the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2010 May 13


Illiberalism’s dependence on myth

Rationalism is intimately tied to liberalism, the classical ideology of human freedom. This is perhaps not true in every person’s estimation, but there are reasons to associate them naturally. The most important is that liberalism posits the inherent equality of all individuals; in its non-secular, non-gender-neutral Jeffersonian formulation, “all men are created equal”. This is in specific contrast to the illiberal notion that some individuals, by virtue of family or ethnicity, are more deserving of privilege or protection than others. Such illiberalism is behind traditional monarchy and various oligarchies, hereditary aristocracies and class privilege, empire (the rule of one people over another) and caste systems. These all fail the test of rationalism simply because there is no persuasive rational argument in their support. We seek height in our basketball players, fine motor control in our painters, and pitch sensitivity in our musicians, among other attributes. We might equally seek native intelligence as one attribute for certain social roles. In other words, individuals can be born with certain qualities that make them superior to others for a given social role. But these are isolatable qualities with direct application to the roles in question. To believe or assert that certain families or ethnicities are generally superior, and should be given general preference to others without respect to individual attributes, is irrational.

The republic as an institution, democracy as a practice, and a variety of social norms like human rights and civil liberties (ideals with much overlap) are products of rationalism and especially of the rejection of the illiberal notion of inherent inequality. Rule by a majority within strict limits after free and fair elections is not so much a direct result of rational thought as the indirect rejection, through rational thought, of everything else. Of course, we know that the democratic republic based on free and fair elections is not universal, is in fact far from it. If minority rule is irrational and if minorities are by definition lacking in the numbers to have their way, all other things being equal, then we must account for the frequency of minority government with reference to something else.

There are many devices by which a minority finds itself in a position of power over a majority, but the first is to convince as much of the population as possible that this is as it should be. By reference to the rational-liberal connection, we can identify this idea as a myth. If we as outside observers disbelieve in inherent inequality, we must expect the minority to justify its rule to the majority through some falsehood. This can be no more complicated than the simple statement of inherent inequality, such as the myth of nobility that obtains in monarchies. But many other lies can contribute to a régime’s power. For example, notable constituent myths of the Nazi régime included the Reichstag fire, and the “stab-in-the-back” tale of the 1918 surrender1. The Europeans offered versions of the mission civilisatrice during the colonial period, based on their supposed ability and intention to bring advanced civilization and civilized values to subject peoples. In any case, there must be some sort of foundational myth or myths underlying any minority government.


Alternative strategies

The question, though, is what is available to a minority government when this myth is insufficient. Abel Escribà-Folch and Joseph Wright note that a previous scholarly focus on repression has been supplanted by a more-justifiable balanced consideration of repression and co-optation. As a general picture, that is both useful and fairly accurate. But it is a particular interpretation of co-optation, and a particular interpretation of repression, that fully account for the non-democratic strategies of rule, and only as a fallback from the cheaper and more gratifying strategy of myth.

Specifically, the non-democratic régime needs a method of ensuring the obedience of those who are not persuaded by the proffered myths.2 Where Ronald Wintrobe confuses the question by speaking of “loyalty”, and then defining this in multiple ways, obedience is here taken to be a simple instrumentality. Obedience occurs whenever one person does as instructed by another, whether this is brought about through enthusiasm or duress.

To ensure obedience of the skeptical population, some will be granted benefits, and some will simply be repressed. But the strategies of myth and co-optation cut across the line between the ruling and subject classes. This leaves us with a five-way division of the population: ruling believers; ruling beneficiaries3; subject believers; subject beneficiaries; and repressed subjects, who are the non-believing non-beneficiaries. Identifying the membership of these groups in states would indicate the balance of strategies being pursued by various régimes.


Ruling and subject classes

The ruling class is understood here as that group of individuals who participate in making régime policy, while the subject class is the remainder of those living under the régime’s control. The ruling class lies in between the definitions (as opposed to the applications) of ‘leadership’ and ‘selectorate’ offered by Susan Shirk and by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph Siverson, and James Morrow. In both cases, the leadership is quite narrow, while the selectorate is defined solely by its role in choosing the leadership. To Shirk, the selectorate (in her case, for the People’s Republic of China) chooses the party leaders, and comprises “the members of the Central Committee, the revolutionary elders, and top military leaders” [p10]. To Bueno de Mesquita et al., the selectorate is a “group that has a formal role in expressing a preference over the selection of the leadership that rules them, though their preference may or may not directly influence the outcome” [p38], while the leadership itself is “one or more central individuals with the authority to raise revenue and allocate resources” [p38]. Shirk’s original term seems to exist to capture an institution that lies beyond Western political experience but has genuine authority, while we learn later, when Bueno de Mesquita et al. discuss rigged electoral systems, that the “formal role” of their selectorate in “expressing a preference” can be empty political theater and still qualify. I intend something entirely empirical; the ruling class has a real, not “formal”, role in determining policy. The equivalent in the United States would be the president, the cabinet, many subcabinet officials, the entire Congress, the Supreme Court, and selected high-ranking bureaucrats, legislative staff, and military personnel4, whereas Bueno de Mesquita et al. limit their leadership to the president, the Speaker of the House, and the majority leader of the Senate. To contrast with Shirk, the ruling class of the People’s Republic would certainly contain much if not all of her selectorate as well as her “enfranchised participants”, who make the economic policy with which she concerns herself, and who lie in “government”5 ministries and provinces. The ruling class in any system excludes lower-level functionaries. Put another way, those who are “just following orders”, even among those who are armed, are not part of the ruling class.


Ruling beneficiaries

Those who rule and do not believe in the régime myth are the archetypal régime insiders. To count as non-believers, it is not necessary for these individuals not to believe that it is in some way right for them to rule the state. All individuals do what they believe to be right6, some simply believe that might makes right, and it would be the rare politician in any system who lacked a sense of its own superiority. What the non-believer must specifically reject is the régime’s public myth. They must know that the régime is selling itself to the public with something they themselves recognize to be false. As members of the ruling class, they benefit from the régime, and for this reason they are willing to go along with, and usually to promote actively, the public myth.

The most obvious candidates for ruling beneficiaries come from those régimes whose ideologies shift over time. The Nazis were officially the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, became the blood enemies in public of all communism and Bolshevism, and then struck a temporary deal with Soviet Russia on the partition of Eastern Europe. The Stalinist régime, in turn, was nominally communist and anti-imperialist, but fought the Second World War under the banner of Russian patriotism, and promoted Russification of the nationalities it had worked so hard to reconquer after the civil war; it may well not have breached the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact if the Nazis had not done so. Lenin himself instituted a New Economic Policy that rolled back much of his régime’s purpose. A good recent example of ideological shift would be the Ba‘th régime in Iraq, which began with a secular Arab unity and socialist ideology, never moved seriously towards Arab unification7, and eventually embraced elements of Islamic identity. But perhaps no régime is as transparent about this as the modern Chinese Communist Party, which has, since 1978, jettisoned most of the Marxist-Leninist ideology that justified its rule in the first place. The CCP no longer has any purpose other than rule for rule’s sake; its newfound nationalist rhetoric vis-à-vis Taiwan would make it indistinguishable from the Kuomintang that it fought to oust, even ignoring that Taiwan’s independence is a result of that same fight.

The various kleptocrats of the world, such as Suharto or the long-ruling African autocrats Omar Bongo, Gnassingbé Éyadéma, Obiang Nguema, and Paul Biya, should be included in this category. A different example would be that of Augusto Pinochet, whose rule was supposed to be strictly about protecting Chile from a destructive ideology, while he himself was lionized as being uncorrupt, a claim which he, at least, would be aware was false. The massive media manipulation by, and secret-police backgrounds and corruption of, the Russian siloviki points to a clear awareness on their part that they are engaged in an enterprise of domination, nothing more.


Ruling believers

While it may be more common to believe that all members of the ruling class are in on the lie, in reality there are probably a large fraction who are themselves convinced. This refers, it should be noted again, only to things that are false. Central among possible myths, as mentioned, is the inherent superiority of the ruling class. It is easy enough to suppose that many ruling monarchs have been brought up to believe in the system in the way their subjects have, or at least in a comparable way. Many of their retainers, still part of the ruling class, would feel the same way. Ruling traditional monarchies of the present day include the Gulf states, Morocco, Jordan, Brunei, Swaziland, Tonga, recently Nepal, and arguably still Bhutan. Swaziland’s Mswati in particular demonstrates in his personal behavior a profound sense of entitlement and a disregard for public opinion. Nepal’s Gyanendra ended a constitutional monarchy to rule directly. By contrast, the rise to power of Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa by forcing out his father suggests he is not among the convinced, and the removal after a brief reign of the previous emir of Kuwait suggests that the present emir, Sabah, and his retainers are not among them either. But there may be a belief in a family right; and the same may obtain in Saudi Arabia, where the present king came to power de facto while his predecessor Fahd was still officially the king, precisely the pattern Fahd had followed with his own predecessor. The belief in a hereditary right may be particularly strong in Jordan, whose ruling family still emphasizes its descent from Muhammad.

Though Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej is not a ruling monarch, it seems likely that many of the ruling class during periods of non-democratic rule in his “reign” have been believers, given the ceaseless pro-Bhumibol propaganda in the state, and the wide use of lèse-majesté to suppress any opposing opinions.


Subject beneficiaries

This class most likely includes many, if not quite all, of the lower-level functionaries in secular régimes; a good example would be the ordinary soldiers in a military régime, who receive money, power, and prestige (all in modest amounts) for their participation in régime control, but have no influence on policy. Bureaucrats in military or other régimes would often be the same. Typically, these individuals have limited power and receive limited benefits, but have no apparent ideological interest in the régime. For this reason, bureaucrats retained from previous democratic régimes can be presumed to be non-believers.


Subject believers

The subject believers are the most desirable category for a régime. As believers, they are obedient; as non-beneficiaries, they come with little expense to the rulers. There is so little downside to a ruling myth that every régime is bound to have at least one. The only cost is propaganda; the only risk is exposure, but in many cases, the ruling myth is not something that mere facts can disprove. Given that the propaganda in favor of the régime’s chosen myth is a sunk cost, every individual who accepts it lowers the overall cost of a what is a cheap strategy to begin with. Based on population descriptions for individual cases (the widespread reverence for Bhumibol, if true, and the curious lingering love for Stalin), the strategy seems to be quite effective. It will never succeed in securing the obedience of the entire populace, but it can give the régime a dramatic advantage. And in the vernacular wisdom, it never hurts to try.


Repressed subjects

Those who do not believe in the régime myth and do not participate in régime benefits must be forced to obey. We should be clear about this: they are not merely repressed in a general way. All repression rests ultimately on violence, as the threat of violence is necessary to give effect to all lesser sanctions. Violence is not an inexpensive strategy. The personnel and arms needed to effect the strategy require a genuine commitment of resources.

The expenditure on means of internal violence is a good indicator of the reliance of the régime on the strategy of force. Though in a police state such as Stalinist Russia or Ba‘thist Iraq it is impossible to get an accurate reading on public opinion, the heavy dependence on repression reveals that the government, at least, did not believe the myth strategy worked, and felt either that more residents could not be co-opted, or that it would be relatively expensive to do so. In general the application of force, as shown in extreme cases like these and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, works against the myth strategy, which means that the early resort to violence may compel the régime to rely on it perpetually and increasingly, with no possibility of the successful use of myth.


Potential applications of the scheme

There is often enough evidence for active régimes to determine which of their personalities are ruling believers and which ruling beneficiaries. This is not a scientific or quantitative process, but as a framework for understanding, it can assist in our efforts to predict régime behavior. The more evidence there is that the key ruling figures disregard the régime myths, the more we can assume that their rule is strictly about power and benefits, and expect them to act accordingly. As an example, while personal myths of Saddam may have included things he himself believed in, such as the idea that he was a grand historical figure destined to lead the (Sunni) Arab nation to military victory against non-Arabs and non-Sunnis, these would not apply in the same way to his immediate retainers. In particular, his son Uday could have been classified early on as a non-believer, who would have turned against his father under the right threat or if offered the right bribe.

The size of each of the five groups in a state demonstrates the balance of the ruling strategies put into practice by the régime — not necessarily those strategies that the régime favors, but that it has, through a combination of choice and necessity, effected. Though the method is questionable in my judgement, it is possible that a ratio analysis, à la Bueno de Mesquita et al., could be performed on individual régimes, based on the size of the various classes within the régime. The Bueno de Mesquita et al. model itself depended on the judgement of individuals to determine exactly what counted as winning coalition and selectorate in a given state.

If all key figures in a régime can be assigned to a single category, believer or beneficiary, it may be possible to run comparative tests to determine which régime types endure longer, promote better economic growth, or the other usual correlations.

The three strategies of myth, co-optation, and repression are the only strategies available to non-democracies to secure the obedience of their subjects, which distinguishes them further from democracies, who can pursue other strategies owing largely to democracy’s compatibility with rationalism. In other words, democracy can tell the truth and still expect rational subjects to obey. This is useful only as a characteristic, though; democracies should obviously be identified by the nature of their elections. And ultimately, this entire analysis would be most useful when embedded in a broader understanding of non-democratic régimes, and democratic governments, in the context of political society.


1. According to Ron Rosenbaum, this story was considered so central a part of the Nazi mythology by Martin Gruber and the journalists of the Munich Post, the Nazi Party’s earliest critics, that Gruber made it the subject of his last work before the Post was closed and its staff imprisoned.

2. It is an irresistible temptation to compare this process to professional wrestling. The marks of the genre are those spectators who are persuaded of the reality of the spectacle; this term refers originally to the intended victim of a confidence scheme, someone who has been “marked” as a sucker. The smarts of professional wrestling are those are well aware that the spectacle is staged.

3. Everyone in the ruling class benefits by its membership, and some in the subject class benefit peripherally. For this discussion ‘beneficiary’ is being used for technical purposes, to describe those whose obedience to a particular régime is the result of not of belief in the régime’s myth, but because of the provision of some personal benefit.

4. I will mention briefly here that power always falls on a continuum, and while the ideal division between the ruling and subject classes would fall at a natural break in the graph of individuals’ relative power, in practice the division will always be located by an observer’s judgement, hopefully as informed as possible.

5. Sinologists as well as journalists and historians use the term ‘government’ to refer to the specific institution in the PRC that most resembles Western governments under cursory examination. The real government in the PRC includes this institution, but includes as well, and is dominated, by the Chinese Communist Party.

6. While this may seem untrue to some, to me actions are a better indication of what individuals actually believe than rhetoric, even internal rhetoric. To those individuals who believe that they themselves have done things that they believed were wrong at the time, I would reply that at the time it was still possible for them to rationalize the choice to themselves, at least on balance.

7. Indeed, according to Said Aburish, it was the attempt by Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr to bolster his own power through a proposed merger with Ba‘thist Syria that prompted Saddam finally to remove al-Bakr as figurehead president.


Said K. Aburish. ‘How Saddam Hussein came to power’, p41-72 in Turi Munthe, ed.
Mark Bowden. ‘Tales of the tyrant: the private life and inner world of Saddam Hussein’, p35- in the Atlantic Monthly, v289 n5 (2002 May).
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson, and James D. Morrow. ‘The logic of political survival’. MIT, 2003.
Abel Escribà-Folch and Joseph G. Wright. ‘Dealing with tyranny: international sanctions and autocrats’ duration’. Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internationals, working paper 2008/16.
Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett. ‘Iraq since 1958: from revolution to dictatorship’.
Kanan Makiya (Samir al-Khalil). ‘Republic of fear: the politics of modern Iraq’. University of California, 1989.
Turi Munthe, ed. ‘The Saddam Hussein reader’. Thunder’s Mouth, 2002.
Ron Rosenbaum. ‘Explaining Hitler: the search for the origins of his evil’. Random House, 1998.
Susan L. Shirk. ‘The political logic of economic reform in China’. University of California, 1993.
Ronald Wintrobe. ‘The political economy of dictatorship’. Cambridge University, 1998.



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