[ Question ]

Books on authoritarianism, Russia, China, NK, democratic backsliding, etc.?

by MichaelA1 min read2nd Feb 202120 comments

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TotalitarianismDystopiaGlobal governanceInstitutional decision-makingElectoral reformBooksChinaRussia
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I’m interested in learning more about authoritarianism, specific (arguably) authoritarian regimes (especially China, Russia, and North Korea), democratic backsliding, the possibility of stable and/or global totalitarianism, and related topics.

As such, I’d be interested in: 

  • people’s thoughts on which books that are relevant to those topics might be worth reading or might be worth skipping
  • links to good summaries/reviews/notes about relevant books

(ETA: I'd also be interested in recommendations of online courses or lecture series on these topics.)

I imagine such a collection could be useful for other people too. I’ll also share the relevant books and links that I know about already. (One type of book I don’t already know of examples of is biographies of relevant political leaders; please feel free to recommend some biographies of that kind!)

The cluster of topics I’m pointing to is intentionally broad. If you’re not sure whether a book/link is relevant enough, please mention it anyway, and just say something about what the book/link seems relevant to. 

(See also Books / book reviews on nuclear risk, WMDs, great power war? and Collection of sources related to dystopias and "robust totalitarianism".)

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8 Answers

Books I’ve read that relevant to things like the possibility of stable and/or global totalitarianism

  • The Totalitarian Threat, by Caplan, 2008
    • This is actually one chapter from the book Global Catastrophic Risk, which was edited by Bostrom and Cirkovic
      • And I haven’t read most of the rest of the book
    • Clicking on the following link will download a doc version of this chapter: link
      • You can see the link here
    • This is the only chapter/paper-length treatment of this topic that I’m aware of
    • I’d recommend this chapter both in general and for the specific purpose of learning about this topic
  • The Precipice, by Ord, 2020
    • Totalitarianism is only the focus for a brief section of Chapter 5
    • But the rest of the book is excellent anyway
    • I’ve roughly ranked this as 1st out of 44 EA-related books for how generally useful to me it seemed (not just for totalitarianism etc.)
    • I’d recommend this book in general, and would recommend the relevant section of Chapter 5 for the specific purpose of learning about things like totalitarianism 
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.

Novels:

  • 1984, by Orwell, 1949
    • Despite being a novel, I think this book is actually the most detailed exploration I've seen of how a stable, global totalitarian system could arise and sustain itself. 
      • I think this is a sign that there needs to be more actual research on that topic - a novel published more than 70 years ago shouldn't be one of the best sources on an important topic!
    • I’d recommend this book both for reading for enjoyment and for learning about things like totalitarianism
  • Animal Farm, by Orwell, 1945 
    • I’ve roughly ranked this as 42nd out of 44 EA-related books for how generally useful to me it seemed
    • I wouldn’t recommend this book except for reading for enjoyment
  • Brave New World, by Huxley, 1932
    • I’ve roughly ranked this as 43rd out of 44 EA-related books for how generally useful to me it seemed
    • I might recommend this as an interesting exploration of a possible type of future, but probably not
    • I probably wouldn’t recommend for reading for enjoyment (I found it dull at times)

One point in favor of 1984 and Animal Farm is that Orwell was intimitely familiar with real-life totalitarian regimes, having fought for the communists in Spain etc. His writing is more credible IMO because he's criticizing the side he fought for rather than the side he fought against. (I mean, he's criticizing both, for sure--his critiques apply equally to fascism--but most authors who warn us of dystopian futures are warning us against their outgroup, so to speak, whereas Orwell is warning us against what used to be his ingroup.)

Thanks! Also interested in this.

This syllabus from a class on authoritarian politics might be useful. I'm still going through it, but I found these parts especially interesting (some are papers rather than books, but hopefully close enough):

  • "What Do We Know About Democratization After Twenty Years?" (Geddes, 1999)
    • Discusses the relative longevity of different kinds of authoritarian regimes
  • "Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic" (Berman, 1997)
    • On how the Nazi Party used civic associations to expand its power in the Weimar Republic
  • Parts of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (Linz, 1975), especially from ch. 2:
    • Pp. 65-71 on definitions of totalitarianism
    • Pp. 129-136 on criticisms of the concept of totalitarianism
    • P. 137 has a list of earlier scholarly work on democratic backsliding (pretty old though)
  • Development as Freedom (Sen, 1999), especially pp. 178-88
    • On the fact that “There has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy”

Also:

  • Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2005)
    • Historical case studies and model of transitions to (and from) authoritarianism
    • I really liked ch. 2 as an overview

Thanks Mauricio!

Those do sound interesting.

The mention of that Acemoglu and Robinson book also reminds me that I've had Why Nations Fail on my list of books to maybe read for a while. Since Why Nations Fail is relatively "iconic", sounds probably at least somewhat relevant to this cluster of topics, and is available as an audiobook, I'll probably give that a listen in the coming months.

Books I’ve read that are relevant to things like authoritarianism generally (not just one or two specific regimes), democratic backsliding, etc.

  • The Dictator’s Handbook, by de Mesquita & Smith, 2012
    • This is somewhat less focused on dictatorship itself than one would think from the title, but is still relevant and quite interesting.
    • I’ve roughly ranked this as 25th out of 44 EA-related books for how generally useful to me it seemed (not just for understanding authoritarianism etc.).
    • I’d recommend the book both in general and for the specific purpose of learning about things like authoritarianism
  • How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, by Dikötter, 2019
    • The author engagingly presents a series of interesting and important historical case studies.
    • But I’m not sure how much knowing more about those case studies will actually help me learn other things or make good decisions. And, if I recall correctly, the author provides very little in the way of analysis or recommendations, except in a somewhat rushed and superficial seeming way at the very end of the book.
    • I’ve roughly ranked this as 38th out of 44 EA-related books for how generally useful to me it seemed.
    • I’m unsure whether to recommend this.
  • The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
    • This is loosely relevant, in the sense that it discusses a range of different types of societies and political systems, some implications these different systems have, historical trends towards more democracy, and potential drivers of those trends
    • I haven’t quite finished the book yet
    • I’d recommend the book in general, though probably not for the specific purpose of learning about things like authoritarianism
  • Books that may have had relevant parts (e.g., on pros and cons of democracy vs authoritarianism, or historical trends in these things), though I can’t remember for sure:

I'm fairly focused on China (studied China in university, speak Mandarin, live in China, read about 50 books on/about China during the past 10 years).

While there are plenty of books that can give you a general feel or a broad understanding of some trends in society (Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, China in Ten Words, China's Millennials: The Want Generation), and there are a few books regarding specific parts of the government/policy (The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers, Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century, When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind Or Destroy It
), I don't know of many books that are focusing specifically on authoritarianism. I suspect that there are quite a few journal articles from political science scholars who focus on Chinese government/governance.

One assumption I have here is that you only/primarily would read in English. If you can read in Chinese, then there is a far more vast swath of literature available from Hong Kong and from Taiwan about China.

Thanks for these recommendations and comments!

In case the following info is useful to other readers: 

The Party sounds quite relevant to my interests, so I expect I'll read that in the coming months, and maybe later Out of Mao's Shadow and/or China in Ten Words. I already read Ag... (read more)

Books I’ve read that are relevant to China

  • Age of Ambition, by Osnos, 2014
    • This is the one book I’ve read that’s focused on China.
    • I’ve roughly ranked this as 26th out of 44 EA-related books for how generally useful to me it seemed (not just for understanding China, authoritarianism, etc.). 
    • I’d recommend the book both in general and for the specific purpose of learning about China
  • Destined for War, by Allison, 2017. 
    • That’s focused on the likelihood of war between the US and China, how to prevent it, etc. So it’s relevant to China, but not focused on China’s political system, regime, etc.  
    • I’ve roughly ranked this as 24th out of 44 EA-related books for how generally useful to me it seemed. 
    • I’d recommend the book in general, though probably not for the specific purpose of learning about China’s political system
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.

I also recently started the free online course Chinese Politics Part 1 – China and Political Science, which was recommended to me by another EA. I’m not far enough into it to be able to recommend it myself. (I’m intending to just watch the videos during some mealtimes and do the quizzes, skipping the assignments and certificate.)

As for books I haven’t read (at least not yet), Darius Meisner wrote elsewhere:

On the rise of China (relevant to Great Power Competition), I have found it interesting to read Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World by Michael Schuman. However, I am not too excited to recommend it, because the great majority of the book covers developments in ancient China for which the level of "insights per page" was fairly low for me.

(One type of book I don’t already know of examples of is biographies of relevant political leaders; please feel free to recommend some biographies of that kind!)

Regarding Xi, there is a surprising lack of substantive biographies. See here for some recommendations of article-length profiles.

2MichaelA7moThanks! I found that article - and the [https://shorensteincenter.org/podcast-on-the-trail-of-xi-jinping/] two podcast [https://omny.fm/shows/the-little-red-podcast/xi-dada-and-daddy-power-the-party-and-the-presiden] episodes it linked to - quite interesting, and would now recommend them to others too. (I find it much easier to find spare time for learning with my ears than with my eyes, so I'm skipping the other linked articles, at least for now. Though I do plan to see if Pocket [https://help.getpocket.com/article/1081-listening-to-articles-in-pocket-with-text-to-speech] can help me get regular articles into my ears as well.)

Books[1] I’ve read that are relevant to things like the Soviet Union or Russia

  • The Dead Hand, by Hoffman, 2009
    • This is primarily a history of the Cold War with an emphasis on nuclear and biological weapons, rather than a history or analysis of political systems or authoritarianism
      • But of course the topics are interrelated, so the book does have some relevance if one wishes to understand the political systems of the Soviet Union and Russia
    • I’ve roughly ranked this as 20th out of 44 EA-related books for how generally useful to me it seemed (not just for Russia, authoritarianism, etc.)
    • I’d recommend this book in general, but probably not for the specific purpose of learning about things like the political systems of Soviet Union and Russia
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books. 

[1] Well, just "book", really - hence the request for recommendations!

Also, here's a reading list on democratic backsliding, recently posted as a comment by Haydn Belfield.

Thanks! I appreciate comments like this, which just quickly tie different related things together and keep things organised/centralised.

Timothy Snyder is an academic looking at this question who has written several books on the topic, e.g. this and this

Thanks! Both books do sound interesting. 

Though the author's Wikipedia page and the Wikipedia page for The Road to Unfreedom seem to suggest the author often gets mixed/negative reviews from other scholars. But it's hard to say what to make of that without more thoroughly checking the ratio of positive to negative reviews or actually reading the reviews. And I guess he's writing on unusually controversy-prone topics.

I think I'll listen to the On Tyranny audiobook (since it's under 2 hours), and watch a talk from him on The Road to Unfreedom, and decid... (read more)

3Louis_Dixon8moYeah I haven't read any of his stuff, just mentioning that he works on totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Not having read The Road to Unfreedom, it looks like he identifies trends in several geographies which could be useful for the questions you're looking at.
2MichaelA7moIn case this info is useful to future readers: * I've now listened to On Tyranny and watched a 1-hour lecture from Snyder called "The Road to Unfreedom" (so presumably similar content to the book). * It seemed to me that most of what Snyder said was either stuff I already knew, stuff that seemed kind-of obvious or platitude-like, or stuff I was skeptical of * This might be partly due to the book On Tyranny being under 2 hours and the talk being just 1 hour, such that Snyder opted to just give a quick overview of the "basics" of certain things * So I do think this might be fairly useful per minute for someone who knew quite little about things like Hitler and the Soviet Union * But I wouldn't strongly recommend these books, and would probably recommend against them for people who already know a decent amount about these topics * Though I should again note that I haven't actually read The Road to Unfreedom; maybe the book version is better than both the talk and the other book

I also just stumbled upon your review and notes on the book How Democracy Ends, and found the review and notes interesting, so that book is now also on my list of things to consider reading. So thanks for that post :)

There's also a chapter in Global Catastrophic Risks on the topic, though I forget who wrote it

2MichaelA8moI imagine what you have in mind is Caplan's chapter on The Totalitarian Threat, which I mentioned in another comment [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/RpwjRtcnekzZzQMdb/books-on-authoritarianism-russia-china-nk-democratic?commentId=qARDS5LnyPeSzqcGS] . I'd definitely recommend that to people who haven't read it and are interested in this bundle of topics.