TitleA closer look at the myriad iterations of dictatorial regimes

Dictatorships and Techniques of Control and Oppression

25 Mar 2011

■ Mohammadbagher Forough
Font Size + | - Reset

“A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier…”
George W. Bush

We have been living under dictatorships for almost all human history. The question of dictatorship as a form of political organization (and its myriad iterations) has therefore concerned humanity since time immemorial. Political philosophy that appeared in ancient times is in a sense an intellectual endeavor to lay bare dictatorial tendencies and techniques and pave the way for a more anti-dictatorial regime, which (for lack of a better term) let us call ‘democracy’. What is dictatorship? What are its different forms and the techniques they employ that help them all too often survive the most severe winters of popular discontent? In what follows I will dwell on these questions with random incursions here and there into past and present world politics.

The commonest form of dictatorship in ancient times could be called ‘autocracy’ or ‘despotism’, which forms when an absolutist ruler holds the royal scepter with no pretense to political freedom. Some ancient autocracies lasted for decades (the Greek Tyrannies and several Mesopotamian empires), some for centuries (Roman and Achaemenid Empires), and some for millennia (Byzantine Empire and Pharoanic rulership in Egypt). The ruling figures were replaced from time to time; intermittent periods of instability set in; but autocracy as a form of political organization has stayed the course up until our times.

Dictatorship, crudely defined, is a form of political organization with the ruler (dictator) at the pinnacle of political hierarchy wielding unconstrained power over the ruled. Dictatorships can be categorized from different perspectives; one is the sphere of influence they aspire to. From this perspective, Franz Neumann outlines three major dictatorial forms: 1. ‘Simple dictatorship’ which relies on the traditional techniques of naked force and terror through the institutions of army, police, and a judicial system that is subservient to the tyrant. 2. ‘Caesaristic dictatorship’ or authoritarianism, whereby the dictator mobilizes one segment of the population in order to have a ‘popular base’ at the expense of the others. 3. ‘Totalitarian dictatorship’ that self-evidently seeks, as Hannah Arendt put it, ‘the permanent domination of each single individual in each and every sphere of life’. The three can overlap with one another from time to time. This categorization has its drawbacks, but is sufficient to paint the general picture at stake here with broad strokes. Now, let’s focus on different dictatorial techniques that these three forms adopt:

Charisma among dictators is very common. Many, but not all, dictatorships emerge after a charismatic leader wins the hearts and minds of the majority, whose devotion for the “messianic” ruler makes them sleepwalk to nightmarish destinies. Mary Fullbrook calls this phenomenon ‘participatory dictatorship’. Some examples include Hitler, Stalin, Robespierre and Napoleon, Gaddafi and Khomeini in the immediate aftermath of their triumphs in Libya and Iran, Mobuto in Congo, and Ceaușescu in Romania.

Many, but not all, dictatorships emerge after a charismatic leader wins the hearts and minds of the majority

The dictatorial leaders usually come into ascendency in a period of crisis, which they purport to have solved or be the solution of. Julius Caesar came to power in the tumultuous civil wars of the Roman Republic, Hitler in the financial and political crises of the Weimar Republic, Robespierre and Napoleon in the crises of the French revolution and the Reign of Terror respectively, Khomeini in the political crisis of the Pahlavi dictatorship, and so forth.

Those who cannot be won by charisma are either reduced to silence or crushed by an iron fist through the institutions of (secret) police and army. Terror, coercion, and brutality therefore become part and parcel of such regimes. Examples are anything but rare: Chile’s Pinochet, Nicaragua’s the Somozas, Iran’s Shah, Khomeini and Khamenei, Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gaddafi, Mexico’s Huerta, and the Argentine Videla.
Reserving the army for extreme cases, many dictatorships put on display their brute force via ‘death squads’ that unaccountably liquidate all dissent and thus provide the regime with ‘plausible deniability’, that is to say, the regime can claim innocence with respect to the horrendous acts. Examples of such paramilitary forces are: AAA (Argentina), Contra death squads (Nicaragua), and Basij (Iran).
If the military is at the top of the political hierarchy, the regime is called a ‘militocracy’ or ‘military state’. Sarit in Thailand, the Argentine Revolution, and Franco in Spain were past and Burma and North Korea are present-day military states. Iran at this moment can arguably be called a semi-official military dictatorship.

Dictatorships almost without exception have a propaganda apparatus to produce political, ideological, religious, and historical ‘myths’ that are meant to ‘cohere’ the society and political system. Chomsky calls this technique ‘manufacturing consent’. It is used by both dictatorial and democratic regimes to varying degrees and is achieved by means of exerting dominance over mass-communications and the educational system. State televisions in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are examples of propaganda mouthpieces.

Totalitarian regimes monopolize means of communications. This monopoly facilitates mass-hypnosis and the control of public discourse. It also assists dictators in drowning, marginalizing, or stigmatizing dissenting voices, and finally mobilizing different forces in the country for state enterprises (e.g. wars) when needed. Censorship becomes a norm. If that’s not enough, persecution and murder of journalists would be the next measure.

Implementing a politics of fear and despair is another technique of such regimes. Fear is a by-product of naked violence, and despair that of the myth of invincibility of the system produced by the propaganda apparatus. The advantage of this technique is that it makes the aspiration for change look like a dangerous and hopeless enterprise to undertake, which often leads to a huge segment of the ruled population resigning themselves deterministically to their sorry fate.

Fear is a by-product of naked violence

Total control over the economy and the natural resources is another signature of dictatorships, their political economy, if you will. As a consequence, the middle class in such societies is attenuated and wealth is concentrated in the hands of the rich. A dictatorship of the rich is technically called a ‘plutocracy’; Honduras with six rich families controlling the government is a current example. Examples of dictatorships controlling the natural resources are Taylor’s dictatorship in the diamond-rich Liberia, and many oil-rich states in the Middle East.

Some dictators entrench themselves by serving the economic and military interests of a superpower while receiving a huge bribe-like share of profits for their service. Examples of client dictators are Egypt’s Mubarak, Iran’s Shah, Yemen’s Saleh who all served or are serving American interests. Soviet ‘satellite states’ served USSR’s interests.

Almost all modern sorts of totalitarian systems have a ‘ritual of democracy’, that is, subservient institutions such as parliaments, judiciary systems, political councils, and staged elections that are meant to give the system a façade of legitimacy. Some such puppet institutions are the Guardian Council in Iran, the Egyptian and Iraqi parliaments under Mubarak and Saddam.

Totalitarian regimes almost without exception have a one-party one-ideology system; if there is any other party, it is marginalized or banned from the political domain or pressured to play ball with the ruling party. Examples of such parties include the Baath Party in Syria and Communist Party in USSR.

All dictatorships forge a ‘mythical identity’ for themselves which is juxtaposed against an “evil other”. This gives them the power to mobilize the country in its collective enterprises by invoking fear, distract the society in times of domestic crises by conjuring up the outside threat, and most importantly it provides the excuse to crush any kind of domestic dissent by identifying and persecuting dissidents as agents of that enemy. U.S. and USSR each for the other, the U.S. and Israel for the current Iranian regime, past colonizers (e.g. Italy, France, Britain) for the postcolonial dictatorships in Africa and Middle East (e.g. Gaddafi, Amin, Mobuto, and Taylor) are examples of the mythological “evil others”.

Dictators at times take advantage of the diversity of their societies by selectively privileging one and collectively punishing other segments of the population (i.e. favoritism, as in Bahrain where the Sunni minority is favored over the Shia majority), or privileging their long-standing friends and associates (i.e. cronyism, as during Mubarak’s rule), or by just privileging their own kith and kin (i.e. nepotism, as in Saudi Arabia as of now). The three techniques do most of the time overlap, as in the case of Iran at this moment.

The use of the above techniques in dictatorships is not enough per se; what completes them is a ‘balancing act’, which is added to the system when the despotic machine overheats. This helps the machine blow off some steam and not burn out. The most typical forms of such balancing acts are political and economic ‘concessions’: Saudi Arabia pumped money into the system when there were nascent signs of protest; the Jordanian King recently dissolved the government but himself and his family stayed in power; and the Algerian dictatorship recently lifted the state of emergency.

‘State of emergency’ or what Georgio Agamben and Carl Schmitt call the ‘state of exception’ is, put simply, the exclusive power of the sovereign ruler to go beyond the law in times of crises and suspend or constrain the rights of citizens in the name of security or suchlike public goods. Many dictatorships officially perpetuate the state of exception and thus stay in power for long; Algeria was in such a state for 19 years until last February; Mubarak ruled in the same fashion for thirty odd years; Syria has been in a state of emergency since 1963; and finally, Bahraini and Yemeni dictatorships declared a state of emergency last week.

Religion plays a very protean role in dictatorships. In theocracies, politics and governance are centered on religious decrees. The religious police become an oppressive apparatus. Iran and Saudi Arabia are two infamous theocratic dictatorships at this moment. In secular dictatorships (e.g. Shah, Mubarak, and Ben Ali) religion is brushed aside as a nuisance or threat for the obvious reason that it provides an arena of collective assembly and is potentially capable of mobilizing the masses. It therefore joins the opposition against the tyrant (e.g. Archbishop Romero against the Salvadoran military dictatorship in the 80s, Khomeini against the Shah, Muslim Brotherhood against Mubarak). Some dictatorships are not technically theocracies but opt for one official state religion and suppress other faiths. In such cases, religion with its universalist ideology and cosmic perspective functions as a homogenizing ghost for the despotic machine; Christianity for past European empires and Buddhism in Burma today are two such examples.

Surveillance, espionage, secret prisons, targeting individuals, torturing average citizens and dissidents by the secret police, and portraying any criticism and dissent as treason are a string of related techniques used by both dictatorial and (to a lesser and more sophisticated degree) democratic regimes.

The preceding dealt mostly with the techniques used by explicitly dictatorial regimes. But there is more to the story. We have more convoluted regimes with their own special techniques. One such regime is called ‘inverted totalitarianism’, a phrase coined by Sheldon Wolin, the American political philosopher, to describe American politics after WWII and Western societies in general. It is in simple terms the ‘management or manipulation of democracy’. Other philosophers and scholars have applied similar concepts to Western societies: Theodor Adorno (‘fake authenticity’), Norbert Elias (‘the psychogenesis of self-discipline’), Hardt and Negri (‘Empire’), Erving Goffman (‘total Institutions’), Althusser (‘ideological state apparatus’), Foucault (‘societies of discipline and punish’), Zizek (‘objective violence’) and Deleuze (‘societies of control’). Notwithstanding methodological and theoretical differences among them, the core thread that connects all these thinkers and their concepts is the argument that in Western societies ‘privatism’ (atomization or isolation of individuals from one another) has deteriorated social and public spheres. This gives the system enough leverage to control and discipline citizens, while simultaneously giving them the delusion of individuality and making them apathetic to or ignorant of things political, and quite content with the managed elections that they go through to choose between two essentially identical options: Pepsi or Coca Cola.

Needless to say, such a list cannot be exhaustive. There are several other perspectives from which one can categorize dictatorial regimes and enumerate their techniques. This piece was meant to provide a general introduction to the nature of dictatorships and outline the most outstanding techniques of control and oppression they opt for.

Tehran Review
| Print | نشر مطلب Print | نشر مطلب

  1. AMIR says:

    sometimes its not really possible to put our system into any other scale for juxtaposition..athorough study indeed,,apreciate it Dr.foorugh

What do you think | نظر شما چیست؟

عضویت در خبرنامه تهران ریویو

نشانی ایمیل

Most Viewed
Last articles
  • RSS iran – Google News

    • Iranian hardliners apoplectic over Shakira Confederations cup shot - The Guardian
    • Reject the myth of 'moderation' in Iran - The Hill (blog)
    • Iran sees no link between N-issue and Syria crisis: MP - Press TV
    • Rouhani tells Iran's powerful clerics they need to regain citizens' trust - Washington Post
    • Bahrami: Iran's solo tennis representative - Aljazeera.com
  • video
    کوچ بنفشه‌ها