Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Kings revisited

In a previous post, I discussed the benefits of a dictatorship, concluding that in spite of those benefits, it was a bad idea. But how are we at identifying dictatorships? Perhaps more importantly, how good are we at recognizing a burgeoning dictatorship?

Obviously, a leader who declares himself “king”, “supreme ruler”, or “president for life”, is a likely candidate, though at that point, probably already well-established and difficult to remove from power. The ideal would be to identify the threat of impending dictator-dom, and prevent it from occurring.
Using history as a teacher, we can look at the classic example of a rise to dictatorial power - Adolf Hitler – and gain some insight.

After a failed attempt at a forceful grab for power, Hitler returned from prison and became involved in the democratic process of 1925 Germany. He identified two enemies – Jews, and Communists – and began a subtle propaganda campaign against them. In 1930 Hitler capitalized on a period of financial crisis, and political extremism. The great depression left many without jobs. Also at this time, German politics had become much divided between the right- and left wing extremes. Hitler used these as leverage points to gain popularity for his party.

In time, this led to his position as a political figurehead, meant inspire the people, but without any real power. From there he managed to obtain control over the various governmental offices and in 1934, with the current president died, he and his supporters approved the merger of the presidential role, and the chancellorship (his position), establishing him as head of state.

There are several important lessons to be learned from this…

The First is division. Hitler leveraged the division between left-wing and right-wing political groups to obtain power for his organization.  The people were so busy being members of their respective political parties that they forgot to be members of their country. Does that sound a little like Republicans and Democrats? (I wouldn’t be too cocky over there, constitution/green/libertarian/etc… party members. It was a lesser known, third party that he rode to power).

Second is misdirection. The Jews weren’t the enemy of Germany, nor were the communists, yet Hitler vilified both, blaming the Jews for many of Germany’s economic woes, and accusing the communist party of acts of terrorism, including the burning of the Reichstag (German parliament building). He gave the German people nefarious enemies to hold their attention, directing scrutiny away from his own suspect activities.

Humans have an excellent capacity for finding patterns and similarities in things.  It is a useful capability, which allows us to classify things which we have never before seen, based on things we have seen before, and (generally) establish an appropriate response to said new thing. Unfortunately this capability can also work against us. Through clever marketing, incomplete or inaccurate research, or spurious observations, we can misattribute incorrect qualities to a particular group. We can be distracted easily with a few partial truths. 

Prevention of this requires constant vigilance. Fact checking, and rechecking, peer review and complete transparency are crucial. As Nicolo Machiavelli, author of ‘The Prince’ states, “….men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived”.

Finally, I mention consolidation (this one could be a post by itself). Hitler slowly and carefully gathered power over time. He didn’t become supreme dictator overnight. In fact, his position as chancellor was originally meant to be a relatively powerless position. But slowly, power was consolidated under him, or those loyal to him. Many people found it easy to justify granting him increasing power, after all, hadn’t he worked hard for it? Hadn’t he demonstrated the particular leadership qualities that justified him having that power? He got results. He was charismatic. It was, in a way, “Divine Right”.

As with misdirection, prevention requires constant vigilance. “We the people” must be constantly on guard to ensure no individual or group holds or exerts too much power, no matter how convincing their argument or how well-meaning their intentions.

Another good read on this subject is George Orwell’s ‘AnimalFarm’. It tells the story of the rise of totalitarianism on a farm, where the animals revolted against the tyranny of farmer Jones, and set about to establish a utopian society, only to end up oppressed by another tyrant (The book is a parable of the failed attempt at communism in the Soviet Union. It is a good read, based on the authors personal experiences, and is as entertaining as it is enlightening. I’d recommend everyone give it a thorough thumb-through).

The founding fathers established the government – a loose joining of largely autonomous states - to prevent this. We need to ensure this structure is not corroded by those who hunger for power, fame, or fortune, or who believe through “Divine Right” that they are “destined to lead the masses, for the greater good”. It is crucial for “We the people” to also be mindful that this threat comes not only from established government, but from any relatively small group who gains significant power over our resources.


After reading the last paragraph, you may conclude that I am against all governments, all corporations, and all forms of leadership; you might assume I am an anarchist. If that is the case, please let me correct this perception...

In chapter 9 of ‘The Prince’, Machiavelli points out what ultimately are the only three forms of government… 
“Because in all cities these two distinct parties are found, and from this it arises that the people do not  wish to be ruled nor oppressed by the nobles, and the nobles wish to rule and oppress the people; and from these two opposite desires there arises in cities one of three results, either a principality, self-government, or anarchy.”

I am firmly in favor of the second option. Self-government is the hardest to achieve and maintain. It is also the only system which can provide real freedom. It requires the constant, diligent, rational participation of everyone if it is to survive.

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