A desperate, totally fed up young graduate sets himself on fire in a small, provincial town in his country and within weeks eddies of violent protests by citizens all over the country bring down an authoritarian regime. And everyone is stunned by both the suddenness and the scale of it all. But the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), would not have been surprised. He would have reminded the world of three things that he always said in the course of his long life:
- 'All power depends on public opinion'. At the basis of political order is quiescent public opinion. It is a reality easily missed, given the apparent power and majesty of the modern state, especially in authoritarian or totalitarian political systems.
- In any political system, public opinion operates like a court. Bentham calls it the Public Opinion Tribunal. Citizens follow public affairs, gather evidence of official misdeeds, discuss the misdeeds (even if the press is muzzled, there is everyday talk) and come to conclusions: the judgments of the Public Opinion Tribunal.Those judgments are a critical force in politics, no matter the nature of the political system. Only deeply unwise rulers ignore them.
- The Public Opinion Tribunal can enforce its judgments. Its most immediate power is what Bentham calls the popular or moral sanction: the regime/leader falls into disrepute. Citizens come to loathe the regime/leader. Where elections are held, they offer an opportunity for the Public Opinion Tribunal to enforce its judgement: the rascals are thrown out. Where elections are not held, or they lack all integrity, enforcement is harder. But as Bentham teaches, the ultimate sanction of the Public Opinion Tribunal is the withdrawal of obedience to the sovereign. When this happens, the power of the sovereign is at an end. For, as Bentham says on the dependence of rulers on public opinion: 'Let this opinion take a certain turn, obedience ceases on the one part, and with it all power on the other.' By the way, one of his key insights is that so long as the armed forces are composed of citizens - one reason he insisted on citizen armies - an opinion that predominates in the population also predominates in the armed forces. Implication: if matters come to a showdown at some point the armed forces are likely to back fellow citizens.
Recent events remind us that no regime is secure unless it is based on the willing consent of the ruled; that regimes without this consent only appear solid. They are much more vulnerable to sudden demise than they appear. If they doubt it, they should study the political thought of Jeremy Bentham.
Photo Credit: Flickr user marcovdz