Markets 2, totalitarian societies 0

Two articles worth reading this AM:  1.  Ali Ansari’s history of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in The National Interest.  Ansari explains exactly how the IRGC has become intermeshed with the Iranian economy, and what that means going forward.  His key point:  it’s not about the ideology anymore:  Though the IRGC started its life as ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of The Ideas Industry.

Two articles worth reading this AM: 

Two articles worth reading this AM: 

1.  Ali Ansari’s history of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in The National Interest.  Ansari explains exactly how the IRGC has become intermeshed with the Iranian economy, and what that means going forward.  His key point:  it’s not about the ideology anymore: 

Though the IRGC started its life as a defender of the revolution, over time the organization has become increasingly involved in commercial interests. Divisions within the Revolutionary Guard, particularly between its veterans and their heirs, have deepened. Now in bed with an increasingly radicalized elite in Iran, the IRGC seems to be less about protecting the people of the country and more about protecting its own material interests. Iran is rapidly becoming a security state.

2.  Blaine Harden’s Washington Post story on the fallout from North Korean protests of the government’s controversial currency reform last month.  Yes, you read that correctly, North Korean protests.  The good parts:

Grass-roots anger and a reported riot in an eastern coastal city pressured the government to amend its confiscatory policy. Exchange limits have been eased, allowing individuals to possess more cash.

The currency episode reveals new constraints on Kim’s power and may signal a fundamental change in the operation of what is often called the world’s most repressive state. The change is driven by private markets that now feed and employ half the country’s 23.5 million people, and appear to have grown too big and too important to be crushed, even by a leader who loathes them….

The currency episode seems far from over, and there have been indications that Kim still has the stomach for using deadly force.

There have been public executions and reinforcements have been dispatched to the Chinese border to stop possible mass defections, according to reports in Seoul-based newspapers and aid groups with informants in the North.

Still, analysts say there has also been evidence of unexpected shifts in the limits of Kim’s authority.

"The private markets have created a new power elite," said Koh Yu-whan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "They pay bribes to bureaucrats in Kim’s government, and they are a threat that is not going away."

Why did something like this take 40 years?  This is an overdetermined answer, but I have to think that the DPRK leadership has become so materially impoverished that North Koreans with ambition have decided that they are better off going outside the syatem rather than trying to achieve a bureaucratic sinecure. 

The common thread in both stories?  Ideological zeal only takes you so far, even in a totalitarian society.  Market forces will worm their way into even the most theocratic or communist societies.  What will be interesting is how those getting rich will respond to political instability, even as they have profted from the existing rules of the game. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of The Ideas Industry. Twitter: @dandrezner

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