Monday, 19 January 2009

The Myth of the Autocratic Revival

Interesting article in the January/February Foreign Affairs about the relationship between politics and economy...namely, capitalism in a liberal democracy (ie, US/UK) versus capitalism in an autocratic government (ie, China/Russia). The authors argue that capitalism is best supported by a liberal democracy, and that current autocratic nations will continue to liberalize as their rising middle class demands transparency and greater control over decisions impacting their lives and wealth.

1 comment:

  1. Just saw this - interesting.

    The broad notion of links between economic and political freedom has been discussed quite a bit - Thomas Friedman has his Laws of Petro Politics, of course, and Amartya Sen explicitly links political and economic freedom in his work on socio-economic development.

    There seem to be a couple of tricky questions, here, however!

    First: should capitalism be discussed - in its own right, as the manifestation of a political/moral stance on the importance of the individual, and individual liberty; or as a mechanism - one to be chosen among many - of economic development?

    If we use the first approach, we run the risk of tautology: since the institutions of capitalism and of parliamentary democracy stem from the same premises, it could be argued that one is necessarily linked to the other. Arguing in favour of the linkage is kind of close to stating the obvious!

    If we use the second approach, we end up having to answer another difficult question: how well has capitalism served the democratic economies of the US and the UK - particularly in the light of the economic crisis?

    Second - how clear are we on what we mean by 'autocracy'?

    I come from India, where we have very visible institutions of democracy (subject, as in other democracies, to corruption and incompetence, as also to dynamism and change). Given the sheer diversity that India has as a nation (difficult to find anywhere else in the world, except perhaps the US), the only feasible way to govern the country - and ensure fundamental political stability - would be through these visible, explicitly formed democratic institutions. This is underpinned by another quintessential Indian cultural characteristic: a four thousand year old tradition of debate, argument, and reason. That's why Indians argue so much, as you may have noticed :-) (I would strongly recommend Amartya Sen again - wrote a book is called "The Argumentative Indian"!)

    The existence of these visible institutions derives, therefore, from the basic nature of our society and our culture. The ability of Indian states to maintain cohesion inspite of our diversity (at any point in history - from the Mauryan Empire two thousand years ago, through the Mughal Empire under Akbar, down to the modern Indian state) has rested on the cultural tradition - four thousand years old - of accommodating different points of view. Modern India happens to use the mechanism of visible political institutions, first conceptualised in the West, as a handy tool with which to achieve this; Ancient India used different, home-grown mechanisms to do so (like the Dewan-e-Khas, of Akbar's empire). In either case, the question is - arguably - about choosing a means to an end: that end being good governance, and long-term political stability. In all cases, the mechanisms have rested on a tradition of tolerating and accommodating loudly articulated dissent, and then developing consensus based on this.

    There is superficial similarity between the democratic institutions of India, and the UK; the way our democracies work, however, have emerged to be quite different. This might be because the democracies of the West derive stability from the great cultural/political traditions handed down from ancient Europe, particularly Rome and Greece, as well as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; those of India, from India.

    Now, take another country - say, China. I know very little about China (which will change when I finally get to visit the country - John Li, are you listening? :-)) - but the Chinese do seem to have achieved the objectives of political and economic stability - again, over several millenia - in different ways. There is the Confucian tradition that speaks of good governance embedded into the very administration, and administrative culture, of a country; the word 'mandarin' (in the sense of 'bureaucrat') comes from China.

    It could be argued that this leaves us with a model of bureaucratic governance - a monolithic state - that is very different, perhaps, from that of North Korea, despite superficial similarities. To call North Korea Stalinist would not be far from the truth; to call China Stalinist would be gravely inaccurate.

    Indeed - and I'm well off my territory here! - you might be able to argue that the modern Chinese state may have more in common with the states of earlier Chinese empires, than with the Soviet Union. Some of these empires (Qin, for example) were pretty tough and suppressive, and met quick ends (the Qin state outlasted Shih Huangdi by only a few years). Others (Han, for example), were superlative in their ability to offer good governance - resulting in the fabled historical stability of China, as a nation.

    I guess what I'm trying to say, after that _very_ long-winded discourse! - is that perhaps we need to be careful about how we judge the natures of states, and the linkages we make based on these perceptions.

    It is worth noting that the world's two fastest growing economies are China, and India - two countries that could not be more different politically. From the latest information available, it would seem that while our economies are slowing, they're still growing relatively fast. Perhaps the link between political systems and economic welfare is more complicated - than sometimes seems apparent!

    Whew! Apologies for that epic post - I hope you haven't nodded off!