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April 2nd, 2017


How to Be a Better Dictator: The Dictator's Reading List

To the illustrious President Snow:

What dictator has time for books? This is the most frequent complaint that we at the SfID hear when we send out our reading list. It’s true that dictatorship leaves little time for leisure - heavy is the head that wears the crown! - but even the busiest dictator needs to carve out some quality alone time for reflection and self-improvement. And what could be a more fruitful topic for reflection than the theory and practice of dictatorship?

One note of caution: don’t read too many memoirs or other works actually written by dictators themselves. Many of them have the obvious drawback of being written by deposed leaders, like Nikita Khrushchev, who are clearly poor role models. But even those written by dictators at the peak of their powers are suspect: they’re writing to burnish their own images, not to give a nitty-gritty how-to guide to other budding dictators. Why help the competition?

Fortunately, however, there are plenty of students of human nature who have provided reams of helpful work. Anything with a title like “cult brainwashing” or “emotional abuse” is likely to be full of wonderful tips. They tend to be couched in terms that suggest that they aim to help their readers foil such strategies, not make use of them, but any clever dictator can figure out how to turn their advice to his own ends.

If, however, you don’t want to suffer through the headache-inducing task of doubling advice back on itself, there’s always C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Told as a series of letters from a demon to his apprentice, a novice in the ways of tempting humans, this book is a must-read for any dictator - for temptation is one of the pillars of any long-running dictatorship. If you want people to work their hearts out for you, then you can’t just give them something to fear; you need to offer them something they want.

Now of course base bribery has its place. The loyal should be rewarded with good food, fancy cars, trips abroad, etc. But Lewis’s chief insight for the dictator is that the strongest and most binding temptation is that of self-righteousness, particularly when it is paired with an ideological commitment to judge oneself not by one’s actions, but by the intended effects of those actions. Minions can forgive themselves any atrocity if they believe they performed it in the name of some far-future utopia - especially if someone in authority tells them so. (Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority is also a key text here. Humans are beautifully receptive to the blandishments of authority figures.)

Solzhenitsyn makes a similar point when he discusses ideology in The Gulag Archipelago, but the SfID realizes that three thousand pages is too much reading to heap on any dictator’s head. The early sections about the secret police, however, are well worth a look. They point out the heartening fact that a totally incompetent secret police force is just as terrifying than a competent one - and perhaps even more so, because the randomness of their arrests fills the populace with superstitious dread.

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is similarly a godsend to any dictator with staffing problems. We can’t count the number of dictators who have come to us despondent over their difficulty in finding good minions. We invariably find that their standards are too high: they want active malice, mustache-twirling, the whole shebang from their rank and file.

But Eichmann in Jerusalem has good news! It turns out that you don’t need any of that. In fact, the best minions are absolutely average types. You want utterly unimaginative nose-to-the-grindstone company man types, the kind who join every organization that comes their way but never lead anything. These people are a dime a dozen. Their consciences may flinch at the first atrocities they’re ordered to carry out, but in most cases their consciences will be too weak to exert any control over their actual behavior - and after the first atrocity is hurdled, habit is a great salve.

In any case, you can turn that flinching of conscience to your own advantage. Focus on your minions’ heroism in overcoming their inner scruples to commit atrocities for the greater good. They still have nightmares about the bloodshed they caused! How heroic they are, overcoming their inner suffering to continue fighting the good fight! Their feelings about their actions are far more important than the actions in themselves.

However, when you’re filling key staffing positions, it’s best to get someone a little more colorful. Stalin liked to hire non-Russians to head his secret police, crescendoing with N. I. Yezhov, a bisexual Jewish dwarf, whose status as a triple outsider made him the perfect scapegoat when Stalin wanted to distance himself from the mass arrests. Find yourself a hunchbacked albino with a foot fetish to place in a highly visible role in your regime. You’ll thank yourself later.

The Society for Improved Dictatorship

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