I have read “Spin Dictators” by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman. My review is below.
The book took me 7 hours 22 minutes to read, that is 442 minutes. With about 220 pages of readable text (the whole book is almost twice larger, but the rest contains mostly references), this makes it about 2 minutes per page. Not exactly a book for slow reading.
Why is that?
When reading “Spin Dictators”, I couldn’t get rid of a feeling that I had already heard most of the propositions made. Where? In the Russian opposition-leaning media, for the most part, as well as the Western media, mostly left-leaning.
This made me… be critical about the text. I guess I have to give this disclaimer, because to an extent it means that I cannot review the book in an unbiased way. Not because I am pre-disposed to the book, but because I just have had too much exposure to a partisan political agenda.
Does it mean that things said there are a priori false? Not at all, after all, political agendas are sometimes built on genuine understanding, and in the case of “Spin Dictators”, most claims are supported by evidence, even though I haven’t bothered to verify that evidence. However, it did make me approach the text from a critical viewpoint.
So what the authors are saying can be roughly summarised as the following: since the last quarter of the twentieth century, dictatorships are much more based on manipulating and misleading people, rather than on inflicting fear upon them.
The first part of the book defines what a “Spin Dictatorship” is more precisely, and continues to describe its properties, such as its paradigmatic policies to democracy, international relations, propaganda, repression, censorship.
The seconds part of the book tries to establish how those “Spin Dictatorship” appeared, how they might evolve, and how democratic states should work with them.
Overall, this book left me with a feeling of unease. I cannot specify exactly where and why. Those interested may have a look at the notes in the next section of this file.
Perhaps, the most disturbing thought for me is the authors’ firm belief in “international institutions”. After all, international institutions are just institutions, prone to all problems of bureaucratic organisations.
One more thing that bothers me is a really slacky attitude to sovereignty. I mean, naturally, some countries are richer than others. But that approach “do what we tell, and only then we will help you” sounds too fragile to actually work as intended.
Also, they mention that presently countries have about 43% of their economies being used for import-export. This sounds way off from being reasonable. I mean, I like Japanese knives, but do I want to have no domestic knives in a shop nearby? I doubt.
Similarly, I find it hard to believe that “progress” can be achieved by instilling it into people by the more progressive. Something just doesn’t sound right here. Without independence how can there be adulthood?
2.1.1. THE PUTIN PUZZLE
2.1.2. TWENTIETH-CENTURY TYRANTS
- Raymond Aron called these <Nazism and Communism> “secular religions”
- Socialist revolutionaries like Nasser in Egypt (mobilizational) shared the world stagewith freemarket reactionaries like Pinochet in Chile (demobilizational) and kleptocrats like Mobutu in Zaire (demobilizational).
- Many scholars, for instance, have sought to explain the stability of classic, violent autocracies — the regimes that we call dictatorships of fear. How do such rulers avoid being overthrown in revolutions?
It is not normal for people to rebel. People have an “emotional barrier” before they allow that violence to rise up. (?)
- intimidate citizens
- keep potential rebels from coordinating on a plan
- keep them divided—and terrified
- Most assume that citizens hate the dictator: only fear keeps them from revolting. But what if citizens actually like their ruler and do not want to storm the barricades?
Is not that democracy?
- some features of spin dictatorship
- hold elections, and not all are empty rituals (ploys, con games, and bureaucratic abuses that autocrats around the world have used to secure victories)
- control the media
- surveillance and information technologies
- The key elements
- manipulating the media
- engineering popularity
- faking democracy
- limiting public violence
- opening up to the world
2.1.3. THE RULES OF SPIN
- Aristotle: ruler claimed to be not a violent usurper but “a steward and a king,” governing for the benefit of all. spent money to “adorn and improve his city” and cultivated an image of moderation and piety. “not harsh, but dignified.”
- Machiavelli: use “simu‐lation and dissimulation.” Since most people are influenced by ap‐pearances rather than reality, an ambitious ruler should create illu‐sions. He “need not have all the good qualities … but he must seem to have them.
- be popular (for example, due to economic prosperity)
- manipulate information
- here twentieth-century strongmen relished violent imagery — recall Saddam’s “poisoned dagger”
TODO: thought! Maybe the content of the propaganda does not matter whatsoever? Maybe the mere presence is enough? Make people always have you onto their mind?
2.1.4. OTHER EXPLANATIONS
2.1.5. DIVIDING LINES
2.1.6. WHAT’S NEXT?
2.2. PART I HOW IT’S DONE
- Visiting Singapore in 1978, Deng had been amazed at what Lee had made of the once impoverished colonial outpost. In the eleven years since then, Lee had set out to mentor Deng and his team, advising them on economic policy.
- The next year, Li Peng, who, as China’s pre‐mier, had ordered the troops into Tiananmen Square, visited Singa‐pore. Lee berated him for staging such a “grand show” before the world media. Li Peng, according to Lee, replied with humility: “We are completely inexperienced in these matters.”
FFS. I didn’t know that.
2.3.1. BLOOD LANDS
- West underwent a revolution in penal philosophy and practices between 1760 and 1840. The delib‐erate infliction of pain gave way to more “humane” and invisiblepunishments, sometimes combined with attempts at rehabilitation <…> Why things changed is not entirely clear, although many suppose that Enlightenment values played a key part.
Very interesting. (TODO?) I doubt the values.
- Foucault also argued, more controversially, that the replacement of corporal pun‐ishment with less visible forms of discipline facilitated the spread of such power mechanisms into a broad range of social settings.
Hm… ? I need to read Foucault.
- Under him, Italians fought a “Battle for Grain,” a “Battle for Land,” and even a “War on Flies.”53 Com‐munists engaged in “ ‘struggle’ and ‘combat’ on ‘fronts’ to achieve ‘breakthroughs’ in production and cultural ‘victories.’
Easy to process, but hard to keep the brain focused.
2.3.2. CALCULUS OF KILLING
- Psychological research sug‐gests perceived dangers—even those unrelated to politics—can make people more pessimistic, risk averse, and supportive of authoritarian policies and leaders.
Indeed! Making people confused is more efficient than making them scared of something definite.
2.3.3. LEE’S SOFTER TOUCH
- His officials tightly regulated student organizations and vetted new faculty for soundness.
Regulating something is a surer way to kill something than outright prohibiting it.
- Kazakh officials made frequent study trips to Singapore.
2.3.4. MOSCOW METHODS
- The mind games could be subtle. In one case, Stasi agents snuck into a woman’s apartment and rearranged the furniture.
Very important. Corrosion should be subtle.
2.3.5. THE NEW PLAYBOOK
More or less lists the things that are used.
2.3.6. CHECKING THE EVIDENCE
- In Asian society discipline and order are more important than democracy, which has to develop over time.”
2.4.1. RHETORIC OF REPRESSION
Well, dictators use both mobilising and de-mobilising propaganda.
2.4.2. IDIOMS OF INTIMIDATION
- Why bother to control what people said or thought if they had al‐ready been terrorized into obedience? Our answer is that all these measures helped make repression more effective.
- To the linguist Victor Klemperer, who lived through the Nazi years in Dresden, Hitler’s tirades generated a kind of suspense reminiscent of “American cinema and thrillers.” This was deliberate. Goebbels aimed to create an atmosphere of tense foreboding, what he called “thick air“ (dicke luft).
“American cinema and thrillers.” (sic!)
- Besides distinguishing “good” from “bad” and justifying violence, ideologies decentralized repression to ordi‐nary citizens.
- A smart influencer, the same expert adds, will make his appeals “simple and memorable.”50 The communists created a discourse that was boring and arcane.
- old model’s strength was not in its power to persuade. <…> Hitler’s speeches during his rise to power had a “negligible” impact on his electoral performance.
- Instead of the old threat—“Be obe‐dient, or else!”—the new line seems to be: “Look what a great job we’re doing!
- The act is more challenging when performance is clearly bad.
Can a “spin dictatorship” really exist in a closed system?
- We are pragmatists,” Lee Kuan Yew insisted. “We are not enamored of any ideology.”
Make it more confusing!
- Some have attributed comparable personality cults to spin dicta‐tors such as Chávez and Putin.85 But, in fact, what these leaders devel‐oped were not personality cults but celebrity—of the tacky kind that surrounds Western performers
- Besides redirecting blame for poor performance, spin dictators who cannot conceal bad news try to convince the public that any al‐ternative leader would do worse.
2.4.4. CHECKING THE EVIDENCE
- The one exception is President Eisenhower, who—although a democrat—served at an intense mo‐ment of Cold War confrontation and so had much to say about mis‐siles and military threats.
Note: read Eisenhower’s speeches for colourful epithets.
- Fujimori had made two miscalculations. First, his attack on democracy and the press had provoked the fury of hu‐man rights organizations around the world. The U.S., German, and Spanish governments froze all aid except humanitarian assistance. Venezuela and Colombia suspended diplomatic relations and Ar‐gentina recalled its ambassador. The Organization of American States began discussing sanctions; some members called for Peru’s sus‐pension.
Why is any of that important?
2.5.1. FIGHTING WORDS
2.5.2. COMMAND + DELETE
Fear dictatorships censor openly, Spin dictatorships censor covertly.
2.6.1. ELECTING THE PEOPLE
2.6.2. SPINNING THE BALLOT
2.6.3. FRAUD AND ABUSE
Dictators use fraud to increase their outcome from 55% to 65%.
What is this chapter about? International relations? Emigration?
2.7.1. WORLD WARY
- From the 1960s, East Germany effectively sold thousands of would-be émigrés to Bonn for around $2,500 a head. By the 1980s, East Ger‐man technocrats were said to factor such payments—now made in bartered copper and oil—into the country’s five-year plans.
- East Germany, according to its last interior minister, was “an Eldorado for terror‐ists.”
2.7.2. SPINNING THE GLOBE
Spin Dictatorship usually do not fight wars. Except Putin, and even he tried to make them short.
2.7.3. FOREIGN ASSISTANTS
- (Black Cube) Harvey Weinstein hired an Israeli private security firm founded by former Mossad agents to investigate a woman who accused him of rape
Can pro-democratic opposition do the same?
2.7.5. FEAR VS. SPIN
- Nazarbayev’s team was flustered at first by the 2006 release of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy Borat, which portrayed Kazakhstan as an anti-Semitic, misogynistic backwater. But they soon recovered. As one Astana-based PR specialist put it, officials quickly refocused on “how to exploit such an unexpected spotlight on the country.” The foreign minister later thanked the film for boosting tourism: visa applications, he said, had jumped tenfold.
3. PART II WHY IT’S HAPPENING AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
What is modernisation and why it happens?
- Trade and investment flows knit economies together, while global media link their news cycles and informational fields. International movements and coalitions of states form to pro‐mote the new values—most importantly, the respect for human rights. Sometimes these global influences drive even dictators with less advanced economies to replace fear with spin.
- Although economic development creates pressures for genuine democracy, some auto‐crats manage to delay the transition by faking it.
Why exactly do they pressure for genuine democracy?
Seemingly, the pressure from the outside should be the pressure by threat. But here there seems to be no threat.
Where are the stimuli? Or the energy balance.
3.1.1. POSTINDUSTRIAL STRENGTH
- In this period, a “postindus‐trial society” replaced “industrial society,” as manuf acturing lost ground to services and—most importantly—to creating and process‐ing information.
- The problem for autocrats is that higher education is intrinsically linked to freedom of thought. College courses are almost impossible to sanitize completely.
- The knowledge that enabled technicians to serve the authorities also helped them cut through censorship.
To make VPNs :).
3.1.2. NETWORK EFFECTS
- As more and more countries make the postindustrial transition, connections proliferate among their economies and media.
What about the balcanisation of the Internet? What about COVID?
- By the mid-2000s, it was ex‐porting 43 percent of output—about twice the pre-World War II peak —and spending 33 percent of GDP on imports.
Assuming this is correct, I would say that 43% is insanely high. Nobody would be happy about such a proportion.
3.1.3. THE RIGHTS STUFF
How about distinguishing between “human rights” and “citizen rights”? I think it is conflated a lot in this chapter.
- small groups of edu‐cated professionals with progressive values and often legal training linked up in the late twentieth century into a network of liberal NGOs. They used the global media, international law, and a range of innova‐tive tactics to focus pressure on brutal dictators
- When activists publicize abuses in developing countries, re‐search suggests multinationals invest less in them.
Which makes them poorer and less likely to rebel?
- The previous year, the U.S. Congress had cut $4 million from military aid to the country to protest human rights abuses and corruption.
What about foreign military aid from not USA? Say, Iran?
- But Ghana at the time received the World Bank’s biggest lending program in Africa.97 And Rawlings took seriously—perhaps too seriously—hints that continued aid hinged on political change. “We were forced by the State Department—oh yes, forced—to adopt multiparty democracy,” he complained in 2009. He had had to “force democracy down the throats” of his reluctant compatriots, he told political scientist Antoinette Handley, because “the State De‐partment was saying that there’ll be no more IMF and World Bank facilities for us.”
Very interesting. Are these guys permanently in debt, or somehow manage to get out?
- But from 1974, the U.S. Congress started banning assistance to countries guilty of gross abuses.
Do as we say, and we will give you the money?
3.1.4. COLD WAR AND AFTER
3.2.1. SPINNING UPWARD
- The paradox is that while development threatens dictators, economic growth helps them survive.
Still, what about going the North Korea way?
- As in the Gulf states, modernization had been shallow. As of 2010, fewer than 3 percent of adults in Venezuela had a college de‐gree, hardly more than in 1980.
What about closing the damn universities?
3.2.2. OUTSIDE INFLUENCES
- cutting financial ties reduces a dictator’s own leverage over Western elites
(keep in mind)
- compared to the few global TV networks and wire services of the 1980s, to‐day’s media overflow with detail about authoritarian societies
Because that is distracting from domestic affairs?
- Among 14 developed democracies in 2020, a large majority viewed the UN favorably in all except Japan.
Has this changed after Covid?
3.2.3. DIAGNOSING THE THREAT
3.2.4. HOW TO RESPOND?
- France remained loyal to some unsavory old friends in Africa such as Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso and Chad’s Idriss Déby, while Britain and the United States soft-pedaled the human rights abuses of clients such as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.
Are they even independent countries in reality?
- the West needs to devise a smarter version of integration
- Anonymous shell companies should be banned
- Besides having greater moral authority, an alliance of democracies, backed by independent analysts and coordi‐nating with global human rights organizations, would be more effec‐tive than a myriad of agencies operating separately.
Really? Why? One body can be dealt with. Many competing bodies cannot.
3.2.5. A POWERFUL IDEA
Okay, so the “West” should use the “idea of democracy” to educate the world.
- spin :: in this sense, “misinformation”, public relations with a twist in order to manipulate opinion
- peg :: a small usually cylindrical pointed piece (as of wood) used to pin down or fasten things or to fit into or close holes, metaphorically, “to fix something to something”
- entrepôts :: (French warehouse) a very important place to keep stuff for exchange, usually on a cross of trade routes, say Hong Kong or Singapore
- to schmooze :: to chitchat, to network, to have small-talk, usually in order to make connections
- suave manipulator :: sophisticated, cool, and possibly a bit charming, often in a somewhat insincere or superficial way, manipulator
- murky :: dark and gloomy, usually of liquids
- Carnation Revolution :: peaceful revolution in Portugal in 1974, which ended Salazar’s system; carnation means “гвоздика”
- scribblings :: ugly quick notes
- relish :: a paste, jam, marinade, a sauce, put on savoury dishes, like an additive; figuratively, enjoy much
- state coffers :: “закрома родины,金库”; what the government can use to pay for stuff
- to scoop :: “зачёрпывать,牢取”, to pick up a dose of a liquid with a tool, such as a ladle; as opposed to Russian word, can also be a noun for the dose, or for a tool
- scathe :: “to harm, to hurt”, seldom used in modern English; however, “unscathed”(=unharmed), and “scathing remark”(=hurtful, vitriolic verbal attack) are frequent
- restive regions :: prone to unrest and resistance, disobedience, regions of a country; restive is almost the opposite of restful
- stilted :: (stilts=“ходули,高跷”), often about language or speech: overly complicated, formal, unwieldy
- quipped (to quip) :: to make a sharp, witty, clever remark, especially negative
- as if on cue :: happening at a surprisingly good moment, matching circumstances ; “cue” is a hint for an actor to do an action on stage
- queasy :: (no corresponding noun in modern English) with an uncomfortable feeling in one’s stomach, squeamish
- knuckle-duster :: “кастет,指节铜套”, a piece of metal worn on one’s knuckles as a weapon
- to snarl :: to angrily growl in a menacing tone, about animals, or remark, about people
- hatchet :: small axe, often used by American Indian, used as metaphorically as a sign of enmity
- tough and flat-footed :: an idiom of Lee Kuan Yew, meaning to be straightforwardly aggressive
- ham-fisted :: clumsy, awkward, lacking dexterity in the use of their hands
- Syngman Rhee :: first President of South Korea
- disbursing :: paying many sums, usually to employees as salary
- pillory (public punishment) :: attach to a pole for everyone to humilitate, often used metaphorically
- churro :: a sweet dish made from fried dough, long-ish oily “buns”, “чурро,甜油条”
- to don the garb :: dress-up in specific clothing for a specific occasion; “don” is an old for “put on”, “garb” is “style, fashion, type of clothing”
- effete :: (lat. effetus, exhausted) weak, decadent, lacking vigour
- pounced on the undocumented claim :: “pounced” = jump on, attack by jumping, usually about cats, here used figuratively
- squawk about :: making loud, piercing noise, usually about birds, figuratively “loudly protest”
- Zersetzung :: like “gaslighting”, but from the government, and aiming at citizens
- vying :: (infinitive “to vie”) to compete or contend eagerly
- turgid :: swollen or bloated due to fluid or excessive pressure, figuratively used about speech, when using convoluted language and lacking clarity
- obsequious :: being excessively obedient, submissive, or ingratiating towards someone in a servile or sycophantic manner
- elbow grease :: having to spend a lot of effort to do something
- pastiche :: (from french “pastiche”) thick meat sauce, Russian “паштет”, English loan “pâté”, usually used figuratively, to describe a “medley”, “potpourri”, mixed flowers, musical styles
- double entendres :: from French “double meanings”, puns, but not necessarily humourous
- contrite :: (adv) deeply remorseful and genuinely regretting
- gutter press :: what Russians usually mean by “yellow journalism”, excessively entertaining and sensational journalism, as opposed to the actual meaning of “yellow journalism”, not necessarily misleading or twisting
- military fatigues :: combat uniform, but usually used to describe it worn by civilians pretending to keep some connection to the military
- pliant :: like “pliable”, but more in the psychological sense (ChatGPT-3.5 fails to distinguish those two, ChatGPT-4 succeeds)
- comptroller :: chief accountant, or a head of the revision chamber, quality controller. in fact is like a “controller”, but using an old-style French spelling for fanciness
- flypasts :: ceremonial or symbolic flight by a group of aircraft or a single aircraft, usually on a parade
- romp home :: win easily and comfortably, romp means “lively and frolic”
- hound out :: follow, pursue, and harrass (Russian “травить собаками”)
- bickering :: engaging in petty, quarrelsome, or argumentative behavior, typically over trivial matters
- dabbling in :: get interested without deep involvement, such as learning from popular lectures or literature, not profound
- pore over (polling data) :: study very carefully, thoroughly, meticulously, with a lot of attention
- squalor :: dirt, decay, and general lack of order, usually used about living conditions
- rustle up :: prepare something quickly and hastily, usually about food, (rustle by itself is nervous, restless movement)
- hobnobbed :: literally, “have or not”, used to imply “would you like to have wine or not?”, nowadays used to express the process of spending time around important guys, in order to make career or raise in ranks
- stooge :: someone who is used to do dirty job with his hands, or pretends to be an innocent passerby while actually playing the game (Russian “подсадная утка”)
- anti-Western gadflies :: a person who interferes with the status quo of a society or an organization by posing upsetting or novel questions
- rote tasks :: mechanical activities that require little or no cognitive effort or decision-making
- sacrilegious :: offensive or blasphemous
- umpires :: official whose responsibility is to enforce the rules of the game, usually for exotic Anglo-Saxon sports, such as cricket or baseball
- cause célèbre :: controversial or highly publicized legal case
- sleaze :: what we is called “dirt” in Russian and used to described political, social, moral, behaviour of people, usually not literal dirt
- leeway :: a certain degree of flexibility when making decisions, in a good way