Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What is a Dictator?



    We in America like to think of democracy as being ‘good’ and 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 legally rob the other 49% blind. It can be argued that dictatorship, then, is the ability of the 1% to rob the other 99% blind. That neither happens that simply points out the complicated nature of the world in which we live.

     Robert Kaplan at Stratfor recently 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’s thesis is state 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 clearly 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 largest state by population in the world. Bashar al-Assad of Syria protected the minority Christian population from persecution by his fellow Muslims.
 

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

    One product of governance that can be achieved by either a good or a bad ruler, democratic or otherwise, is stability or order. Moammar Khaddafi, the late and unlamented despot of Libya, for all his faults or wickedness, provided a more orderly state than what Libya is currently suffering at the hands of the factions scrambling for control of the country. A steady or orderly state can carry on its business, even in conditions of limited personal freedom, and hopefully lay the groundwork for eventual improvements to the public good – personal liberty, opportunity to prosper and improved standard of living. Khaddafi may not have done this, but such things are for the time being much less possible, under a supposedly more democratic ‘system’ if such a term can be used in this case.

      Good fiction is realistic, so it helps to recognize what the real world is like when turning one’s attention to fictional worlds. There are plenty of examples of bad dictators, Emperor Palpatine of Star Wars and Sauron of the Lord of the Rings being perhaps two of the most well-known. But there are good dictators as well. The best example I know of in fiction of the good dictator is HavelockVetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork on the Discworld, created by Sir Terry Pratchett. Vetinari is unquestionably a dictator; he came to power by personally assassinating the previous Patrician (who happened to be insane). 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. Being in his presence makes most residents of the city uneasy and anxious, and Vetinari cultivates that climate of fear and unease, to keep the advantage. Vetinari is also responsible for the rejuvenation of the city’s banking and postal services, the reduction of street crime by organizing and regulating the Thieves’ Guild and the Assassin’s Guild. All of the city’s power brokers hate him, but they hate each other more, and Vetinari keeps it that way. The city works, and everyone realizes that a city without Vetinari would not work as well as it does, so they put up with him. Stability and the survival of the state are his main aims, and he will have them, thank you very much. So is Vetinari a villain or not?

    In the universe of 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.

     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 VI 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 (link goes to a page with subsector maps) there will therefore be 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 (Weitzlar 0308) 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.

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