Second Meditation on Dictatorship [written March 1, 2008] REPUBLISHED

https _s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com_736x_ee_59_33_ee593300e425c02784549e0228c025e1In the begin­ning years of this blog, I pub­lished a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elicit inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have another round of vis­i­bil­ity, espe­cially (I hope) with younger read­ers. I am re-posting them in their orig­i­nal sequence over part of 2018. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­ally append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Mostly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updating.


The argu­ment behind this series of med­i­ta­tions is that aris­to­cratic elites, whether they are dressed up in mil­i­tary uni­forms, busi­ness suits, or the regalia of roy­alty, are iden­ti­cal in pur­pose and func­tion. Dif­fer­ences between them are triv­ial and cos­metic, not struc­tural. The term “dic­ta­tor­ship” applies equally to all places where an unelected gang of hood­lums rules over peo­ple and ter­ri­tory, what­ever their sup­posed ide­ol­ogy or what­ever style they chose to prance around in. I fur­ther con­tend that they are nei­ther morally legit­i­mate, nor “gov­ern­ment” in the sense that demo­c­ra­t­i­cally elected admin­is­tra­tions are. Dic­ta­tors are merely crim­i­nals, no dif­fer­ent from the crim­i­nals that rob con­ve­nience stores or attack women in dark­ened car parks. The only dif­fer­ence is the amount of money they steal and the num­ber of peo­ple they mur­der or maim.

Next, I have argued that rule by aris­toc­ra­cies is a con­stant dan­ger to human soci­ety in any time and any place, inde­pen­dent of a society’s level of wealth, or avail­able tech­nol­ogy. I argue that there are no nec­es­sary or pre­des­tined “stages” in the orga­ni­za­tion of human soci­ety. Morally good and ben­e­fi­cial demo­c­ra­tic social arrange­ments can be made at any time and in any place, by any group of peo­ple, large or small. Lan­guage, eth­nic­ity, loca­tion, and degree of wealth are not struc­turally rel­e­vant to demo­c­ra­tic prac­tice, and demo­c­ra­tic prac­tice does not orig­i­nate with, or “belong to” any par­tic­u­lar cul­tural group. Sim­i­larly, dic­ta­tor­ship can occur in any human group. Immoral, dis­eased soci­eties can be made at any time, in any place, by any group of peo­ple, large or small. Both pos­si­bil­i­ties always co-exist.

I then pro­posed that the actions of aris­to­cratic elites are merely the exten­sion of tech­niques employed by psy­cho­log­i­cal bul­lies and con-artists on the per­sonal scale of human inter­ac­tion. In other words, bul­lies, frauds, swindlers and manip­u­la­tors oper­ate as a patho­log­i­cal minor­ity in all human groups. The meth­ods and motives of dic­ta­tors and rul­ing aris­toc­ra­cies, oper­at­ing on the level of nations, are not dif­fer­ent, in any mean­ing­ful way, from those prac­ticed on a small scale among petty crim­i­nals. In all cases, the rulers are com­pletely aware of what they are doing. They are not the prod­ucts of col­lec­tive or “his­tor­i­cal” processes. They are not arriv­ing at dom­i­nance uncon­sciously. None of the “ide­olo­gies” or “philoso­phies” attrib­uted to such patho­log­i­cal per­son­al­i­ties actu­ally have any sig­nif­i­cance. They are merely plausible-sounding “scripts” that rul­ing elites pro­fess to believe, in order to con­fuse and manip­u­late their vic­tims. Rul­ing elites do not believe in any such sys­tems or philoso­phies. They are merely tools for achiev­ing their goals, and can be con­tra­dicted or dis­carded at any time. The basic manip­u­la­tive tech­niques of dic­ta­tor­ship are sim­ple: the man­u­fac­tured image of charisma, the lie, the car­rot, and the stick.

Finally, I have explained what every expe­ri­enced con-artist or swindler knows, that the key to exer­cis­ing con­trol over peo­ple, and get­ting what you want from them, is secur­ing their belief and col­lab­o­ra­tion. It is our col­lab­o­ra­tion ― in the form of accept­ing their claims to be “sov­er­eign gov­ern­ments”, or “lead­ers”, and accord­ing them for­mal and cer­e­mo­nial legit­i­macy — that is at the heart of their power. Because we accept their claims to power and author­ity, their author­ity becomes real. Psy­cho­log­i­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion gives them power, and eco­nomic col­lab­o­ra­tion makes their crimes profitable.

Imag­ine that if every time a cor­ner store was robbed, the rob­ber could sim­ply walk across the street and deposit the stolen money in a bank, and then the neigh­bour­hood busi­ness asso­ci­a­tion agreed that now the rob­ber was the legit­i­mate “owner” of the store, and should be auto­mat­i­cally enrolled in the asso­ci­a­tion as a respectable local busi­ness­man. Sup­pose that the police agreed that any­one who suc­cess­fully robbed a store should not be pur­sued and pros­e­cuted, because they were now a “sov­er­eign body”. It is self-evident that such a pol­icy would lead to unlim­ited armed rob­bery and vio­lence. We would think peo­ple insane if they held such val­ues. Yet that is exactly what we have cho­sen to do with tyran­nies and dictatorships.

Any­one who man­ages to mur­der, rape, and pil­lage on a large enough scale is auto­mat­i­cally rec­og­nized as a “sov­er­eign gov­ern­ment”, accorded a seat in the United Nations, and allowed to deposit the money they steal into Swiss bank accounts. We then allow them to spend that money on Fifth Avenue, the Ginza, or the Champs-Élysées. Their legit­i­macy is rec­og­nized by all, their secu­rity is assured. Arms deal­ers and gov­ern­ments line up to sup­ply them with the weapons which keep them in power. Only the occa­sional one is deposed if he steps on too many toes, or mis­cal­cu­lates a bid for hege­mony. The major­ity can count on accep­tance and security.

Yet peo­ple seem to see noth­ing wrong with this arrange­ment, and grow very hos­tile if one even sug­gests alter­ing it. Even the direct vic­tims of dic­ta­tor­ship will often find them­selves unable to renounce their dic­ta­tors, and will still see them as legit­i­mate. The rela­tion­ship of peo­ple to dic­ta­tor­ships strongly resem­bles that of delu­sional cult mem­bers or of abused wives who refuse to leave a vio­lent hus­band. In both cases, psy­cho­log­i­cally dom­i­nant con-artists have skill­fully manip­u­lated the inse­cu­rity and credulity of their vic­tims in order to sep­a­rate them from the world of rea­son, and iso­late them in a world of delu­sion, unrea­son­ing faith and loy­alty. The abus­ing hus­band alter­nates vio­lent beat­ings with tears and asser­tions of devo­tion, and plays on the des­per­ate need of his vic­tim to be loved, even if the “love” con­sists of bro­ken bones and humil­i­a­tion. The abused wife refuses to have him charged, and goes back for more abuse. The reli­gious cult leader skill­fully plays on the emo­tional needs of his fol­low­ers to manip­u­late them into mak­ing him rich, or sat­is­fy­ing his sex­ual crav­ings. Even after leav­ing the cult, for­mer mem­bers still see the cult leader as a charis­matic father fig­ure, and yearn to find a sub­sti­tute. In both cases, it is the will­ing co-operation of the vic­tims, and the col­lat­eral co-operation of third par­ties, that makes the crime pos­si­ble. The abus­ing hus­band is accepted by other hus­bands as “one of the boys”. The cult leader is accepted as a respectable reli­gious leader in the community.

So it is with dic­ta­tor­ship. Dic­ta­tors get power because they are able to suc­cess­fully acquire loyal fol­low­ers who will carry out their will. Than Shwe doesn’t have to per­son­ally burn dis­si­dents alive… he has sol­diers who will do that for him, and offi­cers who will orga­nize it, and clerks who will enter the details into ledgers, and busi­ness­men who will sell him the incin­er­a­tors and accoun­tants who will add up the costs. Fidel Cas­tro did not have to per­son­ally round up and tor­ture the homo­sex­u­als and poets that he hated. He had loyal hench­men who would do it for him. And he had investors who would pro­vide the cap­i­tal to finance his oper­a­tions. Dic­ta­tors rely on the co-operation of those out­side of their ter­ri­tory, who, by cus­tom and con­ven­tion, agree that they “own” the peo­ple and ter­ri­tory that they control.

That insid­i­ous cus­tom and con­ven­tion pro­claims that they are immune to pun­ish­ment, and immune to the ordi­nary moral cen­sure that human beings are sup­posed to impose on wrong­do­ers. Than Shwe or Fidel Cas­tro can appear in a pub­lic place, and they will be treated as respectable peo­ple. They are celebri­ties, to be fawned on and pam­pered. Diplo­mats will meet them at cock­tail par­ties, shake their hands, and tell jokes to them. Pres­i­dents and Prime Min­is­ters of democ­ra­cies will invite them to their homes for din­ner, or play golf with them. All moral­ity is sus­pended. Dic­ta­tors inhabit a lucra­tive and com­fort­able world, where theft, mur­der, tor­ture, and every other abom­inable crime are not only tol­er­ated, but rewarded. The rich and pow­er­ful agree, uni­ver­sally, that no rulers should ever be pun­ished for what they do to their peo­ple, but they may poten­tially be dis­ci­plined for trans­gres­sions against more pow­er­ful brethren.

So what should decent human beings do, in this bizarre, and obvi­ously sick situation?

The first, and most impor­tant step in oppos­ing dic­ta­tor­ship is for human beings to demand that moral­ity be rec­og­nized and obeyed. We must begin with a moral self-education and self-discipline that trains us to treat dic­ta­tor­ship as it should right­fully be treated. We must per­son­ally, each of us, refuse to accept the lie of dic­ta­to­r­ial legit­i­macy, in any con­text. Our own behav­iour must become morally exact and con­sis­tent. And we must demand that our elected offi­cials obey that morality.

We must never allow the con­cept of “legit­i­mate” dic­ta­tor­ship to be inserted into polit­i­cal analy­sis or dis­course, with­out expos­ing and defy­ing it. We must never allow any politi­cian to engage in any action that legit­imizes dic­ta­tor­ship, with­out denounc­ing and oppos­ing it. We must use what­ever social and demo­c­ra­tic insti­tu­tions we have at our dis­posal to achieve the abo­li­tion of dictatorship.

We should denounce and shun any­one who social­izes with a dic­ta­tor, treats a dic­ta­tor as legit­i­mate, or does any kind of busi­ness with a dic­ta­tor. That shun­ning should be absolute, dra­con­ian, and irrev­o­ca­ble. The atti­tude of a decent human being should be: “Deal with a dic­ta­tor, and I will not only refuse to vote for you, or buy your prod­ucts, but I will not allow you in my home, nor will I shake your hand. Break­ing bread with you is unimag­in­able. I will not allow you any­where near my chil­dren. No one should ever speak to you, or even look at you.” One act of col­lab­o­ra­tion with any dic­ta­tor, of any kind, no mat­ter how insignif­i­cant, should auto­mat­i­cally sever a human being from any con­nec­tion to the human race.

On the polit­i­cal level, we should regard any col­lab­o­rat­ing with a dic­ta­tor­ship as an act of high trea­son. This should be the foun­da­tion stone of our moral val­ues in for­eign rela­tions. What we should be work­ing for polit­i­cally, is a set of con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments that man­date impeach­ment and trea­son charges for any politi­cian who is caught in the same room with a dictator.

That should be the atti­tude of any morally respon­si­ble human being, and that atti­tude should be com­mu­ni­cated loudly, and repeat­edly, to any­one in busi­ness or gov­ern­ment. Con­trary to what we usu­ally imag­ine, politi­cians do respond to being “trained” in this man­ner. There is noth­ing inevitable or nec­es­sary about their col­lab­o­ra­tion with evil. It only occurs because we allow it, because we let them get away with it unpun­ished. We should be pun­ish­ing them for it, pun­ish­ing them hard, pun­ish­ing them as angrily and vig­or­ously as we can. Pun­ish­ing them on elec­tion day, pun­ish­ing them in the opin­ion polls, and pun­ish­ing them by turn­ing our backs on them, spit­ting on them, any­thing that gets the mes­sage across. We are not in a posi­tion to directly pun­ish the dic­ta­tors, at this stage, but we are in a posi­tion to pun­ish our own offi­cials when they col­lab­o­rate with them. That should be the pol­icy and prac­tice of any pro­gres­sive per­son or insti­tu­tion in our soci­ety. It should be the moral behav­iour that is taught in schools. It should be the moral stan­dard acknowl­edged and prac­ticed by all peo­ple in the arts, in sci­ence, in edu­ca­tion, and in schol­ar­ship. A sense of moral out­rage should become the norm in this regard.

This moral cen­sure should not be con­fined to politi­cians alone. If a movie star or rock star pub­licly hangs out with a dic­ta­tor, or sup­ports a non-democratic regime, then the pub­lic should turn against them, and his or her career should quite rightly face ruin. If a busi­ness­man buys or sells from a dic­ta­tor, we should deploy what­ever pub­lic social sanc­tions we can man­age. Boy­cotts and protests are effec­tive in such cases, far more than peo­ple gen­er­ally imag­ine. Even the loss of five per­cent of a mar­ket can destroy the careers of hot shot CEOs and cause turnovers in board­rooms. Civ­i­lized peo­ple should exer­cise those sanc­tions at every opportunity.

It is pre­cisely this kind of moral force that drove the anti-slavery move­ment in the 19th cen­tury, and that, in the United States, put an end to racial seg­re­ga­tion in the 1960s. It was not politi­cians or the wealthy who ini­ti­ated these reforms. It was ordi­nary peo­ple, at first only a very few, who made these things hap­pen. In the begin­ning, only a hand­ful of com­mit­ted indi­vid­u­als acted on their con­sciences. Their con­sis­tency and courage made the lines of choice clear. Slowly, oth­ers were either inspired by their exam­ple, or shamed by it. Grad­u­ally, a new moral norm was estab­lished, and soci­ety mutated to the point where trans­gres­sors could not show their face in respectable com­pany. Polit­i­cal changes fol­lowed. But the polit­i­cal changes would never have been pos­si­ble with­out the under­ly­ing force of indi­vid­ual human beings exer­cis­ing moral choice and conviction.

That is what we should be doing when con­fronted with the fact of dic­ta­tor­ship. Dic­ta­tor­ship is respon­si­ble for the largest por­tion of suf­fer­ing and injus­tice in the world. Poverty, dis­ease, famine, social injus­tices of all kind are mostly the bi-products of dic­ta­tor­ship. If any­one aspires to oppose social injus­tice, or wishes to do some­thing con­crete about poverty and dis­ease, it should be their first pri­or­ity to destroy dic­ta­tor­ship. To accom­plish this, it is nec­es­sary to embrace, pro­claim, prac­tice and pro­mote the moral stan­dards nec­es­sary to oppose dic­ta­tor­ship effec­tively. These val­ues must be con­sis­tent and prac­ticed with­out capri­cious excep­tions. It is not per­mis­si­ble to protest one dic­ta­tor and cod­dle another. No strate­gic align­ment with any dic­ta­tor is morally per­mis­si­ble, in pur­suit of any objec­tive. That goes for both gov­ern­ment poli­cies and the actions of indi­vid­u­als. A human being ― any human being ― can only be rec­og­nized as hon­est and moral if he or she opposes all dic­ta­tor­ship, every­where, with­out exception.

If politi­cians begin to feel the heat of this moral force, if they are called to account by jour­nal­ists when they vio­late fun­da­men­tal moral­ity, and if they find them­selves shunned and denounced at every turn, they will even­tu­ally be forced to change their behav­iour. The process may be a slow and dif­fi­cult one, but what right thing has ever been easy to do?

In the mid­dle of the 18th Cen­tury, a young man in New Jer­sey, John Wool­man, came to the con­clu­sion, at the age of 23, that slav­ery was immoral, and that no decent per­son should profit from it. It took him many years to con­vince a hand­ful of peo­ple of this posi­tion, but by the end of his life, it had been adopted by the major­ity of Quak­ers in Amer­ica and many in Eng­land. From the exam­ple of the Quak­ers, this view­point grad­u­ally won over intel­li­gent and morally sen­si­tive peo­ple, and by the end of the 18th cen­tury had a wide­spread influ­ence. Ver­mont became the first gov­ern­ment to abol­ish slav­ery, fol­lowed soon after by Upper Canada, and then a num­ber of New Eng­land States. A court in Lower Canada in 1803 ruled slav­ery incom­pat­i­ble with the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of law. Oppo­si­tion to slav­ery spread to Scan­di­navia, then to many other places in Con­ti­nen­tal Europe. In 1834, chat­tel slav­ery was abol­ished, at least legally, through­out the British Empire. The United States had to undergo a tumul­tuous and ago­niz­ing war before the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion in 1863. But this titanic strug­gle against evil could not have suc­ceeded if peo­ple like John Wool­man, a sim­ple tay­lor and notary, had not pro­claimed and com­mit­ted them­selves to a clear-cut moral posi­tion. It was their moral force that ulti­mately made polit­i­cal changes happen.

Dic­ta­tor­ship is merely a mod­ern ver­sion of the slave trade, prac­ticed by peo­ple who con­trol ter­ri­tory and claim to be “gov­ern­ments”. The ulti­mate elim­i­na­tion of dic­ta­tor­ship calls for the deploy­ment of the same type of moral force as that ear­lier movement.

There are basi­cally two sets of strate­gies nec­es­sary. Those who presently live under dic­ta­tor­ship need to develop one set of strate­gies. Those who live out­side of dic­ta­tor­ship, who can freely express their opin­ions and influ­ence elected gov­ern­ments, should be pur­su­ing another set. The two sets of strate­gies are related, and should be co-ordinated. But in this essay, I’m pri­mar­ily con­cerned with the sec­ond set.

The strat­egy of deploy­ing moral force should serve a sim­ple pur­pose: to get laws passed and poli­cies enacted that make dic­ta­tors suf­fer, cut them off from money, humil­i­ate them, iso­late them, and even­tu­ally destroy them. First, our aim should be to get our gov­ern­ments to renounce all ties and alliances with dic­ta­tors. Then it should be to repu­di­ate recog­ni­tion of dic­ta­tor­ships as legit­i­mate gov­ern­ments. Then we should get laws passed mak­ing it charge­able trea­son for any politi­cian to con­sort with, enter­tain, or com­mu­ni­cate per­son­ally with a dic­ta­tor. We should be demand­ing that the embassies and con­sulates of dic­ta­tor­ships be closed, and that their diplo­mats be expelled. Then we should demand the expul­sion of all dic­ta­tor­ships from inter­na­tional bod­ies, or that democ­ra­cies with­draw from inter­na­tional bod­ies that per­mit dic­ta­tor­ship to par­tic­i­pate. Then, we should push for the enact­ment of laws mak­ing it a crim­i­nal offense to engage in any eco­nomic exchange with a dic­ta­tor, or his hench­men. These should be fol­lowed by laws dis­solv­ing cor­po­ra­tions that do busi­ness with dic­ta­tors. All these demands should be made, one after the other, with unend­ing pres­sure from the bot­tom up. No per­son should be regarded as fit to hold any posi­tion of respectabil­ity or hon­our unless they make these demands.

Par­tic­u­lar atten­tion should be paid to the behav­iour of finan­cial insti­tu­tions. We should demand laws that severely pun­ish any bank that pro­vides finan­cial ser­vices for a dic­ta­tor, or his hench­men, even by indi­rect pro­ce­dures (i.e., num­bered or secret accounts, money-laundering, dummy cor­po­ra­tions). These laws should hold banks respon­si­ble for trans­gres­sions even if they claim to have done them unknow­ingly. Access to inter­na­tional bank­ing ser­vices is the life-blood that makes dic­ta­tor­ship func­tion prof­itably. It is the heart of the mat­ter. If banks out­side our own coun­tries do not con­form to these rules, then they should not be allowed to trans­act busi­ness in our coun­tries. Our goal should be the seizure of all assets held by dic­ta­tors or their hench­men ― so that they can be held in trust for the peo­ple who right­fully own them, the vic­tims of the dic­ta­tors in their own countries.

Ulti­mately, our aim should be to issue war­rants for the arrest of all dic­ta­tors and their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, hench­men, and col­lab­o­ra­tors. These war­rants should man­date the arrest and trial of any of these peo­ple if they set foot on the soil of a democ­racy. The only final result that is morally accept­able to decent human beings would be a “Nurem­berg” trial of all the dic­ta­tors on Earth.

These are all things that can be done through the demo­c­ra­tic process, and through the law. And they are all things which can be done with­out mak­ing war, which invari­ably harms the vic­tims of dic­ta­tor­ship more than it harms the dic­ta­tors them­selves. We must always remem­ber the “ace in the hole” that every dic­ta­tor counts on: they hold their own peo­ple hostage, and many of those hostages are chil­dren. We should never be in the busi­ness of bomb­ing chil­dren to “save” them from dic­ta­tor­ship. We should be focused on elim­i­nat­ing the dic­ta­tors. Stran­gling their blood-flow of money, and mak­ing sure that they can­not ever show their faces in the civ­i­lized world are far more effec­tive than any mil­i­tary swaggering.

But to do this requires a long, slow build-up of social pres­sure from prin­ci­pled indi­vid­u­als. Those indi­vid­u­als must be sure of them­selves, and be will­ing to stand up to the ridicule and counter-pressures they will be sub­jected to. They will be sneered at by intel­lec­tu­als, dis­missed as cra­zies by politi­cians, and under­mined by those who gain finan­cially from col­lab­o­ra­tion with dic­ta­tor­ship. They will feel the lure of con­for­mity. They will grow weary of explain­ing the same obvi­ous facts over and over again, and they will become list­less and dis­con­so­late when progress fails to mate­ri­al­ize quickly. It will be very, very dif­fi­cult to pass the laws we need. All politi­cians will hate them. All rich peo­ple will hate them. All cor­po­rate inter­ests will hate them. Many intel­lec­tu­als will hate them with rabid fanati­cism. All these forces will fight tooth and nail to block them.

The strat­egy of deploy­ing moral force obvi­ously requires patience, since no results can be expected to come quickly, and it requires sac­ri­fice. It is con­ve­nient, and com­fort­able to turn a blind eye to dic­ta­tor­ship. It is con­ve­nient to buy the cheap prod­ucts that dic­ta­tor­ships sup­ply, with their mar­ket advan­tage of slave labour and envi­ron­men­tal rape. It is con­ve­nient to avoid con­fronta­tion with our own élites and big shots. It is tempt­ing to swal­low the illu­sion, ped­dled by all our politi­cians, that dic­ta­tors can be “reformed” by “engage­ment”, bribes, or polite­ness. But moral­ity is not a con­ve­nient or a com­fort­able thing. It requires that you stand up straight as a man or a woman, and fol­low a prin­ci­ple, rather than kiss­ing bums and col­lect­ing the cube of sugar. Moral­ity holds no appeal for most intel­lec­tu­als, who pre­fer the clev­er­ness of realpoli­tik and oppor­tunis­tic moral obfus­ca­tion. Moral­ity holds no appeal for “rad­i­cals” and other poseurs attracted to the bom­bast of “rev­o­lu­tion”. But moral­ity is what is truly rad­i­cal, truly rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and, in the long run, truly effec­tive. In the long run, I think that moral truth, and moral force will win.

Why do I think so? Because the world is grow­ing up. Dic­ta­tor­ship is the prod­uct of igno­rance, cow­ardice, and super­sti­tion. It will be a hor­ri­bly painful process, but we will out­grow it.

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