Sunday, April 17, 2022

A brief comment about "Spin Dictators," a book I recommend

In their new and very interesting book “Spin Dictators,” Daniel Treisman and Sergei Guriev argue that, if the dominant form of dictatorship in the XXth century was based on fear, open violence and human rights violations, the dominant one in the XXIst century is based on the manipulation of information, often keeping some democratic surface.

The book is based on their joint academic work, both theoretical and empirical. Their classification is plausible and, as they explain, should not be interpreted as a discrete taxonomy, but more as a continuum. The fact that “spin dictators” like Putin or Orban, keep some democratic forms, also suggests that the border between democracy and dictatorship has become fuzzy. In their defense of a liberal, rule-based democracy, they might as well be presenting their arguments to defeat, more generally, different forms of national-populism (although some spin dictatorships, like the Singaporean, do not fit with the national populist mold).

In the final part of the book, they try to answer this question: “How to respond to spin dictators?” Of course, this part is necessarily speculative, but in my view it is a very useful contribution to the necessary debate on how to improve democracies in a concerted global action.

They propose five principles:

1) Be more watchful. That is, never take for granted that a democracy is fully consolidated and be watchful for signs that democracies may be deteriorating. Perhaps this is a message to those that thought that democracy had come to stay in Russia and did business with Putin in an open way. Democracy is not only about voting, but also about respect for the rule of law and reasoned discussion.

2) Welcome modernization -even in our adversaries. Treisman and Guriev believe that if dictators hesitate to use fear and open violence, it is because of globalization and modernization. They believe that if globalization and modernization persist, spin dictators will necessarily evolve into democracies. I am not so sure of that, and I guess there is no way to be sure, but perhaps we should at least share this piece of wishful thinking.

3) Put our own house in order. That is, improve the functioning of the institutions of what we proudly call democracies, so that they can be an example that others want to follow, and introduce reforms that show to a great majority of people that democracies deliver what they promise. Here I would add a greater emphasis on reducing inequalities and fighting climate change at the same time, and in general a more critical stance about capitalism. The authors put a lot of hope on informed elites, but throughout history I am not sure that it has been these elites the ones who put their lives at risk to defend democracies.

4) Defend and reform the institutions of the liberal order, especially those at the international level, like the EU, NATO and the UN.

5) Support democracy democratically (not through the army), uniting around the idea of liberal democracy.

These are all useful ideas. They may be incomplete, but all of them are food for thought. I recommend this book.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Borders and soccer

In the last five centuries, the nation-state has become the most important form of political organization in the world, with important implications for economic and industrial organization (including the sports industries, where national teams, national federations and national tournaments play a key role). Since the end of the nineteenth century, empires and colonialism collapsed and resulted into many newly independent states, while at the same time there were attempts at political integration (the re-unified Germany, the European Union). One problem with the nation-state form of political organization is the constant and often violent questioning of borders. Today, small ethnically homogeneous countries coexist with muti-ethnic and diverse countries (as it could be seen in the final between Croatia –a former Yugoslav Republic- and France in the last World Cup). World Cups and other tournaments exhibit both national pride and global integration, sometimes with internationally mobile players on the pitch having difficulties to understand the (not always peaceful) feelings of the crowds.

Some examples of these border tensions are the US Civil War in the nineteenth century, which started with the secession attempts of Southern states, or the partition between India and Pakistan in the 1960s following the Independence of India from the British empire, which was accompanied by thousands of deaths and the forced displacement of millions of people, or the Independence of Ireland in the 1920’s, which was accompanied by the partition of the island of Ireland between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (with the latter belonging to the UK, and suffering violence between the Catholic and Protestant communities until the Good Friday Agreement of the late 1990s). A recent speech by the Kenyan ambassador to the UN warned about the risks of questioning existing borders, even acknowledging their unavoidable imperfection.

Since the end of the twentieth century, border disputes and re-drawing have not stopped. The Balkan wars in the 1990’s transformed the federal nation-state of Yugoslavia into a collection of republics, after a war with more than 100.000 deaths and millions of refugees. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was accompanied by the creation of new republics (such as Ukraine, the Baltic countries, Central Asian republics and others) that were previously integrated into the Soviet Union, or the partition of a previously communist country, Czechoslovakia, into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. All these movements have changed the organization of sports and soccer in particular, with the creation of new national teams and new leagues. The recent invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia shows that the current status-quo is far from stable. According to American historian Timothy Snyder (in his book “The Road to Unfreedom”), many of these secession movements are not unrelated and reports about a policy (by the current regime in Russia) of advocating separatism in all countries except Russia itself (the South from the US, Scotland from Britain, Catalonia from Spain, Crimea and the Donbas region from Ukraine, any member-state from the EU…).

The European Union is the result of an integration project that started after the Second World War, to bring peace to Europe through economic integration. Although the UK was not among the founding members, it joined in the 1970s, but decided to leave (in the so-called Brexit) the club in a referendum in 2016, to become the first country to exit, with the Republic of Ireland remaining one of the current 27 member-states. The internationalization of the English soccer Premier League is difficult to understand without the free movement of workers and capital in the EU Single Market. Exiting this single market implies that now players joining a British club must do so under a “points system,” by which only top players over 18 years old can join. Some commentators have predicted that this will make the Premier League weaker. In any event, Brexit does not imply English teams leaving the Champions League (which is open to European teams out of the EU). 

The campaign for Catalonia to secede from Spain accelerated in 2012, after the main (until then) dominant moderate nationalist party joined the pro-independence forces. In 2017, an illegal secession referendum was called by the regional government on the basis of a set of decisions by the nationalist dominated regional Parliament which declared the rejection of the Spanish Constitution. After this, a dozen pro-independence leaders were arrested and judged, and six left the country. The Spanish government temporarirly suspended regional self-rule for some months, to be restored in the spring of 2018 with a newly elected regional government also led by pro-independence forces. Those that went to jail were pardoned by the Spanish government in 2021. The prospect of a Catalan national team or a Catalan league was not strong enough to culminate this now decaying campaign.