12 October 2011

How Rulers Rule: Three Types of Regime

Political regimes keep themselves in power by one of three methods: repression, wining the propaganda war against their opponents or by having no serious opponents.

States have repressive and ideological mechanisms at their disposal, all of which serve to put the brakes on radical social change. Indeed, given the massive discrepancies of income, wealth, status and power within all societies - and assuming people not to be inherently masochistic - one can assume radical distributional change would occur, if it were not for these mechanism of control that hold back both revolution and radical reform. In the last hundred years or so, the main threat to the ruling elites in capitalist countries was the demand for some form of socialist society, and indeed socialist writers used up an enormous amount of ink attempting to fathom out how socialism could come about. While socialism was by far the most powerful challenge both politically and ideologically to capitalist rule, opposition has also come from various forms of fascism and, more recently, from fundamentalist Islam.

In the developed world only two types of regime have existed until now: one is the capitalist system, often but not always, operating in a democratic or semi-democratic polity. The other was the rule of communist parties in Europe, Asia and a few other outposts; historical communism constituted a significant global force during what Eric Hobsbawm called the short century 1917-89. Under both capitalism and state socialism, however, there has always been a strata or class of people who possessed disproportionate wealth and power, though inequality was greatest in capitalist countries, most of which most of the time were, ironically, democracies.

Much traditional Marxist writing has sought to identify and clarify the capitalist state per se. While such an approach is not incorrect, I think it fails to capture what can be seen as three specific forms of elite rule and state formation over the last century or so.

The first is repressive rule through the authoritarian state. The elites maintain their rule by using the military and police to restrict civic rights (freedom of speech, assembly, etc) and these regimes either have no elections or else corrupt the electoral process. We can assume that the majority of the people, if they had the choice, would vote the existing political elite out of office and vote in politicians who would attempt to bring about fundamental regime change. Regimes of this kind have been present in Europe: fascist Germany and Italy until the end of the end of the Second World War, or Spain, Portugal and Greece until the 1970s are examples. All the former communist countries had political regimes of this type.

The second is ideological rule, which historically has only occurred in capitalist countries. All of these regimes have had a large measure of civil liberty and competitive elections, though of course behind the state there is still a repressive arm. The ruling elites maintain their privileges in several ways. First, they are able to convince the majority of people that they are better rulers than the leaders of left wing parties, a goal which is achieved though their dominance in the media and often by means of approving concessions, such as social welfare. Second, the leaders of left-wing parties are co-opted into the political elite and/or end up compromising their social democratic goals to acquire or keep office. Third, the power of capital as a ‘pressure group’ is so huge it can usually force left-wing governments to compromise. In Western Europe until recently this has been the pattern of politics: political elites seeing off, co-opting or compromising moderate social democracy. In every case the majority of people have been convinced not to back parties seriously contemplating radical social change.

The third is post-ideological rule. In western Europe the long-term trend in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century was for the left to grow in strength and for ideological rule to replace repressive rule. However since the 1980s, and after 1989 in particular, the left – social democratic, communist, or liberal – has collapsed as a political force. The reasons for this are several, but the result is to create a society where capitalist power, and the groups which benefit from it, face no serious organised challenge at all. Working people shun politics altogether. Everyone who suffers economically individualises his or her pain; they filter their alienation through music, drugs and on-line virtual contacts. Community and shared meaning evaporate and are replaced with cults, mysticism or sheer isolation. Logic, argument and intellectual debate disappear in favour of the soundbite or the fatuous. Political competition in democracies comes more and more to focus on spin and trivia (e.g. bald leaders are never elected, etc) as the fundamental assumption of the system are increasingly unquestioned.

Of course this trichotomy is only a rough and ready one. Particular states at particular times are likely to combine elements from all three ideal types. The model is problematic in dealing with situations where ‘ideological rule’ is maintained by and within one ethnic group while another faces a repressive rule; e.g. Palestinians in Israel, or indeed the social underclass in the US or Britain today. Nonetheless I believe the trichotomy is very clear in describing the overall political model in Western Europe as regards the movement from ‘repressive’ to ‘ideological’ and then to ‘post-ideological’ rule.

The trichotomy can be clarified by mean of a joke. The devil is showing a newcomer around Hell. In the first room there are a group of people sitting in a barrel of shit. The man asks, ‘Why don’t they get out?’ ‘Ah,’ says the devil, ‘they can’t because there is a soldier there with a gun waiting to shoot anyone who tries.’ They go into the second room where there are another group sitting in a barrel of shit. The man notices, though, that the soldier is asleep, so he asks ‘why don’t they get out?’ ‘Well,’ says the devil, ‘look, there’s a TV screen telling them how nice and warm it is in barrel compared with outside.’ They go into a third room and the man again sees a group of people sitting in a barrel of shit, once again the soldier is asleep, but this time the TV is just showing pop videos. ‘So why don’t they get out?’ asks the man. ‘Well,’ says the devil, ‘they’re busy watching the videos and they don’t know that there’s life outside the barrel.’

Post-ideological rule came into full bloom in the mid 2000s both in Europe and North America. It was reinforced by the myth of eternal economic growth financed on credit; a boom in which all but the poorest would find fulfilment in ever-expanding private consumption. Yet, the economic base of that society shattered in the financial crisis which exploded in the autumn of 2008, leading to soaring unemployment, bankruptcy and economic despair. One feels writing today (July 2009) that the car has gone over the cliff, but not yet hit the rocks. We are seeing the end of a political era without being able to find the birth of a new one. The whole society remains limp in inactive anticipation. Politically not much has happened, even if fascist parties have won some electoral backing across Europe. We are in phoney war where the post-ideological model, in it present form at any rate, has come to an end but failed to disappear.


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