A strong leader can put the house in order. Authoritarian figures with a vision have some successes on their names, notably in East Asia. But their cheerleaders often underestimate how much their achievements were possible because of broad support. As Paul Krugman pointed out in his 1994 Foreign Affaris article debunking uncritical celebration of the ‘Asian miracle’, in the short run, authoritarian leadership allows quick mobilisation of previously under-utilised production factors. For more complicated reforms you need more complicated power structures.
In the long run, authoritarianism is a recipe for weak and feeble regimes. When a regime gets power, it is sure of its hold and can act boldly. It has just managed to build a coalition among the groups that hold power with enough support to bring it firmly into power. However, as time goes on, that mandate is not renewed. Still, society is not frozen in time and, especially when you rapidly modernise your country, the balance of power shifts. Since civic society has been muzzled, it is not a reliable source of information. As the grounds shift under you, as the distance to the moment of ascension to power grows, the regime’s feeling that it is in full command shrinks. Insecurity grows.
In fact, insecurity is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes.
The initial leader is strong in his mandate. Often he may have won the support of genuine elections. This changes once the time for successors comes. These people do not have an individual mandate. They therefore often lack the power to make bold moves. If you emerge from the party establishment, what exactly is your mandate for rapid reform? The point is not that this mandate is absent—it may very well be there—but that you do not know what mandate you have.
Heng Swee Keat will never be as free to push through controversial policies as Lee Kuan Yew, who won real elections against outside opponents, not just a closed-doors contest within the regime. Xi Jinping’s ‘personality cult’ has been instigated precisely to solve that problem: he was put in his position by party elites, his ‘selectorate’, and his grand schemes make him acutely aware that he needs a broad popular mandate to be effective. To the extent that Emmanuel Macron came to power out of a intra-elite contest in France, his ability to enact his big reforms is also limited by the lack of popular participation in ‘his’ power bargain.
Holding the reins of power depends on a bargain with those factions who hold the keys to power. To make sure that this configuration remains up to date, regular bargaining is necessary. In liberal democracies, elections fulfil this role—even when increasingly imperfectly. In authoritarian states proper power bargaining is impossible, because the question of who is in charge has already been answered. When the leader cannot change, in democracy or dictatorship, the game of politics is about not who will get power, but who will support power. Theresa May should go, because her insecurity means that by now her attention is absorbed by that game. To an extent it is possible to play this game, but over time it creeps into every policy-decision. The act of governing is subsumed by the pursuit of power, and the ruler’s efficiency dissipates until the bargain is renewed.
Saying that Chinese increasingly assertive nationalism has a rather ethnocentric streak is nothing new, at least not for those who follow China. However, only when you actually read the source material in Chinese, is the starkness of the PRC’s racialism really driven home. This is something analysts, and other people paid to have opinions on China, should do more often, especially when the English translation often softens the edges a bit.
To demonstrate this, I will quote a paragraph from Mark Zuckerberg’s favourite Xi Jinping book—The Governance of China. This collection of formulaic speeches—complete with hagiographic pictures of Chairman Xi doing important things—contains a speech he gave on 6 June 2014 to the Seventh Conference of the Friendship of Overseas Chinese Associations (世界华侨华人社团联谊) entitled ‘The Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation Is a Dream Shared by All Chinese’. The title already confronts us with translation issues: In the Mandarin name of the association, ‘Overseas Chinese’ is written as ‘华侨华人’, which introduces is to the difficulty of the English word ‘Chinese’.
The evil of colonialism is not expressed in a sum of its benefits and downsides. These debates over British railways in India and economic development miss the point of colonialism entirely. Colonialism is violence. It is not just that it entails violence as an inevitable product of its system, colonialism itself is an act of epistemic violence. Colonies require colonial subjects, which needs a cleavage to separate the humans from the lesser creatures.
In my Dutch primary school our teacher would illustrate history class with the school’s antique school prints. They piqued my interest in East Asia, but in hindsight they were rather orientalist. Invariably, you would see a pittoresque landscape, a mise-en-scène of stern Dutch overlooking interchangeable inlanders going about their daily business, or unwavering Dutch ships of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). For a little bookish boy longing for a more exciting world these heroic tales of ‘discovery’ were enthralling.
Our classes put less emphasis on the unfortunate collateral damage of these exciting adventures. The prints perpetuated the unaddressed colonial gaze, as the teacher left out the fundamentals of the story: the dependency of colonialism on violence. First, metal violence, in the mind of the colonist. After that, physical. Then, after armed resistance has been eliminated and the people’s bodies are subjugated, the work of mental domination begins. The tools: dichotomies. A community is taken and carved up into slices. Those slices are carved up again: superior versus inferior, salvageable versus beyond civilisation, useful versus useless, rational versus irrational, etc.
Besides ‘we do not accept,’ another legal argument China used to argue that the Philippines case before An Arbitral Tribunal under Annex VII of UNCLOS was inadmissible was that the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea prevented arbitration as per UNCLOS Article 281. This article states that if states have agreed on a way to settle the dispute, no case can be brought in that area. However, the tribunal quashed the reasoning that the DOC prevents it from judging in this case in its award on admissibility of 29 October 2015.
Following the frenzy after the tribunal released its final decision on 12 July 2016, there have been various attempts to lower the tensions. Both sides appear committed to keep the peace, even if reaching an agreement proves difficult. At the same time, however, states are positioning themselves for future possible legal challenges. Some claimant states may see the Philippines’ success as encouragement to start their own cases. China must be preparing for such eventuality already by beefing up its legal defences. One area I think we should keep an eye on is Article 281.
Former High Court of Australia Justice Michael Kirby once termed the sodomy offence ‘England’s Least Lovely Criminal Law Export.’ Much has been said about this nefarious side-effect of the supposed rule of law exported throughout the British Empire in the form of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. There is a certain irony in seeing non-Western leaders defending this colonial law implementing colonial values as protecting local tradition against pernicious Westernisation. However, noticing this irony also directs the observer to something often missed in discussions of the prohibition of ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ between consenting men: it is racist.
The lessons of intersectionality are still often ignored in studies of both sexuality and colonialism. Race is important to understand the views on sexuality on colonies, since it is the concept at the base of the subjugation of entire peoples. In order to justify such complete exploitation, you need the ultimate dichotomy of humans versus non-humans, or: Europeans versus non-Europeans. Literature written during the colonial period highlights this process: the strong and vigorous white European, epitome of human rationality, is juxtaposed with the corrupt and incomprehensible colonial subject, cesspit of carnal vices. In Dutch Indies literature this takes the shape of the tropics intruding on the white, clean houses of the Europeans, slowly corrupting the white world.
Any review of the argument for democracy as the best form of governance as a matter of tradition starts with Churchill’s citation in the House of Commons of the quote that Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. I oblige. Its popularity shows how wary many people have become of democracy. Gone is the faith of Enlightenment that the sublime wisdom of the people would lead us to a glorious future once education would have been sufficiently perfected. Instead a disenchanted Churchill-like the-alternatives-are-worse attitude has taken hold of an elite that vaguely remembers being told that democracy is morally superior, but is increasingly hard-pressed when having to say exactly why. Even a partial challenge arising in the nineties from the Asian Values debate already caused great panic. Only the Asian Financial Crisis saved the democrats when it appeared just in time to undermine the credibility of the Asian Values proponents.
Now the world is turning multipolar, the challenges to the democracy of the West will only gain in strength. This time it will take more than a short financial crisis to dislodge the counterarguments. Meanwhile, the structural problems facing the West only seem to become worse and worse, while the success of extreme right and populist politicians show a powerful desire for a strong leader to solve all the woes in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, less and less people are prepared to boldly state the case for the compromise-based, inclusive democracy we need. That is the following:
The argument for democracy is that it produces mediocre outcomes.
It might sound rather disappointing and of course: democracy as a provider of information from bottom to top, and as way for the bottom to be represented up high are both essential as well, but they are both not the ultimate argument for why democracy is the best form of governance. The latter point might even at times be present in other regimes when the leadership is particularly charismatic.
It is very tempting to look at so many success cases of developing countries where strong leaders seem to have produced such impressive results. The smart and capable strongman seems to have lead his country to improbably heights by developing a system that is not entirely democratic But without checks such a system also allows the leaders to drive the country into the ground once their excellency starts to fade and the products of meritocracy become less suitable.
History is about cycles. nunc obdurat et tunc curat Leaders and their genius rise and fall. Bad judgements follow good judgements. In democracies, too, good governments can be followed by bad governments. What is important is whether a system is capable of dampening the extremes of the inevitable highs and lows. In an autocratic or oligarchic system really smart people might in theory be able to achieve greater things more rapidly than you see happening these days in the ‘mature’ democracies. But those very same systems also allow less qualified leaders to destroy many things more rapidly than is possible in a proper democracy
The points democracy is so often criticised for are precisely what creates this dampening effect. Socialisation into party machinery and the lagging effect in representation of shrinking societal support for a party sometimes seem archaic, but they create stability. Taking a true democratic decision requires taking into account views from a large majority of the people, necessitating compromise. Media and societal forces can make the government more cautious, but also ensure it goes not too far beyond what its citizens are comfortable with.
Say there is a plant which grows best when the temperature is as high as possible, but dies immediately when it goes below zero even once. There is country A where the temperature during the day is 15° C and at night 5° C, and country B where during the day it is 35° C but at night -5° C. Land A surely is preferable if you want to have at least something left to grow. The days in country B are much warmer and the average temperature is 15° C, 50% higher than country A’s meagre 10° C. Still, even if it were one million percent better, in country B our precious plant dies when night falls.
Surely, the outcome of a democratic process might not always inspire the greatest enthusiasm. But a meh view of politics is still much better than the thrill you get from the swift and well-executed destruction of your economy. When choosing a system to govern a country, it is imperative to think long-term, to think beyond the current generation. And that is precisely where its tepid results start to shine.
Long live democracy’s mediocrity!
NB: I purposely ignore the debate in developmental studies about democracy versus autocracy in developing economies. That is an entirely separate discussion besides this more general argument about democracy long-term.
NB2: Yes, this is a pro-stability post: I could write a whole separate post on how revolutions often end up benefiting mostly the mobile higher classes and only hurt the downtrodden they are supposed to help, because they more than anyone are helpless without any system. (Unless the system is designed to kill or dehumanise them.)
It must have been a news article on the occasion of a report from the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau; SCP) where I read this interesting observation: the Dutch upper class is both very open and closed. This outwardly nonsensical statement could be rephrased by saying that the Netherlands has ‘closed meritocracy’. It is very possible to join the elite, but once you have been allocated to a group, the borders close. Subsequently, there is very little interaction amongst the different groups. This is the direct consequence of the Dutch educational system.
Our school system in the Netherlands has three (four) tiers. After an optional stint at nursery school each child has to go to primary school for eight years when they turn four years old. An exam and the opinion of your teacher determines to what kind of secondary school you will go; your educational level is determined when you are twelve. In theory you can stack levels, but that rarely happens. Only the highest level, VWO, grants you direct access to an academic Bachelor.
The consequence is that once you get into the right secondary school and manage to stay in, your membership of the middle or upper class is virtually assured. Starting from puberty Dutch children are socialised into their stations in society. This allows everyone, even those from humble backgrounds, to learn ‘proper’ behaviour and keeps them on track to finish with the rest of their cohort. It also clearly demarcates the boundaries between the classes. People who are part of the elite not because of inalienable birthright constantly have to signal and stress their belonging.
My background is not humble, but it is also not spectacular. I come from a countryside family, and my brother and I are the first to go to university. In the Dutch system this is perfectly possible. Once we will graduate with a master’s degree, we will be part of the upper middle class. With that comes a set of thoughts, behaviour and social spheres that are very different from those of the world in which we grew up. Our meritocracy is open, because everyone can be selected, but closed, because the separation seals the groups off socially at a very early stage.
Dutch society in the past was plagued by what is called the verzuiling, the ‘pillar-isation’. Everyone was part of their own group. You had the labourers, the Catholics, myriads of Protestant denominations, the urbanite left-wing, and so on. These groups had their own news papers, public broadcasters, social organisations, political parties, and even shops. Even though the other was better, my grandparents would only shop at the baker who went to their church.
These denominational pillars are gone now. But commentators argue, and I agree, that a new kind of pillar system has come up: education. Whereas in the past people with different educational levels could be found in one pillar, these days different educational classes lead different lives. Papers and political parties seem now to be speaking to the world views of distinct educational groups—de Volkskrant used to be the Catholic daily, is now the paper of the centre-left elite—rather than of different religious or political convictions. If you have money, you go to concept stores, if you need to watch every penny, you shop at Aldi or Lidl.
There is very little exchange between the educational classes. SCP research showed that people marry within their class, have friends within their class and live amongst their class. When I leaf through the country’s main tabloid I see a different country.
The SCP argued that one important change with the past is that there are less people in the lower educated group that are there because they missed out on educational opportunities. Where I come from it was not uncommon in the past for parents to send their children to lower-level secondary schools than possible, because that was what befitted their station. Nowadays that would be unthinkable. Study finance and the growth of universities and polytechnics have done the rest. In other words: it seems that our meritocracy is working well, but because of that is only making inequality worse.
The current situation of deep cleavages is not conducive to the solidarity that is necessary to keep up our welfare state. If there is no interaction amongst the classes, there is no understanding of what matters to people outside your own group. A clear example was the public outrage against salary increases for the directors of state-owned (because state-rescued) bank ABN AMRO of €100,000 a year. When the bankers appeared before a parliamentary commission they were incredulous. To them it seemed very reasonable.
Worse is that empathy is necessary for the good functioning of our government. Policy makers need to have some relation to the life world of all classes in our society. If voters all live in their own world, they will drive their parties to different extremes and be estranged from politics when inevitably compromises have to be made that seem inconceivable from the voter’s perspective.
Another issue is that the meritocracy is not entirely fair. The primary school teacher’s advice matters more than the final exam when it comes to your secondary school level. It is a well-known fact that non-white pupils get lower advices than white pupils. When I tried to find the recent newspaper article to support this claim, I instead found one from 2007; this issue has been playing for a while.
Moreover, social mobility is never absolutely blind to background. Children from parents with an academic background have higher changes of making it to university too. This is in part related to natural selection, but has also to do with their environment: better family life, more stimulation, better neighbourhoods with better schools, and so on. As the educational classes become more physically concentrated, this disparity will only become more pronounced.
What can be done against this? Discrimination is obviously something that has to be eradicated via action. But if besides that our meritocracy works well, the education system ought to be left alone. Instead, we should look carefully into ways to weaken the walls between the groups. Perhaps one solution can be gleaned from officially multiracial Singapore.
There, around 80% of all housing is public and the government uses that to enforce a policy whereby every flat has to reflect the ethnic composition of the population. The Netherlands, whose urban planning was a source of inspiration for Singapore, could be inspired in its turn: the government ought to make neighbourhoods a reflection of the educational composition of our population.
Students of International Relations are probably familiar with the concept of nuclear deterrence so loved by especially neorealism. Simply put, the utter and complete destruction that today’s nuclear weapons are capable of, combined with second-strike capabilities, they say, create stability in the international system. Because attacking a nuclear power is too costly, no state will do so.
However, in his book ‘The Anarchical Society’, famous English School theorist Hedley Bull highlights an important deficit in the line of reasoning followed here by the neorealists. Bull paraphrases Spinoza discussing Hobbes’ “warre of all against all”. The problem, Spinoza says, is that man has to sleep sometime. He can be sick or distracted or deluded. In the absolute anarchy of Hobbes, where there is no authority, this is incredibly dangerous. Because it takes only one good hit to kill a person.
Note that it is the Hobbesian kind of international anarchy that neorealists hold for true.
But, says Bull citing Von Clausewitz, war between states is not as immediate as the act of killing a person. It takes several different blows for one state to ‘kill’ another, but most wars do not even end in the complete annihilation of one party. This means that the anarchy experienced by states is not so Hobbesian after all.
However, since states have acquired nuclear weapons, from a neorealist conception the Hobbesian anarchy seems to be more and more realised. Nuclear powers now have the ability to kill an entire state at once. How more states become nuclear powers, how closer we get to the kind of Hobbesian anarchy as described by Spinoza.
So, Bull shows in an aside from the main line in his book, strive for nuclear deterrence might only increase the state of anarchy for a neorealist.
Above is the sweet Japanese song 上を向いて歩こう (Ue o Muite Arukō) with its characteristic whistling. Known in the West under the virtually meaningless name ‘Sukiyaki’, this is the most famous version, sung by Kyu Sakamoto in 1961. The song was written by Ei Rokusuke. When you read the lyrics, you see the text of saccharine tune about love lost or desired.
However, its origin is not as sweet. The composer wrote this song after he returned from a protest against a revision of the Security Treaty with the United States. Ei was so disappointed by the failure that he wrote the following words:
I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I’m all alone tonight
The text was adapted and turned into a general tune that had little more to do with political engagement and it went on to conquer the world as one of Japan’s first successful cultural exports. As such it is already important. However, I find the context of this song also noteworthy.
The early sixties, the period in which this song was published, was one of great turmoil for Japan. The occupation by the US was over, but the country was still in the process of restoring its full sovereignty and it was grappling with the issue of balancing sovereignty with very useful security guarantees from the US and a volatile society.
At the same time, the Japanese society was also undergoing changes: the first postwar generation was growing up and the country was only on the outset of the huge economic growth that would later make Japan so huge. The political climate was fraught with tension while the left battled the right. The on-stage assassination of socialist leader Asanuma Inejirō serves as a shrill illustration of this era.
One grouping in this political tumult were the pacifists. Consisting for a large part of people grown up or born during or after the Second World War, they were abhorred by what had happened in that war, especially the atomic bombing. They—of course, there is no one ‘they’ here—did not like to be drawn into further conflict and were afraid that by choosing one side in the Cold War, Japan would risk being drawn into a new war. That is why they often demonstrated against alignment with United States. Apart from them, there were also leftists who were just against the conservative-dominated government.
Composer Ei participated in protests organised by groups like these. It was about the failure of one such protests that he wrote this song. The shed tears for compromised sovereignty or neutrality compromised, I feel, show the emotional side of Japanese nationalism or patriotism.
It is therefore somewhat ironic that this song did so well in the United States and the rest of the West. It reached the top of the charts, is still one of the best sold single ever and has been covered many times. Still, behind this ostensibly saccharine love song lies an interesting story!