December 15, 2009
Schuster, 294 pp, £18.99.
Post-Cold-War history began with two broken promises. The world's population eagerly anticipated a "peace dividend": the channeling of a large share of the vast resources formerly wasted on "defense" into domestic reconstruction, poverty alleviation, and humanitarian foreign aid. It didn't happen. When the international Communist conspiracy faded away, other spurious rationales were found for continuing advanced weapons development and maintaining hundreds of American military bases around the world. Defense spending has not missed a beat in the United States, which has few manufacturing industries left, a decaying transportation system, a colossal trade deficit, and an unhealthy, poorly-educated, economically insecure population, but which spends more money on "defense" than all other countries combined.
Less explicitly, perhaps, but just as eagerly, many people also looked forward to a democratic dividend. "The natural logic of capitalism leads to democracy," proclaimed a Reagan-era bestseller by the American social theorist Michael Novak. The citizens of countries liberated from Communism would, with moral and material support from the Cold War's magnanimous victors, construct or restore democratic institutions and free markets. Third World societies, no longer caught between rival superpowers, would begin to receive primarily economic rather than security assistance from the
But not for long. The "Washington Consensus" replaced the Cold War as a constraint - a "straitjacket," as Thomas Friedman breezily acknowledged - on political development, more subtle but no less distorting than superpower rivalry. The IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization - agents, one might say, of an international capitalist conspiracy - have helped shape a new and troublingly limited form of democracy. In this fiercely brilliant essay on the global political landscape at the beginning of the new millennium, John Kampfner, a longtime foreign correspondent, former editor of the London magazine New Statesman, and now head of Index on Censorship, calls it variously "corrupted democracy," "authoritarian democracy," or "controlled democracy."
Many, perhaps most, advanced societies today, Kampfner argues, operate on the basis of a "pact," an implicit bargain between government and society. In exchange for consumer goods and private freedoms - to travel; to marry whomever, live wherever, and read whatever they wish; to do business without interference from government regulations or labor unions; and to pay few or no taxes - the rich and the middle class have agreed to abdicate politics. The government keeps opposition parties, the mass media, and academic or journalistic muckrakers on a very short leash. Surveillance waxes; civil liberties wane. Transparency, accountability, and citizen initiative are sacrificed to order, security, and prosperity.
The prototype and showcase of authoritarian democracy is
There is, naturally, a large "on the other hand." Nothing is allowed that the government fears might threaten public order or social stability; and the government's sensitivities on this score are very delicate indeed. Spitting, chewing gum, yelling, or failing to flush a toilet in a public place; overstaying your visa; depicting (never mind engaging in) oral or anal sex; rashly employing irony or sarcasm; and, most important, criticizing the government in ways the government deems not constructive - all these are swiftly and severely punished. Petty offenders are fined or caned; overzealous opposition politicians or trade unionists tend to be imprisoned for long stretches. Indiscreet newspapers or blogs are served with defamation suits, tried in government-friendly courts that generally oblige by assessing substantial damages. Indeed, so frequent are these suits and so substantial the awards that all the newspapers in
No other society, of course, has precisely reproduced this combination of economic dynamism and political/cultural paternalism. But many are trying, particularly
Kampfner, who was born in Singapore but has since reported from every continent, contends that more is in play here than shared East Asian or "Confucian" values. Even the Western businessmen and Western-educated returnees he spoke to agreed that "an authoritarian regime, as long as it was stable, provides an attractive proposition for the creation of wealth." Increasingly this trade-off - political freedom for economic growth - is being pursued in
The key to this development is the emergence of a cautious, disenchanted middle class. Political theorists in the West have generally assumed that democratic freedoms grow in tandem with a middle class strong enough to hold the state to account and diverse enough to require political competition, which in turn requires freedom of speech. But democracy has been getting a bad name among its purported bearers, taking the rap for political chaos and economic stagnation. In China, the Communist Party has largely succeeded in convincing the country's middle class that the freedoms demanded by students and dissident intellectuals at Tiananmen Square would have led to a welter of factional conflict, scaring away foreign investment and spiking economic growth. In
The West too is undergoing what Kampfner calls a "democratic recession." In
As for the
Freedom for Sale convincingly describes the unwritten "pact" between the middle and upper classes of most countries and their governments: freedom to make, keep, and spend money in exchange for the freedom to question authority. Is this a good or bad bargain? Conscientious journalist that he is, Kampfner airs both sides. The proponents of the "
But what is "a good life"? Lee clearly thinks that a life free of want and danger is good enough, and he is confident that most Asians will agree with him. Westerners may high-mindedly cite Aristotle: "Man is by nature a political animal"; or Pericles: "We Greeks do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is minding his own business. We say that he has no business." Stirring words, but as Kampfner shows, even Westerners pay them no more than lip service these days. Example is the best argument, so perhaps Westerners who wish to help those brave Asians struggling for a more participatory democracy should begin at home.