Sunday, June 22, 2008

Brief Note on Dictatorship

It does not seem obvious to me that the first or even most important political task that faces the citizen of a nation that happens to be a dictatorship is that of bringing about a democratic form of rule. It strikes me as perfectly plausible that such a citizen may pursue any number of fully political objectives within the framework of a dictatorial system. The freedom available within the dictarship may be greater than that available wihtin the most likely democratic configuration.

This idea can also be applied in foreign policy contexts. Why do we suppose that the citizens of dictatorships would prefer a war of liberation to their current system of rule?

20 comments:

G. M. Palmer said...

Why do we suppose that we can intervene in the politics of any country outside of our borders?

Kirby Olson said...

You need to have some kind of standard for critique. The Republican party still uses Locke's four freedoms:

Life, health, liberty and property.

If a government doesn't protect those in its citizens, Locke said, it's an evil government and deserves to be taken out.

If you have no standard whatsoever for critique, then of course anything goes, and even the Nazis are just fine, just different.

But if you're in step with Locke, as Bush clearly is, as Blair was, too, and as Sarkozy seems to be to some degree, and as Berlusconi is, and as is McCain, you have your marching orders set out for you.

If, however, you have no standards, no ideas that frame standards, then you just relax and let Zimbabwe be Zimbabwe, N. Korea be N. Korea, and Hitler be Hitler.

But if you don't have any standards, then I doubt if you'd be doing any political work whatsoever.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, that is the general issue.

The Soviets would (at least so we are told) intervene on behalf of the working class in a given country, which was, by definition, oppressed. They "would be greeted as liberators" etc.

The West, today, seems to use a similar argument, intervening on behalf of "the people" who are also oppressed, also more or less per definition in the case of a dictatorship.

Now, the Soviets of course picked their battles carefully, as does the West today. But it seems to be the same kind of argument. On our ideological assumptions, we "represent" an oppressed population and we have a "mandate" to intervene just as surely as our current, democratically elected government has a mandate to rule us.

Notice that it really doesn't matter what ideology you happen to live under, your government can use it to intervene in the affairs of other countries. Dictators have their natural right to dominate whoever they can (might is right); communists are speeding their neighbours along their historical path of development (the logic of history); and democratic rulers, finally, can appeal to the will of the (unheard) population of this or that dictatorship that they want to bring under their sphere of control.

In all cases one can talk not just of a right to intervene, but a sort of duty. Our ideological assumptions require us to bring democracy to others.

It's all nonsense, of course.

Kirby Olson said...

Of course every political plan is founded on a standard of some kind, and standards are arbitrary. Nevertheless, I'd rather be living in Denmark than in North Korea, and so would you, or why don't you move there? if you did move to North Korea, what would you suggest to yourself as a political activity? Or what would you suggest to a North Korean that they could do to improve their situation? Please be as concrete as possible.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I've been putting these ideas in the form of questions, inquiries. I don't know what I would do if I were a North Korean, nor is any speculation really meaningful until you tell me what social position I would be occupying under/in that regime.

It is certainly not clear that I would be for an invasion by "democratic" forces.

But my question here has been the more moderate one: would my political energies as a citizen of North Korea be best spent working towards a democratization of my government? I don't think that is at all clear.

Kirby Olson said...

It's hard to know what you could do in North Korea except attempt an assassination. Short of that, any contesting of that government ends up with the forfeiture of your own life.

Perhaps prayer?

Thomas Basbøll said...

See, that's my whole point. You have just characterized the political lives of millions of people (who are not currently trying to kill their leader) as meaningless. I don't know enough to about it, but I simply don't think that can be right.

There are, I would think, countless acts of meaningful resistance in North Korea every day. Moreover (and this is my point) there must thousands of occasions to engage in meaningful political activity that does not amount to resistance or disobedience of any kind. There must be countless petty officials who make a difference, and a morally defensible one, wholly within the offical limitations of their powers.

Your North Korea must necessarily be a cartoon fantasy.

Kirby Olson said...

Thomas, there was a neat documentary about N. Korea on TV about a year ago. My favorite image was of a traffic police officer in Pyongyang, the capital city. There was no traffic whatsoever, since there was no gasoline. However, the traffic officer had to continue to behave as if the traffic did exist: whistling cars to go through through the light, and make a left turn, etc.

She did this for ten hours every day, apparently, and she wasn't alone. The whole country is going through the motions, but there just aren't enough calories to go around.

There are victory parades almost every day, but the paraders frequently faint, since there isn't enough to eat.

At the borders, there are several guards at each post. If any of the guards defect, they are to shoot one another. That's why there are three.

No one wants to go to N. Korea.

This is why you have to open your eyes just a leetle beet.

Think about what countries people are trying desperately to get out, and then think of which countries people are trying desperately to get into.

Defection is a kind of critique, often based on calorie counts.

There are about a thousand people every day who leave Zimbabwe via the southern border. That's 365,000 per year.

There gets to be a point in a country when resistance is pointless.

The only point is to get out.

Communist countries in general suffer from this problem. The wall of Eastern Europe is a symbol for this. They had to wall their people in, like creating a mausoleum for the living.

If you can't sympathize with the plight of people caught in those situations, I don't know why.

Locke isn't just inventing pure theory. He's articulating some basic standards for what people should have to put up with. The government should protect the life, liberty, health, and property of its citizens, or else it's a bad thing.

Almost everybody in the world agrees on this. They are called human rights.

But it's not just an empty theory. It's something that people around the world agree on whenever they have the chance to do so. They don't have that right in commie countries.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I don't think anyone denies that the North Koreans are suffering. I'm just questioning the analysis that identifies either dictatorship or communism as the cause of their suffering.

You can't find an American who engages in pointless activity for ten hours a day in order to pay the rent?

We've talked about this before: you're picking on countries that happen to be communist and happen to be poor. Life sucks there. But there have been countries that were doing just fine until one or another group of "contras" were sent in to spread "democracy". Most of these communist or caliphesque countries would be able (and are demonstrably willing) to offer their citizens a perfectly good life but are barred from trading fairly with their neighbours.

N. Korea is not just a communist country; is an embattled and embargoed one. It may also be suffering from poor leadership, but, again, such leaders thrive when isolated. We are isolating them on ideological grounds.

I think it's a bit slippery of you to suggest that my problem here is an inability to see or feel sympathy.

G. M. Palmer said...

The fact that I would probably rather live in Denmark than North Korea is in no way my problem. I would rather live in Northern Italy than the US. But I wouldn't want Caribineris marching through my Floridian streets to liberate me.

Kirby Olson said...

I understand this, G.M. and Thomas, but I would say that it is a fairly conservative viewpoint that you have.

Creating a democracy is often bloody hell, and requires revolution (as ours did).

But I still like Jefferson's words about how we have certain "inalienable rights" such as the freedom of speech (we cannot lose these rights even if we sign them away).

Most people want these rights. The Iraqis voted in record numbers at their last election. I'm sure the North Koreans would, too.

Locke argued that the only legitimate purpose of government is to protect our inalienable rights.

Human rights are not grounded in consent. They are God-given and inalienable.

On the other hand, there is a sense in classical liberalism that we are not OBLIGED to pursue the happiness of others, and if it's costing too much to liberate the middle East or the tin-eared dictators of the Far East, then I think we do have the right to be selfish, and to turn our backs on them. If they want a democracy, let them fight for it. If they don't or aren't ready for it, then that's their affair.

I myself wouldn't have invaded Iraq.

Now that we're there and on the verge of creating a liberal democracy where there was only cattle-prods and whims, I'm kind of interested in seeing it through.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Everybody everywhere is free to utter ideological truisms or commonsense trivialities, especially in private.

Nobody anywhere really enjoys freedom of speech, i.e., free and equal access to the means of public discourse.

You can say whatever you like as long as it doesn't matter. You are not really free to say anything of importance.

Everywhere you go your freedom of expression is dependent on who you are, and who your friends are.

When Italian radio announced that Pound's broadcasts were transmitted "in accordance with the Fascist policy of intellectual freedom and free expression of opinion by those who are qualified to hold it" they were being honest about the limits that any society puts on speech. CNN, the NYTimes, and even NPR also judge the "qualifications" of their speakers.

The rights you are talking about is thoroughly alienated. Except for the lucky few who are qualified to insist on theirs.

You are comparing the US in principle with North Korea in practice. It's just not a fair comparison.

Kirby Olson said...

I don't see why it isn't fair. We have elections, they don't.

You could say that there is a hereditary monarchy here with Bush 1 and Bush 2. However, one last only 4 years and the other 8.

We have limits.

In North Korea it is a hereditary monarchy for life. Father, and then son.

I don't see why you can't see a qualitative difference between the two systems.

You do have a vestigial monarchy in Denmark, but one of the princes wants to be a carpenter, like Jesus. He doesn't possess any political power, right?

Anders Chydenius was the top thinker in terms of classical liberalism for the Nordic Countries. He was a Swedish-speaking Finn who was born in Oulu, Finland. He was writing about the basic rights at about the same time as our Founding Fathers.

I don't think there has ever been such a thing in N. Korea or in Zimbabwe. People in some places still don't get it.

John Rawls has argued that we ought to judge a system based on a "position blind" approach. That is, we can judge the relative merits of a system based on whether we would like to be in it no matter which place we had to assume.

It wouldn't be bad to be in Denmark at just about any starting place.

In North Korea, you'd want to be related to the hereditary monarchy if you wanted enough calories to make it to your first birthday.

Kirby Olson said...

But perhaps it's important therefore to think about degrees of freedom.

The one society in which even you might welcome the intervention of other states would be that of Hitler's Third Reich. Do you think that even there it's just a mindless intervention without any kind of justification?

Thomas Basbøll said...

We'd have to construct a seriously counterfactual hypothetical: what if Hitler had not invaded Poland?

(The Rhineland and the Anschluss were, I think, rightly appeased.)

The problem with raising the question of "intervening" in Nazi Germany is that Hitler was intervening all over the place. (Gandhi's position was interesting, but historically impossible.)

But if Hitler hadn't been invading other countries, should the US have pushed for "regime change" on, say, moral grounds? Well, I don't think it was in any moral position to do so. Keep in mind that, at the time, America still has McCarthyism and the Civil Rights Movement coming.

Stalin's lack of a position of moral superiority we don't even need to analyse.

One interesting problem with the "freedom against fascism" interpretation of WW2 is, of course, that Stalin was fighting for "freedom". I don't think there is any reason to take the proposition that the US was defending democracy more seriously.

Kirby Olson said...

What about the Jews?

Don't we have the moral DUTY to defend the Jews?

Or to defend the Christians of the Darfur?

Or to intervene in Rwanda?

Or on the side of the Bosnian Muslims?

Certainly programmatic genocide is something you'd CONSIDER as a reason for intervention?

What about Saddam Hussein's rockets shot at Israel?

Or his financial support of Palestinian car bombers (25 grand per head).

There WERE some "interventions" as you put it, on the side of Iraq, and certainly on the side of Afghanistan.

So only outward aggression counts for you.

Not aggression toward a minority population?

McCarthy never suggested that communists in the US be slaughtered. Just that they be kept out of top-level Hollywood.

None of them died, and most of them were able to go on as ghost-writers, etc.

Moreover, our government did take care of McCarthy from within.

It's more dangerous when there's only one legal party, as in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, or as in China today.

Chinese destruction of Tibet. Does that count for you? They killed half of the Tibetan population in the 1950s.

We did nothing.

Thomas Basbøll said...

After redacting a series of attempts to answer Kirby's questions...

We've lost focus here. The question is not whether particularly evil dictators should be opposed (though there will always be a question of means, since we are not omnipotent).

The question is whether dictatorship itself should be opposed, i.e., on principle. Put it another way: perhaps fighting evil within a dictatorship is more effective than fighting the dictatorship itself. WW2 was arguably not the most effective way of dealing with the Nazis.

Kirby Olson said...

Oh, the Jews did have some effect then.

The US Civil War was of course the first intervention by the north, and it was under a Republican leader, who personally asked Julia Ward Howe to pen The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

The Democrats in that war did nothing, and asked for it to be stopped, since they thought that it was an internal affair of a sovereign nation (states' rights).

Lincoln thought otherwise.

The Republican party, far from being conservative, has always been the activist party. The Democrats have always been in favor of non-intervention.

To intervene is a pretty drastic step.

Obama wants out of Iraq.

McCain wants to stay for another 100 years.

Which one is the more principled?

Obama will definitely be better for America. Fewer troops will be killed, and fewer resources spent.

But which one will be better for the WORLD?

Somehow I think we're part of the WORLD, and are responsible to the world, not just to our own nation.

In the South in 1938 there was no program of extermination, was there?

I grant that civil rights were often not honored, and that voting was difficult at best in many areas for blacks. But there were no gas chambers, or camps.

It seems ot be a question of relative evils but where there is genocide, I think we have a responsibility to act. The Kurdish genocide of Saddam's was part of a long campaign of liquidation of opponents.

It wasn't as thorough as the Nazi extermination of the Jews (many claimed not to know about this until we actually uncovered the camps).

The Darfur has seen several million killed. The UN can't act because China blocks action with its veto, because they have a lot of business in the Sudan. They are also what's holding up intervention in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, they are killing and silencing Tibetans, and other minorities such as Christians within their country.

One could think of another country as somebody else's family.

It's hard to intervene in another family, and there is no family that is perfect.

But if you know the children of some family are about to be killed, you have to act, I think.

Now you are probably napping, Thomas, since it is seven hours later in Denmark.

I think it's very hard to find a moral criterion for action, but it's worth thinking about what some of these reasons could be. I'm glad that we seem at least to have found common ground in thinking about the Jews in Germany.

It's not clear to me exactly when the gas is turned on in Nazi Germany, and in its Polish corridors, such as Auschwitz.

Or when Roosevelt knew.

He was a Democrat, and Democrats try to stay out of foreign affairs.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a Republican song (hence the last word of the title). ITs writer -- Julia Ward Howe -- was a staunch Republican and a Unitarian at a time when that was synonymous with abolition.

Republicans are activists. They are even willing to intervene in a mother's belly on behalf of the child that is living there.

Democrats argue it is only the mothers' business.

And so the genocide continues.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I'm going to think about this some more. Thanks for your input, Kirby.

Kirby Olson said...

Ok, thanks for the conversation, Thomas. Maybe someone else will jump in and clarify something that you and I could not. Best, Kirby