9.2.1 Threats to Freedom
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 – as described by Toby Dodge 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]
- Some forms of governance, which were composed solely of men, used their power to the extreme disadvantage of women. Physicians for Human Rights reported an example of this: The Taliban’s War on Women; A Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan.
- 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. A Guardian article, 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.
- 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 The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.” [page 100 of the PDF]
- 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. Ukrainian protesters were shocked at what they saw in the president’s mansion, as described by the BBC: In pictures: Luxury Ukraine presidential home revealed. An Economist briefing on Ukraine, The February revolution, 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”. An Economist article, Turkish politics: Everything is possible, 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.”
- 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.
This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/921b.htm