The road to revolution (part 4)
It was all so simple when I was growing up. Britain was a democracy, able freely to change its political course at general elections. Our friends, the Americans, had a similar democracy. Our slightly less good friends in continental Europe were attempting to maintain stable democracies for the first time, bless them. Most other countries had dictators, and Russia and China had Red dictators, so they were completely beyond the pale.
No, it was never really that simple. But it wasn’t far off, and it was immeasurably closer to the truth than where we stand today. I look at the statements above and realise that I can now make none of them without heavy qualification, except the bit about most other countries having dictators.
In the 1990s, when globalisation was starting to accelerate, when both Russia and China had abandoned economic Marxism, when it was clear that at some future point China would overtake America as the world’s largest economy and biggest superpower, I wondered what would happen to the clash of political cultures. What I thought would happen was that America would become more corporate and less democratic, that China would become less corporate and more democratic and that, by the time the two of them were on an equal footing, there wouldn’t be much to choose between their politico-economic systems.
Looking at it now, I don’t feel I was entirely wrong. However, my view on what was likely to happen in China may have been based on a miscalculation. I thought then, in line with classic liberalism, that it was impossible for a government to allow economic freedom without eventually being forced to accept political freedom. Since China was already sprinting down the road to economic liberalisation, I confidently expected political liberalisation to follow. So far it hasn’t – arguably, things have got worse. Maybe that comforting assumption has become a non sequitur in today’s world. Maybe, when the two systems do converge, it will be on China’s terms.
What I thought would happen in America has, sadly, proved all too true. The storms over Facebook and Russian influence are obscuring far more disturbing elements of American elections. The sums of money required to compete in American politics are astronomical. The chances of anyone achieving political power without incurring substantial, and usually undisclosed, political debts, are minimal. The ability of wealthy individuals and organisations to promote character assassination on a massive scale, with no accountability, is alarming. America has become a partial democracy.
We complain that, whatever may happen in Russian elections, Vladimir Putin will still be running the country. One could argue that, whatever may happen in American elections, Goldman Sachs will still be running the country.
The situation in Britain is not as bad, but it is worsening, not least because – as a small country in an interconnected world – it has become increasingly hard for us to choose our own path. Our sense of that truth is one powerful explanation for the Brexit vote.
Some commentators say that the Western world, including Britain, has sacrificed social progress to the tenets of neo-liberalism, but it may not be as simple as that. I would not describe Tony Blair or Gordon Brown or David Cameron or Theresa May as neo-liberals by conviction. I would describe all of them as hostages of global economic forces that satisfy the greed and social irresponsibility of financial institutions and large corporations. In the face of their power, democracy is puny. There are a growing number of families who are struggling to make ends meet. Their travails are largely the consequence of governments that are struggling to make ends meet. All of them are impotent to effect much change, in their own lives or in the nation’s life.
In Europe, both EU institutions and individual governments face an invidious choice. The only way to combat global forces is through unity and centralisation. But EU politicians fear, correctly, that this cannot be achieved by democratic means. So it is enforced, which is greatly unwelcome to many people in the member states, and produces vast economic disparities between them. The EU is a half-way house between a benign central dictatorship and a series of self-governing states. Which way it will go from here is anybody’s guess.
The notion that, by leaving the EU, we will automatically ‘take back control’ is a delusion. The EU has become what it is because individual nation states lost the ability to exercise control a long time ago. We can now decide whether to be a reasonably prosperous and moderately democratic minnow in the global pond, or to find our own pond and wallow in independence and poverty.
If there is one thing that is clear from this analysis (assuming one accepts it), it is that democracy, far from being the future of the planet, is starting to belong increasingly to its past. At the present rate of progress, by the time China’s status reaches that of America, and whatever the nationalist rhetoric of both, there will not be a great deal to choose between them, and not much to choose between them, together, and the rest of the world.
Twenty years ago, I wrote: “history will record that democracy, in its true sense, existed for a few decades in the 20th century and was a transition from one oligarchy to another.” Sadly, I think this remains true. But before men and women wearing white coats, trailing many millions of dollars and yuans, and offering designer strait-jackets come to sedate us, I feel that – in Europe at least, and possibly in America – there will be a last hurrah for democracy. It will be an attempted revolution. And it will fail.