Espen Geelmuyden Rød
How do autocratic governments control society? While conventional wisdom dictates that a robust civil society strengthen citizens’ control over their governments, Daniel Mattingly argues – and empirically demonstrates – that civil society groups can strengthen autocratic rule. Governments can do so by cultivating civil society groups, co-opting local elites, and creating institutions to infiltrate local society. The moral authority of civil society groups and leaders can in turn be used to garner support, or at least foster tolerance, for government policies. The empirical part of the book is impressive, synthesizing evidence from qualitative comparative analysis and quantitative analysis using observational data and survey experiments. The setup provides the reader with a clear narrative understanding of the theoretical mechanisms as well as generalizable evidence. Mattingly focuses on three important outcomes in the empirical parts of the book: protests, land requisition and enforcement of birth quotas. The evidence shows that civil society groups are instrumental for ensuring government policy success at the local level in China. The author also provides a number of case narratives from other countries that support this overall conclusion. Does this mean that a strong civil society inevitably strengthens dictators and undermines democratic progress? No! Mattingly provides a more nuanced theoretical account, and also discusses the limits of autocratic control through civil society groups. However, more attention to these limits in the empirical tests could have provided important insights into the conditions under which civil society groups successfully empower citizens and when they empower governments. In sum, the book is a fascinating and rich account of how political control is achieved in autocratic regimes, supported by rigorous empirical evidence. Highly recommended for students of democratization.