Dictators Fall, but States Remain: Zimbabwe's (Already) Missed Chance
Last week, the fall of Robert Mugabe’s regime made headlines across the world, and was greeted with relief and hope by international commentators as well as Zimbabweans. Overall, the general feeling was that of a new beginning, long awaited in a country that had been stuck for four decades under rampant inflation, corruption, and an oppressive rule. There seemed to be little doubt, given how the news was presented, that this is a pivotal and far-reaching transformation for this African nation.
And yet, if one looks closely, there are signs that, despite the current sense of hope in Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s removal will not bring the long awaited change. Mugabe "retired” with immunity, a $US 10 million severance check, and a promise to be paid a salary for the rest of his life. He has now been succeeded by his vice-president, who lead the coup d'état and capitalized on the year long public protests against his disputed predecessor. With the new president, the rule of the ZANU-Patriotic Front will continue, as will the party's Marxist-Leninist ideology and its politburo.
How can one know that things won’t change? There are many similarities between the recent history of Zimbabwe and the not too distant history of socialist republics, like Romania, from the decades of oppression and poverty to the overwhelming hope of a new start following the revolution. But one important common aspect of the two regimes—Ceausescu’s and Mugabe’s—is that neither or them were actual autocracies, or ‘personal’ states. A forty year totalitarian rule is not a one-man feat, but must be necessarily supported by an entire state apparatus for which the dictator himself often becomes no more than a mouthpiece.
This state apparatus is always wrought with internal conflicts and smaller groups of interest competing to capture the power. Sometimes this is accomplished through internal ‘purging’ mechanisms, but other times a popular revolution is necessary to bring about a change in the figurehead. Then, the state apparatus reinvents and re-brands itself, usually adopting a more democratic, freer stance than before.
For the people, the fall of the dictator may seem the end of the dictatorship with which he had been associated for so long. But while dictators fall, the state remains. The corrupt and oppressive network of political interest, skilled in plundering, keeps it tentacles firmly wrapped around the economy and the legal system. The octopus simply grows another head.
In Romania, the bloody ’89 revolution was followed by years of economic transition and market reforms which now still see the social democrat party capturing power and law to serve their own interests. The demise of the autocrat did little for the people on the economic and political front; while a change, it has not been a sweeping change. It has not changed the system, which continued—employing the same ideology and even using the same politicians—to hamper and mismanage the economy and to restrict the freedoms of the population. One often remembered Mises’s warning in this context, that “every socialist is a disguised dictator” (Human Action, p.693).
Given the current outlook, then, Zimbabwe may now call itself a liberated country or even a democracy, but its problems—inflation, corruption, poverty, lack of freedom—will only continue, and the difference between Zimbabwe’s past and its future will only be visible perhaps in the degree of the rulers’ oppression.
Real economic and political freedom requires a different air altogether; it will never be possible to breathe it as long as politicians control how and when windows can be open. It is in bringing this air around, and not in changing the face of the ruler, that popular revolutions must play a decisive role.