I have read “Spin Dictators” by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman. My review is below.
Why is that?
When reading “Spin Dictators”, I couldn’t get rid of a feeling that I had already heard most of the propositions made. Where? In the Russian opposition-leaning media, for the most part, as well as the Western media, mostly left-leaning.
This made me… be critical about the text. I guess I have to give this disclaimer, because to an extent it means that I cannot review the book in an unbiased way. Not because I am pre-disposed to the book, but because I just have had too much exposure to a partisan political agenda.
Does it mean that things said there are a priori false? Not at all, after all, political agendas are sometimes built on genuine understanding, and in the case of “Spin Dictators”, most claims are supported by evidence, even though I haven’t bothered to verify that evidence. However, it did make me approach the text from a critical viewpoint.
So what the authors are saying can be roughly summarised as the following: since the last quarter of the twentieth century, dictatorships are much more based on manipulating and misleading people, rather than on inflicting fear upon them.
The first part of the book defines what a “Spin Dictatorship” is more precisely, and continues to describe its properties, such as its paradigmatic policies to democracy, international relations, propaganda, repression, censorship.
The seconds part of the book tries to establish how those “Spin Dictatorship” appeared, how they might evolve, and how democratic states should work with them.
Overall, this book left me with a feeling of unease. I cannot specify exactly where and why. Those interested may have a look at the notes in the next section of this file.
Perhaps, the most disturbing thought for me is the authors’ firm belief in “international institutions”. After all, international institutions are just institutions, prone to all problems of bureaucratic organisations.
One more thing that bothers me is a really slacky attitude to sovereignty. I mean, naturally, some countries are richer than others. But that approach “do what we tell, and only then we will help you” sounds too fragile to actually work as intended.
Also, they mention that presently countries have about 43% of their economies being used for import-export. This sounds way off from being reasonable. I mean, I like Japanese knives, but do I want to have no domestic knives in a shop nearby? I doubt.
Similarly, I find it hard to believe that “progress” can be achieved by instilling it into people by the more progressive. Something just doesn’t sound right here. Without independence how can there be adulthood?
Chapter 1 : Fear and Spin
THE PUTIN PUZZLE
- Raymond Aron called these <Nazism and Communism> “secular religions”
- Socialist revolutionaries like Nasser in Egypt (mobilizational) shared the world stagewith freemarket reactionaries like Pinochet in Chile (demobilizational) and kleptocrats like Mobutu in Zaire (demobilizational).
- Many scholars, for instance, have sought to explain the stability of classic, violent autocracies — the regimes that we call dictatorships of fear. How do such rulers avoid being overthrown in revolutions?
It is not normal for people to rebel. People have an “emotional barrier” before they allow that violence to rise up. (?)
- intimidate citizens
- keep potential rebels from coordinating on a plan
- keep them divided—and terrified
- Most assume that citizens hate the dictator: only fear keeps them from revolting. But what if citizens actually like their ruler and do not want to storm the barricades?
Is not that democracy?
- some features of spin dictatorship
- hold elections, and not all are empty rituals (ploys, con games, and bureaucratic abuses that autocrats around the world have used to secure victories)
- control the media
- surveillance and information technologies
- The key elements
- manipulating the media
- engineering popularity
- faking democracy
- limiting public violence
- opening up to the world
THE RULES OF SPIN
- Aristotle: ruler claimed to be not a violent usurper but “a steward and a king,” governing for the benefit of all. spent money to “adorn and improve his city” and cultivated an image of moderation and piety. “not harsh, but dignified.”
- Machiavelli: use “simu‐lation and dissimulation.” Since most people are influenced by ap‐pearances rather than reality, an ambitious ruler should create illu‐sions. He “need not have all the good qualities … but he must seem to have them.
- be popular (for example, due to economic prosperity)
- manipulate information
- here twentieth-century strongmen relished violent imagery — recall Saddam’s “poisoned dagger”
TODO: thought! Maybe the content of the propaganda does not matter whatsoever? Maybe the mere presence is enough? Make people always have you onto their mind?
PART I HOW IT’S DONE
CHAPTER 2 DISCIPLINE, BUT DON’T PUNISH
- Visiting Singapore in 1978, Deng had been amazed at what Lee had made of the once impoverished colonial outpost. In the eleven years since then, Lee had set out to mentor Deng and his team, advising them on economic policy.
- The next year, Li Peng, who, as China’s pre‐mier, had ordered the troops into Tiananmen Square, visited Singa‐pore. Lee berated him for staging such a “grand show” before the world media. Li Peng, according to Lee, replied with humility: “We are completely inexperienced in these matters.”
FFS. I didn’t know that.
- West underwent a revolution in penal philosophy and practices between 1760 and 1840. The delib‐erate infliction of pain gave way to more “humane” and invisiblepunishments, sometimes combined with attempts at rehabilitation <…> Why things changed is not entirely clear, although many suppose that Enlightenment values played a key part.
Very interesting. (TODO?) I doubt the values.
- Foucault also argued, more controversially, that the replacement of corporal pun‐ishment with less visible forms of discipline facilitated the spread of such power mechanisms into a broad range of social settings.
Hm… ? I need to read Foucault.
- Under him, Italians fought a “Battle for Grain,” a “Battle for Land,” and even a “War on Flies.”53 Com‐munists engaged in “ ‘struggle’ and ‘combat’ on ‘fronts’ to achieve ‘breakthroughs’ in production and cultural ‘victories.’
Easy to process, but hard to keep the brain focused.
CALCULUS OF KILLING
- Psychological research sug‐gests perceived dangers—even those unrelated to politics—can make people more pessimistic, risk averse, and supportive of authoritarian policies and leaders.
Indeed! Making people confused is more efficient than making them scared of something definite.
LEE’S SOFTER TOUCH
THE NEW PLAYBOOK
CHECKING THE EVIDENCE
CHAPTER 3 POSTMODERN PROPAGANDA
- In Asian society discipline and order are more important than democracy, which has to develop over time.”
RHETORIC OF REPRESSION
IDIOMS OF INTIMIDATION
- Why bother to control what people said or thought if they had al‐ready been terrorized into obedience? Our answer is that all these measures helped make repression more effective.
- To the linguist Victor Klemperer, who lived through the Nazi years in Dresden, Hitler’s tirades generated a kind of suspense reminiscent of “American cinema and thrillers.” This was deliberate. Goebbels aimed to create an atmosphere of tense foreboding, what he called “thick air“ (dicke luft).
“American cinema and thrillers.” (sic!)
- Besides distinguishing “good” from “bad” and justifying violence, ideologies decentralized repression to ordi‐nary citizens.
- A smart influencer, the same expert adds, will make his appeals “simple and memorable.”50 The communists created a discourse that was boring and arcane.
- old model’s strength was not in its power to persuade. <…> Hitler’s speeches during his rise to power had a “negligible” impact on his electoral performance.
- Instead of the old threat—“Be obe‐dient, or else!”—the new line seems to be: “Look what a great job we’re doing!
- The act is more challenging when performance is clearly bad.
Can a “spin dictatorship” really exist in a closed system?
- We are pragmatists,” Lee Kuan Yew insisted. “We are not enamored of any ideology.”
Make it more confusing!
- Some have attributed comparable personality cults to spin dicta‐tors such as Chávez and Putin.85 But, in fact, what these leaders devel‐oped were not personality cults but celebrity—of the tacky kind that surrounds Western performers
- Besides redirecting blame for poor performance, spin dictators who cannot conceal bad news try to convince the public that any al‐ternative leader would do worse.
CHAPTER 4 SENSIBLE CENSORSHIP
- Fujimori had made two miscalculations. First, his attack on democracy and the press had provoked the fury of hu‐man rights organizations around the world. The U.S., German, and Spanish governments froze all aid except humanitarian assistance. Venezuela and Colombia suspended diplomatic relations and Ar‐gentina recalled its ambassador. The Organization of American States began discussing sanctions; some members called for Peru’s sus‐pension.
Why is any of that important?
COMMAND + DELETE
CHAPTER 5 DEMOCRACY FOR DICTATORS
ELECTING THE PEOPLE
SPINNING THE BALLOT
FRAUD AND ABUSE
CHAPTER 6 GLOBAL PILLAGE
- From the 1960s, East Germany effectively sold thousands of would-be émigrés to Bonn for around $2,500 a head. By the 1980s, East Ger‐man technocrats were said to factor such payments—now made in bartered copper and oil—into the country’s five-year plans.
- East Germany, according to its last interior minister, was “an Eldorado for terror‐ists.”
SPINNING THE GLOBE
MAKING FRIENDS AND INFLUENCING PEOPLE
FEAR VS. SPIN
- Nazarbayev’s team was flustered at first by the 2006 release of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy Borat, which portrayed Kazakhstan as an anti-Semitic, misogynistic backwater. But they soon recovered. As one Astana-based PR specialist put it, officials quickly refocused on “how to exploit such an unexpected spotlight on the country.” The foreign minister later thanked the film for boosting tourism: visa applications, he said, had jumped tenfold.
PART II WHY IT’S HAPPENING AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
CHAPTER 7 THE MODERNIZATION COCKTAIL
- Trade and investment flows knit economies together, while global media link their news cycles and informational fields. International movements and coalitions of states form to pro‐mote the new values—most importantly, the respect for human rights. Sometimes these global influences drive even dictators with less advanced economies to replace fear with spin.
“Coalitions of states form to promote the respect for human rights”? Seriously? Are you kidding me? This is the single point that I don’t find plausible as an argument in any way.
- Although economic development creates pressures for genuine democracy, some auto‐crats manage to delay the transition by faking it.
Why exactly do they pressure for genuine democracy?
Seemingly, the pressure from the outside should be the pressure by threat. But here there seems to be no threat.
Where are the stimuli? Or the energy balance.
- In this period, a “postindus‐trial society” replaced “industrial society,” as manuf acturing lost ground to services and—most importantly—to creating and process‐ing information.
- The problem for autocrats is that higher education is intrinsically linked to freedom of thought. College courses are almost impossible to sanitize completely.
The “woke left academia” is, seemingly, proving otherwise.
- The knowledge that enabled technicians to serve the authorities also helped them cut through censorship.
To make VPNs :).
- As more and more countries make the postindustrial transition, connections proliferate among their economies and media.
What about the balcanisation of the Internet? What about COVID?
- By the mid-2000s, it was ex‐porting 43 percent of output—about twice the pre-World War II peak —and spending 33 percent of GDP on imports.
Assuming this is correct, I would say that 43% is insanely high. Nobody would be happy about such a proportion.
THE RIGHTS STUFF
- small groups of edu‐cated professionals with progressive values and often legal training linked up in the late twentieth century into a network of liberal NGOs. They used the global media, international law, and a range of innova‐tive tactics to focus pressure on brutal dictators
Dictators? Really? Why do Guriev and Treisman mentions displaced dictators I have never heard of? The Mexican on and the Ivorian one.
- When activists publicize abuses in developing countries, re‐search suggests multinationals invest less in them.
Which makes them poorer and less likely to rebel?
- The previous year, the U.S. Congress had cut $4 million from military aid to the country to protest human rights abuses and corruption.
What about foreign military aid from not USA? Say, Iran?
- But Ghana at the time received the World Bank’s biggest lending program in Africa.97 And Rawlings took seriously—perhaps too seriously—hints that continued aid hinged on political change. “We were forced by the State Department—oh yes, forced—to adopt multiparty democracy,” he complained in 2009. He had had to “force democracy down the throats” of his reluctant compatriots, he told political scientist Antoinette Handley, because “the State De‐partment was saying that there’ll be no more IMF and World Bank facilities for us.”
Very interesting. Are these guys permanently in debt, or somehow manage to get out?
- But from 1974, the U.S. Congress started banning assistance to countries guilty of gross abuses.
Do as we say, and we will give you the money?
COLD WAR AND AFTER
CHAPTER 8 THE FUTURE OF SPIN
- The paradox is that while development threatens dictators, economic growth helps them survive.
Still, what about going the North Korea way?
- As in the Gulf states, modernization had been shallow. As of 2010, fewer than 3 percent of adults in Venezuela had a college de‐gree, hardly more than in 1980.
What about closing the damn universities?
- cutting financial ties reduces a dictator’s own leverage over Western elites
(keep in mind)
- compared to the few global TV networks and wire services of the 1980s, to‐day’s media overflow with detail about authoritarian societies
Because that is distracting from domestic affairs?
- Among 14 developed democracies in 2020, a large majority viewed the UN favorably in all except Japan.
Has this changed after Covid?
DIAGNOSING THE THREAT
HOW TO RESPOND?
- France remained loyal to some unsavory old friends in Africa such as Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso and Chad’s Idriss Déby, while Britain and the United States soft-pedaled the human rights abuses of clients such as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.
Are they even independent countries in reality?
- the West needs to devise a smarter version of integration
- Anonymous shell companies should be banned
- Besides having greater moral authority, an alliance of democracies, backed by independent analysts and coordi‐nating with global human rights organizations, would be more effec‐tive than a myriad of agencies operating separately.
Really? Why? One body can be dealt with. Many competing bodies cannot.
A POWERFUL IDEA
[ ]suave manipulator
[ ]Carnation Revolution”
[ ]state coffers
- закрома родины?
[ ]restive regions
[ ]quipped (to quip)
[ ]as if on cue
[ ]to snarl
[ ]tough and flat-footed
[ ]Syngman Rhee
[ ]pillory (public execution?)
[ ]to don the garb
[ ]pounced on the undocumented claim
[ ]squawk about
[ ]administrative elbow grease
[ ]double entendres
[ ]gutter press
[ ]military fatigues
- combat uniform
[ ]romped home
[ ]hound out
[ ]dabbled in sociology
[ ]pore over polling data
[ ]rustle up
[ ]anti-Western gadflies
[ ]rote tasks
[ ]cause célèbre
[ ](no term)