A very model of a modern authoritarian regime

Posted in democracy, media, politics, uprisings by jrahman on June 21, 2015

Other than close friends and family. my facebook contacts consist of people I befriended or came to know professionally, and those I got acquainted or friends with through shared interest in Bangladesh.  The professional group, unsurprisingly, consists mainly of economists.  But it was the latter group that was abuzz when John Forbes Nash Jr was killed in a car crash a month ago — thanks to Hollywood, the mathematician was well known to Bangladeshi netizens.

Not surprisingly, game theory — the branch of applied mathematics that Mr Nash made famous –is perhaps not well understood by my online compatriots.  Over the past few decades, game theoretic approaches have illuminated our understanding of many socio-economic-political phenomena.  For example, a recent political science paper by Sergei Guriev (Sciences Po, Paris) and Daniel Treisman (UCLA) perhaps can tell us more about how Bangladeshi political scene is evolving than most punditry one is likely to come across online or otherwise.

To be sure, the paper never even mentions Bangladesh.  The authors are interested in exploring how modern dictators stay in power by manipulating information instead of relying primarily on violence. The new authoritarian — that’s what the authors call these regimes who seem to thrive by not following Al Capone’s nostrum:

Their abstract:

We develop an informational theory of dictatorship. Dictators survive not because of their use of force or ideology but because they convince the public—rightly or wrongly—that they are competent. Citizens do not observe the dictator’s type but infer it from signals inherent in their living standards, state propaganda, and messages sent by an informed elite via independent media. If citizens conclude the dictator is incompetent, they overthrow him in a revolution. The dictator can invest in making convincing state propaganda, censoring independent media, coopting the elite, or equipping police to repress attempted uprisings—but he must finance such spending with taxes that depress the public’s living standards. We show that incompetent dictators can survive as long as economic shocks are not too large. Moreover, their reputations for competence may grow over time. Censorship and co-optation of the elite are substitutes, but both are complements of propaganda. Repression of protests is a substitute for all the other techniques. In some equilibria the ruler uses propaganda and coopts the elite; in others, propaganda is combined with censorship. The multiplicity of equilibria emerges due to coordination failure among members of the elite. We show that repression is used against ordinary citizens only as a last resort when the opportunities to survive through co-optation, censorship, and propaganda are exhausted. In the equilibrium with censorship, difficult economic times prompt higher relative spending on censorship and propaganda. The results illuminate tradeoffs faced by various recent dictatorships.

The maths is actually not all that complex, and to anyone so inclined I’d strongly recommend the whole paper.  In what follows, I would interpret their set up and logic in light of today’s Bangladesh.

The authors envisage a polity with three types of player — the dictator, the informed elite, and the masses.

The dictator’s objective is to maximise the odds of staying in power — straightforward as far as Bangladesh is concerned.  Where things get interesting is about her type.  The dictator can be either competent or incompetent — that is, she either ensures daal-bhaat or fails to.  Suppose the dictator is fully competent, and the masses experience steady improvement in their lives.  In this happy polity, the dictator need not spend any resources to maintain power.

But what happens if the dictator is not fully competent?  In the authors’ set up, there is a threshold such that if things get really bad, nothing saves the dictator.  Evidently, we are not in that quite there in Bangladesh.

Let’s consider the grey zone where the dictator might be less-than-competent, but things aren’t so bad that she is definitely toppled.

The authors model competence with a simple 1, 0 binary for simplicity, but in reality of course competence is a spectrum.  Also, in reality, competence is not an absolute concept, but a relative one — that is, absent a total meltdown, the dictator is usually judged against who might replace her.  In applying the authors’ set up to Bangladesh, it’s useful to keep these nuances in mind.

What are the dictator’s options in this grey zone?  She can spend resources on propaganda.  She can bribe the informed elite to fall behind her.  She can censor.  And finally, she can repress.

Let’s now turn to the other two players — the informed elite and the masses.  In this set up, these two groups are not differentiated by their wealth, but their access to information.  Particularly, the informed elite knows the true type of the dictator, while the masses can only guess the dictator’s competence.

How do the masses make their guess?  They know the state of the world.  They know if things are getting better or not.  They also observe the dictator’s propaganda.  And they observe what the informed elites say.

What do the informed elite say?  The informed elite has a choice.  They can accept the bribe offered by the regime and become co-opted.  Alternatively, they can tell the truth about the dictator.

Now, informed elite need not be homogenous.  The more diverse they are, the more difficult it is for them to co-ordinate a strategy among themselves (and the more difficult it is for the dictator to bribe).  In the event that the informed elite reject the bribe, the dictator can impose censorship.

In the context of Bangladesh, we can think of the corporate media as the voice of the informed elite.  To the extent that these media outlets present overwhelmingly positive news, the masses must decide whether to believe that: the dictator really is competent and thus should be supported; or there is heavy censorship; or the informed elite is by-and-large co-opted.  If the masses infer that the dictator is incompetent, they rise up and she is gone.

How does this game play out for a less-than-fully competent dictator?

There are multiple equilibria, depending on: what’s happening to the economy (that is independent of government control — if there is another global financial crisis and the garments export plummet, there is little a Bangladeshi government can do); exactly how competent the dictator is compared with her opponents; and the technology of censorship, propaganda and repression.

In one equilibrium, the informed elite is co-opted.  In another one, there is heavy censorship.  Co-optation increases the dictator’s survival odds compared with censorship.

Are we seeing censorship in present day Bangladesh?  Are our chattering classes co-opted by the regime?  Or do our masses genuinely believe that the regime is competent?  Since the main opposition has failed to topple the government through street politics, according to the authors’ logic, at least one of these questions have an affirmative answer.

Guriev and Treisman not only describe what might be happening Bangladesh reasonably well, their model also has some implications for how things might unfold.

The authors show that the new authoritarians survive in power with relatively little violence compared with past dictators.  The current Bangladeshi government might be guilty of a lot of things, but large scale mass violence (as opposed to selective repression of opposition activists) is not one of them.  In fact, in the authors’ set up, since mass violence is only used when propaganda/co-optation/censorship fails, violence actually signals to the masses that the regime is weak and incompetent.  To quote Captain John Connor — They say if you resort to violence, then you’ve already lost (how is this classic scene not in youtube!).  I guess it’s good news that Bangladesh isn’t likely to become Syria.

The authors also show that propaganda can have a self-fulfilling element.  Suppose the country is lucky to experience some positive shock, so the masses see their life getting better.  Do they then believe the dictator’s propaganda?  Since the masses, by definition, don’t know the truth about the dictator, watching her convincingly talk about competence increases the odds of her actually being competent.  Now, if we interpret competence as a relative concept, the current Bangladeshi regime’s shrill propaganda about the opposition politicians start making a lot of sense.  As long as the masses observe things getting better, and are continuously reminded about the horror stories of 2001-06, propaganda serves the regime well.

In fact, the longer the regime survives, all else being equal (for example, absent any negative shock), the more likely it is to survive, for the simple reason that the masses come to believe that the dictator is truly competent (or more competent than the alternative).  Further, co-optation is easier in the presence of patron-client politics.

What might happen if economy takes a turn for the worse (whether because of mismanagement by the regime or because of external reasons)?  In the authors’ set up, faced with a sustained economic downturn, the regime eventually switches from co-optation to censorship.

All these suggest that a democratic Bangladesh is not likely in near future.  However, there may be some hope yet.

Remember, the informed citizen is not homogenous.  Bangladesh may well be susceptible to economic reforms.  As the economy grows, the size of the informed elite expands.  This increases the direct costs of both co-optation and censorship.  More importantly, beyond a crucial point, even small economic downturns start threatening the dictator.

That, of course, is in the long run.  For now, Bangladesh is a very model of a modern new authoritarian regime.


*Guriev, S and D Treisman (2015), “How Modern Dictators Survive: Cooptation, Censorship, Propaganda, and Repression”, CEPR Discussion Paper, DP10454.

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