How Autocrats Weaponize Chaos

“To amplify their lies, autocratic regimes often employ the latest technology of the day.”

By Michiko Kakutani in Time Magazine: The confluence of multiplying political, economic, and social crises has made the military acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) feel like a perfect description of the third decade of the third millennium. The acronym was used at the Army War College in the late 1980s to describe a world that was more unpredictable than the bipolar one of the Cold War-era, but it has come to feel increasingly resonant today, as one emergency cascades into another, amplifying the perils of an ever more interconnected globe.

On top of the looming disaster of climate change, there are escalating threats to democracy at home and abroad, high-stakes wars in Ukraine and Gaza, surging populist anger at governments and institutions, and a tidal wave of fake news and disinformation that will rise to tsunami levels with the expanding use of AI. Many of these threats, as we’ll see, are connected with one another in a kind of doom loop: chaos and discontent also enable authoritarian-minded leaders who foment further havoc in cementing and justifying their hold on power.


Rapid technological developments and globalization have accelerated many of the discontinuities we are experiencing today, but hinge moments throughout history have been marked by instability and tumult, as old frameworks for explaining or managing the world begin to break down in the face of snowballing change, and give way to what the historian Thomas S. Kuhn referred to as “paradigm shifts.”

In 1930, while imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime, the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci observed that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The world he was writing about had just plunged into the Great Depression; the Far Right was on the rise in Europe; the Communist Party had taken a hard turn toward totalitarianism; and in Germany, an underestimated rabble-rouser named Adolf Hitler had made the Nazi Party a powerful new force in politics. Increasingly extreme political views, growing polarization, violence in the streets, and the decay of traditional institutions: these were among the “morbid symptoms” Gramsci saw developing in response to the social and economic discontents that had multiplied in the wake of World War I and the Depression.

Similar dynamics are at work today. Many members of the working and middle classes never really recovered from the financial crash of 2008, and the COVID-19 pandemic would further magnify anger over mounting inequalities of income and opportunity, and rising costs of living. These grievances, combined with concerns about immigration and cultural identity, have fueled the rise of rightwing nationalism in Europe and the United States, and an alarming tilt towards authoritarianism in countries like Hungary, Turkey, and India.

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