Tyranny in a small state world

“…neither the problems of war nor those relating to the purely internal criminality of societies disappear in a small-state world; they are merely reduced to bearable proportions. Instead of hopelessly trying to blow up man’s limited talents to a magnitude that could cope with hugeness, hugeness is cut down to a size where it can be managed even with man’s limited talents. In miniature, problems lose both their terror and significance, which is all that society can ever hope for. Our choice seems therefore not between crime and virtue but between big crime and small crime; not between war and peace, but between great wars and little wars, between indivisible total and divisible local wars.

But not only the problems of war or crime become soluble on a small scale. Every vice shrinks in significance with the shrinking size of the social unit in which it develops. This is particularly true of a social misery which seems to many as unwelcome as war itself. Tyranny!

There is nothing in the constitution of men or states that can prevent the rise of dictators, fascist or otherwise. Power maniacs exist everywhere, and every community will at some time or other pass through a phase of tyranny. The only difference lies in the degree of tyrannical government which, in turn, depends once more on the size and power of the countries falling victim to it.

Having just shaken ourselves free of the tyranny of nazism, and being contemporaries of the tyranny of communism, we need not strain our imagination to visualize both the internal as well as the external consequences of the establishment of dictatorial power in a large state. Internally, the machine at the disposal of the dictator is so colossal that only the insane see any sense in being brave. The vast majority is condemned either to a life of misery or of heil-yelling uniformity. But his power has also external effects. It spills over boundaries, overshadowing small as well as powerful neighbours. The small because, in spite of their formal independence, they have no chance to resist, and the powerful because they have no way of knowing whether a challenge to the dictator would usher in his ‘or their destruction. So they, too, will do the dictator’s bidding. Whenever he moves, the entire world reverberates from the distant thunders of his brewing designs. Only a costly and uncertain war could liberate it from its awesome suspense.

Since great power is by definition an element that can single-handedly throw the world from its balance, a single dictator in a large state is sufficient to disturb the peace of mind of all. As a result, a great-power world is safe and secure only if the government of each great power is in the hands of wise and good men (a combination that is rare even in democracies). As things are, however, great power attracts by its very nature the strong rather than the wise, and autocrats rather than democrats. So it is not surprising that, of the eight great powers existing before World War II, not one but four were under dictatorial rule: Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia; and of the Big Four of the post-war world, two — Russia and China. And though there are only two great-power dictatorships at the present time, there is not a corner on the globe remote enough to escape the terror of their existence.

l. The Limitation of Evil

Now let us trace the effects of the same problem in a small-state world. If a power maniac gets hold of a government there, both the internal and external consequences are vastly different. Since a small state is by nature weak, its government, which can draw the measure of its strength only from the measure of the country over which it rules, must likewise be weak. And if government is weak, so must be its dictator. And if a dictator is weak, he can be overthrown with the same leisurely effort which he himself had to apply in order to overthrow the preceding government. If he becomes too arrogant, he will hang on a lamp-post or lie in a gutter before he has time to awaken to the fact that he has lost power. No police force in a little state can be great enough to protect him from even minor rebellions.

The first and most important benefit derived from a small-state arrangement is thus the shortening of a dictator’s life span or, at least, of his term of office — unless he decides to be wise rather than to engage in self-destructive assertions of his power. And this is the second benefit. Since arrogance and bullying are dangerous.in a small state, a dictator cherishing his life is practically driven into a rule beneficial to the public. Deprived of the opportunity of glorying in the pleasures of vice, he will do the next best thing and glory in the more subtle satisfactions of virtue. He will employ architects and painters rather than generals and hangmen, and improve the lot of the workers rather than the glamour of his soldiers’ uniforms.

History shows that the short-lived as well as the good dictatorship are phenomena that have existed primarily in little states. The first never mattered because of its brief existence, and the second because of the actual benefits the world derived from a good dictator’s rule. The history of the ancient Greek city-states, the medieval Italian and German principalities, and the modern South American republics abounds in examples of both these categories of petty tyrants, the short-lived and the good. If the theorists of unity use again the term comic opera figures to describe them, they characterize them exactly as what they are — men who are ineffectual even if they are bad. The only thing that seems out of place in such operatic designations is their contemptuous undertone. Ineffectualness means the lack of power to tyrannize mankind — a condition for which the ‘comic opera’ rulers should be blessed, not castigated. When will our theorists realize that the greatest blessing our statesmen could give us would be to transform the stark and worthy tragedies of modern mass existence back into the ridiculous problems of an operetta?

Thus, internally, with the small power supplied by a small state not even the worst dictator is able to frighten his subjects into the kind of creeping submissiveness which even the best dictator commands in a large power. For though also the small-state dictator outranks his subjects, he can never out-tower them.

However, what is still more important as regards the world outside, the small-state dictator is completely ineffectual externally. Unlike the might of Hitler which made itself felt in an uneasy France years before he actually attacked her and she was still considered a great power, a small-state dictator’s sway ends at his country’s border creeks. Being hardly able to frighten anyone at home, he can frighten nobody at all abroad. His manias are limited to his own territory whose narrow confines act like the cushioned walls of an isolation ward in a lunatic asylum. Any chain reaction of folly is bound to fizzle out when it reaches the boundaries. Communism, which is such a terrible tool in the hands of a great-power dictator, is externally so ineffectual in the little Republic of San Marino that most of us do not even known that there is a communist state also this side of the Iron Curtain. But what the might of the United Nations cannot contain within Russia, a dozen Italian gendarmes can contain within San Marino.

One might say that, although a small-state world limits a dictator’s power to his own territory, the dictatorial germ itself might spread and gradually infect others. This is possible, but this, too, would be harmless because in that case dictatorial governments would merely multiply in number, but not grow in bulk or external threat, since the states in which they could develop represent competing interests and, therefore, tend to balance each other. They cannot be used for fusion and aggregation of power. Moreover, since a world consisting of hundreds of small sovereignties with a multitude of differing political systems would constantly react to different forces and trends at different times, the spread of dictatorial influences would be matched by the spread of democratic influences elsewhere. By the time they reached the extremity of the map, they would in all likelihood have begun to fade away in the regions where they originated. In a small-state world, there is a constant breathing and sneezing and changing that never permits the development of gigantic sub-surface forces. These can arise only in a large-power arrangement which provides prolonged periods of peace and allows powers to inhale with their formidable chests for entire decades, only to blow down everything in front of them when, at last, they begin to exhale their hurricanes”


 Leopold Kohr. “The Breakdown of Nations” (1957). 

Beginning of Chapter 4:  Tyranny in a small state world

Tyranny in a small state world by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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