We are in a curious age; human dignity, and freedom in which it can only be maintained, are challenged, undermined, encroached upon, or sought to be crushed in several parts of the world not only by the course of events but by human beings themselves. We in India are in a happy position; we still stand for it; we, I hope, are ready to defend it. However, in view of the world situation and the situation which prevails in some countries surrounding India, we have to study the forces and the ways in which it is being circumvented. The greatest danger to human dignity, and therefore to freedom, comes through not knowing its value and not knowing the disguise under which the danger appears. Its greatest enemy today is modern despotism which is creeping over the world under different names and different guises.

Everyone knows what despotism is. It implies the concentration of complete coercive power in the hands of a despot, who may be an individual, a party or a group. The coercive power may be physical, monetary, social or psychological, that is, over the thought and belief of the people. It derives and accepts no authority other than the will and convenience of the despot. The types of old despotism are found from the Egypt of the Ptolemys and Peru of the Incas to the Austria under Maria Theresa and France under Napoleon. None of these despotisms were absolute. Their power of physical coercion was restrained by the military and the feudal chiefs and the religious heads. They could not exercise unlimited power of monetary coercion. A despot could loot, expropriate, tax, and even extract money by torture; but, he could never annihilate the monetary resources of all the feudal chiefs, the financiers, the trading houses, the monasteries, the shrines and the farmers. The old despot had no power whatsoever to control the thoughts and beliefs of his subjects. Nor could he indoctrinate his subjects in any way he liked. He could only induce men by court patronage, corruption or coercion, to accept his views ostensibly. He had no mass media of communication at his disposal to hypnotise people by manipulating the pressure of public opinion. The old despot had very limited power of social coercion. He could cut people to pieces; he could convert them to his religion and absorb them in the ruling society at the point of the sword. But the large masses of men continued to follow their scriptural or customary ways and could successfully offer social resistance.

Seeking total power

Modern despotism, which came into existence after World War I, is increasingly uni-central. It flourishes on destroying all bases of multi-central life; it is totalitarian inasmuch as it seeks total power. Under it, all essential fields of life are prescribed by the rulers : What kind of occupation an individual may enter ; what, where, and when to work ; where to live, what to eat, to wear, to use ; what to believe ; what rank or position to hold ; what to think and to say ; what to approve or disapprove ; what to learn ; whether to marry or not, and if to marry, whom, where, and at what age ; how many children to have ; which of these children to allow to live and which to expose to death. Briefly, the network of the state system is so closely woven that an individual can hardly take any step without touching it and bringing it into action. This form of despotism has been exemplified in Communist State systems, in pre-war Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

As we know from experience, it recognises no law, human or divine, higher than its will. The modern despotism exercises the power of physical coercion through military and police action unrestricted by the rights of the individual or the Rule of Law. Its power of monetary coercion is equally unrestricted because it assumes control over production, distribution and consumption of wealth. Its power of social coercion controls families, marriages and family relations. It exercises the power of psychological coercion by manipulating and reinventing education and recreation: by controlling the Dress and other media of mass education. It stifles religious activities by propagating the supremacy of materialistic aims and by taking away independent monetary resources from the people through taxation, so that religious charities might be crippled. The totalitarian state, being uni-central in its ambition, thus permits no authority which functions independently of it. Many and various are the slogans, like nationalisation and planned economy which are intended completely to annihilate private property, trade, enterprise and initiative. Its psychological control over the masses depends upon suppressing, directly or indirectly, every belief or expression which goes contrary to its own ideology.

Doctrine of legality

Therefore, by lavish patronage, it harnesses literary men and men of learning to its chariot wheel, rendering freedom of thought and expression almost treasonable. It assumes control of the economic life by octopus devices like controls and ration cards. And once the State obtains complete control of services, jobs, benefactions and opportunities, few, perhaps not a single sector of life, can withstand its dictates. The basic theory which it directly or indirectly favours is that the people are the owners of all wealth. Ownership being the right of disposal, distribution and accumulation, in practice, it means the State ; the State belongs to those who run it; and those who run it through such wealth acquire such power as to be able to extinguish all independent initiative and resources. Independent judiciary also becomes a hindrance to the exercise of “popular will”. Fundamental Rights therefore do not count, nor human dignity. The rule of law is a myth. A new doctrine of legality justifies suppression of all opponents. With the army and police and a vast army of officials and bureaucrats, the despotic State system holds the whole society in its grip.

Excerpts from Despotism: Old and New by KM Munshi, published by the Forum for Free
Enterprise, 1959. KM Munshi was a leading Independence activist, environmentalist, novelist, and
one of the founders of Swatantra Party.
The entire essay can be accessed here at Indian Liberals, an open, multi-lingual digital archive preserving Indian writings on liberalprinciples and policies.