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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Feb
07

Revolution and Authoritarianism in North Africa

The Arab Spring caught everyone by surprise, but was quickly explained as an expected, inevitable event. How can these largely contradictory narratives be brought together? This is part of the task undertaken in "Revolution and Authoritarianism in North Africa" (2017) by Frederic Volpi. The author writes that the "book strives to retain the implications of meaning-making in the construction of the causality and understandings of the 2011 Arab uprisings in North Africa. The argument is not merely that the idiosyncrasies introduced by multiple actors undermined the structural unfolding of revolution and transition in the region, but also that the protest episodes themselves were crucial elements in the formation of new political identities and processes. The task therefore is to generate better linkages between actor-based processes and the institutional-based dynamics of regime change and political reform… rather than compare and contrast the situations of those Arab countries that experienced regime change in 2011, I map the processes of change and of resilience that followed protest episodes in two countries that witnessed dramatic political transformation (Tunisia, Libya) and in two countries that experienced only mild institutional reform (Algeria, Morocco)" (p. 4-5).

The author takes a unique approach by combining theories – avoiding both the imposition of logic post-protest, and focusing solely on actors or institutions, but rather the unique and complex interactions between multiple factors. "The analysis I propose presents the dynamics of the Arab uprisings in terms of evolving interactions between actors in particular arenas of contestations" (p. 17). However, such individuals are not pre-determined to do anything: "people do not actually 'know' if or when they would engage in anti-regime protests until the protest was upon them. In this perspective, protest 'thresholds' cannot be estimated in advance because they are not only based on pre-existing preferences, but on new preferences generated as the protests unfold and as people reinterpret what is happening around them and to them" (p. 23).

Change is far more complex and unpredictable: "Had the provincial governor been aware of the risk of local riots in the central provinces being a catalyst for a national revolt, he might have dealt with the initial unrest in Sidi Bouzid differently. The inability to understand the transformative potential of such protest events is not simply a failure to predict accurately what might happen. It also reflects a particular mastery of techniques of authoritarian governance which are known to be effective, but to that moment. From a regime's perspective, cognitive failure is therefore not simply a lack of anticipation; it is also the result of having too much experience of a particular kind" (p. 76).

Volpi offers detailed insight into the North African uprisings, challenging many of the common assumptions about the Arab Spring, as well as social movements and how change happens. The book is an excellent resource, but would be challenging reading for undergraduate students – the readership of this book is likely academics and graduate students.

Interesting side note:

"The economic liberalism promoted by organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which were called upon by regimes to help resolve their financial difficulties, directly contributed to the rolling back of the welfare state in the region. The privatization of social services led to the growth of of the welfare provision of Islamist organizations, which stepped in to replace state provisions" (p. 46).

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