To study international politics since the turn of the century has been, in large part, to study the changing nature of autocracy – and the West’s relationship to it. We kicked things off by trying to realise the Trotskyite dream of ushering in global democracy through the barrel of a gun. We wanted to bring an end to the world’s tyrants – or the ones of relevance to us at any rate. We got Iraq.
But if we failed to end tyrants, we played our part in helping to mould them. As Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman observe in their intelligent, important book Spin Dictators, throughout this time something far more interesting and dangerous was happening. The most sophisticated dictators were reforming themselves, and the lesson they internalised was not the need to be democratic – that, after all, went against who they were – but the need to look democratic.
The ways in which they have done this are various, but for ease the authors have given us a lexical heuristic. The typical 20th-century autocrat was what they call a ‘fear dictator’. Its 21st-century equivalent is far more subtle, employing a ‘distinctive modus operandi – one focused more on shaping public opinion than on violent repression’.What they call a ‘spin dictator’.
Three figures in the book exemplify the spin dictators: Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong and, most of all, Vladimir Putin (to whom we will return) – three very different men who nonetheless share enough similarities that the authors can, through them, define a ‘school of authoritarian rule unlike the main 20th-century approach’.
All three leaders, they tell us, have favoured international openness, held frequent elections and enjoyed high approval ratings. Then there are the aesthetics. This new breed of strong men started ‘turning up to meetings in conservative suits instead of military uniforms… to schmooze with the global elite’. They ‘hired pollsters and political consultants, staged citizen call-in shows, and sent their children to study at universities in the West’.
Guriev and Treisman are not the first to analyse this form of autocracy. William J. Dobson’s The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy came out almost a decade ago and first fully articulated the vision of the tech-savvy, internationally connected 21st-century autocrat who eschews overt violence in favour of more subtle forms of coercion.
A few years later, in my book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, I further examined Putin’s form of post-modern dictatorship that had replaced ‘the firing squad with audits to bankrupt recalcitrant businessmen’ and – back then at any rate – favoured other forms of warfare over the openly violent.
But the authors have gone further to synthesise and integrate previous ideas into a clear thesis for 21st-century despotism in which spin dictators
have forged a distinct, internally consistent approach. The key elements – manipulating the media, engineering popularity, faking democracy, limiting public violence and opening up to the world – complement each other to produce a model of unfree governance that is spreading.
Central to this model of ‘unfree governance’ are some rules. The first and perhaps most important of all is to be popular. Unlike classic despots, spin dictators must maintain their approval ratings and to do this most effectively they use propaganda tools, especially new media. Obviously, dictatorship and propaganda are long intertwined, but where 20th-century propaganda was intimidating and often centred on violent imagery, today’s spin dictators adopt a more measured rhetoric of competence and expertise, sometimes with a technocratic or nationalist veneer. ‘Less Maoist agitprop, more Madison Avenue,’ as the authors observe.
When done properly this technique is almost impregnable. For 20 years, Putin’s approval ratings never dipped below 60 per cent, while the authors note that even Chávez’s opponents acknowledged his popularity. We have traditionally assumed that ordinary citizens hate dictators but are repressed by fear. But, as the authors observe, ‘spin dictators survive not by disrupting rebellion but by removing the desire to rebel’ – central to which is the ability not to imprison and kill but to manipulate information.
There is one problem with their thesis –which is vital reading for anyone interested in how despotic power works in our age. The book was written before Putin’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine. As I travelled from the southern to the eastern to the north-eastern fronts over April and May, what I saw was no longer the hybrid war I witnessed in 2014 – that mix of limited military action combined with pervasive information operations – but something quite different: the return of industrial-scale warfare to the European continent.
Ukraine is now a landscape of bombed-out cities, mass graves, rusting tanks and wide-scale deportations. That is to say, one sees there the return of the 20th century. Moscow’s actions are nothing to do with persuasion or subtlety or, indeed, spin; they are about old-fashioned hard power backed up by intimidation and terror.
What makes all this so interesting is that in abandoning the autocratic method Spin Dictators so intelligently outlines, Putin has blundered. He has made the mistakes of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and become a pariah accordingly. He has, after 20 years of being Tsar, succumbed to a detachment from reality enabled by sycophants that borders on the delusional. This, in the end, is the true curse of despotism. It is perhaps its most iron rule – and it never, ever changes.
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