From Dictatorship to Democracy

One of the world's leading thinkers and activists for advancing democratic governance through non-violent action is Gene Sharp. He founded the Albert Einstein Institute and is a multiple-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as recipient of many other notable awards. He has authored many books, but one of his most influential and most widely translated books, as well as one of the most widely referred to books by non-violent activists, is "From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation" (1993, original). Famously, the book includes a list of 198 methods of non-violent action.

Sharp writes in the preface to the book that "the focus of this essay [it was originally written as a series for activists] is on the generic problem of how to destroy a dictatorship and to prevent the rise of a new one" (p. xix). At the outset, the author makes clear that in most instances of dictatorship, violent action will not work: "Whatever the merits of the violent option, however, one point is clear. By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority" (p. 6). The alternative advocated by Sharp is non-violent action.

How? Quite succinctly, the author summarizes (p. 12): "When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost then one has four immediate tasks:

  • One must strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills;
  • One must strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people;
  • One must create a powerful internal resistance force;
  • One must develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully."

Navigating the actions and reactions of a dictatorial government and its supporters requires close monitoring and analysis. Sharp does not delve into the academics of the matter, and summarizes the key factors relating to success as: "(1) the relative desire of the populace to impose limits on the government's power; (2) the relative strength of the subjects' independent organizations and institutions to withdraw collectively the sources of power; and (3) the population's relative ability to withhold their consent and assistance" (p. 33).

The book is not all positivity and encouragement. There are strong warnings about the costs as well as the responsibilities involved. For example, even "when the oppressive system was brought down, lack of planning on how to handle the transition to a democratic system has contributed to the emergence of a new dictatorship" (p. 61). In other words, all the action and all the costs can re-create the system that was fought against if long term, strategic planning is not a part of the struggle. Furthermore, Sharp emphasizes not just the planning of power, but the re-distribution of it: "The effect of nonviolent struggle is not only to weaken and remove dictators but also to empower the oppressed. This technique enables people who formerly felt themselves to be only pawns or victims to wield power directly in order to gain by their own efforts greater freedom and justice… One important long-term beneficial consequence of the use of nonviolent struggle for establishing democratic government is that the society will be more capable of dealing with continuing and future problems… The population experienced in the use of political defiance is less likely to be vulnerable to future dictatorships." (p. 121-122).
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Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

Acemoglu and Robinson are most well known for their book Why Nations Fail. This thought provoker post covers an earlier work, from 2006: Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Parts of this book are heavy with the formulas; so those wary of economics and mathematics, and interested in more of the social sciences side of political science, the book is still recommended, but you may wish to selectively read what you find relevant.

The question:

  • "Why does a nondemocratic elite ever democratize? Since democracy will bring a shift of power in favor of the citizens, why would the elite ever create such a set of institutions? We argue that this is only because the disenfranchised citizens can threaten the elite and force it to make concessions. These threats can take the form of strikes, demonstrations, riots, and – in the limit – a revolution. Because these actions impose costs on the elite, it will try to prevent them. It can do so by making concessions, by using repression to stop social unrest and revolution, or by giving away its political power and democratizing." (p. xii)

On people power:

  • "The evidence is, therefore, consistent with the notion that most moves toward democracy happen in the face of significant social conflict and possible threat of revolution. Democracy is usually not given by the elite because its values have changed. It is demanded by the disenfranchised as a way to obtain political power and thus secure a larger share of the economic benefits of the system." (p. 29)

And, it limits:

  • "In our framework, democracy arises from conflict between elites and disenfranchised majorities who are prepared to accept democracy rather than something more radical because it gives them more political power than nondemocracy." (p. 35)

On policies and institutions:

  • "For us, the main difference between policies and institutions is their "durability" and the ability of institutions to influence the allocation of political power in the future. Policies are much easier to reverse, whereas institutions are more durable. Moreover, institutions determine how the political preferences of various groups are aggregated into social choices. Therefore, introducing a set of institutions today influences how powerful different social groups will be not only today but also tomorrow." (p. 177)

On the middle class:

  • "…the analysis in this chapter reveals that the middle class plays an important role in the emergence of democracy in a number of ways: (1) it can be the driving force for democracy, especially for the emergence of partial democracy; (2) it can be in favor of the poor being included in the political arena, facilitating a move from partial to full democracy; (3) perhaps most interesting, it can act as a buffer between the rich and the poor by ensuring that democracy will not be very antirich and, therefore, dissuading the rich from using repression or mounting coups; and (4) when it is in power together with the rich, it can play the role of softliners against repression and in favor of a transition to democracy, which is less costly for the middle class than for the rich." (p. 258)

The future of democracy:

  • "…the most important sources of extra power for the elites in democracy are their control of the party system and, thus, the political agenda and their ability to form an effective lobby against certain policies. Do we expect the elites to be able to do so more effectively in the future? There are two reasons for suspecting that the answer may be yes… If so, we might expect democracies to become less pro-majority in time… " (p. 359)
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Logan Cochrane

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