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Seeing Like an Autocrat: Liberal Social Engineering in an Illiberal State

  • Calvert W. Jones

Abstract

Recent studies of autocratic liberalization adopt a rationalist approach in which autocrats’ motives and styles of reasoning are imputed or deduced. By contrast, I investigate these empirically. I focus on liberal social engineering in the Persian Gulf, where authoritarian state efforts to shape citizen hearts and minds conform incongruously to liberal ideals of character. To explain this important but under-studied variant on autocratic liberalization, I present evidence from rare palace ethnography in the United Arab Emirates, including analysis of the jokes and stories ruling elites tell behind closed doors and regular interviews with a ruling monarch. I find that autocrats’ deeply personal experiences in the West as young men and women supplied them with stylized ideas about how modern, productive peoples ought to act and how their own cultures underperform. The evidence also reveals that such experiences can influence autocrats, even years later, leading them to trust in Western-style liberal social engineering as the way forward, despite the risks. Ethnographic findings challenge the contemporary scholarly stereotype of the autocrat as a super-rational being narrowly focused on political survival, illustrating how memory and emotion can also serve as important influences over reasoning and can drive liberal change.

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Perspectives on Politics
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