Saturday, July 18, 2020

Unscrupulous Flattery

(A footnote on Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel, “Cults of Personality, Preference Falsification, and the Dictator’s Dilemma”, Journal of Theoretical Politics 32(3) 409-434 [2020])

Charles Crabtree, Holger Kern, and David Siegel just published an article in the Journal of Theoretical Politics that models cults of personality as screening devices. Their argument is similar to arguments I’ve made in this blog and in academic papers, though much more formal, and with a different twist. So I can’t pass on the opportunity to comment.

I can’t say I understood all the details of their game-theoretic model, but the basic intuition is simple. The key idea in a screening model of a “cult” (for our purposes here, extravagant flattery of a political leader) is that extreme flattery has a cost for the flatterer, and willingness to pay that cost provides information about the kind of person you are, or the kind of loyalty you can give – information that the leader can then use as part of their “personnel management [strategy], helping [him] sort subordinates into their most useful regime roles” (416).

On their model, this cost is primarily psychic. Drawing on Timur Kuran’s ideas about preference falsification, they note that repeating barefaced lies or exaggerated praise (things like Hafez al-Assad is Syria’s “premier pharmacist”, or Stalin is “the coryphaeus of science”, or “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration … both in person and around the globe.”) has a cost for anybody with a shred of integrity. But those who are genuinely smitten with the leader, or those who are particularly unscrupulous and opportunistic will find this cost less onerous: the first because the barefaced lies are close to what they actually believe (or are at least consistent with their beliefs), and the latter because they have no problem with lying if they can get something out of it.

In my first paper on this topic, I thought this led to a problem, since a cult could not induce a separating equilibrium distinguishing the truly loyal from the merely opportunistic in the eyes of the leader. If there are sufficient rewards for participation or strong enough punishments for non-participation, both the opportunistic and the loyal will participate in the cult equally, leading to flattery inflation as particular forms of flattery get devalued when the opportunistic or scared imitate the loyal. In these circumstances the cult could at best serve to deter collective action from the disloyal, not to clearly separate opportunists from loyalists.

But Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel note that a dictator does not always want to exclude the opportunistic and unscrupulous, since they actually need such people in their governing apparatus. In particular, the repressive agencies of a dictatorship require people who have no qualms about torturing, killing, or expropriating others, enforcers who don’t trouble themselves much with their conscience to achieve the dictator’s goals; and people who are willing to repeat barefaced lies are likely to be good at doing other morally dubious activities. As the (likely apocryphal) quote from Napoleon they use as their epigraph puts it, “the man who will say anything will do anything”.

To be sure, the unscrupulous may also be dangerous to the dictator – they are more likely to be corrupt, or more willing to betray the ruler if the occasion arises. Unscrupulousness need not imply loyalty. By the same token, loyalty need not imply total unscrupulousness; the loyal may be willing to do distasteful things up to a point, but object that these things don’t really serve the interest of the ruler, or lose their loyalty if asked to do too many such things. Moreover, the loyal and the unscrupulous may be best fitted to different tasks within a regime’s apparatus of rule – perhaps the more loyal are best suited to propaganda or supervisory roles, while the more unscrupulous are best suited to enforcement roles. So there’s still an adverse selection problem here, even if it’s a bit less urgent from the dictator’s point of view. The main contribution of Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel is to show formally that, under some conditions – in particular, when the preferences of the loyal and the unscrupulous for roles within the regime match the preferences of the dictator – levels of cult participation can sufficiently separate those who are loyal and unscrupulous from those who are merely unscrupulously opportunistic, enhancing the utility of the cult as a screening device. The model thus depicts the cult as a boutique HR department for the needs of the discerning dictator.

A couple of explicit limitations and complications of the argument are worth noting. First, Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel indicate that their focus is on leader cults in dictatorships; extreme flattery in democracies is beyond the scope of their model, I assume because in principle democracies should not have great need for people willing to engage in repression (we’ll come back to this point). Moreover, they also explicitly limit the scope of their model to elite interactions. Their argument is not meant to be a guide to why ordinary people might participate in the rituals of a cult of personality, possibly because their activity is neither directly observed by the dictator, nor likely to result in a role in the regime. Finally, they also note that the model assumes the dictator only cares about the signaling value of cult participation; if they cared about, say, the ego gratification they got out of it, they would have a harder time distinguishing the loyal and unscrupulous from the merely unscrupulous. A rational dictator should not “believe their own hype” - they may end up like Ceaușescu if they do.

Models are maps. They need not be “realistic” representations of the underlying social reality as long as they are similar enough to it in some limited respect to guide inquiry, or to allow one to do some form of inferential play. So I am not going to complain about particular assumptions of this model; it’s fun to play with. But I do have some reservations, or rather I can see some limitations that are worth exploring.

There are certainly cases where the model does seem to help us make sense of historical patterns of leader flattery. For example, the top Bolsheviks around Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s were all ruthless people, though they varied in their level of commitment to the leader. Consider Lazar Kaganovich. Like many other Bolsheviks Kaganovich was capable of brutality in pursuit of revolutionary goals (crushing peasant uprisings or arresting “saboteurs”), but he was also unusually unscrupulous in support of Stalin (falsifying votes in the Central Committee in 1934 to help re-elect him as General Secretary), and seemed to be genuinely in awe of him, treating the latter “more reverently than Sergo [Orzhonikidze] or Mikoyan,” as Simon Sebag Montefiore recounts:
He so admired the Vozhd, he admitted, that “when I go to Stalin, I try not to forget a thing! I worry every time! I so worry every time. I prepare every document in my briefcase and fill my pockets with cribs like a schoolboy because no one knows what Stalin is going to ask.” (Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, p. 64)
(Stalin apparently reacted to Kaganovich’s “schoolboyish” adoration by “teaching him how to spell and punctuate” – Kaganovich was, like many other Old Bolsheviks, a self-educated autodidact, a cobbler with only minimal formal education).

“Iron Lazar” was one of the main promoters of the Stalin cult: he coined the term “Stalinism,” and was among the first to write paeans to Stalin in state media (a practice other senior Bolsheviks disliked in private but did not actively resist; Molotov once disdainfully said that Kaganovich was “200% Stalinist”). While Molotov, Orzhonikidze, Mikoyan, and others often argued with and disagreed strongly with Stalin well into the 1930s, and Stalin often had to apologize to them (at least in the late 1920s and early 1930s), Kaganovich was more pliable.

It might seem reasonable to infer that his high level of participation in the Stalin cult (indeed, his founding role in it) was one reason he survived the turbulent 1930s (he died in 1991!), while other Bolsheviks, who were certainly ruthless and unscrupulous (if deeply faithful to a certain ideal of revolutionary communism), sometimes had a harder time credibly signaling their commitment to Stalin (Orzhonikidze comes to mind). Their willingness to debase themselves to credibly signal their loyalty to Stalin certainly varied; these people had strong egos!

But note that extreme flattery from top Bolsheviks could not give Stalin information about their ruthlessness or lack of scruples; he already possessed a better source of that information, as the top Bolsheviks had shown time and again what they were capable of. Task performance, not cult participation, was sufficiently informative about their capacity for violence in the turbulent 1920s and 1930s that willingness to debase themselves in front of Stalin could not add anything to what was already known about their lack of scruples in pursuit of revolutionary goals. In this sense the cult may have helped to separate the loyal and ruthless from the purely ruthless, though even here the separation may have been imperfect (the seemingly amoral Beria, who would have betrayed anyone if he had seen any benefit, ended up in charge of the NKVD).

This analysis could be pursued further; unlike in many other dictatorships, in the case of Stalin we have a lot of archival evidence about the motivations and interactions of those in the inner circle of rule. But I am not certain we would find that the main effect of extreme flattery at the top level of the party was to provide clear information to Stalin about the loyalty and unscrupulousness of senior Bolsheviks, or that Stalin encouraged or tolerated such flattery for for that reason. My unsystematic reading (and I’m no expert!) of the interactions at the top of the CPSU in the 20s and 30s suggests that the effect of the cult was more to deter collective challenges to Stalin as the latter consolidated power than to allow him to determine more clearly who was loyal and who wasn’t; in a sense the cult, by forcing the public recognition of Stalin’s superior status among top Bolsheviks and making it harder for them to coordinate against Stalin, diminished the importance of personal loyalty. In an environment that created a strong collective action problem for anyone wishing to defect, he needed to have fewer genuinely committed supporters like Kaganovich.

The Chinese case is even more equivocal. There the main elite promoters of the Mao cult during the mid to late 1960s, Lin Biao and the Gang of Four, were not themselves more obviously loyal to Mao than others; Lin Biao himself seems to have had no illusions about “old Mao” (Leese, Mao Cult, p. 90), and Mao himself remained utterly suspicious of their motivations. As in the Soviet case, moreover, participation in the cult did not provide additional information about lack of scruples; we can assume that at the top of the CCP there were no naifs. There the cult (= extreme flattery at the elite level) seems to have been used far more as an instrument of factional warfare (deterring collective action by opponents) than as a way of signaling exceptional loyalty or unscrupulousness to Mao.

There’s another problem, evident in the example of Saparmurat Niyazov that Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel use to open their paper, which is that many manifestations of a cult depend on large-scale uses of resources and bureaucratic power. When the Turkmen government spends millions on statues of Niyazov, uses its airwaves to promote the Ruhnama, and so on, the audience for these manifestations of power is not Niyazov (except incidentally), and the poor saps who had to attend the design meetings for the Neutrality Monument or coordinate the publication of Niyazov’s works were likely not being promoted for their loyalty and unscrupulousness. (I don’t know, and I don’t know if anybody does know, if people at the top of the Turkmen government elite were rewarded for enabling these things; perhaps one day we might understand more about the bureaucratic politics of cult-building in Turkmenistan, as well as about the elite interactions leading to these excesses).

In some ways, the Crabtree, Kern, and Siegel model of elite flattery seems to apply more to a context like that of the Trump administration than to the classic personality cults of the 20th century, which went far beyond elite flattery to incorporate not only large-scale uses of bureaucratic power but also mass participation. This is only idle speculation, but it seems to me that in today’s USA, extreme flattery of Trump among close associates of the President does seem to go hand in hand with a willingness to break other norms. Moreover, because the reputational costs of such flattery are reasonably large outside the Trump administration, it serves as a credible signal that one is tying one’s fate to the President. If Trump wants people to break norms that have constrained previous presidents, it thus makes sense for him to recruit precisely the people who flatter him outrageously; he can probably separate the loyal and unscrupulous from the merely unscrupulous or the disloyal in this way.

No comments:

Post a Comment