Saturday, April 30, 2011

Qaddafi's Chickens

[In 1977] the Libyan leader suggested that in order to achieve self-sufficiency every Libyan family had to raise chickens in the home. The cages and birds were imported and, for an obligatory fee of fifty-seven Libyan dinars ($150 at the 1977 exchange rate), were distributed by the government to Libyans. To many city dwellers in small apartments raising chickens in their kitchens was a difficult if not impossible affair. The result was that many ate the birds and found other uses for the cages.
...General Qaddafi's declaration that Libya must achieve food self-sufficiency was justification enough for his aid[e]s to institute that controversial plan of raising chickens in the home. The Libyan leader found the idea novel enough to encourage its implementation. On another occasion the General commented on the high cost of new automobiles. Soon after, the government agency entrusted with importing and selling cars to the public began to import only used cars and ironically sold them at new car prices. The policy was reversed only after a great number of people complained. He remarked about the proliferation of Western musical instruments in the country. The result was the gathering and burning of musical instruments. While driving through an area in the suburbs of the city [of] Benghazi  he wondered whether the area would be suitable for agriculture. Within a month all residential buildings in that area were demolished. 
...On the whole Qaddafi is rarely precise about the type of policy he desires and prefers to see the potential policy implemented before he intervenes and modifies it. Even The Green Book is general enough to permit different interpretation and experimentation by the revolutionary committees. Ultimately, however, all policies need the blessing of General Qaddafi. (Mansour O. El-Kikhia, Libya's Qaddafi, p. 106).
This looks like a variant of the signalling process that contributed to the great famine in China. Qaddafi gets a harebrained idea that presents a profit opportunity for his ruling coalition (note the $150 mandatory fee, which seems rather high for 1977, payable, one supposes, into the pockets of the well connected). The idea is therefore vigorously implemented, despite its evident absurdity, and just as quickly discontinued once profits diminish. Similarly with other policies: every weird idea that passes through Qaddafi's lips apparently presented both an opportunity for signalling support and (with the possible exception of the burning of musical instruments) for profit, at least for those with ties to the ruling elite in Libyan society. (Which, judging from El-Khikia's book, published in 1997, was extremely narrow; indeed, the book's appendix basically lists every one of its members at the time).

Many of these policies were "justified" by the "ideology" of the "Green Book." I suppose there are people out there, other than Qaddafi, who take the Green Book seriously. I've even briefly skimmed a good article carefully examining Rousseau's influence on Qaddafi's thought. But unlike the case of Marxist ideas in communist countries, it is abundantly clear from El-Kikhia's book that this "ideology" has primarily, if not exclusively, served as a signalling medium. There are few real ideologues in Libya, only careerists. Belief is mostly irrelevant, since the ideology is incoherent and impossibly vague, and its interpretation depends entirely on Qaddafi's whims. Its only real use is as an instrument of control: Qaddafi gets to decide which performances by competing factions within the revolutionary committees count as sufficiently loyal, which seems to encourage an escalation of zeal (especially in the absence of rewards for slowing down the implementation of absurd ideas). And he can test these policies by gauging which implementations are popular and which ones aren't - i.e., which interpretations of his words can generate oppositional collective action and which ones cannot - without committing himself to any particular interpretation of the policy (since he is the sole authority for their interpretation).

But how do you arrive at this point? El-Kikhia tells a story of institutional destruction: Qaddafi suspends all laws leaving only his dicta and their interpretations by a fluid network of committees (none of which is ever certain of Qaddafi's favor) as the only means of coordinating collective action within the "state." (He apparently suspended the laws in 1974. I couldn't quite believe it, but apparently there is nothing quite like law in the Libya described by El-Kikhia - no real courts for the settlement of disputes according to norms, though I suppose this may have changed since 1997. In fact, I'm not sure it makes sense to speak of a Libyan state in the full Weberian sense of the word, at least given what I've read in this book). Yet this only deepens the puzzle: for Qaddafi didn't start as the kind of ruler who could "suspend" all laws, or whose every passing fancy precipitated a cascade of costly signalling on the part of people wishing to benefit materially from his rule. He had to work towards this point - taking power away from his partners within the Revolutionary Command Council that seized power in 1969, stacking the institutions of the state with family and tribal loyalists, and keeping them all guessing by purging them at irregular intervals. And even then, he still had to deal with coup attempts.

A recent paper by Milan Svolik ("Power Sharing and Leadership Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes," AJPS 53:2, 2009, pp. 477-494) suggests some possibilities. The key insight exploited by Svolik is that members of a ruling coalition (always necessary for control of the state) delegate some power to the dictator to coordinate activity for their mutual benefit (e.g., extracting revenues and sharing them), but the dictator can augment this power by means of actions that are not always observable by the coalition. (In delegating power, after all, the coalition surrenders some control over information). In order to prevent this, the coalition can threaten a coup, but the threat is never wholly credible because failed coups are very costly (you can easily be killed, or in the best case scenario exiled to Outer Mongolia), and members of the coalition can never be sure of what actions the dictator has taken (or failed to take) in response to the threat: dictators lie easily, and can hide inconvenient information. Svolik derives two possible scenarios from these ideas: one in which dictators are constantly threatened, and easily removed by coups (the vast majority of cases: most dictators do not survive their first five years in office) because the coalition is (rightly) suspicious of any moves by leaders to amass power, and one in which they basically last forever (like Qaddafi), barring external intervention or other "exogenous" shocks, like popular revolutions (which are very rare: of 303 dictators lasting more than one day in office and removed by "nonconstitutional" means Svolik examines, 205 were removed in a coup d'etat, and only 32 in a popular uprising, with 30 more stepping down by popular pressure to democratize. Other leaders died in their sleep or were succeeded by "constitutional" means like hereditary succession; these are not counted among the 303 noted here).

I suspect that one of the means by which dictators can amass power vis a vis a ruling coalition is to encourage (consciously? unconsciously? does it matter?) the use of "ideologies" (the name is too grand: signalling languages, perhaps?) whose interpretation they can personally monopolize or near-monopolize as means of coordinating collective action, in lieu of existing norms and institutions, whose interpretation may be more easily controlled by members of powerful elites. The process may start small, with ideas that draw on popular aspirations or customs, and take hold in particular institutional niches. Qaddafi starts with Nasserism and Arab nationalism, which had wide appeal, but Nasserism proves unwieldy, and its interpretation not easily monopolizable. (For one thing, Nasserism in Libya involved the creation of a political party that could draw on other sources of authority for the interpretation of the norms that were to guide collective action, and hence enabled members of the ruling coalition to credibly threaten Qaddafi). But this initial move was not obviously threatening to members of the coalition in Libya, who may have been genuinely attracted to pan-Arabism and Nasserism. But by using Nasserism to disrupt the older institutional order of the monarchy (which was, after all, nothing but forms of coordinated action in light of shared expectations) Qaddafi narrowed the range of people who could authoritatively interpret norms and ideas that could guide coordinated collective action. This gave him an opening to disrupt Nasserism in turn with the "popular committees," which could be more easily used to "weed out those who did not conform to his thinking" (El-Kikhia, p. 54), since the interpretation of the norms guiding collective action there was more easily monopolized by him, even as this development could be presented as a sort of "evolution" or "deepening" of the revolution.

With each step, there is a narrowing of the plausible interpreters of the "signals" that can serve to coordinate collective action, until (with the revolutionary and later the "cleansing" committees) we reach a sort of maximum monopoly on the interpretation of norms and expectations for organizing collective action. (Only Qaddafi can tell what is and what isn't in accord with the norm, and only Qaddafi is believed among interpreters of the norm).

I'm not sure this argument is entirely clear, or right for that matter. So use with care.

[Update 4/30/11: fixed some small grammar problems]

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