How Will The Dictatorship Arise?

In his now not-often-read The Evolution of Political Thought, C. Northcote Parkinson was “considering the question of how long a democratic phase of government may be expected to last”, correctly noting, as did Hayek in The Road To Serfdom, that throughout history democracies tend to devolve, or perhaps dissolve is a better word, into dictatorships.

Tend to itself is the wrong modifier for the verb. Leaving it off gives a more accurate picture. Let’s hear first from Parkinson, then we’ll pose a question afterwords. (With my paragraphications to make blog reading easier; the excerpt is too long to stick into blockquotes, which on some browsers render in italics; instead, there are horizontal lines; pp 239–241.)


In considering the question of how long a democratic phase of government may be expected to last, we can appeal to reason, to history and to recent experience. Merely theoretical discussion would lead us to expect one of two things. Either the proletariat would establish a socialist state or it would fail as against middle-class opposition.

If it succeeded, the State would acquire such an accumulation of centralised power — political, economic, religious and cultural — that some of the former upper class would be goaded into revolt. Supposing the conspiracy or rising should attract any measure of support, in the name of freedom, the strongest personality in the government would make himself dictator during the emergency: thereafter, the rising crushed, he would remain dictator as a precaution against any future threat of the same kind.

In the opposite case, supposing that the socialist police state has not been firmly established, the middle classes might rally to protect their lives and property. In the struggle they will appoint a leader or more probably allow the leader to appoint himself. By the time the conflict ends in a middle-class victory, the leader will have become dictator; and he must remain dictator, this time in a capitalist police state, to prevent the proletariat rising again.

Civil War of this kind seems likely to produce dictatorship in any case; nor do dictatorships of different origin differ from each other as much as might be supposed. For the dictator, in the last resort, is not so much a master of intrigue and cruelty as a man with sufficient moral courage to open fire.

It is sometimes thought that the invention of automatic weapons has ended forever the effectiveness of the mob, putting all the trump cards in the hands of whatever government there is. But revolutions are not brought about, have never been brought about, by weapons; nor is it by weapons that a rising is suppressed.

Governments which collapse when mobbed are usually lacking not weapons but courage. At some point in a situation of growing disorder someone must give the order to fire or charge. In a capital city — with the certainty that half the casualties will be innocent bystanders — this requires a fair amount of courage, it is easiest for a foreigner, a Prince Rupert, a Napoleon, a General Dyer; and easier still if the troops are also foreign — Scottish mercenaries in Paris, Swiss mercenaries in Rome or German mercenaries in Algiers.

But the risk is considerable, for the man who takes the responsibility may never be forgiven by the people and may easily be disowned by his own side. That is why a feeble government will allow riot and bloodshed to go on for days while its leaders twitter among themselves about humanity. Some twenty cartridges will disperse the average crowd but a man like Napoleon does not stop at that; he cheerfully uses artillery. The smoke has hardly cleared before he finds himself dictator.

Once a man has become dictator he cannot, usually, abdicate. If he does, the enemies he has made will kill him. Sulla resigned, it is true, and lived for a year. But Julius Caesar could not have resigned — he was murdered even while still in office. Pompey could not have resigned, nor Cromwell, nor Napoleon. It is the knowledge of his own danger that drives the dictator on to eliminate his opponents. Nor does it very much matter whether he began, like Julius Caesar, as a democratic leader, or like Sulla as the saviour of the oligarchs.

Once in office he must rule as he can. That is why Gandhi was supremely right in maintaining, as he did, that an egalitarian democracy cannot be achieved by force but only by persuasion. Once violence has been used, the feelings aroused will make further violence unavoidable. And in a state of tension and fear the party led by one will always (given anything like equal chances) defeat the party led by a committee. There are therefore abstract reasons for doubting whether socialism, as a phase in the decline of democracy, can be expected to last for long. There are abstract reasons again for supposing that it will lead to dictatorship.


Parkinson goes on to ask, “Does history, generally, bear out this conclusion?” The answer is yes. For example, “In ancient Greece the examples of democracy turning into dictatorship after a phase of socialism were so numerous that the Greek thinkers felt justified in regarding that sequence as almost a law of nature.”

Why? “Gandhi…says plainly that democracy cannot work if the voter’s chief aim is to benefit himself. In his view (and he is obviously right) no good can come of the violence which a state confiscation of private wealth must involve.”

What struck and stays with me is Parkinson’s the courage to fire on the crowd. Given our innumerable riots and other violent disturbances, it is obvious this courage has been lacking. It won’t always be. When it comes, it will be instantly recognizable and it will be clear to all that our democracy has at long last come to its end.

Here is the basis of our question (of which it would be best to read the whole of the Chapter from which the quotations are drawn): “The democracy that does not fail through socialist violence fails through mere incompetence; and through an incompetence which has become notorious, public and measurable.”

The question is this: from where will the dictatorship arise? Out of socialism and thus from displaced elites, or via middle class dissatisfaction? The Left is now screeching (and screaming) that Trump is a manifestation of the latter, though his mettle has not yet been tested: no crowds have been fired upon. Contrasted to those fears are the true observation that the State has been acquiring “such an accumulation of centralised power — political, economic, religious and cultural — that some of the former upper class would be goaded into revolt.” Trump does not fill that bill, though he is from the upper class; yet with the reins of power he is certainly not displaced.

My bet is on a reaction to socialism, since in the States the middle class is dispersed over too wide an area to conglomerate and because, as just said, the middle class can elect its leader who can hold power without direct violence. It’s not that Trump won’t fire on the rabble, but that doing so while he has the elected and Constitutional power to do so would not make him dictator.

Thus, a reaction to socialism. We have breathing space of at least four years, and more likely eight to ten. After that, the most natural thing is to look for a military coup to some outrage that comes too quickly after a string of power-grabbing outrages. Our friend John Zmirak suggests an outlawing of Christianity.

What do you say?

15 Comments

  1. I think yesterday’s brouhaha between Reps. Nunes and Schiff is an indicator of how close we are to some sort political violence. The apparent insurrection against Trump by the intelligence agencies is another. Peter Turchin, the historian at U. Connecticut, believes the hatred among our elites is greater today than it was on the eve of the Civil War. He projects the 2020’s will see wide-spread, intense political violence. It might come much sooner. Trump might be tempted to follow Erdogan’s example and stage a counter coup. It depends on whether the military will support him against the intelligence agencies, the Democrats, the neocons, and the renegade Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

  2. “Our friend John Zmirak suggests an outlawing of Christianity. ” Maybe so, but other significant triggers would be outlawing freedom of speech or the right to bear arms.

    As an aside, and a possible indication of future events, Trump seems bent on making good friends with the police and the military both of whom are regarded poorly by Democrat leadership. So, my guess is that when our dictatorship arrives it will be conservative (Fascist).

  3. Arise? It’s already here, but in a different, Borg-like guise. It owns the media and academia and much of commerce. Sure the Borg had a Queen, but mostly as a symbol, like Big Brother was a symbol. The hive-mind is the boss. One can’t even state the obvious today without reaping heaps of opprobrium from every nitwit who can twitter away on his hive-connection device.

    Why democracies dissolve isn’t the interesting question. Why and how they develop in the first place is the curiosity.

  4. This is why the USA is *not* a democracy and deliberately made to not be such a monstrosity. Unfortunately, the rot set in roughly 50 years after the revolution and the initial incompetence of the Federal government that the Articles of Confederation established. The USA is a Federal Republic and as long as enough people, particularly the productive people 1. Know this, 2. are armed (mentally as well as physically with military capable arms, which is the point of the Second Amendment) and 3. practice Christian virtue to the best of their abilities.

    So what happened in the 1820s that set us on the path of destruction such that Abraham Lincoln could say it plainly? The idea, among the Jacksonians (Andrew Jackson, the great deceiver, who displaced the tribes that he used as allies when useful) that the Southern While Landowner was a ‘natural’ aristocracy (the old folly) and had the ‘right’ to impose his views on others that rejected these premises. The Whigs at the time were appeasers. Recall that this is the point in Western history when Marxism and Darwinism began to have ‘intellectual’ appeal.

    Lincoln was a flawed man. We all are flawed, but Donald Trump is just what the USA needs at this point in time, just as Lincoln was in the 1860s. The South was not blameless in bringing about that war, nor was the North.

  5. @Michael Dowd, just what do you think Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack O were doing? We have been going down the fascist path for over a century under the banner of Progressivism. What do you think William Jefferson Clinton’s so called Third Way is? I can tell you this, it wasn’t conservative at all in American political terms. Fascism is still government ownership of the economy, and subsequently, the ruled. It just allows businesses to have the outward appearance of markets; but they are no such thing. They are government agencies covertly, opposed to the overt ones such as the Federal Reserve, FNMA, and a whole lot more.

  6. Call me an optimist but with instant news and communication, and the prevalence of gun culture, I don’t see the state turning on citizens anytime soon.

    What I do see is a slow slide into socialism similar to what’s happened in the semi-functioning states of southern Europe. A bureaucratically clogged government that barely functions with a continuing increase in the welfare state. Rampant and weakly prosecuted crime caused by people who can’t or won’t work ‘need’ more than the government can provide. Enclaves protected buy walls and guns.

    How long can the Trump effect last?

  7. Do you want to have an idea of what life was like during Jim Crow? Guess what, you are living in the current version of it, called Political Correctness.

  8. Governments which collapse when mobbed are usually lacking not weapons but courage.

    Lack of courage by the losers of a battle or war is a tautology. One side either gets wiped out or gives up. Doesn’t yielding involve a lack of courage to continue?

    A side with all the weapons or at least more powerful ones can be overcome by enough people with determination. A man with a knife can overcome one with a gun. Tanks can be overwhelmed by a large, determined mob.

    I think all governments last only through the will of the its people or at least through their lack of interest in change. Given enough dissatisfied people, the government will find itself in trouble.

    Today the greatest danger to our republic is socialism along the tendency to give more and more power to the government.

    A close election such as Bush/Gore was democracy in action. Both candidates were pretty much middle of the road. People more or less accepted the results because both candidates were so much alike.

    The reaction to the last election however is disconcerting with its continual refusal to accept the results. The losers aren’t hunkering down to await the next turn but instead push for nullification. This along with the acceptance of lawlessness such as allowing the rioters in Baltimore and other places to run unchecked and the establishment of sanctuary cities to defy law enforcement are signs that our republic is disintegrating.

  9. John Zmirak was being sarcastic — he wasn’t advocating making Christianity illegal…just provoking the Left to get on with it and ‘go for broke’ as that seems where they’re headed anyway.

    Doesn’t it strike anyone as peculiar that the far-Left, those who champion the rights of gays for example, are endorsing the wholesale indiscriminate admittance of Muslims (refugees) and illegal immigrants (usually Catholic Hispanics) — both of those groups tend to hold strong religiously-based values, anti-gay being among them?!

    Those underdog groups might vote Democratic, but that’s largely driven by a desire for admittance and welfare-program supports from the State. The underlying religious values tend to hold firm, and those aren’t compatible with much of the Democrat Party’s far-Left values. That suggests a reckoning on the horizon for the far-Left…when those underdog groups they supported (via feelings of solidarity as fellow underdogs) turn against them because they hold some very basic core values that are and will remain in fundamental conflict.

  10. Jeez… these comments! What a loose grasp of reality we have these days!

    First, the terms here are far too subjective and all over the place, and Marx’s class struggle theories seem to be taken as a priori, like such old-thinking obsession with classification like “democratic phase.” There are huge gray lines and splotches all over the map of political definitions.

    For any political system or state, take whichever you like, to survive it must be able to adapt to change. Change is inevitable, and ideological rigidity in it’s face is a common cause of collapse. In the 19th century, the Metternich-types resisted change and all their nations and empires were all collapsed by the early 20th century, while in Britain, which was experiencing many of the same social turmoils of the time, learning the lesson of Cromwell, adapted, became more democratic and liberal, and survived the period intact and became a stronger and better nation for it, their empire lasting another century, and then many of it’s prior subject states remaining in the Commonwealth in the end. The ability to adapt, just as in all of nature, is requisite to long-term survival.

    One of the reasons our republic, our constitution, has lasted so long by historical standards is that it is a carefully but loosely and sparsely worded document, and therefore is very flexible and adaptable to change. This is what people mean by “living constitution.” It is more a system than a rigid set of rules, with very few specific instructions, but rather a small number of broadly encompassing, enumerated rights, powers, and limits on powers.

    It has some problems, though. It is a very old constitution and it aged through a period of immense and rapid change. Rights and limits on powers, and the understanding thereof, that are commonplace throughout the developed world, and even throughout our own states, are conspicuously, by today’s standards, missing. We lack clarity on privacy, the general welfare, war powers, monetary powers, election rules, powers of the different states in a modern heavily-interstate social and commercial environment, and a great deal of other matters that are regularly addressed in most all modern national constitutions.

    The Constitution is amendable but the process is caught in a Catch-22 between the very flaws is needs to address and the rules of amendment. Hence so few Amendments of consequence in modern times compared to most of our history.

    It is those flaws that could open the doors to America becoming something else, no longer a republic. That, and if we don’t give the people more opportunity to elevate themselves, and we continue to allow this slow slide into anti-intellectualism and apathy, the susceptibility of the public to authoritarianism and majoritarianism will only grow.

    JMJ

  11. Jersey McJones writes: “Jeez… these comments! What a loose grasp of reality we have these days!”

    We? How many of you are in there?

    This page (but not your comment) is the best reader commentary I’ve seen almost anywhere. Thoughtful, well informed, expressions of belief and understanding without rancor or insult.

    Christians of most flavors expect democracy to end spectacularly in an apocalypse. It won’t take much to get the fire started.

    Fewer and fewer people know their rights and duties under the Constitution of the United States or of the laws of city and state. Mark Dice (I think is his name) has some tragically funny videos on YouTube capturing the astonishing lack of civic knowledge held by seemingly most Americans.

    You can reach totalitarianism through socialism but also through anarchy. I suspect America will get there through anarchy. Several stories come to mind that seem pretty solid. One is “The Postman” by David Brin, it was turned into a pretty good movie but the book is much better. Another is “Folk of the Fringe” by Orson Scott Card.

    What they have in common is that the reboot of civilization cannot happen on a national scale; it happens where people have a *bond* of some sort, be it religion (“Folk of the Fringe”), shared cultural values (“The Postman”) typically combined with the original shared value, kin and clan.

    Then you need a social contract. A heirarchically structured church is already a type of government and will quickly and easily step into the void. The Catholics have a long history of that sort of thing but the home-grown (USA flavored) religion is Mormonism. Either, likely both, will be the seed of future government if the official government collapses as each is structured like a government already and “well regulated”.

    There will be violence plenty. Maybe not war, but anarchy. “Book of Eli” or Mad Max stuff.

  12. Jersey McJones writes: “I’ll take your criticism as a compliment.”

    Of course. When your thought processes are the inverse of mine, criticism becomes compliment. I cannot imagine how you would take a genuine compliment.

    One such, genuinely felt, is that I appreciate other voices here to leaven the bread, so to speak, and prevent this blog from becoming an echo chamber such as is common on the typical left wing blog (dailykos, huffpo, sciam).

    As to “silly, end-times, teenage-fantasy, fiction” I suggest to your attention the case of some children suing the federal government, with the aid of James Hansen, for failing to meet its Constitutional duty to provide them with a stable climate.

    I suspect you subscribe to this same end-times, teenage-fantasy fiction. But of course, you are as likely to consider it fiction as I am to consider a future dystopic United States as fiction. That is to say, essentially inevitable.

  13. Aristotle was there first (as usual)

    “The first governments were kingships; probably for this reason, in olden times, when cities were small, men of eminent virtues were few. They were made kings because they were made benefactors and hence benefits could only be bestowed by virtuous men. But when many persons equal in merit arose, against the pre-eminence of one, they formed a Commonwealth and set up a constitution. The ruling class soon deteriorated and enriched themselves out of the public treasury. Riches became the path to honor and hence oligarchies grew up.

    They passed into tyrannies, and tyrannies into democracies. The love of gain in the ruling classes always tended to diminish their number and so it strengthened the masses. The masses, in the end, set upon their masters and established democracies.”

    Aristotle divided government by number and purpose: there was government by the one, by the few, and by the many. And there was government for the benefit of all and government for the benefit of the rulers. Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy tells us that over time any organization will shift from the former to the latter.

    One: Monarchy ? Tyranny
    Few: Aristocracy ? Oligarchy
    Many: Democracy ? Anarchy

    Basically, each form decays when those who hold the power discover they can use that power to enrich themselves: e.g., the voters discover they can vote to give themselves benefits from the public purse.

    Once the degenerate form becomes intolerable, there is a revolt. The people rise up against degenerate democracy and call for the Man on Horseback to rescue them. Tyrants otoh are overthrown by their peers, who will set up a committee of nobles. Or as the oligarchy becomes more self-enriching, they have fewer children and need to rope in the demos to support them and end up with a democracy.

    In his 1970 book The Passing of the Modern Age, John Lukacs discussed the age of anarchy that would be coming about soon.

    The “feebleness of enormously powerful states” among themselves reflects their impotence within themselves. A few thousand students or farmers upset over a cut in their subsidies can defy governments armed with tanks and atomic bombs. Eventually, this will become common wisdom and “a long transitory brutal period of insecurity and terror” will set in.

    Again the people acclaim a warrior-statesman as their administrator and Monarchy is established.

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