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Reflections on dictatorship and revolution


Welcome to my first rant at my new place. After two weeks of no internet and trading on my phone I’m finally back full time. I know I promised to tear apart hedge funds and investment managers, friends, and associates who tell us how much we should and shouldn’t be making, but political circumstances being what they are, I thought it would be fun to write a little about revolutions.

There are many out there across the political spectrum talking about how great the Egypt situation is. The youth of a country have apparently risen up in a popular outcry against a ruthless dictator. This is a step forward for democracy, is their argument. Let me start by saying that I am far from pro-Mubarak or pro dictator in any country. I love Democracy as much as the next guy and having the philosophical mindset I do, I have complete respect for human dignity, individual liberty, our gift of self-determination and the natural law granting universal liberties to all mankind. That being said, I have studied history (and even have a degree in the subject – among others) and I am able to separate my naive idealism from the harsh realities of world history.

Once upon a time, a while back, there was a man born of what would have been considered a fairly modest background. In generations past, his family enjoyed good standing both politically and socially. Over time, and through the neglect that often accompanies generational wealth, his family had fallen on less than stellar times. Some relatives were employed in less than socially acceptable occupations. This individual, though fairly well educated, was nothing special. Enjoying no special privilege that would enhance his aspirations, he did what was typical of aspiring members in his social class. He joined the military and through his subsequent service, distinguished himself greatly. He eventually rose in politics holding a governorship as well as other high offices.

It’s time to know a little more about the society which bore this rising star. The form of government may be known as a republic, but not in the sense we are accustomed to. The country was ruled by an elite group of aristocrats who neither cared for nor enjoyed any particular popular support. They were in effect a corrupt group of old rich men squabbling amongst themselves while the nation’s infrastructure was left to decay and the civil liberties of their allies were repressed.

Eventually our star was appointed head of the government. Situations being what they were, he was given power over a large military force to quell civil unrest and secure borders in distant parts of the country. Our friend here, seeing the iniquities in his countries government, eventually turned his armies on the capital city and forced the legislature to “declare” him dictator. Under the guise of protecting the established political infrastructure this gave him the legal authority, under their constitution, to do basically whatever he wanted. He imposed a long list of civil reforms on the nation and the government. He was legally above the law. And with that power came proscriptions of his enemies; imprisonments of his opponents, murders and forced suicides. All deemed legal because his word and wish was law. After “reforming” the political structure of his country, he did the unthinkable.

Rather than remaining to exploit his power, he returned governmental authority to the legislature and quietly retired.
You see, this man did not see himself as a ruthless dictator killing all who stood in his way. He saw himself as an idealistic political and social reformer there to tweak and fix a broken system. That’s what dictators generally do. They see themselves as somehow uniquely above the law. Rather than working for gradual evolution of a political infrastructure, they take it upon themselves to impose radical reform on the citizens. These dictators generally intend to return power to “the people” after their reforms are imposed. A noble ideal no doubt. The problem is this almost always sets a violent precedent for others to follow. If so and so could rise in such distinction, centralizing power unto himself thereby acquiring riches and fame unimaginable, so can I. See, the next guy, or maybe the one after him doesn’t have these noble goals. They have dictatorship in mind.

This man of whom I have just written could be almost any dictator throughout history. He was not however, Mubarak, Castro, Chavez, Ahmadinejad or Hussein. He was not one of those evil “reformers” of our last century. He was not Stalin, Lenin, Marks, Hitler, Mao or any of their ilk. He was not a medieval monarch. Nor was he the man who’s very name is now synonymous with dictatorship. He was that man’s predecessor.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla, born in 138 bc was the generation before Julius Caesar. (and in fact, tried to have young Caesar killed because Caesar’s family opposed Sulla’s reign of terror). But his story could easily be applied to any of the names I mentioned above. Sulla was in some sense, the archetype emulated by subsequent dictators. He was an ambitious idealist. For his apologists, he is a political reformer who worked tirelessly to guarantee individual liberties and promote greater representation for the nation’s citizens. For his opponents, he is a ruthless murderer; a bloodthirsty madman drunk with power and obsessed with personal glory and power.

Why do I say all this, well partially because I like to hear myself write. But mostly, because history is repeating itself. We now have a once stable nation in an otherwise shaky region of the world stretching their democratic wings. They have thrown out a man rising from more modest backgrounds than he obtained. This individual rose through the military and distinguished himself through his abilities. Like Sulla, he was “elected” to lead his nation, and subsequently centralized authority around his position. Now, we are witnessing a revolution.

But a revolution of what and supported by whom? Revolutions by themselves create power vacuums often filled by those most organized and with the biggest stick. What legal authority does the military of a nation have to dissolve its legislature and quell “peaceful” protests through threat of force. Yes, their military is smart enough to play both sides. They take off their uniforms and march with the citizens when it suits their political needs. But lest we forget, this military was put in place by Mubarak. He rose from their ranks. They are in many ways one and the same. Those Mubarak “Thugs” guilty of harassing the citizens, protestors, and reporters, are the same people now in power. Egypt has traded a dictator for a military junta and for some reason consider themselves better off. This is not democratic.

Hitler was democratically and peacefully elected from a minority party to lead his country. Who is to say a member of the Muslim Brotherhood will not be Egypt’s next president? Who is to say a Sulla or Caesar from the military won’t take advantage of this vacuum and assume power? Do not celebrate too quickly for the citizens of Egypt. They have done nothing yet.

It is easy to overthrow a government through popular or military uprising. It is much harder to install a functioning representative government insuring individual rights and guaranteeing liberty for all the citizens. Egypt is far from this goal. I wish the people of Egypt the best in their quest for greater liberty. They are far from their destination and until the dust settles, I cannot share in this naive idealistic jubilation. Rejoice if you must, but know that these celebrations distract from the real work that is to come.

  1. Marcia permalink

    Well said. I guess our job now is to keep praying with gusto!

  2. Hey Tim,
    I think part of the problem is that there is; as you suggest; a naive but widely held belief that simply removing such an individual is a solution in itself. Often, there is little thought about how the gap that is left after the individual is displaced will be filled. As you rightly suggest, the ultimate result is always the same; a vacuum that typically leads to struggles for power amongst those that remain. Another obvious recent example is that of Iraq; the overthrowing of Hussein was not a solution in itself.

    It still seems amazing to me that despite the countless lessons across history, we have yet to find an adequate solution to plugging the gap that ultimately follows any such uprising. Easier said than done I suppose.


  3. Chris,

    I believe throughout history mankind tends towards greater individual liberty, but this process is generally slow. Cromwell didn’t work out very well in your country if I recall correctly. Often, the mindset of the citizens has to catch up to the philosophy.

    I’m sure there are internal details about Egypt I know little of that opponents of my position will quote in support of how wonderful and possibly successful this movement is. But bottom line is, the country has a lot more work to do if they want to install a stable democratic government, representative of the people, and still cognisant of the rights of their minorities.

    I think this revolution, being essentially leaderless, can be very dangerous.

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