Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Your train, The End of History, is operating 15-20 years late. We apologize for any inconvenience."

I've often pushed back against those who mock Francis Fukuyama for having suggested, in the wake of the destruction of the Berlin Wall, that the world was heading toward universal embrace of democracy and capitalism and that there was no serious ideological alternative.

I've long suspected that Fukuyama was not wrong, just early, and not even necessarily early, since he never suggested that The End of History was immediately at hand (not in the book version, anyway; perhaps he was less equivocal in the original article) -- just that we were on course for it.  I still like to think he's essentially right, with three caveats, two old, one new, or morphed out of the old.

First: who knows what malign new ideology may arise, command the allegiance of fanatics and proceed to enslave hundreds of millions or billions. I don't think Islamist theocracy qualifies; it's a rearguard action, without a prayer of building or catching hold of a world power -- though it could, through major terrorist attacks, destabilize current powers and perhaps, given our proven propensity to panic over the past ten years, end democracy in America. Which leads to a second caveat: never underestimate humanity's capacity to tear civilization down; chaos or destruction through war or environmental depredation is always possible.

The third caveat is prompted by China's sustained ability over 30+ years to manage rapid economic growth via top-down, autocratic rule. This leads to a revisionist thought: what if the Cold War, or at least the ideological competition underpinning it, never really ended?  As the Soviet Union collapsed and China progressively took the wraps off private enterprise, an assumption took hold in the west that "communism" was an empty ideological shell, that Chinese society, now that it allowed private enterprises to create and accumulate wealth, was essentially capitalist, and that capitalism ultimately entailed democracy.

But the Chinese Communist Party is no empty shell. Is its ideology? I imagine that party members consider "communism" a living ideal, in the sense that the Party, endowed with the the responsibility of ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number, continues to manage an enormous national economy to the overall benefit of the society as a whole (regardless of large groups that get dispossessed or disadvantaged when they're in development's path).  China's rulers have delivered the performance to give such a claim credibility.  The state, moreover, still controls the means of production to the extent necessary to build public infrastructure, dominate major industries, and to control banking in such a way as to prioritize development in particular sectors. Who is to say that this system is not "communist"?

In an op-ed in today's Financial Times, Fukuyama himself acknowledges that China has found itself to a so-far stable (though "sui generis") political-economic system that is unlikely to transition to democracy any time soon. He credits Chinese leaders not only with being able "to make large, complex decisions quickly, and to make them relatively well," but to be quite sensitive, in their way, to "popular discontents." He sees a durable social contract between the ruling party and current and rising elites:

Americans have long hoped China might undergo a democratic transition as it got wealthier, and before it became powerful enough to become a strategic and political threat. This seems unlikely, however. The government knows how to cater to the interests of Chinese elites and the emerging middle classes, and builds on their fear of populism. This is why there is little support for genuine multi-party democracy. The elites worry about the example of democracy in Thailand – where the election of a populist premier led to violent conflict between his supporters and the establishment – as a warning of what could happen to them.
Nonetheless, it seems that Fukuyama is not letting go of his conviction that economic development eventually demands democracy -- and thus by implication that the End of History, though perhaps deferred a bit, is still in the offing:
China’s great historical achievement during the past two millennia has been to create high-quality centralised government, which it does much better than most of its authoritarian peers. Today, it is shifting social spending to the neglected interior, to boost consumption and to stave off a social explosion. I doubt whether its approach will work: any top-down system of accountability faces unsolvable problems of monitoring and responding to what is happening on the ground. Effective accountability can only come about through a bottom-up process, or what we know as democracy. This is not, in my view, likely to emerge soon. However, down the road, in the face of a major economic downturn, or leaders who are less competent or more corrupt, the system’s fragile legitimacy could be openly challenged. Democracy’s strengths are often most evident in times of adversity.

Others who have noted that China's democracy train has not arrived on (perceived) schedule also cling to the possibility that future crises will push it into station.  They include an FT triad: Jonathan Fenby, Gideon Rachman and David Pilling.

1 comment:

  1. Capitalism will back whatever form of government that is the most stable and leaves them the most alone (those two positions are not entirely compatible).

    So far it's been democracies. What happens when democracies literally cannot handle fighting terrorism (with nukes + hacking + chemicals + biologicals: etc…)? Obviously some other form of government better suited to smashing resistance without news media interference will arise. The British knew exactly how to end resistance a century ago: kill everybody who resists (see the Boer Wars).

    That solution works perfectly in certain terms and is horrific in others, but as long as there is free media it doesn't work on the global stage. No more free media + no more internet (country-wide+allies carefully monitored nets) + government that wants to win = a need for an authoritarian government.

    It might be the end of history, but that doesn't mean democracies and capitalism win.