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Rose Deller

February 13th, 2018

Book Review: The Authoritarian Public Sphere: Legitimation and Autocratic Power in North Korea, Burma and China by Alexander Dukalskis


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Rose Deller

February 13th, 2018

Book Review: The Authoritarian Public Sphere: Legitimation and Autocratic Power in North Korea, Burma and China by Alexander Dukalskis


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

In The Authoritarian Public Sphere: Legitimation and Autocratic Power in North Korea, Burma and ChinaAlexander Dukalskis offers insight into the meticulous efforts of three of Asia’s longest standing authoritarian regimes to legitimise and maintain their rule. Utilising a comparative lens while also drawing on extensive interview data, this is a valuable contribution to understanding the myriad tools utilised to construct and control ‘authoritarian public spheres’, writes Sam Swash

This book review has been translated into Mandarin by Murat Kerimol and Bryan Stovicek and proof-read by Fei Yuan (Mandarin LN808-2, teacher Fei Yuan) as part of the LSE Reviews in Translation project, a collaboration between LSE Language Centre and LSE Review of Books. Please scroll down to read this translation or click here.

The Authoritarian Public Sphere: Legitimation and Autocratic Power in North Korea, Burma and China. Alexander Dukalskis. Routledge. 2017.

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The tools used by authoritarian regimes to imbue acquiescence in their citizens are multi-faceted and diverse, going far beyond the vestigial repression often closely associated with autocratic states. So then, how are modern-day autocracies so resilient, able to enforce obedience and enduring social control in the face of international condemnation and transformative technologies? Alexander Dukalskis’s The Authoritarian Public Sphere: Legitimation and Autocratic Power in North Korea, Burma and China gives a captivating insight into the meticulous efforts made by three of Asia’s longest standing authoritarian regimes to legitimate their rule through controlling their citizens’ political discussions in order to quash subversive ideas that could destabilise them.

This analysis is undertaken via the conduit of what Dukalskis terms the ‘authoritarian public sphere’: an area which exists between the realms of public and private interactions. The idea of a public sphere was first conceptualised by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who defined it as a space where people come together ‘in a relatively unrestricted fashion to share their opinions and perspectives about political issues’ (26). Dukalskis focuses on this area within authoritarian states, where sites of private discussion are ‘frequently the target of state repression and manipulation’, resulting in the public sphere morphing into a domain in which the state ‘aims to manage and police political communication’ (27). Subversive ideas are capable of destabilising governments, and the overarching aim of the authoritarian public sphere is to stem the flow of these at their base – in the homes and workplaces of citizens.

One of the strengths of the book is the author’s ability to look at the subject matter through a comparative paradigm, something that has been missing from the literature for some time. And although Dukalskis’s comparative lens is focused on North Korea, Burma and China, the book is interlaced with gems of episodic reference to authoritarian regimes across the world, from Syria and Iran to Cuba and the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee in South Korea.

Dukalskis has thereby created a unique analysis model which sets aside the need for the book to engage in convoluted, well-trodden debates around the meaning of ideology. Rather, the approach used allows the author to bring authoritarian ideologies with substantially different content – whether religious, communist or nationalistic – ‘into the same realm of analytic comprehensibility’ (143).

Image Credit: Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games), North Korea, 2007 ((stephan) CC BY SA 2.0)

Instead of focusing on ideology, Dukalskis concentrates on six key functions of the ideological systems operated by the Burmese, Chinese and North Korean governments: their ability to ‘conceal, frame, blame, cultivate a sense of inevitability, mythologise and promise brighter futures’ (59). The principal aim of these activities is to subvert public discussion to such an extent that the public opinion of citizens is largely depoliticised, whilst sprawling networks of barely-concealed spies, informants and state security agents act as ever-present deterrents: the enforcing hand of the state that can deal quickly with acts of dissidence.

The research is further strengthened by a wide-ranging and rich body of interview data intertwined with the comparative analysis. Oral testimonies from Chinese, Burmese and North Korean citizens who have direct experience of living within their respective regime’s authoritarian public spheres provide compelling first-hand evidence that is applied to support Dukalskis’s theories. However, the author should probably make it clear that in the cases of Burma, China and North Korea, many of its citizens have never known a different state, regime or system: most will have lived their entire lives within the only system they know. This fact in itself could be just as powerful as the regime’s ability to enforce acquiescence through the public sphere.

Perhaps one of the most revealing parts of the author’s analysis is his acknowledgement of the fluid nature of ideology in each of the three countries studied. China and North Korea are both consistently labelled as ‘communist’, whilst the Burmese junta was typically viewed as ‘apolitical’ (98). But these catch-all ideological labels fail to reflect the shifting nature of the states in question. These long-standing regimes are often viewed as unchanging relics of a time gone by, a handful of states that continue to defy ‘the end of history’ as proselytised by Francis Fukuyama: the end of ideological battles between east and west and the triumphant victory of western liberal democracy. But these autocratic states are able to thwart these assertions through adapting their regimes to counter new challenges posed to their hegemonic power.

The analysis of North Korea is particularly interesting given that it is the most repressive regime of the three – it is easy to view it as an isolated pariah or a dangerous relic where the normal levers of political cause and effect are taken away. But this simple and pervasive labelling is often misplaced, refusing to understand the regime’s actions as logical consequences of its struggle for survival. Dukalskis’s analysis shines a revealing light upon the tools that allow the North Korean government to rule with such brutal effectiveness in the face of almost total international condemnation.

Dukalskis goes on to analyse three particular domains of potential subversion within these countries: the ‘capitalist’ shadow markets of North Korea; networks of independent journalists in Burma; and the growing internet presence in China. Despite the authoritarian power of these regimes, no regime is capable of completely stifling every criticism of its rule, and Dukalskis’s analysis attempts to understand how ordinary citizens navigate themselves within the strictures of the state to create spaces that have the potential to develop into critiques of authoritarian rule. However, even if many North Korean women earn most of their earnings in ‘illegal’ markets or a handful of Chinese nonconformists manage to post cryptic anti-regime messages on the internet, the state ensures its presence within these realms of private discussion is felt enough so as to reduce the opportunity for any form of significant opposition.

Whilst The Authoritarian Public Sphere is far more accessible than most academic works dealing with such topics, it retains a level of sophisticated analysis that credits its readers with an understanding of the subject area. In doing so, this book provides a judicious contribution to our understanding of how authoritarian regimes use the myriad tools at their disposal to actively manipulate the ways in which their citizens talk and think about politics.

Sam Swash is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Leeds whose research interests lie in the history and politics of North Korea. He has visited North Korea and his PhD project is a historical analysis of UK-North Korean relations.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

威权公共领域:朝鲜、缅甸、中国的合法性与专制权力 . 亚历山大·杜考斯基斯(Alexander Dukalskis)罗德里奇(Routledge)出版社,2017

Review translated by Murat Kerimol and Bryan Stovicek and proof-read by Fei Yuan (Mandarin LN808-2, teacher Fei Yuan) 

山姆·斯瓦莎(Sam Swash)写道: 亚历山大·杜考斯基斯在其《威权公共领域:朝鲜、缅甸、中国的合法性与专制权力》一书中揭示了三个亚洲最持久的威权国家如何努力使他们的统治获得合法性。书中通过比较的视角,采用大量采访素材,帮助我们理解这些政府怎样用各种工具来建立和控制他们的“威权化的公共领域”。

这些威权政府将其国民无意识地接收并认同其体制,采取了多样的手段,以及远于那些一般认为是威权国家所使用的传统手段。所以,这些国家如何在面临国际谴责与有潜力彻底转变社会的技术的压力下,还能够保持其权力的韧性,并维持公民的服从?亚历山大·杜考斯基斯的《威权公共领域:朝鲜、缅甸、中国的合法性与专制权力》书中生动地阐释了在亚洲延续三个最久的权威制体如何控制政治议题的公共舆论, 以遏制任何危及体制的想法,并合法化其统治的正当性.

杜考斯基斯使用“威权公共领域”的概念——一个介于公共互动和私人互动之间的空间。“公共领域” 首先由德国哲学家尤尔根·哈贝马斯提出。他对这个公共空间的定义是人们在“没有受限的情况下交换有关政治性议题”(26页)的地方。杜考斯基斯将重点集中在威权国家公共领域的探讨,即政府经常“针对性地压迫和操控一般人私下意见交换的场域”(27页)。反动思想会让政府不稳定。所以公共领域威权化的最终目标是在公民所属的职场和家庭领域中,将这些反动思想连根拔起、彻底根除。


Image Credit: Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games), North Korea, 2007 ((stephan) CC BY SA 2.0)

由此,杜考斯基斯创造了一种独特的分析模式。这种模式不需要涉足对意识形态的内涵, 进行繁琐的、甚至是陈词滥调的争论。相反的,杜考斯基斯运用的方法让其能够将不同的威权意识形态——比如宗教主义威权、共产主义的威权和国家主义威权——”引入相同的分析体系”(143页)。

杜考斯基斯没有聚焦于意识形态,而是集中于缅甸、中国、朝鲜政府意识形态的六种关键功能,分别为 “隐藏、塑造、责难、培养政权必然性的观念、神秘化以及对未来的承诺” (59页)。这些活动的主要目的是将公共舆论扭曲到一种去政治化的程度。同时,极其广泛的间谍、告密者和国家安全人员的网络,是一种长期存在的威慑力量,也是政府快速处理异见的强制手段。


可能作者的分析中最具启发性的一部分就是他对所研究的三个国家中意识形态的流动性的承认。中国和朝鲜都被称为“共产主义者”,而缅甸军政府通常被视为“非政治性”。 弗朗西斯福山宣称:东西方思想斗争的结束和西方自由民主的胜利;这些包罗万象的意识形态标签没办法反映出有关国家的变化性质。这些长期政权往往被视为一段时间不变的遗物,少数几个国家继续违抗“历史的终结”。但这些专制国家能够调整自己的政权来反击一些想干涉他们的霸权的国家为了阻挠这些主张。

对朝鲜的分析很有趣;由于它是其中三个国家最压制性的政权——这容易被视为孤立的贱民或者危险的遗物,其中政治因果的正常杠杆被剥夺。但这种简单而普遍的标签往往是错误的,拒绝将政权的行为理解为其生存斗争的逻辑后果。 杜卡尔斯基斯的分析揭示了朝鲜政府在面对几乎完全的国际谴责时如此残酷地效力的工具。

杜卡尔斯基斯接着分析了这些国家潜在颠覆的三个特定领域:朝鲜的“资本主义”影子市场;缅甸独立记者网络;以及中国不断增长的互联网市场。尽管这些政权具有独裁权力,但任何政权都不能完全扼杀对其统治的每一种批评,而杜卡尔斯基的分析试图理解普通公民如何在国家的狭隘范围内自我导航,以创造有可能发展成批评独裁权力的空间。然而,即使许多朝鲜妇女在“非法”市场赚取大部分收入,或者少数中国不符合规范的人在互联网上设法发布神秘的反政权信息,国家也确保其在这些私人讨论领域的存在感足 以减少任何形式的重大反对的机会。

虽然威权公共领域比大多数处理此类主题的学术作品更容易获得,但它也保留了一定程度的复杂分析,使读者对主题领域有所了解。于是,这本书提供了一个对我们如何理解威权使用各种各样工具来积极操纵公民对政治系统讨论和思考的明智的贡献 。

山姆·斯瓦莎是利兹大学的研究生研究员,他的研究兴趣是朝鲜的历史和政治。 他曾去朝鲜旅游;他的博士项目是对英朝关系的历史分析。

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Rose Deller

Posted In: Asia | Politics | Reviews in Translation | Translated Reviews

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This work by LSE Review of Books is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales.