Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Saudi Monarchy as a Family Firm

(I normally don’t write on current events, since I’m not specialist in the politics of any country, but I had just finished Michael Herb’s excellent 1999 book All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, And Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies when I heard the news that the Saudi King had died. Since I think Herb's thesis about the resilience of Arab monarchies in a world that is basically hostile to non-democratic norms makes a great deal of sense, I thought I’d add my 2 cents.)

Observers of politics have historically applied the term “monarchy” to a variety of superficially similar but sociologically quite distinct regimes: the Roman empire, the Carolingian kingdoms, the Romanov autocracy, the Kuwaiti emirate, the British monarchy. To the extent that there are interesting similarities accross these disparate cases, they have to do with the existence of recognized norms for selecting effective rulers only from a specific lineage (what the Polity coders call an “ascriptive” selection process, or more informally, selection by birthright). Ascriptive selection processes are typically connected both with certain understandings of the basis of authority (e.g., the king should rule because he is the Custodian of Mecca and Medina, not because he represents the people) and an exalted status for the effective ruler; the titles “King” or “Queen” and their various equivalents – Prince, Sultan, Emir, Emperor, Caesar, Shah, etc. – are first and foremost markers of status, elevating the person of the monarch above the common run of people and entitling them to visible honours not available to anyone else in society. The combination of an ascriptive norm of selection to offices with effective political power (rather than purely ceremonial positions) and a particular set of person-centered rituals and symbols defines monarchy, though it does not explain how monarchies survive.

Indeed, given the magnitude of the shift towards democratic norms of justification over the last two centuries, the survival of monarchies presents a bit of a puzzle. Though ascriptively-selected rulers were extremely common before the 19th century, nowadays the number of national states with effective monarchies is tiny; the Polity dataset identifies only 11 countries (Bahrain, Bhutan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, North Korea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, and the United Arab Emirates) where there is a norm of selecting members of a particular family for the top executive offices, and you might notice that one of them is not normally thought to be a monarchy but a totalitarian regime. (The data excludes countries with less than 500,000 population; including microstates might add Tonga, Brunei, Monaco, and Lesotho to the list, among others.) In six of these (Bhutan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Swaziland, and the United Arab Emirates) powerful monarchs nevertheless share some power with other institutions, such as elected parliaments (in the Polity jargon, these regimes have “dual” executives, combining ascriptive and non-ascriptive selection processes). Moreover, once discredited, ascriptive selection processes have proven difficult to resurrect explicitly, even if we broaden our view to consider cases where ostensibly “republican” leaders have tried to ensure that control over the state passes to their sons or other family members after their death or retirement, as Mubarak tried to do in Egypt and Gaddafi tried to do in Libya. There are few “transitions to monarchy” in the 20th century, and the few I can find were quite short-lived. Though many highly personalistic regimes have shown a tendency to turn into family enterprises, they seem to have had mixed success beyond the second generation when recognized selection norms remain “republican” (consider, e.g., the failure of the Duvalier or Trujillo “dynasties” in Haiti and the Dominican republic); North Korea is exceptional in combining ostensibly republican justifications of rule with a successful ascriptive transfer of power to the third generation. We could look at these stylized facts and conclude that the remaining monarchies are mere traditional survivals, doomed to extinction once they run out of oil rents or superpower patronage (a view associated with Huntington, I believe). Or we could conclude instead that the remaining monarchies are precisely the most resilient examples of a once common political form; whatever the Saudi monarchy is doing, for example, it has served it well for over 70 years.

Herb argues that monarchies that have survived to the end of the 20th century (the book was published in 1999) are in fact distinctive in ways that make them very resilient. In particular, most of these are what he calls “dynastic” monarchies rather than “personal” monarchies. (Some people suggest that surviving monarchies in Jordan and Morocco do not fit neatly in either side of this dichotomy, but we’ll ignore these subtleties for the moment since the Saudi monarchy, at least, is the paradigmatic example of a dynastic monarchy). A dynastic monarchy can be compared to a family firm, with the family business being the corporate control of the state (and the enjoyment of its oil rents, in the Saudi case), the king as the family CEO, the senior male relatives as the key executives and company board, and most of the remaining family members as shareholders and lower-level employees. By contrast, in other monarchies the royal family does not play much role in governance or even in sharing the spoils of power; the king rules either in alliance with independent power holders (Barons in medieval Europe, powerful politicians in modern times) or as personal dictators who have managed to keep all potential challengers directly dependent on him through their individual political skills.

The Saudi monarchy fits the dynastic model quite well. Senior members of the family monopolize all important state positions, such as the defenceinterior, and foreign ministries, and they play a role in determining the king’s successor. (Since 2007 there is even a formal institution, the “Allegiance Council,” staffed entirely by senior princes, that is supposed to select and confirm a new king and crown prince). Like a responsible company board, the senior princes have on occasion deposed rulers deemed to be irresponsible, and bypassed unsuitable candidates for the succession. For example, they briefly eased King Saud bin Abdulaziz from governance after he blundered with an ill-conceived plot to kill the immensely popular President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in 1958, and then more permanently in 1964, when they formally deposed him in favor of King Faysal; and the family chose not to make Muhammad bin Abdulaziz king in 1964, despite the fact that he was the most senior of the surviving sons of Ibn Saud, probably due to general agreement within the family that his temper and drinking habits made him a bad candidate, according to Herb.

Moreover, because the family is so large – Yamani quotes an estimate of 22,000 royals in 2009; polygamy plus time produces lots of male-line descendants (Ibn Saud had 43 sons by many wives, who in turn produced many sons of their own) – it can control not only the “ministries of sovereingty,” but place its members throughout the state apparatus, and in particular the armed forces, where they serve to deter coups. In fact, the extended royal family serves as a parallel information-gathering mechanism through the practice of “audiences” with royals, which it uses to both understand what the population is thinking in the absence of a free media and to provide particularized patronage; as Herb puts it,
The ruling families, and especially the Al Saud, use the size of the family to extend the majlis [audience] system to as many citizens as possible … Like American members of Congress the princes of the Al Saud act as intermediaries between citizens and the bureaucracy, earning personal credit for solving the problems that arise out of a bureaucracy that is, in the first instance, a creation of the Al Saud (p. 43).
The family, like many a successful political party (or mafia), has a very hierarchical culture (deference to older members is strictly enforced), effective private dispute-resolution mechanisms (including special jails for misbehaving princes, apparently), and fora where princes are expected to speak candidly and honestly about what they learn from their contacts with non-royals (princes who develop reputations as liars are not likely to go very far). And in return for lifetime submission and service, all royals receive an allowance and a state job, calibrated to their seniority and political importance, from the enormous oil revenues the Saudi state produces. (Firm figures are hard to find, for obvious reasons, but Herb cites estimates that suggest that at the height of the oil boom, in the 1970s, the al Sauds received at least 12% of all government revenue - an utterly fantastic sum).

One of the key things that makes family governance work in this context is, paradoxically, the indefiniteness of the succession rule. The succession norm in Saudi Arabia, for instance, only establishes that the kingship should pass to the most senior “able” male descendant of Ibn Saud, rather than simply to the eldest son or brother of the current king. One might think that this would exacerbate the GoT-style succession conflicts common in many monarchies. (According to Kotkin, almost half of all Romanovs in Russia from Peter the Great to Nicholas II died in family disputes over succession issues, and Herb notes that the Ottoman Sultans even formalized their right to kill their surviving brothers on acceding to power in a “Law of Fratricide” in the 16th century). But Herb argues that the very indefiniteness of the succession norm, combined with the emergence of the modern state with its many positions to fill, actually incentivizes family members to “bandwagon” against ambitious princes who threaten the corporate hold of the family. Though individual princes may prefer to rule unconstrained by the “company board” of their senior brothers and uncles, they will typically prefer that the state remain in family hands over one of their brothers ruling alone or with the support of outsiders. And those who are not contending for the rulership have little incentive to jeopardize their position by supporting candidates who take “extreme” measures in their quest for power, such as threatening intrafamily violence or directly appealing to outsiders by developing alternative patronage networks or offering genuinely liberal reforms. For example, when King Saud bin Abdulaziz did a tour of the realm in 1963 distributing money to tribal chiefs in an attempt to salvage his position and undermine his brother Faysal by securing the support of “outsiders,” uncommitted family members quickly switched to Faysal’s side; as Herb says, the only effect the trip had was “to enrich some bedouin shaykhs and to further alienate his brothers, who sought a decree from the ulema declaring Faysal the ruler and making Saud king in name only” (p. 97). (Shortly after, Saud threatened violence against Faysal, which sealed his fate; he was now deposed for good). Given that different contenders will normally tend to offer similar “bargains” to influential family members and that other family members do not need to pre-commit themselves to one side or another, there is little point for uncommitted princes to strongly support candidates that threaten to overturn the family monopoly on power, while the “losing” contenders can expect to be rewarded with money and influence even if they do not inherit the kingdom. By contrast, a rigid succession rule provides incentives for ambitious royals to use more extreme measures (e.g., poisoning your brothers, appealing to the people) that risk the family monopoly on power.

On this account, the Saudi family does not remain in power because of special family bonds, the certainty provided by a clear succession rule, or some Saudi cultural predisposition towards monarchy, much less because of some special symbolic capital of kingship among Arabs. And though oil helps, Herb rightly notes that the price of support is subject to inflationary pressures; more oil revenues mean potential contenders must pay more for support. King Idris of Libya was overthrown when oil revenues were flooding state coffers (take a look at the GDP per capita line in this picture), partly because he had no family members who had incentives to defend him. The effects of US support on the al Saud family are also quite ambiguous: on the one hand, they mean the family has access to intelligence and resources otherwise unavailable; on the other hand, they provoke a cultural backlash that challengers can and have mobilized. Instead, the family's endurance in power is due to the fact that there are few incentives for family members to mobilize outsider support in their disputes; attempting to do so merely makes family members bandwagon against you. Hence, despite many divisions, on crucial questions the family tends to remain united; and a ruling class that is unified on crucial questions – meaning, a ruling class that does not seek to bring in outsider support to settle its major disputes – is very, very, hard to overthrow. 

This is not to say that the Al Saud family does not reach out to other sectors of Saudi society, distributing resources to favored groups or mobilizing symbolic capital to secure the support of the ulema, for example; but these actions would be quite ineffective if incentives pushed ambitious princes to mobilize outsider support on their own, “escalating” fights by, for example, courting the army or the clerical establishment as individuals. Moreover, even the mobilizing power of the symbols of kingship is typically quite limited. Herb tells a funny story that apparently circulated in the Saudi court in the 30s about the loyalty of the Bedouin to their emir:
As soon as it became clear that the Emir was going to be defeated, his Bedouin followers would be the first to turn and loot his army, justifying this by saying they were his friends and that as he was going to be looted in any case, they had more right than his enemies to the spoils (p. 62).
The Bedouin in the story did not dispute the legitimacy of the emir; they simply reinterpreted it to suit their interests when circumstances changed. In other words, as I’ve argued here in much more detail, the recognition of a norm of authority is compatible with all kinds of behaviours, including turning around once it becomes clear there are stronger challengers; to speak of the “legitimacy” of the Saudi king has very little explanatory power when we seek to explain why the Saudi system has endured. Indeed, in some respects the Saudi system has more in common with systems of single party rule than with medieval European kingship. The Al Saud are an odd party, to be sure; only women can join voluntarily (by marrying into the family) but without gaining any formal power (though they may have influence through their sons). But, with its internal dispute resolution mechanisms, its intelligence networks, its “service” requirements, the family basically mimics the institutions of an effective (if small) party on the Leninist model. And thus the incentives that keep it in power are not dissimilar from the incentives that kept the PRI in Mexico or the Chinese Communist Party in power: they are basically reasons for insiders to stick together and not seek outsider support, and thus to prefer corporate control of the state to going alone.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Political Instability at a Glance

(A graph-heavy post on the post-WWII history of political instability.)

(Update 1/24/2014: Thanks to Profs. Gleditsch, Goemans, and Chiozza for allowing me to use the beta version of Archigos, updated with leader information to the end of 2014)

Despite its ubiquity in everyday discourse, I find the concept of "political instability" exasperatingly vague, encompassing everything from polarized electorates to coups to civil war. Nevertheless, one can still understand most of the phenomena that fall under that rubric as the sorts of events that happen when the norms supposedly regulating political competition fail to be "recognized" as relevant or worth following by sufficiently powerful groups of people. Very wide-ranging normative breakdowns are revolutions and civil wars (Jack Goldstone once noted that the great revolutions were characterized by "fractal" breakdowns of norms regulating conduct at all levels); but coups, other forms of "irregular" leader exit, spikes of protest, and transitional situations can be understood as moments where the norms that are supposed to channel and limit the competition for power break down, either because sufficiently powerful groups disagree about what the relevant norms are, or because they want to change them, or because they can disregard them with impunity.

The identification of political instability events is unavoidably fraught, since what counts as the relevant norm governing political competition, and whether the norm has actually been violated, disregarded, or otherwise violently reinterpreted, will often be disputed. Sometimes it will simply be impossible to tell whether some particular event -- e.g, the recent happenings in Lesotho or the Gambia -- counts as a coup, or whether the fall of some leader is in accordance with "recognized" norms of political competition; indeed, I take it that sometimes there is simply no fact of the matter, though perhaps the very existence of disagreement about the nature of the event is itself significant as an indicator of instability. And of course many events that signal the weakness of norms regulating political competition -- aborted coup attempts, thwarted palace conspiracies -- simply never see the light of day. Nevertheless, it is still possible to get a glimpse of the broad patterns of political instability during the post WWII era.

Here's one way of doing it, which produces lovely "spectral lines" of macropolitical instability. The picture below graphs five forms of instability, per country: the estimated level of democracy and thus regime change, for the period 1946-2012 (from the Unified Democracy Scores by Pemstein, Meserve, and Melton); successful and unsuccessful overt coup attempts for the period 1950-2014 (vertical red and blue lines, respectively, from the data gathered by Powell and Thyne, supplemented before 1950 with data for successful and attempted coups from Marshall and Marshall); irregular leader exits (dotted black lines, sometimes coinciding, sometimes not, with the coup data from Powell and Thyne, and including everything from assassinations to revolutionary overthrow that occurs outside whatever prima facie normative framework of political competition holds in the particular country), from the period 1946-2014 (from the beta version of the Archigosdataset by Goemans, Gleditsch, and Chiozza - thanks for prof. Gleditsch for sharing a copy!); shaded colored areas track armed conflict episodes from 1946 to 2013 (from the UCDP/PRIO dataset); and periods of "interruption," "interregnum," or "transition" (light grey shaded areas; basically, foreign occupation, anarchy, political breakdown or explicitly transitional governments) from the polity dataset, in the 1946 to 2013 period. The figure is arranged regionally, by continent: African countries first, then American countries, then Asian, and so on, so that countries in geographical proximity to one another appear close together in the picture:
Coups, wars, irregular leadership transitions, changes in democracy, and periods of "interruption" are distinct phenomena, but they all indicate historical moments where the norms regulating "macropolitical" competition are fluid: where powerful parties don't agree about the definition of the state, the procedures for transferring power, etc. The graph is deliberately crowded -- it is meant to produce an overall glimpse of the "spectrum" of instability in the postwar history of each country, not a detailed history of each country -- yet some events are easily identifiable: major interstate wars (in green: the Korean War, the Vietnam war, the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict, the Yugoslav wars); colonial liberation struggles (in red, such as the struggle for independence in Zimbabwe); the interminable series of conflicts of the Burmese state against its outlying "Zomian" minorities; the endless series of coups and countercoups in Argentina starting with Peron's first presidency in 1946; the coup against Allende in Chile in 1973; the disintegration of the Afghan state since the 80s; the transition to democracy in Spain; and so on. Each country has its own distinctive pattern of macropolitical instability, though in general wherever a country has experienced these sorts of events they have tended to "cluster" in time; macropolitical instability is rarely continuous over long stretches. Similar events also have a tendency to happen in similarly-situated countries, leading to distinct regional patterns:
At this level of aggregation we can see that South American countries have suffered more from coups than from armed conflict, yet coups and irregular leader exits have declined in frequency over the last three decades; that South and South-East Asian states (Myanmar, India, Vietnam, Laos, etc.) have suffered much more from armed conflict of all kinds than from coups; how states in Western Africa and Eastern Asia (basically, the Middle East) have seen a simultaneous decline in coups and an increase in armed conflict of all kinds. (Distinct events with regional implications are also visible - e.g., the central American wars of the 1980s). It is worth noting that these patterns coexist with an increase in measured levels of democracy in most regions of the world since the middle of the 1980s. (The horizontal red line in each picture represents a score of zero in the UDS data, which can be interpreted as the dividing line between democracy and autocracy; by that criterion, in a majority of regions of the world a majority of countries are democratic today, though in some cases barely so).

I suspect that some of these patterns are basically attributable to the timing of consolidation of post-colonial states. For example, if we could extend these pictures back in time we would see many more internal and even some external conflicts in Latin America, as states were consolidated after independence from Spain; much of the internal conflict we see in places like India or Myanmar against groups on their borderlands can be understood as state-consolidation conflict - conflict over who is subject to state power, and to what degree. But as states consolidate, struggles over the definition of the state may give way to struggles over the norms of political competition (coups and irregular leader exits); and these in turn can eventually either lead either to "stability" (relative consensus on the norms of political competition, or at least the victory of one faction or person over the rest, as in long-term personal dictatorships, leading to a decline in in coups and other forms of irregular leader exit) or state disintegration (renewed internal conflict). Consider a picture at an even higher level of aggregation, by continent:
One interpretation of this figure might go like this: the anticolonial struggles of African countries give way by the 70s to a fluid period of coups and countercoups as various powerful groups struggled to define the norms of political competition for control of the new states, often with the intervention of major powers during the Cold War. Yet instead of leading to the eventual victory of some particular norm of political competition, coups and countercoups eventually escalated into renewed conflicts over the very definition of the state -- "internal" wars of various kinds -- since the post-colonial state was a pretty recent and fragile creation to begin with. By contrast, in the Americas, the tendency has been for norms of "democratic" political competition to become entrenched in the context of relatively consolidated states; while the military may still intervene in politics, they find it harder to do so in an overt way. Though there are many reasons for this (including, e.g., changes in the foreign policy of the US) one important factor seems to have been the lessening of radical ideological conflict, which means deviations from norms of democratic competition are more costly and have less point. In fact, the risk of military intervention in politics in Latin America appears to remain highest precisely where ideological conflict over the nature of the state is fiercest, as in Venezuela and Ecuador. The Asian pattern in turn is less about the consolidation of new states than about border adjustment after the colonial period and the bringing of borderlands under central state control, rather than about the consolidation of new states; while the European post-war pattern mostly involves the late transitions to democracy of Southern Europe and separatist conflicts of varying intensity - all legacies of the wars of the first half of the 20th century, which of course are not visualized here.

For completeness, here are the political instability spectral lines of the world:
This is not especially informative (though it does show the trend away from interstate to intrastate conflict, and the long-run transition to norms of democratic political competition around the world), but I find it strangely beautiful.

Instead of aggregating these pictures of political instability, we can disaggregate them and expand them into "geological" pictures of the historical strata of political change. Here's one way of using the enormous amount of information available in these datasets to auto-generate political histories, using the example of Argentina. For the picture immediately below, start at the top, at the end of 2014; as we scroll down (the image is in its natural element online, with its endless scrolling; but one can imagine also a slowly unrolling codex) we move deeper into the country's history. The first thing we encounter is the name of the serving president as of the end of 2014, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner; the name is grayed out - "still in office as of 2014;" leaders who died in office, retired without serving their full term, or were removed by irregular means (e.g., by a coup) are in darker font, to make them stand out (the darker, the more irregular). Each leader's name is placed at the date of his or her exit from power (or 2014 if still in office by the time the Archigos dataset ends), so anything below Kirchner until the next name appears happened during the Kirchner government. If data are available, we see a thick black vertical line representing the Polity score for that year; the further to the right, the more "democratic" its forms of political competition. A "thicker" measure of democracy, represented by the squiggly grey line with the ribbon, is also depicted -- the Unified Democracy score, which aggregates information from various attempts to measure democracy in a consistent way -- and scaled to fit in the same interval. Polity and the UD scores agree on the basic pattern, though the UD scores do not see Argentina's democratic institutions as fully consolidated by the end of 2012 (the last year of the UDS dataset); Argentina does not achieve the highest scores (which would put it bumping against the right side of the graph), and appears to be trending slightly leftwards as of 2012 (less democratic in this graph; no political implication intended). The blue line with dollar numbers represents Argentina's annual per capita GDP, as estimated by Angus Maddison and his successors: Argentina is a solidly middle-income country by 2010.

As we move down further, we encounter the end of the last military government, shortly after the end of the Falklands war, in 1984; the caretaker Bignone presides over the extrication of the military from government after Galtieri, who was mainly responsible for the war, is forced to leave office by his military colleagues. The period before that is one of coups and overall economic stagnation; more generally the pattern of Argentine history over the previous couple of decades is one of continual conflict in the context of boom and bust economic cycles, as we can see by the number of coups, irregular leader exits, and the conflict with the ERP. This is the time of the "dirty war," though it's worth stressing that it was also a period in which divisions within the military were exacerbated by the conditions of Argentine politics; most coups in the period replaced military leaders, not democratically elected leaders. As we move down (back in time), we see the traces of the "impossible game" between Peronistas and the military Guillermo O'Donnell described in his classic analysis of bureaucratic authoritarianism. Periods of repression alternate with classic populism in which the Peronistas are allowed to compete for power, each side of the conflict attempting to consolidate its advantages by transferring resources to its supporters in ways that always proved to be unsustainable given Argentina's dependence on the vagaries of foreign trade (represented by the generally flat trend in GDP, with many ups and downs); but no one ever fully succeeded in fully consolidating power before the terms of trade turned, inflation went haywire, and social conflict instigated either military withdrawal or military intervention. As we move deeper in time, we find that the period of instability really began in the 1930s, with the overthrow of Irigoyen, when Argentina is already a relatively rich country. Before the 1930s we find stability at a lower level of democracy: Irigoyen was preceded by a long sequence of leaders who left office in a regular manner without being overthrown by the military. We might thus speak of a "great cycle" of macropolitical instability from the 30s to the mid 80s, which probably had something to do with the way in which Argentina became integrated into the world economy (according to my meager reading, at least), though the decisions of successive governments as they attempted to consolidate their bases of support -- repression, coups, particular monetary and fiscal policies -- seem to have exacerbated the conflicts of the period.
Because I have a bad memory for people and dates, I like these pictures as aide-memoires, though of course they will only make full sense if one knows a little about the political history of the countries depicted. It's also worth stressing that the datasets involved have gaps and other problems. Though the universe of successful coups since 1945 is pretty well covered, for example, some "unsuccessful" coups never get reported, some coup-like events are not included due to ambiguity, and of course we do not see here spikes of nonviolent protest aimed at changing the norms of political competition (one could use the NAVCO data for this, but I had to stop somewhere, and the graphs are overcrowded enough already). The GDP data is sometimes dubious or interpolated, especially for some of the poorest countries, and of course it does not show the full the range of issues affecting living standards.
And Archigos stops at 2004 (though it's being updated), providing sometimes a false picture of stability for some countries over the last decade. [Updated: now using data to the end of 2014]

Nevertheless, more auto-generated political histories for 173 countries in the Polity dataset are available in the GitHub repository for this post. One can take a look at some really eventful histories, like those of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which are full of irregular leader exits; or at Venezuela, which shows both the period of democratic consolidation following the overthrow of Perez Jimenez, marked by several coup attempts, and the long economic decline preceding the rise of Chavez; or indeed, any number of others. In general, one pattern emerges from these more detailed pictures, namely that there are two basic forms of stability: the kind that comes about when a single person achieves full personal power and successfully "coup-proofs" his rule (e.g., Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Duvalier in Haiti, Gomez in Venezuela) and the kind that comes about when some norm of political competition is expected to be enforceable even at the death of the ruler. The first kind of stability is clear when you see a spike of coups, conflicts, constitutional crises, or irregular leader exits that signal some sort of succession crisis - a sure sign of a previous personal regime. It seems really difficult to transform regimes based on loyalty to a person into regimes where impersonal norms of political competition have "bite"; the instability after the overthrow of Gaddafi is more the rule than the exception, regardless of whether the leader was overthrown or died peacefully in office.

Let's look at coups in more detail, because they are perhaps the most dramatic single event in the data - a single short spike in these spectral lines. The first thing to note is that they are associated with lower measured levels of democracy:
 
In other words, coups have historically occurred most often in already non-democratic regimes; a famous coup against a democratically elected leader like the ouster of Allende in Chile appears to be less common than the many forgotten coups against military regimes all over the world. (Iraqi Prime minister Abu Zuhair Tahir Yahya is reported to have said in 1968, "I came in on a tank, and only a tank will evict me," according to Luttwak's classic handbook on the coup d'etat; most coups in the postwar era seem to have been against people who came in on tanks). Few coups take place against the "consolidated" democratic regimes, which is simply another way of saying that norms of political competition in such countries are recognized as binding by all powerful parties. But we also see few coups against the most autocratic regimes, which are typically regimes where a party or an autocrat has fully coup-proofed their rule.

Coups are thus a symptom of normative fluidity, while both fully autocratic regimes and consolidated democracies are consolidated precisely because their norms of political competition are not fluid, as Finer saw in his classic study of the subject. This is why one of the best predictors of the risk of a coup is another recent coup; "the claim to rule by virtue of superior force invites challenge; indeed it is itself a tacit challenge, to any contender who thinks he is strong enough to chance his arm" which "succinctly explains one of the most usual consequences of a military coup, namely a succession of further coups by which new contenders aim to displace the first-comers. 'Quitate tu, para ponerme yo,' runs the appropriately Spanish proverb." (the quote is from Finer, The Man on Horseback, pp. 17-18; for the statistical evidence, see here).

Most coups nevertheless result in some immediate reduction in the level of democracy as new leaders attempt to consolidate their power (and thus engage in repression), but especially since the end of the cold war, many coups are on average followed a few years later by some degree of democratization (or re-democratization). The classic case was the "revolution of the carnations" in Portugal which overthrew the "Estado Novo", and which led to the modern democratic regime there. Though not every coup today is a liberalizing coup, in general there has been more pressure for countries to hold elections and less tolerance for overt military rule since the 1990s, as Marinov and Goemans argue in detail. Given the dependence on aid of many coup-prone countries, this has typically resulted in quicker democratization after a coup than before the end of the cold war, where dictatorships of various kinds could count more consistently on various forms of superpower patronage. The figure below shows the aggregate pattern quite strikingly:
It's also worth noting that over the post war period coups did not always lead to military rule; on the contrary, they often issued in power struggles that led to personal dictatorships or other forms of authoritarianism. Indeed, "pure" military rule has been quite rare and short-lived in the modern period (characterized by professional militaries rather than military aristocracies); as Finer noted, and later research seems to confirm, some of the very features that give militaries in certain societies the ability to seize power make them particularly unsuited to ruling these same societies without extensive civilian collaboration, and in any case direct military rule tends to exacerbate divisions in the organization.

Using data gathered by Geddes, Wright, and Frantz on regime types, focusing on whether the main institutions of the regime are the military, a single party, a monarchy, or some combination of the three, and on the degree of "personalism" in the regime, we can use it to look at which coups were followed by periods of rule by the military as an institution:
As we can see, the periods of pure military rule (in blue) and mixed military rule (in green; this includes regimes that used a civilian party or where power was also highly concentrated in the leader rather than in a Junta) are surprisingly few; most coups have led to non-military dictatorships, especially personal ones. (Small quibble: the Geddes, Wright and Frantz data shows the difficulties of the enterprise of classification, and the ambiguities of political reality. For example, they classify the Franco regime as a "personal" dictatorship for its entire period; but any student of the Franco regime can tell you that power fluctuated, with the Falange and the military much more powerful early in the regime, though there is clearly a sense that power was highly concentrated in Franco early on as well. I would have classified the Franco regime as a hybrid military-personalist regime).
Coups are more common in poor countries, as one might have expected:
 
But how, exactly, does poverty matter? After all, some surprisingly rich countries have experienced lots of coups, while some very poor countries have had little recorded instability of any kind. Consider this picture, which replicates the first graph of this post, except that the countries are arranged from poorest to richest, and the squiggly line in the middle represents GDP per capita:
Here we see many high-middle income countries that were plagued by coups in the past and sometimes still today (Argentina, Thailand, Syria, Qatar) while some extremely poor countries have never experienced coups (e.g., Malawi). Poverty seems to matter only where authority norms find few organized defenders, or rulers have failed to coup-proof their regimes; and this only because very poor societies seem to have been commonly places where the only organized force of national stature has been the army, and coup-proofing is tricky political work requiring resources that are not always available. (Finer's views are still quite reliable here, though he tends to speak too much of "legitimacy" when he really means organized support; it's not that poor people welcome coups or military rule, but that in poor societies the organized groups that have power are often incapable of resisting the army, and in twentieth century contexts powerful groups have had many different views over which authority norms should prevail).

Interestingly, though poverty is strongly associated with coups (and is typically found to be a significant risk factor in quantitative studies), economic growth is not so strongly associated; it is actually quite hard to find a significant effect of growth on coups in the quantitative literature, despite the fact that it's easy to tell stories about how economic decline might be a trigger of political instability. Though coups have clearly happened in periods of both growth and decline, one could nevertheless squint at the distribution of growth rates in years with coups and conclude that coups have tended to happen in years with slightly lower growth rates than average:
Indeed, it is not even clear that coups result in lowered growth rates in their aftermath (though as far as I can tell the statistical evidence suggests coups typically lead to some decline in growth rate). Consider this picture, showing normalized GDP (100 at the year of the coup) in the years before and after a coup or coup attempt (successful coups are in red, unsuccessful attempts are in blue):
In some cases, we see a U-shaped pattern - economic decline followed by coup, followed by recovery later; in others we see a line sloping down, and in others we see a line sloping up. Coups have happened when income was growing greatly (Libya), and when income has been declining greatly (Iraq, Chile); in periods of recurrent boom and bust cycles (Argentina) and in periods of apparent macroeconomic stability (Thailand, Greece). Sometimes they have been followed by quick recoveries, others by wild fluctuations; ten years after the Pinochet coup Chilean GDP was at the same level as in 1973, though it had oscillated wildly in the intervening period. The key point seems to be that coups are symptoms of underlying political conflict, which may be triggered by factors other than economic instability; even in the Argentine case, where coups where recurrently triggered during economic crises, the problem seems to have been the political conflicts (strikes, riots, etc.) that often came with the economic crisis and that made the military frame the situation in security terms. Thus the relationship between coups and economic growth will depend on the relationship between political conflicts and economic life.

Nevertheless, the macroeconomic aftermath of coups also seems to have varied from before and after the cold war, in line with the Marinov and Goemans thesis mentioned above:
Coups before the cold war on average seem to have happened in periods of growth, and were not necessarily followed by economic recession; coups afterwards seem to have happened on average during periods of severe economic contraction and to have led to further declines. Perhaps this shows that coups have been punished more severely in the post Cold war era, so that only severe economic crisis has led to coups after 1990; or that coups during the cold war happened more often in countries where economic performance is more or less independent of political stability (e.g., oil-dependent countries, like Iraq). But I found the lack of obvious connection between political instability and economic instability striking.

I think overall it is probably fair to say that some forms of macropolitical instability (coups, irregular leader exits, regime transitions involving major normative changes, like transitions from monarchy to democracy) seem to be on the wane. But there is little in this history suggesting that such instability ever definitively ends; on the contrary, though some countries have good long runs of stability, big shocks to the global system (big economic changes, big wars) can trigger periods of instability with very long after-effects. This is probably a bit depressing; it suggests that the events started by the Arab uprisings, for example, will take a long while to work themselves out (mostly in ways that involve "political instability"), until a new normative equilibrium is eventually reached.

Code for all the graphs in this post is available at this Github repository. The vast majority of the code is basically data-munging; you will need to download some of the datasets separately.

(Update, 1/21/2014: minor changes in wording to improve clarity)

(Update, 1/24/2014: using Archigos data for 2014 now)

Monday, January 05, 2015

The Revolution as a Drinking Party

A revolution may not be a dinner party, but they sometimes involve a great deal of partying. From Stephen Kotkin’s recent biography of Stalin, here’s something that seems to have happened during the “storming” of the Winter Palace in the October revolution:
Red Guards … never actually “stormed” the Winter Palace: they, finally, had just climbed unopposed through unlocked doors or windows, many going straight for the storied wine cellars, history’s most luxurious. Each new Red Guard detachment sent to prevent a ransacking instead got drunk, too. “We tried flooding the cellars with water,” the leader of the Bolshevik forces on site recalled, “but the firemen … got drunk instead.” (Kindle locs. 4793-4796)
Apparently there was a great deal of revolutionary drinking at the time:
With or without red armbands, looters targeted the wine cellars of the capital’s countless palaces; some “suffocated and drowned in the wine,” an eyewitness recorded, while others went on shooting sprees. On December 4, 1917, the regime announced the formation of the Commission Against Wine Pogroms under a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik, Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich. “Attempts to break into wine-cellars, warehouses, factories, stalls, shops, private apartments,” the Soviet’s newspaper threatened, “will be broken up by machine-gun fire without any warning”— a stark indication of the uninhibited violence. (Kindle locs. 5234-5239)
Kotkin really brings out the “fractal” breakdown of norms in the early days of the revolution, and the “dadaist” character of Bolshevik pronouncements at the time.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Endnotes: Solstice Edition

Another year is coming to an end, another Ragnarok deferred; a time to take stock and give thanks. It’s been a very busy year. I spent six months in Spain undertaking new research, and am now in the middle of writing a book. (More details to follow eventually). One paper that emerged from ideas discussed in this blog is now forthcoming in Political Studies in 2015: “The Irrelevance of Legitimacy;” hopefully more will follow soon. All this has meant this blog has been a bit abandoned - only 5 posts, though some of them were very popular and widely shared. Thanks to everyone who read, commented and shared these footnotes!

In the season’s spirit of sharing, here are a few things I’ve enjoyed this year:
The season is not complete without linking again to Phil Schrodt’s post from last year on the insidious war on Yule:
Where has our appreciation of the true Yule gone?: the blessings of the wisdom of Odin, the protection given us by Thor, the abundance bestowed by Freya? Recognition that with the passing of another year, the guardians of Asgard have again held off the Frost Giants [7], Ragnarok is again deferred, and in a few months the light and warmth of summer will return?
Here in the Southern hemisphere it’s the summer, not the winter solstice, but happy solstice/christmas/festivus/yule/Newtonmass/Toxcatl or any other ritual you may celebrate to all!

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Vagueness and Political Regimes

I've been recently re-reading Juan Linz's Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, a book I didn't appreciate enough when I first studied it many years ago. Linz had an encyclopedic knowledge of political life in modern societies, and the book is a bit like a modern version of Aristotle's Politics -- a little dry, but attentive to the concrete details of institutions in a huge variety of countries in order to develop theoretically useful "ideal types" (even though Linz, unlike his more illustrious ancient predecessor, keeps the normative discussion to a minimum). In particular, Linz had a fine Weberian sense for the complexities of the link between ideas and political power; and one specific question he raises struck me as interestingly related to some of the things I was saying earlier this year about Franco. The question concerns why some non-democratic political regimes have highly articulated ideologies (e.g., Marxism-Leninism), whereas others have at best what Linz calls "mentalities" -- "ways of thinking and feeling, more emotional than rational" (p. 162), vague "intellectual attitudes" and ill-defined symbolic commitments to "the nation" or "order and progress." What accounts for these differences? And do they have any bearing on how political power is organized?

Linz argues that there is a functional affinity between the degree of "pluralism" of a regime and the specificity of its ideological commitments. The more a regime depends on a variety of groups, none of which can defeat the others, the less specific its ideology. By the same token, we should only see very specific ideological commitments among regimes that emerge from the victory of a single, highly mobilized party over disparate opponents, which is precisely how totalitarian regimes arise. Ideological vagueness is the glue that allows the disparate elements of an authoritarian coalition to hold together, as in Franco's Spain[1]:

In our view the complex coalition of forces, interests, political traditions, and institutions -- part of the limited pluralism [of an authoritarian, rather than a totalitarian regime] -- requires the rulers to use as symbolic referent the minimum common denominator of the coalition. In this way the rulers achieve the neutralization of a maximum number of potential opponents in the process of taking power (in the absence of the highly mobilized mass of supporters). The vagueness of the mentality blunts the lines of cleavage in the coalition, allowing the rulers to retain the loyalty of disparate elements. The lack of an assertion of specific, articulated, and specific commitments facilitates adaptation to changing conditions in the nonsupportive environment, particularly in the case of authoritarian regimes in the Western democratic sphere of influence. The reference to generic values like patriotism and nationalism, economic development, social justice, and order and the discreet and pragmatic incorporation of ideological elements derived from the dominant political centers of the time allow rulers who have gained power without mobilized mass support to neutralize opponents, co-opt a variety of supporters, and decide policies pragmatically. Mentalities, semi- or pseudoideologies reduce the utopian strain in politics and with it conflict that otherwise would require either institutionalization or more repression than the rulers could afford. The limited utopianism obviously is congruent with conservative tendencies. (p. 164)

In Linz's view, the vagueness of ideological commitments in authoritarian (as opposed to totalitarian) regimes limits the appeal of these regimes for those groups of people who make ideas their business, or who for some other sociological reason have a need to find "meaning" in politics:

Such regimes pay a price for their lack of ideology in our sense of the term. It limits their capacity to mobilize people to create the psychological and emotional identification of the masses with the regime. The absence of an articulate ideology, of a sense of ultimate meaning, of long-run purposes, of an a priori model of an ideal society reduces the attractiveness of such regimes to those for whom ideas, meaning, and values are central. The alienation of intellectuals, students, youth, and deeply religious persons from such regimes, even when successful and relatively liberal compared with totalitarian systems, can be explained in part by the absence or weakness of ideology. One of the advantages of authoritarian regimes with an important fascist component was that this derivative ideology appealed to some of those groups. But it also was one of the sources of tension when the disregard of the elite of the regime for those ideological elements became apparent. (pp. 164-165)

Nevertheless, we might think that the very non-specificity of authoritarian ideological commitments means that these regimes can often rely on the "shallow" support of people who do not need to find special meaning in politics: as long as no specially controversial commitment is demanded of them, they may be happy to go along, given the costs of resistance. Shallower commitments among the masses may be traded off for deeper commitments among specific groups.

At any rate, I suspect this mechanism is more common than Linz indicates, operating not only within authoritarian coalitions but also in democratic societies, and accounting in part for the recurring feelings of disappointment to which electoral politics gives rise among many people. The problem seems to be that there is a trade-off between the ritual use of emotionally charged but non-specific ideas that can mobilize many people "shallowly," such as vague nationalistic symbols, and the ritual use of highly specific and tightly interlinked symbolic systems that can mobilize fewer people "deeply," such as Marxism-Leninism. The trade-off arises because insisting on the specificity of an ideological system intensifies conflicts within a coalition, but also encourages more committed activists, whereas vague symbolic commitments can maintain a larger coalition (as in catch-all parties in many democracies) but decreases the degree to which the coalition members can coordinate on specific actions.

We should thus expect that vagueness "works" as a policy to hold together a diverse coalition when members believe that their goals cannot be achieved "outside the tent" but the vagueness of particular symbolic commitments lets them believe that they have a chance to push specific policies in their favored direction. The first belief is strengthened when rival coalitions are deeply mistrusted (e.g., the left and the right after the Spanish civil war, or to a lesser extent Democrats and Republicans in the USA today); the second when coalition members have long-term projects (perhaps themselves vague) rather than one-off specific demands. In these circumstances, the problem for coalition leaders is that the moment specific actions are actually undertaken, members learn information about the chances of their preferred outcomes actually happening, threatening the unity of the coalition. Leaders interested in political survival thus have an incentive to procrastinate and act in ambiguous ways (as Franco did), so long as they do not have the resources to definitively resolve ideological conflicts in their favor. By contrast, when leaders expect to win such conflicts, or when coalition members come to see that their chances of achieving their deeper objectives are as good outside the tent as inside, vagueness loses value: either the leader demands commitment to more specific programmes, or vague symbols fail to keep coalition members in line. This explains why the most committed are the first to leave when they figure out that their ideals cannot be realized within the coalition; it was the most ideological falangistas who became Franco's "a-legal right opposition," not the moderates, for example.

It is also interesting to consider why highly articulated ideologies should be able to produce deep but narrow mobilization; and here I think that Linz is a bit off. The mobilizational capacity of "ideology" (in Linz's sense) has less to do with its utopian content than with the fact that strong ideological commitments develop in tight chains of often face-to-face interaction. Consider the way in which Marxism diffused in pre-revolutionary Russia through study groups, participation in clandestine activities, and other recurrent situations that made it a sort of common language among a set of people with similar core values, facilitating their identification with the ideology as a symbolic whole. The argumentative context of many of these situations (where activists argued with one another over means and ends) produced more or less coherent belief systems, though it also encouraged splintering, and regular face to face interaction produced deep commitments through emotional amplification, but also limited the degree to which many people could fully identify with the ideology as a whole. (The history of the Bolsheviks seems to be illustrative here). Indeed, to the extent that ideologies become politically dominant (through the victory of specific groups in war, for example) and can be used, given their explicitness, as "test[s] for loyalty" (p. 162), large incentives for dissimulation also emerge, limiting their mobilizational capacity: consistency is maintained at the price of mass commitment. By contrast, shallow commitments to vague symbols do not require the same sorts of feedback, and they can be maintained by the typical means of mass politics, haphazard as they are. Vagueness, not consistency, thus seems to be the price of large-scale coalition politics.


[1] Franco's Spain was, of course, Linz's paradigmatic case of authoritarianism, and the country he knew best.