Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Succession planning for autocrats

Sometimes it's interesting to step back and take a long view of the stuff that's in the news. Mark Blyth has an intriguing question about some of our current crop of autocrats, like Xi Jinping who's abolished the term limit on the Chinese presidency and become a tempting role model for any aspiring Mini-Xi from Sultan Erdo─čan, to Right Said Vlad ("I'm too sexy for my shirt").

Having established a strong and stable autocracy, what happens when the big guy dies (this riff comes out of a discussion of the Russian spy poisoning case, which starts about 4'30" into this video, if you want to cut to the chase)?


Blyth thinks there's a danger that the demise of the main man might quickly turn your autocracy into the sort of bloody black farce portrayed in Armando Iannucci's recent film The Death of Stalin (currently banned in Putin's Russia), as rival wannabe autocrats scrabble for the vacant throne.

Possibly, although at least one other historical precedent yields a more ambiguous answer. I've just been reading Mary Beard's bestselling history of ancient Rome, SPQR. When Rome moved from being a republic, structured to keep executive power from being monopolised by one person, to an imperial autocracy, with supreme power in the hands of a single ruler, the top bananas kind of made up the rules of succession as they went along. Adopted heirs were put in place where needed, rivals bumped off and unexpected ad hoc Emperors elevated to supreme power in a series of fudges which contrast with the obsessive interest that a monarchy like ours takes in the correct line of succession.

Sometimes this lead to a bloody The Death of Stalin-style power struggle, but sometimes the cobbled-together Roman system was surprisingly stable, as Mary Beard notes:
"The murder of Gaius was a particularly bloody case of regime change, but the transmission of imperial power in Rome was often murderous. Despite the impressive survival rate of the emperors (fourteen rulers in almost 200 years is one testament to stability), the moment of succession was fraught with violence and surrounded by allegations of treachery. Vespasian in 79 CE was the only emperor in the first two dynasties to die without any rumours of foul play surfacing."
If you're a glass half full person, you can see that record of fourteen rulers over two centuries as evidence that the Romans must have been doing something right. If you're like Europe's medieval monarchies, you might be looking at the violence, the plots and rumours of plots and want to try for a more stable transfer of autocratic power. Medieval Europe opted for a more controllable dynastic basis of succession, like the one the Kims are trying for in modern North Korea.

I'm not convinced that the medieval solution of succession by bloodline and primogeniture was necessarily a more stable model of autocracy than the ad hoc Roman system. A quick look at the English, and later British, monarchy shows that transfer of power was hardly reduced to a manageable formality. Starting with William the Conqueror, you only get to his son, William Rufus and already people are being bumped off in mysterious circumstances. Then there's The Anarchy of the 12th Century, the vicious in-fighting of the Plantagenet "Devil's brood", the fall of Richard II, the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors' dynastic dramas, the Stuarts with one king beheaded and one exiled and so on.

The Roman system may have been ad hoc, but however much you enforce the rules of succession by blood, it's almost as much of a lottery for two broad reasons:
1. You need to provide heirs - no succession plan survives contact with infertility, the death of a queen of childbearing age, or infant mortality (at least when there's an heir but no "spare")

2. even if your heir survives to adulthood, he or she needs to be a competent ruler - dynasties of incompetent autocrats rarely last long.
Still, it's one of Mark Blyth's favourite points that conditions change, so the past never replays itself exactly. Which makes me wonder whether there might be more of a future for the Kim model of dynastic autocratic power than for the Xi/Putin model of grabbing power then making up the succession rules as you go along.

Here's how it might work. We've seen two ways that the medieval dynastic model could fail. Although modern science hasn't eliminated danger 2. (the designated heir not being up to the job), one major thing that's changed since Henry VIII's time is medical science. Doctors know a lot more about fertility problems and childbirth is vastly safer for both mother and infant. A modern day Henry VIII-style tyrant would have a lot more chance of producing a healthy designated heir and seeing the succession process go to a predetermined plan. If you're an autocrat, looking to transmit power via your own genes, you've probably got a better shot at it now than at any previous point in history.

I hope it won't come to that, but if I was writing dystopian fiction, I think I'd be exploring some version of medieval feudalism, only unchecked by the chance intervention of infant mortality.

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