“I’m a huge believer in the usefulness of social science, especially studies that use comparisons across time and space to shed light on our current situation. So when the political scientist Henry Farrell suggested that I look at his field’s literature on cults of personality, I followed his advice. He recommended one paper in particular, by the New Zealand-based researcher Xavier Márquez; I found it revelatory.
“The Mechanisms of Cult Production” compares the behavior of political elites across a wide range of dictatorial regimes, from Caligula’s Rome to the Kim family’s North Korea, and finds striking similarities. Despite vast differences in culture and material circumstances, elites in all such regimes engage in pretty much the same behavior, especially what the paper dubs “loyalty signaling” and “flattery inflation.”
Signaling is a concept originally drawn from economics; it says that people sometimes engage in costly, seemingly pointless behavior as a way to prove that they have attributes others value. For example, new hires at investment banks may work insanely long hours, not because the extra hours are actually productive, but to demonstrate their commitment to feeding the money machine.”
In the context of dictatorial regimes, signaling typically involves making absurd claims on behalf of the Leader and his agenda, often including “nauseating displays of loyalty.” If the claims are obvious nonsense and destructive in their effects, if making those claims humiliates the person who makes them, these are features, not bugs. I mean, how does the Leader know if you’re truly loyal unless you’re willing to demonstrate your loyalty by inflicting harm both on others and on your own reputation?”