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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Academic Sources: Levitsky and Way on the Durability of Authoritarian Regimes

by | March 28th, 2013 | 07:00 am
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At a conference several weeks ago at MIT, I had the chance to talk to Steve Levitsky (Department of Government at Harvard) about his current work with Lucan Way (University of Toronto) on authoritarian cohesion and durability. Levitsky and Way are the co-authors of a great book on “competitive authoritarian” regimes: intermediate regimes that are essentially autocratic but nonetheless permit limited contestation and liberties. Needless to say, North Korea is a long way from this type, but in a new piece in Perspectives on Politics (for those with journal access) they vet some new work on why certain dominant party authoritarian regimes are more cohesive and durable than others; the findings provide interesting insights into the North Korean case.

An established empirical finding initially owed to Barbara Geddes at UCLA is that single- and dominant-party authoritarian regimes outlive military or personalist ones; this proposition has been tested by a variety of scholars using simple hazard models and alternative definitions of authoritarian regime type. Although the result appears to me to be driven by the population of Eastern European cases that were in fact sustained by an external patron, the argument does have a compelling theoretical logic. As Levitsky and Way argue:

“Ruling parties foster elite cohesion, which is widely viewed as essential to authoritarian stability. Elite cohesion may be defined as rulers’ ability to maintain the loyalty and cooperation of allies within the regime. Where cohesion is high, ministers, allied legislators, and local officials routinely support and cooperate with the government. Internal rebellion and defection are rare, and when they occur, they attract few followers. Where cohesion is low, incumbents routinely confront insubordination, rebellion, or defection, which often con- tributes to authoritarian breakdown.”

The loyalty of cadre to parties is not just a function of top-down organizational controls but also incentives, including patronage and control of career paths. But Levitsky and Way wonder whether the strategy of maintaining control through the allocation of rents is effective, particularly given its vulnerability to exogenous shocks; again, the relevance to North Korea is pretty clear. Rather they argue that non-material sources of cohesion, and particularly regimes born from violent struggle, may be more cohesive than those that rely on patronage alone.

Why? Levitsky and Way offer several reasons. Violent conflict:

  • creates enduring party identities;
  • hardens partisan boundaries, and permits sharper “us-them” distinctions with any potential opponents as well as in-group loyalty;
  • generates militarized party structures and ethos;
  • heightens the legitimacy of at least the first generation of leaders;
  • and enhances the capacity—and willingness–of the regime to repress.

They make the case through two sets of paired comparisons: Kenya and Zambia, where patronage-based ruling parties suffered defection and eventual defeat in the face of economic or succession crises; and Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where ruling parties and regimes survived despite similar (or worse) crises. They also point forward to some simple statistical tests using the Geddes dataset.

The applicability to North Korea is obvious. The source of violence that served these political functions was dual, including both the anti-Japanese activity in Manchuria on the part of the original guerilla faction and the prolonged Korean war, which established the regime’s anti-American as well as anti-Japanese credentials. The gradual consolidation of power around the guerilla faction and the cult of personality after the purges of the late-1950s and early-1960s conform with a number of features of the theory, including the political use of sharp “us-them” distinctions, militaristic control, a privileged position for the military and security forces and the willingness to use violence.

However, as Levitsky and Way note, the logic of their argument has a “best before” date, or what might more appropriately be seen as a generational logic. These dynamics of cohesion may help the first generation. But the next generation has to figure out whether it can continue to reproduce loyalties based on two, three or more degrees of separation from the more charismatic first generation. In North Korea, ideology and propaganda have obviously played a central role in the effort to do so, but so have institutional developments that enshrined the military more centrally into the state apparatus under Kim Jong Il and during the transition to Kim Jong Eun as well; see our mapping of this process here.

This process of institutionalizing the military presence might be seen as one of strengthening institutions by binding core constituents to them or may simply be a structure for dispensing rents. We suspect the latter and have recently reported some rumors that the rent-distribution process is becoming highly routinized.  If so, then it should make the regime more vulnerable at the margin to the risks that Levitsky and Way outline. Given the ongoing debate about sanctions, and the possibility that this round could touch on the regime’s foreign financial relations, the possibility of elite disaffection has to be entertained.  We have always argued that if the regime is vulnerable, it is not to Arab Springs, but to the rise of forces within the party that challenge—or fantasize about challenging—the entrenched party-military-security apparatus.

However, Levitsky and Way also show why such regimes have a reservoir of non-material resources on which they can draw, including sharp “us-them” distinctions. One function of ramping up external conflict—which Jessica Weeks shows military regimes are more likely to do—is precisely to sharpen those political edges in order to deter internal challenge. Authoritarian regimes, no less than democratic ones, can exhibit Wag the Dog or diversionary war dynamics.

Past Academic Sources posts

Faisal  Z. Ahmed on the effect of remittances on the longevity of autocracies.

Jessica Weeks on types of autocracy and propensity for conflict.

Regime Type and Growth