GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 26, 2017

Autocracy Stalks the End of History

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:23 am

Eric Gans’s readiness to put “liberal democracy in question” would have already made his most recent Chronicle of great interest, but his subsequent “supplement” made it absolutely essential to address this discussion. Gans’s recent discussions, even explicit affirmations, of liberal democracy have had the effect of making this mode of government seem far more hideous and grotesque than I would be able to manage myself, until he got to the point of finding no real argument in favor of liberal democracy other than superior economic growth. So, obviously some questioning has been going on, and the ongoing cannibalization of liberal and democratic institutions and norms alike by the left has reached a certain threshold of unacceptability. What is particularly interesting is that Gans is now willing to consider China a genuine, if still to his mind, undesirable, alternative to the liberal West, and this would put originary thinking on new and untried terrain—GA has focused almost exclusively on Western developments, but it seems we may have to start studying Confucianism; it may also be that China represents a vast, untapped market for GA itself. Here’s a good place to get started:

In the absence of political parties and free elections, political debate in authoritarian societies takes place among factions whose pluralism varies inversely in proportion to the strength of the central power. If previous Chinese leaders, wary of repeating the disastrous results of Mao’s later years, have preferred to share power among several factions, Xi’s economic successes appear to have provided him a sufficient basis for a new hegemony, allowing him to acquire near-absolute power, so far at least without the irrationality that characterized the reigns of Mao or Stalin.

Let’s note here the acknowledgement that an “authoritarian system” reliant on playing one faction against another (essentially a more controlled form of divided or insecure power) can transition to a more “autocratic” one, with power centralized in the hands of a single individuals. And that such a transition need not be irrational (i.e., it can be rational). One of the interesting things about discussing autocratic rule is that it’s hard to deny that it is better at some things than liberal and democratic forms of rule; and, once you acknowledge that, it’s hard to deny that it can get better at what it is already competent in, and better at things that have been assumed to be antithetical to that form of rule.

Among the more striking facts of recent history is the ease with which central authorities perpetuate themselves unless toppled from without. Aristotle and Montesquieu described the perilous nature of the tyrant’s role, as illustrated by the oft-assassinated Roman emperors and various examples of “Oriental despotism,” but today’s despots, including Putin and Erdogan, let alone the Kims and the Castros, or for that matter, Saddam and Khadafy before their countries were attacked by Western powers, seem invulnerable to internal overthrow. The crucial difference between them and “strong men” like the Shah or Hosni Mubarak would seem to be greater ruthlessness. But in none of these cases has autocracy provided, as Xi promises to do, superior economic performance in exchange for the loss of political freedom. (Singapore under the late Lee Kuan Yew might be considered an exception, but this city-state can hardly serve as a model for a full-sized country.)

Another relevant difference is that both the Shah and Mubarak were betrayed by their patron and thrown to the wolves. But this certainly is an interesting observation. Attributing survival to ruthlessness seems a bit circular without some independent measure of ruthlessness—otherwise, their survival itself becomes proof of greater ruthlessness. Maybe it’s just that single man rule is just as coherent and “natural” as liberal democracy. Maybe more—it’s been around a lot longer.

The fundamental question is whether such a system can ultimately become more prosperous than our messy old market system. In schematic terms: one market or two? Economic markets in both cases, but in one, the higher-level regulation of the market is imposed by a self-perpetuating central authority rather than in the hands of changing representatives of the electorate.

The one market or two question refers back to Gans’s analysis (recapitulated briefly earlier in this Chronicle) of liberal democracy as comprised of two markets: the economic market, and a political market that allows for a form of collective decision making that elicits, contains and at least in part addresses the resentments generated by the inequalities caused by the economic market.

The crux is whether an authoritarian system can generate greater political efficiency to make up for its diminished economic efficiency, which will presumably be affected by the damage to morale inflicted by thought control. Which obliges us to turn once more to the rise of the victimary in the West and the not-so-soft institutional thought control that it produces, increasingly indoctrinating the young with victimary clichés and taboos and obliging its citizens to salute, in place of the national flag, the idol of “diversity.”

Whether an authoritarian system (but why not “autocratic,” or “absolutist,” since China seems to be closing in on that, and that was the very point of Gans’s discussion leading up to this question?) can generate greater political efficiency is an excellent way to formulate the question, but why presuppose the diminishment of economic efficiency? The reason Gans gives here seems especially weak—it would be very interesting to find a way to compare the collective “morale” of China with Western Europe or the US, and I don’t think anyone would be all that surprised to see the former outperforming the latter in this field. It would seem odd to assume that political efficiency must somehow be at odds with economic efficiency—don’t businesses, scientists and engineers prefer a stable social environment?

Xi’s ambition for “modern socialism” challenges my response to Ryszard Legutko’s ominously ironic assimilation of Western PC to the dogmas of Eastern Euro-Communism (The Demon in Democracy, Encounter, 2016 [2012]; see Chronicle 532): that, à tyrannie égale, at least the West has relatively healthy economies. But leaving the economy aside for the moment, if there is indeed to be tyrannie égale, then the very foundation of liberal democracy on the continued implicit consent of the governed is placed in jeopardy. Grosso modo we may say that the rise of the “alt” versions of right and left reflects this tendency, neither one accepting the traditional gentlemen’s agreement that its opposition will remain “loyal.” Significantly, in contrast to the Old Left, with its high hopes for the Soviet Union, the new alt-left is not at all dependent, nor even terribly interested in the fate of socialism outside its home borders. Its conviction of the inherent evil of “capitalism” is not based on a contrast with an exemplary model, utopian or otherwise, but is fundamentally moralistic. Victimary critique takes the place of every form of structural criticism. Since every practice can be shown to “victimize” in some way or other, we must engage in a constant battle against all of them, with “the end of discrimination” the only ultimate goal.


American society’s ability to deal effectively with victimary extremism has yet to be demonstrated…

This is really the crux—it seems to me that Gans is inching closer to the conclusion that victimary extremism cannot be controlled in America (or the West more generally), in which case exploring the possibilities of other forms of government is essential, even urgent. Gans still sees liberal democracy as the more “ideal” form of government, even if he has been brought to the point of accepting the possibility of settling for second best. But such judgments are inherently unstable—if the second best government can thrive while the best crashes, doesn’t that mean we must reverse our assessment? Gans’s continued hope for a recovery of liberal democracy (and even an ultimate turn in that direction by China itself) must also assume (although he doesn’t take up the point here—but Chronicle #532, referenced above, is a good place to take a look) that the victimary is some parasitic growth upon liberal democracy, perhaps caused by an over-reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, rather than a (not necessarily the) logical conclusion of liberal democracy itself. As Gans himself acknowledges, liberal democracy has always been to some extent victimary—why should it be surprising that, as the still extant layers of tradition are peeled off one by one, liberal democracy would be revealed to be victimocratic to the core?

Gans persists in seeing “autocracy” (which should mean “self-rule,” shouldn’t it?) as “bad,” even if potentially better in one (albeit crucial) respect than the “good” liberal democracy. But his supplement gives us an opening to examine the question in a rather rich way:

Supplement (October 24, 2017)

Having read this Chronicle, a friend pointed out to me an October 21 piece by Rachel Botsman in Wired magazine entitled “Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens” (, which describes an elaborate rating system that gives everyone a “national trust score,” and that will become the official Chinese basis for all kinds of judgments well beyond financial credit by 2020.

This gave me the idea of a clearer way of comparing Chinese with Western authoritarianism. These scores will definitely put a premium on loyalty to the regime, and, to the extent they are detectable, keep expressions of dissent to a minimum, as well as stigmatizing easily detectable vices such as video games. Certainly a step toward neo-1984. But there is an upside to this reliance on “objective” measures.

China (and Japan, and I imagine, South Korea) admit students to universities based on examination scores. American universities, even where racial criteria are supposedly illegal, as in California (hard to believe that prop.­ 209 would get the vote of today’s woke electorate) increasingly give out admissions based on “diversity.” There is also increasing pressure to do the same in industrial hiring, and we are constantly asked to lament the “white privilege” of the whites (and Asians) who get most of the good jobs in high-tech industries. So if we can say on the one hand that the West’s freer economy is a plus over the managed economy of socialism even at its most enlightened, and that it’s arguably preferable to be able to express one’s resentments freely rather than whisper them with the shower turned on, the advantage of these freedoms is certainly offset by the dilution of objective criteria in personnel selection. As opposed to the old Soviet dogmas, today’s Chinese dogmas are more methodological than doctrinary, and in contrast to such things as Lysenkoism, they take their science straight (even when taking ours). What this suggests is that the autocratic nature of the society and its repression of dissent bear increasingly on the mechanisms of social control rather than on the specifics of decisions to be made in the economic and technical spheres.

Of course this discussion brackets such things as the Chinese takeover of “territories” in the South China Sea, and its under-the-table encouragement of North Korea, as well as China’s push for economic hegemony in Asia (New Silk Road) and throughout the Southern Hemisphere. But it does allow for an element of objective comparison. As our society becomes more digital-technological, hence farther from the old norm of “labor power” as the rough equivalent of moral equality that inspired Marx’s Labor Theory of Value, meritocratic selection becomes increasingly important—not just to get the “best” people, but to get everyone to strive to be the best. (Which is the major reason why—but don’t let the UC Diversity folks hear you say this—Chinese kids are good at math.)

Conversely, it is precisely the evil of meritocracy (“disparate impact”) that is the focus of the ascriptive victimary thinking that has virtually eliminated all other thought on the Left today.

The Botsman article is a pretty interesting read. Pretty much any autocratic (which is pretty much a synonym for “absolutist”) system with access to advanced electronic technology would ultimately end up employing some version of China’s social credit system—Gans’s emphasis, in comparing China’s autocracy with America’s victimocracy is on the centrality of some notion of objective merit to any social order depending upon advanced technology (you simply need competent engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers, etc., and therefore “competence” must be valued in itself). In fact, insofar as the victimocracy is intrinsically hostile to all objective, non-political measures of merit, Gans seems to be settling the issue right here. But, of course, if autocracy is capable of privileging merit so singlemindedly, it can’t simply be “bad.” In fact, if it can be brought to focus increasingly insistently upon merit, it would get better and perhaps find ways of reducing corruption and grounding its autocracy in something other than Communist Party rule (the continued repetition of inane “socialist” slogans and verbal formulas isn’t very meritorious, is it?).

But what about that social credit system itself? As Botsman points out, it’s really just an extension and centralization of what we already see developing in the West, in which records of all activity are preserved online and in one way or another made available to those institutions that have to “credit” each of us in some way; the most obvious example is our credit score. China wants to add indicators of virtue to the social credit score, by, for example, crediting someone who puts their salary toward a mortgage rather than toward gambling, and to directly reward and punish individuals based on this score. The possibilities here are endless, and would depend upon a discussion of what counts as “virtue,” for which contemporary societies would therefore have to equip themselves: should the citizen who goes to the museum housing acknowledged national art treasures get more points than the one who goes to the latest postmodernist exhibit? Should baseball be ranked above football, or MMA? Staid but informative documentaries over horror movies? Etc. Botsman also raises the question of gaming the system, which the Chinese have apparently gotten quite good at when it comes to standardized testing.

In West, the only available answer is to say, “who’s to say?,” and blather on about privacy, individualism and freedom, while railing against the “surveillance state” and “creeping totalitarianism”—you can write up the debates before they even occur (1984!). It is clear that the autocracy would be capable of hosting a much more robust and mature discussion of questions of value and virtue, however it chooses to organize that discussion. Social credit scores would be determined by algorithms, of course, but this wouldn’t be rule by algorithm—the state, the autocrat, would have to determine what criteria should guide the creation of the algorithms. This would certainly be a learning process for all involved—if the state discovers that its point system with its rewards and punishments makes a large portion of the population economically unviable (by, say, determining that they can’t use banks or public transportation, or would find it impossible to rent a home or find a mate), clearly the algorithms would have to be recalculated. In general, people would orient themselves toward the social credit ranking system, implicitly participating in dialogues over its determinations. (How many social credit points do you get for blogging on ways of improving the social credit algorithms?) Insofar as something like a social credit system creeps into the West (in the usual confused, indecisive, partly apologetic, partly arrogant way), reactionaries could use that creep to point out that if individualism is being replaced by something like an electronic village, it is preferable for that village to be centrally run and governed by a shared conception of virtue. The Chinese should really find a way to transition from Communism to Confucianism, and maybe we should as well.

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