Insights Nigel Fairbrass

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century – Eterna’s Book Club

“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” – Garry Kasparov

The recent leak of US intelligence papers, and the revelation that a million or more US citizens are employed by the country’s intelligence “industry,” has been a reminder of the enduring contradiction between the democratic civil liberties we celebrate and the constraints on those liberties deemed necessary for our security. Balancing these opposing forces, and curbing the power of an over-mighty state, is the job of democratically elected officials. But it is an inescapable paradox that the freedoms enjoyed by western liberal democracies – of association, expression, and movement – create the perfect conditions for malign actors to plot violence and threaten the very viability of the system which offers them sanctuary.

It is this paranoia, in democracy’s ability to be defeated from within, that fuels the third read of Eterna’s Book Club:

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century (2022)

In it, Russian economist Sergei Guriev and American political scientist Daniel Treisman examine the transition of 20th century authoritarians who used an unsubtle mix of fear, intimidation, and violence to exercise power, to what they term the “spin dictators” of the 21st century. These new spin dictators outwardly preach democratic values and accountability, yet secretly subvert and weaponise it to consolidate their power base.

Guriev and Triesman argue that this trend to “spin” dictatorships poses an existential risk to all true democracies. By cynically using democratic norms to undermine rather than reinforce the accountability of power to the people, spin dictators, they argue, are stifling confidence and public trust in democracy as a political movement. As belief in democracy to deliver security and a better standard of living diminishes, other political systems that promise greater delivery, appear more attractive. It is these pseudo-democrats that Spin Dictators holds up as being the most insidious threat to western democratic traditions.

But all political systems are unique and operate on a spectrum between enlightened and exploitative. And as Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” The tidy dichotomy Spin Dictators proposes, between fear and spin, is a contrivance that does not quite stand up under the weight of historical analysis the authors subject it to. In fact, it is impossible to escape the sense that the entire proposition is just a convenient vehicle for Guriev and Triesman to demonstrate their (admittedly exhaustive) knowledge of tyrants through the 20th century. 

Eventually though, the inconsistencies in their thesis become impossible to ignore and the authors are forced to acknowledge that the spin dictator conceit breaks down under closer examination.  Some leaders use a mix of spin and fear, others like Trump are unsuccessful in taking on democratic institutions. Some leaders hail from the left and some from the right of the political spectrum. Some are populists who attack elites and the deep state. Some are deep state elites or representatives of traditional values, fighting modernisers who would disrupt the status quo.

It is in their methods that the most compelling commonalities emerge. Guriev and Triesman acknowledge that while the tools of control may have changed over the centuries, the fundamental objectives for any aspiring authoritarian remain much the same. All dictators fight to control both the message and the medium. In Nazi Germany, Hitler burned books and stationed censors inside newspapers. In Putin’s Russia, the state similarly shuts down media outlets and regulates the message by hiring thousands of online commentators and trolls. 

What is surprising is that in an age of extreme digital transparency, totalitarian states are still able to exert the near perfect power that they do. Whether it is China, Russia, Turkey, North Korea, or even increasingly India, states can quell dissent by shutting down websites, slowing download speeds, or flooding social media with commentators to control opinion. As the authors say:

“Spin dictators survive not by disrupting rebellion, but by removing the desire to rebel.”

But even as Guriev and Triesman argue for the contrivance of the spin dictator, we see their examples gravitating towards more traditional forms of intimidation. Putin’s Russia resembles a totalitarian state more and more every day, with no political opposition or free press. China’s police stations across Europe testify to the extension of a highly coercive state infrastructure; Iran’s Revolutionary Guard also now seems to suppress dissent with impunity beyond the country’s borders; and even India’s recent crackdown on the BBC suggests that the world’s most populous nation is falling under the spell of a strongman culture. And technology now offers a chilling point of escalation. The potent power of AI to create utterly convincing alternate realities, seems to offer aspiring dictators a terrifying new tool of oppression.

For those hoping that Spin Dictators offers a detailed examination of the dark arts in population control – as practiced by the world’s most ruthless leaders – you will be disappointed.  It is more political science than political manual.  But if you are looking for a chilling reminder of the fragility of our political system, and how it can be lost through an almost imperceptible decline in trust and confidence, Spin Dictators is an important wake-up call.