My brother and I visited Tunisia two weeks before their revolution. Though poverty and economic inequality were quite evident, public utilities were plenty. My brother remarked that the facilities and infrastructure in Tunisia are surprisingly good despite being ruled a dictator. I responded saying, “It’s about keeping people just happy enough.” Although there were small uprisings a few months earlier, signs of mass uprising were absent. Three weeks later, however, the iron-fist regime collapsed. It was partly due to 25% (link) youth unemployment.
What does it take to successfully run an oppressive regime? Is it necessary to keep the oppressed “just happy enough,” is it sufficient to keep them “just hopeful enough,” or is it safe to keep them “in the dark” about the world outside? For each of the ways, I found historical and contemporary attempts.
To keep the people “just happy enough,” the rulers have to provide the basic needs. Many religions had authorised slavery. Islam, in particular, had strict rules to follow (link) to possess slaves. Though slaves were considered inferior beings, cruelty was forbidden. They were entitled to receive food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. It was oppression, but the slaves were kept “just happy enough.” Slave revolts were uncommon; they happened only when the owners did not follow the Islamic laws.
A contemporary example that keeps people “just happy enough” is Iran. Iran’s 2009 revolution was unsuccessful not only due to a crackdown, but also due to the absence of workers’ support (link). Inequality in Iran is less severe than in other countries. Progress in labour laws and women empowerment have created ways to move up the social ladder. Despite the oppression, the regime has managed to keep the people “just happy enough.”
To keep people “just hopeful enough,” a promise of a good future is necessary. The British Raj in India followed (link) every major demand from the Indian national movement with political and economic reforms. They managed to diffuse the tensions, but did not make efforts to alleviate the plight of the country.
Today, Egypt and Tunisia are good example where economic reforms kept people hopeful, but not happy (link). Egyptian economic reforms helped many, but not all. In his Time column (link), Fareed Zakaria explains that reforms and revolutions go together. Economic reforms are the most dangerous phase in an autocratic regime. Reforms expose the people to new possibilities and create demands for better governance. Failure to meet the demands result in a revolution.
To keep people “in the dark”, access to education and information have to be denied. For instance, after Nat Turner’s slave rebellion (link), the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation making it unlawful to teach slaves, free blacks or mulattoes to read or write. Other restrictions were imposed to keep them uneducated and uninformed. Thirty five years later, after the civil war, the slaves were still illiterate.
Syria and North Korea are current examples of regimes that keep people “in the dark”. Reforms have never been carried out there. Fareed Zakaria’s column, referred above, says that they are not in danger of collapsing because the people have not been exposed to better options. Leaked Citigroup “Plutonomy” memo (link) also highlights the importance of keeping people uninformed. The memo talks about plutocracy in America, and how rich grew richer in capitalist-friendly countries. It emphasises that if the “rest of us” were in the dark about the existence of the plutonomy, it can strengthen the “plutonomy.”
Only time can tell which regimes are ticking time bombs waiting to explode. I also wonder how the army remains on the dictators side and obliges to kill its own people during a revolution. I guess I will never have a satisfactory answer to that question.
Note: This appeared as a column in The Viewspaper (link).