The relationship of authoritarian rulers to the state changed in the modern era. It probably began with the English Civil War. The execution of King Charles I changed the monarchical relationship and reopened the possibility of tyranny into Western Europe. The modern notion of tyranny is different from the Ancient conception. The modern era conceives of tyranny as an abuse of power. It symbolizes the violation of established rights and freedoms. This is a perversion of its original meaning. Because the English tradition has evolved a tradition of personal freedom and human rights, the reorientation of this social contract risks the loss of the previous gains.
The Greek notion of tyranny was never so black and white. Tyrants rose from the discontent of the people. The classical political landscape was diverse and varied. The difference between the Spartan and Athenian society are well documented. Yet the famed Athenian democracy was incomplete. A large proportion of the population was disenfranchised because of slavery or gender. Foreigners, known as metics, had no pathway to citizenship or participation in governance. Neither did their children.
Inequality was a political and economic reality. An undercurrent of discontent lay under every classical political system. The Spartans are known for systematically terrorizing the Helots as a form of martial training. But the fear of a slave revolt was always real. The Great Helot Revolt is known as the Third Slave Rebellion. But Sparta was not alone as an authoritarian city-state. Oligarchy was present throughout Greece. The tyrant undid past political institutions and ruled extra constitutionally.
Sometimes tyranny brought about greater freedom and established an improved social contract. But the authority of the tyrant remained suspect. Their authority was derived from a direct relationship to the people rather than through established institutions. In general, it was simply a matter of time before the tyrant fell from power. The creation of institutions capable of sustaining power is far more difficult than the destruction of unjust institutions. The successful tyrant establishes an effective constitution with institutions that reinforce their claim to authority.
The autocrats of today resemble the tyrants of Greece. Whether they seize power through the military, popular uprising or a communist rebellion, their claim to authority is weak. The Monarchs of Europe had hereditary claims extending back centuries. The autocrats of today operate under a social contract that rarely extends back for a century. Christopher Carothers has written about “The Surprising Instability of Competitive Authoritarianism.” But should that be a surprise? Kleptocrats rise and fall because they fail to establish the institutional infrastructure to reinforce their claims to authority.
The old regimes have disappeared through revolutions, rebellions and reforms. The political landscape has become transformed through liberalism and nationalism, so the responsibility of all political leaders has become the well-being of their people. There is an implicit social contract between the rulers and the people in the darkest authoritarian governments. The cooptation of elections and legislative assemblies by autocrats has become natural in this new world order. We make a mistake when we identify the autocrats of today for the hereditary monarchs of the past. They lack institutional legitimacy. And their positions are precarious. Their tenures may last decades, but few will create a system to endure for centuries. They are tyrants.
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