Monday, December 18, 2006

Jeane Kirkpatrick in Retrospect: The Man at the Top

Another extremely dubious aspect of Jeane Kirkpatrick's Dictatorships and Double Standards, is the exaggerated emphasis she puts on the importance of a single leader. She warns that when revolution threatens a "traditional" autocrat, all depends on the current leader remaining in power. Without him, the whole system will collapse:

Authority in traditional autocracies is transmitted through personal relations: from the ruler to his close associates (relatives, household members, personal friends) and from them to people to whom the associates are related by personal ties resembling their own relation to the ruler. The fabric of authority unravels quickly when the power and status of the man at the top are undermined or eliminated. The longer the autocrat has held power, and the more pervasive his personal influence, the more dependent a nation's institutions will be on him. Without him, the organized life of the society will collapse, like an arch from which the keystone has been removed. . . . The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policy-makers and journalists accustomed to public institutions based on universalistic norms rather than particularistic relations.


Superficially, this analysis may seem accurate. Revolutions do seem to proceed this way -- unrest stirs and increases. So long as the leader remains in power, he can keep a lid on it, but as soon as the leader steps down, the whole system falls apart.

But this analysis does not hold up so well in non-revolutionary situations. Both the Shah in Iran and Somoza in Nicaragua might be described as dynastic leaders, but in both cases the dynasty was a mere two generations old. But other dictators Kirkpatrick mentions, such as Chiang Kai-shek or Batista, fit this model less well. Batista, for instance, came to power by military coup, stepped down, and later seized power again. If Kirkpatrick is to be believed, the whole system should have collapsed three times over! In fact, at the time she wrote, Latin American governments were characterized, not by all-powerful dictators whose person presence kept everything together, but juntas and revolving door coups that constantly changed the man (or men) at the top with little or no impact on the greater social order.

Furthermore, if one gives the matter serious thought, no traditional society can possibly endure if "armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed." After all the one constant in all political systems is that the leader is always mortal. There are no exceptions. Any form of government which survives long enough to become "traditional" or even "semi-traditional" necessarily has to develop institutions strong enough to deal with this fact. Some form of succession, whether dynastic heredity, regular coups, or even periodic civil war, is a necessary feature of any even remotely "traditional" society.

The absence of a mechanism for replacing leaders is, in fact, a feature of non-traditional societies. Ironically, this was a serious problem in Communist countries. At the time Kirkpatrick wrote, important Communist leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao had died, and the social order had survived them, but with a paralyzing interregnum of several years. Subsequent events would show revolutions in Communist/totalitarian countries followed a similar pattern. In country after country in 1989, pressure built, rulers held it at bay for a time, but when the man at the top stepped down, the whole social order crumbled. In most countries this happened peacefully, by general consent. However, in Romania, Nicolae Ceaucescu resisted to the last and was overthrown by violent revolt and was executed. Once again, "armies collapse[d], bureaucracies abdicate[d], and social structures dissolve[d] once the autocrat [was] removed." Iraq has provided a more recent example. The Baathist regime in Iraq was properly described as totalitarian. And, in removing Saddam Hussein, we ended up bringing down the Iraqi state.

What is really going on here? Why do social orders, from military dictatorships in Latin American to Communist governments in Eastern Europe depose or bury any number of leaders and endure and then crumble when one leader steps down before a rising revolution? The obvious answer is not that the entire social order depends on one man being in charge, but that in a revolutionary situation the entire social order is undergoing an extreme crisis that the man at the top tries (vainly) to reverse. It is the magnitude of the crisis, not the importance of the autocrat, that causes "armies [to] collapse, bureaucracies [to] abdicate, and social structures [to] dissolve."

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