Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants » Chapter 10-At the Controls
At the Controls
Modern dictatorships are fearsome but rarely flawless. In the discussion of such topics as
repression, economic control, mobilization of support, and creation of a loyal ruling
group, the results should he seen in terms of relative rather than of absolute success.
Some modern dictatorships, particularly in Africa, are quite ramshackle, and a regime’s
rhetorical claims always outstrip its successes.
All dictatorships have ways of controlling their people. The mechanisms used by
modern dictatorships are more sophisticated than those used by traditional regimes. This
does not imply, however, that these methods come near to the perfect totalitarian state
envisioned in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,
or other accounts of “antiutopias.” Opposing groups and individuals are never fully
rooted out; repression does not catch or discourage all dissidents, nor education and tame
media convince all the people. Government authority does not reach every corner of
society or each of its objectives. There are always many people to cheer the dictator’s
fall, and not a few to help bring it about, although the result is often a similar type of
Analyzing dictatorships may seem an exercise in comparative evil, but there are
more hard questions than easy answers. On the “positive” side, modern dictatorships
occasionally provide stability and internal peace, nationalist pride and self-respect for
previously downtrodden people and groups, faster development and better conditions
than predecessors, a wider distribution of benefits, and new opportunities for many
individuals. Representative democracy might well do better but is not necessarily
possible-or, at least, in existence-in a given country or set of political and historical
Modern dictatorships claim to have improved their citizens’ lot compared to the
overthrown traditional dictatorships. If a Western critic were to call the modern
dictatorship worse, its defenders would ask, “Worse for whom?” In Iran, Cuba, or
Ethiopia one would be told that it is certainly now worse for those who were privileged
but that they are a minority. Obviously these governments draw strength not from their
victims but from supporters and beneficiaries who perceive their interests as
diametrically opposed to those of the victims.
Yet modern dictators most often continue or intensify injustice, fear, torture,
discrimination, lack of liberty, pervasive material and spiritual corruption, poisonous
propaganda, violent hatred, xenophobia, economic decay, and aggression. The tragedy of
the modern dictatorship is not so much that it worsens conditions in the short run as that
it undermines evolution toward the freedom and material well-being it so energetically
promises. The regime’s relative strength and durability block the evolution necessary for
a viable democracy. There is no sense in people’s sacrificing for a future that never
comes or for a better way of life for which the basis is never prepared.
At the same time the modern dictatorship has discovered, although its leaders may
not consciously realize, that revolt arises not so much from poverty or repression but
from a simultaneous incompetence of government and the organization of opposition
groups that can challenge the regime. To counter this threat, the modern dictatorship
finds new ways to discredit and repress alternative elites; monopolize military, political,
and ideological power and resources in its own hands; and maximize the ruling elite’s
unity and popular support.
This structure does not require a totalistic state controlling every aspect of life, but
it does need a regime with far more power and scope than a traditional dictatorship. The
rulers can focus their attention on urban areas, particularly the capital, where the people
most capable of seeking, seizing, or assisting in the exercise of state power are
concentrated. The government must not be openly opposed in the villages, but its direct
influence and full program need not be present, nor its ideology understood, in the
nation’s remotest hamlets.
The modern dictatorship’s expanded authority is due in no small part to necessity.
The traditional regime did not have to interfere with the country’s culture, values, family
structure, religion, and education, among other characteristics, because they were
generally acceptable to it. Those who seek to change society, however, must transform all
these aspects of life to achieve their developmental and political ends. Failure to use the
new techniques and ideas will leave a vacuum that others might fill, a lesson the rulers
usually discovered in their struggle against the old regime.
Part of the West went through a parallel period in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, but the world was then at a much lower level of technology and selfconsciousness.
Individual freedom was defended as a set of inalienable rights endowed
by the Creator or as provisions of a social pact arrived at by individual assent. Science
was defined as the right of free inquiry. In short, democratic ideology was based on not
only the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but also the chance to seek
these goals in an atmosphere of pluralism and tolerance.
But the modern dictatorship believes it possesses absolute truth, as symbolized by
the phrase “scientific socialism” to describe a popular variant of its ideology. This
attitude is integrally related to the ideas-accepted by non-Marxist modern dictatorships as
well-that freedom is the recognition of necessity and that social structures must be judged
on a class basis. Capitalist repression was bad; proletarian dictatorship is good. Such
thinking also opened the door to making distinctions among “progressive” and
“reactionary” torture, censorship, or terrorism.
The rulers’ power expanded as the citizens’ rights contracted, and in its voyage
from theory to ruling ideology Marxism-Leninism helped create a new class distinction
between ruler and ruled. Leaders claimed superiority because their correct ideology and
social background gave them a scientific understanding of social laws and history’s
course. This provides the perfect grounds for rising Third World elites, over-turning
tradition and the existing social rules, to legitimize their right to rule. As George Orwell
noted in Animal Farm, some would be more equal than others in the new order. Once-
powerful classes could be dissolved as bourgeois and antipatriotic. If workers resisted,
they would he crushed by the “proletarian” regime; if intellectuals, artists, or scientists
contradicted the ruling political line, they would be put down according to its “scientific”
This innovative claim of a “right” to suppress is one of the main distinctions
between the traditional and modern dictatorships’ attitude toward repression: the latter’s
attempt to create what can he called “credible” or “popular” repression. Of course,
individual modern dictatorships differ greatly to the degree that they hold political
prisoners, punish arbitrarily defined crimes, rig trials, mete out extreme punishments and
torture, establish concentration camps, have omnipresent secret police, or exert effective
Perhaps the best sense of the despair wrought by this type of repression was given
in 1938 by a drunken German major in occupied Prague. “To live under terrorism,” he
told a Hungarian journalist, “is not only a question of courage. Most acts of resistance
lead to sudden arrest. To resist is generally nothing but committing an isolated suicide.”
The apparent hopelessness of dissent and a belief in the inevitability of retribution
encourage passivity and collaboration. The dissident is deprived of publicity or,
conversely, is discredited in the controlled media. Either way his message does not get
out. Unless he is part of a community at odds with the regime (Soviet Jews, Sunni
Syrians, an oppressed African tribe), he can be easily isolated. He is far more likely to
find fellow citizens angry rather than grateful, considering him an unpatriotic scoundrel
in league with foreign enemies, a troublemaker who may bring repression down on them,
a reactionary favoring an unpopular former regime, or a member of a despised group. In
short, the dissident not only finds himself at the mercy of the ruler’s power but is also
outshouted by arguments acceptable to a large portion of society.
All dictatorships use repression to intimidate and to discover their plans and
activities. Brutality may result from individual leaders’ sadism or prejudice. Dictatorship
has two additional uses for repression: purging other elite members or groups that are
rivals and fabricating antigovernment plots to eliminate targeted classes and consolidate
its own base of support. Traditional dictatorships prefer to paint a picture of universal
serenity; modern dictatorships often benefit by stimulating a siege mentality.
While a modernizing junta benefits from the unity of the whole armed forces,
modern dictatorships must build a disciplined ruling group from scratch. Purges eliminate
leaders or factions that might challenge the current rulers while also providing a way to
settle disputes and apportion blame for failed policies. Ironically, Friedrich Engels,
Marx’s coauthor and close collaborator, ridiculed this practice, writing in1851, “When
you inquire into the causes of the counterrevolutionary successes you are met on every
hand with the ready reply that it was Mr. This, or Citizen That, who had ‘betrayed’ the
people…. Under no circumstances does it explain…how it came to pass that the ‘‘people”
allowed themselves to be betrayed. And what a poor chance a political party stands
whose entire stock in trade consists in a knowledge of the solitary fact that Citizen Soand-
So is not to he trusted.”
Nevertheless, Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, which he tended two decades later to
sa’tellite Eastern Europe, showed that powerful political figures could be simultaneously
discredited as traitors and used as scapegoats. As in those efficient factories that
profitably employ every waste product, the liquidated victims are at the same time used
to show how the infallible system went wrong without its being at fault. The dictator’s
ambitions are fulfilled while his reputation is preserved.
Losers in the battle for power suffer bodily and endure character assassination. In
Ethiopia members of the ruling military council who advocated more moderate policies
were murdered, sometimes in gun battles between officers. In South Yemen personal and
tribal antagonisms were masked by Marxist rhetoric; the defeated clans were said to be
counterrevolutionaries. In Afghanistan competing Communist parties engaged in a blood
feud that would not stop at Moscow’s behest. Even the threat from opposition guerrillas
could not bring the factions together. Nor did sincere patriotism make the victim immune.
A Syrian officer, who fled abroad when his faction was defeated, returned in 1967 to
fight against Israel. He was arrested and executed.
Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid’s comments on Central American revolutionaries
apply to these situations. “Any combatant who is not content to be simple cannon fodder
is a contender in the internal struggle for power-whether by hook (distinguishing oneself,
winning over the leaders, the rank and file) or by crook. And who’s right? How do you
settle what’s to be done (which in the final analysis is to settle who commands)? … It is
hardly surprising that those who renounce the force of arguments and choose the
arguments of force in confronting oppression should use the same arguments in settling
Such conflicts occur most often when there is no generally respected arbiter who
can settle disputes. When a powerful dictator emerges, the struggle shifts to a competition
for his approval. He has the power to determine who is a true, sanctified representative of
the people and who is a vile traitor. When Fidel Castro said, “Everything within the
revolution, nothing outside it,” he retained the power to define the acceptable limits or
even to change them without notice.
The goal must be total power for a single faction usually under the leadership of a
single individual. There can, after all, be just one legitimate representative of the people,
only one possessor of scientific ideology. All coalitions with other forces are merely
transient tactical arrangements. Iran’s revolution was made by a united front including
moderate democrats, several ethnic groups, a variety of clerical leaders, Islamic-Marxists,
and Marxists. All were eliminated by Khomeini and his followers. The Syrian and Iraqi
Baathists allied themselves with Nasserists, Islamic fundamentalists, Communists, and
other groups, all of whom were similarly destroyed or tamed. African nationalist
movements strove for independence unanimous popular support, but while many called
for freedom, few were chosen to exercise it.
The process of repression is most effective when those representing opposition
political parties or advocating economic or political systems can he portrayed as selfish
minorities. In Nicaragua the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) labels anyone
opposing its dictatorship as “bourgeois” and hence incapable of ever articulating the
views of the majority, the workers and peasants. FSLN leaders, almost all of whom are
the highly educated children of the elite, claim a monopoly on meeting the needs of the
masses. History is even rewritten to portray a revolution made by a coalition or the
people as a whole (as in Iran, the Arab world, or many African countries) as the sole
achievement of the surviving ruling group. The Sandinistas try to omit the key role
played by the moderate parties and the Catholic Church in overthrowing Somoza at a
time when the FSLN was a small and isolated (though respected) group. The mass
uprising began in reaction to the assassination of courageous journalist and “bourgeois”
position leader Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. But the FSLN later banned meetings
commemorating the anniversary of this murder.
Shortly after the revolution, in November 1979, Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops
proclaimed, “If socialism stands for power wielded in the interests of the great masses
and increasingly shared by the organized people in such a manner that there is progress
toward a true transfer of power to the popular classes, it will find” the church supportive.
But if “is usurps the people’s role as free masters of their own history, if it seeks to force
people to submit to the manipulation and dictates of those who arbitrarily and unlawfully
seize power, we would be unable to accept such a dubious or false socialism.”
At that very moment, however, the FSLN was secretly formulating a dictatorial
strategy. A December 1979 internal document explained that alliances were merely
tactics “to isolate Somozaism” and expand its own forces. Now the FSLN would put its
partners in their proper subordinate place. Even if the majority of the people supported
the regime, their role was to applaud, not to direct, the government. “The FSLN has
exercised power on behalf of the workers and other oppressed segments of society, or to
put it another way, the workers exercise power through the FSLN.” But how did the
workers exercise this power? By following the FSLN’s orders, of course.
On one level the FSLN promised to use mass mobilization as a form of
democracy. “For the Sandinista Front,” said the group’s 1980 statement on elections,
“democracy is not measured only in political terms” but by popular participation in all
aspects of life. This involvement had clear limits: “The revolutionary process taking
place in our country cannot go backward.” The FSLN was “the true vanguard and leader
of the Nicaraguan people”; no fundamental criticism of its rule and policies was
FSLN leader Humberto Ortega added, “The elections that we are talking about are
very different from the elections sought by the oligarchs and traitors, the conservatives
and liberals, the reactionaries and the imperialists…. They are not a raffle to see who has
power, because the people have the power through their vanguard, the Sandinista
National Liberation Front and its National Directorate.” In other words, the only valid
elections would be those that merely confirmed the FSLN’s leadership.
This was, then, the common pattern of a two-phase revolution. The first part was
the overthrow of the traditional dictatorship and the system it represented. The second
stage would he the erection of a new modern dictatorship, justified as patriotic,
socialistic, and more truly democratic and based on the destruction of the power of the
“bourgeoisie.” It was not the Sandinistas’ fault, said FSLN leader Sergio Rarnirez in
1981, if the middle class “misinterpreted” the situation by expecting to be a real partner
in the post-Somoza era, whereas it was merely the next victim. Of course, the FSLN
expected that this class would struggle against extinction; resistance only made the
government’s repression preemptive and defensive.
Modernizing juntas in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile also became more cogent in
justifying and systematizing repression, but the junta’s bloodshed and brutality reflected a
frustrated inability to destroy dissent and a self-defeating dependence on violence rather
than on more subtle means of base building and social control. As José Zalaquett, a
Chilean human rights lawyer, describes the rationale of these Latin American regimes,
“Since the war on Marxism is an insidious one, unorthodox methods are called for,
including torture and extermination of irredeemable political activists…. Communism is
to be [defeated] by decisively waging unconventional war and, at the same time, through
economic policies … that are expected to benefit most of the population, thus curing or
immunizing them from Marxism.” This doctrine foresees “a democracy ‘protected’ by
the vigilance of the armed forces, the custodians of long-term national objectives and the
watchdogs of national security.” The army tries but cannot play the part of FSLN, Islamic
Republican party, Baath, Zimbabwe African National Union, Ethiopian Dergue, and
other such “true vanguards and representatives of the people.”
Thus in Latin America the modernizing juntas lack enough legitimacy, impetus
for social change, or economic success to stay in power. Their more sophisticated and
developmentally successful versions in such Asian countries as South Korea, Indonesia,
and Pakistan survive better but fall short of the modern dictatorship’s impressive
Modern juntas’ insecurities enhance their psychological need for repression; their
inadequate use of ideology and institutions to build a mass base guarantees that they will
have enough enemies to give them someone to punish. They invoke emergency rule or a
state of siege, suspend citizens’ rights and remedies, and extend the power of detention.
The modernizing juntas display the first primitive signs of a sense of public relations:
instead of being executed, people “disappear”; instead of being arbitrarily held in
government custody, they are spirited away by mysterious death squads. Yet these are not
the methods of a confident, calculating repression but the hysterical reflexes of rulers
who are convinced that they have enemies everywhere but have no idea how to root out
Far more impressive is the ex-revolutionary’s or coup maker’s knowledge of how
to stop new revolutions or coups. Milovan Djilas, the honest chronicler of Yugoslavia’s
Communist regime, recounts how the new rulers decided to build a modern prison.
Knowing firsthand that inmates were heartened when they could communicate between
cells by tapping on walls or pushing messages through drainpipes, the authorities
eliminated these possibilities. The brand-new prison appeared more humane and was also
more effective in demoralizing dissidents. Similarly, modern dictators understand how
important it is for opponents to feel they are heard and well regarded by the people. The
regime responds with slander–a dissident becomes an “enemy of the people’–and
silence. International public opinion, particularly that of intellectuals, will often believe
the regime’s propaganda where they would never accept that of a traditional dictatorship.
How else could a Nicaraguan official responsible for prisons, secret police, and
censorship be lionized at a 1985 PEN writers’ conference the theme of which was the
abuses of state authority?
The techniques of repressive political control are well known. They include
identity cards, travel restrictions, and the tying of job security to loyalty. Meetings or
demonstrations must he approved by the government. A network of informers is recruited
through bribery, fear, opportunism, or blackmail. The omnipresence of the regime’s ears
not only gives the rulers information but also sows distrust among would-be dissidents,
who never know if one of their number may betray them. The terrible creativity of
torturers has been amply documented. The tools of Brazil’s military junta in the 1970s
included electric shocks; submersion in water; beating with ‘wooden paddles, wet ropes,
plastic hose, and rubber or leather whips; steel tourniquets; burning by cigars and
cigarettes; intense light; loud noise; suspension from hooks; deprivation of food and
water; rape; and incarceration in tiny cells.
Syria uses such methods and variations, including beating prisoners hanging from
suspended tires or upside down from the ceiling, beating the soles of the feet (painful but
leaving no mark), pulling out hair or nails, pouring on boiling or icy water, torturing or
sexually abusing relatives in the presence of prisoners. In Mozambique dissidents or
those suspected of aiding them may he whipped or have their arms bound tightly behind
their backs for hours or days. If the ropes are soaked with salt water, they contract and
dig into the flesh as they dry.
Yet while torture is the most horrible means of repression, it is always applied to a
limited number of people. Once the poor were the “torturable class”; today it is political
activists–those whose public skills or posts make them threatening–who are so treated.
Workers or peasants are more likely to be murdered without much ado. Torture knows no
ideological bounds, however. The Shah’s use of it against opponents made him bitterly
hated by Iranians; torture continued, however, under the Islamic Republic. It was simply
a matter of different people’s being the victims. In both cases the psychological basis for
torture was a dehumanization of dissenters, but its function was to deter those who were
The “educational” role of repression on the majority is as important as its use to
remove and intimidate actual opponents. For example, since state and government
deserve citizens’ total loyalty, other bonds can be shown as secondary. Both Khomeini
and Saddam Hussein went on national television to praise fathers who had turned in their
sons for execution. In Iran the boy was a leftist; in Iraq he was a draft dodger. “We have
fathers and mothers denouncing their children knowing they will be tried and executed if
found guilty,” explained Iranian Intelligence Minister Mohammadi Reyshahri in
September 1985. These kinds of incidents occur rarely, but the publicity given them
indicates the message the regime would send its citizens.
The ideas of absolute loyalty and the regime’s sure ability to punish enemies are
meant to teach the inadmissibility of criticism and the inevitability of retribution.
Qaddafi’s murders of exiles overseas is an extreme but illustrative case. Equally
interesting are the arrest and trial of Liberian economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 1985.
Her crime was to make a speech in Philadelphia calling for less government intervention
in the economy and for more spending on rural development than on large government
buildings. After all, as is often explained by modern dictatorships, only constructive
criticism is allowed. Johnson-Sirleaf was sentenced to ten years in a prison camp but was
released as the result of U.S. pressure.
A dictatorship’s top priority is to discourage, detain, or eliminate active
opponents. Modern dictatorships are more likely than traditional ones to define whole
groups-business, intellectual, ethnic, etc.-as objects for suppression. The technique must
be adjusted to the threat and target. Infinite and never resting are the ways of repression.
Thousands of refugees are expelled, the movement of citizens is controlled within the
country, or citizens are barred from going abroad. Other peoples are forcibly resettled.
Mozambique and Iran have public flogging, South Africa and Zaire practice “banning,” a
form of house arrest which stops activists from meeting with other people or speaking
publicly. Every dictatorship has political prisoners, and most have laws permitting, to
quote Tanzania’s statute, the arrest of anyone “considered dangerous to public order or
national security. “Journalists and teachers lose their jobs for saying or writing the wrong
ideas or facts. Nigeria’s military regime issued an order allowing imprisonment of up to
two years for publishing anything “calculated to bring the Federal Military Government
… or a public officer to ridicule or disrepute.”
The police and other services charged with destroying opposition are given
special privileges in all dictatorships. In Haiti Duvalier’s Tonton’s Macoute, with their
trademark sunglasses, provoked tremendous fear by their mere presence and such hatred
that they were killed on sight after the dictatorship’s fall. In Iran the police are limited to
traffic control, building security, and criminal investigation; special Islamic groups have
authority over religious, counterrevolutionary, and drug crimes. Modernizing juntas or
traditional dictatorships may respond to revolutionary threats by semiofficial death
squads; modern dictatorships prefer more disciplined methods.
If the army has to he called out against dissidents, the situation has already
degenerated seriously. In Iran and the Philippines large segments of the military refused
to defend traditional dictatorships. There is always the chance, as happened to Zulfikar
Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, that soldiers mustered to suppress opponents might themselves
seize power. And an army racked by corruption, with officers promoted for loyalty rather
than competence and with soldiers reluctant to fight, is not necessarily a bulwark against
determined revolutionaries. Many African armies are so poorly equipped and disciplined
that they are more a danger to than a protector for civilian rulers.
Every regime must blend its own mix of repressive institutions. The important
point is that these instruments of control be effective. George Orwell’s novel Nineteen
Eighty-four was misleading in creating the “perfect” repressive state, just as it proved
unenlightening to designate Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as “model” totalitarian
states. There is no such thing as a completely secure and successful system of repression,
as there is no truly perfect crime, because people living in the society witness the
evidence and some will understand the system’s nature. From the dictator’s point of view
the proper amount of repression is not the maximum possible but simply the amount
needed to retain control. The most repression is required when the regime is first
consolidating power or facing a serious crisis.
Dissidents, at least cautious ones, will always exist, but when they are afraid or
unable to organize and propagandize, they do not endanger the regime. Traditional
dictatorships have proved far more vulnerable, despite their brutality and priority on
violence, because they are overly dependent on repression and yet find it difficult to carry
out systematically. They can kill, imprison, torture, or intimidate intellectuals, but they
have a hard time gaining their loyalty. Modern dictatorships are quite willing to use
repression when necessary, but they can also win a significant portion of this key social
group. These regimes are equally capable, unlike traditional dictatorships, of completely
uprooting troublesome sectors.
A modern dictatorship that uses ideology, patriotism, revolutionary chic to make
opposition seem abhorrent and that succeeds (or appears to try to help) in ameliorating
the poor’s suffering and the nation’s underdevelopment will gain the backing of teachers,
writers, journalists, and others who can help it control the media, education, and culture.
Repression and material rewards, the same techniques used by the traditional
dictatorship, still have great supplemental value but are so justified as to be less
embarrassing for those who would rationalize service to the regime. As in any other
group, many intellectuals are opportunists or cowards, but they are determined never to
appear this way. Traditional dictatorships invite opposition since collaboration can he
motivated only by fear or careerism.
By developing a clear sense of strategy and tactics plus a way of defining friends
and enemies, the modern dictatorship gains confidence and a way of indoctrinating
supporters. Ideology, a systematic set of ideas explaining how the world works and how
it can he changed, is a tool giving the modern dictatorship a great advantage over a
traditional one. The entirety of the revolution’s and dictator’s rhetoric can he seen as a
text which (when combined with their political practice) reveals the new system. A
caudillo or even a modernizing junta rarely worries much about ideas and, at any rate,
takes its assumptions for granted. The modern dictator’s theory is seen as objective truthindeed,
the sole objective truth-it is commonly described as “scientific.” It is used to
predict the behavior of classes and the steps needed to make and secure a revolution.
These ideas are not mere rationalizations. They are themselves a source of strength,
capable of cementing loyalties within the ruling group and between the people and
leaders, and a set of instructions for keeping power. No more are these regimes, to use a
popular Latin American phrase, gorillas in power.
During the monarchical era in Western, Islamic, and Asian civilizations religion
was taken as explaining the meaning of life. Courtiers like Machiavelli penned guides for
princes on managing political affairs. Ideology now performs both functions. But while
earlier practical guides to the art of politics and governing were intended for a small
group, the new doctrines are composed for a large body of cadre, organizational, and
local leaders, even ordinary citizens. Mao Zedong’s Red Book, a collection of his sayings
and extracts from his works, is a case in point. The small volume, published in tens of
millions of copies, served as a modernizing agent. By teaching Chinese peasants and
workers that they could change the world through their own actions, it undermined a
traditional philosophy that rested on repetition of old patterns of behavior, fear of change,
and submission to gods, rulers, and natural forces. The Red Book provided ethical
guidelines (placing society rather than family first), methods for pragmatically reasoning
out problems (truth came from analyzing experience and from scientific experiment), and
ways to organize people to achieve common ends. At the same time the regime used the
book-and traditional thinking transformed it-as a quasi-religious document to symbolize
and inspire reflexive support for the government.
While slogans and simpler concepts are needed to motivate or manipulate the
masses, highly educated people require more sophisticated treatment. Fanon gives an
important clue to this process, noting that “individualism is the first to disappear” among
intellectuals who join the struggle and trade their egoism for the joy of merging
themselves into the people. Many of them willingly accede to a system that grants
absolution for their guilt about privileges and promises an escape from lonely alienation.
Having a cause to believe in, such individuals accordingly redefine their values. “Truth,”
wrote Fanon, “is the property of the national cause…. Truth is that which hurries on the
break-up of the colonialist regime,…promotes the emergence of the nation,…protects the
natives, and ruins the foreigners.”
For those who accept the doctrine, whatever prornotes the revolution or regime is
good, and that which threatens it is immoral. Propaganda and misinformation, something
these people railed against under the traditional dictatorship, now become sanctified. This
kind of thinking also infects “progressive,” sympathetic intellectuals abroad. Facts must
he treated warily if they can he used to further the cause of “reactionaries.” One should
not criticize Nicaragua, for example, since to do so might aid the Reagan administration
policy of attacking that country.
Roque Dalton, a Salvadoran poet who joined the guerrillas in his country,
expressed this eagerness of the intellectual for self-transformation. “We cannot, without
… a useless measure of vanity that can only amount to impotence,” he wrote, “assume the
defeat of Nazism, for example, and not assume the Stalin of the concentration camps. Or
insist on emphasizing the conditions I as a lily-white intellectual attach to supporting the
Cuban Revolution. Who are we to go putting conditions on the power of the people,
when this power never … summoned us to support it! It has allowed us to support it, at
any rate, and I for one feel grateful. The revolutionary’s support of a revolution is, in
essence, unconditional.” Unfortunately some of his comrades concluded that the “power
of the people” required branding Dalton a petty bourgeois CIA agent and executed him
after a mock trial.
Exchanging independent judgment for the promise of a populist utopia, then, is a
dangerous practice. Marx explained that philosophers only analyzed the world; the point
was to change it. Yet, he added, “Even the educator must be educated.” Someone is going
to do the defining of what is good and evil, what is revolutionary and reactionary. In
modern dictatorships and the movements that spawn them, leaders–not the “people’–
perform this function, and to surrender oneself to the “popular will” is usually to yield
one’s autonomy to the dictatorship.
Consequently, says radical French writer Gérard Chaliand, “Intellectuals all too
rarely fulfill their main function, which is to provide criticism. Most of the time, in the
Third World, intellectuals are nothing but bootblacks, hack propagandists for whoever is
in power.” Even in Western countries “snobbishness and fashion all too often prevail
over critical analysis. And too often intellectuals make themselves the unconditional
spokesmen and promoters of ruling powers and ideology by actively lending a hand-often
in good faith-to the upkeep of mystifications, simplifications, and sectarian
Mexico, the mild polity of which might be called a democracy where the ruling
party almost always wins, has institutionalized this relationship. Intellectuals there are a
privileged elite, promoted, financed, and tolerated by the government. As journalist Alan
Riding wrote, “It is a strangely incestuous relationship, rich in posturing and ritual,
obscured by radical language, frequently denied by both sides and long ago determined to
be mutually convenient.”
In more virulent specimens the game becomes serious, even deadly. The modern
dictatorship’s ideology soothes those who must bridge the gap between truth and
falsehood into a willingness to cover up contradictions, what Orwell “double-think.” As
Jean-Paul Sartre said of Stalinism, “In the name of realism, we were forbidden to depict
reality; in name of the cult of youth, we were prevented from being young; in the name of
socialist joy, joyousness was repressed. As long as Communist intellectuals believed in
the system, “at least as the thankless and painful way that leads to true socialism…. First
they resigned themselves to Evil because they saw in it the one way to attain Good, then
… they saw in it Good itself, and took their own resistance to the process of petrification
to be Evil.”
Accepting the party’s view as the right view, the outlook of the working class and
nation by whom they passionately desired to be accepted as full members, they adopted a
faith both blind and expedient. “Cement poured…through their eyes and ears,” added
Sartre, “and they considered the protests of their simple good sense to be the residue of a
bourgeois ideology that cut them off from the people.” What better acknowledgment of
this pattern’s power than the fact that Sartre, who so brilliantly diagnosed the malady,
was afflicted by it to the end of his life?
The formative era in a new modern dictatorship’s drive for ideological and
cultural hegemony is well illustrated in Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua. Pablo Antonio
Cuadra, a leading writer, explains that his country’s long rule by traditional dictators fed
a yearning for democracy that played the main role in the anti-Somoza revolution, a
movement taken over by the Sandinistas who “brought us back to our point of departure–
from dictatorship to dictatorship.” In the Marxist dialectic’s spirit, it was a much higher
level of dictatorship.
The Sandinistas present Marxism as the sole path for modernization but find it
expedient to deny their objectives in order to maintain the support of foreign democrats.
Attempts to point out the reality behind the rhetoric are censored (“The Communists
disdain to conceal their aims,” Marx’s famous declaration in his Communist Manifesto,
has been made hollow by history). “Hypocrisy, false labels, can create slogans but not
poems; propaganda but not life,” complains Cuadra. But he misses the point: The regime
wants propaganda, particularly the type that convinces people it is something else.
The Sandinista minister of culture, Ernesto Cardenal, a fine poet in his own right,
promised absolute cultural freedom after the revolution. But the First Convention of
Cultural Workers in February 1980 formulated the new, narrow definition of proper
revolutionary culture. Cuadra says, “By virtue of possessing power, [Sandinista leaders]
were converted into supermen, individuals of extraordinary talent … qualified to send all
of the intellectuals and artists to a ramshackle schoolhouse, where they would be taught
how … they ought to work ….”
Sandinista leader Bayardo Arce explained, “We should not like to see culture ever
again assume the decadent forms it has taken in the past…. We want to retain artistic
quality, but remember, please, that art is of no value if it is not understood by workers
and peasants. We want a situation where, every time someone paints a picture or writes a
poem, publishes a book or arranges a song, [he] asks himself, first, to what degree is it
going to assist our people in the process of self-transformation.” Fellow Comandante
Sergio Ramírez, himself a novelist, added, “We never thought to admit the existence of a
culture isolated from the revolutionary process.” The traditional dictatorship condemned
anything that seemed to criticize its treatment of the masses or to defend their rights.
Now, in the name of those masses’ well-being and rights, the modern dictatorship
prohibits the very same kinds of criticisms. It is still censorship but of an apparently more
attractive sort-”democratic” and “socialist” censorship-for intellectuals at home and
observers abroad. Punishment was no longer for advocating pluralism and social change-
ideas the traditional dictatorship labeled “revolutionary” and “communistic”–but for
being selfish and reactionary in opposing them or denying that they already existed.
To ensure the incumbents’ monopoly on truth, justice and progress is to deny any
alternative. Ramírez called Nicaraguan culture prior to the revolution “a failure,” the fact
that Nicaragua was known in the region as the “country of poets.” And, he explained in
another speech, “Revolutionary culture, just because it is revolutionary, cannot fail to be
authentic.” It is no accident that one of the regime’s slogans is “Nicaraguan history
begins with the Sandinista Front.” Everything else is either Somocista or “bourgeois.”
As Cuadra comments, “In one fell swoop literature and art were converted into
branches of the bureaucracy.” First came threats, then a ban on publishing or even citing
the work of those deemed uncooperative. The Union of Cultural Workers, a governmentcontrolled
group armed with priveleges and punishments, threatened similar treatment to
anyone writing for the opposition newspaper. Artists backed down or used pen names to
avoid reprisals. The Ministry of Culture held workshops to develop proletarian writers
whose gratitude and lack of experience would ensure their reliability. As one of these
apprentices explained on state television, “Before now I was in error: I went about
writing love poems. In the workshop I have learned why my poetry was bad-it had no
political message.” Needless to say, it was not merely a matter of having a political
message but of having the right political message.
But, a liberationist clergyman or intellectual might quickly reply, the treatment of
pampered artists is of little import if the lot of the people is being improved. Many of
these same pampered artists would agree, particularly given the irony that agreement-and
hence collaboration-ensures their privileges. It is a paradox easily grasped, and after all,
depending on the country, the modern dictatorship’s policies may genuinely benefit many
of the hitherto downtrodden common people.
Whether or not this is true, the regime tirelessly claims it as so. Bayardo Arce
shows why Nicaraguan workers do not require independent trade unions or the right to
strike and why all criticisms of their condition are, by definition, false. These workers
“now have class consciousness,” which means a lack of interest in “salary increases, a
reduction of the work week, or an increase in vacations…. Payment for overtime has been
replaced by the revolutionary concept of voluntary work and other necessary sacrifices
for the defense of the revolution.”
Again, in some cases-particularly in the earlier stages, when hope and
spontaneous enthusiasm run high-people are willing to make personal sacrifices. Arce’s
phrase “defense of the revolution” is central to this context. The greatest motivation for
supporting the Sandinistas is fear that the clock will be turned back, combined with a
patriotic rejection of foreign interference. These are key elements in the modern
dictatorship’s ideology and may or may not reflect real threats. Patriotism may be the
“last refuge of scoundrels,” but it is also the strongest ally of modern dictators.
Problems and dissension are externalized, pinned on imperialism and its agents.
The Communists took over in North Vietnam by gaining hegemony in the nationalist
movement. Their comrades elsewhere usually failed because they were distracted by
other issues, including protecting Moscow’s interests, from being guided by such
indigenous considerations. After Vietnam had gained independence from France, Hanoi
welded the state together in a struggle to reunite the nation, drive out the Americans, and
conquer Laos and Cambodia.
In Ethiopia the United States gave hundreds of thousands of tons of food (paying
$28 million for port fees in 1984 for the privilege of doing so). The Soviet Union
contributed little–even charging for its truck drivers’ services and overcharging for the
oil it sold. But on May Day the posters showed Marx, Engels, and Lenin, and the slogans
accused Western imperialists of waging “psychological warfare” against the country.
Said dictator Mengistu: “They vilify and oppose all our positive efforts [against famine]
and pretend to sympathize with our people.”
Meanwhile, seven-year-olds are trained in military drill, chanting, “Hit, stab, kick,
kill!” A guide told visiting American writers, “We are not militarists, you understand, but
we must involve even the youngest in the defense of our revolutionary motherland.” And
how can those not devoted to the nation he unmasked as reactionaries and
obstructionists? A young commissar explains, “Usually they give themselves away by
asking the same question over and over in discussions.”
There are, then, many common themes in modern dictatorships’ ideology: The
people rule the nation, and the government represents the people. Since the leader
responds to the people’s requests, elections and limits on the state’s power not only are
unnecessary but would actually damage the people’s interests. Surrounded by enemies,
pinned down by underdevelopment, the nation requires absolute unity. Unity means
supporting the regime. Those who demand more rights, call for change, or criticize
policies break that unity. They are traitors who objectively help the nation’s enemies. By
repressing them, the regime is protecting the people. Perhaps nobody believes all of this,
but many citizens believe some of it.
By mobilizing nationalist sentiments, a leader like Khomeini or Qaddafi tells his
people: The United States is not attacking me, it is attacking you. By controlling
education, modern dictatorship also seeks to inculcate identification with the regime. In
many individual cases the effort will fail; in many others it will have some real effect.
The “philosophy program” for teacher training in Nicaragua says, “Our education has as
its objective the training of new generations in the scientific, political, ideological, and
moral principles enunciated by our national leadership, the FSLN, turning them into
convictions and habits of daily life.” Children practice handwriting in first grade with the
slogan “The FSLN guided and guides the struggles of the people.” A reading text
explains, “The Yankees will always be defeated in our country,” and the “symbols of the
revolution” are the FSLN flag and hymn. Obviously, even though other parties are still
permitted, they are not accorded much legitimacy and will certainly never he allowed to
As the modern dictatorship’s ideology recognizes, power springs from controlling
and using a wide variety of institutions and channels, including the military, repression,
culture, education, ideology, youth and professional organizations, and the media. As the
regime’s property they are denied independence or any critical content.
Political censorship is a form of cowardice, an admission that the existing system
cannot face criticism and emerge unscathed. By refusing to allow the contradiction of
official ideology and description of events, the regime outlaws nonconformity. Yet
criticism can also he a safety net. Cuadra comments, “As I have told my Sandinista
friends and former friends until I am blue in the face: any revolution which denies the
right to criticize is bound to wallow in stagnation and backwardness.” This is not difficult
to prove. In Czechoslovakia the brief period of “socialism with a human face” revealed,
Sartre said, “ruins, the ravaged economy threatened to collapse; the factories, now many
years old, were spewing out products of mediocre quality, and no attention was being
paid to the real needs … the level of technical and professional skills was falling day by
day … since official lies and the faking of statistics had not only destroyed what
knowledge there had once been but also completely halted surveys and socioeconomic
research on the realities of the situation.”
Nevertheless, the modern dictatorship portrays as virtue what democrats see as
vice. The newspapers, radio, and television will be changed from an instrument of
decadence and commercialism into a tool for development and education. Instead of
commercials for soap and cars, news and culture sell the state itself. The positive side of
this can he mobilization for modernization and an appeal to the audience’s finer motivespatriotism
and social service-instead of its desire for money and material goods. Having
limited resources and much experience with media sensationalism, Third World states
can argue that “developmental journalism” is both necessary and more responsible than
the alternative. The negative side, of course, is that the media are totally subject to
government manipulation. Different views are not permitted; the gap between reportage
and reality may he quite wide.
adio, rather than newspapers or television, is the ideal media for modern
dictatorships. Compared to newspapers, radio involves a large, complex, and expensive
apparatus, which limits the number of potential proprietors. When such regimes came to
power in past decades, radio was just being started and lacked the traditions and
established private ownership of the print media. The limited number of stations that
could be established and the precedent of government ownership in Europe also helped
justify a state monopoly on radio in Africa and the Middle East.
The newspaper requires literacy, a fast distribution system, employment of many
journalists, and people willing and able to pay its daily price. More easily established,
newspapers tend to multiply and, if not state controlled, to represent a diversity of
opinions and parties. Television, too expensive both for the consumer and the broadcaster
to be widely used in Third World states, also requires electricity, often lacking in rural
areas. Television’s demand for high-cost, visually engaging programs makes it tempting
to use cheap Western imported material, which the modern dictatorship seeks to avoid or
at least to limit.
Radio more easily carries the emotional, rhetorical appeals of the rulers, which
can be stirring when heard but boring print. When not broadcasting state-controlled news,
it can play music, less politically threatening than television’s entertainment programs
from alien cultures or the newspapers’ filler items of foreign news or prying information
about domestic developments. But the modern dictatorship’s philosophy justifies
directing, controlling, and censoring all types of media.
An official Somalian decree, reported by journalist David Lamb, provides a good
sense of the modern dictatorship’s role for the media: “It is the function of the nation’s
mass communications media to weld the entire community into a single entity, a people
of the same mind and possessed of the same determination to safeguard the national
interests.” The state has many sanctions to achieve this goal. The Ivory Coast’s president,
Felix Houphouët-Boigny, a relatively benign dictator, explained that he never sent
journalists “to prison, but to do their military service in order that they may not engage in
fruitless agitation. I put them in direct contact with the army. They had affirmed that the
army was not on my side. I could not offer them a better opportunity to win the army to
The ruler of Sierra Leone, Major General Joseph Momoh, told a rally in August
1985 that the press enjoyed absolute freedom but that this did not constitute a right to
attack the state, engage in character assassination, or circulate gossip and rumors.
Responsible journalism must be patriotic, promote peace and stability, and help eliminate
tribalism. This meant refraining from publishing items that undermined the security of
the state or portrayed the country in a poor light. A 1985 law passed by Iran’s parliament
forbade stories that promote atheism; support prostitution or are contrary to public
decency; publicize extravagance and waste; provoke acts harmful to society; reveal
military secrets or speeches from closed sessions of parliament; insult the “true religion
of Islam”; involve plagiarism; or imply “calumny, vilification, and insults to the
country’s authorities, establishments, organs and individuals, even by publishing
photographs or caricatures.” Publication of this law is, strange as it may seem, a mark of
relative openness; many states keep the parameters of censorship themselves quite secret.
Sometimes journalists are intimidated and repressed by the government, but many are
genuine loyalists-an attitude which may explain how they gain and keep their jobs-or
patriots who agree that criticism is embarrassing. Ridiculing those who wrote critically of
the Ivory Coast, the newspaper Fraternite Matin, responded, “We have made our national
identity blossom. And we are all voluntarily committed to its protection [so] that … like
our president, we defy those who–on their own-have alienated themselves from our
country. But … what really can a bird do against the tree which held its nest and shelters it
as an adult?”
Ayatollah Khomeini told employees of the Tehran newspaper Kayhan: “The press
must write what the nation wants, not that which runs counter to the nation’s courses…. If
the press still wants to write anything in support of criminals and traitors, this will not be
our press-this will be treachery.”
Given this philosophy, it was logical for Khomeini’s followers to assume the
same system prevailed in other countries-if not openly, then behind the scenes-and that
the U.S. media was, in the words of Radio Tehran, controlled by “imperialism, American
intelligence,” and other hostile forces conducting psychological warfare against Iran.
Just as certain cultures view opposition or criticism as divisive ingratitude, many
Third World leaders are genuinely incapable of comprehending the functioning of a free
press. Twenty years before anyone ever heard of “developmental journalism,” Nassar
could not believe that articles in U. S. newspapers did not necessarily reflect government
views. Yet many dictatorial elites also understand their own need to obtain reliable
information. In China a series of secret publications provide accurate information on
domestic problems, real popular attitudes, natural disasters, and translations of articles
from the foreign press. The higher-ranking the official, the more data he receives. These
publications’ very existence is rarely mentioned. A Chinese leader commented in 1956,
“Something that has happened may be true, but if open reporting about it serves the
enemy and not our own cause, then we cannot allow it to be openly reported, but should
rather write about it internally.”
Leaders are particularly worried, as the Iranian law cited above indicates, about
news on corruption. The modern dictatorship does not eliminate corruption but makes
certain qualitative changes in it, “democratizing” opportunities for enrichment to reward
a much larger group of regime loyalists and officials. By turning much of the economy
into state property, by promulgating unworkable regulations, and by its own
mismanagement, the modern dictatorship may force citizens to become corrupt in order
to carry on daily life. At the same time this situation gives the regime another form of
leverage over individuals since almost anyone could be tried for illegal activities.
As in a traditional dictatorship, however, if corruption gets out of hand, the
regime can break down entirely. Ghana’s Cocoa Marketing Board, for example, was
unable to account for half of its foreign exchange earnings from 1975 to 1979. Some of
the money’must have gone to pay for the Mercedes-Benz cars flown into the country
(estimated cost plus shipping: $1 10,000) by the ruling junta’s members. A high Nigerian
official serving a military government, however, said of civilian regimes, “It’s as if they
take some sort of delight in violating their sacred trust. At least,” he added in frustration,
“the military ethic keeps their corruption manageable.”
The Nicaraguan Communist party, often critical of the Sandinistas, complained in
March 1985 that “the fundamental cause of corruption is the ruling party’s concept of …
public funds as private property,” an attitude that is not, however, unknown in Moscow.
Leaders’ salaries are secret; they are given cars and exempted from paying for rent,
telephone, electricity, or water. They also have access to U.S. dollars for use in buying
imported luxuries at special stores, a common practice in Third World dictatorships.
When accused of mismanagement, the regime lashes back. Nicaraguan President
Daniel Ortega laid, with some justification, the source of economic problems on U.S.
policy but he also blamed “a few of its accomplices in this country.” Their real
complaint, he said, was that the revolution granted workers too much “participation and
liberty … and that these workers require a millionaire employer in order to produce well.”
The kind of efficiency they allegedly preferred was that of the Somoza regime. These last
points are tendentious-the state, not the workers, now ran the economy; Somoza or the
Sandinistas were not the sole conceivable alternatives-but can nonetheless be quite
effective in discrediting criticism and in rallying support.
The new elites justify their privileges by past services and current importance but
are careful not to flaunt their lifestyles. Sandinista leader Tomis Borge tried to trick
foreign journalists into believing that he actually lived in the modest bungalow where he
received them. Both the illusion and the reality still contrasted sharply with the opulence
of a Somoza, Marcos, or Shah who seemed to be personally trying to consume the
country’s entire wealth. After the revolutions against all three traditional dictators their
material gluttony provoked international astonishment and disgust.
But what is rejected is the gluttony, not materialism itself. While Western
romantics have sometimes seen Third World modern dictatorships as attractively ascetic,
the rulers and their people want higher living standards and modern manufactured goods
and services. Complaints about Western cultural imperialism unabashedly coexist with
demands for Western products. The most inconsistent behavior is seen on the part of the
leaders themselves, who are usually–Iran being an exception–among the most
cosmopolitan or Westernized elements.
To meet the needs of the people–survival in the case the majority, consumer
goods for the urban, better-off sectors—the government must be able to show some
success and progress. After all, development is a central of the regime, which claims to
be implementing the necessary strategy and imposed discipline for achieving it.
Obviously government wishes to take responsibility for shortcomings these efforts,
preferring to blame predecessors or externalize the problem by attributing it to foreign
imperialists. Since the Soviets did not rule Third World countries in the colonial era and
tended to play a relatively small part in providing trade or investment, the West is usually
the target of such criticism.
This approach is as common as it is appealing to Third World leaders and
intellectuals who have adapted parts of the Marxist analysis. Typically, a reporter for the
relatively moderate magazine Jeune Afrique interviewing Ivory Coast President
Houphouët-Boigny in August 1985, said, “Your Western friends, short of plundering the
raw materials, do not do anything to get the Third World countries out of their
predicaments….” The president interrupted. “Africans are the first to be held
responsible.” The frustrated reporter asked if the country’s past economic crisis “made
Ivorians at least more vigilant and more conscious?” Houphouët-Boigny responded, “It
has taught us not to live beyond our means anymore.”
The Ivory Coast’s president, however, is very old and is widely viewed as a
lapdog of the West. Few other leaders would take such primary responsibility for the
roots or consequences of their problems. Yet, perhaps not by coincidence, Houphouët-
Boigny is also leader of what is perhaps the most economically successful country in sub-
By their nature, modern dictatorships want to he in control of the economy, but
they have a choice of whether or not to seek direct command of it. Some, particularly the
more Marxist among them, take over all industry and set out on a course of “class
struggle” to destroy any independent middle class. In most cases, however, they have
wisely refrained from turning land into state farms-peasants’ land hunger being so greatalthough
the countryside may be organized into cooperatives. Other states have been
content simply to control the economy’s commanding heights-bargaining with foreign
multinationals, purchasing and exporting domestically produced crops and minerals,
directing major projects, nationalizing banks and overseas trade-while permitting a
significant private sector to continue as long as it keeps its place.
This was, for example, Nasser’s course after he’d taken Power in Egypt in 1952.
He carried out an agrarian reform, nationalized foreign property, expanded the state
bureaucracy to provide jobs, and improved health and education in impoverished rural
areas. So great was the psychological pact that his popularity twenty years later could still
be traced to these programs.
The modern dictatorship’s power is so broad that rulers begin to believe they can
do anything; ideology and propaganda persuade them that they know the right choice. A
regime can easily confuse ordering a certain social or economic change with the abilityor
value–of implementing it.
In 1973 Tanzania’s ruling party decreed that all farmers–11 to 12 million people–
should form collective villages within three years. The regime believed that concentrating
the peasantry would improve productivity and allow the more effective delivery of
schools, clinics, and running water. President Julius Nyerere went into the countryside
for some symbolic hoeing. The picture was posted around the country and published in
the foreign press.
Independent-minded farmers, including the most productive, were reluctant to
leave their ancestral lands and private plots. Local officials, pressured by superiors and
eager to show their zeal in implementing orders, forced peasants at gunpoint to go to the
new sites. Some of them were dumped in the bush and told to build villages; others were
sent to places with incomplete houses and no available water. Production levels fell
sharply; low official prices encouraged farmers to smuggle their remaining crops across
the border to Kenya. Tanzania’s economy collapsed.
National weakness and poverty force many unpalatable choices on Third World
leaders. In Kenya peasants can migrate freely to the city, creating giant slums and had
conditions; in Tanzania would-be urbanities are loaded into trucks and returned to the
villages. The first system involves more suffering; the second requires more compulsion.
Kenya’s choice is based on rural overpopulation and a fairly laissez-faire ideology.
Tanzania’s policy is a response to having so much uncultivated land and an ideology that
justifies such measures.
Nyerere’s popularity and control allowed him to survive the collectivization mess,
just as a repressive Ethiopian regime could spend $4 billion for arms and only 3 percent
of its budget for famine relief during its first ten years in power. It is better not to court
disaster, but where there are neither political alternatives to threaten the regime nor clear
solutions to rescue the people, many governments can survive mistakes for a long time. If
they do fall, the successors are usually similar regimes that can say they represent a fresh
The most successful industrialization policies in the Third World have been
practiced by South Korea’s modernizing junta and by modern dictatorships in Taiwan
and Singapore. They combined high government spending, a low-paid and disciplined
work force, and ability to absorb new technology in order to produce manufactured goods
for export. Modernizing juntas in Argentina and Brazil have tried unsuccessfully to copy
African societies cannot hope to finance or organize industrialization outside the
government. The Ivory Coast became the most successful of black African countries in
agricultural development by giving private farmers good prices and a free hand. It
became a leading coffee and cacao exporter, expanded food production faster than the
population growth, and diversified with new crops.
But there are reasons why other countries find it difficult to copy a South Korea
or an Ivory Coast. Third World producers of raw materials or cheap manufactured goods
compete with each other. Success for one saturates the other’s potential markets;
increased production of bauxite, tin, cocoa, or coffee means lower international prices.
The industrialized countries may put up protective customs barriers against cheap Third
World manufactured goods. Only the oil-producing cartel managed to escape this trap
even partly, and its ability to control production and raise prices spelled economic
disaster for dozens of Third World oil-importing states. By the mid-1980s even OPEC
was unable to stave off the oil glut’s downward effect on prices.
At about the same time economic problems forced many countries, notably China,
to experiment with reforms, including decentralized decision making, market forces,
material incentives to encourage workers and peasants, joint projects with foreign
multinationals, and additional private farm plots. These steps might help individuals or
the economy for a whole, but they are not allowed to challenge the ruling party’s control.
As Mao Zedong indicated, politics-not efficiency or development-must be in command.
The contrary, pragmatic view was articulated by Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s eventual
successor: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”
This is all right, some modern dictators could add, as long as the cat–businessman,
professional, intellectual–doesn’t eat them.
Clearly, then, there is no one foolproof strategy for developnient. In Third World
countries, however, the state’s role in the economy—even in relatively laissez-faire
states–is going to be much greater than is common in the West. This situation is due
partly to necessity, partly to the modern dictatorship’s determination to use the economy
for its own purposes.
Repression, ideology, and control of the culture, media, and economy are factors
through which the modern dictatorship rules its society. This system goes far beyond a
regime based only on fear and torture in its attempts both to dominate society and to build
a positive base of support. Effective repression clears the field of rivals who are deprived
of their livelihood, audience, legitimacy, and freedom. The regime’s message is broadcast
everywhere while alternative or opposition views are kept out of schools or the media.
The economy is reorganized to control or eliminate any independent class outside the
ruling group while giving the government funds and jobs to attract supporters. Other
techniques and relationships go even further in allowing the modern dictatorship to
mobilize supporters, loyalty, and legitimacy.
In fact, indoctrination does work to considerable extent, particularly on a younger
generation whose experience is totally within the framework of such a regime.
Obviously, the success rate is never close to 100 percent except in the imaginary
dictatorships of novels. There are always brave individuals who dissent but they are a
minority. Most of those who oppose the regime remain silent and most of those who
speak out are not effective in undermining the type of government under which they live.
The majority is either supportive or passive, willing perhaps to celebrate the modern
dictator’s fall but unlikely to help bring it about. Even such courageous critics as
Aicksandr Solzhenitsyn and Anatoly Shcharansky were passionate true believers before
their disillusionment. Such pessimism gives one no pleasure and it would be far
preferable to speak of the heroic human spirit refusing to submit to the chains of tyranny,
but this is not the main experience of history when it comes to modern dictatorships.