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The end of tyranny

August 23rd, 2011

The seemingly imminent downfall of Muammar Gaddafi may not represent “the end of history”, but, for the moment at least, it’s pretty close to being the end of tyranny, in the historical sense of absolute rule by an individual who has seized power, rather than acquiring it by inheritance or election. Bonapartism (if you exclude its more specialised use to refer to supporters of the Bonaparte family claim to rule France) , is probably the closest modern equivalent. Forty-odd years ago, this kind of government was the rule rather than the exception in most regions of the world (notably including South America and the Communist bloc), and was represented even in Western Europe by Franco and Salazar.

Now, there’s Mugabe clinging to a share of power in Zimbabwe, along a bunch of less prominent, but still nasty, African dictators in the classic post-colonial mode (in the original CT version of this post, I underestimated the number of these who are still around, but they are clearly a dying breed). Add in a handful of shaky-looking strongmen in the periphery of the former Soviet Union, and that’s about it for tyrants in the classical sense.

Normally classed as tyrants but not meeting the classical definition, Kim jr, Assad jr and Castro minor (and some others mentioned in comments), the first two of whom are certainly tyrannical in the ordinary modern sense, but all of whom inherited their positions, as of course, did the remaining absolute monarchs. The historical evidence, starting with Cromwell jr, and running through Baby Doc Duvalier and others is that regimes like this hardly ever make it to the third generation. They combine the low average ability inherent in hereditary systems with a lack of either royal or revolutionary, let alone democratic, legitimacy.

More interesting cases are those of Museveni in Uganda and Kagame in Rwanda, illustrations of the point that tyrants in the classic sense need not be bad, at least relative to the alternative they displaced. But these seem to be isolated examples, owing much of their appeal to the horrors that preceded them and the fear that those horrors might return.

More surprising to me are the number of cases where classic tyrants, having established one-party states, have been succeeded by self-selecting oligarchies – China is the most striking example, but Singapore also fits. Looking at the evidence of the past, I would have predicted that such oligarchies would either collapse in short order or see the emergence of a new tyrant, but there is no sign of that for the moment.

I don’t have a good theory to explain the rise of so many tyrants in the modern period, beginning with Bonaparte (or maybe Cromwell), or the sharp decline of this form of government from around the mid-1960s. But it seems that it’s a development worth noting.

fn1. Putin is often presented as being a near-dictator. But he doesn’t need to repress his opponents – it’s pretty clear he would easily win elections in Russia with or without doing so. Conversely, there’s no real evidence to suggest that he could or would hold on for long if public opinion turned sharply against him.

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  1. sam
    August 24th, 2011 at 10:29 | #1

    Sic Semper Tyrannis!

  2. Greg
    August 24th, 2011 at 10:47 | #2

    A theory: Fujita-Krugman-Venables.

    Increase. Decreasing costs of communication and transportation made centralisation viable; the ancien regimes were blind to this, leaving an opportunity for political entrepreneurs.

    Decrease. Inability to control communication from the outside world, because of its decreasing cost (radio, particularly transistor radios), allowed the populace to become aware of other methods of government and grow discontented with its lack of material progress.

  3. Ikonoclast
    August 24th, 2011 at 11:06 | #3

    Absolute power acquired by inheritance is also an effective tyranny notwithstanding any technical dictionary definitions.

  4. El Poppin
    August 24th, 2011 at 11:13 | #4

    I don’t think that the thesis really holds up – tyrants have always been there and seems to me that they will be with us for a while a longer. I think that main issue is with bad stereotyping of tyrants reducing them to a caricature as absolute monsters. Furthermore how the tyrant got the top job is irrelevant – Ivan the Terrible inherited the throne and there is no disputing his tyranny (his old man, what little is known of him, did not have the psychotic tendencies). I think that with the advent of literacy and the printing press we have greater details about modern tyrannies than the earlier periods hence the apparent rise of modern tyrants.

    One of the factors about tyrants is that the crimes committed may well have been to certain sections of the polity rather than in mass (a few exceptions noted). Hence Ivan the Terrible was particularly nasty to the aristocratic class which was more likely to kill him but was careful with the religious institutions and the peasantry. Several centuries later Franco was very careful with the Catholic church and the aristocracy but republicans felt the full force of his viciousness.

    Additionally most tyrants had to balance the interests of the courts and sycophants. Hence their power was not always absolute but made sure that it appeared that way. The tyrants that were capricious had a short lifespan – refer to the Japanese Oda Nobunaga.

    In the late 18th and through the 19th centuries representative democracies emerged. These continued to evolve throughput the 20th century effectively challenging the absolute powers that the the Big Man (and occassional Big Woman such as Catherine the Great of Russia). This caused the evolution of both systems, hence the British developed the concept of HM loyal opposition and constitutional monarchies. Those monarchies that did not were overthrown such as the Russian Tsars.

    Elsewhere, some democracies were still born through continuous military dictatorships – most of latin america (exceptions being Colombia and Costa Rica), Africa, Asia and some parts of Europe.

    Still throughout the 20th century the military dictatorships flourished primarily because of the cold war. Once that was over, it was more convenient for the master states to have stable client states thus the raison d’etre for the Pinochet’s of the world ceased to exist.

    As for China, well after three millenia the concept of a single strong man seems to be on the wane. They decided that they could all have a share of the spoils as long as they were predictable on the way they behave one another. Thus although the Communist Party is the umbrella organisation, the many factions are not at war with one another (unlike the ALP or Liberal party) rather conflict is kept civilised. Are they self-selecting? for now the question remains for how long.

    Furthermore, given the economic crisis which is swallowing Europe can those countries remain stable and democratic or will we see a return to the strong man in black shirts?

    Finally, in Latin America the strong man has migrated away from running the whole country (this involves looking after pensioners and other mundane stuff) and instead have created parallel shadow states dealing in hard drugs. It is here that the head honcho really rules with total absolutism and destruction.

  5. Richard Tsukamasa Green
    August 24th, 2011 at 12:02 | #5

    On the last paragraph, it may not be the fact that dictators emerged from Cromwell onwards, but why none of them formed dynastys. Monarchies are dictatorships that managed to stay in the family – the long decline from Augustus as first citizen to transparent family succession being the test case in the West. The question is not ‘Why Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Franco etc.?” but “Why did Richard Cromwell fail, and why not Napoleons II and IV, Franco Jr etc.?”

  6. August 24th, 2011 at 16:55 | #6

    Back in Grandad’s day tyrants threatened the world and derided democracy as weak. And despite going through the rather difficult process of physically helping to stop a tryant army (that is, an army commanded by a tyrant, not an army that is composed of tyrants), Grandad never stopped thinking that tyranny might be a good thing, provided it only killed people he didn’t like. In fact, under the right circumstances, Grandad probably would have been willing to give being a tryant himself a go. (Cecil Rhodes held basically the same position in Grandad’s culture as Batman does in ours.) But nowadays the remaining tyrants threaten almost no one except the people unfortunate enough to be their tyrantees. (Despite what you may have heard, Saddam Hussein really wasn’t in league with the boogeyman and wasn’t coming to get us.) And while in the past tyrants would mock democracy now almost all that remain either pretend to be democratically elected or to have democratic support. It’s been quite a change.

  7. Tim Macknay
    August 24th, 2011 at 19:08 | #7

    Despite the very significant change you mention, Donald Brak, it is still possible to meet the occasional person, who, like your Grandad, rather likes the idea of tyranny. It’s often couched as an assertion that dictatorship would be more ‘efficient’ than democracy, although in exactly what sense is never articulated. The evidence for dictatorships being ‘efficent’ in any sense at all is pretty thin on the ground.

  8. Glenn Condell
    August 26th, 2011 at 15:21 | #8

    These days it’s not the tyrants so much as the democracies we need to worry about. The US is a financial and military tyranny with a two-toned democratic fig leaf out front. Obama has a Politburo but unlike Stalin they run him, not vice versa. As the US still has the vestiges of a free press they can’t get away with the front man being a bad cop 24/7, he has to look like a good cop no matter what he does, or more to the point, fails to do.

    ‘The evidence for dictatorships being ‘efficent’ in any sense at all is pretty thin on the ground.’

    Such evidence even for democracies is a bit on the skinny side nowadays.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain
    August 28th, 2011 at 16:34 | #9

    In this world, ie that run by the USA, which interferes in every country on earth, and has done so for decades, tyrants are 100% OK, so long as they follow orders from Washington. Need I list the several score hideous monsters, very nearly all immensely worse than Gaddafi, who the US installed, or supported for decades, until their usefulness was over, or they stopped following orders (eg Saddam, Noriega, Mobutu etc). Furthermore, in any case, in the sham ‘democracies’ of the capitalist world, the ‘leaders’ act as ‘elected dictators’, until their usefulness is over, and are even praised for despotic tendencies like demanding the right to appoint their own Cabinets. Moreover much economic policy has been transferred to unelected despots in Reserve Banks, another anti-democratic move demanded by the Right. All this while real power, money power, is controlled by real despots, like those who dominate the MSM, and who are cravenly adored by the same Rightist MSM even as their decisions face no democratic account whatsoever.
    The Chinese system, basically that which they adopted a couple of thousand years ago, of power being controlled by an elite public service, recruited meritocratically and governing in the common interest, with the money power well controlled and restricted to commerce, is clearly superior. Can you imagine a Chinese Abbott doing all he can to wreck the country out of a lust for power that he is constitutionally ill-equipped to wield, or Chinese Koch Brothers running a sad, imbecile, pantomime like the Tea Party obscenity? Or a Chinese/Zionist claque dedicated to the interests of a foreign state above those of their own country? Moreover supreme power in China now devolves, not to an individual, as under the Emperors, but to a Party who any can join, and rise according to their merits. The proof of the pudding is in the results. Great growth, growing prosperity, universal education and an absence of the obscene social divisiveness of pointless political bickering, between enemy camps of ideological fanatics, many so poorly equipped intellectually and morally as best kept out of public life permanently. Oh, how the Chinese must wish that they had their own Alan Jones, Janet Albrechtsen or Andrew Bolt!

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