The Dictator's Learning Curve

Journalist William Dobson looks at the ‘nimble’ tactics of autocrats in an age of social media.

The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy By William J. Dobson Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 352 pp.

These days, “Big Idea” books sell. In William Dobson’s case, he traveled 93,268 miles and collected 200 interviews to back up his big idea: that dictators today are more nimble about being autocratic than their predecessors. The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy examines the process by which the Stalins of the world have given way to Putins, leaders adept at “skillful new forms of authoritarianism that blurred our definitions of democracy and dictatorship.”

But this idea isn’t nearly as interesting as the individuals and immersive experiences Dobson renders in its support.

In Venezuela, Russia, China, and Egypt, Dobson finds variations on this theme. The Russia of Vladimir Putin has successfully co-opted nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, with a system of GONGOs – government-operated nongovernmental organizations. The linguistic absurdity does nothing to inhibit their power: Set up to look independent, they actually “soak up foreign funding from genuine NGOs and confuse the public about who is in the right, the government or its critics.”

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez demanded the names of the 3 million people who’d voted to hold a recall on his presidential election, ostensibly to check for forgeries. The list was published by Mr. Chávez’s campaign manager. The health minister then promised to fire any doctors or nurses whose names appeared on the list; the head of the state oil company said he expected to sack employees who’d signed; and a 98-year-old woman was denied health services because she’d signed the referendum.

The same holds, Dobson finds, even in Egypt, heart of the Arab Spring. When the all-powerful military turned on protesters in the late spring of 2011, activists realized their work would be more difficult than ever. “In the old system, with all its violence and horrors, we know how it functioned,” one human rights activist told Dobson. Not knowing the new ways in which oppression works, he said, “is worse than our worst nightmare under [Hosni] Mubarak.”

It’s in these moments, when Dobson is in conversation with the people who are finding new ways to work against the more “nimble” systems of today’s autocrats, that the book is at its best.

We meet a Chinese free-speech lawyer, a Russian environmental activist, and an Egyptian cop-turned-human-rights-lawyer-turned-exiled-dissident, who offers tips to youth activists on what police response they can expect. We meet Egyptian protesters who take the brunt of later-2011 military violence, and we join in an afternoon walk that’s actually a political protest in Beijing.

We watch with Dobson as the Chinese use not tanks and guns, as in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but “street repair” closures and sidewalk-washing tasks to clear crowds who’d thought they might try a “Jasmine Revolution.” It’s a far subtler form of power, but just as effective.

That’s also true of the book. Dobson seems least plausible where he’s at his most brash. “[I]f you order a violent crackdown ... you now know it will likely be captured on an iPhone and broadcast around the world. The costs of tyranny have never been this high,” he declares.

That’s a tempting aphorism, but it’s a conclusion not entirely supported by the evidence Dobson has marshaled.

In fact, one theme runs throughout Dobson’s observations but is never directly addressed: Dictators have learned that indifference to the media actually bears little cost, provided other parts of the political strategy – say, the will to use violence – are strong. All the smart phones in Syria haven’t helped halt the regime’s yearlong violent crackdown on protesters.

And media go both ways: Last year, as the violence was beginning, President Bashar al-Assad’s wife was the subject of a flattering profile in Vogue magazine.

It can also be difficult, in some of his more broad pronouncements, to distinguish between dictatorship and more benign exercise of power. Modern dictatorships, he writes, “seek to blend repression with regulation to gain the most from the global political system without jeopardizing their grip on power.” Although one has to wonder if this strategy is actually new. Wasn’t the hopscotching by Ethiopia – or Afghanistan for that matter – between US and Soviet “spheres of influence” during the cold war also a manipulation of the then-prevailing political system in order to assert or maintain power?

Dobson is the expert here; I’m merely an engaged reader. And even when his pronouncements raise an eyebrow, he’s still a companionable writer.

In fact, Dobson’s is a terrific book to argue with. And it’s hard to think of a higher compliment for a book about Big Ideas.

Jina Moore is a freelance foreign correspondent and a nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine.

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