Readers Write In #385: Dictatorships and popular consent

Posted on July 18, 2021

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(by G Waugh)

I have always wondered about the nature of political dictatorships in history and the mentality of the masses who were subjected to them. In childhood, whenever references to the freedom struggle were made in my textbooks, I always had a mental image of a great mass of angry people trying desperately to untether themselves from the yoke of British colonialism. When my father used to tell me that his father had been born in the early 1900s, I used to feel sad about how cursed that man was, having been born in an era of political and social turmoil. Movies like Kappalottiya Thamizhan and Shankar’s Indian only reinforced that image of hapless, exploited poor Indians facing daily harassment at the hands of the Britishers, trying every moment to pay their masters back in the same coin, but ending up crushed finally under the wheels of the blind steamroller that was the Raj. How was daily life under the British like? Weren’t there riots, strikes, demonstrations, hartals and clashes all around? How did people like my grandfather manage to lead a life in such a scenario? Weren’t people everywhere grumbling and complaining about their sorry state of affairs waiting for the arrival of a Messiah like Gandhi or Bose?

To be frank, this perception of colonial life which I had created for myself inside my head stayed with me for more than a decade. Needless to say, most of my friends and even elders seemed to carry a very similar idea to mine of how things were then. When I think back today, this simplistic perception had very much to do with our collective consciousness that had been built on a strong tradition of mythological stories- masses of frustrated people suffering under a tyrant (who generally happened to be an Asura) liberated at a particular juncture just when things happen to reach a breaking point, by a human incarnation of God. When the sufferings of the common masses in India under the British had reached that mythological ‘breaking point’, an Indian saint from South Africa landed on our soil and boom, the British were driven out and India achieved independence within a few years.

History textbooks too which I came across in school portrayed tyrants like Hitler very similarly, painting him like a ruthless man driven purely by selfishness and a cruel indifference to his masses, who was finally shown the door only at the end of the Second World War by the advent of the ‘Messianic’ Allied forces.

 ***

When I was twenty-two, I had a chance to read a book on colonial life in Latin America under the Europeans written by Eduardo Galeano. It was a searing account of how European merchants and capitalists landed on the shores of Latin America, coerced or co-opted local rulers into their mission, made slaves out of the native masses, plundered natural resources, killed thousands of people who rose in revolt and managed to exploit a huge continent for over three centuries. Under most circumstances, the Christian clergy had a major role to play in these adventures of the European capitalists who managed to coax the local masses into submission by calling themselves ‘civilizers’ fulfilling a divine mission entrusted into their hands by their God- to dispel the ignorance of the local, ‘barbaric’ populace and set them on the path to God’s Eternal Glory and Heaven. 

When I finished the book, there was only one question that lingered on my mind– ‘a group of people, I can understand, can bear exploitation and downright slavery for a decade or two for a variety of reasons, but how could that be tolerated for over three centuries?’

***

A book by William J. Shirer titled ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ was the first one that had a few answers to my questions. It charted the course of history that began with the end of the First World War and the Versailles treaty that humiliated the Germans both politically and economically. This humiliation Shirer says, engendered some kind of a nostalgia among the masses for their ‘glorious past’ under erstwhile German Monarchs. Shirer describes the subsequent rise of a political force that was ready to harvest this widespread anger which finally led to the emergence of a man who apparently symbolized everything that the common German thought he was not- a virile, ultra-aggressive, and an unbending hero in the form of Adolf Hitler. Hitler during his peak and even post that, Shirer says was a very popular man among his citizens and after reading his account, I in fact began to think twice about referring to Hitler using terms such as ‘tyrant’, ‘dictator’, etc. 

When a common man comes across the term ‘dictatorship’, he naturally imagines a government or an authority that has simply jumped out of the sky to descend upon a set of hapless masses who actually may not want to have anything with it. The term ‘dictatorship’ seems to suggest a complete alienation of the authority in question from the masses, as though some strange Martian had landed overnight and managed to hold the people in captive, making use of some rare resources at his disposal. 

But is that really what a dictatorship is all about? Did the Europeans rule continents like Africa and Latin America without even giving a thought about what the local masses might be thinking about them? A totally unpopular government can preside over a country for a decade or so, but can it do so for centuries?

***

All throughout history, from what I know, no tyrant or a bigoted dictator has managed to ascend the seat of power without at least an implicit go-ahead from the masses in question. When the tyrant after a point, goes against the wishes of the people eventually leading to what is sometimes called a ‘Reign of Terror’, history tells us that he is more often than not, not duly replaced or dethroned. No Messiah arrives amidst the suffering masses to liberate them from the regime and even if thousands and thousands of people are sacrificed, something as seemingly simple as a change of leadership is never really countenanced by the citizens in question. Why? 

First of all, the masses, regardless of the era they belong to, are generally reared under deeply or at least substantially religious societies. No matter how big a role religion has played in making an individual ‘morally responsible’ and sensitive to the needs of his fellow-beings, it has managed to do so only in an environment that is strictly subservient to what is called ‘hierarchy’. Man no matter how grown up he is, is considered by religion and its institutions only as a child who needs constant guidance and direction and this ‘hierarchical’ relationship drills into him some kind of a blind adherence to authority and institutions, regardless of their moral legitimacy and relevance. 

This tendency to respect authority extends even to the individual’s workplace as a result of which exploiters in the form of landlords, nobles, merchants and capitalists are often treated only with respect and obedience by the individual, if not with blind devotion. Defiance to authority is often equated to treason or even heresy and this fear sub-consciously tramples upon any impulse to rebel or question the individual’s superior.

All of these factors end up sowing the seeds of helpless resignation into the mind of the individual who after a point decides that there is actually no other way out. You either live under this harsh, repressive regime or perish into oblivion. This resignation that grows out of a kind of pent-up frustration either immobilizes the individual into complete political inaction which indirectly benefits the regime or turns him into the opposite direction- he decides to serve his own ends by becoming a faithful foot-soldier for the regime in any capacity whatsoever.

All of these factors operate in a dictatorial regime sometimes in concert with other powerful ideological influences such as Nazism, communism (of the 20th century) and play a great role in wheedling out from the masses that one important fuel that keeps these regimes running- popular consent. As Jeyamohan notes in one of his essays, no exploitative regime in the world can really operate in a vacuum- it needs the consent of the masses badly, regardless of whether it is overwhelming or implicit. Masses offer that in some measure to the regimes that rule over them and aforementioned factors such as fear, selfishness, adherence to traditional values and other cultural deficiencies contribute to it in one way or the other.

***

When the British landed in India and started annexing territories with or without the help of local rulers, a majority of the local population weren’t really bothered about it. In fact, a good number of people I learned later considered their new masters worthy of their position and were ready to work for them gladly. Even after India faced famines that killed millions in the 19th and 20th centuries, there wasn’t any widespread ill-feeling or overwhelming discontent against the government. Even a powerful rebellion like the Sepoy Mutiny couldn’t spread all over India and the British had no problems in crushing it only because there was no intention on the part of the masses to overthrow the government. Life in British India in fact was mostly stable and peaceful, in complete contrast to what I had assumed in my childhood, even if poverty and starvation was gross and ubiquitous.

When I was a teenager my father, a communist used to tell me that to achieve a communist revolution, it was not really necessary to win over a majority of the population towards your side. He randomly put the number at one-third whose whole-hearted consent you must obtain and the remaining two-thirds of the population, he was sure could easily be ‘dealt with’. It is necessary to remember that by the phrase ‘dealt with’, he didn’t mean jailing the entire two-thirds of the population or killing them indiscriminately like what Pol Pot in Cambodia had done. He strongly believed that a big number of the remaining two-thirds belong to a category who are usually passive and are those who don’t possess any strong ideas about governance or ideology. They are generally fine with whoever rules over them and they will manage to adapt themselves to any kind of difficulty. After all, under communism, my father, a perennial Marxist Utopian, assumed that everyone will get everything they wanted and that there would actually be no need for coercion. 

***

If most dictatorships emerge and function with some amount of ‘popular consent’ which directly implies that the people usually have no issues in putting up with these dictators, can we conclude that they won’t fall at all and that these regimes are inherently sustainable? Haven’t dictatorships after all, fallen before and haven’t dictators like Mussolini and Ceausescu been killed by the very people on the street? 

From what I have learnt from history, it must be admitted that the onus of sustaining a dictatorship as I have mentioned above, doesn’t rest wholly on the shoulders of the people. Dictators are usually allowed to occupy office primarily to perform a particular social ‘function’ dictated by both history and popular will. And as long as the dictators perform that ‘function’, the people usually do not give a damn about whatever he does in his backyard. Hitler was voted primarily to revive what he called was the ‘German Pride’ and his defiance to the Allied Powers along with his ability to revitalize the economy for the needs of the upcoming war blinded the German people to his atrocities on the Jews, communists and the socialists. In many ways, this could be called what Jeyamohan describes in his essays as a ‘point of compromise’ between the ruler and the ruled. No government is out there to fulfill everything that its subjects want it to nor on the other hand, can any government possibly go completely against the grain of popular will and demands. Both the ruler and ruled must always be willing to come for a settlement or what is called the ‘middle ground’ and the existence of that crucial middle ground determines the number of days or years that government can survive. Dictatorships throughout history have survived only on this particular criterion and the moment that ‘point of mutual compromise’ vanishes, the decline of the regime slowly becomes apparent. Even a ruthless dictator like Augusto Pinochet foisted on Chile by the United States for the purposes of unleashing the ‘free-market’ on its people, had to after a point, reverse his reform and retain some welfarist provisions of the previous government to ensure his own survival.

***

The point of this essay I must make it clear is not to justify dictatorships and their regressive practices, but actually quite the opposite. The world even now is full of countries ruled by bigoted rulers and dictators and a one-dimensional, ‘mythology-dictated’ perspective of these cases may not be useful for those like us who actually want all these atrocities to end. Jeyamohan in one of his essays, says that a moral impulse to overthrow a dictatorial government is not only a rebellion against the external factors and the whole political status quo, but also a rebellion against our own internal, traditionally congealed, inertial instincts that have supported and allowed these governments to survive all these years. In other words, when we rebel against a government, we are actually rebelling against ourselves. When a government is punishing us for none of our mistakes through price rises or increased taxation, it must be remembered that it is only because we are allowing it to happen.

Just because Hitler was performing the social ‘function’ of reviving German pride, it was not correct on the part of the Germans to have ‘allowed’ his atrocities on their fellow beings. Just because the British had given us railways, factories, schools and  ‘never-seen-before’ political stability, it was not correct on our part to have allowed them to plunder our natural resources and plunge our nation into famine and starvation. All these days we were ignorant, steeped in tradition and superstition as a result of which we had been keeping the bar for our rulers at a very low level. But I strongly think that the purpose of studying and analysing history as we do today, is not just to learn and understand but to, as Marx said, change it.