State Power and Staying Power: Infrastructural Mechanisms and Authoritarian Durability

By Slater, Dan; Fenner, Sofia | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

State Power and Staying Power: Infrastructural Mechanisms and Authoritarian Durability


Slater, Dan, Fenner, Sofia, Journal of International Affairs


The contemporary literature on authoritarian durability focuses more on democratic-looking institutions such as parties, elections and parliaments than the institution in which authoritarian regimes are most importantly embedded: the state itself. This article argues that state power is the most powerful weapon in the authoritarian arsenal After clarifying the regime-state distinction and explaining why regime durability involves more than just duration, we discuss four "infrastructural mechanisms" through which authoritarian regimes stabilize and sustain their rule: (1) coercing rivals, (2) extracting revenues, (3) registering citizens and (4) cultivating dependence. Since state apparatuses are the institutions best geared for performing these tasks, their effectiveness underpins authoritarian durability in a way that no other institution can duplicate. And since state power is shaped by long-term historical forces, future studies should adopt the kind of historical perspective more often seen in leading studies of postcolonial economic development than of authoritarian durability.

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"You should no more confuse the state with its government than you would confuse a fine Jaguar automobile with the person who drives it."

Professor Robert Frykenberg (1)

States and regimes are perennial yet largely parallel obsessions in political science. (2) When scholars study the state, they commit to exploring the extent rather than the form of government. (3) Specialists on regimes undertake the inverse commitment, asking how and why the state's power is constrained rather than extended and expanded. One conversation centers on whether and why regimes are democratic or authoritarian, while the other asks whether and why states are capable or incapable of effective governance. In this article we aim to bridge these parallel conversations by arguing that state power is the strongest institutional foundation for authoritarian regimes' staying power. (4)

The intellectual division of labor between studies of regimes and states is both essential and unfortunate. Professor Frykenberg's pithy formulation distinguishing states from the governments that run them (or in authoritarian settings, the regimes that run them) proves useful for understanding why. (5) The separation is essential because states and regimes are analytically distinct, but unfortunate because states and regimes are empirically intertwined. Though all metaphors have their limits, we find the notion of the state as a kind of machinery that is linked but not reducible to the actors who operate it helpful in three respects.

First, states are apparatuses that vary considerably in their power to undertake political tasks and accomplish political ends. Where states exhibit substantial "infrastructural power," or the capacity "to implement logistically political decisions throughout the realm," the regimes that run them are the most immediate beneficiaries. (6) Where states look more like jalopies than Jaguars, the regimes that command them find themselves in an entirely different world when trying to assert control and establish domination.

Second, regime leaders are not usually the original architects of the states they operate. Drivers may customize, repair or "soup up" their cars, but they rarely build them from scratch or convert them into something that dramatically outperforms the original model. State apparatuses are typically inherited rather than originally constructed by the regimes that run them, particularly in the postcolonial world. A strong state is the best historical foundation for a durable authoritarian regime, not vice versa.

Third, even the strongest state apparatus cannot entirely protect a regime from catastrophic "operator error." Though states are institutions with considerable historical momentum, they must still be led by fallible human agents. Ironically, highly capable state apparatuses may be especially vulnerable to regime incompetence, since bad leadership is more damaging when the machinery responds readily to unwise top-down commands. …

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