Dictatorships are a waste of everyone’s time. There is no instance in which one has been imposed and it did not prove self-defeating in the end. Hitler thought he was building a Reich to last a thousand years; it lasted twelve. Germany afterward was a devastated country which was chopped into two and has lived under a cloud of mild suspicion ever since.
Stalin thought he was building a socialist future. He died in 1953; the system he created lasted less than forty years after he passed on. Russia is still coming to terms with his legacy of work camps, environmental destruction, secret police and top-down economics. There are remote communities in the Urals such as Magnitogorsk which are there merely because Soviet planners wanted them there; they are now wastelands of industrial decay, in which people who are too poor or too old to move to more prosperous places remain stuck.
North Korea too is pointless. It builds nuclear weapons yet cannot feed itself; the average North Korean must wonder what is the nutritional value of plutonium. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il enjoys his dotage by sipping fine cognac, and his sons have the luxury of being able to go to Macau to gamble or to attend Eric Clapton concerts in the West.
Given these examples, it is rather interesting that dictatorship is still a growth industry. Iran is the latest to openly join the club, which is a retrograde development considering that those who created the Revolution of 1979 seemed to grasp the idea that rule imposed from on high might not be sufficient to maintain stability. After all, it hadn’t worked for the Shah. Yes, the country is essentially run by a set of religious leaders, but this was counterbalanced by a democratic element: this feature allowed the expression of dissent on behalf the populace, and underpinned the idea that the government was there due to a genuine mandate. Sometimes, there were hints of reform in the offing, such as when Mohammad Khatami was President. Genuine progress was frustrated, but the presence of Khatami alone was sufficient in order to maintain the system’s balance and legitimacy.
This makes the behaviour of Iran’s present religious leadership all the more puzzling. Let us be clear: all available evidence suggests that Iran’s presidential election was rigged. Mir Hossein Mousavi was not even allowed the dignity of winning areas in which he should have had a thumping majority; the number of votes cast in some regions exceeded the number of voters. It appears that the government engineered the outcome, and the mechanism for achieving that result was extremely clumsy. This was in spite of the fact that Mr. Mousavi cannot be considered a radical voice by any means: he was a veteran of the 1979 Revolution, and apart from a change in tone and perhaps a better grasp of economics, would not represent a gigantic shift in Iran’s domestic or foreign policy. Yet, the religious leaders apparently decided to throw in their lot with Ahmadinejad, and sent out the thugs and riot police to crush any and all dissent.
The stupidity of this move is startling: the regime has just sent an unmistakable message to the populace that the democratic element of their government is a fraud. The only way that people are allowed to vote from here on in is the “right way”, namely for the candidate which the religious leaders decide is best. Accountability and legitimacy have gone out of the window. However, the Iranian government should be warned; breaking illusions of this kind have previously proved fatal.
All governments rely to a certain extent upon illusions; for example, America relies upon the hagiography of the Founding Fathers. Their genius is deemed beyond question, although a read of the so-called “Anti-Federalist Papers”, in which the then-proposed Constitution is critiqued, contains some intruiging foresight. A good example comes from a letter dated 15 November 1787 written by a correspondent calling himself “Brutus”:
According to the common course of human affairs, the natural aristocracy of the country will be elected. Wealth always creates influence, and this is generally much increased by large family connections: this class in society will for ever have a great number of dependents; besides, they will always favour each other — it is their interest to combine — they will therefore constantly unite their efforts to procure men of their own rank to be elected.
Considering the prevalence of old families and big money in politics (including the Bush clan), this foreboding appears to have been justified. Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers’ reputation remains largely undimmed; it is a necessary illusion which keeps the government functioning. Belief is an absolute necessity to keep it in place.
A good rule of thumb is as follows: the more dictatorial the government, the greater the reliance on fiction. Hitler promoted the fantasy of the Aryan race. Mussolini provided the idea of a revived Roman Empire. Stalin demanded fealty to the idea of “Socialism in One Country”. Once these fictions died, so did the systems that they supported.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of this kind of collapse was provided by the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Nicolae Ceausescu was a brutal, Soviet backed dictator; his occasional differences with Moscow (such as allowing his country to participate in the 1984 Summer Olympics) gave the West the false impression that he was somehow more agreeable than his Warsaw Pact counterparts. In reality, he crushed all dissent; inspired by the Cultural Revolution in China, in July 1971, he undertook a Romanian variant of the same upheaval. Meanwhile, he squeezed his country economically, while building pompous monuments to his ego such as the Palace of the People in Bucharest, the second largest man-made structure in the world, which contains over one million cubic metres of marble, and over 3,500 tonnes of crystal. Somehow, however, he expected to be able to maintain the fiction that his dictatorship was building a socialist state. He thought that by utilising his security forces, the feared Securitate, that this power base could remain in place.
However, inspired by events in other parts of Eastern Europe, rebellion began in provincial Romanian cities like Timisoara; Ceausescu thought he could fight back with more fiction, e.g., by organising a “spontaneous” rally on December 21, 1989. A cry went up from the assembled masses, which caught the dictator off guard. His expression of puzzlement, broadcast live on television, represented the end of the illusions: his was not a popular government, nor had it ever been. His state was not a worker’s state, nor had it ever been. He tried to flee, was caught, summarily tried and then executed on December 25.
Iran’s fictions similarly lay in the dust, and time is not on the regime’s side. 60 percent of the population is under 30; this is a marked contrast to the gerontocracy which governs their lives. By throwing out the democratic element of the system, the regime has also thrown out any believable mechanism of reform; the sole remedy that remains is the government’s overthrow. We can take the recent rant by Iran’s Supreme Leader stating that the protestors should be executed as his channelling of old Ceausescu. The problem from his perspective is that this is likely to work out as well for him as it did for the Romanian Communist. It may not happen tomorrow, nor even in several years; however, once fictions are shattered, they are very difficult to put back together. It seems unlikely the present regime has the guile to achieve this feat.