Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Lately one would be forgiven for seeing the sign of the end of times following recent events in the region.

The implosion in South Sudan, which we saw coming but we did not; the rejuvenation of the Allied Democratic Front (ADF) in eastern Congo; assassinations and revelations of wiretapping  in the best tradition of the cloak and dagger novel and anticipation of famine and hunger in the wake of disturbing environmental changes. The politics that inform these developments, more opaque than nought have us shaking our heads n befuddlement and increases our anxiety about the future.
We could look to divine revelation to decipher the going ons, but that maybe the privilege of a few chosen ones. 

For the rest of us mere mortals, we could do well to reach for “The Dictator’s Handbook: Why bad behaviour is almost always good politics,” authored by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith.
The authors start the book with the disquieting caveat,

“The picture we paint will not be pretty. It will not strengthen hope for humankind’s benevolence and altruism.”

The authors note that the line between autocratic and democratic leaders is a blurred one, they then continue to construct a cross cutting model for how power is captured, sustained and eventually lost which is convincing when viewed against the power plays we see in our everyday lives.

What is the ideal we hold leaders to that they come woefully short in meeting time and time again? In a nut shell, that they be selfless in ruling in our best interest.

The authors waste no time in shooting down that notion,

“First, politics is about getting and keeping political power. It is not about the general welfare of “We the people.”

That applies to both the democrats and autocrats.

What distinguishes the two leadership styles is the number of people they depend on to sustain them in power, with the autocrat needing fewer than the democrat. Using this as a differentiator one will be shocked to find that those we thought were democrats may actually be autocratic and the reverse can be found to be true.

This distinction is at the center of their whole analysis and dictates politicians’ behaviour.
They break up the politicians’ constituency into the interchangeables, the influentials and the essentials.

To use a democratic example, the interchangables are those with a right to vote, they are important because they can vote but politicians do not lose sleep over the loss of one voter or the other because there will always be another to take their place. The influentials actually choose the leader and are a fraction of the greater voting public, these could be party leaders who nominate the party’s candidate or members of a ruling family in a monarchy.

The essentials are the even smaller group that keep a politician in power these could range from the tribal heads, to army generals or a kitchen cabinet, basically those few high ups who if they choose to look the other way regimes come tumbling.

Managing these three groups is where the action is.

“The choice between enhancing social welfare or enriching a privileged few is not a question of how benevolent a leader is. Honourable motives might seem important, but they are overwhelmed by the need to keep supporters happy, and the means of keeping them happy depends on how many need rewarding.”

Basically the wider the base of supporters the more democratic a leader is likely to be. If the leader is accountable to a small group then he can keep himself in place by private payoffs but if the group is bigger he cannot pay them off individually so then he has to deliver public goods and services to the wider society to stay in power.

So in trying to create more a democratic society the trick is to widen the number of people the leader is accountable, a situation the leader will resist as it flies in the face of his attempts to concentrate power – the best way to ensure longevity.

While his examples and justifications of why our worst tyrants behave the way they do can be disturbing they allow one to view politics differently from what we are used to – they warn us at the beginning of the book to suspend conventional wisdom.

And just in case you are under the illusion that the authors drew from the worst despots – Idi Amin and the Shah of Iran receive mention, in coming to their conclusions, they also pepper the book with the examples from corporate America and capitals of western democracy to illustrate autocracy.
Far from being a dark, cynical book it is written in an easy-to-read, oftentimes even humorous style that makes the journey enjoyable, were it not for the shattering of conventional wisdoms at every turn of the page.

The book is a must read for the students of power and those aspiring to assume power, if only to help them remove their rose tinted view of the world and therefore understand what they are up against.
As for the autocrats you hope they don’t lay hands on this book to crystallise and tweak their methods even more.
 The book is available in all leading book stores.

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