Why this theme? Well, among other things, there is the current practice of keepings tabs on everyone – transparency, revelations and surveillance is order of the day. Keeping things secret is seen as suspicious. Simultaneously, this secrecy is giving too much power to many more or less authoritarian governments. For liberal democracies, the fight against secrets within politics and management is vital.

Ellen Krefting

Ellen Krefting is an historian of ideas at the University in Oslo. She argues that the opposite of a transparent, open society is “the Kafka-like, hidden, faceless power.” Krefting is especially interested in the autocracy: Machiavelli’s Prince was a master of using secrecy as an efficient governing principle; and autocracy was, according to Thomas Hobbes, the sole form of governing which could guarantee the safety of the citizens and the best for the community. The ruler’s “divine (mysterious, unpredictable and undetectable) origin and ‘sensible state’ doctrine” were about his practical need for political space to manoeuvre, often beyond “both the law, moral and debate”.

Do I need to mention Assad? He is not alone in declaring a “state of emergency” – authoritarian regimes who elevate themselves above their own constitution. Powerful men and women of the State thus use the Tacitus’ secret of empire against subjects seen as ignorant and “driven by passions”, they do not understand what is best for the community.

The 18th century was a golden age for autocracies and strict censorship. Krefting refers to the authors of the period as “eager users of anonymity and masked games, polyphonic dialogues, subtle allegories, fables and other fictional universes”. In the UK, around 80 texts were published with the words “secret history” in their titles. These were texts that sought to reveal or de-mystify rulers with their “indefinite relationships between documented facts, unsubstantiated rumours, court gossip, sensational exaggerations and pure fiction”. Scandalous stories featuring named people. Now, some 300 years later, I suppose we can admit that the stories and secret associations of that period are still alive and well – although we are now talking about fake news and Trump.

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