To no one’s surprise, the Revolutionary Guard crawled out from under its rock and suppressed the latest round of anti-government protests in Iran this week through its usual, and effective, combination of jailing, beatings, and extermination. And by “government”, we mean the Islamist militia that props up that county’s theocracy, patronage-controlled civil service, and tightly-vetted legislature. There is a military too, a sort of second string to the militia whose importance has waned with the demise of Saddam Hussein and the need to divert funds to proxy militias scattered around the Middle East to promote international terrorism and nation subversion on the Arabian Peninsula. Iran is case zero in the pantheon of governments whose well established appetite for death precludes any worry about street protests.
Killing one’s own citizens is, however, in the absence of a good old fashion bloody dictatorial overthrow, an acquired taste. Take Venezuela for example. It is often said the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, something for which the Chavistas that run the country of Venezuela could talk about at length. Originally staffed with throngs of young idealists eager to feed the poor, eradicate illiteracy, provide adequate medical care to all, and redistribute wealth from rapacious industrialists to those that really needed it, Chavez’s minions soon fell into the old habits of corruption and cronyism that plagued their predecessor governments. Those that objected to excesses were branded counterrevolutionaries and the political machine’s exhaustion of easy to find resources created the need to seize them instead, launching the country into a vicious downward spiral.
Modern day Venezuela represents the second to worst nightmare scenario for a republic–that of the democracy that votes itself into oblivion (number one is that aforementioned overthrow). Popular vote was a fairly recent privilege for the average Venezuelan, as regular presidential elections did not start until 1958–more than a century after the country’s 1835 liberation from Spain. Forty years into this democratic experiment Chavez was elevated to the highest office, and the number of citizens whose vote mattered in elections shrank considerable year after year until only members of the ruling party and its supporters could make laws and determine office holders. The predictable collapse of the economy from kleptocracy and long-discredited socialist policies has made even the fixing of the vote inadequate, so Venezuela’s government has resorted to suppression and violence, which inevitably results in the periodic death of some of its citizens. Thus at this point the ability of Maduro and the Chavistas to stay in power is a function of their appetite for death.
Killing your countrymen does eventually have an endgame. The Chinese socialists tried using the mass extermination of its citizens as a way of enforcing political outcomes, only to abandon the practice as unworkable when it became obvious that pogroms had a way of feeding on themselves so that the original purpose behind them became obscured by the blood lust of the most ruthless, and least enlightened, among the political enforcer class. The Russians had already figured this out for themselves, so that when Stalin died in 1953 the country (then the USSR) breathed a collective sigh of relief and quietly reigned in most of its excesses. But the Chinese socialists had just seized the whole of the country (except Taiwan) in 1949, and were eager to put into practice much of the Marxist demagoguery. Tens of millions died during the initial “Great Leap Forward” and succeeding “Cultural Revolution” until 1978, when the death of Mao and the arrest of his lieutenants brought about the ensuing market-communism that prevails today. Nevertheless, dissidents and the disaffected still disappear quietly, but steadily, caught up in the party machinery like infections being attacked by ever vigilant white blood cells. Street protests, even those of the brief country-wide Tiananmen Square incident, are firmly squashed with little problem.
The Chinese are so good at dealing with citizen unrest that they are the envy of the other totalitarian regimes in the world. Which brings us back to the Iranians. The Chinese socialists have the advantage of riding a twenty-year bow-wave of economic growth and multi-trillion dollar trade surpluses. They can buy civic peace at almost any price while holding down the body count. But even with the drop of sanctions in exchange for a dubious stalemate in its nuclear weapons program, Iran struggles to fuel its economy in the face of stilted market dynamics, a rampant kleptocracy, and sustained international adventurism. This has created an uneasy stalemate between average citizens and the militia in charge, and assures bloody results for street protests for years to come.