09/04/2012 12:30 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

The "Evolution" of Totalitarian Regimes Is Really a Throwback

During the Sunday, September 1 edition of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS, the host highlighted a new book, William Dobson's "The Dictator's Learning Curve," and explained the work's conclusions:

Old school oppressors like Mao, Pol Pot or Idi Amin, could keep their atrocities relatively secret. That's not possible today. If a dictator tried to orchestrate a mass killing and keep it secret, it would fail. It would end up on YouTube. (...)

So, today's cleverest dictators have evolved. They allow a certain amount of dissent as an escape valve. Consider China. There's a study out by three political scientists at Harvard. They've devised a way to analyze millions of social media posts in China. What's special is that they claim to do this before the Chinese government gets to censor them. So, it provides a unique insight not just into what the Chinese people think, but also what the government deems necessary to censor. What did they find? Contrary to what you think, it turns out criticisms of the government are not more likely to get censored. Even vitriolic criticism is allowed. The focus is on stopping mass mobilization. Last year, Beijing blocked Internet searches for Tunisia's Jasmine revolution to prevent discussions about the Arab Spring. Similarly, searches for the number 4/6 were censored. The numbers representing June 4th, the anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square.


We're witnessing a trend in China, Russia, Venezuela, and many other countries, even Myanmar. Gone are the days when dictators could completely ignore the demands of their people. As citizens become more exposed to events around the world, more connected to each other on the Internet and social media, dictators will have to make greater concessions. It's a situation that is far better than how things were ten, 20, or 50 years ago. Regimes like those in Syria and North Korea can still act with all-out brutality. But they are outliers. They represent a fading order. The new model is to allow a controlled space for free commerce, for open education, even for dissent. Perhaps people in these countries can use that space to slowly expand the realm of freedom and liberty. We'll be right back.

But while the observation Dobson makes may be true, it is incorrect to frame it as modern phenomena. Take, as a representative example, the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C. - A.D. 14). The "Pax Romana" presided over by Augustus -- the flourishing of the arts that occurred after the conclusion of the cycle of civil wars that marked the prior century -- was a hotbed of conspicuous political dissent that was carefully channeled by the princeps.

Literature of that time was full of praise for the killers of Julius Caesars -- men whom Augustus, during his rise to political power, branded as criminal, had legally prosecuted, and pursued to death. Tacitus tells us in his Annals that the out-and-proud Republican leanings of Livy were "no obstacle" to his friendship with the ruler. Tacitus says the same about historians Asinius Pollio and Messalla Corvinus, men whose works have not survived but who were widely read in their own time.

Similarly, the writings of the regime's vanquished enemies -- Mark Antony's harsh letters to his chief rival; Marcus Brutus's public addresses containing heavy (and often defamatory) abuse against Augustus; and the poems of Furius and Catullus, which were "packed with insults of the Caesars" -- were read and celebrated throughout the emperor's reign.

This was not, obviously, the state line. At the same time Livy was praising the killers of Augustus's adopted father, that same ruler presided over a temple and cult dedicated to the deified Julius Caesar. But by allowing criticism of his regime's origins and his own past, Augustus was able to use dissent to make profound political statements. Allowing dissent, Georgetown classics professor Josiah Osgood tells us, permitted the emperor to "demonstrate he was making overtures to a more responsible government." For Augustus, permitting limited -- albeit closely monitored -- uncensored political commentary became a means of guarding against political upheaval.

The point here is not merely academic. To ascribe the trends Dobson observes in his new work to technological advances both aggrandizes the role of technology in altering relationships between governments and the governed and obscures historical constants. Yotube, Twitter and other social media outlets are best understood as mediums, not motivators, for allowing such concessions. The need for totalitarian regimes to allow "escape valves" to function is inherent in that form of government, and is not a new idea. The savviest dictators have always understood this, and it is part of what makes them so formidable.