A concept vector illustration showing puppet master hands manipulating a mans mind

Are today’s autocrats different from the likes of Hitler, Mao and Stalin, who terrorised the world less than a century ago?

Guriev and Treisman think so and provide more than 300 pages of evidence, data and examples in support. Their new book Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century offers a highly readable account of contemporary authoritarianism that is more sophisticated and less violent and that chooses manipulation and spin over terror and fear.

Despite years of democratic promotion, more than seventy per cent of the world’s population lives under some form of authoritarian rule. Autocratic figures are an increasingly common sighting even among the leaders of (once) stable democracies, while authoritarian regimes like Lee Hsien Loong’s Singapore enjoy a level of socio-economic prosperity and international glamour that many democracies can only dream of. How did we get to this point? When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, surely, it seemed like the odds were stacked against authoritarianism.

In their book, Guriev and Treisman argue that to survive contemporary autocrats have had to change their game. They realised that violence was not the most productive mechanism for securing the future of their regime, and so they have developed a more sophisticated toolkit. Today’s autocrats like Hungary’s Orbán, Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan, or Singapore’s Lee do not intimidate or kill their citizens en masse. They control them by “manipulating the media, engineering popularity, faking democracy, limiting public violence, and opening up to the world” (p.13). These are the elements that Guriev and Treisman identify as core features of the modern-day authoritarian “spin.”

To help us think about authoritarian regimes in a more systematic way, Guriev and Treisman classify all autocrats since 1945 into either “spin” or “fear” dictators. Classic examples include Orbán, Putin, Erdoğan, and Lee as spin dictators, and Mao, Pinochet, Stalin and most other twentieth century autocrats as fear dictators. But fear dictators also contain several contemporaries: China’s Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, for example, continue to rule predominantly via fear despite occasionally borrowing some spin tactics. As with any binary classification, Guriev and Treisman make important trade-offs between nuance and simplicity. They acknowledge this on several occasions, pointing out that real-world regimes are often messier than their neat “spin” or “fear” classification (p. 13 and 112). This raises an important question about the value of Guriev and Treisman’s “spin-fear” classification: do we need yet another binary classification that is unable to capture the real world?

Two years before Guriev and Treisman’s book was published, Lee Morgenbesser proposed a new way for classifying authoritarian regimes as either “retrograde” or “sophisticated” based on seventy-three indicators that measured the quality of authoritarian rule. The main difference between “retrograde” and “sophisticated” regimes was in that retrograde regimes tended to rely more on traditional features of authoritarian politics such as closely controlled political systems, no or deliberately weak institutional configurations, political repression and fear. “Sophisticated” regimes, on the other hand, increasingly mimicked democratic institutions, practices and behaviours. Of course, this was done in form not in substance. While Guriev and Treisman make several references to Morgenbesser’s work, they do not engage with it on a substantial level. This is surprising given how similar their “spin-fear” classification is to the “retrograde-sophisticated” typology proposed by Morgenbesser two years earlier.

A particularly appealing feature of the Spin Dictators book is that Guriev and Treisman do not limit themselves to a handful of well-known examples when they consider – chapter by chapter – the core features of spin and how they differ from the old fear tactics. They take us on a tour around the world, and throughout recent history, drawing on evidence from an impressive range of countries including Hungary, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Peru, Russia, Singapore and Venezuela. To avoid the impression that the book is just a collection of interesting anecdotes, Guriev and Treisman end each chapter with a few pages of a quantitative data analysis that situates these examples within broader global trends and time sequences. While some of the data, such as the number of political prisoners or public attitudes towards democracy, might not be hundred per cent accurate due to either difficulties in their collection or the question of their reliability in authoritarian contexts, the authors manage to argue convincingly that the tide of contemporary authoritarianism is indeed moving towards spin.

But why do today’s autocrats feel the need to replace fear with spin? Guriev and Treisman argue that it is the combined effects of socio-economic modernisation and globalisation – or what they call the “modernization cocktail” – that have compelled autocrats to change (p.170). This is an updated version of the classic modernisation theory. Guriev and Treisman still presuppose that economic development drives political change, and that democracy is the natural end goal, but they make space for a less linear approach. They see spin as a sophisticated strategy that autocrats can use to delay a transition to democracy but remain optimistic in their outlook.

Guriev and Treisman’s optimism is a rather unexpected outcome of what is essentially a sobering read of contemporary authoritarianism and its increasingly sophisticated nature. And while such optimism is welcome, it feels like the jury is still out on whether democracy is indeed the natural end goal of human political organisation and whether economic development is the mechanism that can get us there. Guriev and Treisman supplement their belief in the power of the “modernization cocktail” with examples of regime collapses and transitions that were brought about by elements of modernization. One such an example is the collapse of the Soviet Union. But while all these examples make modernisation seem like force for good, Guriev and Treismen pay very little attention to its adverse effects. Issues such as political polarisation and economic inequality both within and between the states are simply glossed over in Guriev and Treisman’s account. It would be interesting to see how – if at all – these additional factors would affect their outlook.

Spin Dictators is an absorbing book that adds to the ever-increasing pool of scholarship on the changing nature of contemporary authoritarianism. Many of its themes and countries are also represented in the fascinating works of CEDAR and University of Birmingham colleagues, including Tereza Capelos (polarization and political trust), Mwita Chacha (coups d'état), Nic Cheeseman (elections and authoritarianism in Africa), Licia Cianetti (undemocratic change and democratic backsliding), Jonathan Fisher (authoritarianism and (in)security in Africa), and Manoel Gehrke (corruption, electoral fraud and authoritarianism in Latin America). The continuous need for rethinking regimes and what we know about them – a message that is articulated so well in the Guriev and Treisman book – is one of CEDAR’s core research themes. Spin Dictators provides us, as well as other political scientists, with stimulating food for thought to continuously question what we think we know about the world and its many different regimes.