China's Success Explains Authoritarianism's Allure
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel is famous for asking interviewees to describe a view they hold that other smart people they know do not agree with. A variant is to ask which views one might earnestly believe in spite of not having much hard evidence for them. And there I have a nomination: I believe that much of Western politics is becoming more authoritarian and less liberal because of the greater presence of autocracies on the world stage, most of all because of the success of China.
If I look back at the 20th century, I am struck by the pull exerted by powerful governing ideologies, even when those systems were evil or failing. Thousands of intellectuals endorsed Stalinism, even after many of its worst practices came to light. Marxism in its broader forms had more adherents yet. Extreme right-wing ideologies exercised a strong pull as well, at least until they became America’s outright enemies as the Second World War approached. Mussolini’s fascism was quite popular with many Americans, including New Deal intellectuals and leaders.
You can scold the sympathizers for their naivete or illiberal tendencies, but there is a deeper truth. Individuals have a mimetic desire to copy or praise or affiliate what is perceived as successful, and a lot of our metrics of success have to do with power rather than freedom or prosperity. So if there is a powerful system on the world stage, many of us will be drawn to it and seek to emulate it, without always being conscious of the reasons for those attractions.
This process is actually not so different from how neoliberalism attracted greater support during the 1990s, when it was perceived as the major victor on the world stage. We neoliberals liked to think that the rest of the world “finally saw the light,” but a more sober retrospective assessment is that much of the popularity boom of neoliberalism was temporary, to be wiped out by status-lowering developments, including the financial crisis and slower real wage growth.
These chains of ideological influence can be remarkably indirect. For instance, it is commonly believed that the collapse of Soviet communism led to a softening of positions within the Irish Republican Army. It’s not that anyone ever expected the Soviets to intervene in the Irish conflict, but rather a role model of resistance had been taken away, and this ultimately made the peace process easier.
As for today, emerging economies have been growing at faster rates than the West and Japan, and overall those playing catch-up are less democratic and less liberal. That has shifted the world’s balance of ideological weight, even though Westerners typically think of themselves as the agenda-setters. But if we Westerners are losing relative economic and political influence, self-doubt may set in or intensify, even if we’re not exactly sure why.
It’s not just about the emerging economies in general, but rather one such economy in particular: China. By purchasing power parity measures China is now the No. 1 economy, and the world’s leading exporter, in addition to its longstanding role as the world’s most populous country. It has had an almost unbroken string of high-growth years since 1979, often at double-digit rates, and it avoided much of the negative fallout from the financial crisis. Its geopolitical influence and its military have been gaining on the U.S. or Europe for decades.
If several generations of Westerners were intrigued by communism, Marxism, Stalinism and even Maoism, is it so implausible to think they might feel some kind of magnetic attraction to the less liberal systems that are flourishing today?
Of course, outright ideological admiration for the Chinese system is pretty hard to come by in the U.S., unlike the kinds of affection formerly expressed for Soviet communism. Nonetheless general praise for the Chinese miracle is pretty common. And the successes of foreign authoritarianism may be an underappreciated factor inducing the U.S., the U.K., Turkey, Hungary and Poland to come up with their own home brews of the ideas. It might be that the current incarnation of the Chinese Communist Party is too nationalistic, and too atheoretical, to inspire much direct loyalty. Nonetheless the economic successes of China and some other countries may have helped create an underlying crisis of confidence in liberal ideas and values. In Africa, for instance, Ethiopia and Rwanda have been improving living standards fairly rapidly, but they too have moved toward authoritarianism systems.
Do I believe all this? Yes. Is there circumstantial evidence that it might be true? Absolutely. Is there a rigorous or testable case? Not really, but I say we underestimate the pull of mimetic desire, the human subconscious and our preoccupation with relative status at our peril.
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