Discover more from Mr. and Mrs. Psmith’s Bookshelf
REVIEW: Coup d'État, by Edward Luttwak
Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, Edward Luttwak (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1968).
First things first: you need to get the revised, second edition of this book. Why? Because the introduction to the second edition is an excuse for the author to brag about all the bloodstained and bullet-riddled copies of the first edition that have been found among the personal effects of palace security chiefs, spymasters, and air force officers. Perhaps, he gloats, they should have read it more carefully, or perhaps they should have waited for the second edition.
None of this should come as a surprise if you follow Edward Luttwak on Twitter, where his account is characterized by a judicious degree of irascibility and gloating. Yes, I regret to inform you that he’s on Twitter. But unlike some of my other favorite authors who succumbed to the analgesic call of the Great Blue Bird, the medium has not totally destroyed him yet. Luttwak tweets with unparalleled Boomer energy, primarily in a write-only mode, at times seemingly oblivious to the waves he causes. This is good, because it means we get to read his internal monologue, but without the reward loop of social media hacking his amygdala and progressively turning him into a self-parody.
Or perhaps his descent into self-parody was arrested by the fact that he was already a bit of a self-parody. Luttwak came from a Jewish family in communist Romania, spent some time in Palermo where he totally wasn’t involved in the war between the authorities and the mob,1 and provided “consulting services to multinational corporations and government agencies, including various branches of the U.S. government and the U.S. military,” before retiring to the life of gentleman scholar and cattle rancher (and prolific Twitter poaster) in rural Argentina. Along the way he picked up a PhD and wrote a massive pile of books about history, war, diplomacy, and political theory, all while pissing off the authorities in those fields with his epistemic trespassing.
But all of that was still far in the future when he wrote this book about coups. When the non-recommended first edition came out, Luttwak was a tender twenty-six years old, and working tenderly as a consultant for the energy industry in Africa and the Middle East. This raises some questions, questions that Luttwak absolutely refuses to answer, sometimes coyly and sometimes vehemently. Were I concerned about my reputation as a third-world fixer for oil companies, I would simply not write a practical guide to launching coups, but to each his own.
What is a coup? Also known as a putsch, a palace rebellion, or my personal favorite, a pronunciamiento; there are a lot of words for it, many of them in Spanish (you know what they say about Eskimos and their words for snow). The basic definition is a bloodless or almost bloodless extrajudicial transfer of power whereby a group of conspirators is able to turn the machinery of the state against itself, seizing control quickly and cleanly and without triggering a civil war. Note how different this is from other sorts of exceptional transfers of power. In a revolution, all of the institutions in a society are burned down and replaced. A coup is the opposite — only the very top level of the system is swapped out, and the new boss quickly and seamlessly resumes ruling through the machinery of the old regime. Ideally, citizens who aren’t especially politically engaged wouldn’t even notice.
This leads us to a guess as to the most coup-friendly sorts of polities: ideally they should be highly centralized and efficient bureaucratic states, but with very low democratic engagement or popular investment in politics. The first half is important, because without an efficient government machine, there’s nothing for the coup plotters to grab onto. A coup is an action by a tiny group of people who would lose instantly in any fair fight — the only chance they have is to magnify their power by hijacking a system that was already pretty good at controlling the country. It also helps that soldiers, policemen, and citizens in a bureaucratized society are already conditioned to obey impersonal authority, and therefore are more likely to do what the new guy says if he’s careful to use the old, familiar forms. Anarchists love to talk about how anarchy is like a vaccination against foreign occupation, because occupiers generally lack the state capacity to administer newly acquired territories without existing state machinery to co-opt, and that argument is even more true for coups.
The other people who love to claim that their preferred system makes things coup-proof are the democracy people. In this case, the argument is that coups depend upon a certain degree of apathy among the citizenry. But if democracies are good at anything, it’s hyping people up into thinking that they have a say in government and that it’s incredibly important for them to get emotionally invested in all of it. Whatever its other effects, this makes things awkward for would-be coup plotters, who run the risk of offending a broad swath of citizens who genuinely feel that they should be consulted in decisions about who gets to rule. Of course, this argument falls apart if your democracy is actually a surface democracy run by a secret cabal. In that case coups can still happen easily, they just look more like one faction of the deep state wiping out another.
Anyway, Luttwak’s business is coups that happen “out in the open,” and he claims that at least for these, this two-part formula holds up empirically. As luck would have it, there were many, many examples of such states in the second half of the twentieth century. In Africa, in Asia, and in the Middle East, postcolonial regimes sprang into being that aped the centralized, bureaucratic forms of Western governments (and backed those forms up with the hard reality of Western military technology) but ruled over populations that were essentially still tribal, and which lacked a bourgeoisie with political aspirations and progressive self-image. This was a perfect breeding ground for coups, and indeed there were an awful lot of them from the 1950s-1990s or so, which means Luttwak has a lot of data to work with.
When one looks at this nice data set, one fact jumps out immediately: coups are disproportionately launched by right-wingers. There’s some sampling bias here, because military officers are often the best-positioned people to launch coups, and the general staff often (but not always) tends to be on the rightward edge of the range of acceptable opinion in the society it serves. It’s tempting to explain away the whole phenomenon in these terms, and many people have, but I actually think this explanation gets the causality exactly backwards. It isn’t that military officers tend to launch coups and also tend to be right-wing, it’s actually that right-wing people are attracted both to the military and to launching coups, and both of these for deep and related reasons.
I believe that left and right have absolutely nothing to do with economics, and that the 19th and 20th century association of leftism with welfare states and central planning and of rightism with laissez faire and monopoly capitalism are totally accidental and contingent.2 Instead, the fundamental difference between left and right basically comes down to whether you think society currently has too much or too little entropy.3 This has a number of implications, one of which is that when trying to advance left-wing or right-wing goals, it’s important to consider the form of political action, in addition to its object.
Entropy is increased via exothermic reactions, and the quintessential exothermic reaction is fire. A fire increases entropy directly, by consuming highly ordered structures and converting them to smoke and ash, but it secondarily increases the temperature of the surrounding air, which makes it easier to start more fires. In the same way, exothermic political actions such as street protests, revolutions, and philosophical deconstruction have a double effect — they both directly increase entropy by smashing institutions, social mores, received wisdom, and intellectual traditions, but they also “turn up the heat” and throw what once seemed steady into question, thereby making it easier to perform further exothermic activities.
A common complaint of right-wingers is that they aren’t able to effectively use left-wing tactics, but this model makes it clear why that’s so challenging — it’s quite figuratively trying to fight fire with fire. That’s not impossible, there’s such a thing as a controlled burn after all, and there are times when narrowly-aimed riots or deconstruction can achieve right-wing ends. But trying to achieve right-wing ends by left-wing means will always be fighting at a disadvantage.4
What are right-wing means? Well Joseph de Maistre once said that “contre-révolution ne sera point une révolution contraire, mais le contraire de la révolution,” so what is the opposite of a revolution? The opposite of an exothermic reaction is an endothermic one, a spontaneous, self-reinforcing deep freeze. These are rare in chemistry, and rare in society too, but they do happen. Successful right-wing political action takes options off the table, it lowers the temperature, leaves everybody more sure than they were before about what’s going to happen next. This is why so much right-wing action is slow and painstaking and not overtly political, why it looks like forming stable and functioning families, or investing in an artistic tradition, or otherwise tying people down with things they want to protect in the present or with a deeper connection to the past and the future.
All of that is very nice, but it isn’t really political “action” in the sense that we commonly think of it. So the contradiction of “endothermic” political action is that action by its very nature increases the temperature, dials up the uncertainty. Left-wing political action feeds on itself, the more of it that happens, the more of it is able to happen. But right-wing political action, especially violent political action, needs to be overwhelming force concentrated on a very narrow point with as little friction as possible — a scalpel not a cleaver. It needs to be exceptionally rapid, exceptionally forceful, leaving everybody more sure of their place in the world than they were when it started, and overall just feel like a foregone conclusion. In other words, it needs to be like a coup.5
Among the challenges facing a nascent coup is that of how to balance the size and activity of the conspiracy with its discoverability. The security forces of the old regime are always watching and always listening, and they may stumble over the preparations purely by accident. Of course, the more people who know what’s coming, the more likely that the spooks are already monitoring one of them, and the more likely that the plotters accidentally bring in a traitor or a double-agent. But on the other hand, the fewer people involved in the plotting, the longer it will take to get everything ready, and extending the calendar time also carries its own risks.
Luttwak models this tradeoff as a sort of dynamical systems problem. An embryonic coup exists in an unstable equilibrium with its surrounding environment. The optimal strategy is to stay tiny until a certain threshold is reached, then to grow the conspiracy explosively, and to act decisively as soon as the odds of success are favorable. Thus even before the coup begins, we see it relying on speed and nimbleness for its survival. It’s a lesson every businessman knows well — if you can just make many more decisions per day than your competitors, if you can go around the loop of forming a plan, executing your plan, evaluating the results, and forming a new plan many times in the time it takes your opponents to do it once, then you can overcome a vast material disadvantage.
In fact, about halfway through this book, I realized that it was actually about running a startup. I've long argued that most books about politics and war can be read esoterically as business books, and vice versa. So it’s natural that a book about coups is an esoteric manual about the kind of business that looks, feels, and acts like a coup. What is a startup but a conspiracy that starts stealthy, grows explosively, and aims to take the world by storm before attracting the dangerous attention of large competitors? Like a coup, a startup is always short-staffed, always has too many things to do and has to let some worthy projects slip. And like a coup, if a startup wins it does so because its behemoth competitors cannot match its single-mindedness, decisiveness, or ferocious pace of planning, execution, evaluation, and re-planning.
Luttwak estimates that the maximum safe size for a coup comprises about 1% of the military leadership of a country. How can such a tiny force possibly hope to win? Well, most of the country’s military isn’t likely to be “in theatre”, and therefore is irrelevant on the timescale of a coup. Remember, a coup wants to be over within a day, ideally within hours. It takes a long time for conventional military forces to realize something funny is going on, for the alert to go out, for the message to reach commanders, for those commanders to act, for logistics to get organized, and for the resulting forces to make it to the capital city. Any coup where the outcome is still in doubt by the time reinforcements arrive is a failed coup that will very shortly result in the arrests of all the conspirators, or more rarely in a civil war.
The exception to this rule is the air force — airplanes are fast, and airborne forces can arrive even from across the country with a couple hours notice. Luttwak speculates, in one of the more interesting digressions in the book, that this is why a disproportionate number of coups are led by air force officers and/or paratroopers.6 The element of surprise means that it’s fine for the coup’s initial tasks to be performed by ground-based forces, but it’s important that there be enough sympathizers in the air force that it be kept out of the fight, either through dissension or through sabotage.
Ironically, one of the most dangerous moments for a coup is right after it’s succeeded. Your new government lacks popular legitimacy, you’ve probably upset a lot of important people, and you’ve just demonstrated to the whole country that a focused conspiracy can rapidly seize the levers of power. Worst of all, your henchmen and fellow-plotters, whom you probably kept compartmentalized and unaware of each other when you were planning this thing, now know who each other are. One of the hardest and most dangerous parts of coup-plotting is identifying other people who are willing to betray their vows to the state, but if there were to be a counter-coup, you just solved the mutual identification problem for them. Again, the theoretical argument is nice, but it’s even nicer how well it matches empirical reality — in Luttwak’s dataset, one of the best predictors of a coup happening is the last one having been a short time ago.
So much for the generalities, but there’s also a lot of nitty-gritty, and that’s where this book really shines. How many assault teams do you divide your forces into, and what kinds of people do you put in charge of the different types of teams? Should you concentrate your top-tier men in a single detachment, or spread them out so every unit has a few elite operators? Is it more important to capture the radio station or to arrest the parliamentary leaders? Should you start all your teams moving at the same time, or aim to have them all arrive at their targets at the same time? These are the sorts of questions I think about all the time, and Luttwak has convincing answers grounded in coup-theory and tested against hard empirical reality.
As a human being with a Y-chomosome, I love gaming out the exact details of how I might seize power in an armed takeover (if that were ever a thing I had to do). But as a careerist sellout and a father of young children, I have a lot to lose, and so I’m very unlikely ever to find out how my gambits would fare in practice (sad!). Nevertheless, the more I read about coups, the more I think there’s something here for all of us to internalize, even those of us who will never get a chance to reenact this picture:
I will probably never be a steppe nomad, but I’ve gained a lot by cultivating Barbarian Mindset and thinking about how to apply its lessons in my very different circumstances. In the same way, I think there may be a “Coup Mindset” that’s beneficial even when you aren’t trying to overthrow the government. Move fast, stay stealthy, gain tempo, be decisive, act with overwhelming force along an incredibly narrow front. I already said these lessons were applicable to startups, but they generalize to any situation where a small group is facing down a much larger one. Barbarian Mindset and Coup Mindset are both weapons for the weak, great equalizers in any contest against a lumbering Goliath. And in a world full of monstrous, semi-hostile alien entities (you may know of them as “states”, “corporations”, and “social media mobs”), all of us are weak by comparison, so that makes them vital techniques for individuals, or for the best little conspiracy in your own house.
Also unclear: which side he was not-involved on.
Indeed, we can see how contingent they are because these associations are on the cusp of reversing!
I’m sure you’ve immediately thought of dozens, nay scores, of clever counterexamples to this sweeping claim. Please imagine that I have an array of equally clever responses to your counterexamples and just bear with me for a second.
The same is true of trying to achieve left-wing ends by right-wing means, which is less common, but does occasionally happen.
Notable examples include at least two out of Hafez Al-Assad's three coups, the failed Algiers putsch in France, and several other Middle Eastern and Maghrebi coups.