Who has the highest survival probability? Biden, Xi, Putin or Modi?
Winters' typology of oligarchies suggests that Luce is wrong
In today’s FT Swamp Notes, Edward Luce raises the question of the potential fate of the world’s most powerful leaders. Comparing Biden, Putin and Xi, he reckons that Biden has a less secure grip on power, and while Putin and Xi have tighter control, they face a much higher risk of being violently deposed and killed. Winters’ theory of oligarchy provides a more systematic way of thinking about this specific problem of political stability.
In Winters’ scheme, oligarchs are extremely wealthy individuals in highly stratified societies. Their property is potentially threatened from above, by the state, from below, by the masses and horizontally, from other oligarchs. They thus have a strong incentive to defend their wealth from these vertical and horizontal threats. Moreover, their considerable resources mean that they have the means to do so. How does this politics of oligarchic wealth defense work out? Winters basic typology provides a way to get a handle on this question.
In a civil oligarchy, the oligarchs’ wealth is protected by a strong property rights regime; so oligarchic wealth defense is essentially a tax avoidance game. The United States since the neoliberal turn has become the textbook case of a civil oligarchy. In this setting, despite the revolving door, the ruler sits at an arm’s length from the oligarchs. The threat to Biden comes principally from below—by still intensifying class-partisan realignment against his political party. With the entire professional class behind him, he’s doing everything within his power to reverse this secular threat.
China, Russia and India have become sultanistic oligarchies. In such systems of power, the principal problem is the proliferation of private concentrations of power. The rapidly growing numbers, wealth and power of oligarchs in these countries means that the principal threat to each oligarch is horizontal—from other oligarchs. The solution, independently arrived at in all three and others, is for power to be concentrated in a single person, whose main job is to temper and regulate the horizontal conflict between oligarchs. That is what Xi, Putin and Modi have achieved.
India is a functioning democracy; China and Russia are autocratic regimes. This means that Modi has to worry about the fortunes of his now dominant party in a still competitive system with lots of regional parties with independent bases of power who may at any time combine to oust him. So, while the United States is politically bipolar, India is uni-multipolar. But Modi’s problem is otherwise similar to Biden’s, rather than Xi’s or Putin’s. His grip on the BJP is quite unshakable, so his survival probability is essentially a function of the political fortunes of his party.
Both China under Xi and Russia under Putin are textbook instances of sultanistic oligarchies. But there is a material difference between China and Russia. While the growth in the numbers, wealth and power of oligarchs is quite pronounced in both, it is simply explosive in China. Putin faces a stable configuration of oligarchs—largely those who make a killing in the 1990s’ free-for-all—similar to MBS. He has perfected the technique of control. There is no credible threat to his regime. Xi is not in such a comfortable position because of the explosive growth of private concentrations of power, who may at any time gang up behind a different solution. So, while both Xi and Putin have concentrated power in their own hands, Putin’s grip is more secure than Xi’s.
So, the survival probabilities for Biden and Modi, Xi and Putin are quite different. The democratic pair face different risks from the autocrats. Biden’s grip on power is the least secure but he is most likely to die a natural death because the United States is a civil oligarchy. Modi’s grip on power is more secure than Biden’s but less secure than Xi or Putin’s. Xi has a stronger grip on power than Biden or Modi. Finally, Putin has the strongest grip on power.