Monday, May 12, 2014

Politics: How tyrants come to power

Politics: How tyrants come to power
     In the Olden Days, tyrants did it the hard way: They gathered armed support, invaded the territory of their choice or attacked the central government, and after a mix of luck, guile, and skill, they took power. But the first thing they did was to make their takeover legal. They proclaimed a law, or ensured that the lawmaking body in place voted them the powers they wanted. Legitimacy was and is the prime goal of every tyrant. Not one has every admitted that he is a tyrant. They all claim that they are the only legitimate authority in their state, and that their sole aim is to protect and strengthen the state.
     Nowadays, the road to absolute power is more legalistic, as marked out by Hitler and Stalin. Both became tyrants by taking the opportunity to become government leader. Then they used the lawmakers to pass the laws that gave them the powers they wanted. This is still the preferred method. The career of Mobutu, President of Zaire, demonstrates the method nicely: see
     Note that once in power, Mobutu ensured that a new constitution gave him the authority to rule as he wished. 98% of the population approved of the constitution, so he could certainly claim that his rule is not only legitimate but also has vast popular support. The article is worth reading because it outlines how Mobutu centralised power and expanded its reach into all sectors of civil society and economic life. He did so because he believed that his concept of a modern Zaire was the only right one, and that to realise it, he needed more power than a typical democratic polity would give him.
      The parallels with Hitler and Nazism are striking. The main difference seems to be that Mobutu genuinely believed his mission was to make Zaire into a modern African state, but like all ideologues, he was unable to accept that in the end he is no more essential than any other person. The office of President as part of the structure of governance will guarantee whatever stability and continuity Zaire will enjoy. Like other states, this structure is what matters. If its function depends too much on the will of one person, it is inherently unstable. Tyrants rarely construct a polity that will survive well without them. That requires a kind selflessness that conflicts with what drives the tyrant: the belief that he is the only possible saviour of his nation.

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