Oppression is Bad, but Anarchy is Worse
“Were people given a choice between a functioning dictatorship and a failing or failed state, the dictatorship would often be seen as the lesser evil.”
The Nobel Peace Prize for 2015 was given to the Tunisian Quartet who brought about a successful transformation of the society to a less oppressive regime in Tunisia. Yet the other places to which the Arab Spring spread have either become more dictatorial or have turned into failed states causing hundreds of thousands of refugees are flee, because it is not impossible to survive where the anarchy exists. Thus, we must not take the Nobel Committee’s praise for the Quartet in Tunisia as an endorsement of the Arab Spring in general.
The uprising in Tunisia was spontaneous, with a domestic citizen so frustrated with his ability to live there that he publicly immolated himself. The masses in Tunisia could identify with his suffering and undertook a revolution, followed by a transformation of the Tunisian government led by the Tunisian Quartet, a coalition of civil society groups that came together in the summer of 2013 when Tunisia was at a crossroads between democracy and violence. Today, while there have been several violent incidents aimed at political leaders and tourists (tourism is the backbone of the economy) perpetrated by Islamists, the Tunisian state is relatively stable. The Tunisian transformation required a great deal of courage and compromise among established leaders in the country, and observers are cautiously pleased with the outcome.
The “Arab Spring” is a different form of revolution. It arose after the changes spontaneously began in Tunisia. It was a product of youthful Arab idealism and global media that hoped such a change could occur in other countries. Youth throughout the world with the internet and smartphones were able to compare their life under local dictators and life elsewhere in the world. The idea of an Arab Spring also brought global media campaigns funded by wealthy individuals like George Soros, and foreign military intervention led by U.S. President Obama aimed at toppling the dictatorships in Libya and Syria.
Reforms in Libya, Egypt, and Syria all failed. These revolutions, which were inspired by events in Tunisia, but could be called more contrived than authentic, being orchestrated by well-intentioned outsiders. U.S. President Obama sent fighter jets to attack Libyan Dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was found hiding in a culvert. This was more reminiscent of U.S. President George W. Bush’s earlier attack on Dictator Sadaam Hussein, who was captured in an underground hiding place, than it was of the revolution that took place in Tunisia.
Liberals in the West have been quick to point out the evils of the oppressive dictators living in luxury and demand their overthrow, often in a knee-jerk manner that fails to include a plan for governance after the regime is overthrown. Then the result is anarchy rather than a better society. This has been the case in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
Development Requires a Change in Social Consciousness
The West has prospered under constitutional government and free elections, and many wish other countries to have them, but these institutions took hundreds of years to develop. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the signing of England’s Magna Carta, most Western regimes were dictatorial kings and princes that officially espoused Christianity. These systems of governance were very much like many regimes in the Middle East today that officially espouse Islam. The gradual distribution of political power to ever-wider numbers of citizens, and the acceptance of religious pluralism has been nearly a one thousand year process that has slowly civilized a formerly barbaric Europe.
Increased acceptance of universal human rights and pluralism in the collective consciousness in the West is the result of changing cultural beliefs over many generations. Imposing these contemporary Western systems of governance with elections and religious tolerance on peoples whose collective consciousness has been largely a tribal identity, with no separation of religion, the economy, and the state, and expecting rapid results has proven to be a relatively fruitless enterprise. One can create the best political system in the world, but unless the people living under it consider it legitimate, it will not succeed.
From Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to Obama’s arming of Syrian “moderates” in 2014, the great powers of the world have missed the fundamental fact that nation-building requires several generations of political stability before it is known whether the grandchildren of the revolution will experience greater happiness and less oppression than life they will observe in other parts of the world. Part of the collapse of the Soviet system in Russia was a disillusioned younger generation who did not experience the freedom, wealth, music, and blue jeans they saw as they viewed their counterparts in the West.
The Arab Spring revealed similar youthful comparisons to life under economic freedom and development in the West. And, like the idealism of the Russian Revolution, it was followed without the creation of a government or culture capable of delivering the economic development and wealth creation in the West. For the most part, the political and cultural vacuum was filled by backward-looking Islamists, or rulers who demanded greater loyalty and fostered greater oppression.
The Tunisian revolution was unique in that the deposition of the dictator was followed by a coalition led by established domestic economic producers and human rights organizations. It did not take from the rich and give to the poor, undermining the economy. It did not accept the imposition of the values of one religious or ethnic group on all citizens. It was not an anarchy created by foreign disruption. There can be some hope for Tunisia because it reflects a transformation from what was to a more improved and humane society. It reflects a cultural consciousness more willing respect the rights of all people than the previous system. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee can be lauded for recognizing the possibilities for greater peace and prosperity that the work of the Quartet brought to Tunisia.
However, the revolutions in the Middle East brought about with foreign meddling have had the opposite effect: oppression, increased violence and lawlessness, chaos, and failed states. They have caused social instability that led to waves of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their homelands. We did not see such massive flight from Afghanistan under Pres. Mohammad Daud Khan, from Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, from Iraq under Sadaam Hussein, or from a Syria under protection of Bashar al-Assad. Even though these regimes were oppressive and corrupt and operated like monarchies in the Middle Ages in Europe.
Today it is ironic that Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose regime descends from the revolution that threw out the Tsar, and Iran whose regime stems from a revolution that deposed the Shah would argue to prop up the type of regime that their ancestors fought to overthrow. This action seems to fly in the face of what both the communist revolution in Russia and the Islamic revolution in Iran stood for. Yet these countries are perhaps distant enough from their own revolutionary backgrounds to have gained a common sense understanding that a corrupt and brutal dictatorship can be more desirable than a failed state. Russia and Iran have been forced to live next to the failed state in Afghanistan that is responsible for much of the chaos unleashed on the world, including the destruction of the World Trade Towers in New York. Now other failed states are adding to the waves of refugees flooding Europe from the Middle East.
It was Thomas Hobbes, the founder of modern political science, who argued that “the state of nature is a state of war.” The natural condition of people is to attempt to survive, and this leads to anarchy in the competition for the resources to live. The only way to escape this anarchy is to have a collective sovereign, a state that guarantees personal security and the protection of property.
Charles Dickens drew comparisons between anarchy in Paris and oppression in London in his Tale of Two Cities, arguably the historic best-selling book outside the Bible. There may be a reason for the power of his book: it conveys lessons learned about life under different types of political regimes and drives home the point that almost anyone who has experienced anarchy would prefer to pay unjust taxes to a corrupt dictator or see unjust income disparities than worry about losing his life, family, and business in an overnight raid by a gangster.
After Russian President Putin sent fighter planes and troops to Syria the West has been greatly divided on whether he will be the savior who cleans up Western-induced chaos in the Middle East, or the enemy of the West. Despite the oppressiveness of the Syrian regime, it was not Assad that caused the masses of refugees to flee Syria; nor is it the dictators in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan who are causing masses to flee from those countries at the same time. They are fleeing because their states are failed and their lives, vegetable gardens, and shops are unprotected and subject to the whims of rebel groups, gangsters, and warlords. They are fleeing because they are unable to feed themselves and their families in such conditions of anarchy.
One cannot help but conclude that the West’s fixation on economic rights, while ignoring the prerequisite rights to protection of life and property, is misplaced and misinformed idealism. It is doubtful that Russia or will be able to succeed in nation-building in Syria any more than they did in Afghanistan because they are a foreign power with a foreign culture. However, the idea of stabilizing Syria under Assad and then transforming the society from within appears to be more sensible than arming moderate rebels and creating anarchy and further destabilizing the region, causing even more death and refugees.
Stages of Social Development
On the stages of social development page on this website, stage one social consciousness is the state of nature described by Hobbes. Stage two social consciousness is a command society, where you will find dictators, and stage three society is that of a social contract. Then there are two more advanced stages after that. The Tunisian revolution, which was indigenous, enabled the Tunisian society to advance from stage two to stage three, while the nation-building attempted by the great powers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have reduced those societies from stage two to stage one.
Great power intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria is another example of how the road to hell is created with good intentions but improper experience and knowledge. Another example has been the attempt to create economic development in poor countries by giving foreign aid to governments. As Angus Deaton, winner of a Nobel Prize in Economics discovered, foreign money changes the relationship of a government and its people.
“For instance, most governments depend on their people for taxes in order to run themselves and provide services to their people. Governments that get all their money from aid don’t have that at all, and I think of that as very corrosive.”–Washington Post
Stable states are based on the relations between citizens and the government. When third parties enter the mix, with good intentions, they end up displacing natural social processes and make those systems dysfunctional. Thus, rather than giving aid to governments, or weapons to “moderate” rebels with knee-jerk thoughts, foreign states and international institutions should employ methods that make systems more functional rather than using contemporary dysfunctional approaches. For example, with relation to economic development, why not give subsidized loans to individuals who are entrepreneurs. The government will not see any money until the individual pays taxes on profits from his business. In this way governments will depend on their citizens as in normal societies and the aid will not end up distancing a government from its citizens and going to buy arms to suppress them.
If the policy goal is to move a dictatorial stage two society towards a more humane and legitimate stage three regime, then it is Putin and Iran that are espousing a more functional process for achieving those ends, while U.S. President Obama and much of the West are advocating policy measures that move dictatorial stage two society towards anarchic stage one society, creating exactly the opposite effect from what they intend. The refugee flight from failed states to the West can, from this perspective, be seen as an “Arab Spring” road to hell, paved with good intentions.
1. Christiane Hoffmann, “Freedom vs. Stability: Are Dictators Worse than Anarchy?” Der Spiegel, 40/2014 (September 29, 2014).