Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Russian Coup to Overthrow Putin: The Evolutionary Politics of Minimal Winning Coalitions

In an interview with the UK's Sky News, Ukraine's head of military intelligence--Major General Kyrylo Budanov--has predicted that Ukraine will win the war against the Russians, and that the turning point could come as soon as August.  He also says that he has seen evidence that a coup to overthrow Vladimir Putin is already underway.

I have been assuming that this was almost inevitable as soon as it was clear that the Russians were losing the war, because under those conditions Putin would lose his "minimal winning coalition."  A fundamental principle of biopolitical science is that the political survival of leaders depends on their having the support of a minimal winning coalition, and so once Putin loses that, he will fall from power.

No ruler can rule alone.  Even an absolute autocrat needs a small coalition of powerful people who are loyal to him, and to win and maintain that loyalty, the autocrat must buy them off with money and status.  Once an autocrat is abandoned by his loyalists, he loses power.  But as long as he has the support of that small winning coalition, he can rule successfully even when he oppresses the great majority of the people under his rule.  The private interest of his small coalition of supporters is advanced at the expense of the public interest of the people at large.  Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have written about this in various writings such as The Dictator's Handbook (2011).

A democratic leader differs from a dictatorial leader in that the democratic leader depends on a larger coalition of supporters.  Because of the large size of a winning democratic coalition, democratic leaders must persuade a large number of supporters that he will advance public policies that serve the general welfare of this big coalition.  But still this large democratic coalition is less than the whole community, and it does not have to be a majority of the citizens.

Frans de Waal has shown that this principle of minimal winning coalitions holds true not only for human politics but also for chimpanzee politics.  The natural drive of male chimps for dominance leads them to compete for rule over each chimp community.  Success in this competition depends on the exercise of strategic intelligence in which chimps must form coalitions that will support them as the alpha chimp in the hierarchy (see chapter 5 of de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics).

This suggests that the human political principle of minimal winning coalitions could be rooted in an evolutionary history of politics shared with our primate ancestors, and thus it would be grounded in our natural history as political animals.

There are reasons to believe that the modern natural history of politics shows a movement towards liberal democracy as the best regime--as the rule based on a large minimal coalition.  Bueno de Mesquita and Smith have written: "Until recently, and with very few exceptions, small-coalition systems have been the dominant form of government" (226).  But there is "hope for the future."  "Every government and every organization that relies on a small coalition eventually erodes its own productivity and entrepreneurial spirit so much that it faces the risk of collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and inefficiency.  When those crucial moments of opportunity arise, when the weight of bad governance catches up with despots, then a few changes can make all the difference" (281).  Consequently, "sooner or later every society will cross the divide between small-coalition, large selectorate misery to a large coalition that is a large proportion of the selectorate--and peace and plenty will ensue" (282).

Isn't that what we're seeing in Russia now?  The sheer weight of the corruption and inefficiency in Putin's small-coalition rule has eroded the military power of Russia, and now with the defeat of Russia in Ukraine, Putin's loyalists no longer have any self-interest in continuing to support him, and so they will betray him.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith are wrong, however, when they say that small-coalition systems have dominated human history until recently.  In fact, through most of human history, human beings lived in foraging bands of hunter-gatherers that were large-coalition regimes, because they were egalitarian hierarchies in which leaders were severely limited in their power by popular resistance to exploitative dominance.  It was not until about 5,000 years ago that the emergence of agrarian states based on agricultural production made it possible for leaders to rule in small-coalition regimes in which the majority of people were exploited by the ruling elite.  And even in those ancient small-coalition states (like Mesopotamia), there were frequent rebellions against despotic rule.  The emergence of modern liberal democracies over the past two or three centuries is in some ways a revival of the popular constraints on power that prevailed in ancient foraging societies.

As Bueno de Mesquita and Smith indicate, freedom is the greatest public good.  Freedom is the natural condition for human flourishing, materially and spiritually (120-21, 124-25, 180, 214, 273-74, 278-82).

Although the evolutionary path to free societies is not predetermined, because evolutionary history is an undesigned, contingent process of trial and error, the greater wealth, inventiveness, and happiness of the free society make it likely that it will eventually prevail in the evolutionary history of cultural group selection.

We are seeing that now in the struggle between Ukraine and Russia and the possible overthrow of Putin.

I have elaborated these points in some posts on minimal winning coalitions and the primate model of the chief executive rule of alpha males here and here.

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