The limits of dictatorship

Despite the challenges facing liberal democracies, it is authoritarian regimes that remain most precarious.

At the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang in a room for the study of the "Works of President Kim Il Sung and books on his greatness". Credit: Sean Hawkey / Alamy Stock Photo
At the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang in a room for the study of the "Works of President Kim Il Sung and books on his greatness". Credit: Sean Hawkey / Alamy Stock Photo

We live at a time when tumultuous political events have dominated the news cycle. Whether it is President Trump’s indictment, Liz Truss’ record-breakingly short premiership, or riots in France, liberal democracy looks on the edge. Writers such as Yascha Mounk and William Galston have been shouting about the potentially perilous political symptoms, while proposing solutions that could abate such a threat. Yet perhaps the focus on dysfunction and danger in the democratic West has been misplaced; despite appearances, authoritarian regimes are far more likely to suffer from the type of dysfunction that democracies fear.

Unlike democracies, which roll with the rough and tumble of politics, autocratic systems seek to present a united, homogenous front within the state. The leader may be pictured performing traditional customs as ‘one of the people’, or run sham elections where ninety per cent of the vote is theirs, demonstrating how much they are loved and needed. Despite such appearances, political opposition is kept in check, not by the will and consent of the people but by the barrel of the gun. Rather than creating stability, the mix of coercion, political narrowness, and one-person or one-party rule leads to chronic instability, with potentially disastrous consequences for all involved.

The legitimacy of dictators such as Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and Kim Jong Un rests on the premise that they and they alone can deliver stability and prosperity to their people. Such ideas are rooted superficially in the Hobbesian premise that, by relinquishing your liberty and centring order under an almighty sovereign, you will avoid an environment that is ‘nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short’. If dictators had actually read Hobbes they would realise he was actually recommending caution when exercising sovereign powers. Rather than advocating a totalitarian approach to government, as is sometimes supposed, Hobbes desired unity in the political sphere facilitated by an ultimate power – a reasonable approach in conflict-riddled seventeenth-century England, perhaps less so in the twenty-first century.

Carl Schmitt, dubbed the ‘crown jurist of the Third Reich’, is employed in arguments by anti-liberals on both left and right. Schmitt’s focus on homogeneity as an expression of the ‘friend-enemy’ dichotomy imagines conflict at the heart of politics. The ‘friend-enemy’ dichotomy is not a mere difference of opinion; in Schmitt’s eyes it represents a physical threat from the ‘other’, and it is his belief that liberal democracy is therefore ill-equipped to manage political relations.

Believing that the sovereign acts as a ‘guardian’ of the political order, Schmitt’s solution to liberal frailties is to proclaim that the ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’. Using emergency powers temporarily to ‘protect’ the political order may soon turn into a permanent state of affairs in the absence of a strong liberal and democratic element, which balances the dictator’s power.

Paradoxically, the authoritarian use of sovereign powers, which Schmitt imagines, makes unity more difficult to manufacture. Liberal democratic regimes are able to facilitate political environments that don’t descend into violence, unlike authoritarian alternatives. Democracy in its modern liberal formulation opens up the political space to a wide range of alternatives across competing political entities. The shock generated by the riots of 6 January 2022 at Washington DC’s Capitol, far from destroying this claim is testament to the rarity of violence in politics within liberal democracies.

The same cannot be said for authoritarian rule. Frequently using emergency powers to centralise power to ride roughshod over legal dictates, there are few if any brakes on the sovereign’s behaviour. This allows the sovereign to go ‘out on a limb’ as the barriers come down on what they can reasonably do. Rather than providing a political space for the delicate balance of experimentation and order, authoritarian regimes possess neither of these characteristics. Simultaneously narrowing the political space and clamping down on those who venture out of it, citizens have neither the means to alter their political conditions, nor the ability to feel safe.

Authoritarian regimes frequently resort to coercion and fall back on narrow groups, such as family, tribe, and sect, in a bid to maintain an illusion of ‘stability’. It is not just from ‘outside’ that the regime faces dangers. Inwardly, authoritarian states face pressures as intra-regime competition becomes a threat in itself. There is a host of academic literature on authoritarian systems that looks at such concepts as ‘coup-proofing’ and ‘neo-patrimonialism’, focusing on the inner networks that manage the dangerous dynamics when elections do not act as a rotational safeguard on power.

Too often we proclaim that power and stability spring from a regime’s ability to assert its ‘monopoly on violence’. Yet, we ignore a crucial word in Max Weber’s formulation; the term ‘legitimate’. Legitimacy ensures that the state or the regime don’t have to exercise violence to enforce political measures or to counter disagreements between the citizenry and the regime. If a regime rules by violence, it will be challenged by violence, and far from creating a social contract of protection, this method of rule voids any social contract between the ruler and the ruled.

The result is an authoritarian state of nature, with everyone competing against each other, leading to an eventual domino effect of a loss of legitimacy. As Edward Lucas has stated, in authoritarian regimes you may not know where or when it will blow up, but the pressure is ultimately unsustainable and it will blow up. We have seen this danger in the twenty-first century with the Arab Spring. While some scholars labelled the spring a ‘modest harvest’, this ignores the reality that long-standing authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya fell, with Syria rocked to its very core. The story of the Syrian revolution told by Sam Dagher and Jonathan Little is a perfect demonstration of how such regimes may sow the wind, but will eventually reap the whirlwind.

Regimes relying upon the use of force and the coercive apparatus of the regime are a poor bet for stability. While authoritarians may promise the fruits of order avoiding the apparent chaos of democracy it is nothing more than a mirage. Democracy may be a messy business but it is rarely a bloody one. Generations of fights, arguments, and, occasionally, violence have helped produce a rare condition where citizens can live aside one another and form political unions with one another. Authoritarians with a violent vision of politics and political order cannot possibly hope to produce or sustain any type of order but are merely delaying ultimate disorder.


Samuel Mace