Oct
16

Social Dictatorships

What do some non-democratic governments have stronger social protection systems than others? That is the main questions attempted in the book "Social Dictatorships: The Political Economy of the Welfare State in the Middle East and North Africa" (2020) by Ferdinand Eibl (published by Oxford University Press). This book is largely an elaboration of a 2016 doctoral work at the University of Oxford.

Why does the book matter? The author makes a case that little has been done in terms of comparative analyses in the Global South: "...comparative politics has little to offer to explain the divergence of welfare efforts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This has to do with a triple neglect. First of all, welfare states have historically emerged in advanced industrialized nations as the culmination of a century-long struggle for social protection. Distributing resources amounting to considerable shares of GDP, welfare states have become a fundamental part of modern capitalism in industrialized societies. As a result, comparative politics literature has seen a proliferation of studies explaining the, in global comparison rather than subtle, differences between Western welfare states, whilst neglecting developing countries." (p. 1-2).

What are the driving forces for greater social protection systems (explained in more detail, but include): "Regime-building elites needs to have an incentive to provide extensive welfare to a broad cross-cutting section of the population. In addition, elites must have the ability to provide welfare, provided a sufficiently strong incentive. Both are necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for a regime to provide extensive social welfare." (p. 6). In other words, "social policies are shaped by the incentives of political elites" (p. 273) and their capacity to act on those incentives.

Argument summary: "Building on the established insight that authoritarian regimes differ from each other as much as they differ from democracies, this study has developed a theoretical model that helps us explain when we should expect the emergence of what I have called social dictatorships or authoritarian welfare states. While acknowledging this important role of political institutions in the everyday politics of authoritarian regimes, the book argues that long-term divergences in social policy trajectories are shaped in the crucible of societal conflict that most often precedes formalized political institutions. In that sense, it stands in a long tradition of macro-sociological research that has emphasized the significance of foundational conflict between societal actors." (p. 279)

Engaging alternatives theories: "... the division of the region into conservative regimes with low welfare provision and populist-progressive regimes with high welfare provision does not work, simply because the numbers do not bear out. While all of the region's labour-abundant monarchies fall on the side of minimal welfare providers, the region's republics divide almost evenly into low- and high-spenders. A large part of this confusion comes from a massive Egypt bias that pervades the study of the Middle East... A second, equally pervasive myth is that welfare provision was gradually rolled back with the advent of neo-liberal political reforms since the late 1970s... My analysis points to two main misconceptions at the origin of this narrative. First, most examples adduced in favour of this reading have been taken from countries that were never high-spenders in the first place, such as Egypt and Syria. As a result, low levels of welfare provision are attributed to neoliberal reforms whereas their main root - coalitional origins and a challenging geostrategic environment - remains obscured. Second, the narrative stems from a lack of consideration for comparative data... While I do not deny the many ills that neoliberalism has inflicted on Middle Eastern countries, I concur with Martinez in emphasizing the 'uneven pathways' of neoliberal transformation in the region." (p. 283) 

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