultimate, overlooked glue to the entire formidable enterprise. A deceptively helpful quality, optimism itself has long been a tool of the world’s most notorious dictators because tying people to positive myths engenders compliance and uncomplicated acceptance of present circumstances.
That said, dictatorships masterfully co-opt optimism as a form of societal regulation.
Hitlerarian Germany was doused in the infectious confidence of National Socialism, the tenants of which bellowed from the mouth of Hitler himself. Domestic propaganda in Nazi Germany was quaint and cheerful and resoundingly upbeat, peppered with images of happy families dedicating themselves to Party activities. Germany was to take over the world!
And yet, underneath this thin, civilized facade lay, as we know, contradictions of horrifying proportions. Nazi Germany was wed to a cult of optimism which prevented its inhabitants from engaging in sufficient healthy skepticism that might’ve, theoretically, had a chance at toppling the whole colossal project of it all.
The Soviet Empire shares some striking parallels. Megalomania-laced ambition and the sprightly ideal of work done in the name of national duty are obvious examples. And even modern-day North Korea is rife with internal propaganda that colorfully projects circumstances as better than they are.
This slavishness to optimism is an interesting feature of most totalitarian societies, in that it also is complicit in squashing criticism and in nurturing romanticized ideals of a supposedly idyllic future. Because of its morally respectable sheen, what you might call “enforced positive thinking” is also difficult for a citizenry to guard themselves against.
And “positive thinking” is not a term that we would normally think to apply to hellish periods in the historical calendar. Nevertheless, I think it fits. From Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union to North Korea, there is a belief, trickling down from the dictator himself that thought can win — that positive propaganda will ultimately prevail, that confidence can be artificially constructed, so to speak.
This is not unlike the modern-day positive-thinking movement which while superficially admirable and harmless, does sometimes wander into militant territory. The lesson being, optimism is a double-edged sword and perhaps totalitarian societies can stand as examples of this. Sometimes optimism can be good and foster resilience, other times it is bad and fosters un-truths and dangerously flattens critical thinking.
Dictatorships are known to clash with truth and reality, bungling the two in the deliberate style typical of autocrats. In Communist and Fascist societies, the line between truth and lies becomes garbled and blurry and it’s all on purpose. But crucially, this is accompanied by an aggressive campaign for hearty optimism.
The masses are thus schooled in the habits of unfounded confidence and unquestioning belief. Thus, they lose their capacity to doubt and to think. And no society thrives for very long when individuals are deprived from their ability to participate in these crucial acts.
There is a dark side to optimism and looking at the nature of dictatorships is one interesting window into the altered reality of it on a political scale.