The art of keeping the people down

Authoritarianism. Constitutional theoretical perspectives
Forfatter: Günter Frankenberg
Forlag: Suhrkamp Verlag, (Tyskland)
THE AUTHORITY / Authoritarian leaders only follow the Constitution as long as they profit from it.


Authoritarian leaders such as Putin, Maduro, Assad and Orbán attach great importance to complying with the country's constitution. That is why they often change it.

For example, this summer, the Russians voted for a constitutional amendment that would allow Putin to serve as president until 2036. Nicolás Maduro's government in Venezuela relies on the 1999 constitution, which was introduced under his predecessor Hugo Chávez. In 2012, Syria got a new constitution that apparently opened up for democratization of the country, despite the fact that the civil war was already in full swing by then. In 2011, Hungary received a new constitution which states that there is a single Hungarian nation with Christian roots and which is responsible for the fate of all Hungarians.

But why are they authoritarian the leaders so preoccupied with constitutions when they already have so much power? Within the liberal constitution theory, which is almost dominant in our part of the world, the authoritarian constitutions appear only as pure discretion, and thus as theoretically uninteresting. This is unfortunate, says the German legal philosopher Günter Frankenberg, as the authoritarian regimes actively use the constitution to gain and retain power. We must understand how the authoritarian style of government, which is today on the rise all over the world, relates to the constitutions.

Liberal constitutions are most concerned with affirming and restricting individual rights state powerone, and can thus be understood within a more limited, legal framework. This perspective falls short if one wants to understand the authoritarian constitutions, says Frankenberg, who therefore introduces another model: Here constitutions are understood as texts written to achieve two things: firstly to create order and discipline both within one's own the population and outwardly towards the world community. Secondly, to legitimize and mobilize the population internally and externally, so that a loosely connected accumulation of individuals is welded together to the "people", which can also make an impression on foreign observers.

This is the overall framework of Authoritarianism.

Hugo Chávez

Authoritarian leaders

Frankenberg also describes in empirical detail a set of power strategies used in authoritarian states. Authoritarian leaders make great use of the executive power they have, while also being able to improvise when needed. The fact that today there is a serious discussion about whether Trump will relinquish power if he loses the election in November, shows what the executive power in extreme cases can be used for. And it is not without reason that one wonders about this, for authoritarian leaders only follow the constitution as long as they serve them. Otherwise, they use the possibilities found in the constitution to make exceptions, above all by declaring a state of emergency. The authoritarian leaders often have a personal ownership of power, which is expressed by the creation of dynasties, as in North Korea, or allowing family members to hold important positions, as with Trump, or to enrich themselves personally, as Putin is claimed to do .

Arbitrary imprisonment, systematic torture of prisoners by the police, killings of opponents of the regime, extrajudicial executions, journalists who are harassed and killed…

Popular participation in authoritarian regimes is often not an expression of political opposition, of support for the regime. We see this in the large mass rallies in authoritarian states, such as Venezuela. Or in Russia, with "The Immortal Regiment", where millions of people take to the streets on Victory Day on May 9 with pictures of relatives who fought during World War II. In this way, they become "accomplices" in the regime, Frankenberg believes. And finally, the authoritarian leaders try to create a direct relationship between the leaders and the people, without intermediaries, as when Trump tweets to the fans or arranges large rallies. Or when the former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez 'participated in his own weekly TV show Aló Presidente, where he advertised the "Bolivarian revolution".

Is "the people" just an illusion?

Frankenberg's book provides a good insight into the power strategies of authoritarian regimes and ambiguous relations with the constitutions, as they will both comply with them, but also transcend them when needed. With this book, Frankenberg wants to remedy the lack of liberal constitutional theory, which by and large has not taken authoritarian constitutions seriously. But at the same time, Frankenberg remains safe within the liberal paradigm, and he serves a number of talking points that are familiar to any reader of Western mainstream media. He describes, for example, Putin's Russia in this way:

"Reports of arbitrary detention, systematic torture of prisoners by the police, killings of opponents of the regime, extrajudicial executions, journalists being harassed and killed, neglect and atrocities in orphanages, violations of children's rights, discrimination, racism and murder of members of ethnic minorities speak. with particular brutality the language of authoritarian disposition. With terribly strong support from the Russian people, this instrumental dimension does not deliver exactly what one expects from relatively rule-of-law democracies – that a band of robbers is transformed into a government. "

But if all that is said here is actually true – then why does Putin's "robber gang" have such "terrible" support? Could it be that liberal prejudices against non-liberal societies come into play here? Is it also possible that in non-liberal societies one has a quite different understanding of the relationship between individual and society and of the role of the constitution?

Frankenberg's view of "the people" as an "imaginary community" may indicate that. Compared to liberal regimes, authoritarian regimes will regard "the people" as a positive phenomenon, yes, here the state and the constitution will serve people. From a liberal point of view, one would object that the "people" are only an illusion that gangs of robbers use to plunder the population. But in that case, liberal criticism becomes more an expression of a confrontation between incompatible paradigms than a real exchange of opinions.

In any case, Frankenberg does not explain well what is imaginary about the popular community, compared to other types of community. Perhaps every community is imaginary, since it must first be created through concrete actions? And perhaps the authoritarian power strategy and constitutional practice has as its most important function to create a people? Frankenberg does not go into such perspectives, and his book thus demonstrates both the strengths and limitations of one , beral critique of «authoritarianism».

Subscription NOK 195 quarter