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Jeremy Bentham and Dictators Around the World

Sina Odugbemi's picture

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:

  1. '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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


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Photo Credit: Flickr user marcovdz


Submitted by Nawsheen Elaheebocus on
Thank you Sina, I was waiting for your post! Indeed, the power of public opinion once again manifested itself- if only Bentham could have seen the power of social media in the Jasmine revolution!

Submitted by s masty on
i think that sina succinctly, wisely and cleverly exposes the vast problems with bentham, for which i am grateful. no regime is safe if it ignores the will of the ruled, sina states, deftly raising the bigger question of what if the court of public opinion wants to slaughter the Jews or to commit some other variety of genocide? describing how this does not count as 'the greatest good for the number' is hard work, especially when the minority is small and rich. i think this is the greatest failure of utilitarianism in specific, and in general by implying a moral value to democracy. in my Penguin edition of Aesop, the translators note the utter lack of compassion in any and all of the fables where the only goal is self-benefit, reckoning that the advent of Christianity made Western and Western-influenced audiences think differently. among religions or systems Christianity has no monopoly on empathy or charity, of course, but neither are empathy and charity the default positions in all faiths, cultures, civilisations or eras. the largely Christian Germans who gave us Meister Eckhardt and Luther turned and gave us Auschwitz, then turned again and gave us Adenauer and the modern, stable, earnest and peaceful nation that Germany is today. surely the message is that democracy and the court of public opinion - while often but not always a good thing - is not enough of itself. democracy is a good tool in general, but what one does with the tool, and why, are matters of morality and thus of higher importance.

The problem you raise is the vexed one regarding the virtue and competence of public opinion. Should public opinion create obligations for leaders/governments in all cases? It is a difficult problem and I promise to address it soon. But I think we agree on the central point that I rely heavily on Bentham to make in the piece: public opinion as the basis of political legitimacy. Many thanks as always for your durably insightful replies!

I wish to affirm with S. Masty that the same opinion that may fight for freedom as was the case in Tunisia may be the same force that will decide on the extermination of a minority. Hence, public opinion is a potentially dangerous instrument. From a strictly Platonic point of view, opinions are beliefs and as such do not constitute knowledge or truth. Nations can not be ruled through opinions, these opinions should be matched by truth. This explains why intellectuals must play their role as gadflies. If the intelligensia surrender their brains and minds to esoteric cults as is the case in most countries captured by corrupt and criminal regimes, then, the tendency for opinion to turn dangerous is very high. In other words, public opinion becomes dangerous where ignorance and falsehood are exalted as an instrument of statecraft. The contrary holds where truth, transparency and accountability are instruments of governance. While the former is an archetype of a brutal dictatorship, the latter is represenattive of a democracy or a free society. Democratic governance is symbolic of free societies. Democratic societies are societies built on reason and not ignoracnce. For public opinion to rise above the dangers mentioned by S. Masty, it must be informed. The masses need constant education. It is not all citizens that can be trained on the facts or truths about the state of the nation via formal education, nevertheless through informal education using the media and other social groupings, popular opinion can be directed towards the direction of reason and truth for development. Hence, public opinion inn an open society can be trained to defend democratic values.

While the views of Jeremy Bentham that "All power depends on public opinion", holds true, I want to defend the case that some communities may not have an opinion at all. If popular opinion brought down a ruthless tyrant in Tunisia, it is thanks to the fact that majority of citizens were agreed that the regime was evil enough and should go. The people of Tunisia were ready to die in order to live. What kept the flame of the revolution burning is the will for change. In spite of the brutality of government forces, the people were more embolded. What most revolutions lack in Sub-Saharan Africa is the will to resist till the end. I remember in February 2008, Cameroonian youths were fighting against the attempt by the ruling regime to amend a constitution that whose only implemented article in twelve years was that extending the mandate of the president of the republic. After days of resistance, the president came out in a state of war address to the nation in which he threatened and even called his adversaries "apprentice witches". Seconds after his muscular address the military were on a shooting gear nation wide. More than a hundred youths were murdered. While deaths in Tuinisia emboldened the fighters of freedom, government brutality in most of black Africa calls for surrender, and this is just where the social media can play an important role. In Cameroon, while government forces were murdering youths who were fighting agaisnt petrol price hykes, the Minister of Communication or propaganda was busdy closing media groups that supported the revolution. In most of Sub-saharan Africa, internet services are still very expensive and youths who frequent them do so mostly for scamming and in search oftravelling opportunities abroad. There are few committed young people who believe in change. This spirit of defeatism can be overturned through media educastion. The point is, most Sub-saharan regimes have terrified the population to the point that a man will prefer to allow his wife and children to be rapped to death by security forces than risk opposing the criminals and dieing a dignified death. Meanwhile, public opinion needs to be constantly informed. For this to be done, we need journalism that sustains integrity. In countries where corruption is institutionalized, most journalists are at the service of the regime and would hardly inform public opionon on the need for change. It is these very journalist through whom the criminal regimes make their appeals to patriotism when the revolution is on. Popular opinions that can bring about progress or bring down corrupt criminal regimes need to be formed and sustained by integrity journalism and science.

Submitted by Esther on
Funny. When I studied Bentham in college, my professor wondered why I would be interested in such an obscure philospher.

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