Purge to succeed

The Political Economy of Dictatorship
January 15, 1999

Most people live in a society in which some degree of authoritarian rule is the norm (just over a fifth of the world population lives in a "free society"). Ronald Wintrobe attempts to shine a light on the dark recesses of authoritarian regimes and in doing so provides an important extension to the new economics of institutions.

He sets out a formal model of political dictatorship in the first two parts of the book. The level of power exercised by a dictatorship is decided by the relationship between loyalty to the regime (which is fixed in the short run) and the level of repression (which the dictator can vary in the short run). This relationship is used to identify four equilibria that correspond to four typical dictatorial regimes: the tinpot, the tyrant, the totalitarian, and the idealised timocrat. Thus, the tinpot is associated with low levels of both repression and loyalty, while the totalitarian is identified with high levels of both.

Besides loyalty and repression, Wintrobe identifies three other behavioural characteristics: the personal consumption of the dictator, the level of power exercised by the dictator, and the size of the government. The model produces some interesting findings. The shah of Iran is argued to have fallen into the classic error of the tinpot dictator by responding "to worsening economic conditions by relaxing repression rather than increasing it". If there is an increase in economic growth in a totalitarian regime then the level of loyalty will increase and this, in turn, will allow the regime to increase its power by increasing repression.

The analysis is then extended, drawing on a wide range of other models, in examining the "racial dictatorship" of apartheid, the bureaucratic economy of the USSR, and the rise of Nazism. Wintrobe cannot be accused of a lack of ambition: he presents answers to questions that have stirred controversial debate in the fields of political economy, politics, history, social psychology, social anthropology and philosophy. He develops a model of apartheid, utilising efficiency wage models, arguing that it functioned economically as a worker discipline device, and uses this to explain why apartheid at first succeeded but ultimately collapsed.

Pre-1970 Soviet success is partly explained by the Stalin purges because they reinforced vertical networks within the system that had a positive effect on productivity and they destroyed or greatly weakened horizontal networks that had a negative impact on productivity. After 1970, however, the "negative cumulative effects of horizontal networks became (the) dominant characteristic", and hence productivity stagnated and pressure on the regime increased. Furthermore, although the reforms implemented in the USSR and China were similar, they succeeded in the latter because a decade of the Cultural Revolution had greatly weakened horizontal networks and strengthened vertical networks, and because the level of repression remained high throughout the process of reform. Mikhail Gorbachev failed because perestroika was not preceded by purges and because glasnost, by its very nature, implied a decreased level of repression.

The rise of Nazism is partly explained in terms of "political inaction" in the Weimar democracy, creating an opening for radical parties. The racial context of Nazism is explained by reference to a theory of ethnicity: in the late 1920s the return on German ethnic capital was low and the Nazis exploited this by blaming the Jews. The Eichmann defence is rejected because he was not merely a passive "cog in the machine" but was in fact a successful entrepreneur in a highly competitive bureaucratic structure.

This book should appeal to the specialists in many social scientific fields and it will also interest, and be accessible to, non-specialists. However, accepting the breadth and depth of the arguments set out by Wintrobe may prove too much for the faint-hearted or those of a cautious intellectual bent, and as he proffers answers to one controversial issue after another such readers may be overwhelmed.

Peter Howlett is a lecturer in economic history, London School of Economics.

The Political Economy of Dictatorship

Author - Ronald Wintrobe
ISBN - 0 521 58329 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 390

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