Dictators and Dictatorships

A dictator is a kind of autocratic—or despotic—ruler, that is, someone who wields power with little or no accountability and therefore is not much limited by formal or informal restrictions. Unlike absolute monarchs, whose authority is based on heritage and religion, dictators and tyrants—typically males—are usually upstarts; their position is typically unsteady and dubious, driving them to rely on menace and violence as their last resort. All of these traits together contribute to surveillance being an essential component of dictatorships. If monitoring people is necessary, to some extent, for any kind of government, it is even more so when power is extremely centralized, censorship hinders conventional feedback, and the position of the de facto sovereign is relatively insecure. Paradoxically, notwithstanding their claims to be the best guarantors of peace and order, dictators are usually apprehensive and distrustful of everyone, including their subjects, underlings, and even deputies. Therefore, they seek ways to control them all in order to both reduce their own uncertainty and burden them with hesitation and fear.

Surveillance Under Dictatorships

Although there are always gray areas in any political system, and the broad scope of surveillance under dictatorships makes the existence of clear-cut boundaries still more arguable, a basic differentiation between external and internal surveillance can be introduced for the sake of clarity. On the one hand, external surveillance focuses on those who are targeted as enemies by the powers that be—either for an attributed stigma or because they actively try to undermine the government—or simply are thought to be disaffected, too passive, or just indifferent. On the other hand, internal surveillance deals with the behavior of those who are supposedly loyal to the regime, including members of the political and economic establishment, the security forces, and stalwarts and followers of the official—usually single—party and/or its affiliates. External surveillance has received more scholarly attention than internal surveillance, partly because the former is thought to be more important for the preservation of the state of affairs, and often less information about the latter is available, but also because it is easy to buy the self-presentation of dictatorship as a coherent, monolithic apparatus.

A long tradition that goes back to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) depicts this kind of government as a controlling, peacemaking machine devoted to asserting its authority over private, partisan interests. However, even autocratic governments are necessarily based on some kind of political and social coalition; therefore, they have to deal with many domestic disputes to stay in power, with the supreme leader acting as quite an unstable arbitrator. The extent of those quarrels and the extent to which dictatorships can actually be driven by startling levels of inner chaos was pointed out in Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1944). The title, borrowed from other work of Hobbes describing the English Civil War of the 1600s, was used by Neumann to portray the convulsed operation of the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s as a hardly veiled state of war among organizations, groups, and individuals, which fiercely fought one another to prevail, while closing ranks to achieve collective aims, including holding their common enemies at bay. Thus, Leviathan (order by force) and Behemoth (the force of chaos) represent two sides of the same coin, and they need to be studied together as surveillance is a perennial feature in both mechanisms.

Ever since the dawn of the contemporary period, the changes associated with the liberal and industrial revolutions—such as the establishment of the nation-state, the expansion of communications, rural flight, the improvement of literacy, increased social mobility, and the faltering but unstoppable politicization of the masses—exerted a strong pressure on governments to update and expand surveillance resources and procedures. Some autocracies were able to survive for a few more decades——due to, among other reasons, their ability to modernize their political police, as happened with the Okhrana in Tsarist Russia. Often in spite of the Enlightenment-inspired principles of freedom and equality before the law, the postrevolutionary political systems, in Europe and elsewhere, also improved on the strong-arm and intelligence apparatuses inherited from the absolute monarchies, especially in those cases in which the military gained influence due to their increasing role in both curbing social protest and making governments, if not as strongmen, warlords, or even genuine dictators. On these matters, the self-proclaimed French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1804–1814) was a well-known trailblazer.

In the first half of the 20th century, new kinds of dictatorships guided by innovative, revolutionary political doctrines, such as Marxism-Leninism and fascism, took advantage of the technical advances derived from the second industrial revolution—especially in the field of mass media—to both mobilize the population of their countries and control every aspect of their daily life. Together with the most cited examples of the Soviet Union under Stalinism (1929–1953) and Nazi Germany (1933–1945), other dictatorships inspired by communism and fascism were established before and after World War II in Eastern Europe and Asia. Under these so-called totalitarian regimes, surveillance reached its peak, since it became, together with repression, censorship, and propaganda, the backbone of governance, as depicted in well-known literary accounts such as the omniscient Big Brother from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Systematic wiring of private communications, police infiltration into any suspicious group, and a widespread network of collaborators and informers were essential resources to both dominate the country and prevent dissenters from organizing in a productive way. Well-studied cases such as the vast web weaved by the Stasi, the political police of the so-called German Democratic Republic (1949–1990), reveal the extent to which state surveillance was able to penetrate everyday experience.

Limitations and Long-Term Costs

However, those ambitious projects of social control had their own limitations. Even when counting on both the technology available at that time and broad grassroots collaboration, the very aim of covering every member of an entire society proved to be unrealistic because each group and individual had their own priorities, including the government officials themselves. The bottom-up information stream was not always reliable since it often aimed to satisfy the expectations of good news rather than to provide an accurate picture of the situation. And despite the tight controls, people managed to whisper their discontent—as happened even in the worst years of Nazism and Stalinism, at home, at the workplace, and in concentration camps. On the other hand, the differentiation between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” regimes, partially based on the extent to which a new kind of monolithic, strongly ideologized state was able to invade and shape private interests and everyday life, has been questioned for diverse reasons. It was used during the Cold War to make some far-right authoritarian dictatorships more presentable as allies of the United States, concealing the fact that some of them—for instance, General Francisco Franco’s New State in Spain—had actually lessened their previous aspirations to absolute power to better match the new circumstances of the postwar era. In addition, even though maintaining the pertinence of distinguishing diverse types of dictatorships, totalitarianism has lately been deemed to be more a tentative project rather than a fulfilled reality, even in the most extreme attempts.

Moreover, the most totalitarian regimes need to manage internal competition, with surveillance being not only an instrument for the dictator to deal with confrontation and conspiracy but also a means for each faction to fight rivals by foreseeing their movements and exploiting their weaknesses. On that matter, the supreme leader is routinely the recipient of many of these surveillance reports, which aim to gain his favor and discredit other groups. This allows the supreme leader to take advantage of a system of crisscrossing surveillance, usually by means of the coexistence of, and competition among, several intelligence services, each affiliated to different sections of the state and to the single party. However, the dictator himself is normally monitored to anticipate his decisions and size up his strength. Such a rule-changing game makes even tough dictatorships more shifting and frail than they normally seem to be. However, if they endure, it is because surveillance also helps ease centrifugal forces, at least in the same way it deters active opposition.

The complex, global cycle of protest that arose in the third quarter of the 20th century, defying the established order of the Cold War, mostly as myriad of youth-based movements fighting authoritarianism, bureaucracy, militarism, imperialism, racism, and conservatism alike, induced further political adaptations, including a new updating of surveillance organizations and methods. In the West, for instance, national intelligence services improved their internal and external coordination by tightening the bonds among agencies that were affiliated to different institutions and governments. The vigorous student mobilizations of the time were watched with apprehension, since they represented disaffection among those who were expected to play a strategic role in the future of the country. Special programs of monitoring, infiltration, and persuasion were implemented in the United States (e.g., COINTELPRO, CHAOS) and other countries to disrupt youth movements, while old intelligence networks inherited from the postwar period, such as the European Gladio, were revived. At the same time, intelligence and police cooperation with existing dictatorships were improved, while a new generation of authoritarian regimes—based on some version of the national security doctrine—were encouraged in the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Most of them resorted to surveillance to identify and neutralize—mostly through an extensive use of violence—any attempt at political change.

Sergio Rodríguez Tejada

See also Authoritarianism ; Fascism ; KGB ; Nazism ; Police State ; School Surveillance: Colleges and Universities ; Surveillance During the Cold War ; Totalitarian Surveillance Societies

Further Readings

Baratieri, Daniela, et al. Totalitarian Dictatorship: New Histories. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014.

Boersema, Keers, et al.Histories of State Surveillance in Europe and Beyond. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014.

Ezrow, Natasha M. and Erica Frantz. Dictators and Dictatorships: Understanding Authoritarian Regimes and Their Leaders. New York, NY: Continuum, 2011.

Figes, Orlando. The Whisperers. Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2007.

Johnson, Eric. Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999.

Suri, Jeremi. Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Weiner, Amir and Ahigi Rahi-Tamm. “Getting to Know You: The Soviet Surveillance System, 1939–57.” Kritika: Exploration in Russian and Eurasian History, v.13/1 (2012).

Wintrobe, Ronald. The Political Economy of Dictatorship. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.