The Nature of Dictatorships

It seems like there are a lot of people these days who justify–or at least make excuses for–dictatorships. “Well, it’s true there are some things you can’t do,” goes one typical line. “But if you steer clear of politics, you’ll be just fine.” Dictatorships are justified based on many purported benefits, including suppression of internal violence, enabling economic development, and above all “stability.”

Mario Vargas Llosa talks about what dictatorship really is and what it does to people.

Related: Ralph Peters takes on the “stability is always good” argument. I have related thoughts here.

Vargas Llosa link via Neptunus Lex.

6 thoughts on “The Nature of Dictatorships”

  1. Thanks for the articles, they were very thoguht provoking.

    Most Americans cannot really understand life under a dictatorship, all they have is “book knowledge’ gleaned from whatever they may have read. Having been to East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and having seen the effects of Saddam Hussein’s regime on the Iraqis, I can only shake my head when I hear Americans see stability under dictatorship as preferrable to a chance at liberation.

    I rarely discuss my reasons for supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein even after two tours in Iraq; it seems like most Americans had no idea where Iraq was before 2003, or what Saddam had done in the past and was capable of in the future.

  2. Technically speaking wasn’t the administration of post-war Germany and Japan a military dictatorship with a dressing of civilian involvement? Who actually wrote the current Japanese Constitution?

  3. The analyses by these two fine observers and writers is certainly worthy of serious consideration, and, while I might quibble here and there with each, my real divergence, esp. with Mr Peters, is more fundamental.

    I would contend that repressive, authoritarian regimes are not stable at all, but extremely volatile, brittle, and continuously on the edge of bubbling over into either internal or external aggression.

    The impression that a “strongman” leader is a source of stability is an ancient fallacy, and has carried into our current age based on the mythology of grand empires spanning the globe, pacifying “barbarian” colonies, and allegedly efficient, industrious political “isms” which “made the trains run on time”, and eliminated the chaotic waste and turmoil of capitalist markets and messy democratic politics.

    In fact, it is the chaotic, messy open societies which are stable, malleable, innovative, and adaptive, and the seemingly rock solid authoritarianisms around the world which constantly boil over into aggressive wars, revolutions, or internal repressions.

    Has Europe, filled to overflowing with autarchs, dictators, kings, and emperors over the last several centuries, been stable, or wracked by continuous wars and peasant revolts?

    Has the Middle East, home for a series of empires, ever actually been stable, by any reasonable definition of that term?

    Regardless of the policy makers intent, would anyone seriously claim that the last few centuries of Latin American history has been a pattern of stability? Or, instead, isn’t it the case that one repressive regime after another has come into power, done its looting and killing, and then crashed, unleashing a period of internal strife, leading to another short lived, in any historical sense, period of “strong” leadership when one thug and his group of mafiosi can grab the helm for another orgy of theft and bloodshed, before they, too, are ousted.

    The constant purges, whether by show trial or “cultural revolution”, that plagued the various marxist systems around the globe, until they imploded, in the SU’s case, or simply dropped the theory even as they kept the name, in China’s case, would make any claim of stability on their part rather dubious. Throw in the constant attempts to foment other marxist revolutions, and the endless proxy wars, into the mix, and turmoil would seem to be the rule, both internally and externally.

    The most stable social structures are those which allow variability, internal debate, and a multitude of choices for its citizens. The policies of the foriegn policy realists may have sought stability, but it was an illusion, as the repeated collapses of supposedly stable regimes around the world has demonstrated.

    The true stability in social structure is that of individualism, openness, and respect for the ability of ordinary citizens to live their lives without constant political supervision. These are the societies, it should be remembered, which change governments regularly, with a minimum of bloodshed, even in time of war.

    What is needed, in Mr Peters’ terms, is not instability, of which there is already way too much in the world, but the stability of free people choosing their own governments and ways of life. It is freedom and individual rights which breeds stability, not repressive strongmen, and the fear and violence that inevitably accompanies their regimes.

  4. Mark Bowden’s 2002 article about Saddam Hussein pointed out how diligent Hussein was in cultivating an illusion of strength and stability for himself and therefore his regime.

  5. I think Mr. Peters was defining stability as a situation that the US and the west can conveniently ignore.

  6. I still remember when Mr. Vargas Llosa first came to Mexico some 20 years ago, and right here he coined the term that best defined our 70 years one party dictatorship, he called that: “The Perfect Dictatorship”. Vargas Llosa is an intellectual strongly committed to democracy and freedom and has always spoken out against dictatorships.

    There’s an interesting article (in spanish) by him “Las Putas Tristes de Fidel” ( where he calls Zapatero a “social moron” (instead of Social Democrat) and critizes the ridiculous attemps of the European left to approach the Castro regimen, as if they achieve freedom for cubans by engaging in “constructive dialogue” with the authoritarian regime.

    By the way, Vargas Llosa is one of the best latin american writers.

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