15 September 2015

The "post-authoritarian" dream

Pundits like Thomas L. Friedman spend a lot of ink and pixels decrying "authoritarian" regimes and policies around the world, but Friedman himself believes such regimes are doomed. In his most recent column for the New York Times he predicts a "post-authoritarian" world brought about by climate change, economic globalization and Moore's Law of constant technological innovation, which presumably contributes by unemploying more people and further destabilizing societies. It's apparent that what Friedman means by "post-authoritarian" depends on what he means by "authoritarian." In this context, authoritarianism is equated with centralized order, while Friedman predicts "a post-imperial, post-colonial and, soon, I believe, post-authoritarian world, in which no one will be able to control [the] disorderly regions with an iron fist." This prediction mistakes devolution for extinction, since it's likely that authoritarianism will persist on a smaller, decentralized scale. Once the forces Friedman describes "blow up" the "most artificial" countries, e.g. those with borders drawn by imperial powers without regard to "ethnic, tribal or religious realities," the result may still look like chaos from a globalist perspective but within each ethnically, tribally or religiously homogeneous unit that emerges authoritarian government of some sort will be more likely than "liberal" government founded on civil society or civil rights. I don't think Friedman would disagree with this assessment, but we have a slight disagreement over labeling.

The only alternative Friedman sees to what we might call, compromising my view with Friedman's, authoritarian chaos is the sort of imperialistic "boots on the ground" policy for which no one wants to "will the means," since for the imperial power, "all you win is a bill." Nor does the political will exist, he writes, to "build a wall and isolate these regions of disorder" by whatever means. As a result, "the world of disorder keeps spilling over into the world of order," and things are likely only to get worse as the three disrupting forces "are just revving their engines" now.

Friedman's belief, I assume, is that liberal civil society may have immunized many nations against the disruptive forces. I infer this from his characteristic lament that authoritarian leaders in the post-colonial world "wasted the last 60 years plundering natural resources" rather than "creating citizens with equal rights." Ironically, he now seems to believe that liberal civil society can only be imposed on some places by force, i.e. "boots on the ground." I wonder whether Friedman has ever come to terms with the necessity of authoritarian government -- or at least the necessity of effective political power -- in history. The great liberal hope since decolonization has been that the newly independent nations could do without an authoritarian (much less totalitarian) phase and develop instantly into liberal civil societies. It's certainly nice to think so, but the perceived imperatives of development in the face of enduring privilege and vested interests pointed in a different direction, one no doubt more appealing to the would-be strongmen of the decolonized world. Leaving ad hominem arguments out, however, it can be argued that every major civilization in human history has had to go through an authoritarian phase in order to eliminate vested interests standing in the way of objective historic progress. In the case of the U.S. Europe did the work for us through absolute monarchy before Europeans populated North America with relatively liberal communities, unencumbered by much of feudalism, after conquering the natives. Liberals remain uncomfortable with such ideas, I suspect, because they assume something that doesn't follow, namely that recognizing the necessity of an authoritarian stage of development means that citizens have an unconditional duty to obey authoritarian rulers during that stage. They do not. Power is always liable to abuse, no matter what safeguards you put in writing, and rulers are always answerable in fact, if not by letter of the law or custom, for abuses of power.  What must be understood, however, is that critics during an authoritarian stage of history must weigh the risks of principled criticism against the risks of powerless government. The question is whether, to guarantee immunity for himself, the critic should render government incapable of the heavy lifting it must undertake at that point in history to overcome vested interests and obsolete privileges. The answer is not to give up criticizing rulers for their abuses or mistakes, for those have been all too real throughout history. Instead, the answer is not to throw the baby, state power, out with the bathwater of an abusive ruler, and to accept the risk of getting wet. If there were more people of courage in history, authoritarian rulers would have gotten away with less, and the worst would barely have gotten off the ground. If anything, the decline of the United States may teach that constitutions, for all their virtues, are no substitute for the courage and vigilance on which the Founders also depended, even when authoritarians were nowhere to be found, and that constitutions designed primarily to constrain rulers end up entrenching privileged vested interests until progress grinds to a halt. If authoritarianism isn't the answer in all times and places, the sort of risk-free government idealized by many liberals may prove even more useless at critical times. No wonder Friedman has no answer for the world today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Semi-domesticated primates who refuse to evolve into full human beings will always prefer an authoritarian society, since animal instincts have evolved, in nearly all species, to be subjects of the "alpha male".

These "people" will never fully understand concepts such as "freedom", because there is no analogy within instincts. Only by learning to subjegate instinct to reason can we hope to rid ourselves of evolutionary traits such as dominance by an alpha male. A preference for tribal identity is a sure sign an individual is not fully human.