Death of Kim Jong-il renews fears of 'Peak Tyranny'

The death of Kim Jong-il has led to renewed fears that the world may have reached Peak Tyranny, the point at which the maximum rate of global despotism has been reached. After that point, oppression enters a phase of terminal decline in which production of new abuses is unlikely to keep pace with the world's demand.

"It's been a bad year for autocrats all round," said a spokesperson for the International Society of Dictators, Despots and Authoritarians. "First you had Ben Ali and Mubarak. Then the death of bin Laden who, while not actually enthroned as a dictator, we always recognized as a strong aspiring candidate. Then the news just got steadily worse. The death of Gadhafi was a major, major blow, and now this. It's hard to imagine the future looking any bleaker."

With many of the world's leading tyrants now out of the picture, there is concern that other leading sources of tyrannical rule might also be close to drying up. "Castro's all but done, Chavez is in poor health, even the Burmese seem to be going soft," the spokesperson added. As major reserves run out, demands for new totalitarianism may have to be met from sources formerly considered uneconomical. Without new technologies to increase the efficiency of extraction, the cost of exploiting these resources may exceed their value.

Others take a more optimistic point of view. "Reports of the death of tyranny are, I believe, greatly exaggerated," said Professor John Smith of the Institute for the Study of Despotism. "I'd like to remind you that China is still a single-party state, and Vladimir Putin seems to be getting ready for a comeback. Half the Gulf is run by flogging-and-chopping monarchs of the old school. We still have Assad, Karimov, Ali Khamenei. And let's not dismiss Kim Jong-un. At this stage, he's an untested resource, but he comes from a great line of batshit-crazy tyrants. Personally, I'm very hopeful."

Critics of the theory of Peak Tyranny also point to the possibility of extracting abuse from novel sources, so-called alternative despotisms. "It used to be that to get real, high-quality autocracy, you needed a strong man, some guy in a general's uniform with a row of medals. That was very much the African and Latin American pattern during much of the twentieth century," Professor Smith said. "Frankly, it's an outdated model. We can do better today."

Alternative sources of despotism can include religiously-inspired movements such as Somalia's Al-Shabab or the perennially-enduring Taliban. "There's no visible leader, but these guys are still doing their part in crushing the human soul and brutalizing a terrified population. I see this kind of diffuse, grassroots network as the wave of the future," said Professor Smith. He also pointed to the increasingly autocratic nature of even traditional democracies like the United States. "The Patriot Act, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, NDAA, SOPA … you may say that they're just baby steps, but the trend is definitely in the right direction."

For Professor Smith and others, the whole notion of Peak Tyranny is overblown. "It's a fairy story. It's something that torturers and secret police tell their children to scare them. Tyranny is one of the planet's great renewable resources. We'll never run out."