Dictators, Emperors, and you know who

Dictators, by Frank Dikötter and The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuściński

Dictators are not particularly interesting people, in and of themselves. Fascinating for what they wrought and the influence their whims exert, of course, but personality-wise, they’re usually complete duds. They know they cannot endear themselves to anyone, so they don’t even try.

Frank Dikötter does not explicitly make this point in his highly-readable book of portraitures of 20th century tyrants. It shows through, though, in his thorough research. These men are very ordinary beasts; they hide in plain sight; they are undistinguished followers with only a talent or two (administration, public speaking, sucking up). They know how to wait. They are not deeply read; their intellects do not sparkle. They rarely display the kind of natural charisma that binds men and women to them or the obvious smarts with impress a dinner party. They have, instead, a thug’s instincts. And probably precisely because of that, they are almost always underestimated by their opponents and passing allies.

The great Dikötter, who has spent more time than most staring into the abyss that was Mao Zedong, runs through their lives, their rises and falls, and their horrible idiosyncrasies. Haiti’s Duvalier liked to dress up as a Voodoo priest. Romania’s Ceausescu half-built a palace with more than a thousand rooms. Stalin murdered pretty much everyone around him. Kim Il-Sung so destroyed his opposition that he was uniquely successful in founding a dynasty.

But above all, he focuses in on one of their common traits: the personality cult. Posters everywhere, endless clapping, weird salutes, oaths of loyalty, breathless “savior of the country” propaganda. You know the type of thing. Oh, and don’t forget the useful foreign idiots, happy to pick up a bag of dollars for a quick hagiography (Looking at you Edgar Snow, who I wrote about here, and you George Bernard Shaw, who noted of Stalin, ‘there was no malice in him’, which was not Trotsky’s final thought). It’s all televised or dumped wholesale on the radio, all the better to invade the homestead. Here we are now, though, in the 21st century, and the internet is the new cult delivery mechanism. And the smartphone is even more insidious - it can mindfu*k you (read about that here). Dikötter shows how these men always put aside time to approve official photos, constantly monitoring and shaping the image as the times demanded.

I’ll return to the political utility of the leadership cult later, but reading these portraits I could not help but think how tawdry and obviously constructed these cults were. They really required a lot of work. And it struck me that they are a very 20th century attempt to recreate the aura, the natural God-given legitimacy, of the royal crown.

Which brings us to Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor. If you’ve never read it, stop and Amazon it now. An old polsci prof introduced me to it years back. It is a stunning work, in multitudinous ways. The set up is quite plain: a journalist travels at night through post-coup Addis to interview men who used to work in Haile Selassie’s palace. The Lion of Judah was crowned in 1916 and ruled for almost six decades, far longer than any of Dikötter’s gang. Kapuściński allows the recollections he hears to tell the story, and thus his interlocutors’ delusions and their misplaced loyalty just lie there on the page. There is the man who devoted his life to wiping the piss of the Emperor’s dog off the silk shoes of the supplicants. The man who introduces his collection of 52 pillows, of all sizes and colors, which he would, with great skill, place between the enthroned Emperor’s feet and floor, at home and abroad. And the servant who could not credit the ungratefulness of the rabble of beggars to whom the Elect of God generously threw coins.

Selassie inherited the holiness of the crown and so did not need to build any cult. But that did not mean he did not attend minutely to the exercise of power. Oh no.

Selassie is a masterclass in one man rule. His first hour each day is spent wandering through his grounds, feeding his leopards, listening to three different spy chiefs, separately. The emperor does not speak for fear of biasing the news-flow. He does not take notes, nothing is ever written down. He just waits; they compete to tell their tales, mostly about each other. Selassie never issues clear verbal instructions; if any policy goes awry, a subordinate is blamed and removed.

To divide and rule is 101 dictatorship. Selassie is on another level. The Benevolent Majesty ensures factions under him spend all their time battling each other, of course. But he intentionally nurtures an ‘extreme faction’ who sometimes ‘overdo it’, trying to introduce ‘absolute order’, usually one guesses, by shooting people. At which point the King of Kings has to gently intervene. Oh what beneficence. He requires a ‘basic order with a margin of disorder on which his monarchial gentleness could exert itself’. To balance the aristocrat and bureaucratic elite factions, he hires his ‘personal people’ from the provinces. Chosen from the lowest rank, they are ‘dropped straight from our desperate and miserable provinces into the salons of the highest courtiers’, and thus are wholly loyal. And loyalty, not ability or lack of corruption, is the key. If his people were actually competent, ‘instead of one sun, fifty would be shining and everyone would pay homage to a privately-chosen planet.’

See what I mean? It’s exquisite.

When the Emperor travels to the provinces, they always have good notice for painting and crowd preparation; if he turned up unannounced, his majesty would be un-adored (the horror!) and local officials would grumble, which would be unproductive. ‘Our emperor knew that one who is satiated will defend his own contentedness.’ He hands out jobs - everything from finance minister to district school teacher - personally. Second-tier elite crowd around the Palace’s inner courtyards, dying to catch a glance of the imperial gaze, ‘for a passing trace on his majesty’s memory’. Officials are ranked on the number of times a month they have the Emperor’s ear.

Here’s another pearl. Officials ‘not distinguished by quick wits or perspicuity’ introduce some dumb new policy, triggering ‘the young smart alecs’, fresh back from overseas unis, to try mend things. ‘Drenched in sweat, wearing their nerves to shreds’, these potential reformers have no energy left to ‘build their own vision of the future’. Thus the kingdom maintained its ‘blessed and amiable balance.’

Just perfection. Kapuściński has loads more; I won’t spoil the pleasure you’ll get from reading him by relaying any more. If you follow China’s politics, the echoes are often deafening.

Selassie did not have to worry about building a cult; his crown did much of that work for him, until gross misrule, massive corruption and famine eventually destroyed the foundations of his power. They came for him eventually, but even Selassie’s demise is a lesson in dictator smarts.

Returning to Dikötter, we learn that General Mengistu, the army thug who eventually takes over, modeled himself on Selassie, running things from the old Gand Palace, the Lion of Judah apparently buried under his desk. Rumors abounded that Mengistu himself had quickened the death of the Emperor, aged 83, with a pillow in 1975.

But for those who lack a crown, the cult is essential. Dikötter argues that the point is ‘to sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals, and crush their dignity’. This is all insightful. And once any dignity has been crushed - looking at you Tianjin Party Secretary Li “If it’s not absolute loyalty, it’s absolutely not loyalty (忠诚不绝对就是绝对不忠诚)” Hongzhong - you’re ready for promotion, signaling that this is the way to get ahead. Once fully developed, ‘no one can any longer be quite certain any more who supports and who opposes the dictator.’ The two most powerful men in the world today, Trump and Xi, both know understand this truth, though only one of them has the discipline to systematize it.

For Xi it’s a delicate operation as he has to rise above a massive, existing Party bureaucracy and break the kind-of-norm which was ‘collective leadership’ to promote himself. I’m not saying he isn’t in control, but he has to step carefully, least the disquiet he’s triggering coalesces into outright opposition. So far, so good. Everyone knows he’s ‘the core’, though it’s not explicitly stated. He can ease ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ into everyday Party talk because the official version is far too wordy. Occasional mention of him as ‘The People’s Leader’(人民领袖)comes and goes, normalizing the phrase but not ramming it down throats. The army (and the soon-to-be-rectified security folk) now in effect swear their loyalty to him.

There are critics, of course. Ren Zhiqiang wrote about an emperor with no clothes, and he’s now in jail. His essay railed about the initial COVID coverup, but that’s paled in significance as other country heads have committed even worse errors. The COVID fight has given this emperor a clear personal win. As have US-China tensions.

All of Dikötter’s dictators were leaders in the movements which destroyed the ancien regimes and into this fresh soil their cults were sown. Xi, in contrast, has pulled off an internal Party coup. Former Party School professor Cai Xia - who is shaping up to be a thoughtful, credible and vocal offshore opposition figure (and by god, we needed one) has noted that the Party has become zombie as Xi takes over. This is a bit of an exaggeration - the Party still provides the infrastructure of rule. But it gets at an essential point; the restraints on one-man power are off, with all the risks that entails.