In 1980, Mobutu, arguably the worst dictator of Africa, lived a life of unbelievable luxury with the five billion dollars he stole from his people.
In 1991, Gorbachev, known for trying to liberalise and democratise the USSR, faced a coup from his party members and was replaced by a rival. The collapse of the USSR followed just a few months later.
Why is it, that the worst dictators who steal and rob from their country live a life of luxury, while the best, who try to do good and reform the system for the people find themselves stabbed in the back?
To answer these questions, we must first start by thinking about the structure of power itself. The structure of politics itself.
To illustrate my point, let’s start by imagining the ideal, perfect, benevolent, dictator; let’s call him Bob. Bob taxes the rich and gives to the poor, he gives out equal justice and civil rights to all, and is the angelic philosopher king that would have made Plato himself proud. The people are happy, and all is well.
But you, dear listener, you are a power-hungry maniac, and you want Bob’s throne. You want to be dictator yourself, and nothing can stop you in your ambition. But how, how do you seize power from a benevolent, loved, powerful, angelic, dictator?
Think carefully: what is power? In this context, power is the ability to control what other powerful people do. Bob is powerful because generals follow his orders; he is powerful because bureaucrats collect taxes for him. If generals stopped following Bob’s orders, or bureaucrats stopped paying him the taxes, he is nothing. His source of power is his ability to earn, and spend, money, on the right people.
This is the weak link that you need to exploit: convince the generals and bureaucrats to switch sides and support your bid for dictatorship. Promise them gold in exchange for their support. Bribe them to your side.
Even if the generals and bureaucrats are incorruptible angels that will not take your bribes, remember, a position of power never comes without rivals. They have the same problem as Bob, just one level down. A general is powerful because he controls the officers. There are plenty of rivals eager to replace him, and thus a general who doesn’t pay his soldiers doesn’t stay general for long.
This means that structure of politics and all organisations is a pyramid, where each level tries to climb up to the next, and avoid being replaced by the level beneath. Each level must spend most of their money buying the loyalty of the level beneath, or risk being replaced by someone who will. This is the game of politics: replace the level above with somebody who pays more money, and pay enough money to the level beneath to avoid the same fate.
In a dictatorship, gold spent on the people outside the pyramid on the peasants is gold flushed down the toilet: money not spent buying loyalty. Bob’s benevolence is his weakness: all of the gold he spends on schools and roads and hospitals is money you, rival to the throne, can promise to the generals for their support.
The pyramid explains why politicians and military leaders are corrupt: the incorruptible angels are always replaced by a less angelic and more corrupt rival. A politician is either holy, and dead, or corrupt, and alive. This is the self-sustaining core of power: take money from the powerless, and give it to the powerful. Satisfy the pyramid, and live a long and happy reign.
Niccolo Machiavelli once said in The Prince that “it is safer to be feared than loved”. We now know why: being loved means you have the support of the people, being feared means you have the support of the army. When might makes right, having the support of the people means nothing if the military doesn’t agree.
We now see why dictatorships are terrible places to live: the pyramid has been there since the dawn of time; it is the self-sustaining core of power: take gold from the peasants and distribute it to the supporters. Politicians are not corrupt because they are all evil men, they are corrupt because there is no other way. There has been many in history, some famous like Julius Caesar, who gave grain to the poor and reformed the law trying to be both holy and alive at the same time; but, we all know Julius Caesar’s fate: stabbed in the Senate.
The pyramid is why Gorbachev was replaced by his comrades when Mobutu lived a life of luxury. Gorbachev made the fatal mistake of taking money out of the pockets of his fellow Communist Party and into the hands of the useless peasants; Yeltsin, his successor, bought the loyalty of the army on his ascension and had no such problem.
The rules of power apply not only to national governments but to everywhere with structure; from companies to unions from schools to clubs, all dictatorial organisations are the same. Office politics is no different from state politics, and CEOs need to keep the board happy or risk being replaced. The pyramid rules everywhere: the holy die while the corrupt reign.
For those of you wishing to gain power, keep Bob in mind. He helped the useless peasants at the expense of the pyramid, and lost his head in the process. If you, future ruler, want to stay alive, go ahead: rob from the poor and give to the rich, for the path to power is paved with the blood and toil of the peasants. Future rulers, need this in mind: the holy die while the corrupt reign.
Author’s note: this speech and my delivery brought me to the semifinals.