The Bullshit of Autocracy

I keep thinking about the phenomenon of “reinventing the wheel” in the realm of critical writing, and I understand that the requirement of advancing in one’s profession and of making a living, by requiring publishing, pushes one to refrain from doing scholarship or crediting previous work, and simply publishing stuff as if it were original.

So, let me be up front. I believe — regardless of what others have written about this — that placing political power in the hands of one person (autocrat) is a bad idea. The only exception is that of past warfare, where quick reactions to quickly changing conditions in battles are required. And history of full of such military leaders.

But because a “leader” is needed in conducting battles, it does not follow that a leader is needed for “ruling” a country. As a point of illustration, Switzerland has a 7-member Federal Council, which is the executive office. And the history of Switzerland, by comparison with other nations, has been remarkably peaceful. [I found Gregory A. Fossedal, Direct Democracy in Switzerland (2002), very enlightening.]

My speech at the Haymarket Monument, May 1, 2019, recommending a Swiss style democracy.

Getting back to my main topic. Because of the many labels for one-person political rule, such as monarch, king, emperor, prince, dictator, tyrant, despot, president, chancellor, prime-minister; which carry different connotations and circumscriptions of power, I use the term “autocrat” as a generic term to include all such rulers.

Using “autocrat” as a genus, we can dichotomize the species into absolute and limited. Presidents, chancellors, and prime-ministers are forms of limited autocracy; though, as we know from case histories, that from these and even from councils or juntas, absolute autocrats arise.

Gore Vidal discerned such a transformation of the American office of a president to something approaching an absolute autocrat, by talking about an “imperial Presidency.” Below is an interview with Gore Vidal on Democracy Now in 2004. He talks — among other things — about President George W. Bush, and the US attack on Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003).

My scholarship on autocrats is limited. But recently I came across “Juggernaut: The Path to Dictatorship” (1939) by Albert Carr, who studied 17 dictators. Here is his table of contents:

Part I: Dynasts
1. Richelieu: The Technique of Dictatorship
2. Louis XIV: The Perversion of Power
3. Frederick the Great: The Nation Militant
4. Bismarck: The Diplomacy of Empire
5. Primo de Rivera: The Forlorn Hope
6. Alexander, Metaxas, Carol: Ferment in Balkans

Part II: Revolutionaries
7. Cromwell: The Revolutionary Process
8. Robespierre: Terrorism and Conscience
9. Bolivar: Liberator into Dictator
10. Lenin: The Science of Revolution
11. Stalin: Toward a Classless Society?

Part III: Crisis-Men
12. Napoleon: The Empire of the Middle Class
13. Napoleon III: The “Idea”
14. Gomez: Crisis in Latin America
15. Mussolini: The “Idea” Up to Date
16. Ataturk, Salazar: Variations on a Theme
17. Hitler: Toward the Servile State?

Carr was interested in asking “why, how, and when does dictatorship come about?” That is a very interesting set of questions. But my question is of a different sort: Do we need autocrats at all?

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