Thursday October 06, 2022

Despotism through the ages

August 14, 2018

The people of Athens experienced different political systems over time. They saw Athens being ruled under a monarchy, an oligarchy, a democracy, and even a period of tyranny.

After the Peloponnesian War, the rule of the Thirty Tyrants began in Athens. They usurped power and controlled political authority. Some of these tyrants were the followers of Socrates while others were relatives of Plato. Democrats were, therefore, suspicious of Socrates even though he denied having any connection with the Thirty’s regime. This rule wasn’t entirely popular because it opposed democracy and resulted in political power being forcibly captured.

In the Roman Republic, there was a longstanding tradition that whenever the state was in a political crisis or faced the threat of a foreign invasion, the Senate appointed a dictator for a period of seven years to defend the republic and manage its affairs. After seven years, the old system was restored.

In the Republic of Florence, a foreign military adventurer was invited to rule over the city during a political upheaval, and restore peace and order. After completing his job, he was contractually bound to depart from the city and hand over power to the city republic. Most dictators followed the contract. But when a dictator refused to leave the city, he faced resistance from the people and was eventually ousted.

In the East, kingships were a permanent political system. Ruling dynasties would wield absolute authority over the country. After the decline of a ruling dynasty, another dynasty replaced it and the system continued without any interruptions for the most part.

The rulers associated themselves with deities to ensure that any form of rebellion or opposition was viewed as an act of treason. Their subjects were expected to obey their command without challenging their authority. However, the aristocracy and bureaucracy was created to assist the royal power to administer the country and manage the affairs of the state.

It was a tradition in the East that every monarch had a wise and farsighted vizier who looked after the administration of the state on behalf of the king and provided justice to the people. In Ancient Persia, the role of a wise vizier was considered to be legendary. We also find some instances of this tradition in Muslim dynasties.

For example, Yahya the Barmakid was the wazir of Haroon al Rashid (786-809), Nizam al-Mulk Tusi was a wazir in the Seljuq Dynasty, and Abu’l Fazl was Mughal Emperor Akbar’s adviser. This shows that most rulers depended on their wazirs and advisers despite wielding a great deal of power. absolute monarchs in practice.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, European intellectuals and political analysts used the term ‘oriental despotism’ to describe rulers in the East. According to their interpretation, a despot enjoyed absolute power and didn’t consult anyone regarding Therefore, they weren’t his decisions. They defined the despotic system on the basis of unlimited power. A person could immediately be executed or bestowed high titles on a despot’s commands. All the land of the state was the ruler’s property and the fief was allotted to state officials during their lifetime only. After the death of the official, ownership was reverted to the king.

The income of these rulers was based on land revenue and it was through these resources that he would lead a luxurious life. To glorify their rule, rulers built palaces, forts, gardens, and mausoleums. They also had a large harem, which contained many women.

In a despotic system of government, people were expected to be loyal to the king. In case of disobedience and rebellion, torture and bodily punishment were inflicted as a warning. Under this system, it wasn’t the concern of state officials to solve people’s problems. But they spent their energies to flatter the monarch in order to win his favour. Therefore, despotic systems preserved the privileges of the aristocracy and neglected the problems of the people. This system made people passive, leaving them with little or no ambition and energy to challenge it.

This interpretation of despotism in the East was largely based on accounts from travellers, traders, missionaries and diplomats who visited Eastern countries and penned their observations and experiences. There is a need to critically analyse this material.

In Oriental Despotism, Karl Wittfogel points out that the rule of the despots was based on the state controlling water for irrigation. It empowered the bureaucracy to manage irrigation and those who defied the state’s power weren’t provided water for their agricultural farms. This forced the landed aristocracy to submit to the state and not take any steps to violate despotic rule.

Western intellectuals coined the term ‘oriental despotism’ to condemn and denigrate the political system of the East in order to portray their own system as enlightened and liberal. They wanted to draw attention to the fact that the individual was free to act independently in their own system instead of assuming a passive role in political activities.

In the 20th century, when state institutions emerged under Stalin and Hitler, they accumulated all despotic powers – including that of the army, police, espionage system and bureaucracy – to control the daily lives of the people. This system is known as the totalitarian state.

Hanna Arendt defined its structure and its impact on the psyche of the people. The ideology of the totalitarian state emerged in the West rather than the East. This debunks the myth that the West was the home of enlightenment.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.