Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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The Age of Authoritarian Democracy

MOSCOW – The world is currently being shaken by tectonic changes almost too numerous to count: the ongoing economic crisis is accelerating the degradation of international governance and supranational institutions, and both are occurring alongside a massive shift of economic and political power to Asia. Less than a quarter-century after Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history,” we seem to have arrived at the dawn of a new age of social and geopolitical upheaval.

Dramatically, the Arab world has been swept by a revolutionary spring, though one that is rapidly becoming a chilly winter. Indeed, for the most part, the new regimes are combining the old authoritarianism with Islamism, resulting in further social stagnation, resentment, and instability.

Even more remarkable, however, are the social (and antisocial) grassroots demonstrations that are mushrooming in affluent Western societies. These protests have two major causes.

First, social inequality has grown unabated in the West over the last quarter-century, owing in part to the disappearance of the Soviet Union and, with it, the threat of expansionist communism. The specter of revolution had forced Western elites to use the power of the state to redistribute wealth and nurture the growth of loyal middle classes. But, when communism collapsed in its Eurasian heartland, the West’s rich, believing that they had nothing more to fear, pressed to roll back the welfare state, causing inequality to rise rapidly. This was tolerable as long as the overall pie was expanding, but the global financial crisis in 2008 ended that.

Second, over the past 15 years, hundreds of millions of jobs shifted to Asia, which offered inexpensive and often highly skilled labor. The West, euphoric from its victory over communism and its seemingly unstoppable economic growth, failed to implement necessary structural reforms (Germany and Sweden were rare exceptions). Instead, Western prosperity relied increasingly on debt.

But the economic crisis has made it impossible to maintain a good life on borrowed money. Americans and Europeans are beginning to understand that neither they, nor their children, can assume that they will become wealthier over time.

Governments now face the difficult task of implementing reforms that will hit the majority of voters hardest. In the meantime, the minority that has benefited financially over the past two decades is unlikely to give up its advantages without a fight.

All of this cannot fail but to weaken Western democracy’s allure in countries like Russia, where, unlike in the West or to a large extent the Arab world, those who are organizing the massive demonstrations against the government belong to the economic elite. Theirs is a movement of political reform – demanding more freedom and government accountability – not of social protest, at least not yet.

A few years ago, it was fashionable to worry about the challenge that authoritarian-style capitalism (for example, in China, Singapore, Malaysia, or Russia) presented to Western democratic capitalism. Today, the problem is not only economic.

Western capitalism’s model of a society based on near-universal affluence and liberal democracy looks increasingly ineffective compared to the competition. Authoritarian countries’ middle classes may push their leaders toward greater democracy, as in Russia, but Western democracies will also likely become more authoritarian.

Indeed, measured against today’s standards, Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, and Dwight Eisenhower were comparatively authoritarian leaders. The West will have to re-adopt such an approach, or risk losing out globally as its ultra-right and ultra-left political forces consolidate their positions and its middle classes begin to dissolve.

We must find ways to prevent the political polarization that gave rise to totalitarian systems – communist and fascist – in the twentieth century. Fortunately, this is possible. Communism and fascism were born and took root in societies demoralized by war, which is why all steps should be taken now to prevent the outbreak of war.

This is becoming particularly relevant today, as the smell of war hangs over Iran. Israel, which is facing a surge of hostile sentiment among its neighbors in the wake of their “democratic” upheavals, is not the only interested party. Many people in the advanced countries, and even some in Russia, look increasingly supportive of a war with Iran, despite – or perhaps owing to – the need to address the ongoing global economic crisis and failure of international governance.

At the same time, huge opportunities beckon in times of far-reaching change. Billions of people in Asia have extricated themselves from poverty. New markets and spheres for applying one’s intellect, education, and talents are appearing constantly. The world’s power centers are beginning to counterbalance each other, undermining hegemonic ambitions and heralding a creative instability based on genuine multipolarity, with people gaining greater freedom to define their fate in the global arena.

Paradoxically, today’s global changes and challenges offer the potential for both peaceful coexistence and violent conflict. Whether fortunately or not, it is up to us – alone – to determine which future it will be.

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  1. CommentedSohaib Malek

    Isn't democracy authoritative by itself?

    When was the last time when a relative majority's decision was overthrown due to the relative minority's reservations in one of the most democratic country? When a majority votes for someone/thing, minority's views, regardless of how serious they are, are overruled "authoritatively".

    Its democracy's paradox that, on the one hand, it denounces non-authoritarian rules, on the other hand, its ensures a headway for majority's decisions when they're suppressing a relative minority's views.

  2. CommentedAlex D.

    I like the analysis of our current western situation:
    "First, social inequality has grown unabated in the West over the last quarter-century, owing in part to the disappearance of the Soviet Union and, with it, the threat of expansionist communism."

    There are many reasons why the western countries are in this mess. First, our politicians believe in the wrong system. It started with Thatcher and spread over almost every western country. Small government but free and ultra capitalism was the motto. We now see the results.

    Lobbyism opened a door to this development. But also in universities we were told that the free market works best. Deregulation was the motto and politicians did what the professional class said. We saw what happened: The workers’ wages decreased rapidly, the taxes for companies and wealthy people went down, unemployment rose, social benefits had to be cut because public revenue went down. And finally deregulation in financial markets has lead to the catastrophe in the financial markets. We saw the results in 2001 and 2008.

    This leads us to the next point:
    "Governments now face the difficult task of implementing reforms that will hit the majority of voters hardest."

    Now politicians have to solve the crisis. But how? Banks had to be saved with public money and now politicians cut the social benefits and wages of regular people. The causers of our financial disaster in 2008 are free and can do business as usual. The game goes on but the regular people have to pay it. In fact the European Union tries to save the Euro since 2008 and the economic situation in the southern countries is getting worse in worse. Instead of realizing that the EU continuous with the same medicine without realizing that the medicine (and thus the economical models that have been used) might be wrong.

    But this is not about democracy! If you would ask the voters they would say regulate the banks, stop the speculation with food and "stop making money with money for Christ’s sakes". Let them pay the bill.
    But as you can see our politicians are caught in Lobbyism. Banks write rules for German politicians for example. That is insane (but true).

    In fact our politicians could easily solve the problems. Use the right economical models, start to create jobs, decrease the inequality which is possible throughout taxation of the upper class or the famous 1%. Let companies finally pay taxes without any exceptions! Close tax loopholes and fight against tax shelters.

    On the other hand we have the more or less authoritarian countries which have no Lobbyism. They have a ruling elite but they are no bankers. Their markets are strictly regulated and often protected. Of course they have many other problems but huge and powerful companies are often government owned or ruled.

    Thus my conclusion:
    Our western democracies seem not to work because most of our political parties think the same way, influenced by the banks and big companies. Take a look at the US. 2 parties with 80% the same thinking.
    Take a look at Germany. We have more or less 5 parties of which 4 do the same. What has the labour party in England become? Why is Hollande called a Socialist?! Objectively they are all capitalists in the name of the big and wealthy and not much different than any other party in the western democracies.

    Perhaps we need more authoritarian leaders in the western countries but in my eyes this is not necessary. What we need is politicians who finally start to serve the people and not the companies and banks. Sweden or Switzerland are a good example that it works.

    Otherwise a very good and eye opening article! Thank you for that!

  3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Thank you for this very sharp analysis of our current global situation. Indeed history "did not end", evolution is going on, and it has driven humanity to a very crucial crossroad. We are facing unprecedented times, because we never lived in such a closed, integral and interdependent system as we exist in today, thus we can basically "throw out" all our historic examples.
    Moreover all our history so far can only teach us what systems do not work, as all our previous civilizations, including the present free market, constant growth capitalistic civilazation have run into dead ends, collapsed.
    I completely agree with the conclusion of the article that from this point on we can progress either in a very positive, prosperous, sustainable way, or we can self destruct even to the point of extinction. We have the talent and capability for both.
    So why would we not choose the positive path automatically? Because it goes against our inherent human nature. The positive path requires an altruistic, mutually responsible society, where people take into consideration the whole system before they make self calculations. Only this way can such an interconnected integral system work, where with each move, even with our thoughts we influence everybody else, thus before any plan or action we need to take into consideration the whole structure.
    We can be motivated into accepting such altruistic system in two ways. The first one is the method we followed so far, we only changed, moved on when the suffering on the actual level made it impossible to stay put, thus we moved to another level. Unfortunately in our present situation this would mean colossal suffering, possible atomic world war. The other option is the wise one, where by studying and understanding the structure of the global system, and the laws governing it, we adjust ourselves willingly, with free choice, proactively before the circumstances force us to do so. This is where we stand today as the article concludes.

  4. CommentedAndrés Arellano Báez

    It is the most important change of our species. In the past there were moments like theses, but with a huge difference: the avalaible free information the we can have today. So, it is true what hte authos said: radicals ideologies can come to power but we all have today the tools to avoid that. We need share information and generate the basis for the next step in our evolution: the social awareness. 2012 is a year for a change and it is clear that the actual system is collapsing.

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