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The People versus the Leviathan

Sina Odugbemi's picture

 "Only fools, pure theorists, or apprentices fail to take public opinion into account."

Jacques Necker (1792) finance minister to King Louis XVI of France.
 

Recent events confirm, once again, that public opinion is the basis of power, and the very definition of legitimacy. If it comes to pass that the preponderance of the citizens of a country come to despise or hate their rulers...an event that occurs over a period of time and is the outcome of  experiences, debate and discussion ... that crystallization of public opinion is a serious development, one capable of leading to momentous consequences. The regime in question becomes a hollow leviathan. One can only hope that autocratic leaders as well as the cynical technocrats who advise them are paying attention to the lessons of both recent and ongoing struggles between citizens and a variety of autocracies. 

Yet, even a hollow leviathan is a formidable obstacle in the path of popular clamor for accountable governance and democracy. The leviathan is, well, humongous. It usually has an apparatus of terror and repression. It instils a paralyzing fear in the populace. Above all, it exploits every available cleavage in the community in order to more easily divide and dominate. All this is why  whenever ordinary citizens are able to pull off the feat of overthrowing an autocracy the event seems like a miracle. We can hardly believe it. 
 

As the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, points out in The Promise of Politics (2005):

If the meaning of politics is freedom, that means that in this realm -- and in no other -- we do have the right to expect miracles. Not because we superstitiously believe in miracles, but because human beings, whether or not they know it, as long as they can act, are capable of achieving, and constantly do achieve, the improbable and unpredictable. (emphasis mine).

A good part of the reason why is because while the leviathan is formidable it is also vulnerable, and those vulnerabilities are to the advantage of public opinion.  Three stand out:

  1. You cannot hold a population down by force. No matter how large the security apparatus is, if enough citizens in enough cities and towns revolt the apparatus will not be able to cope. I know of a country, for instance, where the police chief frankly admits that the police force cannot cope with simultaneous rioting in more than three major cities in the country. Beyond that what you have is a return to Hobbes's dystopia. The maintenance of law and order requires the acquiescence of most citizens.
  2. A citizen army - quite apart from the officer class -- cannot be relied upon to put down a revolt by fellow citizens. This is one of the central insights of Jeremy Bentham: that an opinion about public affairs that predominates in the population also predominates in the armed forces...so long as it is not a mercenary army. Which is why the tipping point in these revolutions is when the army refuses to shoot down fellow citizens. Even where the top generals might be tempted to shoot at other citizens they do not know when the army will fracture, and a mutiny occurs.
  3. Pressure from below often leads to cracks in the governing elite. When citizens revolt, the first thing to go is the thin consensus that holds together most predatory governing elites. As with any band of brigands, you are dealing with ruthless, self-regarding players. Once they are under pressure they start looking out for themselves.
     

So, public opinion does not coalesce or win quickly but it is far from helpless. The leviathan struts, threatens, thunders year after year. Then a day dawns, ordinary citizens overcome their fear and divisions. They decide to act. They push mightily and insistently, and... surprise, surprise ...the hollow leviathan comes crashing down.  And it feels like a miracle.

 

Photo Credit: Flickr user Chan'ad

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