How to Know if Your Country Is Heading Toward Despotism: An Educational Film from 1946

Nobody likes a despot — even despots know it. But actu­al­ly iden­ti­fy­ing despo­tism can pose a cer­tain dif­fi­cul­ty — which despots also know, and they’d sure­ly like to keep it that way. Hence Ency­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca’s Despo­tism, a ten-minute Erpi Class­room Film on how a coun­try slides into that epony­mous state. It uses the exam­ple of Nazi Ger­many (which might strike us today as the most obvi­ous one but back in 1946 must have felt almost too fresh), but gen­er­al­izes the con­cept by look­ing back into more dis­tant his­to­ry, as far as Louis XIV’s immor­tal remark, “L’é­tat, c’est moi.”

“You can rough­ly locate any com­mu­ni­ty in the world some­where along a scale run­ning all the way from democ­ra­cy to despo­tism,” says Despo­tism’s stan­dard-issue man­nered nar­ra­tor before turn­ing it over to a stan­dard-issue sack-suit­ed and Bryl­creemed expert. And how can we know where our own soci­ety places on that scale? “Well, for one,” says the expert, “avoid the com­fort­able idea that the mere form of gov­ern­ment can of itself safe­guard a nation against despo­tism.” The film intro­duces a series of sub-scales usable to gauge a com­mu­ni­ty’s despot­ic poten­tial: the respect scale, the pow­er scale, the eco­nom­ic dis­tri­b­u­tion scale, and the infor­ma­tion scale.

The respect scale mea­sures “how many cit­i­zens get an even break,” and on the despot­ic end, “com­mon cour­tesy is with­held from large groups of peo­ple on account of their polit­i­cal atti­tudes; if peo­ple are rude to oth­ers because they think their wealth and posi­tion gives them that right, or because they don’t like a man’s race or his reli­gion.” The pow­er scale  “gauges the cit­i­zen’s share in mak­ing the com­mu­ni­ty’s deci­sions. Com­mu­ni­ties which con­cen­trate deci­sion mak­ing in a few hands rate low on a pow­er scale and are mov­ing towards despo­tism,” and even “today democ­ra­cy can ebb away in com­mu­ni­ties whose cit­i­zens allow pow­er to become con­cen­trat­ed in the hands of boss­es.”

The eco­nom­ic dis­tri­b­u­tion scale turns into a warn­ing sign when a soci­ety’s “eco­nom­ic dis­tri­b­u­tion becomes slant­ed, its mid­dle income groups grow small­er and despo­tism stands a bet­ter chance to gain a foothold.” If “the con­cen­tra­tion of land own­er­ship in the hands of a very small num­ber of peo­ple” and “con­trol of jobs and busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties is in a few hands, despo­tism stands a good chance.” So it also does in a soci­ety which rates low on the infor­ma­tion scale, where “the press, radio, and oth­er chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion are con­trolled by only a few peo­ple and when cit­i­zens have to accept what they are told,” a process that ren­ders its cit­i­zens ulti­mate­ly unable to eval­u­ate claims and ideas for them­selves.

The oppo­site of despo­tism, so Despo­tism pro­pos­es, is democ­ra­cy, a type of gov­ern­ment explained in the pre­vi­ous year’s Erpi Class­room Film of that name. Ger­many, a repub­lic where once “an aggres­sive despo­tism took root and flour­ished under Adolf Hitler,” now per­forms admirably on the respect, pow­er, eco­nom­ic dis­tri­b­u­tion, and infor­ma­tion scales — not per­fect­ly, of course, but no coun­try can ever com­plete­ly escape the threat of despo­tism. Much about the econ­o­my and the nature of infor­ma­tion may have changed over the past 70 years, but noth­ing about respect and pow­er have. Whichev­er soci­ety we live in, and wher­ev­er on the spec­trum between democ­ra­cy and despo­tism it now stands, we’ll do well to keep an eye on the scales. Both films were made by Ency­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca, in con­junc­tion with Yale Uni­ver­si­ty’s then promi­nent polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Harold Lass­well.

via Boing­Bo­ing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Spot a Com­mu­nist Using Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism: A 1955 Man­u­al from the U.S. Mil­i­tary

Rare 1940 Audio: Thomas Mann Explains the Nazis’ Ulte­ri­or Motive for Spread­ing Anti-Semi­tism

Don­ald Duck’s Bad Nazi Dream and Four Oth­er Dis­ney Pro­pa­gan­da Car­toons from World War II

George Orwell’s Final Warn­ing: Don’t Let This Night­mare Sit­u­a­tion Hap­pen. It Depends on You!

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Slavoj Žižek Calls Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness a Form of “Mod­ern Total­i­tar­i­an­ism”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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