Dynastic Communism

7 July 2010


Please allow me to bring to your attention to an excellent article in the Financial Times, North Korea: Drastic dynastics, about the ongoing struggle for power in that impoverished, isolated, and miserable place. The plotting and machinations involved in the current succession struggle, as detailed in the FT story, reveal the essentially feudal character of the North Korean state. This is the very embodiment of non-transparency.

Last month in The Evolution of Marxism I discussed the strange (but understandable spectacle) of how Marxism has evolved from an essentially internationalist project into something intensely local and indigenous, as caught up with ideas of nationalism and national self-determination as with any idea of an economic structure that engages in the redistribution of wealth. In North Korea, we not only have an intensely nationalistic communist despotism, we also have economic redistribution of the kind that communism was originally conceived in opposition to. In fact, North Korea is much more like a feudal kingdom than a contemporary nation-state, with its power personally held by a single family, transmitted from father to son, and the bulk of state resources directed into the military.

Alfred Russel Wallace called his paper formulating his independent discovery of natural selection, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type.” This pregnant title is equally applicable to ideologies: one could speak of the tendency of ideologies to depart indefinitely from the original type. And what is the result? Speciation. In this case, the speciation of ideologies, which experience descent with modification. Except in the present case of North Korea, what we have seen is evolutionary avatism — a throwback to earlier forms of ideology — rather than any ideological novelty arising from social evolution.

In several posts about the technological singularity (for example, More on Stalled Technologies) I tried to develop the idea of mature technologies, which enjoy a high degree of stability, but which have reached a certain plateau of development and are not likely to experience any further exponential growth. The atavism revealed by North Korea’s feudal institutions represents a case of stalled social technology, i.e., the return to a robust and stable feudalism.

Today’s diplomats, if they would like to deal profitably with North Korea, should hit the history books, and particularly those detailing the early modern period (which I recently described as a goldmine of ideas). And for this reason: in the early modern period, the earliest examples of nation-states had already emerged, while many feudal kingdoms still hung on to life at that point, and would continue to hang on to life to the present day. However, even those formerly despotic feudalisms that still survive in Europe (count the number of European countries that still have a king of queen as symbolic head of state), have been transformed over time into new species of governmentality that have ceased to be feudal and ceased to be despotic even while retaining some feudal institutions. There are lessons to be learned from this transition.

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