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  • School for Dictators
  • Christopher Walker (bio)
The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. By William J. Dobson. New York: Doubleday, 2012. 341 pp.

Today’s most influential authoritarian states present a mass of contradictions. They are open for business, but closed for politics. Their media are diverse, often remarkably so, but not politically plural. They hold elections, but to showcase authoritarian dominance rather than to reflect real voter preferences. They harbor ambitions to modernize economically, but strangle civil society, the judiciary, and other institutions that might propel such modernization.

Beyond their borders, these regimes court international acceptance. They take part in many of the key institutions forged by the United States and the countries of Europe that have been integral to the establishment of a liberal order, but they vilify the West and its values. Governments in Beijing, Moscow, and Caracas like to use the language of democracy, but that is clearly for show; these regimes undercut the human-rights standards and rules-based features of institutions such as the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and, more recently, the Internet Governance Forum.

Flawed assumptions have clouded the study of these regimes. With the passage of time and the benefits of economic growth, the prevailing thinking has held, Russia, China, and other rising authoritarian modernizers will inevitably liberalize their politics. Although this reform may still come to pass, it has not happened quite yet. In fact, these states are [End Page 170] turning such assumptions on their heads. Rather than spurring authoritarians to embrace or at least tolerate liberalization, the new economic resources now at the disposal of these regimes have allowed them to inject a strange vitality into their authoritarianism. For the time being, then, we are faced with ambitious, well-funded states whose values and preferences are at distinct odds with those of the democracies.

Given the democratic world’s uncertain understanding of the new authoritarian phenomenon, the arrival of William J. Dobson’s book must be counted as timely indeed.

In Dobson’s view, the world has changed. The environment for tyrants has become far trickier. “Not long ago, an autocrat . . . could use blunt weapons to keep his people under his thumb” (2). There was, in other words, no need for subtlety or sophistication to maintain power. Today, by contrast, “the world’s dictators can surrender any hope of keeping their worst deeds secret . . . The costs of tyranny have never been this high” (3).

As the costs have gone up, the authoritarians have recalibrated their repression. Mass brutality has given way to the selective use of tax and safety investigations, an array of arbitrarily applied laws and regulations, and other quasi-legal impediments that can serve to hobble the work of oppositionists and independent civil society. The secret-police roundup and the train to the gulag have given way to death by a thousand administrative and regulatory cuts, but freedom still lies bleeding.

Dobson reckons that he traveled more than 90,000 miles, interviewing a range of activists, officials, and experts in diverse authoritarian and semiauthoritarian settings from Russia, Egypt, and China to Venezuela and Malaysia.

Dobson’s account of the machinery of modern authoritarianism begins in Russia, where he leads us through the regulatory gauntlet that the authorities have devised with the aim of crippling NGOs. In the first year after enactment of a harsh 2006 civil society law, Russia’s Justice Ministry undertook more than 13,000 NGO inspections, forcing many already financially strapped groups to respond to a host of new bureaucratic demands. Since then, the Kremlin has layered on other tax and regulatory measures to shackle organizations working on press freedom, human rights, and governmental transparency.

In July 2012, Russian authorities upped the ante, calling NGOs that receive funding from international donors “foreign agents” as part of a larger, retrograde effort to demonize civil society in the wake of protests over the fraudulent December 2011 parliamentary elections.

Demonizing civil society and other sources of criticism is a standard trick from the authoritarian playbook. Compliant, state-dominated media are key to the ploy. Dobson writes that in Egypt authorities were calling...


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pp. 170-173
Launched on MUSE
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