Published on October 1st, 20131
How to Survive as a Dictator – a 10-step Guide
By Jo jakobsen, NTNU
Establishing a dictatorship is not easy. Hanging on to that dictatorship is no walk in the park either. However, if you happen to be a tyrant in control of a state, or if you seriously aspire to become one, ensuring the longevity of your dictatorship might very well hinge on you adhering to the advice contained in this 10-step guide on how to survive as a dictator.
10. Do not reform!
One very prominent characteristic of people is their malleability. If they are used to living their lives without individual freedoms, they tend to have surprisingly few problems with that. Give them a taste of such freedoms, though, and you will soon experience that the proverbial snowball starts rolling: They will want more.
Indeed, that was what destroyed the Soviet Union and virtually every single one of the seemingly stable authoritarian Central and Eastern European regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The hapless Mikhail Gorbachev thought he could tweak a little here and a little there on the Soviet politico-economic system, with the goal of making it endure. How wrong the man was! There is no middle way here: Either you run a proper autocracy, or you’re spearheading a democracy (in which case your time is up come the next elections). If you try something in-between, you will likely be ousted long before you can say “glasnost.”
9. Create a police state!
If you don’t, you’re finished. You have to make sure that your subjects live in constant fear, both of you and – vitally – of each other. This they understood to perfection in East Germany during the Cold War. The Ministry for State Security (Stasi) was a colossus, instilling great and omnipresent anxiety into all ordinary citizens. Every man and his wife and dog could be – and usually was – a Stasi informant. And every man and his wife and dog, thus, could do nothing else than to keep his grievances to himself.
Importantly, you need to ban both public and private gatherings of people. You know, another thing about people is that they are quite susceptible to mass suggestion. Very small groups of people cannot do much, and they do not dare to do much. As numbers increase, however, some distinct and quite dangerous psychological mechanisms come into play. Before you know it, your subjects will start to demand things, including your head if you aren’t extremely lucky. Damn people. It’s the snowball effect again.
Fortunately, you are in control of a competent and ruthless security force. If people start congregating, your paramilitary henchmen have to react instantly, and I emphasize the word instantly. Shoot at the demonstrators as soon as you have a legitimate reason to suspect that things might boil over. They understood this in Iran in 2009 (remember the “Green Revolution” that came to naught), they understood it in Bahrain in 2011, and they understood it in China during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. A few select and early killings, and people will be too scared to continue their disobedience. (Be careful that you do not kill too many, however, lest your dictatorship loose its domestic and international legitimacy.) If you ask questions first and shoot later, though, you’re likely doomed. A couple of recent Egyptian authoritarians never understood this point.
And almost needless to say: Restrict and censor such annoying modern contrivances as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs of various kinds. The Chinese authorities do this to great effect, and you should just follow their blueprint. I don’t at all mean that you should ban all of these things (though such a temporary tactic might occasionally be prudent); just make sure that defamatory utterings and discussions are weeded out and that harsh prison sentences are given to at least some of those who overstep the line (again, look to China).
8. Give your subjects bread and circus!
The leaders of the Roman Empire weren’t wrong: People are best pacified if they are properly fed three times a day and have regular access to both timeless and in-vogue sedatives. Granted, gladiator fights are not in fashion anymore; but on the other hand, the one great thing about the modern world is the slew of readily available no-brain-activity-required entertainment alternatives.
Remember that the basic point is to ensure that people keep their minds (not necessarily their brains) preoccupied with stuff that has nothing to do with politics or human rights. Give them a couple of social networking sites and a little bit of Internet nudity (remember: control and censor but do not ban!). Give them cheap alcohol if your country is non-Muslim (if it weren’t for the pacifying effects of booze, the white man would surely have had a much harder time conquering the Indians in America).
Be sure to relax on moral codes regarding infidelity and the like. Remember the observations made by the great Czech author Milan Kundera, who never understood the post-Cold War complaints by his countrymen that life under Communist rule constituted “40 lost years.” Mr. Kundera had, no doubt correctly, noted that the vast majority of people during these 40 years got on with their daily business – i.e., work, eating, drinking, and a lot of intra- and extramarital copulation – in pretty much exactly the same way as they would have done had their country been democratic. The complaints were by and large reconstructions of reality made in hindsight.
Add to the points above the American-made opiates of movies, TV shows, and music – and throw in a decent game of football here and there – and your dictatorship will undoubtedly stand a much greater chance of surviving for the long term.
But also note that you do have a potentially potent alternative to the circus argument. That is, if you make sure that your subjects are poor, and that they stay poor, they will have no choice but to spend their entire days working (or at least looking for work if few jobs are available) – and they will have little or no energy left even to start thinking about undermining the system. If you follow this latter advice, however, please note that you will still need to pay off quite a significant number of cronies or supporters, including politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers and soldiers. In other words, you cannot completely disregard the economy. Poverty rates of 60–70 percent are OK, but remember that even North Korea has its share of relatively rich people, and for good reasons.
7. Lie when necessary!
Look no further than to the present situation in Syria. To paraphrase President Bashar al-Assad: “No, we have never used chemical weapons against anyone. To be frank, we aren’t even really sure if we have such weapons. And if we do, we would never, ever contemplate firing them against our own people. But the terrorists might have used such things – if there are chemical weapons in Syria, that is, because I am not totally sure if there are.” And so on… Sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of, well, everybody, and your Russian friends will have ample reason and legitimacy to convince the wavering Americans to leave your dictatorship pretty much alone.
And of course: Iran doesn’t plan to construct a nuclear bomb. Of course not. Their nuclear program is peaceful, it is undertaken to meet their energy needs. And burying their atomic facilities hundreds of meters underground or inside mountains is done for – eh, aesthetic reasons mostly. But what is the alternative? The Iranians could say, for example: “Yes, we plan to build the bomb! And when we’re done, we’ll have a weapon that we can go around brandishing so that the whole Middle East will be controlled by us, the great Persian theocracy! Yes, we have signed treaties forbidding us to build the bomb. But we don’t care much for these treaties anyway. And by the way, Israel, please start shaking in your pants!” Honesty sometimes pays off in politics, but for Iran, it will just lead to unpleasantries, bombs falling, and the inevitable demise of the regime.
Adolf Hitler said to France and Great Britain in 1938: “Give me a slice of Czechoslovakia, and I will be nice ever after!” He duly got his slice, which wouldn’t have been the case if he had forgotten to promise everlasting niceness. Of course, his regime would have stayed in power for many years regardless, but that is because Hitler was shrewd enough to pay heed to almost all of the ten points in the present dictatorship-survival guide. So keep on reading!
6. Engage in name-calling!
Every successful autocracy does this. Examples are virtually limitless. Remember that the United States is not the United States in the context of your dictatorial world (unless you happen to be its friend; please see point #4); it is the imperialist power, or the imperialists, or (if you’re Iran) the Great Satan, or even the imperialist war-maniacs (standard North-Korean expression). During the Cold War, the U.S. were the imperialists in the eyes of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union were the imperialists in the eyes of the U.S. And thus it must be.
And obviously, Israel isn’t Israel for you; Israel is the Zionist state, or the Zionist occupiers, or Zionist state terrorists. And if you happen to harbor homegrown rebels, remember that when you talk to national and international media, the rebels are “terrorists,” “criminals,” or even “rats.” In fact, in the post-9/11 world, it often pays to call everyone you do not like a “terrorist,” so that you, if need be, can legitimately kill or arrest them. Freedom fighters are terrorists; illegal opposition groups are terrorists; looters are terrorists; burdensome journalists (which really shouldn’t be in your state in the first place) are terrorists; human-rights organizations are terrorists (Vladimir Putin is admirably close to understanding this); and, of course, your mother-in-law is a terrorist.
5. Blame foreigners!
This is somewhat related to point #6, because sometimes it involves name-calling, although sometimes it doesn’t. Basically, if you have a problem in your state, it is not you who is to blame, it is usually the foreigners. Not necessarily every foreigner, and not necessarily any foreigner. If you happen to be located in the Middle East, you should regularly point your finger at the Israelis. But for the Cuban autocracy, it is always the United States. If the sugar harvest fails, blame the United States. If you run out of toilet paper, it is the fault of the United States. If your emigrants drown while attempting to flee your beautiful island in rickety vessels, they do so because the United States made them. If you need to tighten internal security and arrest annoying citizens, you do this because they are American spies.
If people start to revolt, make sure you blame not only the terrorists themselves (please see point #6) but also foreigners and their meddlesome intelligence services. And if you run into economic difficulties, which you are bound to do given that you pick your advisors not on merit but on loyalty or bribeability, you will need to blame foreign capitalists. More specifically, what you do is to nationalize a handful of foreign-owned businesses, telling your people that you will no longer tolerate that your and their nation is being economically raped by alien profiteers. By doing so, you do not fix the economy, of course, but you do add a fair amount of months to your dictatorship.
In general, the bigger the problem, the more you blame foreigners. That is one of the golden rules of clinging to dictatorial power: you need to get your people to “rally ‘round the flag” (“flag” is a euphemism for whatever your own name is).
4. Make friends with big states!
Very important point, this is. It is the “bully-in-the-schoolyard” principle. If you aren’t this bully yourself – and most likely your state is too small to be among the biggest and baddest dudes out there (those who happen to run Russia or China can jump to point #3) – you will be well advised to associate yourself with at least one such bully.
Why does Bashar al-Assad still survive as dictator of Syria? The answer is, of course, that he is a long-time friend of Russia. And Russia is a bully. A big and bad dude who provides his smaller and more feeble Syrian friend with bullets and bombs and missiles and plenty of unwavering diplomatic support. If it weren’t for this friendship, Assad would be long gone.
The problem is that there are only three schoolyard bullies out there: Russia, China, and the United States (by virtue of wielding veto power in the UN Security Council, France and Great Britain are also, formally speaking, schoolyard bullies, but they are much too weak to be useful for you – and they are both really American stooges, so they don’t really count in this context).
Simplistically stated: Armed intervention against your cozy dictatorship is illegal, according to international law, if at least one of these three states object. And one of these states will object if he happens to be your friend. As the biggest and baddest of the big and bad lot, America is the safest bet as friendships go. During the good old Cold-War times, the whole thing was quite simple for a dictator: Ask America to become your friend, and America would happily accept your friendship, and you would never have to fear for external regime change. (Unless your precious bodily fluids were sapped and impurified by Communism, in which case you had to knock on the door of the Russians, who would readily invite you into the Red Camp.)
However, nowadays America tends to be a little less inclined to jump into bed with dictators. So, unless you have lots of oil (and preferably run a state called Saudi Arabia), or you host a vital American military base (Bahrain’s rulers have struck gold on that score), or you might be needed in the U.S. balance-of-power game against rising China (in the post-Cold War world, it doesn’t matter that Vietnam’s precious bodily fluids are impurified by Communism!), you will have to look either to China or to Russia.
The problem with China and, in particular, Russia, is that they are still very much preoccupied by their own backyards. So close friendship with these nations is hard to establish if you are situated in a far-away corner of the globe, though you can always become pen pals (everything helps!). Contrarily, if you happen to be the neighbor of either China or Russia, please be especially careful, lest your bigger and badder neighbor and friend decides to move your relationship up to a whole new level of intimacy. Your friend might eventually even try to eat you.
3. Take timing seriously!
This advice has two sub-components. First, you will need to consider the spirit of times – Zeitgeist. You should carefully comprehend the way the international-ideological wind is blowing. If Communism is out, then don’t become a Communist (unless you are Vietnam; please see point #4). Killing terrorists has been OK for at least 12 years (please see point #6). Flattening entire cities and slaughtering civilians is probably not a good idea at the moment, however, though Syria might represent a turning point in this respect. And post-Syria, using your chemical weapons (if you have such things, and if you’re sure you have them (point #7)) might be worth the risk, but only if the stakes are really, really high and you adhere to point #7). And so on.
The second sub-component has much to do with America and its power, interests, and war-weariness. Sometimes it pays to lay low. If the U.S. has you in its sights, be careful about provoking the colossus too much. This is especially the case if Washington is dominated by neoconservatives or, to a slightly lesser degree, liberal interventionists. Be particularly restrictive about brandishing your devilish plans if the U.S. is not simultaneously engaged in at least two other serious international crises or, preferably, wars (three or four if the neocons are in power).
If, on the other hand, the U.S. is fighting long, bloody and costly wars in, say, Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time, then the timing is excellent. Get hold of the uranium that you so desperately seek. Buy or construct the centrifuges you need for enriching that uranium – and start working on the bomb! Or add to your stockpile of chemical weapons (if you are sure that you have a stockpile to add to…). Or kill the people you need to kill – even non-terrorists. And remember: In such a scenario, even though speed is very much of the essence, you still have the luxury of progressing somewhat gradually if you need to. For the Americans will very likely suffer from war-weariness for quite a while – and if you are lucky (like North Korea, Iran, and, so it seems, Syria), America’s existential crisis will leave that country relatively paralyzed for a good number of years. Just make sure that you don’t overdo it!
2. Strengthen your military!
How on earth have the Kims of North Korea managed to cling on to power for three whole and long generations? Although backing from the Soviets helped enormously during the Cold War, after 1991 the answer can be summarized in three words: military, military, and military.
Nobody outside of North Korea likes the Kims. Not even China. But there they still are. Running their hyper-militarized state where practically every able male and female have some sort of military role to play if the U.S. imperalist war-maniacs (please see point #6) and their South Korean puppets decide to attack. Except that the imperialist war-maniacs and their puppets won’t attack. And they won’t attack because attacking will be insanely costly and bloody. And it will be insanely costly and bloody because North Korea is militarized. Simple deterrence. It works.
As a dictator, you must never listen to those voices that pop up on the global stage telling you that “you and your state will be far more secure if you disarm.” Baloney! Balderdash! Ask Muammar Gaddafi! His military forces were no match against the West, and he paid the price. Had his military forces been any match, he would still be alive and he would still be a dictator.
Of course, for some dictators, practical considerations, necessary trade-offs (i.e., guns vs. butter), and often the sheer smallness of the country render futile attempts to militarize to such a degree that one can rest assured that external intervention will never happen. If this is the case, point #4 is all the more vital. But the general advice remains for any current and aspiring dictator: You need to strengthen your military!
1. Get a nuclear bomb!
If you do, then you and your dictatorship can virtually forget about the bulk of the rest of the advice herein: you will survive regardless!
Domestically, you will be hailed. You and your formidable regime have managed to develop for your formidable nation the most formidable, powerful, and prestigious weapon there is. A formidable symbol of your infallibility as a formidable dictator.
Internationally, you will be despised at first. But also feared. Very much feared. And then, as time passes, you will be accepted as a major, formidable player on the international stage, for you have managed the formidable task of ensuring that your nation belongs to the select group of important states that can proudly brandish and parade a formidable phallic symbol of gargantuan proportions. This isn’t formidable hyperbole. It is the definite and formidable victory for your everlasting, formidable dictatorship!
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, however. You need a nuclear weapon to be absolutely confident in the long-term survival of your dictatorship. But getting there is extremely difficult. And in the process of getting there, you will have to pay close heed to points #10–2. For the rulers of Iran right now , point #1 is the ultimate one – the one that ensures the eternal survival of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But getting to #1 requires great sensitivity to #10–2. Lay low while the U.S. is not bogged down in costly and bloody wars. Engage in constant name-calling. Don’t forget your conventional (“ordinary”) military. Lie, lie, lie, when lying is prudent. Shoot first, ask questions later when people start protesting. Blame the Israelis (and the Americans) for all that is wrong in the world. Do not reform! Let your citizens enjoy the fact that Iran will take part in next year’s FIFA World Cup. And so on and so forth.
Iran has done well, and I will personally give them a 51 percent chance of making it all the way to the finishing line. But it is not easy because no consequential state in the world (neither the big three nor the “big five”) wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons. So it is not easy, but it is – and it must be – your ultimate objective as a dictator.
North Korea has succeeded, or is at least on the verge of succeeding (slightly technically speaking, they have developed the nuclear bomb, they just haven’t yet acquired the means to deliver it to their enemies by way of fitting it onto a ballistic missile). And if you don’t succeed, you will have to take into account that you might end up like Saddam Hussein, who attempted for a long time to develop nukes but was “hindered” and subsequently executed. Or Muammar Gaddafi, who foolishly gave up his nuclear-weapons program in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq (he obviously didn’t read my peace considering that he was dead long before the time of writing).
But me hailing so much the tenth point of my guide on how to survive as a dictator, should not detract you from concentrating on the first nine. I do acknowledge that most of those who read this piece are only aspiring dictators. And for you, my big, final advice would be: Concentrate first on #10–2. Let #1 be your Holy Grail.