Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dictatorial Governments

I first shared this essay on my blog Deep in the Stacks before I started AF3 as the home for my Traveller writing.

We in America like to think of democracy as being ‘good’ and autocracy/dictatorship as being ‘bad’. But it is worth noting that in its most basic form democracy is the ability of 51% of the population to rob the other 49%. I could argue that dictatorship, then, is the ability of the 1% to rob the other 99%. The fact that neither of these things happen that blatantly shows the complicated nature of our world.
It is Good to be King.

Robert Kaplan at Stratfor wrote an essay (subscription required) in which he explored the phenomenon of the dictator as head of state, and makes the shocking claim that not all dictators are card-carrying members of the Club of Evil.

Kaplan states his thesis in paragraph six: “we recognize a world in which just as there are bad democrats, there are good dictators.” Geopolitics is complex. Things and people don’t always fit into simple categories. The astute observer of the world will look at more than how a leader came to power. How did that leader use the power; did his use of power make things better or worse for the state he ruled? Kaplan supports his argument that not all dictators are bad with examples of autocratic leaders who have made things better. One such was Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. He was a dictator, but he also initiated meritocracy, good governance and world class urban planning. Deng Xioping of China oversaw a dramatic rise in personal freedom and standard of living for the most populous state in the world. Bashar al-Assad of Syria protected the Christian minority from persecution by the Muslim majority.

Now, none of this makes these men saints or even nice people. But it does illustrate that more than one political system can accomplish good governance.  Governance, the act of governing, is morally neutral. It is what one does while governing that faces moral judgement.

One product of governance that can be achieved by either a democrat or a despot is stability or order.  Moammar Khaddafi, the late and unlamented despot of Libya, provided a more orderly state than what Libya faces now.  The factions scrambling for control of the country have created chaos, not order. In a stable or orderly state the people can carry on their business, even in conditions of limited personal freedom. From a place of stability, they can lay the groundwork for improvements to the public good like personal liberty, opportunity to prosper and improved standard of living.

So we turn to the universe of Traveller, and to the world of fiction. There are plenty of examples of bad dictators in literature and film. Emperor Palpatine of Star Wars and Sauron of the Lord of the Rings are two of the most well-known. But there are good fictional dictators as well.

The best example I know of the good dictator is Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, created by Sir Terry Pratchett. Vetinari is unquestionably a dictator. He writes the laws. He imprisons and executes people on his own authority. He spies on his own people and manipulates everyone. He practices the rule of “one man, one vote” in that he is the Man and he has the Vote. Vetinari cultivates a climate of fear and unease in those who come before him, to keep the advantage.

Vetinari is also responsible for the rejuvenation of the city’s banking and postal services. He reduced street crime by organizing and regulating the Thieves’ and Assassin’s Guilds. The city works, and everyone realizes that a city without Vetinari would not work as well, so they put up with him.  All the city’s power brokers hate him, but they hate each other more, and Vetinari keeps it that way. Stability and the survival of the state are his main aims, and he will have them, thank you. So is Vetinari a villain or not?

In Traveller, there are several Dictatorship type governments. Specifically they are the Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy which I call Hereditary Ruler, the Charismatic Dictator, the Non-Charismatic Dictator, the Charismatic Oligarchy and the Religious Dictatorship. The Third Imperium itself is ruled by a Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy, headed by the Emperor. There have been Charismatic Dictators that have taken over the Iridium Throne but their successors eventually became the new oligarchy.

According to an article on Traveller governments I read from SJ Games, the term Charismatic refers not to the dictator’s popularity, but to the source of his authority. Kings and elected leaders have an external source of their authority – it comes from the society of which they are a part. Established law or tradition says who is the legitimate ruler, and if or when that ruler has to give up power. In contrast, rulers like Oliver Cromwell or Fidel Castro or V.I. Lenin appealed to personal traits, such as their moral righteousness or adherence to the right political cause or philosophy, to legitimize their rule. ‘Charismatic’ governments are all about the person(s) holding the power. A non-charismatic dictator is simply the successor or inheritor of a charismatic dictator's power - the first step in the transformation into a new tradition or legal system.

In my Traveller universe there are both good & bad dictators, and good & bad democrats. There are also kings & patricians, republics and the ever-mysterious feudal technocracies. Does anyone really understand what that is?

· House Dirata (Dormarc-Ostrander) is all under the control of the Dirata family. Turf wars among the extended family are the cause of its instability.

 · The Talaveran Empire (Dothan-Talaveran) is ruled by a Hereditary Monarch, but benefits from input from the people through the aristocracy. Plus, it is one of the most religion-tolerant states.

· The Union of Socialist Worlds (Union Subsector) is run by a dictatorial council, filled by ranking members of the only official political party. The Union is officially atheistic, and endorses religious persecution.

· The Patrian Concordiat (Daktari Nebula) is a dictatorial autocracy under the control of the Patria family. The Concordiat is rife with all manner of corruption and abuse. Power is all that matters to the Patrians.

· The Kingdom of Onaji (5 Worlds-American) is ruled by the King, period. The king manages the centralized economy well and is tolerant of religion.

· The Litton Confederation (Solaris-Litton) is a stagnated bureaucracy. Regional interests trump effectiveness in Littonian politics.

· The Alliance of Dormarc (Dormarc-Ostrander) is ineffectual and corrupt. Its parliamentary system all but guarantees gridlock and a bloated bureaucracy.

· The Kamarov Republic (Solaris-Litton & Union) is for the most part an open society that encourages education. It is stridently secular-materialist, and is hostile to all religion.

Examples from the Independent worlds:

Mavramorn (Holtzmann’s Corridor 0605) Independent C-34374A-10 50 million people
The Mavramorn system is potentially very rich in natural resources but the local government isn't developing them. They are very jealous of their sovereign territory, and won’t let anyone else in to develop them. Figurehead president is a glorified bureaucrat, the real power is the Army & Navy Chiefs of Staff, who own or control most of the industry and public services. Mavramorn & Stavanger fought a brief war 100+ years ago, and the military heads came to power under wartime rules. The civil leadership is maintained in place to placate the populace with meaningless ‘reforms’.

Tucloas  C-2316A5-10 Independent 8.5 million people
Tucloas’ current King took the throne after a short but bloody civil war against the reigning monarch. He was an aristocrat and a distant relative of the ruling line, but thought himself the more competent administrator. After wiping out the royal family in a series of bomb attacks, he led his forces (stiffened by a large number of mercenaries) against the next closest relative of the former king, whose claim to the throne was distant enough to cause doubt and division within the armed forces. The new king is having trouble keeping his mercenary forces under control, and there are still loyalist forces at large.

Drexell (Daktari Nebula 0204) C-9327A5-12 45 million people
Drexell’s head of state is a figure known only as El Supremo. "El Supremo" is arguably insane. The listed law level applies to only some upper-class autocratic types. For everyone else, it's level 12. El Supremo is managed by his aristocratic 'secretaries' and 'ministers'. Off-planet visitors are restricted to the southern continent, away from the main bulk of the population.

photo credit: 109_152362-W.jpg  'Gustavus Adolphus in Polish costume.- Painting, c.1632, by Matthaeus Merian t.E.(?) (1593-1650), Oil on canvas, 108 x 74cm. Skokloster, Schloss 

1 comment:

  1. An astute analysis!

    Also keep in mind that the old Roman Republic had a built-in office of a "Dictator" (hence the origin of the word), that is someone with near-absolute authority to get things done without deliberation and politicking in time of crisis. This of course had a time limit - usually one war season - and the Romans were usually keen on ridding themselves of such dictators if they decided to remain in power beyond their term...

    Another thing - there are authoritarian regimes, which are not always all-out tyrannies; some are "democracies" (i.e. constitutional or semi-constitutional republics) with a lot of power - though not absolute power - concentrated in the hands of the head of state and/or the ruling party. In Traveller terms, these might be Gov 4 and sometimes Gov 3, A or B...