This is not where we had our roots though – where we felt our work, approach and understanding was found/grounded. Those would be found in what would be labeled "state repression studies" (that is if it were given a name, which it wasn't). This would be the distant stepchild of Harry Eckstein’s “Internal War”, Ted Gurr’s “Civil Strife/Conflict” and Charles Tilly as well as Sidney Tarrow’s “Contentious Politics”. These lines of inquiry never actually focused on state repression as a thing to study on its own but they included certain aspects of the phenomenon in their investigations of non-state behavior to be close enough. They were out of mainstream political interactions (a key component) and thus it seemed more like these than democratic processes for example (a point for later).
As conceived, human rights scholars generally focus on the list of activities associated with the international covenant on civil and political. You know them:
- the right to life,
- freedom of religion,
- freedom of speech,
- freedom of assembly,
- electoral rights and
- rights to due process and
- a fair trial.
The consistent/wise/snarky would quickly note that there was another listing within International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which includes:
- Principle of progressive realisation
- Labour rights
- Right to social security
- Right to family life
- Right to an adequate standard of living
- Right to health
- Right to free education
- Right to participation in cultural life
but they would also have to quickly note that hardly anyone in the now extensive literature on repression that I am referencing studied these – a big weakness in my opinion.
Most of the time research in the relevant area tried to figure out why governments do or do not comply with international or some federal law. This is why Michael Stohl and Mark Gibney started collecting the Political Terror Scale as well as why Steve Poe and Neal Tate started analyzing as well as popularizing these data. Accordingly, listening to theorists like early Robert Dahl and occasionally Thomas Hobbes, researchers here talked about electing the right politician, limiting executive power, signing treaties, creating national constitutions, judicial independence, being sanctioned for bad behavior or valueing trade (as liberal threats would tend to push).
Repression scholars, as I conceive them, have a somewhat different grounding. These scholars are less interested in specific behaviors linked to international documents than they were with paying attention to the activities undertaken by Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Stoessner, Nixon, McCarthy and Hoover - listed by Robert J. Goldstein, Jennifer Earl and Jules Boykoff. These scholars drew their motivation from victims/targets, social movements and activists around the world but also theorists who were quite critical of the state’s monopoly of coercive power as well as their illegal /immoral/inappropriate use of their power. Here, one would be more likely to hear about John McCamant, Alexander Dallin and George Breslauer, Kautilya, Kropotkin, Malatesta and Foucault. The differences between the two are worth noting.
The human rights scholar does not really probe the motivation behind why political authorities wish to engage in repression. These researchers kind of maintain a position that most governments wish to repress or bad things are done by bad leaders/governments and it is the job of researchers to discover what could stop authorities/governments from doing these things. The decision calculus usually relied upon to explain violations is helpful in structuring this work but it does not seek to find the deeper motive behind the behavior, merely the parameters of the decision to proceed: here and here.
In contrast, a repression scholar is generally interested in political domination broadly conceived and state coercive power as well as understanding how it functions. These researchers would be interested in ferreting out why as well as how political authorities wish to dominate their societies with force, violence and coercion. This is one of the reasons why repression researchers were interested in trade dependency and economic sector inequality back in the day. Here, the economic dependency on a few external-oriented products reduced a government’s allegiance to its domestic population. Abouharb and Cingranelli as well as Richards try to take us back to this agenda but by the time they came out, the liberal wave was rolling and the wave has rolled one way (thus far).
The differences in approaches explain the reported confusion about the democracy-repression nexus. Some scholars like Robert Dahl and V-DEM tend to conflate democratic institutions and behavior on the one hand with repressive behavior (never repressive institutions) on the other, suggesting that restrictions on speech or just having killed the leader of a political party distorts/suppresses the democratic nature of the political system. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps, it is not though. Who has studied this? If repression always distorts/suppreses democratic expression, then how do we get transitions away from autocracy/revolution? Does torture, arrests or bans influence turnout, who individuals vote for, how representative parties might be, who can become president, etc? Do these repressive practices lead individuals to engage in more democratic practices? Good questions.
In the repressive tradition, repression does not guarantee an outcome – many an authoritarian leader and empire would agree with this position. Repression might signal the potential vulnerability of democracy but it is does not define it. Repression in the repression scholar perspective is an attempt at domestication and influence (i.e., what used to be called a "power attempt") but it is not a system of governance. Many a democratic citizen would like there to be no repression, better wages, better/frequent healthcare but just because these outcomes are not delivered does not mean that democracy does not exist – by definition.
Indeed, the repression literature would prompt us to step away from conflating democratic institutions and coercive behavior enacted through security force agents by separating political leaders and institutions on the one hand from security force agents on the other as well as the economic elite that might be driving them. Principal-Agent arguments offer an opportunity to disaggregate in this manner but they only make a vague connection to political authorities. They also do not go that extra step to consider economic elites/institutions/conditions/practices that guide what the principal pursues. Hell, I now miss the days of the relative autonomy of state debates driven by the Marxists.
There are other differences. The liberally-oriented human rights scholar is more optimistic about curbing state coercive power. Here, all we need is the right document or identification of the right incentive and state violence will stop. More anarchically-oriented repression scholars are a bit less optimistic about the prospect of curbing state coercive power. Here, they need a little but more than a document or incentive. They need economic inequality to be decreased or eliminated entirely (i.e., wealth, income and land). They need the security apparatus to be made more accountable or eliminated entirely and they need the mass citizenry to be trained in the way of non-violence.
Despite the difficulties with adopting the more pessimistic approach it may be useful to do so. This might help in focusing less on leaders or structures of government then the benefits accrued to the parts of the population involved with repression. Will as a repression scholar repeatedly attempted to bring us here in evaluating the simultaneous/reciprocal relationship between governments and challengers. Will knew that there was an "internal war" raging within nation-states and that in order to understand what was going on the researcher had to theorize, document and analyze the actions of both sides. In this case, repression served the state in their attempts to maintain control and occasionally transform society just as terrorism/insurgency/rebellion served the challengers in their attempts to disrupt or transform society. Governments were not just set on a coercive/forceful path and were restrained (although some of his/our work went in this direction). No, governments were engaged in a battle for the soul of the polity and they used torture, mass killing, arrests, censorship and assassination to get there. They didn't stop there though (the theorists here reminded us); governments also used religion, education, propaganda, language and, food against the population. Combining repression with coup proofing moves in the right direction but combining repression with discussions of law, social services, education and marketing would go even further. Perhaps equally as important and something forgotten: repression scholars always approached the topic knowing that the stick was only one part of the governments/elites arsenal. Normative, material and coercive power were a better representation of the fuller repertoire. We need to get back there.