Svoliking in the High Grass: New Approaches to Understanding Authoritarian Regimes

By | September 17, 2014 | No Comments

Kim Jong-il, performing “On the Spot Guidance” in the high grass. | Image: KCNA

After decades of dismissal as functionally unknowable, North Korea has begun to take on the look of an easy “puzzle” for researchers dealing with authoritarian regime durability. The state has gone through two rounds of hereditary succession and the routinization of Weberian charismatic authority in the persona of the Kim family. At the same time, the practical business of rule still takes place via a “revolutionary party,” a construct that is adroit at binding elites into a robust schema of mutual self-preservation. The result is a show that goes on despite the chill wind of geopolitical change: from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the breakdown of the country’s Public Distribution System, the growth of jangmadang, or markets, and persistent inflows of regime propaganda-contradicting information.

Advances in the study of the authoritarianism offer some of the answers. Widely read as a response to the transitions literature of the 1980s, which did a surprisingly poor job of explaining why authoritarianism might persist in some places but not in others, a generation of political scientists turned the spotlight on factors influencing dictatorial regime durability, and this is what they found. Welcome to the politics of authoritarianism. – Christopher Green, Co-Editor

Svoliking in the High Grass: New Approaches to Understanding Authoritarian Regimes

by Steven Denney

Birth of a Genre: Barbara Geddes | Foundational in the literature on politics of authoritarianism is Barbara Geddes’ work in 1999 on regime transitions during times of economic downturn; specifically, she worked to disaggregate different types of dictatorial regime, thus rescuing “dictatorship” from its functionally worthless prior definition: “anything that isn’t democracy.” Thrusting forth into this brave new world, Geddes argued that understanding the differences between authoritarian regime types allows us to uncover the systematic differences in how such regimes do (or do not) breakdown. Using coding rules developed for the task, she classified regimes according to three types: personalist, military, or single party. Nothing being perfect, she added that there are also hybrid types.

Geddes deduced that, by and large, personalist regimes end in a military coup d’etat, while a majority of military regimes end in internal disintegration or a negotiated transition to a new regime (sometimes democratic). However, single party regimes tend towards greater resilience. Geddes’ explanation of this phenomena was simple: parties are broad, and party officials have a vested interest in loyally maintaining the status quo, from which they tend to benefit handsomely. They are incentivized to neither negotiate a transition nor get embroiled in struggling for the reigns of power. “During leadership struggles, most ordinary cadres just keep their heads down and wait to see who wins,” she explained.

To Geddes and Beyond! Milan Svolik | Seizing the reins of Geddes work in order to expand upon it, Milan Svolik focused squarely on the role of single (or dominant) parties in his 2012 book The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. First of all, he delineated two distinct but related core issues that shape authoritarian politics writ large: the problem of authoritarian control and the problem of authoritarian power sharing. The former describes the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, primarily a matter of elite vs. masses; while the latter refers to the “predominant political conflict in dictatorship,” the inter-elite distribution of power between the ruler and his (for dictators are almost always men) allies.[1]

Power sharing, Svolik assessed, is a constant struggle between the dictator and his allies. The threat of rebellion by one or more of the allies is the major fear that keeps the dictator in check (this systemic condition is dubbed “contested autocracy”). Only in a situation where the dictator has completely consolidated his rule and established a monopoly over practical political power is full autocracy established. Though putting a date to this moment is, in truth, virtually impossible, one may argue that “you’ll know it when you see it;” Kim Il-sung in the early 1970s, say, or Josef Stalin in the 1940s. However, even in such apparently clear cases there is evidence that full autocracy was never accomplished, and it is hard to argue with the widespread conviction that it never can be.

In any case, the phase of contested autocracy cannot persist indefinitely for one very simple reason: It is in the dictator’s interest to seek maximum personal security. But what is often dismissed as the dictator’s extraordinarily arrogant “thirst for power” is, in truth, nothing of the sort.

Brutal purges of enemies and competitors are based on the entirely rational awareness that only by obtaining and wielding power, thus denying it to his allies, can the ruler achieve full, or close to full, security. Power sharing is a dangerous condition of flux; the only way to sustain it over the long term is via formal institutions that allow for conflict resolution and credible commitments to be made. Problematically, of course, a dictator is best able to create such institutions of systematic authoritarian power sharing when he is already in unassailable control. To wit, it requires the dictator to actively seek to limit his or his successors’ power, as Deng Xiaoping did in China in the early 1980s. History shows that few autocrats are predisposed toward this self-regulatory approach; thus, since the time when the dictator has the greatest need for institutions of power-sharing is also the time when he is least capable of creating them, for every Deng Xiaoping there will always be one hundred or more Mobutu Sese Sekos.

The Moral Hazard of Repression | The use of repression is usually effective, but potentially damning. Repressing elite dissent or pressure from the masses “below” does not come without a cost, what Svolik described as the “moral hazard in authoritarian repression.” Empowering repressive agents (viz. the military and security forces) equips those agents with the resources and wherewithal to both suppress opposition and overthrow the regime itself—something that has happened regularly down through history.

There is an inherent “trade-off” to the use of repressive agents to maintain power and control. As reliance on repression increases, the likelihood that the military will gain a preponderance of power over the system of government increases. In the constant struggle for power and control, Svolik said three “regimes of interaction between the government and the military [or security forces] may emerge.” These are “perfect political control,” where the party or political leader is in firm charge of events, “military tutelage,” where the military has the dominant guiding hand, and “brinkmanship,” an intermediate and highly contentious stage where the government’s control over events is contested by the military.

It is during such times of “brinksmanship,” when the relationship between the ruling elite and the top military brass is particularly contentious, that the moral hazard of authoritarian politics becomes a serious issue, because the probability of commanders opting to undertake a coup increases dramatically. In this context, to clarify; brinksmanship has nothing to do with the foreign policy tactic of hanging the threat of nuclear war over the head of one’s enemies so as to obtain diplomatic or economic concessions. Rather, it describes the point that during uncertain times, there is inevitably a move toward brinkmanship as power struggles intensify and leadership positions shuffle. This is where the durability of parties and party-based regimes is most apparent.

Svolik, like Geddes, finds that authoritarian systems under single party rule are more resilient than other types. A party organization shores up the resilience of a regime and often exercises political control over the military. Rather than repress, party states co-opt. Indeed, the ability of authoritarian parties to basically (re)structure society, especially the country’s elite, around the goals of the party is what explains their durability. In Svolik’s own words, “Authoritarian parties are best thought of as incentive structures that encourage sunk political investments by their members.” Once you are in, you are in for the long haul. Lucan Way and Stephen Levitsky elaborated further on the durability of single-party states in 2012, offering compelling evidence that “revolutionary” party regimes are among the most resilient types of all.

Party rule of any type means, or should mean, less repression. This in turn means reduced empowerment of the military and security services, and a lower likelihood that the regime will sow the seeds of its own violent destruction. This helps dictators resolve both the “problems” (control and power sharing) of authoritarian politics. Through mechanisms of party-based co-optation, single-party regimes are capable of surviving under less-than-favorable circumstances.

Party, With Some Charisma On Top | Svolik does not deal specifically with the politics of hereditary succession per se or personalist-party hybrids, of which North Korea is one, but he does not need to. That which makes party regimes more durable in general applies equally to personalist-party regimes, too.

It is generally accepted that succession provides the moment of gravest danger for a party-based regime, specifically those which lack mechanisms for conflict resolution and credible commitment. This is because succession places embedded networks and systems of loyalty under renewed pressure; nobody can be sure what the new broom will do, or to whom will go the spoils of the new regime. It is the perception of this threat and its potential consequences that renders acquiescence to hereditary rule attractive (or the least bad option, at least) for risk-averse elites.

In a 2007 article, “Hereditary Succession in Modern Autocracies,” Jason Brownlee argued this point, saying that the process of choosing a new autocrat from within the ruling organization often leads elites to “support hereditary succession as a method for preserving their influence,” and moreover as a way of “mitigating the uncertainty that surrounds an aging ruler and an impending leadership change.” Hereditary succession creates a “’focal point’ for elite consensus.”*

This is the “sunk costs” rationale employed by Svolik (described above), but in a personalist-party political context. Rather than risk losing all, party cadres settle for the continuation of rule by one family because, simply speaking, it is in their interest to do so. This does not, of course, guarantee their safety, but they know that challenging the succession increases the likelihood that the house comes crashing down upon them and everyone else.

A Framework Going Forward | In sum, the work of all the above scholars (and many more), when combined, provides a powerful explanatory framework for why the authoritarian regimes has been so resilient over time, and provides an entry point for understanding a country like North Korea, including the succession politics of the Kim Jong-un era.


[1] The problem of authoritarian control is no small matter, but it is the second, authoritarian power sharing, that is of greatest interest to the study of North Korea. This is in large part due to the absence of mass protest. There are protests in North Korea, but they are generally localized and focused on socio-economic matters at that level.

* The quote originally used here from Brownlee has been deleted for clarity’s sake.