The Imperative of Regime Survival

27 July 2009


Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda, on the left, shown with Augusto Pinochet, was once the longest tenured dictator in the Western hemisphere, but that title now belongs to Fidel Castro.

Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda, on the left, shown with Augusto Pinochet, was once the longest tenured dictator in the Western hemisphere, but that title now belongs to Fidel Castro.

Revolution is an existential struggle. There is one group, out of power, that seeks to seize power for itself, perhaps in the name of an ideal or for the good of the state and its people, while there is another group, in power, that seeks to remain in power, again, perhaps in the name of an ideal of for the good of the state and its people. Between the two is a war to the knife.

Revolution is much discussed as a force in modern history, and we considered the role of Revolution in Western history yesterday in Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. But what of the forces that resist revolution? What of those who would be displaced by revolution? Revolutions do not occur in a vacuum, and, as an existential struggle, a revolution has committed enemies who will do whatever it takes to prevent a revolution from occurring just as the revolutionaries themselves would do anything to foment a revolution.

On the other side of the forces of revolution, there is the imperative of regime survival. Survival, as we well know, is a powerful instinct. It is not all-powerful, however, and admits of exceptions. Just as some men commit suicide in apparent defiance of the will to live, so too some ruling elites commit political suicide and forfeit their rule. But it doesn’t happen often.

Schopenhauer as a young man.

Schopenhauer as a young man.

In a beautiful passage in his short work “Immortality: A Dialogue” (included in the collection Parerga and Paralipomena, but better known as part of the smaller collection Studies in Pessimism), Schopenhauer attempts to show how the will to live, which seems to be the most personal and individual force in nature, is in fact universal, impersonal, and blind to the individual:

Thrasymachos. Don’t you see that my individuality, be it what it may, is my very self? To me it is the most important thing in the world.

For God is God and I am I.

I want to exist, I, I. That’s the main thing. I don’t care about an existence which has to be proved to be mine, before I can believe it.

Philalethes. Think what you’re doing! When you say I, I, I want to exist, it is not you alone that says this. Everything says it, absolutely everything that has the faintest trace of consciousness. It follows, then, that this desire of yours is just the part of you that is not individual—the part that is common to all things without distinction. It is the cry, not of the individual, but of existence itself; it is the intrinsic element in everything that exists, nay, it is the cause of anything existing at all. This desire craves for, and so is satisfied with, nothing less than existence in general—not any definite individual existence.

Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism, “Immortality: A Dialogue”

The dictator or autocrat who seeks the survival of his personal rule (as with Mugabe in Zimbabwe), or seeks the continuation of his family dynasty (as with Kim Jong-il in North Korea), is in the position of Thrasymachos in Schopenhauer’s dialogue, though I doubt the diplomatic community would recognize itself in the role of Philalethes, as the usual response to despots is appeasement rather than reason. And, truly enough, most despots will not see reason.

In this context, “appeasement” means giving reassurance to the personal despot that he will remain in power, and giving assurance to the dynastic despot that his heirs will remain in power, despite whatever changes need to be made in order for the despotic state to enter into the community of nations and to enjoy the advantages that accrue thereby. Appeasement, then, constitutes the opposite of the strategy pursued by Philalethes in the debate: despots are encouraged in their delusions rather than being disillusioned.

Regime survival is predicated upon historical viability, and the despot knows this. But the despot believes that personal or dynastic rule can be made historically viable. As the concepts involved are subtle to a certain degree, no great degree of self-deception is required to not see that historical viability can only be realized by historical entities capable of changing their essential nature, i.e., adaptable to the point of ultimately transforming themselves into that which they are not. While some politicians manage to do just that for the length of their careers, every witness to such a performance knows that the performance will inevitably come to an end.

A perfect case in point is that of Fidel Castro. His personal rule has now been ceded to his brother, Raul (thus making Castro’s a dynastic despotism), who has tinkered a little with the system he inherited but changed nothing of consequence. Everyone knows that Fidel Castro is a mortal man and must die, and that when he dies his personal charisma and presence that constituted the cohesiveness of Cuba since the success of the revolution that he led will die with him. The Cuban state, made dependent upon one man, will be made rootless and anchorless.

The Cubans know this and are well aware of it. They have attempted to address the fact of Fidel Castro’s mortality by attempting to write the revolution into their constitution as a permanent fact of Cuban life, not subject to change, adaptation, or flexibility. In other words, the Cubans — or, rather, the elites of the Cuban ruling communists — have sought to take something that is historically viable — a constitution — and transform it into something that is not historically viable, to insulate their constitution from change, to preserve, as though by fiat, the rule of one man.

And here is how they have attempted to do this. Chapter I, Article 3 of the Cuban constitution reads:

“Socialism, as well as the revolutionary political and social system established by this Constitution, has been forged during years of heroic resistance to the aggression of every kind and economic war waged by the governments of the most powerful imperialist state that has ever existed; it has demonstrated its ability to transform the nation and create an entirely new and just society, and is irrevocable: Cuba will never revert to capitalism.”

(In the original Spanish: “El socialismo y el sistema político y social revolucionario establecido en esta Constitución, probado por años de heroica resistencia frente a las agresiones de todo tipo y la guerra económica de los gobiernos de la potencia imperialista más poderosa que ha existido y habiendo demostrado su capacidad de transformar el país y crear una sociedad enteramente nueva y justa, es irrevocable, y Cuba no volverá jamás al capitalismo.”)

And again in Chapter XV, Article 137:

“This Constitution can only be totally or partially modified by the National Assembly of People’s Power by means of resolutions adopted by roll-call vote by a majority of no less than two-thirds of the total number of members, except as regards: the political, social and economic system, whose irrevocable nature is established by Article 3 of Chapter I; or the provisions of Article 11 proscribing negotiation under aggression, threat or coercion by a foreign power.”

(In the original Spanish: “Esta Constitución sólo puede ser reformada por la Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular mediante acuerdo adoptado, en votación nominal, por una mayoría no inferior a las dos terceras partes del número total de sus integrantes, excepto en lo que se refiere al sistema político, social y económico, cuyo carácter irrevocable lo establece el artículo 3 del Capítulo I, y la prohibición de negociar bajo agresión, amenaza o coerción de una potencia extranjera, como se dispone en el Artículo 11.”)

And this “Special Provision” is appended to the Cuban constitution:

“Between June 15 and 18, 2002, almost the whole of the Cuban people expressed their unconditional support for amendments to the Constitution proposed by an Extraordinary Assembly of all the national headquarters of the mass organizations, held on the 10th of that month. This ratified the entire Constitution of the Republic and proposed that the socialist nature and political and social system it contains be declared irrevocable, as a fitting and categorical response to the demands and threats made by the United States imperialist administration on May 20, 2002. The proposal was approved by the unanimous passing of Resolution No. V-74 at an Extraordinary Session of the Fifth Legislature, held between June 24 and 26, 2002.”

(In the original Spanish: “El pueblo de Cuba, casi en su totalidad, expresó entre los días 15 y 18 del mes de junio del 2002, su más decidido apoyo al proyecto de reforma constitucional propuesto por las organizaciones de masas en asamblea extraordinaria de todas sus direcciones nacionales que había tenido lugar el día 10 del propio mes de junio, en el cual se ratifica en todas sus partes la Constitución de la República y se propone que el carácter socialista y el sistema político y social contenido en ella sean declarados irrevocables, como digna y categórica respuesta a las exigencias y amenazas del gobierno imperialista de Estados Unidos el 20 de mayo del 2002. Lo que fue aprobado por unanimidad de los presentes, mediante el Acuerdo No. V-74 adoptado en sesión extraordinaria de la V Legislatura, celebrada los días 24, 25 y 26 del mes de junio del 2002.”)

Of course, any sane man knows that the kind of presence and charisma that can furnish the basis of state cohesiveness while a despot remains alive cannot be written into a constitution. The best commentary on this absurd Cuban endeavor is to be found in Edward Gibbon: “In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.” (Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.—Part III.”)

Fidel Castro has demonstrated as much historical viability as any one man can, but he is no longer the cigar-smoking youth of his early halcyon revolutionary days.

Fidel Castro has demonstrated as much historical viability as any one man can, but he is no longer the cigar-smoking youth of his early halcyon revolutionary days.

Obviously, the successors cannot be so bound. This was realized, and stated in a fashion both blunt and moving, by Jean-Paul Sartre in his famous lecture, “Existentialism is a Humanism”:

I cannot count upon men whom I do not know, I cannot base my confidence upon human goodness or upon man’s interest in the good of society, seeing that man is free and that there is no human nature which I can take as foundational. I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see. Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what man is then to be. Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be. Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I ought to commit myself and then act my commitment, according to the time-honoured formula that “one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work.” Nor does this mean that I should not belong to a party, but only that I should be without illusion and that I should do what I can. For instance, if I ask myself “Will the social ideal as such, ever become a reality?” I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing.

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” (lecture from 1946, translated by Philip Mairet)

The delusion of perpetual regime survival is based on the self-deception of despots. Sartre was a keen critic of self-deception, but after this lecture he did ultimately side with the communists, and embarrassed himself with many pronouncements in this later years. The Sartre who made excuses for Stalin and mouthed Maoist drivel was but a shadow of the younger Sartre who had the intestinal fortitude to say straight out that we cannot expect others to carry on our work once we are dead. This is true both for groups of people, working to foment a revolution, as well as for despots, blindly striving to prevent a revolution in order to perpetuate their personal or dynastic rule.

French playwright and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is shown in his study in Paris, on November 28, 1948.

French playwright and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is shown in his study in Paris, on November 28, 1948.

It is only because both sides in this struggle — the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionaries alike — are equally deceived that revolutions fail at least as often as they succeed. If one side or another, as a class, was to learn this lesson and to disillusion itself as to the exact nature of its power (which is predicated on the nature of its historical viability), then the side that attained this insight would become a potent force in the history of the world. Until then, not only do the blind lead the blind, but it is also true that the blind battle the blind.


. . . . .

5 Responses to “The Imperative of Regime Survival”

  1. xcalibur said

    There’s alot of precedent for regimes based on one ruler’s charisma & success to collapse after his death. For both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, their empires fractured after their lifetimes.

    Somewhat related, I’ve identified four reasons why empires fall:

    1. disorderly succession of power
    2. futile, protracted wars
    3. too much graft/corruption by nobility
    4. too much emphasis on exploitation rather than industry.

    not just Western Rome, but many regimes have been laid low due to these major factors.

    • geopolicraticus said

      How would you distinguish between empires and other political entities? What is the social differentia of an empire, as opposed, for example, to a city-state, republics, or principalities that practice disorderly succession of power, protracted wars, corruption, and exploitation? Is the difference a matter of degree, or is it a difference in kind that marks out an empire?

      Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        I hadn’t considered that. My thought was focused on how imperial regimes tend to collapse, and identifying the factors that bring this about.

        As for empires, their defining features seem to be diverse peoples or political organizations consolidated under a centralized power.

        Those four factors are a danger to any political entity, but I think empires are especially prone due to their design.

        • geopolicraticus said

          The four danger factors you have mapped out for political entities may well impact empires more severely than other political entities. If so, this is an interesting hypothesis, and intuitively one might argue that the factors you have named — all of which fray the socioeconomic fabric of political institutions — impact empires more severely because empires are intrinsically less cohesive that city-states, republics, liberal democratic nation-states, and the like, and therefore more vulnerable.

          Other forms of political organization (non-imperial forms) may be more robust in the face of socioeconomic fraying because of informal institutions that are counter-veiling influences. For example, the original ideal of the nation-state was that of the self-determination of an ethnically distinct people associated with a particular geographical region (in other words, the institutionalization of racism, though we carefully avoid putting it this way because that it would be diplomatically unacceptable to call a spade a spade), and presumably the informal institutions of ethnic homogeneity can fill the gap opened up by failing and failed formal institutions of governance.

          Another possible explanation: empires tend toward the personal principle in law, while republics, city-states, and nation-states tend toward the territorial principle in law. Given that, today, the nation-state is the default form of political organization, and that the nation-state is essentially the practical implementation of the territorial principle in law, would it even be possible to construct an empire today, under conditions of industrial-technological civilization and the territorial principle in law?

          Best wishes,


  2. xcalibur said

    Indeed. I’d argue that smaller polities also tended to have greater social capital, and their structure caused them to be less prone to the pitfalls of empire. The character of an imperial regime tends towards exploitation, expansion, and inequality, which leads to the problems I indicated.

    I agree with the racism of nation-states, I believe the tensions over Muslim immigration in Europe reveal this plainly.

    I’m not sure if empire-building is possible in the current order. There’s too much emphasis on nationalism and self-determination. As you said elsewhere, we’ve also seen the devolution of warfare. The limitations and strangleholds on our capacity for violence, combined with the nation-state model, should prevent imperial regimes in the current world order. I believe that the history of Saddam’s Iraq proves this – his invasion of a tiny country (Kuwait) led to US reprisal. If Saddam could’ve built a middle eastern oil empire, he would’ve, but he was defeated by both the US and the current world order.

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