School of Social and Political Science

PIR Book Launch: Arbitrary States by Rebecca Tapscott

21 October 2021
15:00 - 16:30


This event will take place online (registration details below)


This event marks the launch of a new book Arbitrary States: Social control and authoritarianism in Museveni’s Uganda, which draws on the Museveni regime’s governance in Uganda to understand contemporary authoritarianism.

Unlike the despots of the past, known for arbitrary violence and direct rule, today’s authoritarians use the rule of law. Many of these regimes even cultivate democratic institutions: elections, separation of powers, and institutions designed to promote transparency and accountability. This has puzzled scholars – how can authoritarians survive in contexts of democracy, however imperfect or partial? This question is even more pronounced in lower-capacity states where the ruling regime may lack the capacity to reliably suppress political opposition and public dissent.

Based on ground-breaking research in Rebecca Tapscott’s new book Arbitrary States, this event examines authoritarianism from below, showing how some regimes use pervasive political unpredictability to maintain control in the face of democratic institutions and weak state capacity. The event will explore how the Ugandan state uses local violent actors including militias, vigilantes, and community policing initiatives for everyday governance, while denying these actors the ability to consolidate local authority that would allow them to challenge the state. Speaking to global debates on authoritarian institutions and the rule of law, the book’s author, Rebecca Tapscott, will be joined by expert speakers to discuss the ways authoritarians are increasingly asserting themselves through seemingly democratic institutions.

Learn more about the book here.

Chaired by:

  • Julie Kaarbo, Professor of Foreign Policy, University of Edinburgh


  • Jamie Allinson, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh
  • Mai Hassan, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Michigan
  • Roger MacGinty, Professor in Defence, Development and Diplomacy in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University

This event is organised by PIR Research and supported by CeSeR.