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Cults of personality - Between Megalomania and Power Centralisation

Author: Alecsis Rosca

Editors: Ruth Lucas and Prachi Saraf

Leaders can beget an irrational amount of respect and admiration on one side, as well as fear and despise on the other when there is an effective use of charisma, authority or cultural background in a given political context. When any of these are intertwined with exceptional action, the result is a bolster in their public standing, to the point of creating a cult of personality.

But popularity does not necessarily mean that the leader constantly received adulation from the community. When that does happen, the reasons behind it are varied, yet often repetitive, since such cults depend entirely on the method of inception, the individuals they revolve around and, finally, the very objective behind their creation.

Are cults a tool to obtain and maintain power...

The earliest examples of a cult of personality can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. However, the impact of such a social construct gained traction during the period of the late Roman Republic, after Julius Caesar’s victory in the civil war against the Republic. The cult started by him, which has come to define the reigns of Roman emperors, created a legacy that has outlasted the impact Caesar had on the evolution of Rome itself. By normalising the process of deifying the emperors, a tradition of the cult of personality was born in western civilization. This tradition continued even after the collapse of the west wing of the empire in 476 and became the backbone of the Middle Ages: the feudality revolving around the God-given right to rule.

A cult of personality usually proved to be the best technique of maintaining order: by creating a barrier, a wall of invulnerability around the leading figure, monarchs preyed on the moral barriers imposed by society to not question one’s power. That was until the flagrant breach of the myth. In the aftermath of the English Civil War (1642-1651), King Charles I was trialled for treason - an unthinkable act by that time. And then he was found guilty: the myth of invincibility was cracked, as it prompted the change of the formula.

However, with the advancement of technology and education, so too came new methods and strategies to effectively create a cult of personality. After a few centuries of hiatus, political and revolutionary leaders demonstrated how efficient usage of their popularity could further their political goals. Just like how Washington helped found a new nation from the grips of an empire, Bolivar liberated a continent from another; Napoleon too promoted revolutionary political values in a Europe dominated by monarchies.

...perhaps to satisfy an ego...

The XXth century showcased the potential behind strong propaganda machines and the power behind far-reaching methods of indoctrinating the population. The examples at hand are varied. In one case, there are the communist secretaries, with the likes of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Nicolae Ceausescu. Another typology is the brutal dictators who prompted religion as the backbone of their state and their reign, as was the case with Saddam Hussein or Ayatollah Khomeini. This trend goes all the way up to our current times, such as Donald Trump’s MAGA movement. Throughout time the usage of the cult itself has undergone a metamorphosis by employing a plethora of strategies, from active social involvement to propaganda, state-sponsored policies etc.

For example, the Romanian dictator was inspired by his North-Korean counterpart, as Ceausescu was flattered by the public adulation his homolog received and decided to implement his version. From a number of songs and poetry in its name to paintings and all the way up to policies, Ceausescu made sure to also include his wife in this circle of self-promotion.

With that said, the implementation of a cult of personality soon was no longer a question of how to thwart the opposition, but rather how an individual could elevate their own position in the public eye, for both support and own benefit. In a majority of cases, evidence highlights that though the leaders are usually charismatic, their egocentric need for attention and adulation makes them vulnerable, and they enter a downward spiral: the more praise they get, the quicker the effect runs out. The quicker it is gone, the more energy, funds and effort are employed in such a cult. The more people are pressured into it as the state’s overall condition degrades, the likelier the collapse of the regime.

...or both?

But what if the very foundation, structure and concept of a state are based on the cult of personality? We need to look no further than North Korea. Though the Kim dynasty is relatively young, having only come into power in 1951, with Kim Jong-Un being its third representative, the entire North Korean mentality is designed around this family. This example is one of a kind: following traumatic decades of invasions and occupation, the Korean peninsula was divided in 1945 after the defeat of Imperial Japan, into the communist north and capitalist south. Since it was a proper young nation, North Korea was moulded by the people who created it.

Thus, the vision that Kim Il-Sung imposed characterised not only his reign but defined the entire identity of the state. Even after a number of technological, social and political changes and revolutions worldwide, North Korea retains its almost untouched bubble of absolute autocracy. And differently to other states or personalities mentioned earlier, the cult of personality cannot be detached from the North Korean mentality, be it traumatic or not - since its very conception is fundamentally tied to the cult. Unlike other nations, in order for the cult of personality to be removed from North Korea, the country itself would have to undergo irreversible changes, for the grip of power and control imposed define the state: right now, North Korea is Kim Jong Un, and Kim Jong Un is North Korea.

The evolution of the cults of personality throughout history is, perhaps, one of the best documented and original methods of public control and political rebranding, as each case study by itself is unique and designed in accordance with the region, time and, crucially, the leader at the head of the cult.

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