Saturday, May 13, 2023

New thinking about how authoritarian rule works

image: Russian police arrest Moscow anti-war protester

The risk to democracy in the United States is more serious than it has ever been (link, link, link). Unabashed strongman wannabes like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have made it very clear that they have no allegiance to the principles and values of a liberal democracy, and their social goals would require autocratic rule in order to be achieved. This is plain when we consider the mismatch that exists between public opinion and extreme-right social policies and values. The majority of the US population favors some level of rights to abortion, sensible gun regulation, and the freedom to think, speak, and associate as they wish; whereas the political program of the GOP is opposed to each of these goals. So it is important for all of us to have a more detailed understanding of what autocratic rule involves, how it comes about, and how it maintains power.

Johannes Gerschewski's The Two Logics of Autocratic Rule tries to answer several of those questions. Gerschewski is Research Associate in the Global Governance Department, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Socialforschung (WZB), as well as academic coordinator of the "Theory Network" of the Cluster of Excellence "Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS)", Freie Universität Berlin (link). The book represents some excellent "next generation" thinking about the nature of authoritarianism and dictatorship, following upon theorizing by Hannah Arendt in the 1950s (The Origins of Totalitarianism) and Juan Linz in the 1970s (Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes).

The question of regime stability is crucial: how does an autocracy maintain power, given that its actions will find favor and disfavor among diverse constituencies over a period of time? After all, Franco was not universally beloved by all segments of Spanish society from his ascension to power in 1936 to his death in 1975. So how did the Franco state maintain its stability throughout that 39-year period?

Gerschewski addresses this question by considering what counter-forces exist in an authoritarian society, and what strategies can be used to prevent successful resistance. He identifies the primary constituencies of an autocratic government in these terms:

In this book, I argue that the threats to the survival of autocratic regimes can emanate from three sides: from ordinary citizens, from the opposition, and from within the elite. (kl 299)

These are the sources of power that might endanger the survival of an authoritarian government. Gerschewski argues that authoritarian regimes pursue three distinct strategies in order to contain these threats to authoritarian rule: repression of the opposition, cooptation of elites, and legitimation of the regime to the masses of ordinary citizens. And he notes that the resources available to the authoritarian regime are always limited, so a "configuration" of strategies must be chosen. Even dictatorships face a "hard budget constraint". He finds that, broadly speaking, there are two distinctive configurations of strategies that can be chosen, and they have different logics -- hence the title of the book. These configurations are identified as "over-politicization" and "de-politicization" of issues.

Here is how he describes the over-politicization configuration of strategies:

I argue by employing the work of Carl Schmitt that politicization is the process of inflating a contrast, a societal cleavage, be it of ideological, religious, nationalistic, moral, cultural, economic, or ethnic couleur, into an absolute distinction, constructing so a friend-foe distinction (Schmitt [1932] 2002). As such, the over-politicizing logic attempts to politicize even previously unpolitical issues and to create an internal foe of such magnitude that repression against this foe seems to be even justifiable. (kl 337)

The over-politicization configuration is visible in US politics today; the use of racism, xenophobia, Christian nationalism, and the "war on woke" illustrates the politicization configuration chosen by the GOP today.

The de-politicization configuration is aimed at creating a culture of passivity among citizens, a willingness to accept the dictates of the state without protest.

The de-politicizing logic, in turn, focuses on the regime’s social or economic performance, images of law and order, internal security, and material well-being to keep the people satisfied with the regime’s output. (337)

This is the "chicken in every pot" strategy. And, strangely enough, de-politicization also seems to be a part of GOP strategy today. Many US citizens are strangely passive when it comes to Donald Trump's shameless lies, his well-known pattern of sexual harassment, his brutal mistreatment of immigrant children, and his scoffing indifference to the rule of law.

Here is a diagram representing the factors involved in Gerschewski's analysis (kl 554).

The relevance of Gerschewski's treatment of the chief strategies of authoritarian regimes (and aspiring authoritarian parties) to contemporary US politics is evident. But it is also interesting to consider the applicability of Gerschewski's theory to Vladimir Putin's Russia. Repression, legitimation, and cooptation all have visible roles in Russia today. Opponents of the war against Ukraine are treated harshly in the streets; massive propaganda efforts are made to legitimate Putin's goals through appeal to "Russian nationalism and destiny"; and cooptation is plainly an important ongoing process in managing military, political, and oligarch circles. As Gerschewski puts the point,

Coups remain the most frequent way that an autocracy ends. To maintain intra-elite unity, therefore, has been, for good reason, at the core of the most recent explanations of autocratic regime stability. (524)

Gerschewski offers a theory of authoritarian regime stability; but he also wants to test this theory. This he attempts to do by considering a wide range of cases. In particular, he examines authoritarian regimes in East Asia to assess whether the strategies and constituencies he hypothesizes are to be found empirically in these heterogeneous cases of authoritarian rule. This work involves a comparativist methodology. Gerschewski provides "individual case narratives" for forty-five regimes. Each case attempts to estimate the "stability" of the authoritarian regime in question, and Gerschewski methodically examines each case with regard to the strategies chosen for managing conflict and destabilization from citizens, opponents, and elites.

The Two Logics of Autocratic Rule is an important book on several levels. Methodologically, it makes a strong effort to provide empirical evaluation for a broad theory of autocratic regime stability, using the methods of comparative research. Substantively, it can be seen as a sort of converse to Levitsky and Ziblatt's book How Democracies Die, in that Gerschewski's topic is "how autocracies survive". And finally -- though this is not an application pursued by Gerschewski himself in this book -- it can be seen as a field guide for understanding many of the political choices of anti-democratic far-right parties within functioning liberal democracies like the GOP today.

1 comment:

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

he did his homework. And, so have you. It is clear a lot of people a
Have thought about this;are thinking about it. It is painfully clear a lot more can't, won't or don't give a flip. Complacency=apathy?