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August 11, 2007

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The Challenge of Authoritarian Capitalism

Argh! Must read this Foreign Affairs article! But it is available only to paying subscribers! Oh well — the blockquote’s pretty good on its own:

Today’s global liberal democratic order faces two challenges. The first is radical Islam — and it is the lesser of the two challenges. Although the proponents of radical Islam find liberal democracy repugnant, and the movement is often described as the new fascist threat, the societies from which it arises are generally poor and stagnant. They represent no viable alternative to modernity and pose no significant military threat to the developed world. It is mainly the potential use of weapons of mass destruction — particularly by nonstate actors — that makes militant Islam a menace.

The second, and more significant, challenge emanates from the rise of nondemocratic great powers: the West’s old Cold War rivals China and Russia, now operating under authoritarian capitalist, rather than communist, regimes. Authoritarian capitalist great powers played a leading role in the international system up until 1945. They have been absent since then. But today, they seem poised for a comeback.

Authoritarian capitalist states, today exemplified by China and Russia, may represent a viable alternative path to modernity, which in turn suggests that there is nothing inevitable about liberal democracy’s ultimate victory — or future dominance.

The EU is also a noteworthy model. It’s of course not authoritarian by any stretch, but it’s not exactly democratic, either.

The question will soon be posed: Do we favor democracy simply because it is effective? Or do we favor it because it is, in some deeper sense, right? And are we willing to defend the latter proposition even if the first is subverted — that is, even if nondemocratic systems demonstrate equal or greater effectiveness?

Not well-worded, but perhaps you get the idea.

My answer to the latter question, for the record, is yes. And you?

Posted August 11, 2007 at 4:45 | Comments (13) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Snarkpolicy, Snarkpolitik


Britain has about 61 million people and 659 representatives or 1 per 92,000.

California has 36 million and 175 state and federal reps or 1 per 205,000.

With the federal layer of complexity and the extensive power of the executive branch in our version of democracy it is difficult to lump the United States' model strictly into the "Ideal Liberal Democracy" camp. Even the UK has all sorts of interesting things going on with Welsh and Scottish self-determination; not to mention the diversity of formations in the authoritarian field.

Although the question of authoritarianism vs liberalism is interesting, I worry that it creates a false dilemma since the particulars are so wide ranging.

Posted by: OTI on August 11, 2007 at 10:59 PM

Totally fair point -- maybe the U.S. is further along the authoritarian-capitalist axis than I'd like to admit.

Also, the UK has rad stuff like They Work For You. Most of the networked-democracy stuff in the U.S. so far has been focused on campaigning, not on governing.

I guess I'd argue that there is a certain definitional backstop, though: When things get bad in the U.S. -- e.g. now -- there does exist a procedural framework for citizens to sort of push the eject button. It's depressing to think our control might not really be any more fine-grained than that, but it's still pretty powerful.

The same can't be said of China: When things get bad, the only recourse for citizens there is... uprising? Right?

I don't mean to be too down on the U.S.; most of the recent issues with government whistleblowers, shield laws and wiretapping are more about tweaking our democratic system than facing any sort of long decline into authoritarianism or post-capitalist collapse, but I am not entirely sure that backstops exist.

Russia more than China (but China too) is a system with a lot of democratic elements. Under Putin, Russia has been going towards authoritarianism (no direct election of local governors, state controlled media, internet monitoring, misuse of physical power to silence dissenters..etc..) but people still do vote for some officials and you can still join political parties. In China it is more regressive, but they do have division of powers and a single party system that people can politick in and battle through. Democratic structure relies a lot on the expectations and power of the legal establishment in lodging complaints and filing suits when governments break a set of rules, but interpretations, especially on constitutional issues, can be very flexible. Long story short, I think there is a strong argument that backstops don't exist in practice.

As for the authoritarian vs liberalism question, I think it is more interesting that even these successful "authoritarian" states are still predicated on the idea of a democracy. South Korea, Japan, India, Western Europe and for those who read their Howard Zinn: the U.S. have had many struggles finding their place on the democratic-authoritarian scatter plot, but even in their darker time, still paid democracy some lip-service. Sometimes in political science, people forget the timeframe over which these changes take place and the fact that these fights still occur in the most progressive states.

I know it's lame to argue for the "it depends" answer, but whenever I see these prompts it is my first reaction.

Posted by: OTI on August 12, 2007 at 07:11 PM

Fantastic comments, OTI. The timescale point is so important; when I think about U.S. political development my horizon tends to hit around World War II, but of course we are living with the real consequences of 1920, 1900, 1880, and long before. It's hard (well -- for me, anyway) but crucial to locate oneself and one's country in that much stream.

I hope you stick around & comment some more!

I bet we could overcome a number of OTI's objections if we imagine Gat to be talking about two perpendicular continuums, one ranging from pure capitialism (whatever that would look like) to pure communism (ditto), and the other from absolute authoritarianism (one powerful dude/tte) to direct democracy (lots of not-so-powerful folk). This gets around the way that dichotomies elide fine distinctions, and would not raise Gat's ire, if I read him correctly.

Then we can return to his major argument. In the twentieth century, capitalism clearly showed itself effective over the long haul at granting power to nations that adopted it as an economic system. It proved to be more adaptable than communism, such that communist nations simply couldn't keep up. (And, of course, when I speak of capitalism, I really mean the changing, mixed economies that dominated in the US and Western Europe, but which still clearly privileged liberal, capitalist principles and the protection of private property. I'll leave it to the reader to imagine a similar qualifying sentence for "communist nations.")

On the other hand, Gat emphasizes that the failures of regimes that were significantly more authoritarian than were those that we tend to call the liberal democracies (and that works pretty well from 1871 on) were historically more contingent. Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan all lost when they bumped heads with the liberal democracies. But the causes of their defeats were not clearly the result of inherent flaws in authoritarian governments, or inherent strengths of democracies. That leaves open the possiblity that a nation with a more-capitalist economy and more-authoritarian government might prove to be a viable, long-term superpower and a model for the development of other nations. Liberal democracy, in other words, might not be the inevitable endpoint of all modern states.

And yet, the whole point of Gat's paper is avoid ever testing this theory. At least, that what I see as the subtext. While it might be interesting for political economists to observe an authoritarian capitalist superpower in the 21st century, why not instead choose to remain ignorant and instead work very hard to make a growing China fall into the great gravitational well that has pulled so many other developing economies into some manner of emulation of American/Western European liberal democracy.

Democracy as gravity well! What a metaphor! I am going to have to chew on that for a while... I think I love it, though.

There's a book -- can't remember the name, maybe I will look it up later -- that connects the innovation of democracy to the innovation of public debt and argues that democracies only emerged triumphant in those great conflicts because, er, they could raise more money -- in ways that monarchies, autocracies, etc. could not. Very reductive, but sort of interesting.

Seriously, the audacity of the "good question; let's never find out" rebuttal is ringing in my ears. I love it.

In response to your original question, Robin, I think that democracy is a worthy end in itself. Or, at least, a very good means of achieving worthy ends like justice, equality, and liberty.

All that Gat's argument does is suggest that authoritian capitalist governments might be as effective as liberal democracies at attaining national power and influence. So when you ask: "do we favor democracy because it is effective"? The answer is clearly yes, but we have not done enough to tease out how it is effective. When we do that, I think we'll find that authoritarian government is much more likely to fall short in some categories that we might want to privilege.

Is democracy the gravity well, or is capitalism? Capitalism does seem to warp political space -- the question is whether it ultimately warps into democratic institutions, or whether there's some other astro-political stable point.

Or even an unstable point. The real question, to my mind, isn't whether religious terrorism or authoritarian capitalism are a "competitor" to liberal democracy, in a long-term, Darwinian sense. Fascism didn't turn out to be sustainable (the argument goes) without the expansionist imperatives of the command economy, and as a mode of political/social organization is hardly a blip in the timeline of human political sociology. But in human history, that blip isn't a blip; it's an event.

I have to say that I generally agree with Gat, I just think that the liberal democracy/authoritarian assumption glosses over a lot of political reality and tells a story of "us vs them" that probably doesn't exist. China and Russia are too early in the capitalist experiment to be put on any sort of path. (See this chart: Modernity is still a bit away.)_

I am really fascinated by the role authoritarianism plays in midwifing capitalist, liberal democracy. General Park in Korea, Pinochet in Chile, the U.S. occupation government in Japan and the colonial government in Hong Kong all made for capitalist success stories but don't get much attention in the linear liberal democracy narrative. Our own country spent a long time putting down labor disputes, going after dissenters and relying on an 'old boys' network of big business and political commingling. Even the New Deal had some strong similarities with what was going in fascist states. We often criticize when we see these changes happening quickly, like under Park, but it is to be expected that capitalism has a weaker effect on politics when there isn't time for the old guard to die off. The real story, told by mixed economies and authoritarian states, is that a little bit of capitalism can go a long way to increasing wealth in a nation. Money can change hands quickly, but politics is on a more generational scale.

Gat says that he isn't convinced, but many countries suggest there is a truth behind his statement that "economic and social development create pressures for democratization that an authoritarian state structure cannot contain." Singapore is really the closest thing to a counter-example (which he duly notes), but is also very young.

One other note to Tim: the gravity well might be the U.S.' role in funding our liberal democratic allies. We had a strong hand in Japan, we're still paying the Koreans, European reconstruction owes a lot to U.S. monies and we tried to put cash in wherever we could during the cold war. I don't have any cohesive thoughts on this, but I wonder if we might be our own best friends.

I would also like to see how Gat feels about Kuwait, The UAE and Saudi Arabia. Do they operate like Venezuala would with US support?

Posted by: OTI on August 13, 2007 at 10:32 PM

And here is the full text for free


Are you studying the birth of actuaries? If you know any good introductions, I would be really interested.

Posted by: OTI on August 13, 2007 at 10:39 PM

This is an incredibly dangerous claim for a literature student to be making (since it run a strong risk of leading him into arguments that make him look like an idiot), but it still feels to me that we've attempted, but not quite succeeded in trying two consider two spectrums at the same time: political and economic. While, in the 20th Century, democratic systems have leaned toward capitalism, and authoritarian systems have leaned toward command economies, both the US during the New Deal, and China today seem to argue that there is no absolute, essential connection between systems of political and economic organization.

I think Robin's initial question as to whether democracy is desirable because it is effective or because it is moral is an excellent one, and one that we've danced around. In my own mind, "The Federalist Papers" part of me is a fan of democracy because it is ineffective, inefficient, and clunky. One of the greatest appeals of authoritarianism is its dynamism, but that's also the source of its greatest harms. While I'm frustrated by the oligarchy of the US system of government, I'm far more frustrated in the seeming abandonment of systems of check and balance.

China and Russia illustrate the dangers of valuing democracy for its ability to create wealth: if authoritarian countries have better economic growth rates than the US, then isn't that an argument to give up an outdated and inefficient voting system? The war in Iraq illustrates at least some of the dangers of valuing democracy as a moral end: Iraq and Palestine both show that giving individuals the vote in no way guarantees classically liberal (in the Lockean sense of the word) outcomes.

However, the tendency of even the most authoritarian systems hints at both the strongest ethical and most cynically practical argument for democracy—it is by far the most effective way to obtain the consent of the governed, and to keep the masses domesticated.

Good points all around--OTI on the possibility (not to get too Hegelian/Marxian/Progressive here) that authoritarian regimes tend to form a kind of stage in making industrial capitalism and liberal democracy become friends; Gavin on the ultimate argument for democracy as a tool for governing over long time-scales.

I guess a problem we're all expressing with Gat's argument is his insistance on instrumentalizing democracy as a means of forming international alliances. This is the same discourse that supports the neo-con claim that bringing democracy to Iraq would be magical (a road-to-damascus conversion) and would turn the whole middle east to support the US.

When I support US policies that encourage (or don't discourage) democracy around the world, I would do so because democracies often are better at protecting liberties, providing for their citizens, and generally being not as efficient at being evil (which is Gavin's federalist point).

OTI: I do write about actuaries. There isn't a whole lot out there. If you have access to a big library, there is good article on early British actuaries by Timothy Alborn in a book called _Accounting and Science_ (editor: Michael Power)

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