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Books! (Life, Death, and Time Edition)

How Dictatorships Work: Power, Personalization, and Collapse (Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz, (2019/#36): An analysis of dictatorship initiation, progression, and breakdown, based on a new data set. One of the basic observations is that the nature of the group that initiates the takeover determines much of the future behavior of the regime, not the least because things like the degree of internal cohesion and their decision-making procedures are both pre-existing and difficult to change on the stop. From a methodological point of view, this makes it easier to formulate and test a model, as those characteristics are exogenous. Another, sadly critical aspect of their analysis is that their study in detail the mechanics not just of military coups, but also of the very common process of a party winning relatively fair and free elections and afterwards using their power to prevent further challenges by attacking or blocking the more representative opposition parties and politicians. In the opposite direction, the data does seem to show that military dictators that create or co-opt a party tend to last longer in power, partly due to balancing military actors in the inner circle (who by their access to weapons and soldiers have a dangerously independent veto-by-coup potential) with civilian party officers who are much more dependent on the dictator, and hence less of a threat. Personalism, specially direct control of internal security forces (and this either takes place early or not at all), is correlated with a larger span of control for the dictator, although it often means that after his death the regime collapses.

  • Several intuitions lie behind the claim that preexisting characteristics of the group that establishes the dictatorship persist and shape political processes that follow. First, we expect the inner circle of the dictatorship to be chosen from the seizure group. Second, we expect groups represented in the inner circles of dictatorships to dominate early decision-making and to have more influence on decisions than excluded groups throughout the life of the dictatorship. We also expect organized included groups to wield more power than unorganized ones. Parties and militaries are large, often well-organized groups frequently represented in seizure groups and thus initially in the dictator’s inner circle. The dictator’s inner circle may also represent the interests of particular class, ethnic, religious, or regional groups, but since such groups tend to be loosely organized, we expect them to have less capacity to influence decisions and implementation than more effectively organized groups. Third, we expect groups that have developed skills and routinized ways of interacting and making decisions to gravitate toward these same ways of doing things immediately after seizures of power. Our theories build on these intuitions.

  • Though personalization develops after the seizure of power, the internal characteristics of the seizure group that give the dictator advantages in bargaining with other members of the inner circle predate the seizure. Discipline and unity take time to develop in organizations and cannot be produced overnight when the challenge of controlling anew dictator arises.

  • Military dictators who cannot count on the rest of the military for support because of factionalism or indiscipline in the army try to marginalize most of the military from decision-making, and to shift the support base of the regime to civilians, who are less threatening because unarmed. Dictators often do this by having themselves popularly elected, creating a civilian support party, appointing a civilian cabinet, and dissolving the military ruling council. Observers label this series of events civilianization, and sometimes even interpret it as democratization, but it is a dictatorial strategy to survive and consolidate personal power in the face of a factionalized and unreliable military support group.

  • To summarize these points, all dictators need some support, which they must reward, but they need to offer only enough to maintain the minimum coalition required to stay in power. The other original members of the seizure group, and the parts of its larger support coalition associated with them, can be excluded without endangering the regime. There is a strong incentive to exclude them because the dictator can then keep their “share” or give it to others whose support he needs more. Remaining inner-circle members want to share spoils and power, but they still have little bargaining power besides the threat to replace the dictator. These conditions mean that the dictator can often get away with keeping the lion’s share for himself, just as the proposer in standard legislative bargaining games can (Baron and Ferejohn 1989).
    1989). This logic thus makes clear why members of authoritarian coalitions often acquiesce in the concentration of power and resources in the hands of dictators. Note that although Baron and Ferejohn’s (1989) result does not fit empirical reality in democratic legislatures very well – that is, prime ministers do not generally keep the lion’s share of resources – it is eerily similar to the reality of conspicuous consumption and Swiss bank accounts enjoyed by many dictators.

  • Where dictators have to bargain with an inner circle drawn from a unified and disciplined party or military, the threat of ouster is more credible and the price of support higher. Dictators in this situation face groups that, like labor unions, can drive harder bargains than the individuals in them could drive separately (Frantz and Ezrow 2011). In these circumstances, dictators usually find it expedient to consult with other officers or the party executive committee and distribute resources broadly within the support group. In short, the prior organization, unity, and discipline of seizure groups give dictators reason to maintain power-sharing arrangements with members of the inner circle.

  • Changes in the relative power of inner-circle members can become long lasting through the replacement of individuals who might potentially have challenged the dictator with others who lack independent support bases and are thus more dependent on him. Whatever resolution arises from the earliest conflict between the dictator and his closest allies increases the likelihood of a similar resolution to the next one.In other words, if the dictator gains more control over political resources as a result of the first conflict with other members of the inner circle, he then has a greater advantage in the next conflict with them. In this way, where steps toward personalization occur soon after the seizure of power, it is likely to progress further. In contrast, initial reliance on collegial institutions reduces the chance of later personalization.

  • In short, we expect the deal agreed to by the dictator and members of the seizure group in the early months after the seizure of power to shape later interactions. Whatever pattern of power aggrandizement is established during the first years of a dictatorship tends to be perpetuated until the first dictator dies, sickens, or is overthrown.

  • The more serious impediment to successful power-sharing bargains is that armed supporters’ promises not to oust as long as the dictator shares are never completely credible because they cannot always prevent “rogue” coups or armed ouster by other specialists in violence. These are coups by factions, often led by lower-ranked officers, that could be defeated if the rest of the armed forces mobilized against them, but the dictator cannot count on the rest of the army doing so. The first-mover advantage built into the incentives facing officers means that a faction that makes a credible first coup move without being met by violent opposition can overthrow the government because the rest of the armed forces will acquiesce to this coup just as they did to the one that brought the current leader to power. All dictators face some risk from armed supporters, but the less control commanding officers have over lower-ranked officers – that is, the less disciplined and unified the armed support group is –the less ability officers in the inner circle have to make enforceable bargains with the dictator that would reduce the risk.

  • Many coups are bloodless. That is because potential coup leaders choose times when they expect little opposition. Since the Russian Revolution, officers have understood that asking troops to fire on their fellow citizens can lead to indiscipline, desertions, and mutiny. The military can of course defeat unarmed or lightly armed civilian demonstrators, but orders to beat or fire on civilians risk provoking defiance among troops, which would undermine the military institution and officers’ political power base, so officers exercise caution in what they demand of soldiers. The strategy of organizing a mass civilian support base – a new support party – helps dictators survive because of officers’strong preference for unopposed coups. The “fear of having to deal with massive civilian opposition” deters military plotting (Brooker 1995, 111).

  • Demonstrations to support dictators are rarely spontaneous. They require the work, organization, and logistical skills of many people, and these people have to have already developed their links to the rest of the community. It thus makes sense for dictatorships to use ruling-party networks to orchestrate support demonstrations. Such demonstrations serve serious purposes. Like election victories, they signal strength. Outsiders often respond to obviously orchestrated displays of popular support with puzzlement or ridicule because they assume the demonstrations aim to fool people about the dictatorship’s popularity. We think this reaction reflects a misunderstanding. Such demonstrations show the strength of leaders and the regime in that they demonstrate the resources and organizational capacity to turn out huge crowds, choreograph their activities in minute detail, and prevent unwanted demands or unruliness from arising during mass actions that bring many thousands of people into face-to-face contact where they could potentially share grievances and plot unrest. We interpret the over-the-top displays of grief and gargantuan demonstrations after Kim Jong-Il’s death and his son’s succession in North Korea, for example, as a costly signal aimed at two different audiences during a time of regime weakness. One signal aimed to show foreigners that the population would defend the regime if it was attacked. The other signaled the resources and commitment of the faction supporting Kim Jong-Un to members of the elite who doubted the wisdom of choosing a politically inexperienced twenty-something as regime leader.

  • Wins against opposition generate the strongest signals of regime strength, but even elections without choice show that the dictatorship has the resources and organizational capacity to ensure mass voting. To be effective in deterring opposition, vote and turnout counts need to be reasonably honest (Magaloni 2006). However, dictatorships can apparently tilt the playing field by controlling the media, concentrating state resources on supporters, and harassing, threatening, jailing, or beating up opposition activists without undermining elections’ usefulness in deterring elite defection. In contrast, visibly fraudulent vote counting has sometimes set off explosions of popular hostility, bringing down dictatorships (Tucker 2007;Rozenas 2012).

  • The evidence about government spending thus suggests that both semi-competitive and uncompetitive elections motivate increased effort by officials to reach citizens with benefits. Through this mechanism, dictatorships can use elections to monitor the behavior of local officials and buy support from citizens.

  • The Stasi placed informers in ministries, the Planning Commission, the army, and the Stasi itself (called the Unknown Colleagues). [emphasis mine]

Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (Northrop Frye, 2019/#37): Notes from Frye's Alexander Lectures of 1965-6. Very interesting, if unsummarizable. (Bold emphasis in the quotes below is mine)

  • The basis of the tragic vision is being in time, the sense of the one-directional quality of life, where everything happens once and for all, where every act brings unavoidable and fateful consequences, and where all experience vanishes, not simply into the past, but into nothingness, annihilation. In the tragic vision death is, not an incident in life, not even the inevitable end of life, but the essential event that gives shape and form to life. Death is what defines the individual, and marks him off from the continuity of life that flows indefinitely between the past and the future. It gives to the individual life a parabola shape, rising from birth to maturity and sinking again, and this parabola movement of rise and fall is also the typical shape of tragedy. The mood of tragedy preserves our ambiguous and paradoxical feeling about death; it is inevitable and always happens, and yet, when it does happen, it carries with it some sense of the unnatural and premature. The naiveté of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, astonished by the fact that he should die when he has been wading through other men’s blood for years, is an example, and even Shakespeare’s Caesar, so thoroughly disciplined in his views of death in general, still finds his actual death a surprise.

  • But because the heroic is above the normal limits of experience, it also suggests something infinite imprisoned in the finite. This something infinite may be morally either good or bad, for the worst of men may still be a hero if he is big enough to anger or frighten the gods. Man may be infinite if he is infinite only in his evil desires. The hero is an individual, but being so great an individual he seems constantly on the point of being swept into titanic forces he cannot control. The fact that an infinite energy is driving towards death in tragedy means that the impetus of tragedy is sacrificial. Sacrifice expresses the principle that in human life the infinite takes the same direction as the finite. [...] Tragedy, then, shows us the impact of heroic energy on the human situation.

  • Men in Greek tragedy are brotoi, “dying ones,” a word with a concrete force in it that our word “mortals” hardly conveys.

  • In Sarpedon’s speech to Glaucus in the Iliad there is one terrible instant of awareness in which Sarpedon says that if he could think of himself as ageless and immortal, like the gods, he would walk out of the battle at once. But, being a man, his life is death, and there is nowhere in life that is not a battlefield. Unlike his counterpart Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita, he can hope for no further illumination on that battlefield. The Greek heroes belong to a leisure class remote from our ordinary preoccupations; this gives them more time, not for enjoying life, but for doing what the unheroic cannot do: looking steadily and constantly into the abyss of death and nothingness. The Greek gods respect this, just as the Christian God respects the corresponding contemplative attitude, the contemptus mundi, on the part of the saint.

  • The organizing conceptions of Elizabethan tragedy are the order of nature and the wheel of fortune. Nature as an order, though an order permeated with sin and death as a result of the fall of man, is the conception in Elizabethan drama corresponding to what we have called the ironic vision or being in time—Nietzsche’s “Apollonian” vision. Fortune as a wheel rotated by the energy and ambition of man, which, however gigantic, can never get above a certain point, and consequently has to sink again, is the “Dionysian” or heroic vision which complements it. The order of nature provides the data of the human situation, the conditions man accepts by getting born. The wheel of fortune supplies the facta, what he contributes by his own energy and will.

  • Critics who have noted that Aristotle’s word “hamartia” is also the ordinary New Testament word for sin have often assumed that a tragic victim must have a “flaw” or a “proud mind” that will make his death morally intelligible. But the flaw of the murdered ruler is simply to be there, and his proud mind is merely to be what he is. Unlike Edward IV, who imprisoned his brother because his name began with G, Caesar dismisses the warning soothsayer as a “dreamer.” Caesar’s “flaw,” then, is only that he fails to be a superstitious tyrant. As for pride of mind, even Caesar hardly has that in an excessive degree, much less the “meek” Duncan. The fall of the prince may have a moral cause, but the cause is not primary: what is primary is the event. Or rather, not only the event, but the event along with its consequences. The important thing about the order-figure, in short, is not that he gets murdered, but that he has been murdered. The essential tragic action starts just after his death.

  • Poetry must have an image; drama must have a character, and the feeling of lost social identity is what is expressed in the story of the fallen prince. The fallen prince is the “primal father” of a rather desperate myth of Freud’s, which seems to assume a crude notion of a “collective unconscious” that literary criticism, fortunately, does not need. In criticism, the murdered prince, from Agamemnon onwards, stands for the sense of falling away from social unity which is constantly present in every generation. The tragic vision begins with being in time, and time is always time after. It is always later than a time when we had a greater allowance of life and could attach more significance in that life to parental figures.

  • But a continuous suspension of feeling is as necessary to the heroic life as a suspension of thought. A tragic action is fully tragic only to its spectators: heroes do not suffer except when they become objective to themselves. One great value of tragedy as a form of art is that it corrupts and weakens our heroism, refining our sensibilities by sapping our courage. It makes a fuss about murder and brutality, instead of accepting them as necessary pleasures of life.

  • Terrible things happen in Shakespeare’s mature tragedies, but they do not happen with the particular kind of sadistic brutality that goes with appealing to high moral principles in the audience.

  • But of course there was still a shade that survived in the world below, and this shade still felt all the tragic emotions of enmity and revenge. The ghost of Achilles demanded sacrifices; the ghost of Darius returned with sombre warnings for his successor. In the convention of the returning ghost, tragedy expresses something that does not in itself depend on any belief in survival after death. No event in time ever completes itself; no act of aggression fails to provoke revenge; no act of revenge fails to provoke another act of revenge. We have noticed how closely Shakespearean tragedy is linked to history, and history to the sense of the same kind of event going on without cessation. Hell, seen from this point of view, is an allegory of the unending torment of the human condition.

  • We said that it is natural to man to be in a state of social discipline, hence the figure we called the order-figure, Caesar or Duncan or Agamemnon, represents the reality of human life, of being in time. And yet the more closely we examined this reality, the more it began to look like illusion as well. The order-figure, we saw, is an actor, wholly absorbed in appearance, and the wheel of history he turns is based on a constant round of battles. Battles are very serious matters to ordinary people, the non-heroic who are not allowed to wear heavy armour. One thinks of Falstaff’s remark: “There’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive; and they are for the town’s end, to beg during life.” But to heroes battles are a game. It is not that they are never hurt or killed, but that battles for them are primarily a risking of or gambling with life, a game played with death as the stakes. Man is homo ludens, a player of games, and he is never more deeply engaged in play than when he is trying to kill someone at the risk of being killed himself.

  • The coward is despised because he refuses to play the game, and so reminds us that it is a game, and that we have a choice of not playing it. In the “ecstatic” heroic society one’s life is in one’s loyalties: to die bravely in battle is still, in a very real sense, to preserve one’s essential life. The coward feels that the centre of life is not in his leader or society but in himself. He is feared as well as despised, because unless his behaviour is shouted down with contempt and ridicule there will be a slight suggestion about it of sanity in the midst of hysteria. This suggestion is tolerable only when released as humour, as it is in Falstaff’s speeches on honour and counterfeits. Falstaff in these speeches is not so much a clown as the spokesman of the ironic vision that outlives the tragic one.

  • When one’s real life is in one’s loyalties and actions, all that the isolated mind can attain is an awareness of absurdity. Life is an idiot’s tale, signifying nothing; the question is whether to be or not to be; the gods kill us for their sport. These famous utterances are not merely expressions of despair; they are the only kind of philosophical reflexion that we are likely to get from a tragedy, unless it is a philosophical tragedy in the tradition of Seneca, like Fulke Greville’s Mustapha, and not many such tragedies belong in the public theatre. Life is real and life is earnest only as long as we do not try to disentangle reality from illusion, earnestness from play. Once withdrawn from the course of action that holds us within our society, chaos is come again.

  • In the tragedy of isolation the hero becomes a scapegoat, a person excluded from his society and thereby left to face the full weight of absurdity and anguish that isolated man feels in nature. He is thus dramatically in the position of the villain of melodrama, but the feeling of moral separation of the bad character from the good (or at any rate not so bad) audience is not there. Or if it is there, it does not have the same relevance. The dreadful pact consummated by Iago with the words “I am your own for ever” has bound us too, and we feel no deliverance from Iago’s prospective death, because he is one of the dark powers who have also humiliated us. In a tragic story there are plausible reasons why a character gets into a scapegoat position, but they are never so plausible as to make the response “of course I should never have done that” relevant. Whatever the tragic hero has done, we are never so wise or virtuous that we cannot participate in the consequences of his fall with him. At the end of a comedy a new society is created or restored and the characters go off to a new life out of our reach. Even those who exclude themselves from this society, like Jaques in As You Like It or Marchbanks in Candida, have secrets in their hearts we can only guess at. At the end of a tragedy, where most of the main characters are usually dead in any case, there is a far greater sense of mystery, because (paradoxically) it is not what the characters have learned from their tragic experience, but what we have learned from participating in it, that directly confronts us.

The Aristocracy in Europe, 1815-1914 (Dominic Lieven, 2019/#38): Too many details to quote, or perhaps I wasn't in the mood to collect fragments, so I'll stick to a summary extracted from the book itself: This book aims to examine nineteenth-century German, Russian and English aristocracy as comprehensively as is possible in 80,000 words. It looks at these aristocracies' wealth and its sources, together with the economic roles of the three elites. It also studies the rules, norms and morals of upper-class society, together with everyday life and leisure in town and countryside. It covers education, culture and careers, in the latter case concentrating on aristocracy's traditionally foremost occupation, namely war. The book concludes by investigating the role of the traditional elites in government and politics. The study of Victorian and Edwardian aristocracy makes no sense, however, unless it is placed firmly within the context of the huge changes which were occurring in economy and society and the challenges these presented to traditional elites. The aim of this book is to explain both the challenges and aristocracy's response. It is to understand both what the nineteenth century did to European aristocracy and in turn how and why the upper classes' response to encroaching modernity influenced Europe's fate, not just before 1914 but in ways that cast a shadow to this day.

1922: Literature, Culture, Politics (ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté, 2019/#39): A collection of essays on different Modernist-and-andjacent artistic and literary going-ons in 1922, mostly in Europe (including Russia and Latin America, as influenced by European developments). Interesting, not just because of the things that ended up being influential, but also because of those that didn't.

The Biology of Human Survival: Life and Death in Extreme Environments (Claude A. Piantadosi, 2019/#40): A look at the physics, biology, and behavior of survival in extreme environments, putting most emphasis on the physics of it. There's some practical advice, but most of it is focused on the details of how different environments kill you despite your sometimes half-assed and always physics-bound attempts of your body to survive, and why it most often boils down to equipment and prior planning. Full of interesting details, and one of those books you feel Bruce Wayne would've read early on. There are some weird notes on cultural and biological evolution, which feels at entirely the wrong time scale, and the notes on the psychology of space exploration and colonization seem a bit more amateurish, but all in all it's a very interesting book.



cass, can you not

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