One of the things I like about blogging, as opposed to academic writing, is the freedom to try out partly developed ideas and speculative hypotheses. On the whole, I think it’s worked well for me. But it does entail the risk of getting things badly wrong, as I did in this post a few years back, predicting the end of tyranny in the historical sense “absolute rule by an individual who has seized power, rather than acquiring it by inheritance or election”. Not only did I underestimate the number of such rulers who were still around (a point made in comments by Doug Muir), but, by ruling out election, I drew a spurious distinction about the way in which such rulers come to power.
More importantly, I posted at what looks in retrospect like a turning point. Dictatorship, or at least, authoritarian personal rule, seems to be re-emerging all around the world, mostly through the suppression of opposition by rulers who originally came to power through democratic elections
I was reminded of all this by the election of Trump in the US, which happened to occur on the same day (9 November or 18 Brumaire in the revolutionary calendar) as the coup that brought Bonaparte to power in France. That was followed by the death of Fidel Castro, the last big name among the old-style Bonapartist rulers about whom I was writing.
The continuing fame of 18 Brumaire rests not on the fact that it was the date of the original coup by Napoleon, but on Marx’s essay “The 18 Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, referring to the 1851 seizure of power by Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, who ruled France for 20 years as Napoleon III. The famous line that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” serves as Louis Napoleon’s epitaph.
Coming back to the point, the previous post ended with a puzzle
don’t have a good theory to explain the rise of so many tyrants in the modern period, beginning with Bonaparte (or maybe Cromwell), or the sharp decline of this form of government from around the mid-1960s.Now that the decline looks as if it may have been temporary, the question of why dictatorship emerges, and how it can be resisted, is more urgent than ever.