Autocracy 2.0

Further to the previous post and the erosion (if not yet the implosion) of the post-war world order, another significant shift lies in the rise of new kinds of autocracies. In the post-war era, democracies were generally much more prosperous and better governed than autocracies, most of which were disaster zones. The Soviet Union was full of shops that had nothing to sell and citizens queueing for hours to buy consumer goods and even bread. And — just in case they were minded to try their luck elsewhere — they were locked behind an Iron Curtain that kept them from fleeing to the West. (Cue images of the Berlin Wall.) I remember the occasional visitor from the Soviet bloc arriving in Cambridge and being transfixed by a visit to Sainsburys. China was a backward country that had just recovered from a major famine and Maoist madness. Albania and Romania and even Poland were backward dystopias. Ethiopia was a byword for famine, suffering and death. And so on.

But now? Here’s Tyler Cowen’s take on it:

Since that time, governance in those regions has become much, much better, even though China, Ethiopia and Russia still are not democracies in the Western sense. China for instance has built one of the world’s most impressive economic growth miracles ever, with the Communist Party still firmly in power. Ethiopia is coming off of some years of double-digit economic growth and is developing its manufacturing. Yet the country is autocratic and has a history of censoring the internet. Putin rules Russia with a firm hand, but today consumer goods of virtually all kinds are widely available and most Russians are free to leave whenever they want.

What led to these beneficial changes? In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a common view that if authoritarian or totalitarian regimes liberalized, it would bring an end to their rule. The collapse of Soviet and Eastern European communism over 1989-1992 seemed consistent with this prediction, as perestroika and relaxed travel restrictions caused those regimes to implode.

But maybe that was wishful thinking on our part. Tyler says that modern autocrats — most of all in China — have found ways of both liberalizing and staying in power.

The good news is that people living under authoritarian governments have much, much better lives than before. The corresponding bad news is that autocracy works better than it used to and thus it is more popular and probably also more enduring. The notion that autocratic government would fade away, either in practice or as an ideological competitor to Western liberalism, simply isn’t tenable any more.

The basic message, therefore, might be this: autocracy works! For most of us liberals, this is an appalling thought. But since most people are not much interested in politics — or perhaps in free speech, judicial independence, the rule of law, etc. — so long as the system delivers jobs, economic growth and public order then that’s good enough for them.

Present at the Destruction

Reflecting on Trump’s decision to walk away from the G7 Summit at Charlevoix without signing the joint communique, the New Yorker‘s George Packer was reminded of an earlier era:

Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State, called his autobiography Present at the Creation. The title referred to the task that confronted American leaders at the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War, which was “just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis,” Acheson wrote. “That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole to pieces in the process.” A network of institutions and alliances—the United Nations, Nato, the international monetary system, and others— became the foundation for “the rules-based international order” that the leaders in Charlevoix saluted. It imposed restraints on the power politics that had nearly destroyed the world. It was a liberal order, based on coöperation among countries and respect for individual rights, and it was created and upheld by the world’s leading liberal democracy. America’s goals weren’t selfless, and we often failed to live up to our stated principles. Power politics didn’t disappear from the planet, but the system endured, flawed and adaptable, for seventy years.

“In four days, between Quebec and Singapore”, Packer continues,

Trump showed that the liberal order is hateful to him, and that he wants out. Its rules are too confining, its web of connections—from trade treaties to security alliances—unfair. And he seems to find his democratic counterparts distasteful, even pathetic. They speak in high-minded rhetoric rather than in Twitter insults, they’re emasculated by parliaments and by the press, and maybe they’re not very funny. Trump prefers the company of dictators who can flatter and be flattered. Part of his unhappiness in Quebec was due to the absence of President Vladimir Putin; before leaving for the summit, Trump had demanded that Russia be unconditionally restored to the G-7, from which it was suspended over the dismemberment of Ukraine. He finds nothing special about democratic values, and nothing objectionable about murderous rulers. “What, you think our country is so innocent?” he once asked.

This is an exceedingly prescient article. It highlights the wilful blindness of many commentators who are outraged by what is happening — particularly the disintegration of the post-war, US-designed, ‘liberal’ world order which enabled societies (at any rate the West) to recover from the trauma of the second world war and enjoy a period of relative peace and prosperity. Almost everything we see now — the growing difficulties of the EU as it grapples with the increasingly illiberal regimes in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Trump’s ‘America First’ obsessions, the rise of China, Putin’s triumphalism, etc. — suggests a reversion to a world dominated by old-style power-politics.

The liberal game is over, in other words. Although I am/was a beneficiary of it (like many members of various Western elites) I was never an unqualified admirer of it. From the 1970s onwards, it was really a system for making the world ready for neoliberalism, with all the inequality and injustice that that implied. But maybe, pace Churchill, it was the least bad of the available alternatives.

The challenge now is to see if there is a creative side to the destruction of Acheson’s creation.