Evil oppressive dictators: On liberalism and its others

By now, many of us have probably seen the footage of North Koreans weeping over Kim Jong-Il’s death. I don’t have any particular insight into the situation in North Korea, nor do very many people in the West.

What strikes me, though, is how little curiosity most people seem to have about how something like that can happen. The level of analysis we get generally stays at a comic book level: there are countries that are not free, where evil dictators oppress people. But how? Where does their power come from?

Okay, they control the army — but why should the army obey them? They control the country’s wealth — why doesn’t someone just kill them and take the wealth for themselves? It’s not like these dictators walk around in full body armor all day long. If everyone supposedly hates them, why don’t their servants or bodyguards just murder them as a public service?

I’m not saying that such analysis doesn’t exist anywhere — but in the general public sphere of the liberal-democratic West, there’s just no room to talk about such things. We know where power comes from in our countries: people fill out the proper forms, etc. Outside of that legitimating process we call democracy, there’s only sheer violence (as though Stalin could have personally beaten the shit out of everyone who disobeyed, for instance).

In a way, the analysis of “oppressive regimes” is similar to the liberal-democratic vision of religion. Since religious forms of reasoning don’t follow the norms of liberal-democratic deliberation, they must be nothing but sheer oppressive authoritarianism. And indeed, a “personality cult” like the North Korean regime seems to unite both into one seamless package.

But why should people submit to such a regime? To say that it’s rule by fear is to beg the question, because no single ruler or ruling cadre is personally able to threaten an entire nation with violence — they already must have legitimacy of some kind among the people with the weapons, i.e., the people who would presumably have the least reason to be fearful.

The reason the liberal-democratic public sphere cannot admit such questions is that doing so would mean admitting that liberal-democratic forms of legitimation are not the very definition of legitimation. Kim Jong-Il and Qaddafi and whoever else must have had some form of legitimation, as shown by the very fact that they were able to exercise power. Their regimes may have used “hard power” more than your average liberal democracy (though perhaps we should ask some of our vast number of prisoners what they think about that), but no system of rule can persist for long without some form of “soft power.”

5 thoughts on “Evil oppressive dictators: On liberalism and its others

  1. The “personality cult” argument is clearly stupid because the people making reference to it clearly don’t think Jim Jonh-Il has any sort of personality–at least the sort you’d worship. It’s not like he’s Oprah or Steve Jobs.

  2. One difficulty of the liberal democracy is that it demolished all other regime-types and essentially obliterated the memories of previous regimes. That means that liberal democracy is now particularly susceptible to degenerating into tyranny, precisely because nobody has any experience with any other regime, so they can’t understand what’s happening. Consider as case study Berlusconi tyrannos.

    Further, the reality is that much of what legitimates current liberal democracies are simply factors that legitimate almost any functioning political regime: the perceived benefit of having any political regime at all as opposed to anarchy, inertia, tradition, networks of soft power, etc. But liberal democracy now is an especially arrogant type of political regime – most of the regimes of the past were well aware that there were other alternatives. Since the liberal democracy now proclaims that there is no alternative to itself at all (no even theoretical alternative), it is particularly blind to it’s true sources of legitimation. Indeed, many current liberal democracies are actually more reliant on these alternative sources of legitimation than they truly rely upon consent of the governed.

    Again, the case of Berlusconi tyrannos provides illumination: what Berlusconi proved is that there is actually very little support for liberal democracy in Italy. The previous liberal democracy of Italy was not surviving because of the consent of the governed. When the major players of the previous liberal democracy were swept away (thus, their networks of soft power swept away), Italy was easily captured by that tyrant who had collected the most strategic network of soft power but who had remained outside of formal politics (and thus had not yet been caught in the corruption scandals). Italians so little supported true liberal democracy that they happily jettisoned it for a most mediocre fool, who didn’t even need to fight for the crown.

    The tyrannical power of Murdoch over many liberal democracies is another example. Indeed, the example of Murdoch is perhaps even more eloquent than Berlusconi – Murdoch has effectively controlled at various times (and still has vast power in) not one, but three, of the very most ancient and established liberal democracies – the UK, USA and Australia. And the reality is that these, the most established of liberal democracies, were easy push-overs that were eager to toss out true liberal democracy for rule by Murdoch. More accurately, these three regimes were simply waiting for – in reality, even hoping for and needing – the right demagogue to appear since they could not generate true consent of the governed (and, I would argue, are actually structurally incapable of generating true consent).

  3. Yes, I believe John Pilger was the first one to use the term, or at least the first to popularize it.

    An even bigger problem with Murdoch and Berlusconi is that they do not realize that they cannot really be rulers or statesmen. Thus, what they are doing over the long term is not so much paving their own way to power but showing how to gain power to far more frightening figures. The warning sign is Putin’s building upon the Murdoch/Berlusconi example, but Putin has now far outpaced those who were once his mentors. Correctly – since a former spy can conceivably rule, while businessmen cannot.

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