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The Dictatorship Trajectory: How They Survive and How They Finally End – Paul Tolmachev

Not so long ago, the famous political scientist Ekaterina Shulman in a conversation with journalists mentioned the concept of the legitimacy of power as belief in power, that power remains power as long as people believe in it. 

In my opinion, this concept is quite controversial, but it can serve as a good starting point for the discussion of how the legitimacy of power is acquired and lost in autocracies, and what, in general, are the possible trajectories of the end of authoritarian regimes.  

Let us begin with the simple postulate that faith requires no proof. But power is political leadership and the actual control of public resources with a conditional or unconditional right to redistribute them. The status of the domain – the highest person in power in authoritarian regimes of any degree of rigidity – requires constant rhetorical and necessarily effective confirmation of its legitimacy from those or other social groups that provide this legitimacy. 

The confirmation of legitimacy in autocracies takes place through loyalty (a demonstration of the intent to cooperate and/or effective cooperation) or through violence (a demonstration of the intent to forcibly suppress another’s will in one’s favor and/or direct violent actions). Against this background, narratives are created about the difficulty of a nation’s existence due to a “ring of enemies” and due to specific features (multinationality, hyper-territoriality or complex natural conditions, multiculturalism, historical track, etc.). This justifies the need for centralization, the strengthening of the state, and the people’s patience with low rates of growth of prosperity.

Further, power redistributes wealth so that the population lives better than yesterday, but is passive about living worse than the populations of other developed and developing countries. The growth of welfare, albeit at a low rate, against the background of isolationist and nationalist narratives allows power and elites, on the one hand, to retain the loyalty and political passivity of various population groups, and on the other hand, to satisfy the demand it creates for “active defense” against the “external enemy” and socioeconomic stability, as imaginary geopolitical competitiveness and the ephemeral effectiveness of the “hard hand” of authoritarian power.   

It is important to take into account the market basis of any political process, that is, exchange within the framework of supply and demand. Nominally, in a democratic regime, demand determines supply; in an autocratic regime (regardless of its degree of rigidity), supply determines demand. In reality, supply and demand are interdependent, with each party conditioning and mediating the behavior of the other. In particular, collectivism, nourished by incentives from authoritarian power, supports that power, reinforcing that same collectivism. It is a vicious circle and quite a homogeneous system of relations. 

What does the authoritarian domain need to do in order to stretch its power advantages over time as far as possible? It has two options, the expected utility of which is obviously different, despite the inevitable strategic loss in both cases. The first option is to maintain legitimacy for as long as possible through the loyalty of the majority population and elite groups. The second option is to tighten the regime as much as possible by transforming it into a dictatorship with maximum loyalty to the security apparatus and increased repression against the rest of the population. The bad news is that in both cases, the goal and task of the domain or dominant group is to retain power and ensure irremovability, which makes both options into a dialectical sequence that can be implemented and developed for a very, very long period.

Thus, legitimization through loyalization is a strategy inherent in soft autocracies, the main tools of which are the maintenance of a fundamentally market economy frame, unlimited control of the budget and its sources, as well as the widest possible involvement of the service bureaucracy and other budget beneficiaries in the budget allocation. 

Information manipulation, from imitations of democratic processes to propaganda and monopolization of information content, can also be referred to the most important procedural, or methodological tool of loyalization. For example, imitations of free elections or parliamentary competition create the illusion of legal normality and civil security. Monopolized information sources indoctrinate and promote ideologemes and narratives corresponding to power politics with varying degrees of talent and professionalism, but total and uninterrupted, forming a collectivist social mood and targeting political preferences for power.    

But there is a very complex procedural problem here, since this mode of legitimization means acquiring the loyalties of different interest groups, which are predominantly and usually in conflict and competition. In order to keep their balance and their power, the domain and elite must constantly balance the interests of these groups in their own interests, so that the benefits and costs of each of them do not give them incentives and opportunities to intensify their activity even in the direction of excessive and unauthorized support for power or servile but ill-considered initiatives.

The unifying principle of the vast majority of examples of the beginning of any transformation of authoritarian regimes of any rigidity is the intensification of the activity of elite groups affiliated with the authorities: they begin to define their interests more clearly and pursue them more actively when opportunities are reduced. This implies that cooperation and conflict within the elite take on more concentrated forms. 

This may relate not only to intensions to change the status quo and overthrow the incumbent domain and prime group, but also to a desire to strengthen the position of the domain as a guarantor of preserving conditions for the satisfaction of the interests of certain elite groups.

Where and how does dissatisfaction with the supreme power of the regime arise in different segments of society? 

First of all, it grows out of the regime’s declining ability to satisfy the interests of various social groups. It is the upper social strata, as the main beneficiaries of the regime, that react the most significantly. The reason is obvious: they have much to lose, primarily in terms of quality of life, material opportunities, and social preferences.

The domain’s inability to balance the interests of various groups stems from the tightening of the regime, in particular the restrictions on freedom of speech and pluralism, where feedback signals either do not reach the regime or are ignored by it, dissolving in the alternative reality it has created. 

At the same time, the regime’s stiffening and isolationism entails slower economic growth and lower budget revenues, which are the main source of material opportunities for the regime’s vested interests. At the same time, the loss of opportunities for some creates new opportunities for others: opportunities and mandates are redistributed. The group that is most loyal and useful to the domain in the current conditions and uses this status as a competitive advantage in the group struggle, concentrates in its hands the maximum resources and sources of enrichment.

Thus, the domain loses the leverage to maintain a balance in the relations of the elites among themselves and to it (with itself). On the one hand, the regime dominants led by the domain inadequately assess the situation due to distorted or misinterpreted information. On the other hand, by tightening the regime, they reduce the opportunities for enrichment for a significant part of the affiliated groups while redistributing these opportunities in favor of the most loyal group under tightening conditions. There is an implicit political discontent of the domain’s and regime’s support groups. 

Discontent manifests itself in two main directions: the beginning of cooperation between elite groups of different interests with the common goal of bringing down the domain with its new “guard” and changing the regime’s policies (and not necessarily weakening them), and also in the dysfunction of the vertical structure of social relations and economic processes, which proliferates from top to bottom all the way down to the lowest social strata.

The cooperation of various groups with the common goal of bringing down the domain and its favorite group means the beginning or intensification of contractual processes, when competing interests are reconciled and compromises are reached on contentious issues. This can be called the intensification of a competitive, but not public, political process that inevitably undermines the stability of the power monopoly of the domain and its prime elite from within. 

The dysfunction of the vertical hierarchy is expressed in the fact that regulations, norms and purposeful orders are partially implemented, or ignored or not implemented at all. In a system where a significant part of the labor force is budgetary employees, i.e. agents functionally integrated into the vertical hierarchy of budgetary redistribution, and for whom this integration is the main or only source of well-being, the failure to comply with regulations and orders becomes a de facto protest and expression of dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. This can also be seen as the pursuit of autonomy, that is, the exclusive prioritization of individual interests over systemic ones. In this configuration, the pursuit of self-interest means cheating the system, de facto parasitism at its expense. 

This story is a bug for a hierarchical sociopolitical system, which appears the moment the system’s feature – loyalty and integration into the vertical hierarchy in exchange for access to budgetary enrichment and corruption opportunities – ceases to work. This has the effect of a snowball effect, or more correctly, flooding: the mass of water that has somehow accumulated in a confined space, under pressure, penetrates into any adjoining containers, and cavities, and on and on… Disregard for the higher directive of the agent from the dominant group is somehow reflected in the motives and behavior of the lower functional agent, and further – in accordance with the frame of the system – down to the social bottom. 

At some point the agents’ expanding autonomy, consisting in the critical priority of their own interests over systemic ones, means that the products of human activity lose quality through increased theft, disorganization and degradation of systemic motivations and incentives. The benefits of sabotage, insubordination or theft now become greater than the costs.

In other words, literally everything begins to work worse than it did, something ceases to work at all, and this seeps into the lowest strata of social strata, into the creation of material values, and into the whole diversity of social life in general. 

The moment the domain begins to realize the weakness of its position and the growing imbalance in the interests of various groups and itself, it continues to move in a dialectical rut and resorts to an even greater tightening of the political regime through expansion and intensification of repression, both against disaffected elite groups and against the disaffected and sometimes actively demonstrating their protest moods, or rather its most passionate groups. 

Dissatisfied elite groups can appeal to the passive or effective discontent of the lower social strata and activate its manifestation, resulting in mass protests, demonstrations and revolutions. This path is the most costly for the protesting elites and carries extraordinary transaction costs when success is uncertain and threats from the holding power domain and the elites loyal to it are intensively increasing, despite the possible weakness of their position.

A more balanced option in terms of expected utility and costs for the protesting elites is an agreement on the change of power and the nullification of the power mandate of the domain with options for their implementation, which is limited to the participants in the process. The problem with this path is the need to match the interests and goals of the various negotiating groups, as well as the need to neutralize threats from the current favorable group of the domain, which are usually the security agencies. However, this group has an often differentiated composition, formed as part of the “clash of interest groups” as the domain policy in good times, when the domain totally monopolized rights and opportunities. Now, however, the diversity of the power division is an opportunity for protest elites to fragment its interests and negotiate with its various groups.

Finally, it is worth noting that in the lower social starts the decline in the quality of life can be graded and significantly stretched over time due to the low income and wealth base, be noticed conditionally and mature into an active protest for a very long period. In addition, even a weak domain, given a system of socio-economic structure that is losing its functionality and the growing distrust of its agents, is likely to try to retain power by using the only tool now available to it – violence and repression. If and when the domain retains the loyalty of the security and law enforcement officials and concentrates all systemic opportunities and sources of enrichment in their hands, the violence will be regular, organized, and brutal. In such an environment, active and open protest by lower strata, who have no social systemic preferences and no possible support from higher social agents, is virtually unlikely and irrational: the probability and severity of the costs far outweigh the likelihood of success. 

Elite social groups feel more quickly and clearly the decline in living standards and quality of life, the narrowing of their opportunities and the growth of threats. At the same time, the protest and the decision to activate it are hidden and concealed from both the domain itself and the population, which reduces the risks and transaction costs. 

Thus, a behind-the-scenes “conspiratorial” policy of agreements and alignments of interests among elite protest interest groups aimed at bringing the domain down, albeit in the face of a tightening regime and increased repressive pressure, represents the most likely scenario for replacing the domain and the dominant power group. 

By and large, this is confirmed by the overwhelming majority of examples of authoritarian regimes or their base interest groups being replaced by others. Authoritarian regimes, especially personalist autocracies, inevitably weaken as they shift to dictatorship, even after a period of economic success and consolidation of the positions of the ruling elites.  The nature of monopolized power and usurpation of rights entails a compulsory verticalization of exchanges in order to control the sources of budgetary revenues, which causes a decrease in competitiveness, economic and technological stagnation, and consequently at some point reduces the ability of the domain to satisfy the demands of loyal elite groups.

This gives rise to discontent among the elites, who held dominant positions during the “soft” regime, but began to lose their power as the “hardening” began. As a rule, these elites are replaced by groups from the power division. The elite groups that are losing opportunities are launching processes of behind-the-scenes agreements and coordination of various interest groups, united by the common goal of bringing down the domain and neutralizing the loyal elites who did not join the “conspiracy” and who bet on the domain. In some cases, the elites uniting against the domain may try to stimulate protest sentiments and their manifestations in the population, or use the protests that have already begun for their own purposes. 

Another option has not been mentioned here: when the domain decides to try to bargain with disgruntled elites who are losing opportunities. But this means some alternative scenario to the domain’s overthrow – its voluntary compromise. The domain can limit itself to an agreement with protesting elites and remain in power, which is an extremely rare case: elites simply will not trust such a domain, which has already once allowed itself to reductions in their rights and capabilities. Or the domain can receive guarantees of immunity and immunity if it agrees to transfer power. 

Both alternative scenarios are extremely risky and unstable for both parties, so they are not often implemented in practice. Both of them assume guarantees or trust on the part of all participants, but the very nature of such configurations and the way in which they were formed virtually preclude trust and faith in guarantees unless they are backed by mutual commitments, the failure of which is fatal for both parties. 

Since achieving such an equilibrium is very costly and success is not certain, autocracies shifting toward dictatorship end mostly with a change of elites and a forced resignation of the domain, sometimes supported by mass protests. 

Finally, the last option is the death of the domain, and I will leave the variants of its development for the next essays, because the variability of its development vectors is the most multifactorial and diverse.

In conclusion, I note that all processes between society and power are in fact based on the dialectical equilibrium and dichotomy of conflict and cooperation, as well as on fairly simple market principles of exchange, benefit and cost, expected and diminishing utility, credit and premium, and other more differentiated bases, which in their generality constitute game theory and the subject of neurobiology of decision-making. 

This is important to keep in mind when we try to analyze events that are relevant to us, because the temptation to lapse into the emotional judgments that are normal for citizens and human beings is great. Nevertheless, expert judgment requires a dry and analytical approach. I think it is not unreasonable to remind the expert community of this.

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Paul Tolmachev is an Investment Manager, Economist and Political Analyst. He is Certified Professional in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE Program), Duke University. Paul is serving as a Portfolio Manager for BlackRock running $500 million assets under personal management. He also is a visiting research scholar at The Hoover Institution (Stanford University), where he researches political economy and social behavior, specializing in the analysis of macroeconomics, politics, and social processes. Paul is a columnist and contributor to a number of international think tanks and publications, including, Mises Institute, Eurasia Review, WallStreet Window, The Heritage Foundation, Investing.com, L'Indro, etc.