How Can Dictators Control So Many Millions of People?

By Ralph Nader
July 1, 2022

How do dictators manage for decades to control 1.4 billion (China) or 146 million (Russia) people and on down to other smaller totalitarian regimes? Answer: one power hungry man at the top.

Political scientists have written about the various “pillars” sustaining autocratic regimes. Professor Christoph H. Stefes (University of Colorado Denver) focuses on the “pillars” legitimation, repression and co-optation – about which more later.

But just what are the mechanics flowing from the dictator’s throne that produce overwhelming compliance to the dictator’s demands? Starting with his “palace guards,” cooks, doctors, all the way down an intricate matrix of obedience to the cities/towns/villages level, the absence of any breaks in the links of the chains of oppression is remarkable. Even major suicidal sabotage at critical points in a regime’s iron grip rarely occurs.

Let’s start with the findings by anthropologists that all cultures have concentrations of power in very few hands whether in the political, economic or religious realms. Something in the scatter of human personalities entrenches the few ruling the many. The few deeply relish the power, wealth and status to which they apply great effort and energy while the many non-political inhabitants struggle to preserve their personal family lives, which dictators largely leave alone, especially when cultural norms provide private zones for work, family and progeny.

Think of a dictator raining a cascade of orders down many ladders with people on each rung giving their assigned orders to the people on the next rung. The police and military illustrate the operation of such hierarchies. Each rung holder has stakes in the obedience given by that next rung.

The orders flow from the General to the Colonels to the Lieutenants to the Sergeants and on down. In Putin’s Russia, top-down control of the economy is relayed by a small number of oligarchic mega-billionaires in close contact with their dictator in the Kremlin who has made them rich beyond their dreams of avarice.

Totalitarian systems function smoothly in their corrupt and cruel pursuits inside a complex culture of mass submission. The recent two-month coercive lockdown and testing of Shanghai’s 25 million residents – to check the spread of Covid-19 – is an astonishing harbinger of how a mass-surveillance state can block people from buying food, receiving health care, connecting with families and simply stepping out of beehive apartments into their neighborhoods.

Returning to Professor Stefes’s constructs, which are useful references to formal or informal systems where dictators give key personages a piece of the action in return for absolute loyalty. Such co-optation is backed up by terror, brute force, deep harassment, or jailing of dissidents. Legitimation takes the form of rigged elections (the dictator and his henchman get well over 90% of the vote) which results in the oxymoronic phrase – “an elected dictatorship.”

Military juntas against people labeled “communists,” or reacting to corrupt regimes that have collapsed basic public services and protections, combine both ‘legitimation’ and ‘repression’ in one violent overthrow.

Absolute dictators who survive, do not often write memoirs when they go into exile (Spain for years was a refuge for ousted South American dictators). Were they to do so, it would probably be to settle scores, not to illuminate in revealing detail how they so dominated all but the personal lives of millions of their subjects until they were ousted. Some dictators might confess their own daily fears of people thirsting for revenge over their regime’s atrocities.

They might even admit that they would have given up their iron power for safe passage to ageing dictator’s island of exiles inhabited by former tyrants and their families. Understanding how people displace dictators, from various perspectives, should be studied. Building and sustaining democracy requires no less.