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Dissecting dictators

31 minutes


Graeme Gill

Professor Emeritus
University of Sydney

Matt Bevan


Episode Notes

Did you know there have been more dictatorships than democracies? Ever wondered if all dictators are cut from the same cloth? With the help of author Professor Graeme Gill and journalist Matt Bevan from the ABC “If you’re listening” podcasts, we explore how dictatorships work and why democracy is a more unusual system of government than most of us realise. 


Ginger Gorman (00:02):

How closely have you been following what are arguably two of the biggest geopolitical issues in the world at the moment? I’m talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Let’s start with Russia.

Matt Bevan (00:18):

I just couldn’t fathom what he thought he was going to achieve, what his plan was.

Ginger Gorman (00:24):

That’s ABC journalist Matt Bevan, who has been intensely studying Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin for years now. His podcast series, Russia, If You’re Listening, spent three seasons breaking down the ins and the outs of Putin’s oligarchy, how it got there and where it was headed.

Matt Bevan (00:44):

The idea that he would be able to occupy or install a puppet government in Ukraine and control the country from Moscow was deluded, and quite obviously that has been proven to be so, but people who have studied Putin and Russia far more than I have, were staggered by the decisions that he made and what he thought he was going to achieve. Because you could even see then that it didn’t necessarily … it wasn’t even likely to have a happy ending for him.

Ginger Gorman (01:16):

Then there’s China, which is also described as an oligarchy. Like Putin, its leader Xi Jinping is often described as a dictator. By 2021 Matt’s If You’re Listing Podcast series had shifted its focus from Russia to Trump’s America to China. So Matt had studied Xi Jinping just as closely as he studied Vladimir Putin, but he doesn’t think they’re cut from the same cloth.

Matt Bevan (01:45):

No, I don’t think they’re very similar. I think Vladimir Putin is a intelligence officer who became the head of kind of a criminal empire, of an oligarchy of people whose motivation is to steal things from the Russian state, a kleptocracy. Xi Jinping is not that. He’s a different type of person. I think Xi Jinping really believes in his own worldview and has a lot of people around him who share that and it’s not motivated by theft. Xi Jinping really does have a vision for what he wants China to be in the future and what his role in that is and that kind of thing. I’m not certainly not saying that I support what Xi Jinping sees as the future for China and his direction that he is taking China in, but I think he is a much more strategic thinker. He has a better understanding of China’s abilities and China’s position in the world than Vladimir Putin does. He’s just much better positioned in many different ways and I think fear plays a bit less of a role in Xi Jinping’s leadership than it does in Putin’s.

Ginger Gorman (03:05):

I’m not actually here to talk about Russia and China. There are plenty of podcasts covering those topics and I really do suggest that you start with Matt’s. What I actually want to talk about is their style of leadership. Living in a democracy, however dysfunctional things feel, it’s easy to look at an authoritarian regime and feel blessed, but did you know that historically there have been more non-democratic regimes than democratic ones?

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (03:36):

Democracy is actually an unusual system of government. I mean, if you were sitting down and you were trying to work out the best way of organizing how to run a country, would you really say that everybody should have an equal say in doing so? I mean, it’s not intuitive in terms of the best way of running things. So democracy is built on a whole set of assumptions, which we value and which are crucial to our way of life.

Ginger Gorman (04:02):

Graham Gill is professor emeritus at the University of Sydney and a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Graham’s book, Bridling Dictators, looks at the functions of dictatorships to find the similarities and the differences between authoritarian regimes and it raises some controversial questions like, are we just a bit too smug about democracies?

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (04:27):

Even now in democracies, you hear people say, “What we really need is a benevolent dictator who can make the trains run on time and get things to work.”

Ginger Gorman (04:36):

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman and on the pod today, we’ll find out how dictatorships operate and how they fall apart.

Ginger Gorman (04:58):

Let’s begin with the obvious; what exactly is a dictatorship?

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (05:03):

An authoritarian system is one in which the government is not responsible to the populace. There’s no mechanism for the populace to change the government as there is, in theory, in a democracy. A dictatorship is one of those regimes where you have a dominant individual at the head of the political system.

Ginger Gorman (05:26):

How do dictatorships come about and then come to flourish?

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (05:30):

Well, they can come about in a variety of ways. I mean, historically dictatorships have often come about through the armed seizure of power. When you get a military dictatorship, that’s almost inevitably brought about by a military coup where the military moves in and takes over power. We don’t see very many of those now. I mean, the most recent one and the one closest to us is probably Myanmar or Burma. But back in the 1960s, ’70s, this was the main form, most common form, of authoritarian regime. So the seizure of power is one way of doing it. That can be through a revolution as in China and Russia or it can be as in a coup. But another way and this is the most common way that we now have is through essentially the erosion of a democracy so that what you get is somebody elected to power through democratic means and what they do once they have gained power is to then essentially redraw the rules of politics in order to consolidate their positions of power.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (06:38):

This is seen as happening in Hungary where we just saw Orban reelected, but the election was clearly one that was manipulated in order to bring about that overwhelming result. It’s seen as having occurred in Poland, where again, you get the election of people and then they change the rules. Of course, historically, I guess the most consequential one was Hitler because this is what he did. When he was elected and came into office in 1933, he changed the rules to consolidate authoritarian rule. So this is seen as being the most common way for these sorts of regimes to come about. This is one of the reasons why these sorts of regimes are seen as being so dangerous, because they’re born from within.

Ginger Gorman (07:27):

Graham says this doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s often a gradual process.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (07:32):

So it’s like the frog in the boiling pot of water that initially it may not appear that the measures that the government are taking are leading down that path and they might be a response to, for example, flood or fire or natural disaster or something like that or pandemic. But what happens is that the government then builds upon those and builds upon those and builds upon those, and it’s this sort of slow erosion of democratic norms and of democracy, which is seen as being the most dangerous situation in the contemporary world.

Ginger Gorman (08:08):

To people living in a Western democracy like Australia, a dictatorship is the worst case scenario. We fear it because we’re taught to fear it and because the greatest atrocities of modern history were perpetrated under dictatorships.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (08:23):

Particularly at the moment, there is a growing sense of the threat that these sorts of systems pose for us, because there’s been a lot of literature over the last five or 10 years about the erosion of democracy. A lot of the indicators of international regimes have shown a growth in the number of autocratic or dictatorial regimes and a decline in the number of democracies. So there is this sense of us being under attack, of democracy being under attack.

Ginger Gorman (08:54):

But is that blanket fear warranted or is it possible that we don’t fully understand dictatorships?

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (08:58):

Because they are closed systems and it’s very difficult to work out what’s going on within them and behind the scenes, we opt for simplistic pictures of stereotypes of them based upon our view of historical regimes in the past.

Ginger Gorman (09:13):

I’ve been interested in this topic for … well, probably as long as I’ve been aware of it. If I think about how I was taught about autocratic leaders at university, people like Stalin, Mao and Hitler, these were all leaders that we were taught had a cult of personality around them.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (09:31):

They did have a cult of personality surrounding them, and they were said to be responsible for everything that happened. I mean, if you look at the cult of Stalin, for example, Stalin was responsible for every child that was conceived. He was responsible for the discovery of submarines. He was responsible for victory in the Second World War. He was responsible for everything according to the cult of personality, but of course in practice, it didn’t work that way.

Ginger Gorman (09:58):

Let’s put a pin into that. Before we delve too far into the surprising ways that authoritarian regimes tend to operate, let’s talk more about personality. Does this sort of Bond villain-esque idea that we have of dictatorships still apply and does it apply to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping? Here’s Matt Bevan again.

Matt Bevan (10:20):

To start, with everyone had this idea of Putin as this brilliant puppet master, a guy playing four dimensional chess, an incredibly brilliant strategist and that kind of thing. But as I went more and more into it, the more I realized that he was a guy playing darts with a blindfold on, and sometimes he hits the board and sometimes he really doesn’t. The impression that I got while studying him more and more is that the times that things go well for him are rare and kind of random and sometimes things do go well, but often things go very badly for him. That’s really been confirmed in the last few months, of course, as he leads this disastrous operation in Ukraine.

Matt Bevan (11:05):

As for Xi Jinping, I think the most surprising thing about him for me was his backstory, his history and the life that he led and the experience that he had, particularly through the Cultural Revolution in China. It really helps you to understand his worldview and a lot about China today is by learning about the horrific life that he led through the Cultural Revolution in China. It was truly a nightmarish experience for him as a child and as a teenager and it’s extraordinary that he rose from that to what he has become today.

Ginger Gorman (11:46):

What do you mean nightmarish?

Matt Bevan (11:48):

Well, Xi Jinping’s father was a high ranking member of the Communist Party during Moa’s regime, but fell afoul of Mao and was one of the earliest high ranking figures to be purged. Basically from that point onwards throughout the late ’60s into the early ’70s, Xi Jinping’s father was imprisoned and shunned by society and subjected to struggle sessions, and his family was too. His son, Xi Jinping, experienced a truly horrific series of circumstances at the hands of his fellow Chinese people. He was subjected to horrific public humiliation. His mother was so terrified that she would be imprisoned and unable to take care of her younger children so she shunned Xi Jinping when the crowds were coming after him and imprisoning him, and then in order to kind of escape it he took up an offer to go and work in the countryside and he lived in a cave for a number of years. So it was really a terrifying, horrible experience for him and not the one that you often imagine in the childhood of world leaders.

Ginger Gorman (13:16):

As well as having a distorted view of the men themselves, Graham Gill argues that we tend to stereotype their regimes. We see them as one man dictatorships with a Hitler or Putin style figure at the helm in control of everything.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (13:33):

The ones that are seen as not being like that are seen as sort of breaking down and being under a process of erosion. But in a sense, I think that’s wrong. Dictatorial regimes will always have one leader at the top of them, even when effectively the leadership is said to be collective as was the case in the communist regimes. All of those countries still had a single person who was the predominant leader, leading that ruling group.

Ginger Gorman (14:04):

But even dictators need a sort of cabinet.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (14:07):

The important thing to recognize is that in all dictatorships, even those personalist dictatorships, like in Belarus today or in Russia today, the dictator does not rule alone. He rules along with a group of colleagues or cronies, however you want to call them, who share power. That power is shared in a way that clearly impinges on our view of these regimes as being single person setups. In practice, power was more decentralized, but now all the time the power was decentralized, that doesn’t mean that the other individual oligarchs, as I call them, the people around the dictator, it doesn’t mean that they had carte blanche. They couldn’t do whatever they wanted. All of the decisions that they took were ultimately or could ultimately be checked and reversed by the dictator or by the dictator plus the other leaders.

Ginger Gorman (15:06):

A quick side note here, just in case you’re wondering, I did ask Graham if there has ever been a female dictator and the short answer is no. Putting the absence of free democratic elections to the side for one moment, maybe there are actually some similarities between the day to day running of an authoritarian state and a democratic one.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (15:25):

Collectivism exists in dictatorships just as it does in democratic systems. I mean, our system prides itself on being collective in terms of the leadership. I mean, it’s the cabinet, it’s not the prime minister, but the prime minister is clearly the leader. Well, the same sort of situation applied in dictatorial regimes and it applies for the simple reason that a single person cannot make all of the decisions. It’s rarely the case that the dictator sitting alone in a room, never discusses them with anybody else and just makes them off the top of his head. So what we have is a situation in which if you have a country that you’re trying to run, the policy agenda is so broad that one person cannot do it, and therefore power must be shared.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (16:12):

Now, the degree to which that power is shared can differ over time and it can differ across regimes and it can differ over policy areas. So for example, the dictator might decide that he’s the person who is going to take charge of economic matters and ideology and foreign policy and everything else is done by everybody else. Another dictator might decide that he’s not interested in economics, this was Mao Zedong for a lot of the time, that he’s not interested in economics, so he will leave that up to other members of the leadership and concentrate his attention on the things that he’s interested in.

Ginger Gorman (16:53):

Here’s Matt again.

Matt Bevan (16:55):

When it comes to Xi Jinping, it seems like he has a group of ideals and aims and targets that he sets, and then he sort of disseminates that to the full leadership at all levels, all the way down to the ground to implement. So, yeah, I think Xi Jinping has his idea of what China should look like and that changes from time to time and develops, but obviously he also bases those decisions on a lot of advice from people and a lot of information and a lot of data gathering. So he does have a good understanding of what China can do and he says, “Okay, based on what we can do, this is what I want to do.” Putin, though … Putin is possibly an indication of, yeah, one man can’t run a country and Putin’s trying to, and that’s one of the reasons that Russia is not running very well.

Matt Bevan (17:52):

It’s a country that is not functioning particularly well. That is going backwards in terms of development, in terms of its economy is becoming less and less complex. Their health outcomes are getting worse and all these things are just getting worse and worse in this country and possibly that’s an indication of what happens when one man tries to run it and can’t. Obviously they must have people who advise them and can convince them of things, but I think particularly in Russia’s case, the recent events in Ukraine are an indication that Putin doesn’t have enough people who will tell him no.

Ginger Gorman (18:27):

And there it is. While a dictatorial regime might have a team, ultimately the cult of personality triumphs just as, you could argue, it triumphs to a degree in democracies. So what happens when conflict arises between oligarchs?

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (18:44):

The degree of conflict, the level of conflict will be shaped by the dynamic within the ruling group and by the power of the leader. The stereotype is that everybody around the leader, around the dictator is scared of him. That they’ll be unwilling to say anything that the dictator disagrees with. We see this at the moment in the press again about Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. The argument is that because there are no rules, there are no constraints on the leader, then the other oligarchs are reluctant to contradict the leader. Now, clearly in very many cases, leaders don’t get contradicted. They don’t get contradicted in democracies as well.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (19:34):

But nevertheless, we know by looking at how the regimes that have functioned over a long period of time have actually operated, we can see that there are cases where the oligarchs disagree with the leader, where the oligarchs may challenge the leader, where they may even criticize the positions that the leader occupies. But in saying that, those criticisms and those challenges are almost inevitably very, very carefully worded. They are directed primarily at the position that the leader or that the dictator enunciates on a particular policy, and they’re usually framed in such a way that they do not call into question either the leader himself, or his position of dominance within the political system.

Ginger Gorman (20:26):

That being said, Graham’s research shows most dictators and dictatorial regimes do follow a set of rules.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (20:34):

I think that there are three different sorts of rules. One I’ve called operational rules and these are principles which underpin the actions of the oligarchy. These are the rules that determine the way in which the dictator interacts with his immediate colleagues. So these are basically rules of small group behavior, but they are rules that are crucial to the maintenance of a collective system of rule and that are crucial to the ongoing stability of the system. The second sort of rules are relational rules and these are the rules that determine the relation between the oligarchy on the one hand and a broader elite on the other. The oligarchy is a relatively small group. It’s the dictator and his immediate colleagues. The elite is the much broader group of leaders of the bureaucracies, the military, and so forth. The relational rules are about the relationship between them. Are the oligarchs responsible to the broader group, if not, what role does the broader group play and so on.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (21:48):

The third group of rules are what I’d call constitutive rules and these are the rules about how the oligarchy is actually constituted. The main part of this is of course about succession, about what happens when the dictator dies or when the dictator is removed, how do the oligarchs and presumably some sections of the elite structure the process of replacing that dictator by somebody else? That’s important because these sort of situations of succession are seen as the weakest point of these regimes, because it’s said that this is when they can often break down.

Ginger Gorman (22:29):

Graham says the clearest way to overthrow a dictatorship is by military defeat, like the one that brought down Nazi Germany, but that’s not the most common way dictatorships end.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (22:41):

The main reason for regime change and for changes of personnel historically is not revolution. It’s not marching in the streets. It’s not overthrow from below. It’s overthrow from within the oligarchy itself. You can talk about a variety of different sorts of reasons for that happening. One could be significant opposition over policy issues, but there could also be the leader could be seen to be becoming so overwhelming, so ego-driven that he is seen to constitute a danger to all of the others. So they might get together to try to remove him before he acts against them. So this disunity at the top is the key driver for regime change.

Ginger Gorman (23:24):

But that’s interesting because it’s not actually the regime failing. It’s just replacing the leader.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (23:29):

No, that’s true, but it can depend upon who replaces the leader. I mean, the good example here is of course Spain when Franco died. It was essentially the same regime, but what they did with the considerable assistance of the, of the king of all people was essentially to decide to move towards democracy. If we look at the literature around regime change in the ’70s and ’80s, what it argues is that an authoritarian regime may split at the top over policy issues. There’ll be a split between a sort of a hard line group who believe that, particularly if it’s an economic policy issue, who believe that what’s needed is to tighten control and to sort of drive on with a more liberalizing group who believe that we’ve got to open up, we’ve got to make some concessions to the populace, to major groups outside the regime.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (24:25):

It said that where that liberalizing group sees its interests as lying with the alliance with, for example, a mass based trade union movement or mass unrest or elites outside the system who want to bring about change, what you could get is ultimately a shift away from an authoritarian regime. It might still be many of the same people who were there under the old regime, but they will be sort of transitional, hopefully, to the shift towards a more fully democratic system.

Ginger Gorman (25:00):

I want to come back to how democracies become dictatorships. Graham used the frog in the pot analogy to describe the slow erosion of the rules that had been put in place to protect democracies, things like a breakdown in the business model that funded journalism or giving up our privacy in exchange for the convenience of shopping online, or a willingness to allow law enforcement greater powers with less accountability to protect citizens from terrorism. Just how safe is democracy and what else might put it at risk? Some would argue that the United States’ democratic protections were at least tested in the four years that president Donald Trump spent in the White House.

Matt Bevan (25:44):

It’s hard to say what Trump would be like if he was in a different country. I think Donald Trump’s ability to become autocratic or a dictator was limited by the strength of U.S. institutions, which showed during Trump’s leadership that the U.S. had much stronger institutions than expected, I suppose. The Congress was quite strong at pushing against him. The media was very strong at pushing against him. The intelligence services at a certain level were also pushing back against him. The judicial system were pushing back against him and Donald Trump didn’t have the skills or motivation to work hard enough to break down any of those institutions. That’s why he never really had a chance of becoming truly dictatorial. He didn’t have the right people around him. He didn’t have the smartest people in the room and the smart people who were around him, the more conventional establishment types, pushed back against him either by telling him no, or by just not following his orders, not doing what he told them to. People weren’t really afraid of him. What’s the worst that Donald Trump could do to you? He could send out a bad tweet.

Ginger Gorman (27:02):

While a power hungry leader of a democracy can’t overturn a constitution, there are some areas where democratically elected leaders can exert their influence, what you might even call their autocratic aspirations, in a way that can carry on long after their term in office is over. Here in Australia, we call it the captain’s pick, and Trump made a lot of them.

Professor Emeritus Graeme Gill (27:27):

People were actually talking about the way in which the sorts of things that he was doing, many of which were legal, were actually distorting the system. So that the appointment of so many judges, not just at the Supreme Court but at lower levels, for example, was seen as essentially embedding a conservative Republican vision into the judicial system at all of the lower levels of the American political system, as well as in the Supreme Court. And of course, the way in which he was seeking to exercise presidential powers in ways which had not been done before was seen as being erosive of this American democratic system.

Ginger Gorman (28:09):

So while Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies were never going to be realized in a democracy like the United States, maybe that’s why he was so drawn to dictators like Vladimir Putin.

Matt Bevan (28:21):

You saw in the meetings that he had with Putin that this was not a meeting of equal minds. Putin wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m delighted to be around this man and to exchange ideas with this incredible intellect on world affairs.” Putin was like, “Excellent. Someone I can attempt to manipulate, a gullible person who is able to be tricked into various things.” Putin certainly didn’t see it as a meeting of equals and I doubt that Xi Jinping did either. I mean, both of them manipulated Donald Trump to an incredible extent in getting him to do things that they wanted him to do or not do things his way. I mean, you remember the way that Donald Trump talked about China and Xi Jinping before he was elected and then after only a few meetings, they were best friends, he said he really understood all of Xi Jinping’s perspectives and it was America’s fault that China was doing all these things to it.

Matt Bevan (29:20):

I mean, we looked a lot into the effect of these meetings that Xi Jinping had with Trump and that Putin had with Trump and the way that he really sought the approval of these men. Even when it came to Kim Jong-un. I mean, he was trying to cozy up to Kim Jong-un. It’s extraordinary watching the things that Donald Trump did. Or, not just those guys, but also other dictators like Mohammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. It was extraordinary the way that Trump thought of himself as potentially a kindred spirit to these men, but all of them went, “Fantastic. What can I trick this guy into doing?”

Ginger Gorman (30:01):

So I suppose while the world’s dictators aren’t all cut from the same cloth, they have something in common after all. Thanks for listening to Seriously Social, I’m Ginger Gorman. If you’re enjoying the podcast, one of the best ways to support us is to subscribe. If you listen through Apple Podcasts, drop us a review in there for us as well. We love reading them and it helps other people find us. Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester and engineered by Mark Gageldonk, aka Baldey, and executive produced by Sue White and Bonnie Johnson. It’s an initiative of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. See you next time.

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