In my book Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice and Terror, I delve into how various forms of tyranny, dictatorship and populist demagoguery have a detailed and fascinating history reaching back to ancient Greece.
The Birth of Tyranny
Tyranny was first experienced on a large scale by the ancient Greeks — both from the external threat posed to their small city-states by the mighty Persian empire and from the tendency of their own politics to veer between extremes of tyranny and anarchy. A change in government usually meant the new winners would oppress the previous winners, prosecuting them and seizing their property. Responsible self-government under the rule of law was fragile.
Different categories of tyrannies emerged over the ages that have helped to classify and condemn tyranny and other exploitative forms of authority, and to encourage self-governing societies. We can still apply those categories today.
America’s Founding Fathers, in fact, were among those so deeply concerned about avoiding tyranny, either from a single politician or a majority mob, that they developed a system of government to thwart it. Echoing ancient students of politics like Plato and Sallust, Alexander Hamilton warned against a potential “Catiline or Caesar” arising in democracy’s midst disguised as the people’s champion.
Tyrants Who Run Their Countries Like Mafia Dons
For sheer exploitation, these are the oldest type in their class, and still the most widespread today. Plato would have instantly recognized Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, for example. The wealth and autocratic power of such tyrants are often accompanied by cruelty and hedonism, from the sexual perversions of Nero to Muammar Gaddafi’s abused female bodyguards and rumours of Kim Jong-un killing his uncle by setting wild dogs upon him.
Tyrants Who Want Acclaim and Influence
As far back as Alexander the Great, the Tudors and “enlightened despots” like Frederick the Great, we’ve also seen tyrannical autocrats who want to build large, powerful and prosperous states with some benefits for ordinary people, but without sharing power. Putin and the state oligarchy of China are examples.
These tyrants are rational actors open to bargaining with foreign adversaries, but not necessarily in the Western manner. Imperial clout in their self-proclaimed spheres of influence, prestige, national honour — all may mean as much to them as economic prosperity; perhaps more.
Finally, there are the totalitarians, like the Bolsheviks, the Nazis and Khmer Rouge who want a collectivist utopia, submerging the individual in a monolithic, all-encompassing state. Typically such regimes, going back to the Jacobins and the French Revolution, involve genocide against imagined class or racial enemies, as well as foreign conquest as they endeavour to extend the blessings of the coming world collective to all mankind.
Today’s terrorist movements, including ISIS, share similar Utopian aims, now rebranded from Communism and National Socialism to the coming worldwide caliphate, requiring the same genocidal means and imperialistic expansion. Their aims and methods owe far more to Robespierre and Lenin than to genuine Islam. Terrorists are totalitarian tyrants in waiting.
These different kinds of tyrannical or demagogical threats to freedom have been dealt with in different ways — and will continue to be dealt with.