Totalitarian tactics

Dictators tend to be dab hands at branding – of themselves in particular. Hugh Pearman on how rulers from Benito Mussolini to Turkmenbashi have become the trademarks of their nations

Hugh Pearman

Everyone hates a dictator, don’t they? So why are they so successful, as a breed? Why are there always so many of them and why do they generally rule for so long? We’ve seen recently how fragile their real position is, once their subjects decide that time is up. But it takes many, many years to get to that point.

Everyone always explains this by mentioning the ruthless suppression of dissent, the careful nurturing of a favoured elite who stand to lose everything if the leader is usurped, and so forth. But nobody ever mentions design. This is not just important. It is vital if you are to stay in power.

All successful despots, from Benito Mussolini to Kim Jong-il by way of Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein, always took great care to become the brand image of their nations. Those giant billboard posters. The statues. The censorship. The precisely choreographed public appearances. All this underpinned by the well-paid network of spies and secret police, backed up by the deployment of extreme force. The rules of dictatorship state that it doesn’t really matter if you claim democratic credentials for your position or not. Many do, but you can be just as secure, for decades, if you simply bludgeon your way in as a warlord. Absolute monarchs are, of course, no different: nearly all dictators try to establish family dynasties, so becoming monarchs in all but name.

The trick is very simple. To associate the nation with the person means that to denigrate the person is to attack the nation. This is treasonable and therefore punishable. It helps if you give yourself a high-flown name. ’Man of steel’ was effective for Stalin. ’Lord Protector’ worked for Oliver Cromwell. But the dictator who took it furthest was Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov. Never heard of him? You will have heard of Turkmenbashi, the name he gave himself. The name and the position were the same: leader of Turkmen. He didn’t just erect golden statues to himself, he altered the language. He named several things, from months of the year to cities, after himself. Bread was renamed after his mother. His face became the country’s logo, and had to be on every clock and watchface by law. Having declared himself President for Life, that’s what he did: he died in 2006, still in power after 16 years.

It’s been said often enough that the extreme power of Nazism was because it wasn’t just a cult of personality like this, but – like the Soviet Union – also a very well-designed total system, from the party symbols down to the uniforms. It was seductive: so many people could take part, feel involved, be branded. And thus become party to unspeakable atrocities. It just felt normal.

Democracy has a bit of a problem here: it’s a diffuse concept, hard to express visually. You have to find symbolic devices, like the American eagle (or the extreme respect for the flag), or the French Marianne, to represent the idea. It’s difficult. If the imagery doesn’t reinforce the concept, it can go wrong and you find yourself with a Napoleon instead.

This, of course, is the position a string of Middle Eastern countries now find themselves in. Just remember this: Turkmenbashi himself emerged from the break-up of a totalitarian system, Soviet Communism. It’s so easy to cling to the image of the powerful individual at moments of political uncertainty. So lovers of true democracy at this crucial moment need more than good intentions. They need strong, simple ideas, yes. But they also need the best graphic designers they can find.

Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors

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