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Friday, June 19, 2009
A Primer for Aspiring Tyrants: Techniques Used by Experts

Tyranny is a growth industry now, you see. If you don't aspire to it, read this as opposition research.

Introductory Note from Your Humble Blogger: I despise tyranny. I do not suffer great or petty tyrants gladly. But I do like to keep up with the times, and I want to be helpful. So here is my primer for aspiring tyrants. In our time tyranny is a growth industry, especially in the United States, where there's more room for it to grow than remains in many other places. If you are not inclined to tyranny, you might consider this to be opposition research or -- perhaps less pretentiously -- a list of things to watch for.

My friend, if your aim is to build and maintain a tyranny, with you as the tyrant at the top, whether "you" are singular (some sort of monarch or dictator) or plural (a ruling elite class or even an unrestrained democratic majority), there are some attitudes you must cultivate among the people. There are other attittudes which you must eradicate. There are attributes you will want to cultivate in yourself, and some basic choices about style which you must make. Here are some fundamentals.

Good: Fear in Your Subjects

Fear is essential to your effort. You must give the people ample cause, in theory and practice, to fear devastating retribution as the inevitable consequence of opposing you. You don't necessarily need to slaughter every opponent's entire extended family, but you must make the people understand that they will jeopardize their hopes, their wants, their prosperity, and perhaps even the necessities of their lives by speaking or acting against you. In the long term, if you can properly control their educational and professional opportunities, their salaries, their health care, and their standard of living generally, little bloodshed will be necessary. They will understand that you control their access to everything that perpetuates and gives meaning to their lives. You hold the keys even to their fondest hopes for their children's lives.

But fear is too volatile to be safe as a constant condition. It is there to encourage self-restraint when needed, not to accompany every subject's every dream and waking thought.

Good: Resignation in Your Subjects

With time, if you can shelter your people from the experience and even the idea of other ways and standards of living, large sectors of your population may live out their lives -- at least most of their lives -- in contentment. Widespread contentment gives stability to tyranny. Until you can achieve that, and for the subjects who may never achieve it, you will find that resignation is nearly as effective as contentment. Those who have seen or can conceive of a lifestyle that is more palatable than your tyranny's offering will still be quite docile and even useful, so long as you can persuade both their minds and their hearts that change is impossible, that your tyrannical state is implacable, and that any hope of escaping or overturning your tyranny is as frivolous and deluded as a child's dream.

Good: Gratitude in Your Subjects (and More Fear)

No tyranny I know has ever provided material abundance to its people in the long term, but pay careful attention to the need for gratitude among the population for such sustenance as you do provide. If total government control and ownership of the means of production seems untenable -- as it likely is in the long view -- take heart. You can allow others to produce in your economy, as long as your role is clearly understood to be essential.

For example, it is not necessary for you to provide the people with all their food directly, as long as they understand that without you the food supply would be unsafe, inadequate, or unaffordable. It may not be necessary for your government to provide all of their health care directly, as long as the people believe that without you their health care would be unsafe, inadequate, or unaffordable. Your government itself does not need to manufacture all the automobiles, so long as it is generally understood that without your government, the cars would be unsafe, of poor quality, and environmentally irresponsible. In all such matters, you must be the hero, the savior, the deliverer -- and the people's proper attitude toward you is abject gratitude. Most of them will comply willingly.

If they are sufficiently grateful to you for the quality and continuation of their lives, then the prospect of revolution, if they ever contemplate it, will cause them to tremble with another very useful sort of fear. For what would become of them without you? In your absence their fate is unthinkable. It must be unthinkable.

You may enhance their gratitude in some instances by assuring them that you don't want to do some things, but are doing them for their welfare. They will see and be grateful for your personal or collective sacrifice -- a notion which meshes well with your identity as their savior. Tell them that you don't want to run the banking system, but you're doing it, at least for a while, for the good of the people and for their protection against the crimes and greed of bankers, brokers, and financiers. You don't want to run the domestic automobile industry, but only you can be trusted to run it fairly, prosperously, and in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. You don't want to regulate workers' salaries nationwide, because in principle you favor economic freedom, but it's the only way to insure that everyone's salary is fair, and that the rich do not exploit the poor.

Bad: A Sense that Law Protects Your Subjects

You and your subjects must understand that the law is one of the weapons of the state, for use against its enemies, and not for the protection of the people against the state. Enforce the law when your opponent breaks it. Obey it yourself when it serves your ends. Evade it or change it when it impedes you. Where possible, manufacture scandals even when your opponent obeys the law.

Consider recent US history. When President Clinton took office in 1993, he fired all of the current US Attorneys except one. They were political appointees, serving at the pleasure of the president. This was perfectly legal, and, because the right side did it, there was no firestorm of opposition in the media. It was also perfectly legal for President George W. Bush to fire just eight US Attorneys when he took office, but the opposition managed to bend this into a scandal.

When President Obama illegally fired several inspectors general, who are not political appointees and who are supposed to be somewhat insulated from politics in order to do their jobs . . . Well, that was not a problem, was it? The law is simply one of the ruler's tools, to be used when it fits the task and ignored when it does not. The law exists to serve the ruler, not the reverse.

Selectively Useful: Rebels Are by Definition Insane

You may also wish to bear in mind a tried and true technique the White House recently displayed in the inspector general matter. When one of the fired inspectors general refused to submit quietly to his unlawful dismissal, the Obama administration began to insinuate publicly that the man is confused or even senile. Disparaging the mental state of dissidents has been an especially effective technique in ideologically-driven tyrannies, where one can reason thusly: The favored ideology is obviously and by complete consensus the unquestioned and unquestionable truth. Therefore, a person would have to be crazy to oppose it, or even to fail to acknowledge it. (In a religious tyranny, one sometimes substitutes the adjective evil.)

The Soviets used, and the Chinese still use, this technique with great skill on their dissidents. Closer to home, global warming zealotry and the messianic (small m) self-image of President Obama will likely provide more examples in the current US regime. No doubt you can find some ways to apply the technique in your activities.

Good: Guilt in Your Subjects

You must make your system of civil and criminal laws so complex that it is impossible to live life without breaking some of them. (The US tax code may be a useful model.) Thus, anytime the need arises to distract or destroy an opponent, you can find some law the person has broken. Indeed, you likely can find several broken laws, enough to establish -- very usefully -- a pattern of turpitude on the part of even the most passive and spotless soul.

If you happen to encounter a person of firm moral character and great conscience -- an especially dangerous subject in any tyranny, and one that is difficult to restrain by other means -- the sense of guilt such a legal system induces will provide a subtle but powerful restraint.

Bad: Individual Dignity Among Your Subjects

You must systematically and persistently quash any sense of personal worth or dignity among your population. If you are successful at this, few potential opponents will ever lift up so much as a rebellious thought against you, and the masses themselves will tend to destroy anyone who begins to resist.

One of the most effective means of achieving this is not widely understood to be such. It is replacing individual identity with group identity. It must be understood in all of your propaganda that group identity is everything, and personal identity is nothing -- or worse than nothing, perhaps arrogant, selfish, and evil. Injustice is done to groups, not individuals. One has value and rights by virtue of belonging to a group, not by virtue of being a living individual. In this matter, be sure to attend the small things. For example, every time you require them to fill in their name and address on a form, require them also to give their group identity (perhaps their ethnic origin).

When this is properly executed, you will generally need only to control and restrain the group, not every member of the group. Anyone opposing or detaching from the group on some point will appear to be --- and again, may very usefully feel guilty for being -- arrogant, selfish, and disloyal.

Another important method of suppressing individual dignity is reminding the people of their utter dependency on you. After all, if they were of any consequence individually, they would not require you to provide for their needs. But they do require you, so they are vile and worthless. Of course, you need not speak to them so harshly; indeed you may wish to praise their importance and value quite lavishly on frequent occasions. Only the slightest subtlety will be needed to remind them of their dependency in the same breath you use to encourage their gratitude.

Good in the Aspiring Tyrant: Patience and Boldness

Stable tyrannies are not built in a day or a year. Temper your boldness and ambition with patience. What you cannot achieve in a single sweeping revolution may often be achieved incrementally, over years or even decades. Take such opportunities as you can find to make small changes toward the attitudes you seek to cultivate. Understand that even determined opposition has great difficulty sustaining itself over time.

Sooner or later events will present you a chance to convert your patient, incremental evolution to a grand, climactic revolution. When it does, the time will have come to temper your patience with boldness. Never waste a good crisis. In the right crisis, you may accomplish more in a few weeks than in the preceding years or decades. Such is the nature of history.


You have the good fortune to aspire to tyranny in a time when the soil is more fertile for tyranny than it has ever been in the modern Western world, so far as I can see. The people of Western Europe and North American have enjoyed liberty so long that they are quite casual about it, and -- even more promising -- they find it to be useful currency to expend in trade for a fleeting illusion of economic security.

Scope (or Practice Makes Perfect)

The truly effective tyrant on a national level will have perfected his or her skills at lower levels, such as at home, at church if the opportunity presents itself, at work, and in local and state government. There are at least two approaches to such apprenticeships. One can package oneself for a time as a benign leader, but govern in such a way that the leader's personality (her graciousness, his willingness to seek common ground, a generally tendency to present oneself as the answer to all problems) takes precedence over the rule of law and reason. The other approach is to rage and storm and posture and intimidate from the very beginning. One might take the Cedar Hills City Council as a model of this unrestrained fervor, though perhaps not of effectiveness or competence. (In general and especially in the early states of the apprenticeship, it's best not to do as they did recently. They directed their public rage at someone who is willing and very able to fight back, in the person of Daily Universe reporter and blogger Caleb Warnock.)

Whichever approach you choose, it is perfectly fine in the initial stages of your project -- if I may borrow a thought -- to survey large fields and tyrannize small ones.

Further Study

For further study I recommend Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince and his Discourses. Among the benighted, moralizing masses his name is synonymous with utter, calculating cynicism as to the respective natures of government and humanity. But it must be admitted that he was a surpassingly shrewd observer of the principles and practices of governing humans.

In truth, even your tyranny's freedom-loving enemies should read Machiavelli. He has much to say that would enlighten, encourage, and empower them in their cause. But such shame and dread attend the adjective Machiavellian for them that they will scarcely notice this, even if they shrewdly decide to read him as what they like to call "opposition research."

There are two classic works you should not take seriously as models for your tyranny, though superficial knowledge of them might suggest they are appropriate. The first is Plato's Republic. In it Socrates (at least Plato's version of Socrates) draws the outlines of a communism more complete than any the twentieth century produced. Those who are seduced by it and those who fear and despise it share a blind spot which makes them incapable of detecting Socrates' (and Plato's) irony. Republic is theater, not treatise. When read as theater, it does not really say what it seems to say when read as a treatise. It is an unstable foundation on which to build the philosophy of your tyranny.

A similar blind spot distorts the common reading of Ivan Karamazov's and the Grand Inquisitor's arguments against freedom and the Christian God in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Opponents of freedom and the Christian God so desperately want the powerful arguments to prevail that they think they do prevail. Friends of freedom are often so overwhelmed by the arguments that they fail to see that the author's and other characters' counter-arguments are devastating. Do not base your tyrannical thinking on this book, either.


If the present lassitude and dissipation among free people is a useful indicator, then tyranny is a growth industry in the twenty-first century. It is a vast and fertile field, eagerly awaiting aspiring tyrants such as you, who will plow and plant and reap an abundant harvest. Go now in hope, and decide which position of power you will seek next. (Superdell, you'll probably want to run for governor again.) Be sure to tyrannize your family, neighbors, and colleagues in the meantime; honing these skills takes time and diligence.

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