The Nexus of Tyranny and Surveillance: Insights from Aristotle
“The tyrant, who in order to hold his power, suppresses every superiority, does away with good men, forbids education and light, controls every movement of the citizens and, keeping them under a perpetual servitude, wants them to grow accustomed to baseness and cowardice, has his spies everywhere to listen to what is said in the meetings, and spreads dissension and calumny among the citizens and impoverishes them, is obliged to make war in order to keep his subjects occupied and impose on them permanent need of a chief.” -Aristotle
As we witness the pervasive influence of surveillance in our contemporary world, it becomes paramount to comprehend the tactics utilized by tyrannical regimes to perpetuate their control. This is key to protect ourselves from the evil of tyranny and avoid falling under its spell. In this regard, Aristotle offers the first important account and insights into tyranny, the way it comes about and how it is sustained by surveillance and other means of control. In this short piece we will go through the key characteristics of tyranny as Aristotle outlined in the fifth book of ‘Politics’ and highlight some of the insights that can still help us avoid tyranny in our present-day reality.
The Anatomy of Tyranny
In Politics (350 BCE circa), Aristotle delves into the study of politics and the organization of human societies. It is a foundational text in political philosophy and examines various aspects of governance, citizenship, and the ideal state. In the eight books composing the text, Aristotle explores the nature of political communities, their purpose, the different forms of governments, their benefits and their weaknesses.
It is in book five that Aristotle provides his reflection on tyranny, which according to him is a form of government characterized by the rule of an individual who disregards the law and governs solely according to their own interests, treating the state and its citizens as mere instruments. Starting from this framework, Aristotle argues that democracy can be transformed into a tyrannical regime through two primary paths. The first path involves deliberately inciting sedition and internal conflicts within society, which leads to the erosion of democratic institutions and the subsequent rise of tyranny. The second path instead, emerges when those in power exceed the boundaries of their authority, seeking to establish a tyranny by assuming greater power than the law permits.
The establishment of a tyranny, might not be so easy to recognize, especially when it happens gradually over time, however, there are several key symptoms associated to tyranny, these are:
- Centralization of power
- Erosion of the rule of law
- Lack of public participation
- Suppression of opposition
- Absence of accountability towards citizens
- Atmosphere of distrust and fear
When these symptoms of tyranny are left untreated, they have the potential to manifest as a devouring cancer that progressively transforms society and its individuals in dramatic and far-reaching ways. The insidious nature of tyranny lies in its ability to operate covertly, often evading immediate recognition. However, once these symptoms are fully acknowledged and the true extent of their impact is understood, it becomes apparent that the metastasis of tyranny may have already reached a point of no return.
Preserving Tyranny: Methods and Strategies
Tyrannical regimes employ contrasting methods to preserve their grip on power, both aimed at subjugating and manipulating the populace. The first method revolves around the tyrant’s public image and perception. To prolong their rule, tyrants present themselves as benevolent rulers who govern for the supposed benefit of the public. They exercise moderation, demonstrate attentiveness to public affairs, avoid ostentatious displays of wealth, and cultivate an image of respectability and piety. Through these measures, the tyrant seeks to win the loyalty and support of the people by showing respect to individuals of merit, employing cautious punishment, and granting honors.
The second more subtle and more efficient method instead, involves “keep[ing] down those of aspiring dispositions, to take off those who will not submit”, fostering an atmosphere of fear, oppression and frustration. These tactics include restricting education, discouraging social gatherings, promoting poverty, increasing taxes, engaging in constant warfare to divert the population’s attention, and employing spies to monitor citizens. Anything that could promote unity, trust and empowerment among people needs to be discouraged and surveillance tactics become crucial to enforce censorship and discouraging resistance. Aristotle mentions the use of spies, and an increasing intrusion in the private lives of citizens. Everything should happen in the public, where anyone at any time could listen and report to the authorities.
These days, governments no longer require citizens to be physically present in public spaces to conduct surveillance. In fact, direct spying on individuals may not even be necessary. With the growing trend of voluntarily sharing vast amounts of our private lives and opinions on the internet, the need for traditional surveillance methods diminishes. But even when people do not submit information voluntarily, governments have easy access to our online history and electronic devices, making it extremely easy to predict our behavior and ruthlessly target us. Unknowingly we have put ourselves in an incredibly vulnerable position, a position where resistance to the cancer of tyranny becomes impossible.
While you may question whether the symptoms of tyranny are present in today’s society, it is crucial to acknowledge the alarming red flags that wave across the West. However, regardless of your perspective, one undeniable truth remains: it is perilous to blindly embrace technology without recognizing its sinister potential for facilitating total control and the abuse of power. Astonishingly, Aristotle already identified surveillance and the erosion of privacy as fundamental elements of tyranny over 2,000 years ago. So why, in the face of such wisdom, do we continue to turn a blind eye and neglect the gravity of the situation?