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How Dictatorships Start Matters


Barbara Geddes and her co-authors have done it again.

In her early career, Barbara Geddes wrote one of the best and most original books ever written on corruption – her 1994 The Politician’s Dilemma: Building State Capacity in Latin America.

She has now added two co-authors and completely reinterpreted the dynamics of dictatorships. The new book is entitled How Dictatorships Work and the two new authors are Joseph Wright and Erica Frantz. This is a fascinating read. Their ideas are surprising and well worth taking into account.

The standard thinking about dictatorship was to compare it to democracy. How dictatorships behave and act depends on how they got started. Different origins stories lead to vastly different results.

The Geddes team rightly considers a wide range different of origins. I am particularly engaged by two particularly important origins – takeover by a military coup and takeover by an already entrenched conservative civilian elite.

I will return to the Geddes team’s own arguments in a minute. As a development sociologist, I saw immediate implications for the study of economic growth.

There is a giant debate in development studies about whether dictatorship is better or worse for economic development than democracy. The Chinese argue that democracy is much worse for development than dictatorship.

They cite the fact that China, an authoritarian state ruled by the Communist party, has had the highest rate of economic growth in recorded history. They compare themselves with India – a nation with a vibrant democratic tradition and sluggish economic growth. India’s inferior economic performance has a lot to do with a huge amount of corruption, the capture of many government agencies by narrow economic interests and general political and administrative chaos. China has coherent economic planning and administration and significantly less corruption than does India. (Less is not the same as zero.)

Why does China perform better? Its leadership does not have to compete for power in elections. In India, politicians tolerate corruption and let special interests control public bureaucracies because they need to hand out favors in order to win political office. A clean politician risks becoming an irrelevant out-of-office idealist. To win elections, the government is for sale.

Other well-known examples of growth-oriented dictatorships include Park Chung-Hee in South Korea, Getulio Vargas in Brazil, the leaders of the “Argentine Revolution” in the 1960’s, and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore.

(Note that being a good developer is not the same as being a saint. The Argentinian generals had a nightmarish record on human rights issues.)

On the other hand, there is a long list of autocratic governments that have primarily served to enrich themselves or enrich a small elite at the expense of creating more generalized economic growth. The most well-known example are rentier states. These are governments with access to petroleum. These governments are more concerned about monopolizing access to petroleum funds than they are in increasing economic growth which would have to be shared. Syria under Assad or Iraq under Saddam Hussein are good examples.

There are nations without resources where the same thing occurs - an oligarchy using authoritarian government to economic activity. The classic example of this is Spain in the nineteenth century. The conservative landlord class used the monarchy to insure its own political control of the country. Economic policies were instituted that stifled both manufacture and technological advance in agriculture. Both manufacture and modern agriculture would have increased the power of a nascent bourgeois class. Multiple civil wars were fought in Spain over these issues. These wars generally had two phases. In the first phase, “republican” pro-industry groups or in later periods, “socialist” pro-worker groups would rise up seeking democracy or social progress. They would be opposed by a vast array of conservative groups including the big landowners, the church and the military. The oligarchs would push, in earlier periods for the continuation of a monarchy, in later periods for the imposition of a dictatorship. The conservative forces generally won – usually after a civil war that took large numbers of human lives. The Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s was the bloodiest example.

Porfirio Diaz in Mexico represents a similar phenomenon except some of his ruling clique were urban.

How does one reconcile these two faces of dictatorship? Geddes et. al. go a long way towards explaining this. Some dictatorships are promoted by the military themselves. Some are promoted by conservative elements of civil society. If the generals (or the sergeants) take over the government themselves – they don’t owe anything to anybody. They can do whatever they want. This does not mean the generals will develop the economy. Some juntas just line their pockets. But some militaries are legitimately concerned about their nation’s strength. They see a strong economy as being critical to being a strong military power. (Some generals are even humanistic and care for the well being of their nation just on principle.) A military that wants to develop a nation can steamroller any special interests in civil society that stand in their way.

A dictatorship created by a conservative elite with assistance from the military will be dependent on that elite. General Franco was the product of the oligarchs. Spain stagnated in the forty years under Franco’s rule, but he delivered the continuation of the special privileges that motivated the Spanish right to go to war.

The schemata I lay out here is a bald simplification. Geddes et. al. would be happy to remind me that there are more than two roads to dictatorship, that Communist China was the result of a popular uprising and that Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore was an elected politician. They would want to do a full analysis of all six types of origins of dictatorship and analyze the political dynamics of power struggles within the junta after coming to power. I put up this cartoon version to illustrate that even simplified versions of their theories can produce generalizations that explain a large number of historical cases. Readers with their own questions about the behavior of dictatorships would be wise to look at the origins of dictatorships first.

Geddes et. al. actually do not write very much on economic affairs. They write about political dynamics. Their conclusions are based on sophisticated multivariate analyses of the complete historical record of nearly every dictatorship that has existed in the twentieth century.

Their main findings are impressive and useful.

The most strategic thing a dictator can do is to form political parties and have elections – even if these are sham elections. Elections provide an early warning system that identify what regions and factions are restive and are sources of political problems. Behavior on the campaign trail can be a useful diagnostic for finding what disgruntled factions need to be coopted or bought off. Parties also provide a tool for dealing with economic or social crisis. If the government suddenly has to deliver real services in order to stay legitimated, the party can be a way of mobilizing supporters to deliver those services. Parties can be used for disaster relief, to set up “pop-up” programs to eliminate hunger or cover short-term needs. Parties can also be used to create distracting ethnic issues. Inflamed ethnic rivalries can be a good cover for non-performance by the junta.

As a result, dictatorships with parties significantly outlast dictatorships without parties.

The second most strategic thing a dictator can do is to get his own personal security force that is loyal to him and him alone. A significant component of the struggles associated with the consolidation of dictatorial power are the attempts of other factions within the junta to keep the dictator from getting access to such a security force. Dictators frequently play one faction off against the other to prevent the rise of unified opposition to him getting his security force. Here again, origin stories matter – as it matters who helped put the dictator in power and who would still “get a vote” about questions of consolidation.

Super-centralized KGB-style secret police are rare. “1984-style” Orwellian government is extremely expensive. One needs a massive, massive security establishment. To keep the Stasi happy, they need to be well paid. Origins matter here too. Stasi are easier to set up when a big rich foreign power imposes a dictatorship on a small client state. Poorer places have to rely more on paramilitaries and other allies in civil society. Paramilitaries have their own interests and have to be bargained with on their own terms. Many dictators use this form of muscle. However, doing so forces dictators to do some bargaining with “civil society” (or in this case with “brutally violent uncivil society”.)

A significant group that has to be bargained with is the military and that includes every faction of the military. If some group is unhappy about pay or about promotions or even about foreign policy, they are entirely capable of ending a dictator’s career by staging their own coup. The Geddes team show that this is extremely common. Coups are one of the most important origins of dictatorial regimes. After carefully considering alternative explanations, Geddes et. al. show that most coups are caused not by social factors but by simple plain ordinary military grievances.

How Dictatorships Work is filled with historical and anecdotal evidence on the behavior of dictatorships. There are plenty of statistical analyses  to show that their arguments apply to the general pattern and are not the product of atypical cases. They are strategic pragmatists who know the operation of realpolitik well – including the need to keep the general population somewhat happy. Even Machiavelli himself advised his Prince to see to the economic and psychological well-being of his subjects.

More importantly, the story of dictatorships you get here is absolutely non-standard.

Want to learn something new? Read this book.

For More Information

For the general argument that dictatorships provide more growth than do democracies, see Guillermo O’Donnell’s Bureaucratic Authoritarianism: Argentina 1966-1973 in Comparative Perspective.

For the argument of how democracy has stifled India’s growth, see Vivek Chibber's Locked in Place: State Building and Late Industrialization in India.

There is a huge literature on rentier states. Wikipedia can provide a perfectly good introduction to the subject. Note that not all petroleum economies produce rentier states.

The most sophisticated analysis of the rentier states that do exist can be found in the first two chapters of Gilbert Achcar’s  People Want: Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. The second chapter is particularly powerful.

On the relationship between oligarchic elites and slow growth, see Dieter Senghaas’s European Experience: Historical Critique of Development Theory.

On the pathologies of Spain, see Gabriel Tortella’s Development of Modern Spain: Economic History of the

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