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In democracies, we are used to politics being largely carried out via political parties. Parties are used to mobilize voters before an election, and to discuss policy platforms and figure out which policies might work best and have the most support. But not only democracies have parties. The Nazi and Communist Parties, for example, functioned long after democratic contestation ended in their countries. But what did they do? How were they useful to the regime? (And how can we use those concepts in worldbuilding?)

The most “natural” use for a political party, even in a tyranny, is to incorporate the people into political life. (This is the main function of parties in a democracy—mobilizing potential supporters so they will vote for you.) In a regime without contested elections, mobilizing the people may still be important; we noted previously that some regimes want the people to be politically active in a way that augments the regime’s power. In early Communist China, for example, the relatively stunted state had few institutional structures that reached down to the village level. Political control needed to be exercised by Party cadres in the villages, who took direction from the leadership and then carried it out in their local settings without formal oversight.

But what about regimes that demobilize the people, and in fact want the people to butt out of politics altogether? Why have a political party then?

For one thing, a party is useful to a dictator who is taking over an existing government, and has to deal with existing bureaucracies or security forces that might resist his orders. By organizing a political party, you can sidestep notional hierarchies and systems by imposing your own parallel system, responsive to control from the top, through which you can direct the government’s behavior outside of “official channels.” Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, wrote extensively about how the Nazi and Communist Parties subverted the existing state institutions in Germany and the former Russian Empire.

Another real-world reason, even if absurd, is “dictator envy.” All the cool dictators had political parties, says the local tinpot dictator, so I want one too! For example, Mobutu Sese Seko, dictator of Congo/Zaire, created the Popular Movement of the Revolution in 1967, ostensibly to represent the “national revolution” which legitimized him. In practice, its ideology was incoherent, being “neither left, nor right, nor even center” and calling for a repudiation of “both capitalism and communism.” Essentially, Mobutu’s party was another way of formalizing his absolute control over the country.

A more intellectually interesting reason was pointed out by Beatriz Magaloni. She noted that an absolute ruler faces an unexpected problem when dealing with subordinates: because the ruler can do whatever she wants at any time, even her most essential subordinates cannot trust her. History is replete with rulers who decided to execute their advisors on a whim.

Some rulers enjoy creating this kind of uncertainty; but it comes with problems as well. A subordinate who is constantly keeping an eye on Plan B is not going to be as efficient a functionary for the ruler as one who trusts the ruler to keep her bargains, and is thus motivated to serve the ruler well. An even bigger problem is that if the subordinates cannot trust the ruler, then the ruler cannot trust the subordinates either; she can never dare to give up her hold on power, or she will soon find herself before a hastily-formed firing squad, or swinging from a lamppost.

This is particularly true if the ruler is faced with strong opponents, and wants to co-opt them into her government. Any offer of power that the ruler makes would have to be better than the power than an opponent already has, which is dicey since the whole point of co-opting an opponent is to remove him as a threat.

In this reading, a single-party system can actually serve as a commitment device for both sides. The party provides an institutional structure and a career path for young subordinates to follow, with some assurances that one’s position wouldn’t be summarily stripped from him whenever the ruler feels like it. By the same token, the party provides relatively predictable mechanisms for the dictator to transfer power to a trusted successor, and gratefully head off into a safe and long retirement.

Magaloni found that single-party regimes tended to last longer than pure military dictatorships; moreover, after the end of the Cold War, most autocratic regimes were actually hegemonic-party regimes, that had the ruler’s political party in control but had also legalized opposition parties. Magaloni argued that allowing other parties strengthened the usefulness of the ruling party as a commitment device; if party members were dissatisfied, they could credibly threaten to jump ship to the opposition.

This is a brutally short treatment of Magaloni’s argument, and I recommend reading the whole article if you can. In any case, few works of speculative fiction really make use of the possibilities of a tyrannical regime’s official political party. The machinations of party politics offer another avenue to really spice up your story.

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)