Informality and the social orders of access: the cases of dirt book and kompromat

From Global Informality Project
Jump to: navigation, search

← Back to Comparative Analyses.

By Giulio Benedetti, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Informality represent a compelling puzzle: in an epoch of fast increasing connectivity, the relational nature of every human's social network is of ever-increasing importance. Informality represent a great part of a mass of relationships that are emerging from the grey zones of history to the renewed attention of the decision-making process and the academic inquiry. This poses several far-reaching problems. Two fundamental problems concerns the aim of this essay. The first is the relationship between the private and the public sphere of human sociability. As informality represents the blurring of the border between the two, the study of it sets out to shed light on how these two spheres interact in societies, how they are interpreted, and what consequences on social life the differences in these aspects mean. The second problem is the historical nature of informality. This area of study encompasses several elements previously treated as separate phenomena, some of which were regarded as corruption or degeneration of formal institutions. As this topic emerged as a unitary reality however, it has become more evident that the nature of informality is more widespread in space and time than once considered, and that this extension reaches times often precedent to the processes of formalization in human history (Ledeneva 2018a).

This essay adopts the framework proposed by North, Wallis, and Weingast (2009) because it addresses these same two problems from the point of view of political science, thus considering the same issues from a systemic perspective. The authors approach the problem of the conceptualization of the difference between democracies and non-democracies by focusing on the structure of their elites. The core argument of their work is that democratization does not come from a specific set of institutions implemented in a society, but from a process of formalization and growth of the rule of law stemming from a specific intra-elite process of bargaining (North et al. 2009: p.26). Reading the issues with informality through this framework illuminates two aspects: first, this view fits the idea of an informal sphere larger and precedent to the formal one, which supports the understanding of the centrality of informality. Second, the issue of the relation between the public and private is at the core of both efforts, but they diverge in their understanding of it. Ledeneva focuses on the ambivalent nature of informal practices blurring personal boundaries and on the nature of the relationships that can bring mutual advantage while at the same time harm the involved parties or society (Ledeneva 2001). The political questions opened by her work concern the ambivalence of informal practices in supporting or undermining the political systems, often at the same time (Baez-Camargo and Ledeneva 2017). On the contrary, North and his colleagues interpret informality as an expression of societies not yet formalized enough. They argue that although there is progress as well as regression in human history, the road towards a more advanced state for humankind passes through formalization (North et al. 2009: 49).

The essay compares dirt book and kompromat, two informal practices catalogued in the Global Encyclopaedia of Informality in the section on the informal means of control in political systems (Bailey 2018, Ledeneva et al. 2018, Mesquita 2018). The practices originate in two countries – United Kingdom and Russia – considered by North and his colleagues as clear-cut examples of an open access society and a limited access society, respectively. I will argue that the relation of these practices with the public space and the media reveals a more complex impact of formalization on the elite networks than the one envisaged by North and his colleagues (North et al. 2009). The difference points to an underdeveloped part of their work – the mechanisms of exit from elites.


Violence and social orders is the title of an ambitious proposal for a new framework of interpreting human history (North et al. 2009). Built around the nexus between institutions and coercion, it consists of a fundamental distinction between two forms of society: the limited access order (or the natural state) and the open access order. In the authors' view, what separates the advanced and wealthy societies from the natural state is the way in which the elites are organized. In the natural states the problem of managing violence, inherently present in all societies, is dealt with creating a closed group of people, the elites, in charge of managing the resources. Rents, with which the elites secure the control of violence necessary for the stability and growth of the society, prevent the rest of the population from joining the elites freely. The key of the success of the open access societies lies instead in the open possibility for everyone to join the elites and become wealthy entrepreneurs or influential politicians. However, the characteristics usually associated with open societies, such as placing the rule of law above all, cannot be a set of institutions established by decree or by cultural affinity. Rather, they are the outcome of a precise process of intra-elite bargaining. According to North et al., the elites gradually accept a third-part law enforcement because of the guarantee that the entry of new people into the elite circles threatens their adversaries' decisive advantage. Violence is kept under control by the equilibrium provided by the constant threat of the entry of new elites, that prevents the incumbents to monopolize power and exert violence against the other groups (North et al. 2009: 110-112).

If we imagine society as a web of relationships, the open access societies in this framework appear as a flat network with the elites, richer of relations and better points of access, at the centre. On the contrary, natural states appear as pyramids, with the elites on the top and the rest of population hierarchically organized beneath them. This horizontal and vertical character of societies represents the core argument by North and his colleagues. In their view, the mechanism of access to elites that defines the open and limited systems is directly connected to the capacity of these societies to guarantee an impersonal, formalized access to resources. Horizontality in power relations is thus connected to formalization, although both these elements are understood as dependent on the elite structure (North et al. 2009: 32-39).

In an important critique, Robert Bates (2010), pointed to the absence of the mechanism of exit from the elites in North's formulation. Bates notes that the authors seem to consider the threat of entry into the elite system as sufficient to curb particularistic politics. In their understanding, the threat of gaining more support for the other elite groups would constrain elites to take actions excessively oriented toward their own benefit. Bates highlights how the authors does not take into account the issue of the threat of exit, as represented for example by the electoral process that can determine the ousting of incumbents from the elite groups. The election example is a part of a much broader set of mechanisms of exit from elites, in place in every society. As with the threat of entry, the threat of exit concerns not only the intra-elites mechanisms, but also the relation between the elites and the wider society, and the horizontal and vertical relationships between them.

An analysis of two informal practices with political control, both aimed at securing allegiance to individuals or groups within the elites will help us explore this dimension. I will compare dirt book found in the British Parliament and kompromat inherited from the Soviet Union by its successor states for their demanded allegiance and the asymmetry in the relationships in which these practices take place. I will then read these characteristics with the tools proposed by North and his colleagues, namely the horizontal and vertical character of relationships that correspond to their asymmetry and direction of allegiance. I will put in comparison the two practices in order To verify the framework proposed, the comparison will be particularly attentive to the mechanisms of exclusion.

The practices

Both dirt book and kompromat belong to practices of political control (Ledeneva et al. 2018). Although the two have a different range, they share many qualitative characteristics. The practice of dirt book is confined to House of Commons, and in particular of the office of government whips ((Bailey 2018). A dirt book helps exert influence on the members of Parliament charged with the duty of ensuring the alignment of deputies to the line of the Party and government. The whips were – and most likely still are (Brandreth, 2015) – recording compromising information about deputies in order to use it as tools of political pressure. The allegiance obtained with this method is ambivalent, because it is purposefully directed towards a group, but it is the hands of a powerful individual with a political role, the whip.

This double allegiance can also be found in kompromat. The practice refers to the gathering, trade, and use of compromising material. Dating back to the early years of the Soviet Union, this practice is still in use in its successor countries (Mesquita 2018). Appeared during the time of the civil war, it was adopted by the security services in order to secure loyalty to the Party. As with dirt book, while the intended purpose of the practice was to ensure allegiance to a group, using it also put certain individuals into key positions of power. The use of this practice by individual politicians in the post-Soviet era has been repeatedly recorded (Darden 2001, Hale 2014, Kuzio 2014, Radnitz 2012).

The two practices are neither completely horizontal, as in a collective mutual system of guarantees, neither fully vertical as in a completely top-down coercive mechanism. With both, the actors belong to the same social environment, and the two practices can be seen leaning toward either verticality when we consider the role of the individuals managing the information, or horizontality when we consider their group traits.

One fundamental difference remains. While both practices rely on the use of information, the threat of dirt book consists of in its publication, while the material gathered in the context of kompromat does not need to be published in the mass media to have the intended effect (Mesquita 2018). This element marks an important difference, as it represents a different relation between the elites and the population in the context of the mechanisms of exit.

Horizontality and verticality

Although neither starkly horizontal nor vertical, the two practices refer to intra-elites mechanisms. They concern only a part of society. However, the role of media raises an issue that necessitates reformulating North's argument (North et al. 2009). The open and horizontal character of the most advanced societies is related to the impersonality of formalization. Societies are open because the opportunity of joining the elites is afforded to every individual. Yet the practices of dirt book and kompromat suggest a more complex reality. Their informal character gives both of them a personalized nature; they exist in the realm of trust and distrust based on personal characteristics. If read in the light of political analysis, they come to represent mechanisms of exclusion based on personal characteristics. In the formulation advanced by North and his colleagues, these elements should correspond to vertical symptoms.

The role of media marks a compelling difference. With dirt book, the information needs to be published, or threatened to be, to have effect. This particular mechanism of exclusion, therefore, exists within the relationship between the elites and the population. It represents a personalized mechanism of exclusion in a society of open access. The loose relation with publicity in kompromat represent a contrasting element. The central analytical element of natural states is the presence of rents that are secured and maintained by enforcing a limited and personal access to elites. The mechanism of exclusion of kompromat is personalized as well and fits into the image of verticality. The absence of a strong relation with the public, however, weakens the role of this practice in the relation between the population and the elites, relegating it to the inner workings of the latter. Once taken out from the public context, this mechanism of exclusion is functioning in a homogeneous environment, where the degree of difference between actors is lower. Thus, paradoxically, it is more horizontal.


The analysis put to test the distinction made in Violence and Social Orders between open societies characterized by horizontality and inclusion and natural states framed by verticality and exclusion (North et al. 2009). Comparison of the informal practices of dirt book and kompromat suggested that the mechanisms of exclusion based on personalization exist also in open access societies, and that mechanisms of exit in natural states can have horizontal traits. The key element in distinction is publicity, which works in the mechanisms of exclusion, an area that should be considered together with the more systematically explored mechanisms of inclusion.

The formulation by North and his colleagues is interesting for the study of informality because it represents a step forward towards a systematic and macro-level understanding of society as a web of relationships. By proposing to focus our attention on the elite dynamics in order to interpret the process of democratization, the authors study the balances within the elite networks. However, such understanding of democratization is weak in conceptualising the relation between the elites and the population, where the role of media is key. Moreover, the understanding of informality in their framework is rigid and under-explored but, given its importance for the framework itself, it will need further discussion.

On the other hand, the way in which informal practices interact in the wider public poses a number of challenges for the study of informality. It directly concerns the relation between the public and the private sphere, central to the understanding of informal practices, and it concerns group mechanisms and the extent of which they are supportive or subversive towards the social order. The role of public debate for the functioning of informal practices, and their reception by the wider public (positive or negative) may be fruitful for the future clustering of the entries in the Global Encyclopaedia of Informality. The analysis of informal practices from the point of view of their relation with the public could provide insights into several key issues, and contribute to the search for new ways of interpretation of increasingly interconnected societies.

See also


Baez-Camargo, C., and Ledeneva, A. 2017. Where Does Informality Stop and Corruption Begin? Informal Governance and the Public/Private Crossover in Mexico, Russia and Tanzania, Slavonic & East European Review, 95(1), 49-75

Bates, R. 2010. ʻA Review of Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast's Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human Historyʼ, Journal of Economic Literature, 48(3), 752-56

Brandreth, G. 2015. Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries. London: Biteback

Darden, K. A. 2001. ʻBlackmail as a Tool of State Domination: Ukraine Under Kuchmaʼ, East European Constitutional Review, 10:2–3

Hale, H. E. 2014. Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Kuzio, T. 2014. ʻCrime, Politics and Business in 1990s Ukraineʼ, Communist and Post- Communist Studies, 47:2

Ledeneva, A. 2001. Unwritten rules. London: Centre for European Reform

North, D. C., Wallis, J. J., and Weingast, B. R. 2009. Violence and social orders: A conceptual framework for interpreting recorded human history. Cambridge University Press

Radnitz, S. 2012. ʻOil in the family: managing presidential succession in Azerbaijanʼ, Democratization, 19:1, 60-77