Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Autocracies; are they happy?

I have on more than one occasion expressed my admiration for the Scholastics. They taught a form of critical thinking that in my opinion has never been surpassed. In developing an argument, the student first develops the argument for the opposing side, and his instructor would listen carefully to make sure he was developing the strongest argument possible. After he had done that, he was permitted to argue against it. Robert Kagan, as do many of the best historians I’ve read in recent years, does that.

It is more than silly to suggest that he is an apologist for Autocracy. Unfortunately many, perhaps most, people cannot think critically. They take whatever they hear or read as being either for their position or against it. So while Kagan is in the first part of his process, presenting the Autocratic position as clearly and fairly as possible, the partisan listener has heard enough. Kagan is obviously a propagandist for Autocracy.

Robert Kagan writes on page 54 of The Return of History and the End of Dreams, “A majority of Russians seem content with autocratic rule, at least for now. Unlike communism, Putin’s rule does not impinge much on their personal lives if they stay out of politics. Unlike their experience with the tumultuous Russian democracy of the 1990s, the present government thanks to the high prices of oil and gas, has at least produced a rising standard of living.”

On page 56, Kagan writes, “Keen observers of the Chinese political system see a sufficient combination of competence and ruthlessness on the part of the Chinese leadership to handle problems as they arise, and a populace prepared to accept autocratic government so long as economic growth continues. . . Growing national wealth and autocracy have proven compatible, after all. Autocrats learn and adjust. The autocracies of Russian and China have figured out how to permit open economic activity while suppressing political activity. They have seen that people making money will keep their noses out of politics, especially if they know their noses will be cut off. . . in the meantime two of the world’s largest nations, with more than a billion and a half people and the second- and third-largest militaries between them, now have governments committed to autocratic rule and may be able to sustain themselves in power for the foreseeable future.”

On page 59, Kagan writes, “Chinese and Russian leaders are not just autocrats, therefore. They believe in autocracy. The modern liberal mind at ‘the end of history’ may not appreciate the enduring appeal of autocracy in this globalized world. Historically speaking, Russian and Chinese rulers are in illustrious company. The European monarchs of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were thoroughly convinced of the superiority of their form of government. Along with Plato and Aristotle and every other great thinker prior to the eighteenth century, they regard democracy as the rule of the licentious, greedy, and ignorant mob.”

In regard to Fareed Zakaria, one non-critical-thinking blogger writes, “In sum, Fareed Zakaria, once a member of the neocon camp and now a star of the liberal mainstream media, is an apologist for Islam and for Muslim extremists (assuming there is any difference between the two), as well as an advocate for the demographic and cultural Islamization of Europe. These things should never be forgotten.”

That blogger made his comment in response to a July 10th, 2005 Newsweek article. I responded to Zakaria’s 2008 book The Post-American World, but I trust I was not being as partisan as that. Zakaria takes a view shared by Fukuyama, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, that the Islamist threat is over-rated. I argued against that view, but I concede that I may be wrong. We are talking about what is going to happen in the future. I believe the Islamists are more fervently resolute than Zakaria, Fukuyama, Roy and Kepel do.

On page 104 Zakaria writes, “Most autocratic regimes that have modernized their economies – Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, Portugal – have weathered the political changes that followed and emerged with greater stability and legitimacy.

COMMENT: We can’t expect most moderns to think critically about Autocracies and Democracies. Many of us bought in to the triumphalism of 1989 and the end of Liberal-Democracy’s only serious competition. Liberal Democracy won. Liberal Democracy uber alles. Every intellectual worth his salt read Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 Foreign Affairs article and his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. Those who haven’t read Fukuyama at least know that the Neocon movement advocated the spread of Liberal Democracy – not that it needed to be spread, they’ll tell you. It is going to happen sooner or later, but sooner would make life easier for all of us.

But then the Chinese found a way to make their autocracy work and the Russians decided to do that too and other autocratic regimes decided that they may as well try that too. And many, even many who celebrated the triumphant victory of Liberal Democracy in 1989 and asking themselves, “can Autocracies really work. Sure, they can make themselves economically happy, but can they really be happy if they aren’t politically happy like us? In other words, can the people of an autocracy be happy if they aren’t living in a Liberal Democracy?

Well, not so fast (Fukuyama said in a different context). Anyone familiar with Chinese history (and Critical thinking) must admit that an Autocracy seems a better fit for them than Liberal Democracy – just as it seems a better fit for the Islamic Civilization.

I’m reminded of the Communist arguments current in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. Capitalists are ruthless, money hungry, labor hating demons. Nothing will change them. But something did change them. We chipped away at them legislatively, got them to file their claws and wear muzzles and life became pretty good here in the Capitalistic West, aka the Liberal Democratic West. Now we are inclined to argue that the Autocrats will be dumber than our Western Capitalists. They aren’t going to be able to change their predator ways so revolution in these autocracies is inevitable.

Actually, Kagan hasn’t renounced his Neocon bone fides entirely. On page 57 he writes, “As the old joke goes, Germany launched itself on a trajectory of economic modernization in the late nineteenth century and within six decades became a fully fledged democracy.”

Lawrence Helm

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