9.2.1 Threats to Freedom

(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/edition03/921.htm)

People need to be vigilant, to prevent their governance from becoming a means of oppressing people.  Some leaders abuse their power for their own benefit.  All forms of domination have the potential for injustice:

  • In the feudal system, many aristocrats abused their entrenched privileges. A modern equivalent could be seen in corrupt regimes like that in Tunisia in 2010, for example.[1]
  • Some forms of governance, which were composed solely of men, used their power to the extreme disadvantage of women; the Taliban’s version of Shariahlaw in Afghanistan was an example of this.[2]
  • Early capitalism led to the ruthless exploitation of workers, and Karl Marx’s response to that problem was to advocate communist revolutions.  Exploitation still exists, as in the ‘sweatshops’ in some developing countries for example.[3]
  • A State with too much central power can slide into totalitarian oppression, as described by Friedrich Hayek in his book The Road to Serfdom.  He quoted Leon Trotsky’s criticism of Lenin’s Russia:

“In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation.  The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.” [4]

  • There is a correlation between resource wealth and oppression by authoritarian governments. Thomas Friedman pointed this out, in the case of oil wealth, in an article entitled The First Law of Petropolitics:

“Oil-backed regimes that do not have to tax their people in order to survive, because they can simply drill an oil well, also do not have to listen to their people or represent their wishes.”

The countries he cited were Azerbaijan, Angola, Chad, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela; he could also have mentioned Iraq if Saddam Hussein’s regime had still been in power.

  • Governments can be corrupt (7.2.5), in what is sometimes referred to as a ‘kleptocracy’.  Among the very many examples which could be quoted, the corruption in Ukraine and Turkey has recently been a cause of public anger.[5]
  • Wealthy individuals and corporations can dominate a political system, to further enrich themselves in what can become a self-perpetuating plutocracy (6.4.5).  In a meritocracy, those who rise to the top feel that there is some justification for their vast wealth – but their descendants cannot make the same claim and other people can see inherited wealth as unfair.

There are several examples of each of these abuses of power around the world; they are situations where a “Form of Government becomes destructive” and “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”, in the words of the American Declaration of Independence (9.2).

In a properly functioning democracy, leaders who abuse their power would be replaced at the next election – but in the absence of a credible opposition, or in an authoritarian system, there is a risk of social instability or even revolution.



[1] Toby Dodge described regime corruption in From the ‘Arab Awakening’ to the Arab Spring; the Post-colonial State in the Middle East, which was published by the LSE:

“The increasingly brazen nature of regime corruption in both Egypt and Tunisia was enabled through the exclusion of the majority of the population from the economy.  Family members of the ruling elite flaunted their wealth in the streets of Tunis and Cairo as standards of living for the majority of the population stagnated.” (p.  6 of the pdf file, p.  10 as printed)

This article was available in April 2018 at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/43454/1/After%20the%20Arab%20Spring_from%20the%20%E2%80%98Arab%20Awakening%E2%80%99%20to%20the%20Arab%20Spring%28lsero%29.pdf.

[2] In 2008 Georgetown University published a report by Physicians for Human Rights, entitled The Taliban’s War on Women; A Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan, which was available in April 2018 at http://www.law.georgetown.edu/rossrights/docs/reports/taliban.pdf.

[3] A Guardian article on 29 April 2013, entitled The Bangladesh factory tragedy and the moralists of sweatshop economics, pointed out that poor people are often grateful for the jobs that sweatshops provide – even at very low wages – but that there can be no excuse for ignoring health and safety.  The article was available in April 2018 at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/29/bangladesh-factory-tragedy-sweatshop-economics.

[4] At the start of chapter 9 of his book The Road to Serfdom, Hayek quoted p.  283 of Leon Trotsky’s book, The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going?

[5] The Ukrainian protesters were shocked at what they saw in the president’s mansion, as described by the BBC on 23 February 2014: In pictures: Luxury Ukraine presidential home revealed; this was available in April 2018 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26307745.  On 1 March 2014, The Economist published a briefing on Ukraine, subtitled The February revolution, which quoted estimates that “the president and his family, broadly construed, embezzled between $8 billion and $10 billion a year since he took power in 2010”; this was also available in April 2018 at http://www.economist.com/node/21597974.

Also on 1 March 2014, The Economist published an article entitled Turkish politics: Everything is possible, in which it noted that:

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is fighting for his political life after a series of secretly taped conversations was posted on YouTube, a video-sharing website, on February 24th.  In them he allegedly discusses with his younger son, Bilal, how to get rid of millions of euros of cash stashed in his home.”

This article was available in April 2018 at http://www.economist.com/node/21597936.