Is Authoritarianism a Necessary Evil?

We're all in agreement that "development" is a good thing. In other words, we all agree that all else being equal, it is better for a nation and its people to be richer rather than poorer. Rich countries are more able to support "human rights," because goods and services that people want will trickle down in richer countries regardless of the structure of the state. Zakaria makes (or cites) this same point, but he retreats from the obvious conclusions and invents a false one, ascribing to poor countries the problems that plague all countries. It is critical to ask how rich countries became so.

The typical answer is given by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman (2000:102), who argues that the rich countries became so through embracing a form of state capitalism mandating austere property laws, governmental restriction of labor flows, the opening of markets to foreign competition and cuts in social services, policies currently carried out throughout the Third World by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization (Peet and Harwick 2009:85-87). The scholarly literature is similar. In his celebrated work The Bottom Billion (2007), Oxford economist Paul Collier calls for expansion of foreign aid (2007:100) and neoliberal-style markets (2007:88), while dismissing the arguably relevant facts that “aid indeed makes a coup more likely” (2007:105) and “the exodus of capital from the [poorest countries] was only phase one of the global integration of the bottom billion. Phase two will be an exodus of educated people” (2007:94). He claims that practitioners of development should resist the temptation to focus on “photogenic social priorities – health and education” (2007:108) in favor of infrastructure projects like roads and ports and, if citizens resist, “military intervention” (2007:124).

These theories are bald neoliberal lies, used to elide history and support the inequitable status quo.

In reality, “almost all recent cases of collapses into anarchy were preceded by heavy World Bank and IMF involvement” (Easterly 2006:67) and every developed country became so through state protection of industry (Chang 2008:15-16; Peet and Harwick 2009:50-51) with the critical support of colonial violence (Chomsky 1999:7-11).

All the rich countries I have studied (I can't speak to Iceland, Norway or Finland) were colonizers or the offshoots of colonizers (N. Zealand, etc.). Although natural resources within the current national boundaries are indeed important (US), imperial countries like England and Japan did not get their wealth because of their access to strategic fishing habitats, but because they stole their capital (human and natural) from other countries, like India and China. (Colonialism was much more brutal in India than it was in China, which explains their current levels of wealth much more than their citizens' abilities to vote). So the options available to the United States - enslave some 15 million people and conquer every land you can through genocide - are not really available to poor countries trying to become rich these days, at least not realistically or to the extent that they were in the past. My point in saying all this is that the development of the rich countries makes the crimes carried out in Uzbekistan look like a summer stroll. Genocide and slavery have led to development, political "democracy" never has yet. Give people in poor countries a right to vote and what can they do (Bolivia is uber-democratic but remains the poorest country in South America)?

This is not the same thing as saying genocide and slavery are necessary for development, nor is it the same thing as saying political participation ("democracy") never helps the masses. S. Korea (and Israel) are very important examples in this respect. S. Korea was dissimilar from the reconstructed European and Japanese powers, because it did not have an educated workforce. In 1960 S. Korea was an extremely poor country, lacking much of a resource base to "develop," but after thirty years, "Korea ’s progress is as if Haiti had turned into Switzerland" (Chang 2008: 12). How did this happen? The domino theory could be given credit for doing some good in this respect. Unlike S. Vietnam, which was mostly destroyed by military excursions to deter "communism," S. Korea was mostly developed through economic clientelism to do so. In other words, it was a showcase for "capitalism," developing an entire country to demonstrate to the world that "freedom" triumphs over "authoritarianism." This should give pause to the claim that there is current "nation building" going on Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else, rather than support of puppet regimes in America's interests, because the United States government actually does know how to develop countries: through state protectionism (tariffs, gov't investment in start-up companies, subsidies, gov't planning of industry, but capitalist [market] control of smaller decision making. Think US economy in 1930s-World War II or now (can you think of an American industry that doesn't benefit from government handouts?). As an aside, FDRoosevelt was probably the most popular president in US history, but he was also the most authoritarian of the 20th century. There was minimal dissent in the country at this time and almost all Americans would have agreed with the logic of your Uzbek friend, although they probably would have used different terms ("freedom," "democracy," "capitalism," etc.) to describe what was happening.). The US-installed strongman in S. Korea, General Chun, kept things in line with brutal force:

"Consider the response when General Chun’s military dictatorship in South Korea crushed the democracy movement in Kwangju in May 1980. Paratroopers ‘carried out three days of barbarity with the zeal of Nazi storm troopers,’ an Asia Watch investigative mission reported, ‘beating, stabbing, and mutilating unarmed civilians, including children, young girls, and aged grandmothers.’ Two thousand people were killed in this rampage, they estimate. The US received two requests for assistance: the citizens committee that had called for democracy requested help in negotiations; General Chun requested the release of 20,000 troops under US command to join the storm troopers. The latter request was honored, and US naval and air units were deployed in a further show of US support. ‘Koreans who had expected help from Carter were dumbfounded,’ Tim Shorrock writes, as ‘the news of direct support from the US was broadcast to the people of Kwangju from helicopters and proclaim throughout the nation in blazing newspaper headlines.’ A few days later Carter sent the head of the Export-Import Bank to Seoul to assure the military junta of US economic support, approving a $600 million loan. As Chun took over the presidency by force, Carter said that while we would prefer democracy, ‘The Koreans are not ready for that, according to their own judgment.’" (Chomsky 1999:99-100).

I would agree with the argument that there are two strands of human rights: political/civic and social/economic (Peck 2011). These would follow a conventional capitalist/American and communist/Soviet breakdown: America has strong freedom of speech, and to a lesser extent assembly and political participation, compared with the Soviet Union, which had strong social/economic rights (in 1989 the poverty rate was 1-2% and there were no millionaires in the country (Klein 2008:231)).

I think that mentioning China as the classic case of authoritarianism falls victim to the mythology of the cold war; the Chinese government is very popular among its people, despite news accounts in this country. The Chinese revolution was actually very democratic, unlike the American revolution, which contained the fruits and seeds of horrendous ethnocide. There has been a lot of violence in China during and since, but far less than in the history of our own country. So I would reject the standard definitions of democracy, authoritarianism and human rights, and instead reach for a broader definition encompassing material rights even more so than political rights. I would reject the dichotomy between authoritarianism and democracy, because the two have many overlapping facets and are not as universally repressive or liberatory as is often fantasized.

As to the ultimate question, "Is authoritarianism a necessary evil?" I think the answer is, we can only hope that someday development and all of our society will proceed without violence, but I think that hope is an impossible goal. Until then, maybe we can do something to mitigate the suffering heretofore inherent to all development.


Chang, Ha-Joon. 2008. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. Bloomsbury.

Chomsky, Noam. 1999. Year 501: The Conquest Continues. South End.

Collier, Paul. 2007. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done about It. Oxford University.

Easterly, William. 2006. The White Man’s Burden. Penguin.

Friedman, Thomas. 2000. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Macmillan.

Klein, Naomi. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador.

Peck, James. 2011. Ideal Illusions: How the US Government Co-opted Human Rights. Metropolitan.

Peet, Richard and Elaine Hartwick. 2009. Theories of Development: Contentions, Arguments, Alternatives. 2nd ed. Guilford.

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