The Dictator’s Handbook: Dictating the Cynicism of Power

Political Real Talk: Success is Paying Your Allies to Betray Their Allies


Realpolitik always sounds like something you’d find dribbling from the mouth of this year’s most obnoxious edgelord. Something about Machiavelli and pretensions to sociopathy. Still, The Dictator’s Handbook, by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith, is nevertheless a prime example of realpolitik thinking. The pragmatic rules of politics and power, applied without the fluff and comfort of minor things like ideals, party affiliation, or philosophy. The result is a revealing insight into the mind of your boss. Well, maybe.

For a better overview on the general premise of the book, CGP Grey put together a video, which is somewhat more in depth than my own malformed ramblings. The general concept is that when paying attention to, or reflecting on, anybody in power, that you disregard all allusions to ideology, doctrine, or espoused philosophy. Instead, ask: “What’s in it for that particular person?” Because what’s in it for them is the real reason that they’re doing whatever they’re doing. In other news, water is wet. Party infighting, firings and hirings, political moves and policy all come down to a crowd of people, loosely affiliated by some vague subscription to a broad political viewpoint, all attempting to sit in the same chair.

This isn’t anything new – there’s nothing here that you haven’t come across in fiction numerous times. The fiction provides a small window into the more layered and demoralising reality. You know the drill, the protagonist gets their arse on a throne, the CEO’s office, or some other imposing high backed chair, and suddenly they’ve got a room full of people to satisfy. Problem is that some of those people are vital to their continued power, and will only do what the protagonist wants them to, in return for giving them what they want. The general message is that a ruler can sit in their big chair and wave their hand as much as they please, but that doesn’t mean anything if the hand they’re waving is received by an empty room. In the end they’re just another person with a shiny badge and an inflated sense of their own importance.

"Videri quam esse" - To seem rather than to be
No, I don’t know what that Latin means.

You’ve got to wonder who’s, ultimately, got the power, if anybody. Or perhaps the takeaway is simply that having power is not as fun as it might conventionally be portrayed. There’s a pervading sense that nobody in power will ever actually achieve what they intend to achieve. Instead, they will be hamstrung at every turn, waiting on their servants and paying off various people in order to convince them to stab someone else in the back first. Should the person in power do something of their own accord, it will doubtless come from the money that “should have” gone to their essentials and the essentials will use it as an excuse to stab them in the back.

Perhaps you simply have to cull all of your essentials periodically? Which means finding new essentials by bringing them onside with new bargains… and the whole cycle begins anew. The best place to be seems to be somewhere near the top but not actually on the top. While there are still knives aimed at your back, they might be persuaded to aim at another essential’s back instead? Survival by surrounding yourself with more targets – something a ruler doesn’t necessarily have. Or perhaps the answer, if such a thing exists, lies in counting on each one to betray you in turn and then… sparing them.

I seem to remember this was advised by Machiavelli’s The Prince. I can’t remember the logic precisely, but it was in the same vein as being better feared than loved. Something along the lines of ‘having every reason and ability to dispose of a traitor and then not doing so, will often convert an enemy to a loyalist. They will then live in some mixture of fear and gratitude for the rest of their lives.’ It’s been a few years since I read the book so I’m probably butchering it, by all means correct me in the comments, but I can’t be arsed to pull the book off my shelf and leaf through it in the hopes that I stumble on the right section. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a solution and if you were to find one then the game would change and you’d go back to square one. It’s amusing that security seems such a rarity to anyone with power.

It is interesting having various politicians spring to mind every time the book illustrates a point or gives you one of its numerous short and uncomfortable history lessons. Like what happened to all the humanitarian aid raised by those charity concerts. Or the people it went to. I’d like to see how the book’s philosophy interprets the likes of Corbyn and Sanders through this lens. It’s not hard to pick out the mirrors of the establishment’s cards here – they’re not particularly subtle and they don’t have to be, but both the British and American progressive/populist politicians seem to be running in a very ideological fashion – directly counter to the advice dispensed by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith. Which surely means they shouldn’t be doing as well as they have done. Certainly, despite their respective losses, the media and the establishment seem to be terrified of them.

It’s not the easiest read, not because it’s technically difficult but because it’s just thoroughly cynical. What sticks in your throat is the fact that it makes sense and there are a few chapters that dismantle any rusting idealism that may linger. I admit that this sounds like common sense, but I think people naturally like to have an ideal to believe in. Apparently we should just leave those at the door and follow the money because ideology determines only which groups of people get the money.

Conclusion: Humans are awful things.


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