Learning from dictators

Dictators are becoming more sophisticated, according to William Dobson. Studying techniques used by repressive rulers can give insights for challenging injustice in any country.


The usual idea of a dictatorship is a ruler at the top who uses centralised control, surveillance and violence to smash any challenges. But sometimes heavy-handed measures can provoke internal opposition and trigger concerns by foreign governments and international organisations. So rulers are becoming more sophisticated, learning from their experiences, from their opponents and from what happens to other dictators.

One of the dictators to lose the struggle was Slobodan Milošević, who ruled in Serbia through the 1990s. The opposition movement Otpor used a variety of tactics to drum up support, including many humorous stunts, and pushed opposition parties to produce a united ticket. Milošević called an early election in 2000 and tried to steal it through vote-rigging, but a country-wide convergence on Belgrade caused Milošević’s supporters to give way. Otpor activists went on to provide advice to opposition movements in numerous other countries.

Slobodan Milošević

To avoid a similar fate, rulers are learning to be more creative and flexible. They can allow a bit of dissent to give the appearance of free speech. They can set up regime-friendly citizens’ groups. They can harass opponents using low-key, procedural methods, such as fire and safety inspections. They can keep the population happy by not interfering with personal activities, maintaining economic growth and responding to citizen complaints.

This is the message from William J. Dobson in his important book The Dictator’s Learning Curve  (Anchor, 2013). Dobson, an experienced US journalist and editor, spent two years travelling the globe to study repressive regimes, interviewing government leaders, bureaucrats, opposition politicians and activists. He concentrated on five countries: Russia, China, Egypt, Venezuela and Malaysia. From this study of struggles over freedom, he offers numerous fascinating personal profiles, accounts of campaigns, and explanations of tactics.


The Dictator’s Learning Curve is one of the most readable accounts available of the uses of nonviolent action to challenge regimes and of the methods used by regimes to counter it. Dobson did not investigate armed resistance to governments such as in the Philippines or Syria. Instead, he highlights the insights used by campaigners using leaflets, vigils, rallies, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and other methods of nonviolent action.

Dobson writes as a journalist and in this book shows the advantages of avoiding an academic style. He offers many more insights than a typical academic text, but without the sort of scholarly apparatus and pretensions that can be so off-putting to people outside academia.

Dictator techniques

One favourite technique of sophisticated rulers is to set up procedures and organisations that give the appearance of openness and fair play without the substance. For example, Putin in Russia set up the Public Chamber to give the appearance of allowing criticism of the government, but critics are not allowed to speak directly to the people. Dobson quotes Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch as saying that government officials “want independent information, but they want to use it for their own purposes” (p. 24).

Tanya Lokshina

In the old Soviet Union, there were sham elections, with Communist Party candidates typically receiving 99% of the vote. The trouble is that 99% is not credible to anyone. Cagey rulers instead run elections in which they win by a respectable percentage, but not more. Ideally, they would like to win without stuffing ballots, and sometimes this is possible. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez won one election after another, thereby gaining great legitimacy. Dobson recounts how Chávez controlled most of the television stations and was on air for hours every week. He also hampered opposition candidates by banning them from running, imprisoning some of them, creating an elaborate gerrymander, and maintaining a constant state of alarm about dangers from the US government. Chávez was wily enough to gain popular support by rigging the system in a way that wasn’t too blatant. He stacked the electoral office with loyalists, and the electoral office set up the gerrymander that ensured that Chávez’s party could win even with a minority of the vote.

Another important technique is to allow greater freedom but only in areas that do not threaten rule at the top. Chinese leaders are expert at this. Chinese people have greater freedoms than before, including to change their residence, to travel to other countries, to select careers, to obtain information and to live their private lives as they choose. What they don’t have is political freedom.

Chinese rulers have instituted a raft of reforms, including local elections, limits on terms of office, public hearings and involvement of citizens in decisions about local budgets. At the upper reaches of the party, most corruption has been rooted out. On the other hand, Chinese rulers are willing to use force if needed, which turns out to be fairly often, because there is a lot of lower-level corruption and citizen discontent about it. The government now spends more on internal security than for external defence.

Regimes have learned not to use heavy-handed techniques against the general population, but instead to concentrate on opposition leaders, who are imprisoned, “harassed, beaten, and denied their livelihoods. Their names and reputations have been destroyed, their families torn apart” (p. 121). The dual aim is to discourage these opponents and cut them off from the people.

Citizen responses

Just as rulers are learning from experience and observation how to counter challenges from their subjects, so citizens are developing insights and skills in response. The result is an ongoing strategic encounter. No single technique can remain successful for long, because the opponent learns about it and how to counter it. This generalisation applies to both regimes and their opponents.

In Venezuela, Dobson reports that there was a consensus on how to oppose Chávez and his machine: be connected to the people, offer alternatives (not just criticism), and be united.

When regimes offer new processes to give the appearance of justice and openness, critics may be able to use these processes as levers for making a challenge. In particular, when authoritarians seek legitimacy through the law, they can also be exposed through the law. Ayman Nour, an Egyptian notary public, became so effective that the regime took strong action against him, for example banning him from law practice and imprisoning him.

Ayman Nour

Many regime opponents have had to learn the hard way, through trial and error. There is now another source of insight: information about nonviolent struggle, obtained through the Internet or in workshops organised by the US-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and by CANVAS – Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies – set up in 2005 by former Otpor activists. Dobson provides an illuminating treatment of the global circulation of ideas about nonviolent conflict, interviewing key figures such as premier thinker Gene Sharp and Otpor veteran Srdja Popovic, and attending a CANVAS workshop.

Dobson notes that in some countries, such as Egypt under Mubarak, the official opposition had become tired and predictable, and thus was no threat to the regime. In nonviolent campaigns, built on a carefully constructed strategy taking into account strengths and weaknesses of the regime and the opposition, there is a premium on tactical innovation. Activists cannot rely on repeating the same old methods, but need to keep using new techniques and bringing new sectors of the population into the struggle. One of the key reasons for tactical innovation is that rulers learn from experience, just as activists do. This is one of Dobson’s key themes.

Lessons for elsewhere

Dobson restricts his attention to just a few countries with authoritarian governments, though he is careful to note the differences between them and not lump them together. Indeed, he notes that the techniques used by Chávez in Venezuela, as a populist authoritarian leader, are quite different than those used by, for example, Chinese rulers, who he labels technocrats.

Hugo Chávez

What Dobson does not do is spell out implications for countries that are ostensibly free. If elections are fair and no one is being whisked away to prison without trial, then it might seem there is little in common with authoritarian regimes. Actually, though, what Dobson has to say is quite pertinent in nearly every country. Governments in so-called free countries try to stigmatise opponents, use sophisticated media strategies, change the rules to centralise power, harass opponents, and set up formal processes that provide the appearance of fairness without the substance.

The rulers in China are eager learners, studying the operations of representative governments for ideas on how to dampen dissent. Campaigners need to be eager learners too, learning from each other and about the various ways that governments discourage dissent and pacify populations. A good place to start is with The Dictator’s Learning Curve.


The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict has pointed out a number of errors in Dobson’s book, in relation to the ICNC itself. This suggests there is a need for others to follow in Dobson’s footsteps and verify, correct or extend his assessments.