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The new age of authoritarianism, wedded to technological power, portends a rough ride ahead

The new age of authoritarianism, wedded to technological power, portends a rough ride ahead
Francis Fukuyama (above) confidently predicted that the collapse of the Soviet system in the 1990s, with the burst of more democratic governments across much of Eastern Europe, signified ‘the end of history’.(Photo: EPA / Maurizio Brambatti)

The enduring power of authoritarianism is alive and well. Now it builds on deep-seated feelings as well as modern technology. We should all be concerned.

Some years ago, and now it truly feels like a lifetime ago, in the years following the collapse of the old Soviet Union and then the Soviet system itself, along with that new burst of more democratic governments across much of Eastern Europe, the commentator Francis Fukuyama confidently predicted this moment had become “the end of history”.

He did not mean human progress or development had reached its apogee and that the slow slog from the Paleolithic to the present was now at an end. Nor did he mean there were not going to be any alternative forms of government or societal organisation for humans to experiment with. His argument was that the seemingly inevitable waves of the various versions of authoritarianism as the usual forms of government (and misrule) were now, decisively, on the run, happily.

Inevitably, perhaps, some national leaders mistook this declaration as a demonstration of scientific and historical fact (in much the way that some proclaimed Marxism’s economic materialism was actual natural law and a perfect predictor of human progress). As a result, they proceeded to act on what they saw as the implications of Fukuyama’s philosophical argument to launch pre-emptive attacks on Iraq, which certainly had a despicable government (but did not then have those weapons of mass destruction), on the grounds their self-professed good would inevitably triumph over a demonstrable evil.

In a way, this idea was a partially reshaped version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s influential treatise, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Published in 1944, Niebuhr’s book was a spirited defence of the intellectual and philosophical struggle by that very influential 20th-century theologian, in a work written at the height of World War 2, to reconcile the urgent need to deal with demonstrable human evil by destroying the source of it (in the shape of the Axis nations) in contradiction to the biblical injunction against killing fellow human beings.

In the aftermath of that war, Niebuhr’s ideas were applied to that near-Manichean struggle between the West and the Soviet Union. Or, as Niebuhr had written in the preface to his book, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Unconsciously, or deliberately perhaps, given the power of Niebuhr’s formulation, it would be drawn on, again and again, by US presidents and others in their denunciations of an “evil empire” and then, still later, an “axis of evil,” even after the Soviet Union itself (and, of course, Nazi Germany) had vanished from the scene.

Orwell’s nightmare vision

There was, of course, an alternative presumption about this supposed Manichean division, one that posited an inevitable merger of political forms instead. George Orwell, towards the end of World War 2, was already arguing, sadly, that the convergence of capitalism and communism would give rise to a kind of managerial revolution that would leave little room for the kind of humane socialism and liberties he longed for. This nightmare vision of this disappointed socialist would, soon enough, show up in his own two great novels, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.

As he had written in his critique of the ideas of management guru James Burnham, summarising those views, Orwell wrote: “Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham under the name of ‘managers’. These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands…” 

A version of that view even came to be espoused by leading, realpolitik, US political scientists Samuel Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski. The two had co-authored a book in 1963 — Political Power USA/USSR: similarities and differences, convergence or evolution — in which they argued that given technological advances, nuclear weapons and management capabilities, those two nations were increasingly becoming convergent societies, despite their current differences. 

So, which would it be? Was it going to be a Manichean struggle between “good and evil” on a global scale, or a convergent future where managers would increasingly come to rule the roost?

The third pathway

There has been a third pathway, of course. Coming in various forms, this is the model of a modernising authoritarianism that could make full use of both modern technology and communications, alongside those well-worn, old-fashioned, but often effective, techniques of blunt repression. In addition, such regimes often draw on appeals to “organic populist” nationalism to build and enhance their strength and popularity.

As Freedom House, a widely respected NGO that tracks the circumstances of democracy throughout the world, noted recently, “In every region of the world, democracy is under attack by populist leaders and groups that reject pluralism and demand unchecked power to advance the particular interests of their supporters, usually at the expense of minorities and other perceived foes.” (We can let the relative growth in freely elected, left-leaning governments in Latin America be the exception that may prove the rule unless many of them ultimately succumb to authoritarian tendencies as well.)

The Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire may have melted away, but instead of entrenching democratic ideals throughout its expanse of territory, under Vladimir Putin Russia has re-established and reinforced an increasingly authoritarian system that has effectively abolished opposition politics and jailed or killed its leaders, shuttered the country’s opposition media and harshly eliminated much of the nation’s social activist NGO sphere. This has served as the precursor to its mad war of choice against Ukraine, fuelled by the delusions and historical daydreams of just one man at the apex of the pyramid.

In Hungary and various of the Central Asian (former Soviet) republics, the respective rulers largely seemed to follow a version of the Russian playbook in establishing or extending authoritarian-style governments (and perpetual office-holding by presidents) within the increasingly hollowed-out, formal structures of a democratic model.

Meanwhile, while a rightwing populist party and its standard-bearer — Marine Le Pen — failed to gain political control in France, such a political strand of thinking remains a potent force in France. And in Italy, a putatively neo-fascist party did succeed in winning sufficient votes for its leader —  Giorgia Meloni —  to become the nation’s prime minister.

The Middle East

In the Middle East, Syria’s Assad regime remained wedded to the violent ways of the incumbent leader’s father, but married to assistance from the Russian military. There, the current commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine had done his practical command training by destroying globally historic places like Aleppo and decimating populations throughout much of the country.

In Iran, four decades of rule by religious fanatics have finally provoked an uprising by young people over puritanical dress codes (initially triggered by the killing of a young woman in custody for failing to follow haberdashery rules), that has been met in turn by the use of lethal force, arrests and threats of worse. It is true the government has just this past week backed down slightly on its insistence on forcibly mandating apparel, but the principle of clerical rule remains intact even if the name of the morality police unit is going to change.

In Turkey, an increasingly autocratic version of modern authoritarianism with a democratic mask continues to hold sway. And in Yemen, a struggle between groups largely supported by Iran versus Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states has resulted in a vicious civil war that has been brutal and seemingly unending.

In the emirates, sultanates and kingdoms of the region, the old ways still largely hold sway, with assistance from the most modern weapons money can buy.

And, in Israel, the far-right religious parties, having become crucial players following the country’s most recent, rancorous general election, will come to have a deciding voice on many of the country’s policies in this, the newest Netanyahu-led government. These will include harsher measures directed against an increasingly restive, impatient population in the West Bank, and may also include internal policies aimed at restricting more liberal social values on the country’s Jewish population where the ideas conflict with religious extremism.

Africa and Asia

In much of Africa, long-running authoritarians built upon the revenues from mineral exploitation and other commodities remain in power, often exploiting the nature of that organic populism as a substitute for more democratic forms of political expression — or as a means for building support by playing against another ethnicity within the borders or adjacent to it.

Moving to Asia, in Myanmar/Burma, a military-run government continues its harshly authoritarian rule — a situation that has largely existed since 1962. In North Korea, hereditary communist rule — now into its third generation — controls virtually every aspect of life for its hapless people, while in Afghanistan, the newly ensconced Taliban regime is imposing harsh feudalist values on the female half of its population, as well as the more usual run of authoritarianism on everyone.

In India, Narendra Modi’s government continues to carry out policies that many see as a version of ethnically charged nationalism to the detriment of the rest of the country, even as the country forges ahead economically.

The two big kahunas

And that, of course, leaves the two big kahunas — China and the US — and paths being chosen, at least in part, in response to the Covid pandemic. Consider the recent US experience first. An embrace of aspects of authoritarian attitudes is not new. There has always been a strand of this in US politics. It was memorably described by Richard Hofstadter in his 1964 Harper’s essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. He defined this thread as comprising beliefs in conspiratorial goings-on, the malign influence of certain ethnic and religious minorities, and a sense among the less well-off due to economic change that their circumstances are because of a deliberately unfair distribution of political power and wealth stemming from those sinister influences.

In this sense, the economic (and social and racial) dislocations of the late 20th century and the first part of our current century are again giving weight to such social/political movements. Now, add to that the dramatically increased impact and immediacy of social media in distributing and magnifying such ideas and the associated anger, and then, more recently still, stir in the lockdowns and related government policies addressing Covid — creating fertile ground for someone like Donald Trump to seize the moment and ride it right into the White House.

Still, what the midterm elections have shown is that in the US political universe there is, putatively, an upper limit in support for such movements and their leaders. Of course, it took an actual insurrection aiming at seizing the Capitol Building to — finally — galvanise enough people to begin the slow rollback of this tide. But the tide has certainly not been extinguished, because such a movement depends on more than one man. The next time around, it is possible a more coherent, better organised, more rigorously prepared Trumpian-style politician may capitalise on the discontent that was so obviously there and seems to still be there.

Despite the failures of so many appalling Trump-linked candidates in this year’s midterm elections, it is entirely possible an economic downturn could prove to be rich ground for a new wave of organic populism linked to — or even largely displacing — the formal Republican Party, just in time for the 2024 election.

Meanwhile, in China, the Covid pandemic proved to be the precipitating cause for a realisation by many Chinese that the implicit social compact in the country they had accepted had broken down. That compact, in essence, was that the government would deliver social stability and ever-improving economic growth to the nation — but in exchange for a willingness on the part of the vast majority of the population to eschew an interest in active politics, beyond a narrow band permitted by the Chinese Communist Party.  

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China had already felt very real discontent occasioned by the repression of freedom of expression in Hong Kong and the ethnic repression in Xinjiang. But the increasingly harsh regimen of Covid testing and citywide lockdowns, coupled with the obvious hardship of millions being restricted to their small residences and apartments and unable to access sufficient food and medicine, appears to have broken the contract.

Ordinary people chose to take to the streets in response, in a nearly unprecedented way since at least 1989, across the country, to demand a different approach and the liberalisation of this harsh regimen. It is true that in the past several days, the government appears to have heard the complaint and apparently agreed to loosen some of the onerous restrictions on movement and lockdowns.

But what has been less noted is that in the process of creating this national set of restrictions, the Chinese government made use of electronic means to monitor the movement and location of virtually its entire population, creating a rich, very detailed, thoroughly comprehensive database of 1.5 billion people. At least one legacy from the Covid lockdowns, thus, will not wither away. Instead, the government will almost certainly find this to be extremely useful to monitor all manner of other activities by people across that vast nation. In fact, they almost certainly will be unable to restrain themselves from using it, reminiscent of dystopian science fiction novels by the likes of Philip K Dick.

Will the Chinese government in the near future be able to rebuild the elements of its social compact with its people or will it find new ways to use its electronic monitoring for social control? Who knows for sure? But similarly, will the US government find the strength and energy to move beyond those who hold with the delusions such as Hofstadter observed? Again, at least for now, the jury is similarly out.

In fact, looking more broadly, the opportunities across the globe for governments to find ways to marry their monopoly of force with all the possibilities offered by the new technologies in social control should make everyone concerned that a new age of authoritarianism, now hopped-up and enhanced by technology, will have a way to go before — or even, if — it runs its course. And we haven’t even mentioned the challenges of climate in driving more governmental control in order to escape the baleful effects of the Anthropocene. This is going to be one tough ride. DM 

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  • Mark K says:

    The Chinese government has ramped up “political education” at schools and universities over the last decade. This new generation is far more indoctrinated than any since the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, they have ramped up censorship and mortared the bricks of the Great Firewall far more tightly than ever before. Electronic monitoring is more of a failsafe for them, rather than being the primary means of control.

    • brooks spector says:

      While you are correct the Chinese government has used the methods and means you note, they are being amplified in terms of social control by the way they are making use of the social control/technology avenues they have established and pioneered, as I said.

      • Mark K says:

        Thank you for the use of the word “amplified”. It has clarified your point for me, and I can’t disagree with it.

        I was one of the people in China who, at one point earlier this year, was not able to get sufficient food. The shift to local government food delivery left me with an abundance of ginger and very little else. Rumours spread that the local supermarket chain that had been contracted to deliver had paid kickbacks to local officials. The supermarket chain was under-delivering and pocketing the difference, it was said. I got the sense that that was the point at which people in my apartment complex decided that they had had enough.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you very much for this article, which certainly gives serious pause for thought. There certainly are very deeply concerning trends towards authoritarianism, and individuals and civil society and the media exercising vigilance and taking action are critical to combat the advances of authoritarianism. It is also important to really monitor and interrogate the uses of technology and information, and under whose control and for whose benefit they are being used. These are certainly very uncertain and risky times.

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