Orwell and fictional evidence for dictatorship stability

post by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-24T12:19:13.010Z · score: 16 (25 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 79 comments

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever."
George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), Nineteen Eighty-Four

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is brilliant, terrifying and useful. It's been at its best fighting against governmental intrusions, and is often quoted by journalists and even judges. It's cultural impact has been immense. And, hey, it's well written.

But that doesn't mean it's accurate as a source of predictions or counterfactuals. Orwell's belief that "British democracy as it existed before 1939 would not survive the war" was wrong. Nineteen Eighty-Four did not predict the future course of communism. There is no evidence that anything like the world he envisaged could (or will) happen. Which isn't the same as saying that it couldn't, but we do require some evidence before accepting Orwell's world as realistic.

Yet from this book, a lot of implicit assumptions have seeped into our consciousness. The most important one (shared with many other dystopian novels) is that dictatorships are stable forms of government. Note the "forever" in the quote above - the society Orwell warned about would never change, never improve, never transform. In several conversations (about future governments, for instance), I've heard - and made - the argument that a dictatorship was inevitable, because it's an absorbing state. Democracies can come become dictatorships, but dictatorships (barring revolutions) will endure for good. And so the idea is that if revolutions become impossible (because of ubiquitous surveillance, for instance), then we're stuck with Big Brother for life, and for our children's children'c children's lives.

But thinking about this in the context of history, this doesn't seem credible. The most stable forms of government are democracies and monarchies; nothing else endures that long. And laying revolutions aside, there have been plenty of examples of even quite nasty governments improving themselves. Robespierre was deposed from within his own government - and so the Terror, for all its bloodshed, didn't even last a full year. The worse excesses of Stalinism ended with Stalin. Gorbachev voluntarily opened up his regime (to a certain extent). Mao would excoriate the China of today. Britain's leaders in the 19th and 20th century gradually opened up the franchise, without ever coming close to being deposed by force of arms. The dictatorships of Latin America have mostly fallen to democracies (though revolutions played a larger role there). Looking over the course of recent history, I see very little evidence the dictatorships have much lasting power at all - or that they are incapable of drastic internal change and even improvements.

Now, caveats abound. The future won't be like the past - maybe an Orwellian dictatorship will become possible with advanced surveillance technologies. Maybe a world government won't see any neighbouring government doing a better job, and feel compelled to match it by improving lot of its citizens. Maybe the threat of revolution remains necessary, even if revolts don't actually happen.

Still, we should refrain from assuming that dictatorships, whether party or individual, are somehow the default state, and conduct a much more evidence-based analysis of the matter.

79 comments

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comment by Jack · 2013-05-24T20:20:08.859Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I'm confused by this post but I'm not sure if that is because of vocabulary or actually disagreement (and whether that disagreement is about Orwell or the world).

First, I don't agree that "dictatorships are stable forms of government" has seeped into our consciousness. I mean, maybe it is the case for people who just read the book. But in the field of international relations it is practically a truism that dictatorships are unstable. Much of American foreign policy thought consists of worrying about what will happen when this or that dictators dies, loses control over his military or faces popular revolt. And there are tons of explanations for why democracies are so stable, see "Democratic Peace Theory".

Second, Orwell's Oceania wasn't a dictatorship. There was a central figure-- "Big Brother"-- but it turned out Big Brother was long gone, if he had ever existed at all. Totalitarian, authoritarian and oligarchical--yes, but it isn't clear it is a dictatorship. This is relevant because Orwell's prediction wasn't actually about the number of people with power: it was about power as a force which could control and produce all human activity. It was a warning about totalitarianism more than anything else.

Lots of dictatorships aren't especially totalitarian. They might seek to have total control over their country, but don't come anywhere close to achieving it. Such regimes are unstable and Orwell wouldn't say otherwise. What Orwell foresaw were increases in the ability of rulers to have complete power over their people and an interest in gaining that power.

Also, presumably he was not actually predicting their inevitability but warning of the possibility of an oligarchical totalitarian government that could rule eternally. And it seems odd to take an outside view about a detailed inside view argument. Like, Orwell showed how Oceania would be stable in perpetuity not how every dictatorship would.

In general, it seems like you are taking one famous quote and giving in an astonishing degree of influence over political discourse while not actually considering a) how people really think about government or b) the context in which the quote was produced.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-05-27T17:22:49.624Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Like, Orwell showed how Oceania would be stable in perpetuity not how every dictatorship would.

Well, to be more precise, Orwell imagined how Oceania might be stable in perpetuity. That doesn't mean his imagination was an accurate representation of a society that could really exist.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-27T17:13:41.570Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

First, I don't agree that "dictatorships are stable forms of government" has seeped into our consciousness.

It's very prevalent with many people I've been talking to.

In general, it seems like you are taking one famous quote and giving in an astonishing degree of influence over political discourse while not actually considering a) how people really think about government or b) the context in which the quote was produced.

I'm using one quote to illustrate a belief that seems somewhat prevalent. I think Orwell is the most influential of the dictatorship-eternal dystopia works, but there've been a lot of others.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-05-24T12:28:34.160Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't that line about a foot stomping on a human face forever a quote from O'Brian? If so, it's the kind of thing he'd like to believe, but it wouldn't be the sort of thing that could be known, and is less likely to be accurate considering that atmosphere of lies that Oceania had.

On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if Orwell meant it to be taken straight.

Second thought: O'Brian might not have believed it himself (what does belief mean to an Inner Party member?), he just might have been saying it to get Winston to despair.

One of the other implausibilities of the book is that people who get hurt in dictatorships are generally just ground up by the system, they aren't targeted by a highly intellectual stalker.

comment by Pfft · 2013-05-24T17:33:44.513Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

And Margaret Atwood made this point:

But this view of Orwell is contradicted by the last chapter in the book, an essay on Newspeak [..] the essay on Newspeak is written in standard English, in the third person, and in the past tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen, and that language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. Thus, it's my view that Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he's usually been given credit for.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2013-05-24T18:20:30.661Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW · GW

in the past tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen

Plusuntrue. This may simply be a conventional way of indicating that Orwell is discussing a fictional universe; there is nothing in the text to indicate that the narrator of the appendix resides within the world of 1984. Similarly, when SM Stirling ended "Marching Through Georgia" with an appendix of Draka history and weapons, it was in the past tense, but it wasn't obviously an in-universe work; it had information not readily apparent to any Alliance writer, but attitudes neutrally non-Draka.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-05-25T09:33:36.049Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't that line about a foot stomping on a human face forever a quote from O'Brian? If so, it's the kind of thing he'd like to believe,

No, I don't think he'd like to believe that, and that's one of the major points of the book.

The horror of the book is twofold.

Everyone could be against the system, and wish it weren't so, but still be efficient and effective cogs in the machine. The machine does not require willing cogs. O'Brien seems more resigned than a true believer, but he obediently plays his part as a cog.

The other horror is the ability to take up WInston like a piece of meat, grind him up like hamburger, and mold him into whatever shape they wanted. Make him believe whatever they wanted, make him love or hate whatever they wanted.

There is a tradition in a lot of fiction to glorify the idea that people can't be broken, that they can hold one small piece of themselves inviolable. Winston thought he could hold on and not betray Julia. Wrong.

Another example of such glorification was Bigger Thomas saying "you can't make me do nothing but die". Guess again. Your'e a meat machine with buttons, and if we press the right buttons in the right order, you'll beg and plead to be given a chance to please us, and you'll mean it. You'll want to please us.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-26T05:19:23.809Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The other horror is the ability to take up WInston like a piece of meat, grind him up like hamburger, and mold him into whatever shape they wanted.

If you apply enough pressure to a tool - well, the tool won't do anything you want. It might do something. It might just break.

No one ever said dictatorships end cleanly. The question is how far you can bend a real society made of real humans before you compromise its functional integrity.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-05-28T20:35:30.718Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Everyone could be against the system, and wish it weren't so, but still be efficient and effective cogs in the machine. The machine does not require willing cogs. O'Brien seems more resigned than a true believer, but he obediently plays his part as a cog.

On the other hand, this can also be applied optimistically, to the human tendency towards corruption, abuse of power etc.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-05-24T16:14:54.555Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW · GW

The most stable forms of government are democracies and monarchies; nothing else endures that long.

What's the difference between a monarchy and a dictatorship? A monarchy has rules of succession but most monarchies foundered through contested successions. A dictator can also groom a successor (like Kim Jong-Un). And many monarchs who didn't inherit their power could be called dictators.

Robespierre was deposed from within his own government - and so the Terror, for all its bloodshed, didn't even last a full year. The worse excesses of Stalinism ended with Stalin. Gorbachev voluntarily opened up his regime (to a certain extent). Mao would excoriate the China of today.

All of these are examples of very stable dictatorships. As you point out, none of them were close to revolution (Gorbachev's USSR had coup attempts, but not popular revolutions). In each case, when the successors attained power, they repudiated the previous dictator's harsh policies and instituted reforms - something which is easiest to do during a generational change of power. This didn't happen because the dictatorships weren't stable.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2013-05-24T20:35:14.420Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

What's the difference between a monarchy and a dictatorship?

There are both ideological and practical differences. A monarch is head of state explicitly because of his ancestry; further, they tend to go with a hereditary aristocracy explicitly identified as such. (The Soviet nomenklatura was certainly hereditary, but it was not part of the public organisation of the USSR.) A dictator may inherit power from his father, but that's not the basis of his legitimacy; he is dictator because he "safeguards the revolution" or "leads the Party" or whatever. In fact, monarchies generally speaking don't have an explicit ideology, unless you count "family X shall retain the throne"; dictatorships have,a least publicly, some sort of theoretical underpinning, whether it's marxist-leninism, lebensraum for the X race, or Ordnung Muss Sein.

Further, monarchs have, as a general rule, been less obvious about the mailed fist; secret police and censorship certainly occur, but they are not central, obvious features of the regime. They also tend to be less overtly militaristic; note for example that Britain has a Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force, but a British Army. That's because it descends from the New Model Army, raised by Cromwell to fight for Parliament (against the King) in the Civil War.

Monarchies are also, perhaps, more long-term in their extraction of surplus; shearing the sheep rather than butchering it. A warlord or bandit who expects to be thrown out next year has no incentive to let the peasants keep their seed corn; a monarch who expects to pass his throne to his children will even let them keep enough of their stuff to do long-term improvements like, say, building roads and canals. A dictatorship, I suggest, is usually somewhere between these two extremes. Henry VIII's dissolution of the monarchies was unusual in a monarchy, but would not stand out in a dictatorship.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-05-25T06:12:23.077Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

ETA: sorry, mixed you up with other commenters. Here's what's left of my response:

The original claim was that dictatorships are less stable than monarchies. Your definition of the difference between the two might say that this is because monarchies have stable inheritance rules, while in dictatorships, which don't, a new dictator is often weak at first. This can topple or amend the dictatorship.

This claim (which you didn't make) doesn't convince me, to which I responded (after correcting my comments) in my reply here.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2013-05-26T11:14:21.530Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I was only responding to the question about the difference - I wasn't making any claims about the stability. It is not really clear that monarchies last all that long; if you look at England, they tend to get a new dynasty every two hundred years, or whatever, usually after a civil war. It's not obvious that you want to consider this a continuation of the monarchy; you might just as well consider it a new one.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-27T16:49:20.225Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Few dictatorships last that long.

comment by J_Taylor · 2013-06-01T02:44:09.482Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Could you please name some that did?

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-06-12T22:07:25.628Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The Roman Empire should probably be classified as a dictatorship, but it didn't have 200 years without succession violence. The "Five Good Empires" period lasted 100 years, though.

Maybe the Vatican should count as a dictatorship. It has had succession violence, but probably less often than England. But maybe it is too decentralized to count.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-06-01T08:33:37.062Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can't think of any, in fact (which is my point). However, there may be one or two that don't spring to mind.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-05-24T17:57:36.478Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

These cases might have happened because the dictator in charge after the power transition was weak and sought public support. A dictator tends to deliberately build a state that will be highly unstable after he dies, by making sure no one person is politically stronger than everyone else. In that sense dictatorships are inherently unstable. Oligarchies, though, are different.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-05-25T06:08:53.453Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

[Edited heavily because I mixed up my responses first, sorry.]

I think there's a selection bias here. When we look at the worst recent dictators (Stalin, Mao) we see that their successors were less despotic. But that's because we selected the most despotic outliers, so of course there was regression to the mean afterwards. We could as easily ask: when Stalin or Mao were rising to power and still weak, why did they turn out to be more despotic than their predecessors?

Also, the states that Stalin and Mao built were stable, even if successorship wasn't clear. A weak successor can seek support from a court party, the army, the rich, the church, or other privileged groups. All these groups are often united against the broader population, no matter what faction they support in court politics.

Many monarchies have had weak or contested successors, or outright succession wars. And many dictatorships have had strong successors who were just as despotic once they established their rule. So I don't think monarchies are more stable as a rule, not without seeing a quantitative analysis.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-27T16:47:20.928Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

We could as easily ask: when Stalin or Mao were rising to power and still weak, why did they turn out to be more despotic than their predecessors?

Do we have many examples of relatively stable regimes that suddenly got a lot worse? Robespierre, Stalin, Mao - they all came to power in a type of revolution (and Hitler came to power in a very illegitimate democratic regime).

Maybe some of the monarchies, thinking about it... but the worse examples still seem to be just after regime changes.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-05-27T17:22:25.258Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Drastic change in most policies, and in either direction (good/bad), is most likely to happen after a regime change. This is just because in an autocracy, the most important policies are set by the ruler, and people don't change their opinions much, and changing an important policy is a politically weak move.

Whereas when a new ruler acquires power, he will want to make at least some changes - what's the chance that the existing policies suit him better than any alternative? And differentiating himself from the previous ruler can be politically beneficial.

But it doesn't follow the changes he makes will be to improve or relax his rule.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-27T17:51:36.795Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This seems to need a formal analysis, rather than an exchange of anecdotes. But we should have some examples, to define what we're talking about. Can you give examples of long-term regimes that got worse some time after their creation? I'm thinking Henry VIII, for instance, but I'm not sure what you have in mind.

comment by shminux · 2013-05-27T18:28:25.307Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Stalin's regime got significantly worse some 10-20 years after the Bolshevik revolution, once he got rid of the last of his comrades.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-27T21:21:45.638Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Point taken.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-05-27T20:55:49.750Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure why you're asking this. That long regimes can (or tend to?) get progressively worse wasn't part of my argument. I was saying that there tends to be more change at the start of a reign than later on. And therefore, absent data to the contrary, I see no reason to believe these changes trend towards relaxation after regime changes, rather than merely showing regression to the mean.

As for long-term regimes that got worse later on: Mao seems to qualify, since the worst of his tyranny (e.g. Cultural Revolution) happened later on. Hitler didn't commit any world-scale atrocities until World War II started. Stalinism was worse in the Thirties than in the Twenties, and worse again in WW2.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-27T21:27:21.155Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Points taken. A dangerous individual at the beginning of a regime can make that regime go much worse over time.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-26T13:57:16.296Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

What's the difference between a monarchy and a dictatorship?

Incentives and time preferences. Ceteris Paribus a monarch with children he cares about has lower time preferences, since he has good reason to believe they will inherit ownership of the country. The second important difference is that dictators usually rule in the name of the people, deriving legitimacy from an abstracted will of the people. They are demotist.

Monarchies not so much. Kings derive legitimacy from the will of God(s), sometimes claiming to being such. An alternative basis for legitimacy that is often present is that this society sees the idea privately instead of publicly owned government as acceptable. As long as say a Queen doesn't use the state to violate the property of her subjects too much, they have an incentive to maintain the respect for private property norm that legitimizes the monarch as well as their own wealth. The state as a family business is a de facto and rather stable reality in many nominal democracies as well.

Edit: RolfAndreassen's comment is quite good too.

comment by anomalyuk · 2013-05-26T14:11:30.569Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The legitimacy issue is perhaps more important. As long as some people with influence accept the theory that gives legitimacy to the rightful heir, the monarch has a built-in advantage over any challenger. That may be quite small, but there is a multiplier effect, because those who value stability and peace will also support the monarch over a rival in order to preserve that stabilising factor. That is quite explicit in some writing from the period (nothing to hand, sorry) - "We must support the King because the existence of a rightful king is what saves us from perpetual civil war"

Monarchies tend to break down when that advantage is lost, either due to unclear succession, or an obviously incompetent heir. Civil war due to these situations was common enough that the stability argument was seen as realistic and concrete.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-05-26T14:30:49.740Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The second important difference is that dictators usually rule in the name of the people, deriving legitimacy from an abstracted will of the people. They are demotist.

What practical difference does that make with a strong, tyrannical dictator? Whatever the official theory, the people can't depose him and choose a different ruler.

comment by ikrase · 2013-05-26T19:49:02.842Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The difference it makes is with non-strong dictators.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-27T16:44:24.778Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What's the difference between a monarchy and a dictatorship?

Mainly that transitions of power are more likely to be stable in a monarchy. The king's more likely to be an idiot, but there's less probability of a fight for the throne. However, it looks like real monarchies were more appropriate for a specific era.

comment by ikrase · 2013-05-26T08:08:40.820Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'd say that monarchies tend to have a greater emphasis on legitimacy (therefore one can contest legitimacy rather than just brutely fight for the throne), plus cultural ties.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-24T19:02:36.377Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What's the difference between a monarchy and a dictatorship?

I am aware of a few potential differences, but the most significant one I can think of boils down to that there are a large number of well known ceremonial monarchies and not nearly as many ceremonial dictatorships.

This seems to go along with things like the concept of a Monarch having somewhat more limited powers seems well established ever since the Magna Carta, and that the original concept of Roman dictators seemed to be explicitly that they did not have to obey those kind of limits.

However, if you were to ask what is the difference between an Absolute Monarchy and a Dictatorship, I don't have much of an answer. Those seem much closer together.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-05-25T11:40:41.631Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

However, if you were to ask what is the difference between an Absolute Monarchy and a Dictatorship, I don't have much of an answer. Those seem much closer together.

For purposes of the original claim that monarchies are more stable, I think we can ignore constitutional monarchies, because those are just vestigial and are completely different from the other kinds.

Non-absolute monarchies (where nobles or a non-popularly-elected assembly share power) do count. It would help at this point to see a quantitative review of monarchies (absolute and non-absolute) and compare their stability trends with dictatorships.

comment by syllogism · 2013-05-24T19:25:43.860Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

People sometimes use the term despotism to refer to a system of government where there is no expectation that the ruling group (often of one) will obey a rule of law. I think that's a better way to demarcate the systems.

comment by Prismattic · 2013-05-25T01:40:41.122Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I've seen governments organized in a 2x2 categorization where the two factors are despotism (whether or not the ruling power is arbitrary) and penetration (how much capacity to interfere in the lives of its subjects does the ruling power have).

Possibly by accident of history (most monarchies are pre-modern and most dictatorships are modern) monarchies have generally been high despotism, low penetration, while dictatorships have been high despotism, high penetration.

(A functioning modern democracy would be an example of low despotism, high penetration -- it can interfere in many ways in the lives of the citizenry, but doesn't generally do so arbitrarily.)

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-05-24T15:42:03.130Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

But that doesn't mean it's accurate as a source of predictions or counterfactuals. Orwell's belief that "British democracy as it existed before 1939 would not survive the war" was wrong.

London has rougly as many cameras that watch it's population as Orwell predicts in his book. Sure the camera's that people have in their homes aren't yet directly connected to the surveillance apparatus but the amount of camera's outside the home is massive.

Secret gap orders allow powerful people to delete newspaper articles from the internet archives of important UK papers and prevent new articles to get published.

You have laws force people to speak in front of court against their own interest by giving the government their passwords.

comment by falenas108 · 2013-05-24T16:57:02.180Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Agree denotationally, but disagree connotationally. Yes, some of these predictions are accurate, but they aren't used nearly to the extent that would be required for this to be an Orwellian dictatorship.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-05-24T17:19:52.816Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Try getting held without charges for years and see if you change your tune.

comment by Mestroyer · 2013-05-24T19:34:50.284Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, but it's still not Orwellian because we're talking about it right now. No thought police are swooping in and stopping me from --

comment by DanielLC · 2013-05-25T06:28:08.011Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder if it's possible to get Candle Jack and the Thought Police to fi--

comment by AspiringRationalist · 2013-05-24T23:54:25.854Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

We were discussing the British situation. How did we suddenly jump to Guantanamo?

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2013-05-25T00:17:57.422Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

We were discussing the British situation. How did we suddenly jump to Guantanamo?

Because there were British detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

comment by ikrase · 2013-05-26T08:11:23.940Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There is still a huge difference between "corrupt Machiavellian democracy" and "1984". Or even between corrupt Machiavellian democracy and Nazi Germany/Stalinist Russia/whatever. We're not even close to China.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-05-24T19:30:07.621Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, some of these predictions are accurate, but they aren't used nearly to the extent that would be required for this to be an Orwellian dictatorship.

It's not an Orwellian dictorship. On the other hand it isn't the democracy it used to be either. In the UK there might be some hope that there are social forces who fight against further degradation of civil liberties.

In the US I see very little evidence. It's probably that the situation in ten year in the US is a lot worse than today. Extrapolating political change in the US is really scary.

I would also remind that secrecy is a major issue when you want to know whether your own government is democratic. The US citizens have just learned that their government has access to records of all their phone conversations.

Did you know about it before Tim Clemente revealed it. Which odds would you have put a year ago on the US government having that capability? If you would have put very low odds, you should update in a direction that there are a lot of invasive things your government does without you having a clue about it.

comment by Nornagest · 2013-05-24T21:00:46.159Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The US citizens have just learned that their government has access to records of all their phone conversations. Did you know about it before Tim Clemente revealed it. Which odds would you have put a year ago on the US government having that capability?

That's been somewhere between a persistent rumor and an open secret for a while, at least among those that follow security or privacy issues at all; Clemente's announcement slightly increased my estimate of its probability, but it's still hovering somewhere in the "plausible but not certain" range depending on how cynical I feel and some uncertainties about the technical side of things. I haven't done the math on the kind of storage and computing power it would take, and it's not unheard of for security insiders to announce capabilities that they can't actually cash out in practice (Bruce Schneier for one is skeptical). A year ago I would have said much the same, adjusted a bit for more expensive hardware per unit capability.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-05-28T15:09:05.869Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'd believe automatically generated transcripts of audio. That compression ratio is pretty steep, and it's far more searchable.

Full audio? I don't have a good handle on how much phone-caling is going on at any given time. It might be trivial.

comment by falenas108 · 2013-05-24T22:16:24.102Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I would have put the probability of the government having recordings of all phone calls at about 75%. I'm slightly more surprised at emails and online chat messages, but not overly so. The U.S. government has gained a lot of power in their surveillance ability, there was even a time where the government interpreted the PATRIOT act as allowing them to put a wire tap without a warrant, though that was overturned by the Supreme Court.

I know there are a ton of things the government does that I am completely unaware of, and that I wouldn't approve of a lot of it. But I don't think it's much worse now than it was in the past. Random example I found with 5 minutes of googling: http://www.aclu.org/aclu-history

Thousands of people were arrested and treated badly by the police without a warrant. This sounds far worse in terms of violated rights than anything they do today.

Incidentally, this link describes the ACLU, a group dedicated to protecting civil liberties.

I misread your first comment as arguing that society was becoming like an Orwellian dictatorship, I apologize for that.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-25T09:53:07.434Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I would have put the probability of the government having recordings of all phone calls at about 75%. I'm slightly more surprised at emails and online chat messages, but not overly so.

Why? The former takes much more storage, so all other things being equal I'd expect it to be less likely.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-05-25T11:44:08.871Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

And text (email, chat) is also much easier to parse and search with computers than voice recordings.

comment by falenas108 · 2013-05-25T18:09:25.099Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That was miscalibration on my part.

My thought process was that wiretapping is a well-known tool used by the government, and I wasn't surprised that they would have created a mechanism by which they could wiretap everyone.

As for why I expected phones more than online communication, that's was availability bias on my part. I'm used to hearing about wiretaps, while similar news with emails either a government employee, who I would expect them to monitor, or a private individual hacking into an email account.

comment by Vladimir_Golovin · 2013-05-26T11:05:23.391Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

a lot of implicit assumptions have seeped into our consciousness. The most important one (shared with many other dystopian novels) is that dictatorships are stable forms of government.

we should refrain from assuming that dictatorships, whether party or individual, are somehow the default state, and conduct a much more evidence-based analysis of the matter.

My comment is unrelated to Orwell, but it is related to the stability of real-world political regimes.

I recently read The Dictator’s Handbook, an excellent book which essentially is a popular account of the selectorate theory. Let me attempt a TL;DR, or rather a list of key points relevant to the current discussion, from memory:

  1. Nobody rules alone. Stalins, Genghis Khans and Clintons need supporters to keep them in power.

  2. The key imperative of a ruler is his political survival, that is, staying in power.

  3. The ruler stays in power by rewarding his essential supporters (referred to as ‘essentials’), that is, people whose support translates into staying in power.

  4. Regimes where the coalition of essentials is small are referred to as autocracies. Regimes with large coalitions of essentials are referred to as democracies. The authors prefer to use these two terms instead of the usual definitions such as monarchy, dictature, theocracy, kleptocracy etc.

  5. In an autocracy, where the number of essentials is small, it’s cheaper for the ruler to purchase their support with private rewards (money, security, palaces, yachts, de-facto immunity from the law etc.)

  6. In a democracy, where the number of essentials is large, it’s cheaper for the ruler to purchase their support via public goods (usually in the form of good governance and policies, such as healthcare, education, etc.)

  7. Statistically, the political survival of a ruler (defined via the probability of being ousted in the next two-year period) in an autocracy is significantly higher than in a democracy. That is, an autocracy is statistically more stable than a democracy.

  8. Purchasing a foreign policy concession (demanded as a public-good reward by the coalition of essentials of the democratic ruler) from an autocracy is cheaper than purchasing it from a democracy. This is an external factor that pushes regimes towards autocracies and away from democracies.

  9. Successful revolutions in autocracies occur when the ruler cannot reliably provide his essentials with private rewards, or won’t be able to do so in the near future. When the essentials understand that their flow of private rewards may cease soon, they begin to shop around for other options and may "fail" to protect the ruler from a promising challenger or a revolution.

  10. The most stable autocracies are those where the ruler doesn’t need people as a source of resources for rewarding his coalition of essentials. For example, when a ruler has oil he doesn’t need to extract taxes from the populace, which means he isn’t compelled to provide public goods and policies that increase tax income, which in turn means that he is free to suppress his people in order to minimize the chances of a successful revolution.

So, to answer the question posed in the original post, autocracies (including dictatorships) are indeed more stable than democracies, at least according to the selectorate theory.

As for the book itself, I found it excellent. Aside from being a fascinating, eye-opening read in general, its section on modern Russia is more spot-on than anything I read in our political press back when I still consumed political news -- I correctly predicted its content before reading it!

comment by falenas108 · 2013-05-26T17:17:29.584Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Statistically, the political survival of a ruler (defined via the probability of being ousted in the next two-year period) in an autocracy is significantly higher than in a democracy. That is, an autocracy is statistically more stable than a democracy.

By ousted, do they mean a revolution? Or does that also include the normal election cycles?

comment by Vladimir_Golovin · 2013-05-27T06:41:21.014Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

They mean losing power, regardless of causes. This statistic is over all types of regimes, so it applies to both autocracies where there are no meaningful election cycles, and to democracies, where election cycles are meaningful by definition.

comment by Emile · 2013-05-27T12:15:13.140Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Statistically, the political survival of a ruler (defined via the probability of being ousted in the next two-year period) in an autocracy is significantly higher than in a democracy. That is, an autocracy is statistically more stable than a democracy.

The bolded part isn't using the same meaning of "stable" as most comparisons of forms of government. Most people are usually concerned with the stability of government institutions as a whole (because they provide services like public order, support the economy, etc.). So while a western-style democracy may be less "stable" for the ruler, change of ruler is much less likely to screw the institutions, compared to places like North Korea, or pre-revolutionary Libya.

The most stable autocracies are those where the ruler doesn’t need people as a source of resources for rewarding his coalition of essentials. For example, when a ruler has oil he doesn’t need to extract taxes from the populace, which means he isn’t compelled to provide public goods and policies that increase tax income, which in turn means that he is free to suppress his people in order to minimize the chances of a successful revolution.

The bolded part looks really fishy - how does providing public goods increase income? (I mean, it might increase it as bit, but not as much as the expense of public goods).

A more plausible explanation (that fits better with the rest of what you wrote!) would be that extracting money from a large population requires a big organization, many parts of which may revolt (so they are "essentials"), whereas extracting money from some oil fields requires a much smaller group of essentials.

comment by Vladimir_Golovin · 2013-05-29T10:05:12.949Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The bolded part looks really fishy - how does providing public goods increase income? (I mean, it might increase it as bit, but not as much as the expense of public goods).

I wish Google could search inside Kindle books, so I could quote the relevant examples. Two specific examples the authors talk about is roads and freedom of speech.

Edit: I found the part about the roads, but Amazon makes it impossible to copy/paste text from its books. However, the example about the roads is so good that I decided to post it via a screenshot: http://i.imgur.com/uBZHzqz.png?1

A more plausible explanation (that fits better with the rest of what you wrote!) would be that extracting money from a large population requires a big organization, many parts of which may revolt (so they are "essentials"), whereas extracting money from some oil fields requires a much smaller group of essentials.

With the exception of the revolt part, the authors explicitly acknowledge the above.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-28T23:56:14.323Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Your point about 7 seems exactly right, less sure about your objection to 10. Building roads, providing education and so on is probably a good investment.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-05-25T00:46:26.704Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Orwell did write that Oceana wasn't robust to genuine external threats, but his fictional world lacked them. Also, I suspect that a sufficiently bad natural disaster could also disrupt things enough to shut down the system and force people to start over.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2013-05-28T15:22:20.249Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Orwell did write that Oceania wasn't robust to genuine external threats

Where did he write this?

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-05-28T18:23:12.893Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't remember exactly. It may have been in "Goldberg"'s book where it was implied that Oceania, being based on self-delusion, could be destroyed if external reality hit it hard enough that it couldn't simply ignore it - for example, if it were conquered by a far superior military force. However, the two other world powers in 1984 are exactly the same as Oceania, so it won't happen.

comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2013-05-29T00:07:46.087Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

However, the two other world powers in 1984 are exactly the same as Oceania, so it won't happen.

They are apparently the same, but we don't have any reliable source information about them. For all we really know, they might not even actually exist.

comment by Dentin · 2013-05-25T16:16:26.348Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps something which may be useful here is to look at a couple dictatorships that have been stable, and why:

  • North Korea survives on propaganda, isolation, and by keeping the population so poor and scattered that revolution is nearly impossible. The controllers have access to substantial power compared to the population as a whole, and the population is prevented from using their political superpower because they're too scattered and diffuse.

  • Saudi Arabia survives by having so much power and money funneled to the ruling class that the ruling class is able to keep the population in check. The population's superpower is available, but the ruling class has sufficient resources and control to keep the population from wanting to use it.

The common theme in both of these cases is merely that the ruling class is able to maintain a sufficient power gap over the population, which is effectively the same thing that happened in 1984. Some technologies make this easier and some make it harder. Nothing guarantees democratic organization, and advancement of technology may in fact lead to conditions that strongly prefer dictatorships in the future.

If nothing else, look at the "infinite paperclip maximizer" crowd and Eliezer's fears that a single AI would take over the entire universe: that's one of the most strict, unforgiving and inescapable dictatorships you could possibly ask for. It's such an inescapable dictatorship that Eliezer has set up an entire research institution dedicated to securing us favorable rules should one be set up.

Ultimately I think it's more interesting to discuss the conditions and requirements for stable dictatorship than whether or not dictatorships are more stable than democracies.

comment by ikrase · 2013-05-26T08:00:54.301Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

IIRC Saudi Arabians don't necessarily desire an end to the dictatorship? My impression was that due to oil, everybody has fair material wealth?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-29T00:37:56.738Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Your caveats seem to make the rest of the post a bit pointless, although it is very interesting! You say that dictatorships have not been stable up till now, i.e. in conditions we are used to. But the central xrisk concern about dictatorships is their stability in new conditions i.e. world government or advanced surveillance. The stability of dictatorships in the past or at present doesn't seem to have much bearing on their stability in the future.

Or rather, it seems to have bearing in the more limited sense that we can examine particular causes of past instability and consider dictatorship-stability without them. So for example isolation seems key. If the USSR was the sole state in the world, it would probably be around today. A major reason for its end was elite exposure to outside ideas, mass exposure to differences in living standards and the cost of competition with the West. If an isolated totalitarian state is able to keep a strong enough grip on its education, media and power structure to prevent people with alternative ideas from gaining power or influence, it seems like it could last a long time.

This seems to be the main problem with a singleton. I sometimes imagine the future as threading the needle between increased control and global coordination (to prevent nano- and bio-risks) and the possibility of dictatorship.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-05-25T09:41:36.808Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think you'd do well to distinguish between dictatorship and totalitarianism.

Ideological totalitarianism seems very stable to me in ways that a corrupt and venal dictatorship is not. Add in a panopticon that is already technically feasible, and there's little reason I see it can't last and last and last, particularly if the group in power sees benefit in the system.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-27T17:05:59.519Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ideological totalitarianism seems very stable to me

Really? What examples do you have in mind? China (which has changed a lot), North Korea and Cuba (which survive because of isolation), the Vatican (tiny anachronism), and a few others?

Whereas large parts of Europe have been democratic since the end of the 1940s, and the USA, the UK and Switzerland have been pretty democratic for over a hundred years (I count the US since the end of the civil war).

This isn't a systematic analysis, but all the evidence available to me seems to scream that democracies are the absorbing states - once your country's been there for a while, it doesn't tend to leave.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-29T00:03:32.654Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Edit - moved to a different comment.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-05-24T17:37:07.717Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

One important step is to identify the relevant factors that need to be considered to determine what kind of governments are stable. Educational level, technology, wealth, cultural diversity and antagonism, etc. A recent paper in Science is an interesting example: "Ethnicity and Conflict: Theory and Facts", Joan Esteban, Laura Mayoral, and Debraj Ray, Science 18 May 2012: 858-865. [DOI:10.1126/science.1222240]. It took on the question of how ethnic diversity affects stability. They found 1 ethnic group is very stable, 2 less stable, 3 the least-stable, and then increasing stability from there on. But this depended on whether the rewards of ruling were "public" or "private". "Public" rewards are where the central government gets all the tax money and decides how to spend it. The more money you spend at the federal level vs. the state level, the more likely you are to have ethnic conflict.

Re. democracy, that does not exist. There is no government in the world where the citizens choose legislation, render legal verdicts, or do anything by popular vote other than elect people to do those things for them.

One aspect of government is information theoretic. (A government is very like an AI architecture. The earliest and simplest ones used pure top-down planning and information flow; later we learned how to design more distributed, bottom-up AI architectures and governments.) How much of the information present in the population is available for governing? Policy should maximize information flow towards decisions. This would involve identifying, for any issue, which people provide positive information, ensuring that they're motivated to provide truthful information, and summing up their information in an optimal way. "One person, one vote" is far from optimal, and possibly worse than random.

comment by HungryHobo · 2013-05-24T14:51:21.750Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It was a product of its time. For a long time the shift had been towards larger states, bigger weapons of war technology had allowed more central authority.

Since then the shift has gone the other way. One person can carry a weapon which can blow the largest warship out of the water and significant weapons have become smaller and more accessible. Computing and crypto has given everyone capable the tools to speak privately if they really want it.

Some tech makes it easier for a small number of people to control a lot of people, some tech makes it harder.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-24T14:04:05.347Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I am glad to see you write that forever = forever. The more I learned about the implications of absolute terms the less I came to use them.

There is no evidence that anything like the world he envisaged could (or will) happen.

The future won't be like the past

Which is it? The past limits the future or the past does not limit the future?

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-27T17:10:27.217Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Which is it? The past limits the future or the past does not limit the future?

The past provides evidence as to what the future will be like, but this is relatively weak evidence (though sometimes it might be the only evidence).

comment by Dias · 2013-05-24T13:05:21.485Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Nitpick: the British expansion of the franchise seems out of place in your list. Britain was hardly a dictatorship to begin with, so doesn't constitute evidence that dictatorships change, though it is evidence that non-democracies can become democracies without violence.

comment by DavidAgain · 2013-05-24T13:39:00.797Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It;'s probably also worth noting that the extension of the franchise in the UK happened in the context of violent revolution in France and protests and some riots in England - to my (limited) understanding, some of the motivation of it was to give compromises that prevented revolution. Similarly, part of the context of USSR and China reforming is external. One of the interesting questions in general is how much governmental change is driven by pressure from other countries: deliberate or otherwise.

comment by Larks · 2013-05-24T23:12:28.880Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You mean the French revolution, which happened in 1787, was what caused the Great Reform Act, in 1832? According to wikipedia:

Support for parliamentary reform plummeted after the launch of the French Revolution in 1789. Reacting to the excesses of the revolution, English politicians became steadfastly opposed to any major political change.

comment by DavidAgain · 2013-05-27T08:50:36.403Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Nope: I talked about revolution in France providing some motivation and context to extension of the UK franchise. No idea how this becomes 'The French Revolution in 1787/1789 caused the 1832 reform act'. You're implying that France only had revolution for a year or two, that the UK only had one reform act and that I'm claiming a clear line of causation: none of these are the case. As it happens, there was a revolution in France in 1830, shortly before the Great Reform Act, and others across the 19th century. Revolution was something of a general theme.

Again, this was about government putting forward compromises to avoid what happened, not backing it. The 1832 reform act removed the worst excesses of rotten boroughs which made the electoral system an easy target. The 1867 reform act aimed essentially to bring as many 'respectable' people on board as possible to make it easier to block the more radical calls for reform.

In terms of steadfast opposition: there's also evidence suggesting that the radical campaigns of the Suffragettes created more steadfast opposition to women's suffrage. Usually, dramatic pressures of this kind don't have a clear single effect. They increase opposition, provoke groups of support and create an incentive to find some way to drive a compromise.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2013-05-27T17:08:07.125Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, the picture is complicated, and I alluded to that in the last paragraph. Still, the anecdotes suggest we can't accept "dictatorships are/will be stable" without demanding evidence.

comment by DavidAgain · 2013-06-02T07:39:53.857Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I for one agree with that. It would be interesting, though, to tease apart 'stability as form of government' and 'stability as regime'. For a long time in many countries (including most of Europe) 'monarchy' was the stable form of government in one sense, but that doesn't mean things were actually stable. To quote Thomas Paine

"The most plausible plea which hath ever been offered in favor of hereditary succession is, that it preserves a nation from civil wars; and were this true, it would be weighty; whereas it is the most bare-faced falsity ever imposed upon mankind. The whole history of England disowns the fact. Thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the conquest, in which time there has been (including the revolution) no less than eight civil wars and nineteen Rebellions. Wherefore instead of making for peace, it makes against it, and destroys the very foundation it seems to stand upon."