How to be a dictator: The political rules

The following are excerpts and lessons from various manuals of dictatorship and power:

The logic of politics is not complex. In fact, it is surprisingly easy to grasp most of what goes on in the political world as long as we are ready to adjust our thinking ever so modestly. To understand politics properly, we must modify one assumption in particular: we must stop thinking that leaders can lead unilaterally.

No leader is monolithic. If we are to make any sense of how power works, we must stop thinking that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un can do whatever he wants. We must stop believing that Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin or Genghis Khan or anyone else is in sole control of their respective nation. We must give up the notion that Enron’s Kenneth Lay or British Petroleum’s (BP) Tony Hayward knew about everything that was going on in their companies before they crashed, or that they could have made all the big decisions. All of these notions are flat-out wrong because no emperor, no king, no sheikh, no tyrant, no chief executive officer, no family head, no leader whatsoever can govern alone.

Consider France’s Louis XIV (1638–1715). Known as the Sun King, Louis reigned as monarch for over 70 years, presiding over the expansion of France and the creation of the modern political state. Under Louis, France became the dominant power in Continental Europe and a major competitor in the colonization of the Americas. He and his inner circle invented a code of law that helped shape the Napoleonic code and that forms the basis of French law to this day. He modernized the military, forming a professional standing army that became a role model for the rest of Europe and, indeed, the world. He was certainly one of the preeminent rulers of his or any time. But he didn’t do it alone.

The etymology of monarchy may be “rule by one,” but such rule does not, has not, and cannot exist. Louis is thought famously (and probably falsely) to have proclaimed, L’etat, c’est moi: the state, it is me. This declaration is often used to describe political life for supposedly absolute monarchs like Louis, likewise for tyrannical dictators. The declaration of absolutism, however, is never true. No leader, no matter how august or how revered, no matter how cruel or vindictive, ever stands alone. Indeed, Louis XIV, ostensibly an absolute monarch, is a wonderful example of just how false this idea of monolithic leadership is.

After the death of his father, Louis XIII (1601–1643), Louis rose to the throne when he was but four years old. During the early years actual power resided in the hands of a regent—his mother. Her inner circle helped themselves to France’s wealth, stripping the cupboard bare. By the time Louis assumed actual control over the government in 1661, at the age of 23, the state over which he reigned was nearly bankrupt.

While most of us think of a state’s bankruptcy as a financial crisis, looking through the prism of political survival makes evident that it really amounts to a political crisis. When debt exceeds the ability to pay, the problem for a leader is not so much that good public works must be cut back, but rather that the incumbent doesn’t have the resources necessary to purchase political loyalty from key backers. Bad economic times in a democracy mean too little money to fund pork-barrel projects that buy political popularity. For kleptocrats it means passing up vast sums of money, and maybe even watching their secret bank accounts dwindle along with the loyalty of their underpaid henchmen.

The prospect of bankruptcy put Louis’ hold on power at risk because the old-guard aristocrats, including the generals and officers of the army, saw their sources of money and privilege drying up. Circumstances were ripe to prompt these politically crucial but fickle friends to seek someone better able to ensure their wealth and prestige. Faced with such a risk, Louis needed to make changes, or else risk losing his monarchy.

Louis’ specific circumstances called for altering the group of people who had the possibility of becoming members of his inner circle—that is, the group whose support guaranteed his continued dignity as king. He moved quickly to expand the opportunities (and for a few, the actual power) of new aristocrats, called the noblesse de robe. Together with his chancellor, Michel Le Tellier, he acted to create a professional, relatively meretricious army. In a radical departure from the practice observed by just about all of his neighboring monarchs, Louis opened the doors to officer ranks—even at the highest levels—to make room for many more than the traditional old-guard military aristocrats, the noblesse d’épée. In so doing, Louis was converting his army into a more accessible, politically and militarily competitive organization.

Meanwhile, Louis had to do something about the old aristocracy. He was deeply aware of their earlier disloyalty as instigators and backers of the anti-monarchy Fronde (a mix of revolution and civil war) at the time of his regency. To neutralize the old aristocracy’s potential threat, he attached them—literally—to his court, compelling them to be physically present in Versailles much of the time. This meant that their prospects of income from the crown depended on how well favored they were by the king. That, of course, depended on how well they served him.

By elevating so many newcomers, Louis had created a new class of people who were beholden to him. In the process, he was centralizing his own authority more fully and enhancing his ability to enforce his views at the cost of many of the court’s old aristocrats. Thus he erected a system of “absolute” control whose success depended on the loyalty of the military, the new aristocrats, and on tying the hands of the old aristocrats so that their welfare translated directly into his welfare.

The French populace in general did not figure much into Louis’s calculations of who needed to be paid off—they did not represent an imminent threat to him. Even so, it’s clear that his absolutism was not absolute at all. He needed supporters and he understood how to maintain their loyalty. They would be loyal to him only so long as being so was more profitable for them than supporting someone else.

Louis’s strategy was to replace the “winning coalition” of essential supporters that he inherited with people he could more readily count on. In place of the old guard he brought up and into the inner circle members of the noblesse de robe and even, in the bureaucracy and especially in the military, some commoners. By expanding the pool of people who could be in the inner circle, he made political survival for those already in that role more competitive. Those who were privileged to be in his winning coalition knew that under the enlarged pool of candidates for such positions, any one of them could easily be replaced if they did not prove sufficiently trustworthy and loyal to the king. That, in turn, meant they could lose their opportunity for wealth, power, and privilege. Few were foolish enough to take such a risk.

Like all leaders, Louis forged a symbiotic relationship with his inner circle. He could not hope to thrive in power without their help, and they could not hope to reap the benefits of their positions without remaining loyal to him. Loyal they were. Louis XIV survived in office for 72 years until he died quietly of old age in 1715.

Louis XIV’s experience exemplifies the most fundamental fact of political life. No one rules alone; no one has absolute authority. All that varies is how many backs have to be scratched and how big the supply of backs available for scratching.

Topics: Adolf Hitler , Joseph Stalin , Kim Jong-un , Dictator , Kenneth Lay , Tony Hayward
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