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Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Desperation and the Autocrat

From the comfort of my partially-taxpayer funded university library, I am fortunate to be able to ponder the meaning of "power" and its implications over my life. This week, however, I've given some thought to an Orwellian world that seems to be the creation of psychologially unbalanced movie script writers. Yet that world truly existed for 29 years under the autocratic rule of Ioseb Jughashvili, soon to be known to all as Josef Stalin. As I read Mancur Olson's analysis of the most successful autocracy in modern history, I aksed myself over and over, how did the 5'5" son of a cobbler from rural Georgia incentivize enough individuals to willingly support and maintain a system which murdered many millions of farmers, military(!) and ethnic minorities, then take the possessions of all who remained?

It turns out that Stalin the stationary bandit had quite a criminal pedigree before the Revolution as a literal bank robber, protection racketeer, kidnapper for ransom and counterfeiter with some fellow Bolsheviks. Tellingly, he temporarily quit the Bolshevik party over its ban on bank robberies. There is some debate whether tsarist oppression drove Stalin to such activity or whether it merely provided good opportunities for violent behavior, but his aggressiveness and ruthlessness were notable before he turned 20. To the extent that humans act on incentives, and that all action is based upon the desire to remove some dissatisfaction, Stalin's situation must have been horribly unsatisfactory, and only control of others by force satisfied him. Here, though, was the man at the end of the revolution with the greatest capacity for violence.

Apparently there was very little resistance within the Politburo or upper eschelons of the Red Army, which encouraged Josef Stalin to continue a reign of terror that culminated in full "state" control and decades of fear and poverty. With so little wealth available, his approval of funds for the construction of hospitals, factories and roads provided representative members of the Congress of Soviets with a little pork to send back to their starving constituency. Through an unprecedented propanda effort, the citizenry were led to believe that Stalin's efforts kept them safe from a reemergence of old imperialists or another invasion from any European power. Without access to any other source of information, and with the threat of imprisonment or death always overshadowing the urge to speak freely, there was little opportunity to upset this tighly-run extortion racket. And with any perception of disloyalty, Stalin successfully incentivized those immediately below him to remove the threat violently. In this context, I suspect that Russians and other nationalities in the former USSR still have a far greater understanding than we Americans do of how power can be wielded against, though in the name of, the people.

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