The New Dictatorships

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which appeared in 1951, still bore the deep imprint of the recently dismantled National Socialist terror regime and the most extreme excesses of Stalinism. The distinguishing features of totalitarianism as a regime type were then readily identifiable: an elaborate ideology of domination plus terrorism, both of which characterized the »short twentieth century’s« history of political rule and warfare. Both Hannah Arendt and Harvard University scholar Carl Joachim Friedrich distinguished carefully between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes, Arendt said, curtailed freedom, whereas totalitarian rule did away with it entirely. In essence, the notion of totalitarianism focused on the untrammeled control that that those in power wielded over their subjects. Under such circumstances not even the state should be regarded as the principal locus of power. According to Arendt that role was played by the party – and of course its leader – that articulated the official word-view. Both totalitarian systems sought to legitimize their rule by deploying a grand ideological narrative, whether of the »classless society« in the case of Stalinism, or »the superiority of our race and nation« in the case of Nazism.

From the very outset, neither the concept nor the theory of totalitarianism was free of inconsistencies and over-hasty analogies. It was always a problematic move to equate (at least implicitly) a Promethean idea of the »realm of freedom« (Karl Marx) with the darkness of a National Socialist ideology of annihilation. Of course, in practice these regimes displayed certain parallels – despite the dissimilarities – in respect to the uses of terror. Both erected Leviathan-like apparatuses that destroyed freedom and carried out deadly repression against Jews and class enemies, respectively.

During the Cold War the concept of totalitarianism continued to lose analytic clarity as it was used prematurely to describe all communist regimes and, increasingly, any dictatorship whatsoever. Not infrequently, it degenerated into a political rallying cry. In reality, truly totalitarian regimes were not that common in the 20 th century. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union from 1929 to 1956, Nazi Germany from 1934/38 to 1945, some of the Eastern European satellite regimes in the 50s, China from the early 50s up until Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and the autocratic Kim family dynasty in North Korea furnish irrefutable examples of totalitarian rule. In the early years of the 21st century the People’s Republic of North Korea is the only totalitarian regime left. The theocratic Islamic regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia or of the Taliban in Afghanistan never have become fully totalitarian. Although their fundamentalist dogmas were intended to penetrate deeply into the everyday lives of the faithful, those governments lacked the mature state development that would have allowed them to translate their ambitions of complete control into a full-blown totalitarian reality.

Dictatorships in the 21st century
The long-lasting third wave of democratization that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet empire at the end of the 20 th century altered the national and international conditions for political rule. If we disregard the more radicalized versions of Islam that have been emerging in some places, grand ideological narratives of political rule have disappeared. Given the globalized economic and communications networks that have emerged, it is an anachronistic fiction to imagine that autocracies could hermetically seal off a zone of political control. Political authority increasingly requires forms of justification that take freedom, political participation, and respect for human rights into account. New forms of autocratic rule came into being that scholars now classify under the heading of electoral authoritarianism, i.e., autocracies with elections. Such elections are quite distinct from those that were held in the Eastern Bloc in the era of »really existing socialism,« in which voter turnout exceeded 99 % and the communist candidates and those of their satellite parties typically won about 99 % of the votes cast. That kind of election is now a quaint relic of the past. Today, elections in authoritarian regimes in Africa or Asia no longer can be so easily managed as they were in the former Eastern Bloc. To be sure, they are manipulated, orchestrated, and rigged, but they also offer the opposition a welcome opportunity to mobilize, make alliances, and appeal to a national and international public. The new authoritarian desire to establish a formally democratic residue of legitimacy in the domestic and foreign arenas carries with it a risk to the legitimacy of those in power.

Formerly clear boundaries between prototypical democracies and dictatorships have grown increasingly blurred. Leaving aside merely polemical use of terms, who would want to say exactly which of the following regimes should be counted as an autocracy or merely classified as a defective democracy: Russia under Vladimir Putin (or Boris Yelstin), the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the contemporary Ukraine, Venezuela, the Philippines, or Singapore? Scholarly research on regimes has grown more cautious. Increasingly it avoids clear typologies and locates really existing regimes along a continuum between the ideal of democracy under the rule of law on the one hand and »perfect« dictatorship on the other. Such classifications thus leave many political regimes in a gray area between the ideal-types. Accordingly, researchers in the field are now talking about »gray area regimes.« These are then subdivided into hybrid regimes (Russia), »democraduras« (Venezuela), or defective democracies (Hungary). Furthermore, the gray area regimes are more stable than is commonly assumed, in that they do not move over time in the direction of becoming closed dictatorships or open democracies. They have long since established their own equilibrium, one that is sensitive to both historical and political contexts. Today, Putin, Erdogan, and Orbán enjoy greater popularity among their respective citizen bodies – and the non-elites within them – than the chancellor of Germany or the President of France’s Fifth Republic, although both of the latter govern democratic countries under the rule of law. This paradox is one aspect of the postmodern jigsaw puzzle: all across the globe forms of political authority are growing more differentiated.

How stable are the new dictatorships?
If we assume the tripartite division of political regimes into autocracies, hybrid regimes, and democracies, we can distinguish, among the 200 or so countries in the world, about 65 democracies under the rule of law and 45 unvarnished autocracies. Of the remainder, the majority are hybrid regimes in all of their different permutations.

So how stable are political regimes really? How durable are dictatorships? Statistically speaking, over the past 60 years democracies have been the most stable, followed by dictatorships, and finally by hybrid regimes. What is the reason for the relative stability of dictatorial regimes? In a study recently carried out at the Berlin Social Science Center we assumed that political rule in dictatorships, as incidentally in hybrid regimes as well, rests on three pillars: legitimation, repression, and cooptation.

Legitimation always derives from two sources, one normative and the other performance-based. Anti-liberalism, racism, nationalism, religiously anachronistic ideas of salvation, as well as Marxist visionary schemes all can generate at least temporary normative approval among those on the receiving end of political rule. However, in the early years of the 21st century fascist and communist ideologies have lost much of their appeal. If any ideologies still have the ability to create strong ties among their adherents nowadays, it would be the variants of Islamic political fundamentalism. But for them, restrictions on basic human rights are part of the canon of principles upon which their claims to rule depend. And, for that very reason, in the long run the wellsprings of their promises of salvation will likely dry up and the enchantment of their world will fade in the cold light of a repressive reality. Because the normative side of legitimation is sapped in this way, dictatorial regimes rely for support especially on their performance in the areas of the economy, security, and order. But autocratic regimes also face risks if the economy and society modernize too rapidly. When that happens, middle classes form, workers unionize, educational levels increase, civil society emerges, and discourses get underway that invite broader political participation. However, this is not a trend that culminates inevitably in a successful process of democratization in the way that modernization theory optimistically still claims. That other outcomes are possible is confirmed by diverse countries such as Singapore, the People’s Republic of China or the petro-dictatorships of the Gulf. The latter of course maintain enormous numbers of Southeast Asian slave laborers deprived of all rights, which enables them to evade the challenge of dealing with a self-confident domestic working class.

Second, autocracies rely on repression, which can assume different forms and levels of intensity. We distinguish in our research project (»Why do dictatorships survive?«) between »soft« and »hard« repression, although their boundaries are shifting. Whereas the first of these primarily aims to restrict political rights such as the freedoms of assembly, expression, press, and employment, the latter is designed mainly to attack the core of human rights, such as the right to life, physical integrity, and the liberty of the individual. It can be demonstrated empirically that elites in authoritarian systems of rule frequently react to threats to the status quo with intensified repression. Yet repression alone is scarcely capable of stabilizing a political regime in the long run. This is so because a great deal of legitimacy is being sacrificed. When repression is ratcheted up, its deterrent power is enhanced, but simultaneously there is a loss of legitimation and thereby of popular consent. High levels of hard repression are expensive, and ultimately they undermine the foundations of political authority. During the period that we examined (1950-2008), statistical evidence shows that soft repression was the most successful factor in stabilizing hundreds of dictatorships.

The third pillar of political domination is cooptation. It may enable elites in autocratic systems of rule to induct influential actors and groups outside the regime proper into the inner circle of the dictatorship. Strategically important elites of this type are generally recruited from among the economic elite, the security services, and the military. They are usually offered offices, political privileges, resources, and economic concessions as a quid pro quo for their loyalty. Corruption, clientelism, and patrimonial networks are their instruments.

Nevertheless, the availability of resources places limits on the duration and extent of »purchased« collaboration of broad groups with the regime. In our analysis we show that weaknesses in one of the pillars of rule can be offset by shoring up the other ones. Yet in some instances cracks in one pillar can overburden the others. Then spaces of protest open up that, if employed on a grand scale, can lead to the collapse of the entire regime. Of course, there are no guarantees that the rule of law and democracy will ensue from its demise. The many unsuccessful processes of transformation in the eastern portions of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Arab Spring all confirm this.

It is also possible to overestimate the stabilizing influence of cooptation. As a rule, the ideal equilibrium state for the survival of dictatorships would combine a high level of legitimation derived from ideology and performance, the least possible application of »hard« repression, extensive »soft« repression, and a moderate degree of cooptation. Singapore approaches that equilibrium state most closely, while China is clearly headed in that direction. But even hybrid regimes such as Putin’s Russia are not so far removed from an equilibrium of this sort.

Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that we are witnessing the irreversible triumph of democracy (1991) proved to be a half-baked fantasy. The envisioned export of democracy from the West to the rest and of military regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya has failed dismally. The free societies of the West, East, and South will have to continue living and negotiating with dictatorships. There are no panaceas. Trade-offs have already been programmed in. A magical polygon still has not been devised that would accommodate values, interests, human rights, economy, democracy, and stability. There are no short cuts in dealing with dictatorships. It will take tedious negotiations, value-based pragmatism, and the proverbial long, hard road to get there.

Wolfgang Merkel
directs the division »Democracy and Democratization« at the Berlin Social Science Center and is professor of political science at the Humboldt University in Berlin. His most recent publication, by Springer VS, is an edited volume entitled Demokratie und Krise: Zum schwierigen Verhältnis von Theorie und Empirie.

First published as »Die neuen Diktaturen« in Neue Gesellschaft / Frankfurter Hefte 11/2016:17-20.

Reading recommendation: Populism and democracy

The online publication the Conversation recently started an informative and interesting series on the phenomena of populism.

The series also includes contributions and analysis from members of our research unit on democracy and democratization at the WZB.

In the latest post of the series, which sets out to explore the origins of the rise of populism and its complex relationship with democracy Thamy Pogrebinschi, John Keane and Wolfgang Merkel contributed their perspectives on the recent or not so recent development of rising populism in democracies. Below you will find the short contributions of the three. If you are interested in what the other contributers had to say you should check out the above hyperlinks to the original post on the Conversation.

Thamy Pogrebinschi sets out to differentiate variants of contemporary populisms and concludes that rather than an ideology populism itself serves as a politically empty cocoon that ultimately is characterised by its appeal to popular souvereignity and actually points to the underlying problematique of capitalism and democracy. She writes:

The concept of populism is highly contestable, but clarifying the difference between its left-wing and right-wing variants is both the best and the worst starting point for making sense of its contours.

Populism is not an ideology. Yet populism of the left and populism of the right produce different sets of ideas, identities and effects. Populism can be so politically empty that it joins forces with ideologies as different as socialism and nationalism. Populist discourses can thus favour exclusion, or inclusion.

The experiences of Latin America and Europe illustrate this difference well. In Latin America, populism has tried to include workers and middle class citizens socially dislocated by capitalism. In contemporary Europe, populism is attempting to exclude people dislocated by wars, and by capitalism in different parts of the world.

In both cases, however, the appeal to popular sovereignty exposes the deep tension between democracy and capitalism. We should therefore care less about definitions, and ask the real question: is representative democracy now so overshadowed by capitalism that it is no longer able to make room for the popular sovereignty upon which it was founded?

John Keane highlights the historical dimension of the complex and problematic relationship between democracy and populism going back to the greek concept ‚dēmokrateo‘ concluding that what is necessary to tackle today’s populist movements is a radikal egalitarian and redistributive turn in order top restore faith in our democracies. He writes:

Ancient Greeks knew democracy could be snuffed out by rich and powerful aristoi backed by demagogues ruling the people in their own name. They even had a verb (now obsolete) for describing how people are ruled while seeming to rule. They called it dēmokrateo. It’s the word we need for making sense of the contradiction that cuts through contemporary populism.

Populism is a democratic phenomenon. Mobilised through available democratic freedoms, it’s a public protest by millions of people (the demos) who feel annoyed, powerless, no longer “held” in the arms of society.

The analyst D W Winnicott used the term to warn that people who feel dropped strike back. That’s the populist moment when humiliated people lash out in support of demagogues promising them dignity. They do so not because they “naturally” crave leaders, or yield to the inherited “fascism in us all”.

Populism attracts people because it raises their expectations of betterment. But there’s a price. In exchange for promises of popular sovereignty, populism easily mass produces figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

And in contrast to the 19th-century populist politics of enfranchisement, today’s populism has exclusionary effects. The dēmokrateo of it all isn’t stoppable by anodyne calls for “dialogue”, or false hopes populism will somehow burn itself out. What’s needed is something more radically democratic: a new politics of equitable redistribution of power, wealth and life chances that shows populism to be a form of counterfeit democracy.

Once upon a time, such political redistribution was called “democracy”, or “welfare state”, or “socialism”.

Wolfgang Merkel argues that the emerging right wing populism in Europe has three main causes: (1) discontent with European integration; (2) economic exclusion; (3) disaffection and fear of influx of migrants. He thus sees the rise of right wing populism as a rebellion of the disenfranchised and concludes that politicians from established political parties should aim to listen to the disenfrenchised and grant them a voice. He writes:

From a normative standpoint, things are clear: cosmopolitans who uphold equality, global justice, ethno-religious tolerance and human rights cannot accept right-wing populism. Nationalism, chauvinism, ethno-religious intolerance are incommensurable with the values of an open and tolerant society.

Things are less clear when we try to explain the rise of right-wing populist parties. People who belong to the enlightened, cosmopolitan, middle and upper classes often argue that right-wing populism is the result of a demagoguery that is especially attractive to uneducated people from the lower classes. This explanation is not just inadequate; it bespeaks arrogant ignorance.

Right-wing populism in Europe has three causes: a general discontent with European integration; economic exclusion; and disaffection and fear of a large influx of migrants and refugees. Large swathes of the lower middle class complain of their exclusion from public discourse. The neo-liberal version of globalisation and the general failure of the moderate left to address the distributive question have created feelings of impotence and marginalisation among the lower classes.

Right-wing populism is thus a rebellion of the disenfranchised. The establishment parties have arguably committed serious political errors. It’s high time that they leave their fortress of normative arrogance and grant a democratic voice to the non-represented. If they fail to do so, right-wing populists will transform our democracies: they will become more parochial, intolerant and polarised.

 

The Conversation kindly allowed us to repost the above statements. Here is the link to the original post.