On March 31, 1964, the military seized power in Brazil. Between 1964 and 1985, five generals assumed the presidency of the country. The period is generally called the Military Dictatorship. Although it ended more than 30 years ago, this period is still influential in Brazil’s political environment. A part of the Brazilian right still praises the military regime as a golden period in Brazilian history. A part of the left still condemns the regime as the darkest period in our history. Jair Messias Bolsonaro, the current president of the republic, is an admirer of the military regime and considers that not only was this necessary but also beneficial for the country. Dilma Rousseff, the former president impeached in 2016, was an urban guerrilla during the military regime and as far as I know, she has never publicly regretted this episode of her biography. Hardly a week goes by without the mainstream media and left-wing observers warning that Bolsonaro intends to strike a blow and reinstitute the dictatorship. Although the military regime was undoubtedly striking in the Brazilian reality, I would like to remind you today that Brazilian history did not begin in 1964.
1935. Brazil is governed by President Getúlio Vargas. Vargas came to power in 1930 through a coup. Defeated candidate for the presidency that year, he did not accept the result of the elections and with the support of the army, he took the power. Vargas was provisional president until 1934 when he was indirectly elected by Congress to remain in office. Vargas is pressured on the one hand by Integralistas, a group with fascist characteristics, and on the other by the Communist Party of Brazil. Faced with this scenario, with support from the USSR, the communists led by Luiz Carlos Prestes decided to take power by force.
The attempted coup took place between November 23 and 27, 1935. Low-ranking leftist militaries revolted in barracks in several cities in the country, including the capital Rio de Janeiro. The military who participated in the coup attempt believed that the working class would support them. The Communist International, in particular, saw Brazil as a “semi-colonial” society, in which a revolt against the government would be enough to lead the population to a spontaneous upheaval. That’s not what happened. The coup d’état had no expressive support from the population and the revolutionaries were soon defeated by legalistic forces.
The consequences of the coup attempt were dire. Luiz Carlos Prestes could not accept that his movement had simply been poorly organized and that the population did not support communism. There had to be a culprit. Prestes decided that it was the fault of Elza Fernandes, code-named Elvira Cupello Colonio, then about 16 years old. Elvira joined the group of communists of the 1930s under the influence of her boyfriend, Antonio Maciel Bonfim, code-named Miranda, general secretary of the Brazilian Communist Party. Prestes suspected that she was a police informant and decided that she should be killed. Elvira was murdered by strangulation on March 2, 1936.
In response to the coup attempt, Vargas hardened his regime, effectively becoming a dictator in 1937. The entire period from 1930 to 1964 would be deeply influenced by him.
After 1935, the Brazilian army became progressively more anti-communist, culminating in the 1964 coup.
There is no doubt that the leaders of the movement were paid (and very well paid) by the Comintern. There is no doubt that they were aided by foreign spies, mostly Europeans.
I don’t want to fall into the Tu quoque fallacy here, but my experience is that Brazilian leftists hardly remember the country’s history before 1964. Many criticize the anti-democratic character of the regime that was established in the country that year. Many denounce that the 1964 coup was carried out with US support. But I don’t remember many leftists making similar criticisms to the 1935 coup attempt.
I don’t want to be unfair. I have friends who identify themselves as leftists and who value democracy. But I must say: socialism can start democratic, but it inevitably leads to dictatorship. This is the only way to have their plans realized. People don’t seem to have learned that in Brazil. Or in other parts of the world.
The most interesting reflection on V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winner who died earlier this week, comes from Slate, a low-brow leftist publication that I sometimes peruse for book reviews. Naipaul, a Trinidadian, became loathed on the left for daring to say “what the whites want to say but dare not.”
The fact that Slate‘s author tries his hardest to piss on Naipaul’s grave is not what’s interesting about the piece, though. What’s interesting is what Naipaul’s wife, a Pakistani national and former journalist, has to say about Pakistan:
[…] she smiled and asked if I knew what Pakistan needed. I informed her that I did not. “A dictator,” she replied. At this her husband laughed.
“I think they have tried that,” I said, doing my best to stay stoic.
“No, no, a very brutal dictator,” she answered. I told her they had tried that, too. “No, no,” she answered again. Only when a real dictator came in and killed the religious people in the country, and enough of them that the streets would “run with blood,” could Pakistan be reborn. It was as if she was parodying a gross caricature of Naipaul’s worst views—and also misunderstanding his pessimism about the ability of colonial societies to reinvent themselves, even through violence—but he smiled with delight as she spoke.
“That’s so American of you,” she then blurted out, before I had said anything. My face, while she had been talking, must have taken on a look of shock or disgust. “You tell a nice young American boy like yourself that a country needs a brutal dictator and they get a moralistic or concerned look on their face, as if every country is ready for a democracy. They aren’t.”
Damn. This testy exchange highlights well what the developing world is facing, intellectually. Religious conservatives heavily populate developing countries. Liberals, on the left and on the right, in developing countries are miniscule in number, and most of them prefer, or were forced, to live in exile. Liberty is their highest priority, but the highest priority of Western elites, whose support developing world liberals’ desperately need, is democracy, which empowers a populace that cares not for freedom.
So what you get in the developing world is two kinds of autocracies: geopolitically important autocracies (like Pakistan), and geopolitically unimportant autocracies (think of sub-Saharan Africa).
That Naipaul and his wife had the balls to say this, for years, is a testament to the magnificence of human freedom; that Leftists have loathed Naipaul for years because he had pointed this out is a bitter reminder of why I left the Left in the first place.
What is the long-term legacy of political persecutions? Here I want to present the main findings of my recent research with Melanie Meng Xue (UCLA Anderson). Our research is an attempt to undercover how a legacy of political persecution can shape social capital and civil society by studying imperial China. The full version of the paper is available here.
We know from other research that particular institutions, policies, and events can have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on economic and political outcomes (e.g. Nunn 2011, Voigtländer and Voth, 2012). But it is hard to find a setting where we can study the long-run impact of autocratic institutions. A key feature of autocracy is the use of persecutions to intimidate potential opponents. In our paper, Melanie and I argue that the intensification of imperial autocracy that took place in the High Qing period (1680-1794) provides an ideal setting to study the impact of such persecutions.
The High Qing period was one of great political stability, imperial expansion, and internal peace. Economic historians like Bin Wong and Ken Pomeranz have shown that China possessed a flourishing market economy during this period; it experienced Smithian economic growth and a massive demographic expansion. Rulers such as the Kangxi (1661-1722) and Qianlong Emperors (1735-1794) are seen as among the most successful in Chinese history. Nevertheless, as ethnic Manchus, these rulers were extremely sensitive to possible opposition from the Han Chinese. And during this period Qing tightened control over the gentry and implemented a policy of the systematic persecution of dissent. (Figure 1 depicts the Manchu conquest of China.)
The Literary Inquisitions
The focus of our paper is on the impact of persecutions conducted by Qing China against individuals suspected of expressing disloyalty. We study the impact of these state-orchestrated persecutions on the social fabric of society. This allows us to speak to the kinds of concerns that authors like Hannah Arendt and George Orwell expressed about the long-run impact of totalitarianism in the 20th century.
These persecutions are referred to by historians as ‘literary inquisitions’. Existing scholarship suggests that the resulting fear of persecution elevated the risks facing writers and scholars, and created an atmosphere of oppression and a culture of distrust which deterred intellectuals from playing an active role in society. But these claims have never been systematically investigated. Putting together several unique datasets for historical and modern China, we explore the impact of literary inquisitions on social capital in Qing China and trace its long-run impact on modern China through its effect on cultural values.
To conduct our analysis, we use data on 88 inquisition cases. We match the victims of each case (there are often multiple victims per case) to their home prefecture. This data is depicted in Figure 1. Since prefectures varied greatly in their economic, social, and political characteristics we conduct our analysis on a matched sample. This ensures that the prefectures “treated” by a literary inquisition are similar in terms of their observables to those we code as “untreated”. As our data is a panel, we are able to exploit variation across time as well as variation in space.
While individuals could be persecuted for a host of reasons, these were all but impossible to anticipate ex ante. Cases were referred to the emperor himself. Frederic Wakeman called this “the institutionalization of Imperial subjectivity.” The standard punishment in such cases was death by Lingchi or (slow slicing) and the enslavement of all one’s immediate relatives. In some cases, however, the guilty party would be executed by beheading. These persecutions aimed to deter opposition to Qing rule by signaling the ability of the Emperor to hunt down all potential critics or opponents of the regime.
The Impact of Literary Inquisitions on Social Capital
We initially focus on the impact of persecution on the short and medium-run using our historical panel. We first examine the effects on the number of notable scholars. In our preferred specification we find that a literary inquisition reduced the number of notable scholars in a prefecture by 33 percent relative to the sample mean.
We go on to show the effect of persecutions on collective participation among the gentry in China. Our measure of collective participation in civil society is the number of charitable organizations. Charitable organizations played an important role in premodern China providing disaster relief and local public goods such as repairing local roads. They were non-governmental organizations and played an important role alongside the government provision of disaster relief. In our preferred empirical specification, we find that a persecution number of charitable organizations by 38 percent relative to the sample mean.
These results are in keeping with the argument that literary inquisition had a major psychological impact on Chinese society. They are consistent with the rise of “inoffensive” literary subjects during the Qing period that have documented by historians. To reduce the risk of persecution, intellectuals scrupulously avoided activities that could be interpreted as constituting an undermining of Qing rule. Instead they “immersed themselves in the non-subversive “sound learning” and engaged in textual criticism, bibliography, epigraphy, and other innocuous, purely scholarly pursuits” (Wiens, 1969, 16).
The Impact of Literary Inquisitions on 20th Century Outcomes
We go on to examine how the effects of these persecutions can be traced into the 20th century. In particular, we focus on the provision of basic education at the end of Qing dynasty. In late 19th and early 20th century China, there was no centralized governmental provision of primary schools. Basic education remained the responsibility of the local gentry who ran local schools.
Thus the provision of education at a local level was dependent on the ability of educated individuals to coordinate in the mobilization of resources; this required both cooperation and trust. We therefore hypothesize that if the persecution of intellectuals had a detrimental impact on social capital, it should also have negatively affected the provision of basic education.
We find that among individuals aged over 70 in the 1982 census – hence individuals who were born in the late Qing period – a legacy of a literary inquisition is associated with lower levels of literacy. This reflects the impact of literary inquisition on the voluntary schools provided by the gentry and is not associated with lower enrollment at middle school or high school. We show that result is robust to controlling for selective migration and for the number of death caused by the Cultural Revolution.
Finally, we show that literary inquisitions generated a cultural of political non-participation. Drawing on two datasets of political attitudes – the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) and the Chinese Political Compass (CPoC) – we show that individuals in areas in which individuals were targeted during literary inquisitions are both less trusting of government and less interested in political participation.
Finally, we find that individuals in prefectures with a legacy of literary inquisitions are less likely to agree that: “Western-style multi-party systems are not suitable for China” (Q 43.). This suggests that in areas affected by literary inquisitions individuals are also more skeptical of the claims of the Chinese government and more open to considering alternative political systems. Similarly, individuals in affected prefectures are more likely to disagree with the statement that: “Modern China needs to be guided by wisdom of Confucius/Confucian thinking.”
In summary, our analysis suggests that autocratic rule reduced social capital and helped to produce a culture of political quietism in pre-modern China. This has left a legacy that persisted into the 20th century. These findings have implications for China’s current political trajectory. Some scholars anticipate China undergoing a democratic transition as it’s economy develops (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012). Others point to China as an example of “authoritarian resilience.” By showing that a long-history of autocratic rule and political persecutions can produce a culture of political apathy, our results shed light on a further and previously under-explored source of authoritarian resilience.
Rami Khouri has a great piece about the effects that The State has on Arab democracy in the Beirut-based the Daily Star. Khouri argues that states in the Arab world are designed for a top-down approach to governance whereas the traditional legal and political institutions of the Arab world are bottom-up (“indigenous” as well as “inclusive”) creations. The inability of Arab states to properly funnel this tension is, Khouri argues, responsible for the lack of democracy in the Arab world. Unfortunately Khouri’s piece fails to explore two complementary strands of thought.
1. The bottom-up approach to democratic governance is the only way that democracy can actually be democratic, and it took a long time to get to this point in the parts of the world that actually have democracy.
The West was able to reach this bottom-up democracy by recognizing that democracy is not an end, but rather abyproduct of a legal framework that protects individual rights and especially the property rights of individuals. Revolutionaries in Western Europe did not demand free and fair elections; they demanded liberty. Reformers in the Arab world (including Khouri) seem to treat democracy as if it were an achievable goal without having to liberalize Arab economies (domestically as well as internationally) first. Democracy is a byproduct of institutions that protect individual rights, not a catalyst that will enable states to include these rights into a post-election legal framework.
2. Like the state itself, IGOs such as the United Nations bear responsibility for the lack of democracy in the Arab world. IGOs legitimize the state as it is in the Arab world. In order to understand this argument it is useful to reach back into history a century ago and reacquaint yourself with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Sykes-Picot agreement between Great Britain and France (and, initially, czarist Russia). You can read up on the developments of these two events, but for the purpose here it is important to remember that Paris and London drew up borders that more or less followed the pattern of Istanbul, and that these borders eventually became sacrosanct internationally upon the UN’s recognition of Arab states’ sovereignty.
By recognizing the legitimacy of arbitrary states and the sanctity of their borders, the UN contributes directly to the sham elections and bloodshed that have occurred as the rival, bottom-up factions Khouri identifies seek power through gaining control of the capitals of these states.
Because these states are legitimized by the UN, the rival factions can simply seize control of a capital and automatically gain leverage over their domestic and international enemies (Muammar Gaddafi, for example, was a political nobody before his ascension to power in Tripoli). Thus Arab dictators and would-be dictators are engaged in a form of rent-seeking when they attempt to obtain power through Arab capitals. In some respects, the United Nations and other IGOs have simply served to further the imperial ends of the British and French in the Middle East after World War I.
Is everybody with me? Disparate factions in Arab states seek to control their own regional territories while simultaneously seeking to stave off the influence of the capital if their man is not in power (pretty standard fare worldwide, actually). This tension – between resisting influence and seeking to exert it through governing a capital city – is driven by the realization that capturing the rent provided by IGOs will lead to leverage over enemies. This, in turn, not only keeps nationalist sentiment in Arab states strong but also ensures that only a strong man will be capable of holding these states together.
Now the nationalism that glues these failed Arab states together is one that is largely acknowledged, but the necessity of a strong man to hold these states together gets less respect.
Just think though: Strong men can earn the rent that Arab states get from IGOs by more easily being able to eliminate or suppress factions that do not wish to go along with renting the services that IGOs provide (loans, military support, etc.).
A democracy, on the other hand, is designed to incorporate as many factions within a society as possible into the political framework of a state. Democracies are less predictable than autocracies. For IGOs – created by, and for, already established democracies – this lack of predictability is unwelcome.
It is important to note that there is no explicit animosity directed towards Arab democracy from IGOs. The inability of IGOs to incorporate fledgling Arab democracies is built in to their systems. IGOs are always at the forefront of calling for free and fair elections in Arab states, for example, but institutions like the UN were implemented for a different world. Great Britain and France had overseas colonies in 1945. There were two Germanies when the UN was chartered and no academic programs devoted to exploring “post-socialism.”
Delving into why IGOs are structurally unable to support democratic initiatives in the Arab world is far beyond the scope of this post, and I think Khouri’s focus on the failures of the state is a big step in the right direction. However, if frustrated reformers wish to better understand the plight of democracy in their societies, it will not be enough to blame the autocrats who have been smart enough and ruthless enough to game the international state system that Arab states participate in.