6.3.1.6 Suppression of Freedom by Authoritarian Governments

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6316.htm)

Authoritarianism can be seen as working against the interests of the people by suppressing individual freedom:

  • The State can try to root out opposition by imprisoning dissenters. Following unrest in China’s Uighur Muslim population, a BBC article on China’s hidden camps “report[ed] that China [is] operating a system of internment camps for Muslims in Xinjiang”; the government, when challenged, says that they are “re-education schools”.
  • China is developing a “Social Credit System” that evaluates people’s behaviour by analysing their Internet transactions, including posts on social media, as reported in a BBC article Would you choose a partner based on their ‘citizen score’?; this “could then be used by employers to decide whether to offer you a job, by banks to decide whether to give you a loan, or even by prospective partners.”
  • Planned economies, by definition, lack economic freedom; and they are dysfunctional (3.3.5). The Berlin Wall was built to prevent people fleeing communist East Germany, as economic migrants, to find a better life in the West.
  • Fascism, as described earlier (6.3.1.2), expressly forbids dissent and suppresses individual freedom; historically it is also associated with Nazi racial supremacism.[1]
  • Loyalty to a non-democratic regime can be bought; those who are essential to the maintenance of power, like the military, are well-paid. Many authoritarian governments, in Africa and elsewhere, have used economic wealth – such as oil – to prop themselves up, as described in an Economist article, The black curse:

“In the past, all that oil wealth has done for Africa is to entrench chronically corrupt politicians who squander the money while throwing their impoverished citizens a few prestige white-elephant projects to keep up the pretence of “development”.”

  • Even in a theocracy, where idealism might have been thought to prevent such practices, there have been examples where it was suggested that the clergy looked after their own interests at the expense of the wider population.[2]

These are all serious and legitimate criticisms, illustrating the suppression of freedom, but there is another narrative: that authoritarian regimes regard the public good as more important than the rights of an individual.  This is a Utilitarian philosophy.  It recognises that revolutions endanger lives and that most people would prefer peace and stability.  China, for example, wants to avoid revolutions because of its past experiences – including the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century, which “led to the deaths of more than 20 million people” according to history.com.

Whilst authoritarian regimes can defend their legitimacy on Utilitarian grounds, it can also be pointed out that they are trying to preserve their own power and privileges.  This argument can be seen as a matter of political ‘spin’ – with each side accusing the other of hypocrisy.  China has reported on the Human Rights Record of the United States in 2016, making stinging criticisms of America.

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[1] A BBC article entitled What is a fascist? was available in December 2018 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8316271.stm.  It argued that there is no single answer to that question, but acknowledged that “some say racism is part of the definition” and specifically cited Nazism as associated with fascism.

[2] Shahrough Akhavi, in Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran, pp.  95-97, described how the Iranian clergy resisted the Shah’s proposed laws on land modernisation partly because they were major landowners.