Authoritarianism. In one of the Week 4 readings, Rebecca Tapscott asks: “How do modern authoritarian rulers project power?” (2021: 17). Address this question using the examples covered in the Week 4 readings. What other factors are helping or hurting the power of authoritarian regimes?
Arbitrary Governance and Modern Authoritarianism
How do modern authoritarian rulers project power?
Scholars have noted that today’s authoritarian rulers have added new tactics to their playbooks.
In addition to coercion, patronage, and delegation, these rulers often adopt democratic institutions and use rule of law-compliant reforms to maintain control (c.f. Lührmannand Lindberg 2019; Schedler 2006; Scheppele 2018). For example, rulers might make legal reforms to censor the media, as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did in Turkey; to selectively allocate parliamentary seats in order to marginalize political opposition, as Rafael Correa did in Ecuador; and to modify the electoral calendar in order to hamper political rivals, as Abdoulaye Wade did in Senegal (Bermeo2016).
In this book, I use the term ‘modern authoritarian ‘to refer to regimes that use rule of law-compliant reforms to undermine checks on executive power.¹I describe in more detail how this term relates to existing scholarship later in this chapter. Modern authoritarian regimes are characterized by a tension between authoritarian rule and democratic institutions. Though authoritarian rulers weaken democratic institutions, the continued presence of these institutions offer repeated opportunities for challenges from the political opposition. As a result,these regimes have been described as structurally unstable (Levitsky and Way2002).Over the past three decades, political science scholarship on modern authori-tarian regimes has mushroomed (Ezrow 2018).
However, it has rarely engaged with scholarship on post-colonial neo patrimonial states which grapple with many of the same phenomena. I engage these literatures with original field research to help explain how such seemingly unstable regimes are able to control their populace. Until now, scholars have generally attributed the success of modern authoritarian regimes to a careful balancing act between coercion and patronageon one hand and democratic institutions on the other (Geddes et al. 2018). In such systems, democratic institutions can allow rulers to assess and respond to public opinion (Gandhi 2008), to gain domestic or international legitimacy (Levitsky and¹ Uganda’s ruling regime has made every effort to elide government, state, and party, and thus when referring to the Ugandan case, I use the terms‘ state ’and ruling to describe an apparatus that encompasses the government, the ruling party, and the state’s administrative institutions’ CORRECTED AUTOPAGE PROOFS–FINAL, 17/5/2021, SPiArbitrary States: Social Control and Modern Authoritarianism in Museveni’s Uganda. Rebecca Tapscott, Oxford University Press (2021). © Rebecca Tapscott. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198856474.003.0002
Way 2002), or to diffuse political opposition (Brownlee 2009). Scholarship on post-colonial and neo patrimonial states draws attention to the importance of indirect rule, where control relies on accommodating elites who bring with them the support of their constituents (Bayart 1993; Mamdani 1996; Van deWalle 2007).I offer a third explanation. Instead of delegating authority, modern authoritar-ian regimes can stabilize control and project powerdirectlyinto the lives ofordinary citizens through unpredictable assertions of authority that underminethe autonomy of those who would otherwise challenge it. As described inChapter 1, this type of governance, which I callinstitutionalized arbitrariness,rests on an institutional arrangement that fosters competing low-level security andgovernance actors who, together, create a governing environment characterizedby unpredictability for ordinary citizens and local authorities. This unpredictabil-ity pervades the public space, fragmenting civic organization and weakeningalternatives to state authority.Unpredictability is a motif of Museveni’s Uganda. In my research, Ugandansbroadly described the state as unpredictable and volatile, with effects they char-acterized as disorienting and depoliticizing. A common refrain among respond-ents across the country was that when it comes to the government,‘things have tobe confusing’. Some argued that this was because the government sought to createa confused population that could not identify shared goals to act on politically.Other scholars of Uganda have noted similar phenomena, describing this state asusing‘arbitrariness and unpredictability’to restrict media workers (Tripp 2004,12); as creating‘seemingly deliberate confusion’around civil militias (Janmyr2014, 212); as‘produc[ing]“security”and“insecurity”simultaneously in a con-stant aporetic relationship’, and as fostering‘ambiguity or double-faced meaningof things’(Verma 2012, 57).² The Ugandan state has even been compared to‘thedry season rains—something occasional and potentially destructive’(B. Jones2009, 3). Others have noted the president’s‘tendency to keep things around himas disorganized as possible to avoid the formation of any ordered arrangementthat might possibly be turned against his own, personal raw power’(Carbone2008, 29). Despite the emphasis these scholars place on fragmentation, arbitraryand unpredictable state power, and resultant uncertainty, they stop short ofexamining these as components of a broader system of governance.² Cecilie Lanken Verma approaches uncertainty in northern Uganda through the emic notion oflakite,or‘somehow’. She writes,‘Lakitewas a notion I only gradually came to notice, due to its modesttranslation into the adverb“somehow”in English, but, as it turned out, when used in Acholi in the formof an adjective, it carried a much profounder meaning as the expression of uncertainty, even to theextent of the extreme.Lakiteindicated everything considered“tricky”, often dangerous, and whichwould cease understanding. It was related to secrecy in the way that it was seen to contain somethinghidden, something not to be grasped, an ambiguity or double-faced meaning of things, expressed as theway in which the government or certain people would“show different faces all the time”or hide theirtrue intentions“behind the face”’(2012, 10–11).OUP CORRECTED AUTOPAGE PROOFS–FINAL, 17/5/2021, SPi18
Analogous phenomena can be seen in authoritarian settings globally. TheChinese government, for example, has blocked online political organization notthrough censorship but byflooding social media platforms with random andseemingly innocuous messaging to create so much noise that no single messagecan gain traction (King et al. 2017). In Lebanon, Nora Stel has studied how thestate manages refugee populations by keeping their status informal and limiting orignoring authoritative knowledge about them—their numbers, encampment situ-ation, and their representative structures—such that they cannot claim politicalrights (Stel 2020). And in American prisons, officials have been shown to inten-tionally disorient inmates to make them more manageable, for example byenforcing changing and often contradictory rules to make prisoners feel likethey are in the twilight zone (Doolittle 2017).Each of these strategies of unpredictable governance are contextually specific,relying on particular institutional and elite power arrangements. However, theyshare the principle of governing not by crushing opposition outright, but insteadby destabilizing, fragmenting, and diluting it. This makes civic spaces fragile andsplinters collective action such that, to ordinary citizens, the ruling regime appearsto be the most coherent and strongest governing entity. Political unpredictabilitythus allows such regimes to project power directly to the grass roots, causing localauthorities and ordinary citizens to self-police.Institutionalized arbitrariness is distinct from other forms of authoritarianismin two key ways. First, it uses uncertainty to produce a plausible-enough percep-tion that the regime has a stable hold on power, especially compared to otheractors. Institutionalized arbitrariness makes other actors look weak or irrelevant.As a result, citizens see the ruling regime as the only viable option and viewcollective action as impractical or even futile. The regime can thereby outsourcemany governance and security responsibilities while limiting principal–agentproblems associated with indirect rule. Second, like modern modes of authoritar-ianism that hollow out state institutions, or strategies like‘coup proofing’that seekto prevent coups by fragmenting potential loci of power, arbitrary governanceexplains how regimes sustain an incongruence between state institutions and theorganization of violence. However, arbitrary states are distinct because they do notseek,a priori, to weaken state institutions. Instead, they can tolerate functional—and even relatively strong—state institutions by multiplying them and creatingconfusion among them.This chapter develops the theoretical foundations of institutionalized arbitrari-ness as an explanation for how modern authoritarian regimes project power. Itfirst offers a brief summary of the expectations set out in research on stateformation and consolidation in order to identify what remains to be explainedin modern authoritarian regimes. It then turns to scholarship on modern auth-oritarianism and neopatrimonialism. Thesefields of study, rarely put in conver-sation with one another, offer complementary views about how and why stateOUP CORRECTED AUTOPAGE PROOFS–FINAL, 17/5/2021, SPi19
institutions are decoupled from enforcement power. Together, they provide newinsight into the projection of arbitrary power in authoritarian states. The chapterthen details how institutionalized arbitrariness contributes to these literatures. Itelaborates a four-part framework to identify and analyse the functioning ofarbitrary governance and gives examples of the four factors in a variety ofcontexts, in Africa and beyond. The chapter concludes with an examination andrebuttal of three alternative explanations for observed unpredictability in therelationship between citizens and the state: corruption (arbitrary governance isreally just the product of the cumulative acts of self-interested individuals);illegibility (arbitrary governance is really just a hidden order); and happenstance(arbitrary governance is not intentional, and therefore not a mode of governance).1. Arbitrary Power and State FormationToday’s dictators and authoritarians are far more sophisticated, savvy,and nimble than they once were. . . Modern authoritarians have suc-cessfully honed new techniques, methods, and formulas for preserv-ing power, refashioning dictatorship for the modern age.(Dobson 2012, 4–5)Today’s authoritarian rulers have adapted to survive democracy’s advance. Theresultant modern authoritarian regimes raise questions about what we thought weknew about state formation. These regimes do not follow a teleological process inwhich the struggle for control and resource extraction produces state institutionsthat regulate and restrain arbitrary power in pursuit of efficiency, as detailed byscholars like Charles Tilly and later adopted by new institutionalists, like DouglassNorth, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast. Instead, they simultaneously exhibit theinstitutional forms of modern democraciesandan executive that wields arbitrarypower with seemingly fewde factoconstraints. As noted by Nic Cheeseman andJonathan Fisher: Legally, authoritarian states usually subscribe to the separation of powers: the preeminence of the rule of law, and respect for freedom of expression and organization. In practice, though, they are characterized by over-mighty presidents who maintain excessive control over all branches of government, enforce the arbitrary suspension or uneven application of laws, and implement unpredictable crackdowns on perceived opponents—sometimes within the confines ofthe law, sometimes outside it. (Cheeseman and Fisher 2019, xxv)This section elaborates how modern forms of authoritarianism contradict expect-actions described in widely accepted theories of state formation and consolidation.
It then addresses two stylized strands of research, each of which could be under-stood as critiquing the prevailing views on state formation: first, recent political science scholarship on modern authoritarian regimes, and second, a long-standing literature on the post-colonial neo patrimonial state, derived mainly from studies of African states.³1.1 State Building and Consolidation: The Bias toward Identifying Political Order State-building theories are broadly oriented around identifying political order. From Max Weber’s treatises on the rational bureaucratic state to the seminal work by Charles Tilly and James Scott, much political science scholarship on the modern state focuses on how rulers strive to organize and institutionalize violence to maximize efficient resource extraction. These theories focus on formal govern-ing institutions as technologies through which arbitrary power is contained, managed, and deployed in the modern state. Such theories therefore understand the rational bureaucratic state, in which governing institutions have a monopoly or near monopoly on the use of force, as a by-product of a synergistic relationship between ruler and subjects. Analytically, this literature assumes the existence of institutional teleology: from fragile to stable, personal to impersonal, and unpredictable to predictable (Tilly 1992). To the extent that it has a normative strain, this research sees institutionalization as a good that should be pursued in policy interventions (North et al. 2009). Such state formation theories have also informed studies of politically fragile and non-democratic states, which are presumed to have encountered obstacles to this ordering process despite the apparent efforts of political elites. Scholarship in this area examines barriers to state formation posed by the international order and juridical sovereignty (Jackson and Rosberg 1982); by international legal sovereignty and a derivative domestic authority (Englebert2009); by post-colonial border drawing (Herbst 2014); by the enduring political and economic legacies of colonialism (Acemoglu et al. 2001; Acemoglu and Robinson 2012; Mamdani 1996; Nunn 2008; Young 1998); and by the historical and contemporary international economic order (Amsden 2003; Wade 2004),among other factors. Studies of informal or non-state governing entities similarly emphasize political ordering processes—like those described in key theories of state formation—but they focus on processes that take place outside the state governing apparatus.³ Much of the scholarship on neopatrimonialism focuses on African states; however, scholars havealso applied neopatrimonialism beyond Africa to countries worldwide (for example, see Bach andGazibo 2013).
These studies conceive of such non-state authorities and institutions in much the same way as do those that focus on state institutions as formal ‘rules of the game ‘that regulate behavior. Both presume that iterative processes of domination and submission by rational actors will eventually produce ade fact contract between authorities and their constituents (Bratton 2007; North 1990; Raeymaekers et al.2008). A recent literature on rebel governance has extended these same lessons—applying the logic of political order making to the supposed disorder of rebel group operations—and in this way likening their approaches to those of statesmen(Arjona 2016; Arjona et al. 2015; Mampilly 2011; Mukhopadhyay 2014; Péclardand Mechoulan 2015).⁴These and other studies fundamentally focus on political ordering and barriers to it, understanding unpredictability, contingency, and political disorder as remainders or noise that can be minimized by identifying the correct explanatory model. Instead, this book focuses on unpredictability and disorder as distinct approaches to governance that require further explanation.1.2 Modern Authoritarianism: Contending with State Institutions Scholars have critiqued both the analytic and normative stances found in literature on state formation and consolidation. In addition to elaborating cases inwhich highly arbitrary, violent, or repressive systems have been institutionalized (Arjona et al. 2015), research has identified cases in which institutions have been decoupled from the deployment of arbitrary power—whether to mask such power or to facilitate it. As Larry Diamond notes, modern dictators have innovated in order to operate in the ambiguous space between authoritarianism and democracy by manipulating the division of powers, extolling democracy and human rights, and fostering civil liberties, even while restricting political organization and centralizing power such that their states ‘have the form of electoral democracy but fail to meet the substantive test, or do so only ambiguously’(Diamond2015, 166).Today’s authoritarian rulers find power in cultivating an unsettled and dynamic relationship among institutional ‘types’ which allows for sometimes grafting rules from one institutional repertoire to another and, at other times, for preserving purely bureaucratic or patrimonial institutional environments. For example, Earlier versions of such an argument examined how criminal organizations, such as the mafia gangs, use similar strategies of ordering and organizing the populace under their control to maximize efficient and sustainable resource extraction (Bardhan 1997; Blok 1975; Venkatesh 2008).⁵In his study of the econometric modelling of conflict, Christopher Cramer notes that ‘uncertainty’ functions as a kind of‘ adhesive ’holding these models together. ‘Imprecision and inconsistency in the application of this variable. . . suggests that it is something of a residual used to patch up the holes in model and stop it from collapsing’(Cramer 2002, 1848).
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