For modern autocrats, lying is more useful than killing

From The Economist

Russia did not invade Ukraine. Ukrainians are shelling their own cities. A Jewish president is actually a Nazi. Dictators have always told lies, so the Kremlin’s recent whoppers have precedent. Dictators have often used terror, too, so what Vladimir Putin is doing to civilians in Ukraine is nothing new, either. But the balance between lying and killing has changed, argues a fascinating new book. For most modern autocrats, lying matters more.

In “Spin Dictators”, Sergei Guriev, a Russian economist living in exile, and Daniel Treisman, a political scientist, describe how this shift has occurred. For much of the 20th century, despots were ostentatiously violent. Hitler, Stalin and Mao slew millions. Lesser monsters such as Mobutu Sese Seko, a Congolese tyrant, hanged cabinet ministers in public. The aim was to terrify people into submission.

The authors contrast such “fear dictators” with “spin dictators”, who kill fewer people, and deny it when they do. The latter are now more common. Among autocrats who took power in the 1960s, roughly a quarter killed more than 100 dissidents a year; among those who took power in the 2000s, less than a tenth did.

Spin dictators pretend to be democrats. They hold multiparty elections and seldom claim to have won more than 90% of the vote, as was the norm for non-democracies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They rig less and gerrymander more. In 2018 Viktor Orban, Hungary’s spinner-in-chief, turned less than half the vote for his party into a two-thirds supermajority in parliament. He will be hard to dislodge at the election on April 3rd.

Fear dictators’ propaganda was crude and relentless. Busts of Stalin were placed on 38 mountain peaks in Central Asia. So many Mao badges were produced that China’s aircraft industry ran short of aluminium. It was often absurd, too. Mussolini and Kim Jong Il could supposedly conjure up rain and teleport from place to place, respectively. This absurdity was itself a weapon, demonstrating the regime’s “capacity to force people to repeat nonsense”.

Spin dictators like to project an image of competence. Nursultan Nazarbayev used to address Kazakhs from behind a stack of papers, reading out lists of bread-and-butter policies and chiding his ministers for not serving the public better. Spin dictators seldom have a coherent ideology, but use humour to paint themselves as noble and their opponents as vile. They even weaponise light entertainment. In Peru under Alberto Fujimori, a Jerry Springer-style show featured screaming guests, allegations of infidelity and calm words from the host praising the president.

. . . .

The goal of a spin dictator is to appear to allow political competition while making it nearly impossible in practice. Rather than criminalising dissent, he imprisons his opponents for non-political crimes, such as fraud or rape, of which they are innocent. Sometimes he locks them up for short periods, so they do not become martyrs, and often, so their work is constantly disrupted. Rather than banning opposition parties, he tangles them in red tape or bankrupts them with fines and lawsuits. For extra deniability, the task of making dissidents’ lives hell can be outsourced to a youth militia or army of online trolls, who may rough them up, publish their addresses or leak embarrassing photos.

Link to the rest at The Economist

5 thoughts on “For modern autocrats, lying is more useful than killing”

  1. Meh.
    Governments lie?
    That is new?

    Is Putin’s “special operation” spin all that different from a certain Whiz Kid “police action” in southeast asia? Or a variety of regime changes going back to the nineteenth century and a ship sinking in Havana harbor cast as a military attack?

    Autocrats are more subtle these days about their killing (polonium is more quiet than bullets) but they still remove opponents as ruthlessly as ever and tbeir victims are just as dead whether lynched in the public square, mysteriously ill, or just disappeared without a trace.

    Gerrymandering is just for autocrats?
    Hmm, SCOTUS just had something to say about that in the land of the free and all that. Last year, twice. And in a certain state they ignored their own state constitution in a recent election to deliver the electoral vites to the “right” guy. Or how about the hijinks of the voting dead in Louisiana and Chicago in decades past or more recent harvesting ballots from the terminally ill or paying homeless in cigarette cartons to show up at a polling station and vote for their “benefactor”. Lies and spin are all over.

    No need to bring in the same or equivalent hijnks in Japan or Europe or pretty much every single country that pretends 51% of the eligible voters that bither to show up to pick the lesser of two evils is enough to demonize everybody else.

    Cherry picking and claiming only autocratic tactics are the sole province of “the bad guys” is itself some pretty baldfaced spin. That is a tactic that literally everybody in politics uses. No clean hands in that business. Some just get a free pass on their lies from a complicit media, on things like saying year old high inflation is solely caused by a four week war thousands of miles away. And by a compliant body public that knows it is being lied to but no longer cares.

    As to the title, no lying isn’t more useful than killing.
    Because the dead don’t get to ask questions ever again. It’s a wee bit more effective.

    • Worth noting is that there was at least some doubt about whether the Maine was sunk via hostile action or accident until divers went down there.

      Anyway, as to your last paragraph, if you kill a man for asking questions, he might not be around to ask questions, but others will. Smear a man who’s asking questions, and everyone will dismiss him, so it doesn’t matter what he does.

      • Kill enough naysayers and they autocensor. Or leave which is even cheaper.
        You don’t even need to kill many. Just enough to make it clear you mean business.

        Just look at cancel culture, where they “merely” render their targets unemployable.
        Lying requires keeping your story straight, which take time and effort, while killing just requires a headcount. And in most cases not even that. (Argentina, Mexico,Venezuela. )

        Bullets are cheap.

  2. Dictators do indeed engage is such activity. That’s a good start. The next installment can document how elected western leaders do the same. The Russian Hoax deserves at least honorable mention.

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