Democracy and dictatorship in a nihilistic age

US President Barack Obama (R) meets his

The Malady of Our Time

We stand on the threshold of a new age that refuses to become manifest.  It’s as if the geopolitical clock were stuck at a minute before midnight:  the old forms, the ideologies and institutions of the twentieth century, with startling rapidity are losing their hold, but nothing has arisen to take their place.  A surly public, in frustration, has taken to smashing at the established order without regard for alternatives.  Its desire is to end once and for all this hour of decadence.  The effect has been disorder.

My concern is with liberal democracy, of which I am an uncomplicated supporter.  There can be little doubt that existing democratic institutions around the world are buckling under the stress of our turbulent moment.  They, too, are losing their hold.  Intellectuals who once exalted democracy as the highest good now appear utterly demoralized.   “Liberalism,” broods Roger Cohen in the very liberal New York Times, “is dead.”

The question that emerges from all this is whether political life is slouching toward dictatorship:  whether authoritarian forms of government are better able to handle, or will somehow benefit from, the growing nihilism of the public and ongoing wreck of the institutions.

That question, unpacked, is really two.  The first concerns the possibility that only a dictatorial regime like China’s can retain control of a fractured society and usher in the next phase of human history.  The second question is implicit but, I believe, decisive:  it places in doubt the ability of modern government as such, under any system or ideology, to survive its collision with the digital age.

China:  The Dream of an Enlightened Dictator

xi jinping

Xi Jinping

The elites’ loss of faith in democracy is directly proportional to their heightened loathing of the public.  According to Cohen, the public is susceptible to “greed, prejudice, ignorance, domination, subservience and fear.”  It worships political thugs like Donald Trump in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.  It erupts into Tea Parties and Occupations that upset the steady progress of history.  The elites, in brief, have come to doubt that their pet projects can be implemented democratically.  They are shopping for alternatives.

“There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy,” Tom Friedman famously declared, also in the pages of the New York Times, “and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.”

The implication is that extraordinary times require an extraordinary cession of power to enlightened authority.  That’s the classical form of dictatorship.  The Roman dictator wasn’t a despot.  He was granted immense power to deal with a crisis, and his legitimacy flowed from the exceptional magnitude of the threat.  Dictatorship in this sense was a state of exception, a parenthetical episode within the republican tradition, in which the survival of the nation took precedence over all other considerations, including the rights of the citizen and party politics.

Marx conceived of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” along these lines.  It was an exceptional seizure of power at the supreme crisis of the class war.  Friedman’s admiration for Chinese “autocracy” followed from the same principle:  he believed it could “just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move society forward in the 21st century.”  The crisis dictated the terms of governance.

So we must grasp the nature of the present crisis, before we can consider the justice of the appeals to dictatorship.  Since I have written a book on the subject, I will point the reader in that direction and quickly move on.  In brief:  across history, the elites and the institutions they manage have held a near-monopoly of information.  Their story was always the story.  In our century, however, the spread of digital platforms has reversed the information balance of power.  The public now commands the strategic heights, while institutional failure sets the agenda.  Without that near-monopoly over information, it turns out, even the mighty organs of modern government lose their legitimacy – then their authority – finally begin a rapid process of disintegration.

A crisis caused by disruptive information will require a special kind of dictatorship:  one that can censor content and compel the public to move forward into the twenty-first century.  That is clearly what Friedman advocated.  Others in the old democracies have sidled toward this ideal:  the legal concept of “hate speech,” for example, allows some European countries to criminalize opinions that are offensive to the elites.

But this approach immediately runs into the dictator’s dilemma.  If censorship and compulsion are the answer, why not make North Korea under the Kim dynasty, or Cuba under the Castro brothers, our model?  The reasons are obvious.  Far from ushering in the great new age, these rulers resemble Lenin in his mausoleum, moldering in a mummified version of the twentieth century.  Friedman preferred the “reasonably enlightened people” of the Chinese regime.  In the dictator’s dilemma, China, for Friedman, represented a sort of golden mean between democratic nihilism and totalitarian book-burning.

China’s overseers call their form of government a “people’s democratic dictatorship”:  opposites are thus reconciled in a phrase.  The state has erected a massive apparatus of censorship and repression, including an “internet police” said to number in the millions.  Controls over politics and media have grown harsher in recent years.  Bloggers now receive long prison sentences for criticizing government policies.  Journalists are imprisoned for leaking official documents.  Even high-ranking members of the Communist Party are being purged and punished in what is, purportedly, a campaign against corruption.

Whether such tactics aim to move Chinese society forward into the twenty-first century is open to question.  More cynical interpretations are available.  The Communist Party has suffered the ideological equivalent of a blow to the head:  it has forgotten every argument justifying its rule except the will to power.  The people in charge are straining for ideals on which to anchor their legitimacy.  China’s president, Xi Jinping, is maneuvering to increase his personal power at the expense of the Party’s.  Each of these hypotheses is consistent with hardened repression.  All portray a regime driven by doubt and division rather than visionary confidence.

There are no stopping-places in the dictator’s dilemma.  The concept of an enlightened dictatorship, with just-so repression, is a fantasy for the op-ed section of the New York Times.  Reality is about awful choices.  The regime in China survives on economic prosperity, which demands the free flow of information.  But the economy is wobbling – should that information be allowed to flow?  President Xi has been hectoring the Chinese media about “properly guiding public opinion,” particularly with regard to the economy.  He sounds like a politician on the defensive, in spin mode.  China’s elites are riding a tiger and know it.  Whatever the future brings to this antiquated power structure, it is unlikely to lead the parade into the twenty-first century.

Russia and Egypt:  The Pose of Heroic Repudiation

al sisi

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Another avenue of escape from liberal democracy might be labeled the dictatorship of repudiation.  Putin’s Russia is one example.  Al-Sisi’s Egypt is another.  Both men erected regimes on the claim that they were rescuing the nation from a false liberalism dominated by hostile malevolent forces.

Call it an old-fashioned formula with a millennial twist.

For Putin, the Enemy is the US-led West.  It aims at nothing less than the “disintegration and dismemberment” of Russia.  Al-Sisi finds his villain in the Muslim Brotherhood, whose government he toppled – a movement inspired by “the most extreme terrorist mentality that would have burned down our land if it could.”  These rhetorical excesses are interesting only because they seem to have worked.  Russia and Egypt remain formal democracies, but in both countries a majority of the public has been persuaded that an existential threat exists, and that it justifies the grant of dictatorial power to the president.

Despite governing with self-righteous brutality, Putin and al-Sisi retain levels of popularity and support that should be the envy of any American politician.  Many factors play into this strange circumstance, including control over the story told by national media – Russian media loves to portray the scrawny Putin in the guise of an action hero, for example, while Egypt’s journalists can write without blushing of al-Sisi’s “flawless appearance” and “Herculean strength.”  Yet much tighter controls over information have done nothing to enhance the image of Xi Jinping and his Chinese Communist Party.

The difference, I think, lies in the relationship to our frozen moment in history.  Putin and al-Sisi believe, probably sincerely, that they are engaged in a war to the death against an established order imposed by the Enemy.  They aim to slay the dragon of national decadence and bring to an end this unhappy age.  To some extent, therefore, they can tap into the explosive political energies released by the revolt of the public:  by the rage and despair over the way things stand felt by ordinary people in Russia and Egypt.  Their struggle is the public’s, at least in this sense:  the repudiation of the present and the desire to abolish it by fair means or foul.

In contrast, Xi was born to a ruling caste that has been in charge for two generations, and, like comfortable elites everywhere, contemplates with fear the next turning of the page of history.  Xi’s anti-corruption campaign may be an attempt to strike the pose of repudiation:  in truth, however, the aspect presented by the regime in China is that of a serpent devouring its own tail.

Despite its alignment with the public’s mood, the dictatorship of repudiation is best understood as a series of national episodes, lacking the ideological coherence to transform itself into a serious rival to liberal democracy.  Putin’s justifying crisis in Russia is nothing like that of al-Sisi in Egypt, for example, and neither is available for export.  The thrust of repudiation, too, has a retrograde quality.  The dictator has been forced to assume the crushing burden of modern government.  He is now a solver of social and economic “problems” that he has no clue how to address – a bringer of happiness to a hyper-informed and contentious public.  Failure can be blamed on the Enemy only for so long.

The economies of Russia and Egypt, under stress for years, now teeter on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Putin, the action hero, is at the mercy of the world commodities market.  Al-Sisi, for all his Herculean strength, must go begging for handouts from the Gulf oil kingdoms.  One possible future for either regime might resemble the colossal wreck that is present-day Venezuela.  Even if the way ahead is less dire, the structural reality of the dictatorship remains unaltered.  Putin and al-Sisi struggle helplessly in the coils of our nihilistic age.  They are not masters or exploiters of it.  Both men long for a return of the glory days of the Cold War:  their future is in the past.

The Democracies and Their Dilemma

None of this should be construed as a vindication of democratic government.  It too is stumbling spectacularly, on center stage, under the eyes of an astonished public.  Elected officials appear disoriented and demoralized.  Intellectuals dream of a despot who, being enlightened, will follow their instructions.  The public distrusts and berates the government, yet expects miracles from it.  That is the democrat’s dilemma, every bit as fatal as the dictator’s:  to win at the electoral game, a politician must promise the impossible, thus ensuring failure in office.  In the new information landscape, failure will be magnified and shouted from the digital rooftops until nothing else is heard.

The dynamic is global, even if the effects very much depend on national and local circumstances.  In Egypt and Russia, as we have seen, weak democracies have toggled to de facto dictatorships.  The same holds true for Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand.  In Brazil, the democratic system appears cracked to the foundation.  The choice there is between the rule of corruption and a procedural “coup” by parties that lost the last election.  In Mexico, the political elites, desperate to avoid a Brazil-style holocaust, universally agree on the need for reform:  yet the reality of violence, a weak economy, and corruption remains unreformed.  In the Middle East, chaos and sectarianism, rather than democracy, have reaped what was sown in the Arab Spring of 2011.

In the old democracies, electorates have alternated mainstream parties right and left, and found few perceptible differences in outcome.  Frustrated, voters have turned to those who have no stake in the system.  That’s the higher meaning of Trump and Corbyn, of the National Front in France and Syriza in Greece:  they are clubs in the hands of a mutinous public, with which to strike at the machinery of representative government.

Once elected to office, however, the carriers of nihilism face their own version of the democrat’s dilemma.  They can continue to smash at the institutions, which will also shatter the economy and so obliterate their popularity, or they can transact with the established elites and so obliterate their credibility.  Alexis Tsipras of Greece, who has tried both approaches, has yet to discover a way out of the labyrinth.

The new-style anti-system politicians, for all their tough talk, are much more likely to repeat their predecessors’ weakness and failure than to consolidate a dictatorship or compel, by a triumph of the will, the resumption of history.

The Panama Papers:  A Stress Test of Systems

iceland demo

Anti-corruption protests in Reykjavik, Iceland

The “Panama Papers” are a trove of over 11 million leaked documents detailing how Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm, has instructed elites around the world in the art of hiding money overseas.  Here is the revolt of the public at its purest:  an acid bath of information dissolving the legitimacy of the persons and institutions involved.  The responses, too, resemble a laboratory experiment testing the possibilities available to modern government in its destructive struggle with the information sphere.

The leaked papers opened a window on the hidden overseas wealth of many family members of the Chinese leadership.  Among those playing the financial shell game was a brother-in-law of that relentless anti-corruption campaigner, Xi Jinping.  The documents also implicated friends and associates of Vladimir Putin in secretive multi-billion-dollar offshore transactions.  On the democratic side of the ledger, it was revealed that the wife of Iceland’s prime minister had sheltered her considerable wealth in the Virgin Islands.

China and Russia dealt with the information effects according to the imperatives of their dictatorial styles.  Wide-open Iceland, meanwhile, took the news straight up and absorbed the consequences.

While never a serious threat to China’s ruling elites, the revelations exemplified the dilemma that bleeds out their legitimacy like an open wound.  The question was how to retain control of the story in an age of massively redundant information.  The regime answered as it always has, with silence and censorship.  Nothing was said about the disclosures.   Officially, they never happened.  The public was invited to share in the fiction.  The notorious internet police was unleashed on Chinese social media.  Any mention of the Panama Papers was scrubbed.  For denizens of the Chinese web, the search term “Panama” delivered “no relevant results.”

For Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, the release of the Panama Papers offered a magnificent opportunity to blame the Enemy.  The whole episode, he claimed, was “one more attempt to destabilize the internal situation [and] make us more accommodating.”  The US government was of course responsible – specifically, USAID.  To support that charge, he sourced Twitter and Wikipedia.  It was Putin at his most Soviet, dealing in ritual accusations rather than persuasive rhetoric.

Matters took a very different turn in Iceland.  The leaks showed Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson – a young, popular, unusually successful politician – engaged, through his wife, in a financial conflict of interest.  That information became public April 3.  Gunnlaugsson tried to tough out a storm of criticism, but by April 5 he was gone.  The scandal has shaken Icelandic politics.  With national elections looming, the once-marginal Pirate Party holds a strong lead in the opinion polls.

The asymmetric effects of the Panama Papers on dictatorship and democracy can be interpreted any number of ways.  I could argue that China and Russia neutralized the virus of information by means of censorship and repudiation, whereas Iceland became infected until its government succumbed.  State power and deception, on this account, can browbeat or dupe the public out of its hyper-critical mood.  All it takes is a grant of authority to the government proportional to the crisis.  An age of dictators, then, must follow the nihilism of decadent democracy.

Or I could insist that the dictator’s dilemma holds.  The Chinese and Russian publics are perfectly well informed about their rulers, but have chosen not to strike at the moment.  They might do so tomorrow or the day after – once the bleeding out of legitimacy reaches a critical point.  Iceland, by contrast, brought the public into the discussion and made a clean break with the past.  Instead of suffering the death of a thousand cuts, in the style of Hosni Mubarak or Nicolás Maduro, democracy has the capacity to flush the noise out of the system:  a quality N. N. Taleb would call anti-fragile.

To the extent that such interpretations fixate on the either-or of democracy and dictatorship, all of them, let me suggest, will miss the larger point.

The Future and Its Possibilities

For all the received wisdom in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, it isn’t specifically democracy that is broken – or dictatorship either.  It’s the monstrous machinery of modern government as a whole.  The crisis of authority, I mean to say, is structural rather than ideological, and implicates models and ideals of governance inherited from the industrial age:  top-down, steeply hierarchical, staffed by accredited experts, worshipful of “data” and “science,” disdainful of the ignorant masses, and yet, at bottom, a utopian enterprise.

This describes, with equal accuracy, the government system of China and that of the United States.

If my thesis is correct, the paralysis and frustration that weigh so heavily on our moment will not be surmounted until political institutions align more closely with social practice.  In the digital age, this can only mean a flattening of government structures.  That’s what the nihilist impulse has sought to do, however blindly.  The public, wielding a Donald Trump or a Jeremy Corbyn in hand, aims to batter the ruling institutions down to eye level, just to see what happens next.

Dictatorship today rests comfortably within the top-down, we-talk-you-listen model of modern government.  To align it more closely with the public would violate its guiding principle – and, in practice, impede or even endanger one-man rule.

Democracy, however, can have no principled objection to bringing power down from the heights, closer to the public.  It’s remoteness that requires an explanation.  Democracy was organized differently before the distancing reforms of the twentieth century.  It can re-form again.  Developments in two tiny democratic nations suggest how that might come about.

Estonia has redesigned its national government around a digital “X-Road” that forces simple, transparent interactions with the public.  Filing taxes, for example, takes only three clicks of the mouse.  The Pirate Party of Iceland has gone a step further.  It offers a vision of government as a transactional platform, in effect synching up office-holders with the public in a shared decision-making space.

It’s easy to dismiss these reforms as sterile political mutations in insignificant backwaters of the world.  I find myself wondering whether they represent something larger:  the first faint glimmer of that much-awaited next stage of human history – and, it may be, the future shape of democracy.

The subject is big enough to deserve a separate discussion.

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2 Responses to Democracy and dictatorship in a nihilistic age

  1. Pingback: Martin Gurri on Elites vs. Democracy | askblog

  2. Mikk Salu says:

    I am Estonian, but I am not so optimistic. Yes, I can file my taxes online and it takes only a couple of minutes (though, sometimes I get some income from abroad and filing this is painstakingly slow and not online at all). Yes, I can vote online and it takes just a minute. And I guess digital X-road has some other neat and helpful features
    But it has not helped to solve problems what excite a lot of people: refugee crisis, immigration, gay marriage, equality, economic growth, security issues etc. These are all topics, what have been hot in Estonia during recent years. And in many cases, liberal elite and public opinion have split in these cases.
    Overall, political trust has diminished, Estonian parliament (Estonia is a parliamentary republic) is called “rubber stamp” – meaning that parliament is not anymore the place to discuss and decide important topics – government and EU institutions in Brussels have taken this role. A large part of public feels that government draws its legitimacy not from public anymore, but from Brussels. Populist right-wing party is gaining popularity.
    Etc, etc.

    Btw, I discovered this blog few months ago and was surprised to see how well these concepts descriptions fit into Estonian developments.

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