A right to revolution?
May 17, 2005 11:07 AM   Subscribe

What events would have to happen for you to conclude your country had become a despotism? What actions, if any, would you take to to combat that despotism? What would be the most effective way to organize opposition?

I'm not suggesting that any particular country has become despotic -- I'm just asking what would signal that it had.

For example, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II wasn't generally seen as a sign of despotism, and while a great injustice, it wasn't a precursor to general despotism. On the other hand, the establishment of camps in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was a strong sign of despotism.

But even before the camps, in 1933, the Nazi party, through legitimate elections, became the head of (a coalition) government. Hitler accrued dictatorial power by means unprecedented but legal: the "Decree of the Reich President for the protection of people and state" apparently legally derived from the Weimar constitution and signed by President Hindenburg after the Reichstag Fire, and the Enabling Act subsequently passed by the Reichstag.

At what point in that sequence of events, or after, would it have been legitimate to reject these at least superficially legal undertakings, as despotic? How does one distinguish laws apparently passed to safeguard a State under attack, and laws that usher in despotism?

If you determined that a despotism was being established, how would you organize to fight it, most effectively, without simply throwing your life (and quite possibly the lives of your family) away in an empty gesture?

Of particular interest to me, how would you reach out to others interested in fighting the regime, without betraying yourself?
posted by orthogonality to Law & Government (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
For every question there is an instructional film strip. or at least there should be. courtesy of archive.org
posted by clockwork at 11:24 AM on May 17, 2005

Maybe a definition would be a useful way to start....wiki --
Despotism is government by a singular authority, either a single person or tightly knit group, which rules with absolute power. The word implies tyrannical rule; it suggests a form of government which exercises exacting and near-absolute control over all of its citizens.
Then I suppose it comes into being at that point where the rule of law is effectively transferred from a government to (or conferred upon) a person or a clique. The date or period where checks and balances are cast off.

I'm imagining most are only decreed as such by a preponderence of historical reporting, most usually at a later date.

Reaching out clandestinely during the event would these days revolve around the internet and maybe anonymous emails. *shrug* Not sure how else to answer that part.
posted by peacay at 11:24 AM on May 17, 2005

This film from 1940 something expresses it pretty clearly, and it's sounding allot like the U.S.
posted by Livewire Confusion at 11:36 AM on May 17, 2005

To answer the first part of your question (note, I live in the US):

1. When a central government reappropriates powers that were originally assigned to state governments.
2. When the constitution of the government is such that effective dissent is impossible - i.e., the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches (where applicable) are all in lockstep with one another.
3. The wholesale suspension of civil liberties and human rights.
4. The existence of an attitude of distrust on the part of the government for its citizens. (a mindset that the accused are guilty until proven innocent, in other words)
5. The willingness of the government to engage in actions that would normally be thought reprehensible, such as the shooting of unarmed, peaceful demonstrators.
6. The conditioning of the citizenry to have blind, unquestioning faith in the actions and motives of its government.

The second part, how to combat despotism, would probably require a small book to answer properly. In very general terms, it's going to be hard to do without getting a majority of the populace on your side. Passive agreement isn't enough; people must be motivated enough to throw off the despotism themselves or it will never happen, and in most cases, the abuses have to be outrageous before the body public decides that enough is enough.

The usual outcome in these cases is a revolution, often a bloody one.

The third one, on how to effectively organize opposition, is tricky. Heinlein, whatever his other flaws might be, had a good idea regarding the organization and structure of a revolutionary organization in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. We lack the near-omniscient computer, though, and maintaining the necessary discipline is hard. There are other problems (notably those of scale) that must also be considered, but it's a place to start.

Fighting a despotism from within is hard. You're almost always going to be outnumbered, outsupplied, out-everything, really. That doesn't mean that resistance is futile, but you can expect violence to be involved at some point unless you're willing to go for decades suffering under despotism while quietly trying to win the hearts and minds of those around you.

Governments are good at brainwashing and propaganda. They have resources at their command that the average citizen doesn't, and they can speak to millions without much effort. That's one of the hardest things to overcome, that and the human's innate tendency to follow the path of least resistance.
posted by staresbynight at 11:37 AM on May 17, 2005

government by an absolute ruler unchecked by effective constitutional limits to his power

so there would be no democracy and no balance of power in any legislature.

you'd expect to see things like either no elections, or elections with only one candidate, or where there was a landslide victory for someone no-one wanted, or similar. and there would be no effective opposition and no clear process. instead of having the possibility of voting against filibustering, for example, it would simply be declared illegal; senate would be dismissed.

there might be armed force used - perhaps bombing of the main political centres (houses of parliament, whitehouse, whatever).

you'd also probably see things like people becomig afraid to express political opinions. people you knew personally disappearing in the middle of the night. in parallel with this, you'd likely have armed resistance - structured along the lines of "communist" cells, most likely in universities. people you know personally will be hiding arms under their beds. people in your extended family would be tortured. there would probably be rioting in universities and major population centres, with police using violence to put them down. people would be shot.

you wouldn't know what was happening. news would be controlled. resistance leaders would appear on tv to give confessions - they will have clear injuries.

effective resistance involves forming cells with anonymous members and a membership committed to following the directions they receive from above. absolute dedication to the cause and the decisions of the leaders.

the aim would be to cause financial damage to the country and to raise political awareness. so the resistance would both attempt to assassinate those in power and damage the way society currently functions. for example, if they were connected to the labour movement, they'd call for mass strikes. otherwise, they'd damage infrastructure - bombing powerlines, poisoning water supplies, firebombing public transport.

in other words, in case you were wondering, it's nothing like the usa.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:38 AM on May 17, 2005

oops clockwork didn't mean to step on your feet.
posted by Livewire Confusion at 11:40 AM on May 17, 2005

"All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Despotism is all about that line, but with one caveat: the above phrase does not presuppose knowledge of the wrongdoings by the general populus. I would argue that despotism is when the people know of the horrors and still do not act.

In WWII, internment of the Japanese was largely covered up, in the sense that the public bought into the wartime message that we were "relocating them for our protection and theirs." Most Americans had no clue what was going on in those camps.

Within Nazi Germany, the government really didn't hide the fact that those shipped off weren't coming back, as it was supposed to be an ethnic cleansing. They simply believed it was for the best or were complacent as it occurred.

The former Soviet Union had a similar cleansing going on, but the majority was a political cleansing and not an ethnic one. No, I am not saying that ethnic cleansing didn't happen; it did, but it was secondary to the true motivations. The public was well aware of what was happening, and was essentially scared shitless by it because if they so much as looked at their neighbor wrong they could be next.

Hermann Goering, Hitler's second in command, said at his trial at Nuremberg:
"Why of course the people don't want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don't want war neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
This is the beginning of the mentality that brings about the despotic state. Nazi Germany had their campaign against Jews, a convenient scapegoat for societal ills since as mostly merchants the Jews in Europe were well off financially. The Soviet Union had a campaign against the unfaithful, creating a society of snitches preying off each other. America has the PATRIOT ACT (in caps because it's an acronym) and is dangerously close to being despotic.
posted by mystyk at 11:41 AM on May 17, 2005

I think you want to learn how to start a movement. I also think that you've come to the right conclusion that theres no easy way to do this. People don't necesarily want to be helped, in fact the majority would probably like to ignore the very things that hurt them. Only when a regime is so pervasive that it interferes with the majority of a population will there be an opportunity to start a movement; and at that point I would think that the movement would start itself. It's a case of whether you deal with reality, or you let reality deal with you, and unfortunately it usually takes an intensley bad situation to motivate the majority to stand up for themselves.
posted by pwally at 11:44 AM on May 17, 2005

I must disagree, andrew. Violent strikes (e.g. poisoning water supplies) hurts far more than it helps. A despotic government, no matter how bad, generally does not engage in wholesale or indiscriminate slaughter of its own citizens (certain exceptions apply; the Soviet Union during the 1930s is a good example). Firebombing public transport and poisoning drinking water is something that immediately, directly threatens the people.

While a despotism also threatens the people, its threat is not so immediate, not so pointed. Creating havoc will make people panic and support anyone who can make the damage stop, and the only visible force that could do that in this circumstance would be the government. (Sure, the guys doing the damage could stop, but then it would be kind of a waste, wouldn't it?)

Violence against the oppressed helps no one. It doesn't matter if none of these actions actually directly injures anyone; the chaos and the threat of real, immediate harm that they pose is more than enough.
posted by staresbynight at 11:44 AM on May 17, 2005

i was describing the resistance.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:45 AM on May 17, 2005

I know you were; the resistance you're describing acts like a bunch of terrorists. The people as a whole aren't going to support acts like that unless they are explicitly aimed at a hated despotism that people are aching to get rid of and are willing to act against. Otherwise, it's a bunch of destruction that only makes matters worse.
posted by staresbynight at 11:47 AM on May 17, 2005

what do you think terrorists are? what do you think the people in iraq think they're doing if not fighting a despotic regime?
posted by andrew cooke at 11:49 AM on May 17, 2005

There is a thin line between terrorism and freedom fighting. Remember, during the revolutionary war, WE were the terrorists in some eyes.
posted by mystyk at 11:50 AM on May 17, 2005

I'm just asking what would signal that it had.

Orthogonality, there's a whole list of non-fiction and fiction you can read that will get you started:

Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism and Responsibility and Judgement are good reads.

You might read the Oxford primer on Fascism. This features small chunks of primary source from Mussolini and the fascism-loving Dadaists, as well as outside perspectives from historians and political scientists.

Fiction, but fun: check out Sinclair's It Can't Happen Here or Orwell's oft-cited 1984. Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale and, to a lesser extent, Oryx and Crake are also interesting material.

All of these should give you some flavor for what a despotic, authoritarian regime would be like, as well as warning signs for its emergence.
posted by AlexReynolds at 11:52 AM on May 17, 2005

Sign of despotism/Bad Things coming: oppression of minority groups, be they religious, sexual, ethnic, whatever. Jews get commonly tagged as "the canary in the coalmine" with respect to despotism and old-school style authoritarianism (the czar!), 'cause we usually get pogroms breaking out just before bad government shit goes down for the rest of the population. But I would extend that analogy to all minority groups, like gays, or Rroma (though we have very few of those in the US); stepped up violent attacks against them/us is evidence of tolerance for a mob mentality. A refrain of "[country] for [majority group]!" followed by anti-[non-majority group] street violence or solid boycotts is usually a sign that Bad Things are coming.

This is why I don't think American and Canadian internment of Japanese-Americans was or was seen or is seen today as a precursor to totalitarianism: their internment was seen (however wrongly or unfairly) as being linked to a nationality of a country that was at war with us and launched a sneak attack at us, not rampant nativism or an attempt at ideological purity by purging non-[majority belief structure]'s. And Germans and Italians and non-American citizens from other countries were interred too, though few lost their property in quite the same way. (The German and German-American registrations and internment in the Midwest back in WWI is largely overlooked--someone should do a FPP.)

So I think in answer to your question, there is a fine but definite line between internment in camps like Manzanar for security reasons and internment in a concentration camp like Dachau or a gulag for ideological reasons or to be used as a threat against other citizens getting out of line.

More obvious and classic sign of despotism: removal of power from the hands of the people in a way where, even if the method is technically legal, it will be very hard to get the power back. A useless national assembly that simply does not fight would be needed, unlike our fractitious and grandstanding congress. Also, increasing militarization of a society and mixing of military and government functions and chains of command until it all leads back to one person or small coterie. But maybe this is too close to fascism specifically and not despotism more generally.

Note that during WWI and WWII, the United States and most of her allies went to extremes that by today's standards might be intolerable or else thought to be (falsely) despotistic. We read and censored the mails, we took over movie studios and made them produce propaganda films (see Disney and "Why We Fight" and the anti-Hitler Donald Duck cartoons), our press was almost entirely pro-American and put a good spin on our first two years of military failures and this wasn't seen as a bad thing at all but rather a duty to our country. We rationed food, we had busybody local civil defense people going into our homes and making sure we had blackout curtains and such, we had people reporting every suspicious behavior or stranger in case it might be a Nazi spy coming ashore (and occasionally it was!). And yet, this was not despotism.

How to fight it? We have the Internet, probably the best antidote to power centralization ever invented. And printing presses and Xerox machines and pirate radio stations and podcasts passed around, and SMS. You can already see these tools being used by pro-democratization/anti-despotism forces in street protests in Hong Kong, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Lebanese protesting the Syrian occupation, etc. Look at how people faught back even against the Soviets and the Nazi's and the Communist Chinse today: through underground religion (particularly Christianity), through created sub-cultures with music and art and distinctive clothing, through peaceful protests, through exposing regime brutality by photographing it so there can be no doubt it is actually happening. Bearing witness.

I remember the lone man standing in front of the line of tanks in China in 1989; that video is more powerful and stirring and (importantly!) universal than a thousand Mao-bots marching lockstep could ever be. That's how you fight the system: you expose it.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:54 AM on May 17, 2005

Thin lines between freedom fighting or no, I can't see how the killing of innocent civilians is going to do anything other than entrench the despotism and harden opinion against the people doing the killing. And even if the freedom fighters win, at what cost was that victory bought? The death of innocents is a serious matter.

Iraq is a special circumstance in that it's not a home-grown despotism (which is what I've been speaking to here), but rather an occupation by a foreign power. Those are somewhat different matters, in that you can eventually convince the occupiers to go away. This is much more difficult to accomplish when the despotism is native to the country at hand.
posted by staresbynight at 11:56 AM on May 17, 2005

I remember the lone man standing in front of the line of tanks in China in 1989; that video is more powerful and stirring and (importantly!) universal than a thousand Mao-bots marching lockstep could ever be.

no it's not.

mao ran a whole fucking revolution with "mao bots". what has that guy with bags done of lasting value apart from appear on t-shirts?
posted by andrew cooke at 11:56 AM on May 17, 2005

How can I forget Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich? The first half delves deeply into explaining the economic and social conditions that allowed Hitler to be voted into power, and how he and the rest of the National Socialists made use of German cultural characteristics to build a fascist dictatorship. Long, but filled with juicy history.
posted by AlexReynolds at 11:59 AM on May 17, 2005

look, i'm not saying it's nice, or right, but i'm describing things that people i know experienced. before i came to chile i would have agreed with you - peaceful opposition. but since then i've talked to people that have fought against an opressive regime. and it's horribly depressing - you end up becoming more or less like the bad guy. that's just how it seems to work.

no doubt signal will correct me, but that's what i've learnt here. i'm not saying it's morally ok, or recommending it. personally, i think i would have hated it - it's a moral problem that i don't have an answer to. i'm just describing what i understand of how things happen.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:02 PM on May 17, 2005

Then I can understand and appreciate that. I don't like it any more than you do and I'd much rather do things peacefully than with violence.
posted by staresbynight at 12:05 PM on May 17, 2005

I don't think a country can become "a despotism." That would be like becoming "a monarchism."
posted by grouse at 12:09 PM on May 17, 2005

Orthoganality, I have to ask, what prompted you to ask this question. I mean are you just interested in it from a historical standpoint, or are you looking towards the future? And Andrew Cooke, the Tiananmen Square protests were sucessful. Wheres mao's revolution today?
posted by pwally at 12:13 PM on May 17, 2005

pwally writes "[orthogonality], I have to ask, what prompted you to ask this question."

Well, I just finished reading The Handmaid's Tale and the threads on "Theofascism" and prison time for not being a snitch.

(And AlexReynolds, good suggestions! I read Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here soon after the last election. 1984 and Shirer's Rise and Fall and Berlin Diary (and The Gulag Archipelago) before that. And The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, many many times, staresbynight.)
posted by orthogonality at 12:27 PM on May 17, 2005

Nice, I think you would be interested in Michel Foucault's Discipline & Punish - The Birth of the Prison. Its an interesting segway from The Handmaid's Tale.
posted by pwally at 12:39 PM on May 17, 2005

Aahh...so the tag 'dissenr' means you were looking for a new book. And here's me thinking there was an FPP dissertation coming on recent African elections.
posted by peacay at 12:40 PM on May 17, 2005

Oooh, nice point about Africa, peacay. Definitely look at Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe for a modern-day example of a scary slide into despotism--one that is still getting worse and may yet end in serious bloodshed against their minority groups (in their case, white farmers, mainly). My parents know people, Zimbabwe citizens for over 25 years and formerly middle-class clothing factory owners, who had to flee the country in the middle of the night with no money or assets and become refugees living in the US.

Oh, and one more thing that invariably happens before a government goes bad: banning and/or confiscation of weapons, i.e. gun control. See also Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia, Jews in Nazi Germany, Zimbabwe, Guatemala, Uganda, etc. All of them had explicit anti-gun regulations passed against the populations or targeted sub-sections of the populations just before things got really bad. Smart-ass people sometimes laugh at gun-rights folks for saying that our having a second amendment is the main thing that ensures our right to have a first amendment, but it's really true.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:15 PM on May 17, 2005

The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton would also be good for delineating the line between despotism and fascism.
posted by safetyfork at 1:16 PM on May 17, 2005

First, start with something which speaks to the masses, reinforces what they have been feeling, gives shape and form to these feelings and offers a clear course of action. Then gather your friends, preferably powerful friends, and quite publicly declare your independence from this oppression. Of course, these techniques while proven for overcoming oppression from afar may fail when tried from within.
posted by caddis at 2:22 PM on May 17, 2005

Rroma (though we have very few of those in the US)

There are lots of Roma in the US. They don't show up in the census because they avoid officialdom as much as possible. But you know those "Your Fortune Told" shopwindows on every other block? Roma. Scam artists who bilk suckers out of thousands by offering to remove a curse? Often Roma. They usually have perfectly normal-sounding names, but if you're in the know, you know. (For those not aware, Roma is the preferred term for the people usually called "Gypsies"; the stress should properly be on the second syllable -- it's the plural of Rom.)

As for the question: if it got to the point that I was seriously afraid to express a political opinion, I'd consider that a sign of oncoming despotism.
posted by languagehat at 2:53 PM on May 17, 2005

If your terrorist attacks can provoke the despotism into oppressing the people too far, you may be able to bring about a change in the perception of the masses. The only hope of this is to provoke the powerful government forces until they are killing helpless civilians, and Italians journalists as they succumb to their fear of your "freedom fighters"
posted by Megafly at 3:52 PM on May 17, 2005

"Smart-ass people sometimes laugh at gun-rights folks for saying that our having a second amendment is the main thing that ensures our right to have a first amendment, but it's really true."

This is something I don't think many people understand about the south. This isn't just a "lip service justification" for why we believe it is so important that we should be able to own firearms this is really how we think. This is one of the reasons we are less threatened by the "moral" majority (assholes) than we are by the gun control crowd. So long as we have our guns we, justifiably or not, feel we have some control if push comes to shove. Most of us don't vote Republican because we are a bunch gay hating racists. I wish I could be more articulate about this but it is difficult to explain considering some of our history. If the conditions in this country ever began to approach despotism I think the rest of you will be very glad we are here.
posted by Carbolic at 6:10 PM on May 17, 2005

mystyc said: I would argue that despotism is when the people know of the horrors and still do not act.

I'd agree. That's one of the main concerns of Tocqueville in his observations of American democracy -- that the public would slip into a state of "soft despotism," willing to sacrifice liberty in order to pursue equality and individual desires. "Individualism," he wrote, "disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellow men" in a manner "in which he willingly abandons the larger society to itself."

Encouraging participation within the society, according to Tocqueville, is the best way to combat this soft-despotism, as it gives the citizens a reason to care. His main suggestions involved encouraging participation in local public matters/govt, encouraging participation in nonpolitical associations of civil life (rotary club), and even, gasp, religion.
posted by Hankins at 6:34 PM on May 17, 2005

Andrew - I was wondering if you'd pipe up, and thanks.

For those unaware, Andrew speaks of the experience of his current place of residence, not so long ago.
posted by mwhybark at 7:19 PM on May 17, 2005

whoops - posted before i read the whole thread, sorry. But, still, thanks, ac.
posted by mwhybark at 7:22 PM on May 17, 2005

So long as we have our guns we, justifiably or not, feel we have some control if push comes to shove.

I've heard this line of reasoning before. Unfortunately, your Beretta isn't going to do much against an army of M16A2's and tanks (see: Iraq). Maybe if full-auto were legal, it would be different (see: Afghanistan v. USSR).

If the conditions in this country ever began to approach despotism I think the rest of you will be very glad we are here.

Unless you're the despots, in which case we'd be glad if you left.

That said, to answer the question:
  1. You know you're in a despotism when you're the one being arrested.
  2. There won't be much to do at this point. Learn to play the harmonica.
  3. If you weren't arrested, opposition would primarily involve resistance in cities, guerilla-style attacks on military targets. Arms depots and reinforcements could train in the forests, and you'll need plenty of underground tunnels for safety from aereal bombardment. Yes, much like Vietnam.

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:39 AM on May 18, 2005

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