International School History - European Schools - S6

 
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Consent in authoritarian regimes

Why would any citizen support a dictatorship?  The reasons are various, but all come down to incentives. For example, incentives might be financial, because people feel they are better off with an authoritarian regime that is able to force though needed economic reform. Or there might be security incentives, where people feel that an authoritarian regime is best suited to guaranteeing peace and stability in a country that has experienced (or might experience) civil unrest.  A citizen’s support for a regime (consent) can be both explicit and implicit. Explicit consent means that citizens actively support the regime through social and political participation. Implicit consent suggests a more passive role, in which citizens ‘put-up’ with the regime or lack the will to actively oppose the regime.  There is no clear division between explicit and implicit consent, but rather a complex gradual, overlapping set of citizen’s socio-political positions, which if the regime is to be long-lasting, must be shared by the majority of the people.

(Debate in Spiegel http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/stable-dictatorships-are-not-the-lesser-evil-a-996278.html

Explicit consent

Just as in democratic regimes authoritarian states often use elections that allow citizens to choose between representatives with different political programmes.  In fact, authoritarian states can often require greater civic activism and political participation than is commonly the case in liberal democracies. Good citizenship in an authoritarian regime might be defined by membership of a democratically elected street committee, tasked with improving the material conditions of residents in the neighbourhood.  Whether the elected representatives are members of competing political parties is somewhat irrelevant to whether they do a good job or not and whether they are re-elected.

Long lasting authoritarian regimes also successfully generate explicit consent from those individuals who are co-opted into the state power apparatus.  By providing a significant number of citizens with positions of responsibility, the state creates a political and administrative class who have a vested interest in the survival of the regime.  Depending on the nature of the authoritarian regime these individuals might be drawn from the party membership, dictator’s family or tribe, but the principle of rewarding loyalty to the state with privileges and responsibility is essentially the same.

This leads us to one of the key characteristics of all authoritarian regimes, their tendency towards nepotism and corruption. Because the state values loyalty from its citizens above all other qualities, loyal and trusted citizens are rewarded irrespective of whether their competency deserves the reward or not. Political, military and judicial institutions are staffed by the most loyal not necessarily the most able and well suited. When, for example, the wife of the dictator Chaing Kai Shek, mentioned the particular incompetence of one general, he replied, 'But where do you find a man who is so obedient?'’ (Fenby 295)

Nepotism

Nepotism is favoritism granted in politics or business to relatives. The word is derived from the Italian nepotismo, which was used to describe the appointment of relatives to influential position within the Catholic Church.

Text Box: Nepotism
Nepotism is favoritism granted in politics or business to relatives. The word is derived from the Italian nepotismo, which was used to describe the appointment of relatives to influential position within the Catholic Church.

In contrast to a well-functioning democracy, the key state institutions are weakened by their lack of independence from the party, family, clan or tribe that runs the state. Career advancement, justice in court or access to scarce resources, depend not on ability of the candidate, the rule of law or real need, but rather, on the individual’s social contacts and/or their ability to pay a bribe.

A related means of generating explicit consent in an authoritarian regime, as in all regimes, is through encouraging social mobility. The successful authoritarian state must provide a degree of social mobility in which the powerless can move up into positions of responsibility, in return for their loyalty and support of the regime. This social mobility may be more apparent than real (state propaganda can help with this) but a society that denies all opportunities for talent and ability to be rewarded is inherently unstable in the modern world.

Social Mobility

Social mobility is defined as movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between layers or classes of society.

Text Box: Social Mobility
Social mobility is defined as movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between layers or classes of society.

Finally, we must consider the importance of ideological incentive. Significant numbers will support a regime (or not oppose its excesses, see implicit consent below) because they are committed to the long-term, ideological goals of the regime. These are not people who are passive victims of propaganda and indoctrination, but genuine believers. In such a situation, citizens might be prepared to continue to support an authoritarian regime, even during times of social unrest, worsening standards of living and personal privation, if the ideological goal of building a better future still maintains its appeal. Ideological motivation goes a long way to explaining the genuine enthusiasm of the builders of Magnitogorsk in Stalin’s USSR or the backyard furnaces of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. It also helps to explain why communist single party states have been the most robust of authoritarian regimes.

Implicit consent

The importance of implicit consent is morally one of the most controversial features in the study of authoritarian regimes. To what extent are citizens, who do not actively oppose an authoritarian regime, responsible for the actions of that regime? It is rare that authoritarian regimes can depend on the active support of a majority for more than just short bursts of time.  Much more important is the passive, apolitical indifference of the vast majority, who for whatever reasons do not challenge the legitimacy of the regime. Obviously, persuasion and coercion help deter opposition (see below), but this is not enough to explain why many, without actively participating in the overtly political legitimation of the regime, are prepared to accept authoritarianism as a normal or even satisfactory state of affairs.

The most important reason why people accept authoritarian regimes - without actively supporting them – is political ignorance and apathy. Just as in modern liberal democracy, the authoritarian political system depends on most citizens neither understanding nor caring about how political decisions are made.  In this respect most people in democracies and authoritarian regimes can lead remarkably similar lives: they go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have children and generally get on with the business of living. Political elites are ‘them’ versus the ordinary ‘us’, and political power and decision-making lie elsewhere. As Juan Linz puts it in the case of Nazi Germany, ‘people in their everyday lives… did not think of how their society was being ruled, just as people in a democratic free society do see their daily lives shaped by the values of a free society’. (Totalitarianism and Authoritarian Regimes p.28)

The second reason why people accept authoritarian government is because the regime is benefitting their lives. Some authoritarian regimes successfully address the social and political problems that brought them to power. In simple Machiavellian terms, the authoritarian means by which these problems are successfully addressed is therefore justified by the success of the end result. Economic growth, social stability and national revival can lead to political apathy, just as easily as recession, instability and national crisis lead to political revolution. This reflects the assimilative power of affluence in that people who are content in their material lives can quickly forget their interest in political affairs. In Spain of the 1960s Franco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lopez Rodo felt confident enough to argue that per capita income of $2,000 would guarantee social stability and political apathy. For as historian, Raymond Car argued ‘the induction of apathy was the prime political objective of the Francoist political system’. (Raymond Carr, Modern Spain, 1980, pp.159-60)

In addition, certain authoritarian regimes have proven themselves to be very effective at engineering economic growth, especially in the early stages of industrial development. Authoritarian regimes are well equipped to redirect the state resources for the massive capital investment needed for industrial infrastructure or to force the movement of labour that has been stripped of any constitutional or trade union protection.

 

A final way of explaining implicit consent requires a reference to sociology and social psychology. For sociologists concerned with deviancy – or behaviour which challenges social norms – the tendency for people to ‘conform’ rather than be ‘deviant’, is of central importance when trying to explain social stability. Social conformity results in individuals being reluctant to act or express views that are not consistent with group norms.  The tendency to conform might be influenced by subtle, unconscious adoption of dominant group behaviour or by overt social and political pressure brought about by the regime itself. (See section on ‘persuasion’ below). Conformity is influenced strongly by cultural tradition. For example, there may be a tradition of conformity in which citizens have always expected to respect their social and political superiors. This might go some way to explaining the tendency for authoritarianism to be successful in South East-Asia where Confucianism has traditionally had a powerful influence. Conformity also results in weak and powerless minorities being targeted by the powerful majority. If you do not conform to the norms defined by the state, you might be victimised and easily held responsible for all that goes wrong or went wrong. The creation of scapegoats is a common feature of most authoritarian regimes and means of creating social solidarity and support for the regime against a labelled common enemy. It is also a feature of authoritarian regimes that most distinguishes them from democracies that enshrine the rights of minorities in the law.

Conformity

‘Conformity can be defined as yielding to group pressures, something which nearly all of us do some of the time. Suppose, for example, you go with friends to see a film. You didn't think the film was very good, but all your friends thought that it was absolutely brilliant. You might be tempted to conform by pretending to agree with their verdict on the film rather than being the odd one out.

(Eysenck, Psychology: An International Perspective, 2004)

Text Box: Conformity 
‘Conformity can be defined as yielding to group pressures, something which nearly all of us do some of the time. Suppose, for example, you go with friends to see a film. You didn't think the film was very good, but all your friends thought that it was absolutely brilliant. You might be tempted to conform by pretending to agree with their verdict on the film rather than being the odd one out.
(Eysenck, Psychology: An International Perspective, 2004)

 

 

 

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