The quasi-apotheosis of Xi Jinping at the 2017 Chinese Communist Party Congress is a useful occasion to reflect on the future of democracy and of the continuing validity of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that liberal democracy is the ultimate framework for large-scale human societies. This development is far from determining the “end of history”; the future evolution of both the mechanisms by which the economic and political markets operate and the scale of these maximal social units, whether nations, federations, or world government, remains undecided, not to speak of the effect of future human and natural catastrophes.
The liberal-democratic model is based on the regulation of the economic market by a political system that shares the quality of the market by bringing to bear collective judgments rather than granting absolute powers to a tyrant or a self-perpetuating decision-making group. Freely contested elections and political debate are essential to allowing the various members of society to propose and enact measures to assuage their resentments. All members of the society are presumed to accept the legitimacy of the political system and to seek to change it only within its own rules, which can include amending its fundamental document or constitution. American democracy today still adheres to this ideal. I find much of the criticism of our current president shameful and scurrilous, but I think we all agree that it is preferable to the forced sycophancy of the “constituents” of Kim Jong-Un.
In the 1950s, Khrushchev said “we will bury you,” but the Soviet system was creaky and corrupt and clearly no match for the market system. Xi represents a new challenge. He clearly feels he has reason to believe that in China, the socialist system can beat “capitalism” at its own game. Xi seems to take a clear-eyed view of the need to avoid corruption, and centralized decisions can control and guide the economy without eliminating the market as an indispensable feedback mechanism.
Xi is putting back on the table a question that we all thought had been settled back in 1989-91, and we cannot be certain that his is a losing bet. China is not North Korea; it holds out a promise of genuine prosperity that so far has been largely realized. If this must be at the cost of the kind of political freedoms we enjoy in the West, it forces us to take another look at how well these freedoms are indeed operating and to what extent they are continuing to provide the basis for social cohesion.
For social science, this is an empirical question to be answered with statistical data, including surveys of individual satisfaction—although in a dictatorship one can hardly obtain “sincere” results to such queries. But if the authorities truly know best, like doctors recommending foods or exercise that we find superficially distasteful but recognize as good for us, then how are we to judge how “satisfied” we are? It is hard to avoid returning to the age-old objective criteria that have always determined the relative success and survivability of societies: their economic power and their will to translate it when necessary into the form of military force, as China has recently not been shy about doing.
But we can deal with this issue on a more theoretical level that is nonetheless not altogether abstract and fanciful. What the current challenge of the China model suggests is the need to pose its alternative to the Western system in fundamental anthropological terms. Of course one can never eliminate the specifics of history, but the only way to understand history is to attempt to see through the messiness of reality to basic ideas—a skeptical Hegelianism, as it were. As I noted in Chronicle 555, the era of Big Data and the successes of AI have tended to discredit such “philosophical” approaches to human phenomena—leading in the case of the origin of language to a complete misunderstanding of what language is. (Big Data has not said, will never have said its last word; who can say that we will not create one day a working algorithm to allow us to simulate the origin of language on a computer in such a way that the known history of language is retrodicted from the model? Let’s just say that this has not yet taken place—and if and when it does, I bet it looks a lot like the originary hypothesis.)
Liberal democracies are subject to various imperfections, since the “balance of powers” is always working itself out and at times no longer functions as originally intended. In the USA, for example, for homosexuals to marry, one would assume that an act of Congress would be necessary. Instead, this and various other major new “rights” have been assigned by the Supreme Court on a creative rereading of the Constitution. But the Court, although insulated from the political marketplace, does ultimately depend on it, a point that was strongly made in the last presidential election. Some form of feedback mechanism remains so long as the system does not collapse in violence. And this rarely happens in democracies, although Venezuela offers a troublesome counter-example, as of course did Italy and Germany between the wars.
The “ideal” nature of such systems is not simple (“utopian”) but paradoxical; it was well expressed by Churchill’s famous quip that “democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” What makes this line more than a joke is that it respects the paradoxical layering that is inherent in any global decision-making process. For before we judge the individual measures that democracy offers, directly or indirectly, for our decision, we have tacitly consented to the system in toto, including the obstacles it presents to our desires, as meriting our allegiance. In an autocracy, we are not asked but told to consent to the system and are given no opportunity to change it, whereas the democratic system implies the “consent of the governed” at every level; even the retention of the original Constitution is considered a tacit decision made at every moment and rescindable if necessary.
To assert the viability of this system takes for granted that when disequilibria occur, it has the time to right itself before major damage is done. The Venezuelan counter-example, the result of the prior evisceration of the political balance of powers leading to the collapse of market discipline, would seem to reiterate after so many others the lesson that “socialism” is not only inseparable from political tyranny but ruins the economy as well. Yet Xi’s China, in making great efforts to counter this apparent truth, obliges us to reopen the dossier.
Clearly the Chinese system, unlike that of the USSR, has major “capitalist” elements. The most obvious difference is that whereas the USSR was largely autarkic and produced virtually nothing of economic value to the West, China has a vast export industry geared to Western markets. Such industries cannot be “planned” independently of the economic data furnished by these markets. Even if the government controls many sectors directly and can fund new research or technological projects without input from the public, its dependence on exports alone forces it to avoid the farcical performance of much of the Soviet economy (“we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”). The opportunity these markets give for pirating Western technology is a more ominous feature of this strategy.
In the absence of political parties and free elections, political debate in authoritarian societies takes place among factions whose pluralism varies inversely in proportion to the strength of the central power. If previous Chinese leaders, wary of repeating the disastrous results of Mao’s later years, have preferred to share power among several factions, Xi’s economic successes appear to have provided him a sufficient basis for a new hegemony, allowing him to acquire near-absolute power, so far at least without the irrationality that characterized the reigns of Mao or Stalin.
Among the more striking facts of recent history is the ease with which central authorities perpetuate themselves unless toppled from without. Aristotle and Montesquieu described the perilous nature of the tyrant’s role, as illustrated by the oft-assassinated Roman emperors and various examples of “Oriental despotism,” but today’s despots, including Putin and Erdogan, let alone the Kims and the Castros, or for that matter, Saddam and Khadafy before their countries were attacked by Western powers, seem invulnerable to internal overthrow. The crucial difference between them and “strong men” like the Shah or Hosni Mubarak would seem to be greater ruthlessness. But in none of these cases has autocracy provided, as Xi promises to do, superior economic performance in exchange for the loss of political freedom. (Singapore under the late Lee Kuan Yew might be considered an exception, but this city-state can hardly serve as a model for a full-sized country.)
The fundamental question is whether such a system can ultimately become more prosperous than our messy old market system. In schematic terms: one market or two? Economic markets in both cases, but in one, the higher-level regulation of the market is imposed by a self-perpetuating central authority rather than in the hands of changing representatives of the electorate.
The crux is whether an authoritarian system can generate greater political efficiency to make up for its diminished economic efficiency, which will presumably be affected by the damage to morale inflicted by thought control. Which obliges us to turn once more to the rise of the victimary in the West and the not-so-soft institutional thought control that it produces, increasingly indoctrinating the young with victimary clichés and taboos and obliging its citizens to salute, in place of the national flag, the idol of “diversity.”
Xi’s ambition for “modern socialism” challenges my response to Ryszard Legutko’s ominously ironic assimilation of Western PC to the dogmas of Eastern Euro-Communism (The Demon in Democracy, Encounter, 2016 ; see Chronicle 532): that, à tyrannie égale, at least the West has relatively healthy economies. But leaving the economy aside for the moment, if there is indeed to be tyrannie égale, then the very foundation of liberal democracy on the continued implicit consent of the governed is placed in jeopardy. Grosso modo we may say that the rise of the “alt” versions of right and left reflects this tendency, neither one accepting the traditional gentlemen’s agreement that its opposition will remain “loyal.” Significantly, in contrast to the Old Left, with its high hopes for the Soviet Union, the new alt-left is not at all dependent, nor even terribly interested in the fate of socialism outside its home borders. Its conviction of the inherent evil of “capitalism” is not based on a contrast with an exemplary model, utopian or otherwise, but is fundamentally moralistic. Victimary critique takes the place of every form of structural criticism. Since every practice can be shown to “victimize” in some way or other, we must engage in a constant battle against all of them, with “the end of discrimination” the only ultimate goal.
American society’s ability to deal effectively with victimary extremism has yet to be demonstrated. Trump’s election was a powerful step, but its results are still very much in doubt. Certainly Trump’s erraticism offers an unfortunate contrast to the sagacious Xi, who is as far from Trump as he is from Kim Jong-Un. Trump can only be a transitional figure; although I have no patience with the facile contempt of the never-Trump crowd, I cannot deny that his improvisational style can only be justified by the urgent need to resolve our victimary crisis and recenter our norms of political behavior. Xi sees this, of course, and finds this a fitting moment to assert his ambitions for China. This should indeed give us one more wake-up call.
Not altogether divorced from the rise of the victimary is the demographic issue that preoccupies Mark Steyn and others who fear for the future of our civilization. Western nations have no obvious means to arrest their drastic population decline save by permitting a continued influx of poorly assimilated non-Europeans. No doubt China’s unwise “one-child policy” has left it with serious demographic problems of its own, but if the state can influence the production of children in one direction, it is also capable of influencing it in the other. Meanwhile in the West we continue to witness the results of the loosening of family structure, the decline of marriage, and the increased pressure on young women to follow a masculine model in both their career and their sexual activity.
I certainly do not advocate putting limits on women’s career ambitions. (My French stepdaughter is a child psychiatrist with two doctoral degrees, recently chosen to head a university hospital program, and the current president of the Société de l’Information Psychiatrique; she also has three children.) But on a global scale, Israel appears to be the only advanced country whose women, certainly as liberated as any in the West, average more than two children apiece. It is highly unlikely that any other advanced democracy will spontaneously begin to reproduce itself in this fashion.
I have suffered enough from the autocracy-lite that increasingly pervades our institutions to be anything like an advocate for real autocracy in China or elsewhere. The question comes down to whether our inverted authoritarianism, like our pervasive anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia, is the inevitable destiny of liberal democracy as much as economic inefficiency has been the inevitable accompaniment of socialism. I certainly hope not. But if this is indeed to be the case, then we must judge Western society not only in comparison to the world of Islamic soumission, as in Michel Houllebecq’s recent dystopia, but to China, whose model cannot be taxed with simple historical regression. The fact that the Judeo-Christian West has trouble arguing with the medieval crudity of Salafism even on its home turf, let alone protecting Christians from it in the Middle East, gives little reassurance that it will be capable of standing up to the aggressive “modern socialism” that Xi Jinping sees as China’s gift to the world.
For the moment, I have not lost hope that liberalization is the necessary future of an increasingly “bourgeois” China, and prefer to see Xi’s efforts to avoid Gorbachev’s fate as an ideological screen behind which China will become the first nation to make a fairly smooth transition from communist tyranny to a new variant of liberal democracy, becoming a friendly rival rather than an implacable foe. But we cannot shut our eyes to the opposite possibility. Meanwhile, we must continue to hope that obscene tweets and lynch-mob accusations of “white supremacy” are not destined to remain in historical memory as the last fruits of Western liberalism.
Supplement (October 24, 2017)
Having read this Chronicle, a friend pointed out to me an October 21 piece by Rachel Botsman in Wired magazine entitled “Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens”, which describes an elaborate rating system that gives everyone a “national trust score,” and that will become the official Chinese basis for all kinds of judgments well beyond financial credit by 2020.
This gave me the idea of a clearer way of comparing Chinese with Western authoritarianism. These scores will definitely put a premium on loyalty to the regime, and, to the extent they are detectable, keep expressions of dissent to a minimum, as well as stigmatizing easily detectable vices such as video games. Certainly a step toward neo-1984. But there is an upside to this reliance on “objective” measures.
China (and Japan, and I imagine, South Korea) admit students to universities based on examination scores. American universities, even where racial criteria are supposedly illegal, as in California (hard to believe that prop. 209 would get the vote of today’s woke electorate), increasingly give out admissions based on “diversity.” There is also increasing pressure to do the same in industrial hiring, and we are constantly asked to lament the “white privilege” of the whites (and Asians) who get most of the good jobs in high-tech industries. So if we can say on the one hand that the West’s freer economy is a plus over the managed economy of socialism even at its most enlightened, and that it’s arguably preferable to be able to express one’s resentments freely rather than whisper them with the shower turned on, the advantage of these freedoms is certainly offset by the dilution of objective criteria in personnel selection. As opposed to the old Soviet dogmas, today’s Chinese dogmas are more methodological than doctrinary, and in contrast to such things as Lysenkoism, they take their science straight (even when taking ours). What this suggests is that the autocratic nature of the society and its repression of dissent bear increasingly on the mechanisms of social control rather than on the specifics of decisions to be made in the economic and technical spheres.
Of course this discussion brackets such things as the Chinese takeover of “territories” in the South China Sea, and its under-the-table encouragement of North Korea, as well as China’s push for economic hegemony in Asia (New Silk Road) and throughout the Southern Hemisphere. But it does allow for an element of objective comparison. As our society becomes more digital-technological, hence farther from the old norm of “labor power” as the rough equivalent of moral equality that inspired Marx’s Labor Theory of Value, meritocratic selection becomes increasingly important—not just to get the “best” people, but to get everyone to strive to be the best. (Which is the major reason why—but don’t let the UC Diversity folks hear you say this—Chinese kids are good at math.)
Conversely, it is precisely the evil of meritocracy (“disparate impact”) that is the focus of the ascriptive victimary thinking that has virtually eliminated all other thought on the Left today.
I won’t waste your time with this nonsense, but you might take a look for example at http://www.frontpagemag.com/point/268213/u-illinois-prof-math-racist-daniel-greenfield or http://www.frontpagemag.com/point/268212/college-pres-shoving-white-female-student-price-daniel-greenfield , just in one day’s Front Page. Maybe we shouldn’t put people in the gulag for thought crimes, but these people should certainly be put somewhere where they can do no further harm, assuming there are still enough others left to take their place.