Pushing up Against the Boundaries of Liberalism

A Review of The Dictator’s Handbook.


The Dictator’s Handbook is both a deeply enlightening and a deeply frustrating book to read. Not because it is badly written, or inaccessible, or because its main points are wrong, but because it fails to follow through on its conclusions. This book is one of the most theoretically coherent arguments against political authority I have ever read, but it was written by a pair of authors who can not escape the limits of liberalism in dealing with the implications of their own critique.

The main thesis of the book, neatly summed up by its tag line, is that bad behaviour is almost always good politics. Its analysis is consistently materialist, although the authors of The Dictator’s Handbook would likely never use the term and the book is thankfully free from the kind of overly academic obtuseness that afflicts much avowed materialist analysis. It treats ideology as entirely secondary to the systematic limits and incentives imposed by government. In the same way that any good socialist might lay out the argument that the capitalist must prioritise profit above all else if they are to be successful, the authors argue that any successful politician or CEO must prioritise power above all else, including any ideological commitment or well meaning benevolence they might have.

The authors spend much of the book talking about the techniques for gaining and holding power across both dictatorship and democracy, which they consider not truly separate systems but two points on a continuum, still affected by the same systematic incentives. These techniques revolve around the creation and management of a coalition of essential backers whose interests any leader is beholden to if they wish to stay in power.

The book is at its most cutting when it is using this framework to examine dictatorships. It breaks down the idea that any dictatorship could ever be absolute and discusses the ways in which gaining and maintaining the support of military, political, and economic elites is necessary for any dictator to stay in power. The flip side of this is that anyone who is not one of those essential backers is either a threat, someone to be exploited to fill the pockets of those essential backers, or to be ignored. This analysis utterly demolishes the concept of the benevolent dictator as a possibility. Benevolent dictators take resources that could be going to their essential backers and spend it on the people, and so will be replaced by those backers by someone more in line with their interests.

The book is far weaker when it comes to its critique of democracy. It is not that the critique is not there, but that the authors seem to back pedal from it when they shift from talking about specific examples of a democracy to the concept of an ideal democracy. The book is full of examples of corrupt and non-functional “democracies”, but ends up arguing in favour of an idealised version of democracy as the only available solution to these woes.

The authors’ argument is that democratic leaders are still engaged in a game of building coalitions of essential backers, and must put their interests above the interests of the rest of society. However, because this coalition of backers is much broader than that of a dictator, democratic leaders are more inclined towards public goods which benefit everyone as a method of serving their mass coalition as opposed to the often blatant corruption used by dictators to serve their smaller, more elite coalition.

I think this oversells the advantages of a democracy. While it is likely true that the need to secure a larger coalition has a restraining effect on democratic leaders, this still allows majorities to inflict some pretty horrific abuse on minority groups. The idea that certain kinds of public goods which are useful to a democratic leader’s coalition will also enrich those outside that coalition does not change the fact that there are a lot of situations in which this simply is not the case, or that in many cases what the majority wants is directly harmful to minorities.

The other problem with the authors’ arguments is that it assumes that an ideal democracy is in any way possible. They rightly base their analysis of dictatorship on rejecting the idea of an ideal dictator whose authority is absolute and not beholden to anyone else, but they do not question the ways in which democracies might systematically fail to be democratic.

This is partly due to ignoring factors outside of formal democracy that might affect the importance of any particular backer. While in theory a warehouse worker and a media magnate each only have one vote, in practice the support of the media magnate is worth far more to any would-be democratic leader than that of a warehouse worker. They simply have so much more economic, social and informal political power outside of the formal political power of their vote.

But the authors also fail to ask about the limits of democracy as a practical method of organisation. As the size of any organisation increases it will quickly get to a point where its inner workings are so complex that not every important part of its governance can be voted on in some kind of central assembly. At the size of states, the vast majority of government decisions are made with little to no democratic oversight. Anyone living in a modern democracy has very little democratic say over what their leaders do, other than getting to vote them in or out every four or five years. Past that point leaders are often fairly free to do whatever they want. The vast majority of the political and economic apparatus that a democratic leader needs the cooperation of in order to rule effectively is also not itself democratic.

All of this leaves me very suspicious of the author’s idea of democracy. It often appears to be talking about the incentives within a system that does not exist and cannot exist, while those of us in real democracies are stuck in something far closer to a dictatorship; its leaders susceptible to many of the perverse incentives towards corruption that the book lays out.

The authors’ acceptance of democracy as the best we can do regardless of its flaws shows a depressing lack of imagination and daring. What their critique hammers home over and over again is that a system in which positions of leadership are dependent on a subset of essential backers will result in the exploitation of everyone else. This would imply that at least looking at organisational forms which try to eliminate those positions altogether would be a worthwhile pursuit.

But the book has no discussion of federal or networked organisational forms, or of consensual decision making. There is no discussion of any possibility of an organisational form that does not allow a coalition of essential backers to ride over the interests of everyone else. The book shows no conception of organisation based on mutually agreed compromise instead of arbitrary authority. It simply defaults to liberal democracy as the furthest possible limit of inclusive organisation.

But this should not put any potential reader off The Dictator’s Handbook. I have focussed on my criticisms of the book, but I believe that the analytical framework it offers is incredibly useful to anarchists and socialists more generally. The places it falls short are doubly frustrating for the missed potential. It discusses many more interesting things beside the core thesis I have discussed here; how the nature of the coalition of essential backers affects and is affected by war, revolution, disaster relief, natural resources, and much more.

All of this is coloured by liberal biases and an infuriating lack of political imagination, but none of that detracts from the power of the basic framework presented by The Dictator’s Handbook. But it is up to the reader to take that framework and push it past the liberal assumptions of its authors.

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