Staunton, March 25 – In today’s “Vedomosti,” two scholars based in Paris and Los Angeles say that the new crop of dictators in the world today get by with a minimum use of force even at times of “moderate economic difficulties” and prefer to maintain their power by “an intensification of censorship and propaganda.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is part of this group, Sergey Guriyev of Sciences Po and Daniel Treisman of UCLA write (vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2015/03/25/avtoritarizm-v-vek-informatsii), and Guriyev expands on this point in an interview with Slon.ru, available at szona.org/sergej-guriev-my-nablyudaem-osoznanie-rezhimom-sobstvennoj-nekompetentnosti/).
Dictators of today “are already not the same” as dictators used to be, the two write. “Tyrants of the past – Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot – used terror, ideology and the isolation of their countries for the monopolization of power … but in recent decades a new type of authoritarianism has arisen, one better adapted to a world of transparent borders, global media and the knowledge economy.”
“Illiberal regimes, they say, pointing to their recently published study, “How Modern Dictators Survive: Cooptation, Censorship, Propaganda and Repression,” “have learned to concentrate power in their hands without having to resort to the isolation of their countries and mass murder.”
These “new autocrats,” Guriyev and Treisman point out, even ape the forms of democracy, “conduct elections” which “almost always” are rigged to bring to office “the people needed,” subvert and censor the media rather than destroy it, and use “an amorphous hatred of the West” in place of an elaborate political ideology.
The new dictators “frequently” have “unbelievable popularity,” achieved “at a minimum, thanks to the liquidation of all competitors” but mostly through government propaganda. That propaganda, they write “works not as ‘an engineer of human souls,’” like Stalin’s, “but as a means of increasing the rating of the dictator.”
They may use force “from time to time,” but they don’t need to do so all the time as their predecessors did. Instead, “the logic” of these new dictators is based on the manipulation of information in order to convince their subjects that they are effective leaders who are delivering the goods.
Those who are really competent can simply point to their successes, much as Putin did when oil prices were high. Those who are not competent must “force society to believe in their competence,” either by direct lies and censorship or simply by surviving in office long enough that people will conclude they must be competent.
Both can maintain themselves in this way for a long time, they say, “but in the end modernization undermines the information balance on which the rule of these dictators depends.” With greater education, it becomes “ever more difficult” for these dictators to control “the interrelationship between informed elites and society.”
In his interview, Guriyev applies these general conclusions explicitly to the Russia of Vladimir Putin. “Today,” he says, “propaganda is effective, but with time, people can begin to have doubts. As soon as they finally understand that the regime is incompetent and the country has no future, a fall in approval ratings will occur and the regime will be replaced.”
“The fact that ratings remain high means that people, despite the empty shelves consider the propaganda more convincing than the labels,” something that Putin has found easier to do because of the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions. But his task is not an easy one, the Sciences Po scholar says.
“In Russia, there is ever more censorship and propaganda. That is, judging by external signs, the regime has recognized its inability to show people that it is competent from the economic point of view.” If the situation were otherwise, “it would not be necessary to spend so much money and effort on propaganda and censorship.”
Consequently, what is occurring now in Russia, he suggests, is “not simply testimony of the incompetence of the regime. It is testimony of the recognition by the regime of its own incompetence.”