Monday, August 6, 2012

The Government Inspector: An Apology for a Liberal Reforming Authoritarian Czar

When I was little, one of my favorite movies was The Inspector General, starring Danny Kaye. This work is based on a nineteenth-century Russian play, The Government Inspector, by Nikolai Gogol in which the corrupt officials of a town mistake a con-man for the feared secret inspector sent by the Czar to investigate corruption in the land. I loved Kaye's singing dancing and slapstick humor, but it was only as an adult that I could appreciate the work as political satire with its running gags on nepotism and bribery.

Readers may find it ironic, but despite the play's lampooning of government, it managed to be produced in Czarist Russia with the open support of Nicholas I. This support makes sense if you consider that the off-screen hero of the story is none other than the Czar himself, who fights against the corruption of petty local politicians. The message of the story for nineteenth-century Russians was that the traditional local patronage-based system of government with its roots in the Boyar aristocracy was innately corrupt and it needed to be replaced with a strong national state under the control of the Czar. The Czar's chief virtue was that he was above politics and therefore beyond the corruption rampant with petty officials. In order to accomplish his task of creating a just Russia, the Czar must be above the law, with the power to arrest and execute people as he saw fit.

Considering the history of twentieth-century totalitarianism, in which strong centralized authoritarian regimes went far beyond the sins of petty corruption into the realm of mass murder, I find this brand of liberalism both ironic and frightening. One can see Gogol as exemplifying a failure within the larger Russian intelligentsia (Leo Tolstoy being a prominent exception) that has haunted Russia for the past two centuries. In the absence of the strong individualist and rule of law traditions found in the Anglo-American tradition even reformers were trapped into simply choosing between various kinds of authoritarianism. One could hope to reform the Russian state along the lines of Prussia, with its combination of professional bureaucracy and authoritarian monarchy, one might choose to reform under the radically conservative lines of the Russian Orthodox Church or one might choose revolution under one of the various socialist and anarchist banners.

Yesterday I went with Miriam to a production of an adaptation of The Government Inspector in Pasadena starring Star Trek alums John Billingsley and Alan Brooks. While wonderfully done and worth seeing, I was struck by the fact that the adaptation, instead of confronting head-on Gogol's apology for authoritarian rule, simply updated it to suit modern liberal sensibilities. The mayor and his cronies are straw-men Republicans, who talk about the need for deregulation as a means for granting favors to their friends in big business and how wonderful it is to have an economic recession to keep wages low. There is even a character modeled after Sarah Palin, both in her looks and her mixture of Christian conservatism and individualistic populism. Needless to say, the character is a religious hypocrite and a complete idiot. Not that I have anything against creating straw-men, it is a necessary feature of satire. That being said, such an attitude sets the stage for its own liberal version of Gogol’s reforming Czar.  

If Gogol's off-screen hero was the Czar then this production's off-screen villain is big business. In both cases, the lesson is not that there is something innately corrupting about politics, but that specific politicians are incidentally corrupt. The solution is more government, whether a stronger Czar or more government regulations. That this increased government will have the same flaws as the government it is reforming and that its lack of any tie to formal law or tradition, powerful checks on abuse, will make things worse is never considered. On the contrary, being above the law is deemed a virtue in that it will somehow place government outside of politics. In truth it is only by embracing law can we hope to transcend politics and fight its innate corruption.