Sunday, December 21, 2014

Endnotes: Solstice Edition

Another year is coming to an end, another Ragnarok deferred; a time to take stock and give thanks. It’s been a very busy year. I spent six months in Spain undertaking new research, and am now in the middle of writing a book. (More details to follow eventually). One paper that emerged from ideas discussed in this blog is now forthcoming in Political Studies in 2015: “The Irrelevance of Legitimacy;” hopefully more will follow soon. All this has meant this blog has been a bit abandoned - only 5 posts, though some of them were very popular and widely shared. Thanks to everyone who read, commented and shared these footnotes!

In the season’s spirit of sharing, here are a few things I’ve enjoyed this year:
The season is not complete without linking again to Phil Schrodt’s post from last year on the insidious war on Yule:
Where has our appreciation of the true Yule gone?: the blessings of the wisdom of Odin, the protection given us by Thor, the abundance bestowed by Freya? Recognition that with the passing of another year, the guardians of Asgard have again held off the Frost Giants [7], Ragnarok is again deferred, and in a few months the light and warmth of summer will return?
Here in the Southern hemisphere it’s the summer, not the winter solstice, but happy solstice/christmas/festivus/yule/Newtonmass/Toxcatl or any other ritual you may celebrate to all!

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Vagueness and Political Regimes

I've been recently re-reading Juan Linz's Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, a book I didn't appreciate enough when I first studied it many years ago. Linz had an encyclopedic knowledge of political life in modern societies, and the book is a bit like a modern version of Aristotle's Politics -- a little dry, but attentive to the concrete details of institutions in a huge variety of countries in order to develop theoretically useful "ideal types" (even though Linz, unlike his more illustrious ancient predecessor, keeps the normative discussion to a minimum). In particular, Linz had a fine Weberian sense for the complexities of the link between ideas and political power; and one specific question he raises struck me as interestingly related to some of the things I was saying earlier this year about Franco. The question concerns why some non-democratic political regimes have highly articulated ideologies (e.g., Marxism-Leninism), whereas others have at best what Linz calls "mentalities" -- "ways of thinking and feeling, more emotional than rational" (p. 162), vague "intellectual attitudes" and ill-defined symbolic commitments to "the nation" or "order and progress." What accounts for these differences? And do they have any bearing on how political power is organized?

Linz argues that there is a functional affinity between the degree of "pluralism" of a regime and the specificity of its ideological commitments. The more a regime depends on a variety of groups, none of which can defeat the others, the less specific its ideology. By the same token, we should only see very specific ideological commitments among regimes that emerge from the victory of a single, highly mobilized party over disparate opponents, which is precisely how totalitarian regimes arise. Ideological vagueness is the glue that allows the disparate elements of an authoritarian coalition to hold together, as in Franco's Spain[1]:

In our view the complex coalition of forces, interests, political traditions, and institutions -- part of the limited pluralism [of an authoritarian, rather than a totalitarian regime] -- requires the rulers to use as symbolic referent the minimum common denominator of the coalition. In this way the rulers achieve the neutralization of a maximum number of potential opponents in the process of taking power (in the absence of the highly mobilized mass of supporters). The vagueness of the mentality blunts the lines of cleavage in the coalition, allowing the rulers to retain the loyalty of disparate elements. The lack of an assertion of specific, articulated, and specific commitments facilitates adaptation to changing conditions in the nonsupportive environment, particularly in the case of authoritarian regimes in the Western democratic sphere of influence. The reference to generic values like patriotism and nationalism, economic development, social justice, and order and the discreet and pragmatic incorporation of ideological elements derived from the dominant political centers of the time allow rulers who have gained power without mobilized mass support to neutralize opponents, co-opt a variety of supporters, and decide policies pragmatically. Mentalities, semi- or pseudoideologies reduce the utopian strain in politics and with it conflict that otherwise would require either institutionalization or more repression than the rulers could afford. The limited utopianism obviously is congruent with conservative tendencies. (p. 164)

In Linz's view, the vagueness of ideological commitments in authoritarian (as opposed to totalitarian) regimes limits the appeal of these regimes for those groups of people who make ideas their business, or who for some other sociological reason have a need to find "meaning" in politics:

Such regimes pay a price for their lack of ideology in our sense of the term. It limits their capacity to mobilize people to create the psychological and emotional identification of the masses with the regime. The absence of an articulate ideology, of a sense of ultimate meaning, of long-run purposes, of an a priori model of an ideal society reduces the attractiveness of such regimes to those for whom ideas, meaning, and values are central. The alienation of intellectuals, students, youth, and deeply religious persons from such regimes, even when successful and relatively liberal compared with totalitarian systems, can be explained in part by the absence or weakness of ideology. One of the advantages of authoritarian regimes with an important fascist component was that this derivative ideology appealed to some of those groups. But it also was one of the sources of tension when the disregard of the elite of the regime for those ideological elements became apparent. (pp. 164-165)

Nevertheless, we might think that the very non-specificity of authoritarian ideological commitments means that these regimes can often rely on the "shallow" support of people who do not need to find special meaning in politics: as long as no specially controversial commitment is demanded of them, they may be happy to go along, given the costs of resistance. Shallower commitments among the masses may be traded off for deeper commitments among specific groups.

At any rate, I suspect this mechanism is more common than Linz indicates, operating not only within authoritarian coalitions but also in democratic societies, and accounting in part for the recurring feelings of disappointment to which electoral politics gives rise among many people. The problem seems to be that there is a trade-off between the ritual use of emotionally charged but non-specific ideas that can mobilize many people "shallowly," such as vague nationalistic symbols, and the ritual use of highly specific and tightly interlinked symbolic systems that can mobilize fewer people "deeply," such as Marxism-Leninism. The trade-off arises because insisting on the specificity of an ideological system intensifies conflicts within a coalition, but also encourages more committed activists, whereas vague symbolic commitments can maintain a larger coalition (as in catch-all parties in many democracies) but decreases the degree to which the coalition members can coordinate on specific actions.

We should thus expect that vagueness "works" as a policy to hold together a diverse coalition when members believe that their goals cannot be achieved "outside the tent" but the vagueness of particular symbolic commitments lets them believe that they have a chance to push specific policies in their favored direction. The first belief is strengthened when rival coalitions are deeply mistrusted (e.g., the left and the right after the Spanish civil war, or to a lesser extent Democrats and Republicans in the USA today); the second when coalition members have long-term projects (perhaps themselves vague) rather than one-off specific demands. In these circumstances, the problem for coalition leaders is that the moment specific actions are actually undertaken, members learn information about the chances of their preferred outcomes actually happening, threatening the unity of the coalition. Leaders interested in political survival thus have an incentive to procrastinate and act in ambiguous ways (as Franco did), so long as they do not have the resources to definitively resolve ideological conflicts in their favor. By contrast, when leaders expect to win such conflicts, or when coalition members come to see that their chances of achieving their deeper objectives are as good outside the tent as inside, vagueness loses value: either the leader demands commitment to more specific programmes, or vague symbols fail to keep coalition members in line. This explains why the most committed are the first to leave when they figure out that their ideals cannot be realized within the coalition; it was the most ideological falangistas who became Franco's "a-legal right opposition," not the moderates, for example.

It is also interesting to consider why highly articulated ideologies should be able to produce deep but narrow mobilization; and here I think that Linz is a bit off. The mobilizational capacity of "ideology" (in Linz's sense) has less to do with its utopian content than with the fact that strong ideological commitments develop in tight chains of often face-to-face interaction. Consider the way in which Marxism diffused in pre-revolutionary Russia through study groups, participation in clandestine activities, and other recurrent situations that made it a sort of common language among a set of people with similar core values, facilitating their identification with the ideology as a symbolic whole. The argumentative context of many of these situations (where activists argued with one another over means and ends) produced more or less coherent belief systems, though it also encouraged splintering, and regular face to face interaction produced deep commitments through emotional amplification, but also limited the degree to which many people could fully identify with the ideology as a whole. (The history of the Bolsheviks seems to be illustrative here). Indeed, to the extent that ideologies become politically dominant (through the victory of specific groups in war, for example) and can be used, given their explicitness, as "test[s] for loyalty" (p. 162), large incentives for dissimulation also emerge, limiting their mobilizational capacity: consistency is maintained at the price of mass commitment. By contrast, shallow commitments to vague symbols do not require the same sorts of feedback, and they can be maintained by the typical means of mass politics, haphazard as they are. Vagueness, not consistency, thus seems to be the price of large-scale coalition politics.


[1] Franco's Spain was, of course, Linz's paradigmatic case of authoritarianism, and the country he knew best.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Good Tsar Bias

Ian Kershaw's remarkable book The "Hitler Myth": Image and Reality in the Third Reich is a really clever piece of public opinion archeology. It attempts to reconstruct the rise and fall of Hitler's popularity in Nazi Germany, drawing primarily on secret reports compiled by the Gestapo, the Security Service of the SS, and the clandestine agents of the banned Social Democratic Party -- a task fraught with methodological pitfalls, given the enormous levels of repression the Nazi party was capable of exercising over the German population. (Suffice it to say that preference falsification was rife, compounded by biased reporting by the public opinion researchers of all these organizations, but Kershaw nevertheless manages to extract much useful information from his sources). Among other things, the book makes the case that, at least until the war started turning sour in late 1942, Hitler was far more popular than the Nazi Party, which quickly grew to be disliked, even despised, by the vast majority of Germans,  despite the initial improvement in economic conditions they experienced in the early years of the Third Reich:
At the centre of our enquiry here is the remarkable phenomenon that Hitler’s rising popularity was not only unaccompanied by a growth in the popularity of the Nazi Party, but in fact developed in some ways at the direct expense of his own Movement. (p. 83)
In Kershaw's telling, the contrast arose primarily from the fact that the "little Hitlers" (as Party functionaries were sometimes derogatorily called) were constantly encountered in everyday life, where they were perceived, not without ample justification, as corrupt and overbearing, while Hitler operated on a "higher" plane, concerned with the "big questions" of war and peace:
The ‘little Hitler’ type was ... by no means omnipresent, but was nevertheless sufficiently widely encountered to provoke extensive criticism and to tarnish irreparably he image of the Party. In a sense, the Party functionaries were reaping the harvest of the prejudice which they themselves had helped to sow against local politicians and ‘bigwigs’, and had to face the daily dissatisfaction and discord as the rebound from the utopian hopes in the Third Reich which they had stirred up. The ‘little Hitlers’ in the forefront of the local scene had to bear the brunt of the discontent. In stark contrast, the ‘Hitler myth’ - clearly in part a subconscious mechanism to compensate for the perceived shortcomings of the Third Reich - stood aloof from the dissension on a lofty and untouchable plane (p. 97
The Führer ... appeared to be on an elevated plane far removed from the humdrum problems of everyday life and was presumed to be preoccupied with the 'mighty' issues of the nation, pondering matters of foreign and defence policy, of war and peace, holding the fate of the nation in his hand. It was a domain which, in peacetime at any rate, scarcely affected material interests in any direct or obvious way, but one which could be called upon to engender - even if only temporarily - high emotional involvement and maximum national unity (p. 121)
Hitler's increase in popularity at the expense of the Nazi Party was not just a result of perceptions about their different spheres of responsibility; it was also amplified by the strategic choices people made in order to express dissatisfaction in a highly repressive environment where open criticism of the Führer could carry severe consequences. For example, Church leaders who wished to criticize Nazi anti-Christian policies during the "Church struggles" of the mid-1930s attempted to protect themselves against retaliation by preemptively praising Hitler and declaring themselves loyal supporters of him, but as a result they ended up reinforcing perceptions of a good Hitler vs. the bad party underlings who perverted his intentions: "The professions of loyalty to the Führer were in part a ploy to offset criticism of the Party, the SS, of the Church’s number one Nazi hate-figure, Alfred Rosenberg. ... [but] whatever the motives, the actual effect was the enhancement of the myth of the ‘good’ Führer detached from and set against the evil of the Party radicals" (p. 113). And the tactic was also available to other critics of the regime's policies, such as opponents of the murders committed under the Action T4 euthanasia program.

The divergence between Hitler's popularity and the party's unpopularity was not without important political effects. Time and again, Hitler was able to use his position "above the everyday" to discipline the Nazi party and cement his position at the expense of "radicals" -- for example, during the Röhm purge and the "Night of the Long Knives," as well as during the aforementioned "Church struggles." And it would seem that Hitler's personal popularity prevented widespread dissatisfaction with the Third Reich during peacetime from developing into a more serious challenge to the regime; at the very least, it kept in check the party's many centrifugal tendencies, discouraged potential competitors for Hitler's position, and probably helped him accumulate ever more absolute power.

The point that interests me here, however, is that, according to Kershaw, ordinary Germans rationalized the dissonance involved in both disliking the Party Hitler claimed to represent, even embody (more than once, Hitler claimed that "the Führer is the Party and the Party is the Führer", to cite a 1935 statement - p. 83) and supporting, even adoring, Hitler, by means of a particular kind of exculpatory rationalization: "that Hitler was being kept in the dark about the real state of affairs" (p. 102). Or, more vividly, as a Party member from the Upper Palatinate put it in 1934, "Hitler would be all right, but his underlings are all swindlers" (p. 83).

Regardless of the specifics of the Nazi case, these sorts of rationalizations seem common enough that they deserve a name. We find something like them, for example, in the combination of dissatisfaction with the Venezuelan government and genuine love of Chavez characteristic of many Chavistas even before Chavez' death; or in the contrast between the apparent popularity of Putin and the unpopularity of much of Russia's political class and governing apparatus; and perhaps also in the Franco regime, with the disjunction between Franco's apparent high prestige and the unpopularity of the Falange during the 1940s and 1950s. And they seem rooted, as Kershaw implies, in some kind of general cognitive bias or psychological mechanism that operates in a wide variety of contexts. I don't know if psychologists have already baptized the particular mechanism that produced the contrast between the perception of a "Führer without sin" (as a report Kershaw quotes actually says) and the widely detested "little Hitlers" -- Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases doesn't have quite the thing I'm looking for -- but I propose to call it "the good Tsar bias," for the proverbial attitude of ordinary Russians to the Tsar in contrast to his ministers before the revolution. (Whether ordinary Russians actually held this attitude is a different question -- looking around lazily, I can only find one good reference, in W. Bruce Lincoln's Sunlight at Midnight, p. 188 -- but the belief that they did was already proverbial in the 1930s. Even the Security Service of the SS made reference to the "good tsar" idea to account for the widespread finding of their public opinion researchers that people hated the Nazi party, but did not blame Hitler for their everyday woes; Kershaw quotes a report from them that claims that before WWI in Russia people used to explain their dissatisfaction with the government by saying that "Father Tsar knows nothing of it, he would not wish or tolerate it" before going on to warn that "Russia's fate proves this principle is dangerous" -- p. 102.)

The bias comes from the failure to notice that, as Brad Delong used to say, "the cossacks work for the Tsar"; some cognitive or emotional dissonance management mechanism prevents people from acknowledging connections between the proximate and the more remote causal agents of their dissatisfaction that, in retrospect, seem obvious. After all, why, if the leader is so good, does he surround himself with such poor collaborators? In the Hitler case, Kershaw talks about the "naïvety" of the people expressing belief in the "good Führer", and claims that this seems explainable only due to a "prevailing psychological necessity to have a national leader of stature existing in an elevated sphere outside of and removed from the 'conflict sphere' of the everyday political arena" (p. 119). But the dissonance management mechanism seems a bit more general than this.

Though the "good Tsar bias" seems to be related to what psychologists call the just world bias, insofar as it appears to serve as a compensatory form of system justification, it does not seem to be quite the same thing. The "good Tsar" bias does not incline people to say that the world is just, or to rationalize injustice as somehow deserved, only to deny that those leaders who are closely tied to the symbols of the nation (the Tsar, the Führer, the King, etc.) bear responsibility for bad outcomes in everyday life; that responsibility, instead, is assigned to subordinates. In this respect, the bias appears to be more closely related to what Dan Kahan and others have called "identity-protective cognition": the closer a leader is tied to the symbols of the nation or group with whom they identify, and the closer people's identification with the nation or group is, the more difficult it should be for them to accept that the leader is responsible for bad outcomes, since such acceptance threatens one's identity, and the more likely it will be for them to displace that responsibility onto subordinates as a protective measure. And leaders, like Hitler, who are the focus of high-intensity rituals associated with big national occasions -- plebiscitary elections, victories in war, even set-piece speeches on the occasion of good economic news -- are precisely the sorts of leaders who become associated with important community symbols; indeed, in important ways, they come to symbolize the community, as long as the rituals are successful. For this reason, competitive systems of leadership selection should mitigate the bias, since they prevent leaders from being too closely identified with the symbols of the nation, whereas traditional monarchies should amplify it, given the typical association of the monarch with the symbols of the community as such. And wherever the bias operates, leaders should be able to more easily accumulate power at the expense of subordinates.

But even leaders who are closely tied to the symbols of the community cannot always avoid association with some bad outcome; and in these cases the bias should diminish. Despite the best efforts of Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry (and the total monopoly over the media that the Nazi Party commanded, enforced by draconian measures against listening to foreign broadcasts), the defeat of the German armies at Stalingrad irreparably tarnished Hitler's own image, since he had repeatedly taken responsibility for the conduct of the war and stressed the importance of taking the city. The outcome could simply not be blamed on malicious or incompetent subordinates. Indeed, we may even observe an inversion of the bias, in which the subordinates are generally exculpated, and superiors are generally blamed, for bad outcomes; I suspect something like that went on at the end of the war in Germany. 

Readers, are there any other good examples of this bias? 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Tedium of Authoritarianism

As part of my research on Francisco Franco, I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the Archivo General de la Administración near Madrid, looking at old files from the wartime years produced by the National Press and Propaganda Delegation of the Falange and the Vice-secretariat for Popular Education that subsumed it after 1941. (Between 1938 and 1966, newspapers in Franco’s Spain were subject to prior censorship, with the Vicesecretaría de Educación Popular in charge of providing guidance to the media and administering the actual censorship apparatus between 1941 and 1945). These were the years when the Franco regime was at its most “fascistic,” most concerned with mobilizing and indoctrinating the population via the media. I was especially interested in old “consignas” – instructions to the newspapers about what to publish or not to publish, often quite detailed, sometimes even including directives about the exact wording of articles or the typography to be used for the headlines. While reading through these “consignas,” it struck me that they provided much evidence of what we might call the censor’s dilemma: a press that uniformly reports one message directed from above is a boring press, incapable of genuinely holding the attention of its readers and thus ultimately of indoctrinating them; but a press that shows originality may stray into dangerous territory, promoting unapproved and subversive thoughts.

The Spanish censors of the time were perfectly aware of the need to produce a lively, stimulating press if any indoctrination was to happen at all, and hence to avoid the excessive use of “official” speeches and obvious propaganda. For example, in a circular from 1940, the national press chief complains about the excessive publication of political speeches without commentary, and exhorts newspaper directors to exercise original thinking and journalistic judgment rather than publishing every speech sent to them; while in 1941 he urges newspapers to be original in the special issues they are supposed to produce to commemorate the Día del Caudillo (1 October, the anniversary of Franco’s elevation to Chief of State in 1936) and the death of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange (20 November), rather than to regurgitate the text of the scripts sent to them from the National Delegation, and bitterly alludes to the halfhearted fulfillment of such instructions in the past. Other documents encourage newspaper directors to find the “less well-known” anecdotes about particular figures they are ordered to celebrate, like Miguel Primo de Rivera, though these anecdotes still needed to be “exemplary.” In 1942 several newspapers are reprimanded for their lack of attention to their editorials section, where, understandably, they never publish anything that is not officially suggested (“absteniéndose de publicar ninguno que no sea sugerido oficiosamente”), and are ordered to produce more original content; and at around the same time some provincial chiefs are admonished not to micro-manage the newspapers in their jurisdiction, presumably so as to avoid losing the attention of local audiences, bored to death by an unremitting diet of speeches and other “official” announcements. Occasionally newspaper directors are implored to try to take away the “official flavor” (“quitándole … todo sabor oficial”) of the articles they are ordered to publish and the propaganda campaigns they are supposed to run; and even the film section is sometimes criticized for a lack of interesting and original writing.

Yet one senses that the effort is doomed; already in 1944 the exhortations to originality cease, and ever more detailed scripts (“guiones”) to newspaper editors, specifying in great detail what needs to be published and how, become more common. And the press remained boring and distrusted, as confidential reports, declining circulation, and other evidence indicates. (I can testify to that, having spent a lot of time over the past few months reading 1940s issues of Arriba, the regime’s mouthpiece). Even Franco himself agreed, as Stanley Payne reports in his classic book on the Franco regime: in the late 40s and 50s, Franco “often ignored the Spanish press since his censorship rendered it predictable and rarely interesting.” (Though “[h]e did sometimes look at the New York Times, considering it a “bulwark of international Masonry” on which he needed to be informed and with which he could practice his limited English”; Kindle locs 9311-9314).

At the end of the day, a boring Spanish press didn’t matter that much to the regime after 1945, since Franco was content with a demobilized and acquiescent population; but the censor’s dilemma seems real enough whenever governments are explicitly interested in deeply molding a population’s beliefs by controlling what they can read or see. Joseph Goebbels, for example, was perfectly aware of it:
Goebbels knew that people would not tolerate a diet of unremitting propaganda. Already in May 1933 he began turning down requests from Nazi Party bosses keen to hear their voices on the radio, and limited broadcasts of political speeches to two a month. Radio, said the Propaganda Minister, had to be imaginative, modern, up-to-date. ‘The first law’, he told radio managers on 25 March 1933: ‘Don’t become boring!’ They were not to fill their programmes with martial music and patriotic speeches. They had to use their imagination. Radio could bring the whole people behind the regime. Despite this warning, the radio network was initially used for broadcasting large quantities of political propaganda, with fifty speeches by Hitler being transmitted in 1933 alone. On 1 May 1934 broadcasts of the Mayday celebrations, with their speeches, songs, marches and the rest, took up no fewer than seventeen hours of radio time. No wonder that there were reports that listeners were growing blasé in the face of such excesses and listening, when they could, to foreign radio stations. Only gradually was Goebbels’s oft-repeated advice heeded.
[…]
But some still complained that even the music was boring, and they missed the radio plays that had been so popular under the Weimar Republic. As the Security Service of the SS complained in 1938, the ‘dissatisfaction of radio listeners’ was demonstrating itself in the fact that ‘almost all kinds of German radio listeners … now as before regularly listen to German-language broadcasts from foreign stations’. (Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939, Kindle locs 2579-2595).
The Nazis, unlike the post-1945 Franco regime, were not satisfied with a merely acquiescent population; they wanted to reach more deeply into the beliefs of the German people, converting them into genuine partisans of their worldview. And boring radio and newspapers did not serve this purpose; in fact, they contributed to alienation from the regime, as the propaganda minister was well aware. But for all of Goebbels’ exhortations, the incentives of the media were all in the direction of publishing “safe” content - pre-approved, indistinguishable from everyone else’s, and ultimately incapable of holding the attention of the unconverted. Consider the story of the Frankfurter Zeitung, a newspaper which (due to its international reputation and the fact that it was at the time owned by the chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben) was allowed a certain freedom of action early in the third Reich. The paper
uncommonly failed to print stories emanating from the Propaganda Ministry, even when they were ordered to do so by Goebbels. They attempted, sometimes successfully, to carry articles emphasizing the humane values which they considered the Nazis to be trampling on. Many of the forty new members of the editorial staff appointed between 1933 and 1939 came from parts of the press that had fared badly under the Nazis, including Social Democrats, Nationalists and Catholics. Many of them, such as Walter Dirks, or Paul Sethe, became famous West German journalists in the postwar years. Two other well-known writers, Dolf Sternberger and Otto Suhr, who had Jewish wives, were also able to remain in their posts. Staff writers printed ostensibly historical articles about Genghis Khan or Robespierre whose parallels with Hitler were obvious to the average intelligent reader. They became adept at conveying facts and reports that were unpalatable to the regime with formulae such as ‘there is no truth in the rumour that’ and headlines that denounced as lies stories which were then expounded in considerable detail. The paper soon acquired a reputation as virtually the only organ in which such things could be found, and its circulation actually began to increase once more. The Gestapo was well aware of the fact that the Frankfurt Newspaper in particular contained articles that ‘must be described as malicious agitation’ and thought that ‘now as before the Frankfurt Newspaper dedicates itself to the representation of Jewish interests’. (The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939, Kindle locs 2693-2705)
But this situation could not last, especially once the Nazis consolidated their power:
Yet with time, and especially after 1936, the regime forced the paper more and more onto the defensive. Innumerable compromises with the Propaganda Ministry’s instructions were unavoidable. Direct resistance was barely possible. Already in August 1933 the English journalist Henry Wickham Steed noted that the once-proud liberal newspaper had become a ‘tool of unfreedom’ under the new regime. The foreign press quickly stopped citing stories carried in the paper, taking the view that they had now become mostly indistinguishable from the torrent of misinformation and propaganda pumped out on a daily basis by Goebbels’s Ministry. In 1938, realizing that it no longer needed to influence public opinion, since there was effectively no public opinion left in Germany, I.G. Farben secretly sold the firm to a subsidiary of the Nazi Party’s Eher Publishing House without even troubling to inform the paper’s editors or staff. On 20 April 1939 the Nazi Party’s publishing mogul, Max Amann, formally presented the newspaper to Hitler as a birthday present. Its function as a vehicle for free, if disguised, comment was over; its readership declined further, and it was eventually closed down altogether in 1943. (The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939, Kindle locs 2709-2718)
Over time, the desire to control content won out over the desire to encourage any sort of independence or originality. The propaganda ministry issued ever more detailed instructions to newspapers about what to publish and how, just as in the Spanish case, probably contributing to an overall decline in press readership and the migration of the reading public towards less boring forms of media, such as illustrated magazines focused on non-political topics:
whatever the journalists of the Frankfurt Newspaper might have been able to achieve, the majority of editors and journalists lacked the ability or the inclination to vary the propaganda they were required to serve up to their readers with any touch of independence or originality. The number of newspapers declined from 4,700 to 977 between 1932 and 1944, and the number of magazines and periodicals of all kinds from 10,000 to 5,000 between 1933 and 1938. And the contents of those that remained became increasingly homogeneous. […] The result was a crescendo of dissatisfaction amongst the newspaper-reading public, relayed through the regular surveillance reports of the Gestapo. ‘The uniformity of the press’, noted the Gestapo office in Kassel in its monthly report for March 1935, ‘is felt to be unbearable by the people and also in particular by those who are National Socialist in their views.’ […]
[…] Despite his loudly proclaimed injunction to broadcasters and pressmen not to be boring, Goebbels ended up, therefore, by imposing a political straitjacket on radio and the press that led to widespread popular complaints about the monotonous conformity of these two key opinion-forming mass media and the dull subservience of those who worked in them. Already in 1934 he was telling newspapermen how pleased he was that the press was now reacting to current events correctly without necessarily being told how to. But with his customary cynicism, he concluded a few years later that ‘any man who still has a residue of honour will be very careful not to become a journalist’. (The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939, Kindle locs 2786-2821).
More generally, given the choice between the dullness of a maximally controlled cultural scene and the more stimulating unpredictability of a less controlled cultural life, the Nazis ultimately opted for the tedium of forced acclamation and uniform praise. As a result, they ended up maximizing not genuine commitment but mere acquiescence, as Evans shows in abundant detail:
The mass acclamation which the regime demanded on occasions such as Hitler’s birthday, plebiscites and elections, Mayday and other festivals, was rendered as much out of fear as out of enthusiasm, and people were getting tired of constantly having to go to meetings and demonstrations, the Potsdam district Gestapo office reported two months later in October 1934. In radio, cinema, literature and the arts, as we have seen, all that Goebbels’s efforts to make propaganda interesting did was to make people bored, because individual creative initiative was stifled, the variety of cultural life was drastically reduced by censorship, and the monotony of Nazism’s cultural offerings quickly became tedious. Even the Nuremberg Rallies soon lost much of their power to inspire, despite the fact that those who attended were by definition the most fanatical and the most enthusiastic of Hitler’s supporters. (The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939, Kindle locs 4056-4062).
As Jay Ulfelder reminded us the other day, it is difficult to know what would have happened in the absence of such uniform propaganda; in a counterfactual world many things would have been different, including the content of propaganda. Perhaps both the Franco and the Nazi regimes actually produced the maximal amount of persuasion possible under the circumstances by stressing uniformity, though I doubt it. More likely, it seems to me, is that there are trade-offs between maximizing genuine persuasion (which requires some degree of uncoerced attention and stimulation, or, in other words, the avoidance of complete boredom) and minimizing focal points for opposition; and both the Nazi and the Franco regimes, for all their claims to be engaged in the transformation of national characters through indoctrination, ultimately preferred to minimize opposition. But one can imagine that other regimes might attempt to manage this trade-off differently, tolerating some amount of opposition in exchange for the more genuine commitments that a more stimulating, less predictable cultural life might produce. Indeed, it seems that in some cases a less uniform cultural life is the (inadvertent?) consequence of censorship, and that the commitments produced in these cases are stronger than the commitments produced by boring and uniform propaganda. For example, Barbara Mittler has noted that the “smashing the four olds” campaign during the cultural revolution actually introduced a new variety into the cultural life of many people in China (by, for example, exposing them to the Confucian classics that they were supposed to criticize); and she argues that this accounts in part for the freshness and staying power of cultural revolution culture, which was far less regimented than the kind of culture produced by say, the Nazi regime. (“Cultural Revolution culture … is effective, as is popular culture, because it is nothing but popular culture”).

At any rate, it seems to me that the moral of these stories, so to speak, is that ideological persuasion is a sort of by-product of particular discourses, not something that can be produced intentionally and at will. In the Spanish case, ideological persuasion faltered in the face of terrible economic conditions during the 40s; as one Falangista wrote in a confidential report in late 1939, “frente a todo esto, no caben propagandas” (“in the face of [these conditions], no propaganda can work”). Similarly, Nazi propaganda was less effective the less contact it had with the existing beliefs of the German population and their real conditions of life. But in both cases the attempt to directly persuade a population by tightly restricting the variety of points of views presented failed to produce maximal commitment; wherever persuasion occurred, it was less due to the content of the rhetoric of both regimes and their monopoly over public space than as a by-product of the conditions under which propaganda was received. I suppose this is good news: the tedium of genuine authoritarianism prevents such regimes from truly shaping people’s characters.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Varieties of Electoral Experience

(Some commentary on recent elections in North Korea, and on electoral rituals generally)

As many readers will know, North Korea just had an election for the Supreme People’s Assembly. In these elections – held more or less every five years, previously in 2009 – voters are presented with only one candidate per district, all of them belonging to the Korean Workers’ Party, and expected to vote “yes.” (Though technically they could mark “no” on their ballot papers, voting is not genuinely secret, and North Korean defectors report feeling that the risks of voting “no” are so large that practically no one does it). Even if voters had a choice, however, the offices they are voting for have no real power; as in the old Soviet joke, we might say that citizens in North Korea pretend to vote and deputies pretend to rule. (Some cynically-minded readers might say this idea applies far more widely).

One might think this would be reason enough for voters to sit out the election, but participation is not optional; though apparently some hardship dispensations are available, failure to show up to vote appears to carry severe risks, since the elections function as a political censusproviding information about people who might have left the country, military personnel gone AWOL, and other undesirables that can then be used against non-voters and/or their families. New Focus International (a website run by North Korean defectors) reports:
At any other point in the year, family members of missing persons can get away with lying or bribing surveillance agents, saying that the person they are looking for is trading in another district’s market. But it is during an election period that a North Korean individual’s escape to China or South Korea becomes exposed.
There is much more to this election, which takes place once every five years, than politics or propaganda: it is the occasion on which the North Korean state conducts a comprehensive crackdown on missing individuals.
The number of ‘missing’ persons began to snowball around 20 years ago. During the ‘Arduous March’ of the mid 90s, when North Koreans suffered mass famine, many living in inland provinces escaped from their designated residential areas to seek survival opportunities elsewhere. The exact number of those who starved to death during this time is difficult to establish, not least because it was impossible to identify the dead bodies that constantly piled up near train stations and rivers.
As the North Korean state collected the bodies in trucks and transported them to the hills to bury en masse, it exacerbated the confusion of surveillance and security agents in their record-keeping. Although agents continued to receive daily reports from residential surveillance officers, sometimes not even the family members of the missing persons themselves could confirm whether their loved one was dead or alive.
Moreover, those who know that someone in their family has safely made it to China will keep the knowledge secret, because anyone who leaves North Korea is labeled as “a traitor of the people” by the ruling Party. Even when surveillance agents drop in on the homes of missing persons and interrogate family members about their whereabouts, they will stand up to the agents and hold their ground, maintaining that they are out to trade and have not yet returned.
In the mid-2000s, state surveillance and security agents turned to tactics of persuasion rather than confrontation alone. They requested families to give up information about missing persons by saying that they knew the person was in China, but that if he or she returned to North Korea to vote in the next election, all would be forgiven by the Workers’ Party. There were threats too: if the missing person did not return for the election, the treacherous penalty of abandoning the homeland would be paid by the remaining family members.
Still, it is curious that the regime insists on associating this surveillance operation with a periodic electoral ritual, rather than merely announcing a census, which would presumably serve the same purpose. At any rate it is clear that the regime takes the electoral ritual seriously in some ways. Candidate posters are printed, agitators give talks in workplaces about the importance of the elections, and a festive atmosphere is created; and after the election is over, North Korean news agencies dutifully report turnouts above 99%, with 100% support for the KWP and its leader. (The Korean Central News Agency’s report on the results of the 2009 election and its report on the 2014 election are nearly identical). Incidentally, the reason the turnout numbers do not reach 100% is the fact that “[e]lectors on foreign tours or working in oceans could not take part in the election;” KCNA even helpfully notes that electors too old or ill to go to the polls “cast their ballots into mobile ballot boxes” which, if true, appears to show a remarkable degree of commitment on the part of the state to produce a foreordained result, when it could simply cast their ballots for them.

A state powerful enough to produce these outcomes can clearly dispense with elections: the Chinese state does not hold direct elections for its highest legislative bodies, for example, despite claiming to be just as democratic as the North Korean state. Yet North Korea, like almost every other state in the world, prefers to retain public electoral rituals (and has retained them for more than fifty years; NELDA indicates that there have been 10 such elections since 1962, mostly at regular five year intervals, though with one 8 year gap between the 1990 and 1998 elections). But why bother?

One answer I’ve seen in a couple of places seems tempting, but incorrect: that these elections are meant to “legitimate” the regime by providing a “veneer” of democracy (see, e.g., here). The problem is that there is no evidence that anyone is fooled who did not already want to be fooled, and certainly not anyone with any genuine influence in the regime: not the international community (which appears to feel at best amused, at worst trolled, by the whole thing), not the leaders being “elected” (who presumably are well informed about who has real power in the regime, and know it’s not the voters), and not the voters, who “generally have no interest in who their candidate is as many already live their lives apart from the state, and don’t bother to find out the name of the person they have just ‘voted’ into office,” and who have apparently occasionally engaged in iconoclastic destruction of candidate posters and other election-related vandalism under cover of darkness. The “veneer” of democracy that North Korean elections provide is too thin to do any genuine work producing political support for the regime.

Moreover, when we look at the KCNA dispatches that talk about the feelings of voters and the meaning of the event, we find that they do not emphasize the opportunity for popular participation provided by the election, or its democratic character, but the ways in which the ritual shows the people’s unity, loyalty, and gratitude; to the extent that the elections “legitimate” the regime (or better, produce emotional attachments and normative support for the regime), not even the regime thinks that they do so by convincing them that they live in a democracy. (Even in “real” democracies people complain about the lack of choice; why would North Koreans be any different? We must have a very poor opinion of people’s political competence to believe that they can be tricked in this way.)

Though we know very little about voter behavior in North Korea, we do have some knowledge about single party elections in the Soviet Union and various Eastern European states under communist rule, and we have some more robust theories about the purpose of periodic elections and the motivations of voters in settings with some token opposition, like Mexico under the PRI from 1929 until at least 1994Egypt under Mubarak, or Russia today. This literature suggests that elections do not serve a single purpose for all regimes, and voters behave differently across authoritarian contexts (and in turn behave differently in such contexts than in democratic contexts): the varieties of electoral experience are many. Regimes may stage overwhelming victories to send a signal of invincibility and thus to deter opposition among elites; they may encourage electoral competition to distribute spoils to elites that have some degree of social support, thus coopting these into the regime; they may use elections to determine the competence of officials in mobilizing the population, and/or to observe incipient opposition if actual turnout does not match expected turnout; and they may stage them periodically to produce an orderly circulation of elites, or as a way of managing succession problems. At the same time, voters may vote even while knowing that their vote cannot affect the composition of the government in order to receive election-day goods or to avoid potentially negative consequences; to express support or dissatisfaction (expressive voting is not confined to more democratic contexts); or even because they think it is the right thing to do. But the idea that elections serve to give “legitimacy” to the government plays almost no role in any of these theories.

Soviet elections, which are perhaps most comparable to those in North Korea, are an especially interesting case. (I draw here on a piece by Rasma Karklins from 1986). The Soviet Union spent enormous resources on electoral rituals, which were frequent (more so than in North Korea, on average one per year) and regular. There were “campaigns,” and the day of voting was a festive occasion, sometimes including ceremonies where first time voters were presented with flowers or other gifts. As in North Korea, the voter could only choose to vote “yes” or “no,” but voting “no” entailed some risk and could not be properly done secretly. As in North Korea, the regime enlisted party cadres and ordinary citizens as “agitators” to produce maximum turnout (agitators were made responsible for bringing 20-30 voters to the polls), and there was enormous social pressure to vote. All of this meant that elections always resulted in nearly unanimous verdicts – over 99% support for the party in most cases, with turnouts similarly over 97%. The efforts the regime put on achieving unanimity are remarkable, and the language used to report the results shows striking similarities to the language KCNA uses today (minus the reference to the democratic character of the Soviet Union):
The results of the elections to the USSR Supreme Soviet and the unanimous election to the country’s supreme body of state power of the candidates of the indestructible bloc of Communists and non-Party people provide striking new evidence of the monolithic unity of the Party and the people and of the working people’s full support for the domestic and foreign policy of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and the Soviet state. The elections have convincingly shown the thoroughly democratic nature of the world’s first society of developed socialism and the working people’s firm resolve to persistently strive for new successes in all sectors of communist construction. (Pravda, 7 March 1979, as quoted in Karklins, p. 451)
Yet these 99% turnouts are not the whole story. The turnout numbers excluded people who were not properly registered to vote, as well as (most?) prisoners, migrants without residence permits, and people who requested absentee ballots but did not actually vote. In a number of cases, people cast voters for other people, a practice that low-level people serving in electoral commissions seem to have encouraged in order to avoid trouble with their superiors. For example, Karklins reports a funny story about how “an Estonian biologist working at Tartu State University voted not only for his wife, but also for 30 of his students, apparently because the student turnout was only around 70%, and he simply took it upon himself to take care of the”problem“.” (p. 453). Actual voter turnout seems to have been closer to 90% than to 100%, and in some of the major cities like Moscow may have reached as low at 75% in some elections; and among those who voted between 1% and 5% made use of their right to enter an election booth to cast a negative vote or to write something on the ballot. Moreover, though voters expressed fear that not voting, or voting no, would lead to trouble, actual penalties seem to have been rare, more a reflection of the generalized fear produced by earlier decades of terror than of the actual incidence of punishment for not performing their assigned roles. (Karklins reports one 1971 case in which an anti-Soviet comment in a ballot led to “an arrest and a five-year sentence in a Soviet labor camp,” though this seems to have been exceptional, not the rule; and I vaguely remember something from I think Gulag Archipielago in which a single spoiled ballot during the Great Terror led to a huge search and numerous arrests). Nevertheless, these small risks meant that non-voters (and people who actually voted no) were among the more educated and politically aware USSR citizens, those most likely to dissent or emigrate; non-voting was one of the “weapons of the weak.” So when I read the North Korean numbers I wonder about the actual incidence of non-voting, especially given the fact that many North Koreans have in fact begun to live their lives “away from the state” since the famine of the 1990s; and I wonder about the actual numbers of “no” voters (are there no North Koreans who take advantage of their right to strike a candidate as a political act? Is the North Korean state so efficient at repression that it always pursues such people?); but I suspect that if the North Korean state knows such numbers, it keeps them very much secret, as they are more useful indicators of its actual support levels.

More importantly, Soviet elections seem to have produced in the long run not legitimacy, but alienation. If politics involves everywhere the mobilization of emotion through ritual, the dominant emotions such rituals produced and amplified seem to have been closer to resignation rather than enthusiasm; the regime ritually triumphed over the citizens by forcing them to participate in a mass charade, boasting of its ability to get citizens to approve of it even when everybody knew of the falsity of these claims. A Soviet election in the 1970s and 80s, at least, was thus a ritual designed to lower the emotional energy of the citizens, and increase that of its rulers, though it is plausible to imagine that the ritual aspects of the elections served to produce enthusiasm in citizens early on – a Soviet election, like an election almost everywhere, was first and foremost a big party, where the symbols of the regime were the key objects of attention, and where emotional commitments to these symbols (including political parties and candidates) can be amplified and preserved (or lost and reversed). It is in this sense that an election can “legitimate” a regime (though in competitive contexts, it always does so at the expense of producing negative emotions among partisans of the losing parties, something that is never properly emphasized in accounts of how democratic elections “legitimate” states). Yet the “legitimation” involved in Soviet elections as the regime wore on was less that granted by citizens on rulers (through enthusiastic emotional attachment to regime symbols, including the party and its candidates) than a kind of self-legitimation by rulers on themselves, more and more dependent on the ability of the regime to “triumph” over its citizens by making them passive and acquiescent rather than enthusiastic and committed.

Today, I suspect that North Korean elections are similarly alienating to North Korean citizens: the people who are emotionally elevated by participation in them are more likely to be the rulers than the citizens. There is evidence that the “hidden transcript” in North Korea is different from the public narrative; that many North Koreans, like people everywhere, mock the symbols of oppressive power whenever they think can get away with it. Where voters endorse the elect, and officials elect the people they desire, the people is likely to become more and more emotionally distanced from these officials as time wears on. Yet the triumphalist ritual of such elections is still useful to rulers committed to remaining in power; the appearance of power, is power.

Update 3/13/2014: edited one passage for clarity, fixed a typo.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Francisco Franco, Robust Action, and the Power of Non-Commitment

(Warning: speculation about Spanish history during the Franco era by an amateur).

I’m currently in Spain, doing some research on Franco’s cult of personality. In preparing for this project, I recently read Paul Preston’s biography of Franco, which presents Franco as a selfish, vengeful, and ultimately petty tyrant who caused the death of hundreds of thousands of his compatriots. (If not for Hitler, Franco seems like he would certainly have been in contention for the “worst person of the 20th century” award). Yet despite the evidence of Franco’s political cunning (nearly four decades at the top of the Spanish political system puts him in the top 2-3% of all modern rulers in terms of sheer longevity), the portrait that emerges from Preston’s biography is emphatically not one of a decisive and Machiavellian political leader, but one of “astonishing personal mediocrity” (Kindle Loc 17636), a ruler who constantly procrastinated important decisions, acting reactively rather than proactively, and was rarely clear or even coherent about his commitments, to the despair of allies and enemies alike. How could such a person end up leading the winning side of a bloody civil war and becoming the effective ruler of Spain for more than three decades?

Preston argues cogently that luck played a large role, but it struck me while reading his book that one possible key to Franco’s “success” (measured simply by his ability to remain in power) is something that Padgett and Ansell called, in a classic article on the rise of the Medici in Renaissance Florence, “robust action,” action that cannot be easily foiled or prevented by your opponents. Since their ideas about what enables a political leader to act in this way seem to me to illuminate Franco’s spectacular longevity in power, it’s worth describing them in some detail.

Padgett and Ansell begin their article by noting that there is something puzzling about Cosimo de’ Medici’s power in Florence. Cosimo was clearly powerful, despite not holding formal political office, as his contemporaries (including Machiavelli) appreciated keenly;

Yet the puzzle about Cosimo’s control is this: totally contrary to Machiavelli’s portrait in The Prince of effective leaders as decisive and goal oriented, eyewitness accounts describe Cosimo de’ Medici as an indecipherable sphinx …

… Lest one conclude that this implies only savvy back-room dealing, extant accounts of private meetings with Cosimo emphasize the same odd passivity.’ After passionate pleas by supplicants for action of some sort, Cosimo typically would terminate a meeting graciously but icily, with little more commitment than “Yes my son, I shall look into that” (pp. 1262-1263)

Cosimo “never said a clear word in his life” (p. 1308). But not only was Cosimo inscrutable; his actions, especially after 1434,

… appeared extraordinarily reactive in character. Everything was done in response to a flow of requests that, somehow or other, “just so happened” to serve Cosimo’s extremely multiple interests. (p. 1263)

Padgett and Ansell argue, pace Machiavelli, that there were no “deep and ruthless machinations” that explain Cosimo’s political success. Cosimo really was a “sphinx without a secret” (a term coined by one of Franco’s ministers to refer to Franco); his actions really were reactive, not the moves of someone who could always see further ahead than his adversaries. But his actions were robust (not easily foiled or prevented) precisely because he could not be pinned down by them: others had to reveal their interests when acting in ways that he did not:

We use the term “robust action” to refer to Cosimo’s style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo’s sphinxlike character … is multivocality-the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. Multivocal action leads to Rorschach blot identities, with all alters constructing their own distinctive attribution of the identity of ego. The “only” point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism-maintaining discretionary options across unforeseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options.

Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue any specific goals [my emphasis]. For in nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action.  Locked-in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of others’ successful “ecological control” over you … Victory, in Florence, in chess, or in go means locking in others, but not yourself, to goal-oriented sequences of strategic play that become predictable thereby. (pp. 1263-1264)

Padgett and Ansell insist that “not pursuing specific goals” is not merely a matter of strategic ambiguity. What is needed is a more radical lack of commitment to specific interests, or rather, a more radical incommensurability of one’s various interests, which they denote by the idea of “multivocality:”

But robust action is not just a matter of behaving ambiguously. Others are too shrewd not to see through behavioral facades down to presumed self-interested motivations. To act credibly in a multivocal fashion, one’s attributed interests must themselves be multivocal. (p. 1307)

In other words, in the face of unpredictable and changing conditions, too much commitment to specific objectives is damaging to one’s survival in power, as it allows others to predict your moves and to credibly paint you as acting selfishly against the interests of potential allies. To be sure, only some people are in a position to act in this way; not just anyone can “succeed” by acting reactively and inscrutably:

Of course, robust action will not work for just anyone. For the flow of requests to be channeled, only some network structures will do. And for the resolution of judge and boss to be credible, coherent interests must remain opaque as far down as it is conceivable to peer. Contra Machiavelli, even Cosimo himself did not set out with a grand design to take over the state: this assumption reads history backward. … Cosimo’s political party first emerged around him. Only later, during the Milan war, did Cosimo suddenly apprehend the political capacity of the social network machine that lay at his fingertips. (p. 1264)

Most of Padgett and Ansell’s article then describes precisely the sort of network structure that makes robust action possible. Roughly speaking, their argument is that the Medici coalition contained inherently contradictory interests, yet it was constructed in such a way that its component parts could only act together through Cosimo: “Robust action by the Medici was credible precisely because of the contradictory character of their base of support,” yet “[t]he result was an awesomely centralized patrimonial machine, capable of great discipline and “top down” control because the Medici themselves were the only bridge holding this contradictory agglomeration together” (p. 1307). By contrast, the coalition of Medici opponents was both far more “coherent” and narrow in terms of the interests it represented (and hence more predictable in its actions) and less susceptible to centralized control (and hence less effective and disciplined).

Now, there are many differences between Franco and Cosimo de’ Medici. But the overall strategies that allowed Franco to survive in power during one of the most difficult periods in European history do present some interesting similarities to the strategies Padgett and Ansell describe in their article.

Let’s start with Franco himself, who if nothing else seems to have shared something of Cosimo de’ Medici’s inscrutability. Preston recites a litany of descriptions emphasizing this aspect of his character:

He was abundantly imbued with the inscrutable pragmatism or retranca of the gallego peasant. Whether that was because of his origins as a native of Galicia, or the fruit of his Moroccan experiences is impossible to say. Whatever its roots in Franco, retranca may be defined as an evasion of commitment and a taste for the imprecise. It is said that if you meet a gallego on a staircase, it is impossible to deduce if he is going up or down. Franco perhaps embodied that characteristic more than most gallegos. When those close to him tried to get hints about forthcoming ministerial changes, they were rebuffed with skill: ‘People are saying that in the next reshuffle of civil governors so-and-so will go to Province X’, tries the friend; ‘Really?’ replies the sinuous Franco, ‘I’ve heard nothing’. ‘It’s being said that Y and Z are going to be ministers’, ventures his sister. ‘Well’, replies her brother, ‘I haven’t met either of them’. The monarchist aviator Juan Antonio Ansaldo wrote of him ‘Franco is a man who says things and unsays them, who draws near and slips away, he vanishes and trickles away; always vague and never clear or categoric’. John Whitaker met him during the Civil War: ‘He was effusively flattering, but he did not give a frank answer to any question I put to him. A less straightforward man I never met.’ Mussolini’s Ambassador Roberto Cantalupo met him some months later and found Franco to be ‘icy, feminine and elusive [sfuggente]’. The day after first meeting Franco in 1930, the poet and noted wit José María Pemán was introduced by a friend as ‘the man who speaks best in all Spain’ and remarked ‘I think I’ve just met the man who keeps quiet best in all Spain’ (‘ Tengo la sospecha de haber conocido al hombre que mejor se calla en España’). (Kindle Locations 113-130).

To be sure, Franco, unlike Cosimo, made lots of public speeches during his life and said many well-documented things to ambassadors, ministers, and other political leaders. But one point that Preston’s biography brings out well is that it is very difficult to construct a coherent position for Franco from his public statements (though Preston tries valiantly). For one thing, he seems to have had no problems disregarding the truth when it was convenient for him to deny it, and he was alarmingly willing to change his position as circumstances or audiences changed. He could say anything with apparently complete conviction: he could be a monarchist one minute, a Falangista the next, and then assert his claim to being a true Spanish democrat. Yet Preston never quite succeeds in establishing that there was one thing Franco “really believed” underneath all the bullshitting and incoherence, some ideological commitment or fundamental interest beyond his maintenance in power that could account for the many different things he said. His key political talent, Preston notes more than once, was for “shroud[ing] his intentions in a cloud of nebulous vagueness” (Kindle Location 14849-14850). Since no one could be quite sure about his real commitments, these could be “read” in a variety of different ways at the time – as fundamentally sympathetic to the Falange, or fundamentally conservative and Catholic, or as those of an anti-communist warrior.

One obvious way in which Franco avoided being pinned down to some particular goal was by often acting through intermediaries, which made it possible for him to deny responsibility. For example, he was cautious not to seem to have sought the posts of commander in chief or head of state; as Preston puts it, “[w]ith his customary caution, Franco preferred to let others make the running and wait for the new honour to be thrust upon him” (Kindle Locations 4093-4094). But as with Cosimo de’ Medici, the point is not that Franco had plotted for a long time to gain supreme power; on the contrary, his early life suggested that he was destined to be a career military man. He was promoted rapidly, and enjoyed his many positions – in particular, he appears to have been very happy as director of the military academy in Zaragoza. For a while it was even a bit iffy whether he would participate in the military rebellion that led to the civil war; it was only when circumstances made supreme command clearly possible that we can even speak of Franco pursuing that option at all, and then only in fairly indirect ways.

More broadly, Franco’s terminal unwillingness to ever close off options made it seem like he was constantly procrastinating important decisions. The most obvious example of this is the question of restoring the Spanish monarchy (one aim of the military rebellion that led to the civil war), which Franco successfully postponed for decades, in part because it would commit himself to a definite course of action, splitting his coalition. But the same was true of his neutrality-cum-covert-support for Germany and Italy in WWII (Preston has some amusing passages where Hitler and Mussolini rage against Franco’s inability to make clear commitments to enter WWII on their side), or of his actions during the civil war.

The latter provides one striking example of the contrast between robust action and non-robust action. Franco was highly dependent on material support from Germany and Italy for his war effort. And Mussolini and Hitler both had serious doubts about Franco’s abilities to lead the nationalist side to victory. So early on, German and Italian military forces sent to aid the nationalist side were only nominally under Franco’s command. But when the one of the three divisions of Black Shirts sent by Mussolini was defeated at Guadalajara, in part due to Franco’s failure to keep his word to mount a simultaneous attack in the Jarama front, Mussolini was too committed to Franco’s victory to do anything about it except continue supporting Franco, and even accede to put the Black Shirts under Franco’s command. As Preston puts it:

Mussolini could see that he had been used but he had little choice but to continue supporting Franco. Guadalajara had smashed the myth of fascist invincibility and Mussolini found himself committed to Franco until the myth was rebuilt. Equally, however galling, it was now clear that it made more sense to work with Franco for a Nationalist victory than independently. Shortly after his letter of exculpation [a letter Franco wrote to Mussolini to explain why the promised forces did not materialize during the battle of Guadalajara], Franco had requested help for a huge assault on Bilbao. Ignoring remarks made by Roatta [the Italian ambassador commander of the Black Shirts in the civil war at the time] about the miraculous appearance of the necessary forces for Bilbao which had never materialized during the battle of Guadalajara, Mussolini ordered his commander henceforth to obey the instructions and directives of Franco. Italian forces would henceforth be distributed in Spanish units and subject to the command of Franco’s generals. When Cantalupo informed him of this on 28 March, Franco was delighted. The Italian Ambassador found him as if ‘freed of a nightmare’. Franco asked him to inform the Duce of his ‘joy at being understood and appreciated’. (Kindle loc 5320-5329).

Franco had (whether by design or not; Preston is of two minds about this) managed to shape the “choice context” of Mussolini so as to induce him to commit himself to Franco’s victory, while retaining some freedom to pursue his own independent policy, despite his material dependence on Italian and German aid.

But what enabled Franco to avoid commitment to specific goals while others could not? What made it possible for him to say to Don Juan (the exiled heir to the Borbon throne) in 1954, that “I don’t find governing an onerous task” and “Spain is easy to govern”? (Kindle loc 14428-14429). Part of the answer to this question – in a sense the more superficial part – is that, as Preston notes, Franco was very good at gauging the price of people:

For nearly forty years he would use [his very extensive formal powers] with consummate skill, striking decisively at his outright enemies but maintaining the loyalty of those within the Nationalist coalition with cunning and a perceptive insight into human weakness worthy of a man who had learnt his politics among the tribes of Morocco. The ability to calibrate almost instantly the weakness and/ or the price of a man enabled Franco to know unerringly [a bit of poetic license, but we’ll let that pass] when a would-be opponent could be turned into a collaborator by some preferment, or even the promise of it – a ministry, an embassy, a prestigious military posting, a job in a State enterprise, a decoration, an import licence or just a box of cigars. (Kindle loc 6251-6255).

And like any other successful dictator, he then used this knowledge to play people against one another and thus prevent them from coordinating against him:

The ‘families’ of the Nationalist coalition would be manipulated like friendly tribes, bribed, enmeshed in competition among themselves, involved in corruption and repression in such a way as to make them suspicious of one another but unable to do without the supreme arbiter. (Kindle locs 7395-7397).

Divide et impera is, of course, the oldest trick in the book; and Franco was good at it, in the (base) sense of using it well to remain at the top of the political system despite not being very much loved, or even very much respected, by those below him. In a revealing anecdote, Preston notes the clever way in which Franco used the corruption of his ministers as an instrument of control:

Franco showed no interest in putting a stop to graft as opposed to using knowledge of it to increase his power over those involved. He often repaid those who informed him of corruption not by taking action against the guilty but by letting them know who had informed on them (Kindle locs 14795-14797).

Here we see also a way of not foreclosing any options: both the denouncer and the denounced remain dependent on Franco, yet the onus of action is put on them, not on Franco. A similar logic of inaction applied to his agents of repression during the civil war and beyond:

Franco was aware that some of his subordinates enjoyed the bloodthirsty work of the repression. His Director-General of Prisons, Joaquin del Moral, was notorious for the prurient delight he derived from executions. General Cabanellas protested to Franco about the distasteful dawn excursions organized in Burgos by Del Moral in order to enjoy the day’s shootings. Franco did nothing. He was fully conscious of the extent to which the repression not only terrified the enemy but also inextricably tied those involved in its implementation to his own survival. Their complicity ensured that they would cling to him as the only bulwark against the possible revenge of their victims. (Kindle locs 5169-5174).

Yet I suspect the deeper reason for Franco’s ability to act robustly went beyond Franco’s particular political tactics. What enabled him to be so effective at using divide et impera seems to me to be the fact that his supporting coalition – made up variously of Falangists (Spanish fascists), Carlistas, other monarchists, conservative Catholics, and the military – was inherently contradictory (as was the supporting coalition of the Medici in Padgett and Ansell’s view), yet could only act together through him. For example, Falangists were skeptical of the monarchy, and in theory had a reformist economic programme, a promise of a grand “social revolution” to which other conservative elements of the coalition were implacably opposed. Monarchists differed among themselves about who should be placed on the throne, and differed about when the monarchy should be restored. The army, which was the group best positioned to overthrow Franco (its senior commanders having “elected” him in 1936 as Generalissimo), had its own divisions and in any case was fearful of another civil war. And so on. Yet Franco’s inscrutability – which, interestingly, was not nearly as much in evidence when he was merely a career military man, and could thus afford to have opinions – allowed him to represent all of these disparate interests with enough credibility that those concerned could at least pretend to themselves that Franco was ultimately working for their ultimate aims. (Of course, you’d need a proper network analysis to make the Padgett/Ansell claim rigorously; for one thing, we’d also need to know whether the various components of the Francoist coalition had few linkages with one another, so that they could act together only through him. This I can’t tell on the basis of the evidence in Preston’s book).

Signs of Franco’s excessive commitment to a particular goal or group were sometimes even interpreted by shrewd observers as political mistakes. For example, when in 1945 Franco’s public support of the Falange seemed to  be attracting much international criticism, José María Pemán wrote in his diary: ‘if they had told me that Franco had a lover it would have seemed bad, not to say strange, but this is worse: he has got a conviction.’ But, as Preston notes, “[i]n fact, the normally shrewd Pemán was wrong. Franco may have had an emotional commitment to the Falange but it did not undermine his capacity for ruthless calculation. He had in fact worked out that there was more benefit to be derived from keeping the Falange. Not only was it a massive bulwark of support but international criticism of it also helped him capitalize on mass resentment of foreign ‘interference’.”  (Kindle locs 12440-12446). I am not sure that Franco “worked out” these benefits consciously, but it is interesting to note that Pemán saw the sign of commitment to a cause as a political mistake because it would box Franco in and close off certain courses of action. Franco’s political strength lay precisely in credibly not being for one or another part of his coalition, and this was made possible because he seems to have had no firm underlying convictions beyond, perhaps, his commitment to a picture of himself as savior of Spain. (Was his support for the Falange in 1945 sincere, or the result of a calculated gamble? Is this question even answerable?). Or conversely, we may say that because his self-image as savior of Spain could “contain multitudes” without being threatened (Franco was rarely bothered by inconsistency) that his interests were themselves “multivocal” in the Ansell and Padgett sense.  

We might also look at the eventual decay of the regime through this lens. By the end of the 60s socio-economic changes (including rapid economic development) had eroded the original Francoist coalition, and key “ideological” questions had been finally settled (e.g., the succession was finally settled on Don Juan Carlos - the current King - in 1969; the “falangist” revolution had been definitively shelved; etc.). Franco was thus less and less able to represent a diversity of interests “mutivocally;” he had, in a sense, finally been boxed in by his own success. This made Franco less and less relevant as the lynchpin of the major coalition that controlled the state, and the institutional changes he had intended to perpetuate his regime did not last. (This is an important contrast to the story Padgett and Ansell tell about the Medici).

If anyone had now the ability to represent contradictory interests “multivocally” and engage in robust action, it was Juan Carlos, who seems to have learned a few things from Franco. Apparently when Franco told Juan Carlos that he had finally decided to settle the succession on him, “Juan Carlos replied ‘rest assured, mi general, I have learned much from your galleguismo (Galician craftiness).’ As they both laughed, Franco complimented him, ‘Your Highness does it very well.’” (Kindle locs 16666-16669). Both Franco and many other people could project their ideas onto the king, who turned out, unexpectedly for a lot of people, to be a leading force in the transition to democracy. (Or am I completely off here?)

Ultimately, all this suggests to me the limits of appealing to belief in explaining political action. To attempt to explain Franco by reference to his specific ideas is to miss the possibility that it was their basic inconsistency that made him able to avoid being "boxed in."

Update 2/3/2013: Fixed some typos.