A post-democratic future?

Massimo Pigliucci hears a wake up call for the West, as Eric Li predicts a post-democratic future. This article appears in Issue 61 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

As short a time ago as 1992, political scientist Francis Fukuyama was optimistically (and wrongly, as it turned out) predicting “the end of history”, a stable future where liberal democracies would be the norm throughout the world, leading to lasting peace and economic prosperity. A few years later we have Eric Li, who equally gingerly predicts (for example in the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine) a “post-democratic” future, beginning with the success of China. Oh boy.

Li’s article is worth reading in its entirety, and so are many of the thoughtful responses it generated. The question he raises is important, as much as his analysis is flawed and ultimately unconvincing. Li attributes the recent economic advances of China in great part to the efficiency of the Chinese autocratic system of government, which he compares favourably to the corrupt and currently somewhat dysfunctional democracies of the United States and Europe.

Oh sure, there were some problems along the way, like the so-called Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s (18 – 45 million dead as a result), and the Cultural Revolution of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (additional millions violently persecuted), but Li groups these disasters under the rubric of “on-the-job learning” (seriously), and proceeds extolling the China story of the last couple of decades.

One fundamental flaw in Li’s analysis is that, ironically, it suffers from the same problem that doomed Fukuyama’s. There is great peril in declaring the success of a given type of government, or of a certain economic system, based on a relatively short good run. After all, the slave-and-conquest based societies of the ancient Egyptians and Romans endured for much longer than the time frames Fukuyama and Li are concerned with, and yet they eventually crumbled nonetheless. Few people nowadays would look at those as paragons of how human societies ought to be built.

There is another similarity between Li and Fukuyama, though this one works differently in the case of their respective visions: they both confuse the goal of achieving a just society with that of developing an advanced economy, though in a different fashion. Fukuyama, like many in the United States until recently, simply assumed that democracy and capitalism are natural, indeed inevitable handmaidens, so that encouraging a move toward capitalism in China and elsewhere would necessarily lead to a more open society. Obviously, this is not in fact the case, and Li is correct that China (and other Asian countries, for that matter) offers a good example of economic success (for now) and “post-democratic” (or pre-democratic, depending on how you look at things) government.

But Li appears to make sort of a mirror mistake to Fukuyama’s: he assumes that because people (in China and elsewhere) are thriving economically, they will refrain from demands for personal rights and democratic reforms. He attributes this in part to a China-specific cultural tendency to sacrifice other ideals in order to achieve “national greatness” (as if that hadn’t be a problem in, say, Japan, or Germany, at recent points in history), apparently regarding the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 as a blip on the screen.

In contrast to Fukuyama’s assumption, a very good case can be made – both philosophically and on grounds of historical record – that economic systems are largely (though perhaps not entirely) independent of type of government. But it is also arguable that an analysis such as Li’s, which focuses on economic success (and “national greatness”, whatever that means) at the expense of people’s moral wellbeing and flourishing is fundamentally mistaken nonetheless.

At some points in his argument, Li sounds positively naive (or demagogic, depending on the kind of motives one is willing to impute to him), as when he says that “China is seeking to defy recent historical precedents and rise peacefully, avoiding the militarism that plagued Germany and Japan in the first half of the last century”. I guess that’s why China has been dramatically increasing its military spending of late, why it has invaded Tibet, and why it keeps threatening Taiwan with displays of force.

Li praises the Chinese Communist Party for its ability, beginning in the late ‘90s, to address the problem of corruption, reminding his readers that as far as corruption goes China only ranks 75th in the world, with a better rank than several democracies, including Greece, India, Indonesia, Argentina and the Philippines (though not even close to the United States, Canada and the overwhelming majority of the much disparaged European countries).

Whenever Li admits that there is a problem with the Chinese miracle his refrain is that “the market will sort out these problems”. And therein lies another crucial mistake. Markets – as Adam Smith understood very well – are no miracle cures for the ailments of society. Yes, they have a dynamic of their own (the “invisible hand”), but that dynamic needs a number of background conditions in place in order to work (including a good deal of laws and regulations). And it works only and at best in the sense that it maximises the efficiency of certain aspects of the economy, it does not automatically improve people’s lives outside by other more general criteria. It is both a philosophical and an empirical truth that a good economic situation is only necessary but most certainly not sufficient for a flourishing human existence.

All of the above notwithstanding, Li’s article should be taken seriously as a wake up call for self-complacent democracies, particularly the Western ones. It is certainly the case that governing the United States of America, the self-professed “best democracy in the world”, has become next to impossible. The reasons are many, from a two-party system that favours obstructionism and intransigence, to the rise of the increasingly unhinged extreme Right, to the immense influence that money (“people are corporations, you know?”) has acquired. The US truly has become the best democracy that money can buy, and that is certainly not a good thing for the majority of Americans. Even agreeing with Churchill’s famous comment that democracy is “the worst type of government except for all the others”, we ought to pause and seriously consider why the spread of the democratic ideal has been so spotty and characterised by a mediocre level of success thus far.

In the end, even Li reins in his own enthusiasm, acknowledging that “the significance of China’s success … is not that China provides the world with an alternative but that it demonstrates that successful alternatives exist”. Indeed, but alternative to what, and successful by which criteria? China shows that – for a time at the least – economic success can be achieved by a non-democratic society. But we knew that already, if we were paying even superficial attention to history. The real question is how we can build societies that are successful at facilitating the broader goal of human, not simply economic, flourishing. In that regard, democracies still have the edge, and by a long shot.

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. His essays can be found at rationallyspeaking.org.

  1. Respectfully, Professor Pigliucci —

    I have not yet read Li’s article, and I am now looking forward to doing so — thank you for bringing it to our attention. On the basis of your commentary, however, I feel compelled to defend the gist of what Li seems to be saying. I am most concerned to address this:

    “[Li] assumes that because people (in China and elsewhere) are thriving economically, they will refrain from demands for personal rights and democratic reforms. He attributes this in part to a China-specific cultural tendency to sacrifice other ideals in order to achieve “national greatness” (as if that hadn’t be a problem in, say, Japan, or Germany, at recent points in history), apparently regarding the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 as a blip on the screen”.

    For starters, I need to ask a few questions: What exactly do you know about contemporary China? How long have you lived there? How would you rate your Mandarin? I ask because I have the distinct impression that your knowledge of philosophy and history might exceed your knowledge of China — and of the Chinese. (Actual, real Chinese.) I am only superficially acquainted with the work for which you are best known, and we share a number of interests. I do not, however – and I apologize for being frank – see anything in your professional background that qualifies you to discuss this issue. You have suggested that perhaps Li is naive (or demogogic); and I would like to return the compliment.

    My perspective is a little unique; and since I have just now made a few uncharitable in my remarks to you, I think it is fair that I should introduce myself a little. A philosopher by training and trade (PhD 1998), I have lived and worked in China since 2000. I speak Mandarin at a level that approaches (but does not reach) fluency, and since 2006 I have been contractually-attached to a provincial-level television network, originally as a bilingual anchor/presenter, currently as a programming consultant. I am an American male of European descent, just in case that is relevant. For more than a decade I have lived in an average Chinese neighborhood, among average Chinese neighbors.

    The fact is, the average metropolitan Chinese seems to care much more about opportunities for their children, luxury consumption, travel, and the good life (with Chinese characteristics) than democracy. (I write “seems” out of concern for epistemological propriety; but my statement would be more accurate without it.) The New York Times, NPR, and the new generation of China-watchers do a remarkably good job of ferreting-out Mainland “dissidents”, the dissatisfied, the disenfranchised, and the kinds of marginal-voices which give the narratives and exposes of premiere-league publications their characteristic (and predictable) color and tone. (When one’s job is to send copy to the bureau chief, one tends to see just the sort of story one’s editor wants.) But the unbiased boots-on-the-ground perspective is very different.

    Your analysis of how Li and Fukuyama make similar mistakes seems to be spot-on. (Though I rely, now, on your rendering of Li, I know Fukuyama’s work pretty well.) But there are, in spite of that, some facts that need to be kept in mind.

    Democracy movements are simply not gaining traction in China, and this is because enough of the young, upwardly-mobile metropolitan population have come to understand – or if you prefer: have come to believe – that the practical effects of culturally-appropriate governance (for the peoples of China) are more important than any ideology of Government (for People generally). The loosening of some travel restrictions on Chinese nationals has also allowed more Chinese than ever to see a bit of the world beyond the Middle Kingdom, and frankly not all Chinese are impressed by what they find in Europe or North America. You are right to flag the non sequiturs, but the facts are: Not many Chinese are actually hankering for democracy anyway, even if certain (Western) theories about human nature, human fulfillment, etc., predict that they should be.

    As for the cultural revolution, the excesses of Mao, and Tiananmen — respectfully, it is not as simple as you suggest. Thoughts and feelings about these and other unhappy episodes from China’s recent past are evolving. Public confidence – not love, but confidence – in the Party to keep the ship of state afloat and on course (and: on a course the people approve of) has done much to encourage revised (but not revisionist) perspectives; and growing self-confidence among individual Chinese men in particular is allowing for the open discussion of alternative evaluations of things.

    Tiananmen, for example, is increasingly spoken of as a dark day in recent history – not because an anti-corruption/pro-democracy movement failed – but because incendiary youth in Beijing lacked the good sense to see that life under Deng Xiaoping was the best it had been in years, and that beardless, puddingheaded hot-heads in the capital turned back the clock on progress and choked-off the trickle-flow of new freedoms. Cultural Revolution themed-restaurants have been popping up in the cities since 2006, and Mao has been (if not fully rehabilitated) forgiven for his human all too human failings. The bad old days no longer seem quite so bad — or, they seem bad for slightly different reasons. The more the Party does right, the less past wrongs sting and embarrass.

    These are facts — only a few among many, to be sure, but it appears that you are not very well acquainted with them. You wonder whether Li is being naive or demagoging, but the same may be said about your cautionary conclusions. This is the last great dogma: The belief that the relative success of democracy in Western nations somehow proves – not only that Western-style democracy (which one?) is in fact right for all peoples – but that all peoples and polities are in fact creeping towards it — or: That is is creeping up on all peoples. Fukuyama got this wrong, of course — we both agree about that.

    But let’s look for a moment at your “wake-up call for self-complacent democracies”. China has this very year been cited as an example of a state with good (read: effective) gun control policies — something that amused me as much as it unsettled me — but disclosures about Prism now suggest that the gap between the US and China on privacy-issues is at least a little narrower than Americans like to think. How far apart, really, are the ends, when the means appear to be converging? And what does this sudden sympathy for the devil us about American Democracy and Chinese Authoritarianism ca. 2013?

    From a liberal perspective, how bad is China, really? The horrors of forced/coerced abortions notwithstanding (and much of that has been overstated and blown out of proportion), China is an abortion-friendly, “pro-choice” state. Chinese constables and law enforcement personnel (the PAP excepted), meanwhile, are unarmed — something many Westerners seem to associate with a civilized/progressive people and polity. New drink-driving laws (in the major cities at least) are now enforced with terrific gusto — and have proved very effective; but at the same time, Zhang-Q-Law isn’t going to harass an adult having a beer or drinking a bottle of wine in a public park. Prostitution (the freedom of a man or woman to sell consortium, etc., for profit) remains strictly illegal in China, but it is very much out in the open, and is in fact a positively normal and common fact of life.

    “Pro-choice” — with respect to China that sounds inaccurate, or at least odd, so used are Westerners to thinking about the authoritarian aspect of governance and its enforcement in the PRC. China’s “gun control” goes a bit farther than firearms-access regulation. (During the World Expo in Shanghai, citizens needed to produce state ID to buy certain kinds of cutlery.) There are high-end courtesans who enjoy their job, university students who give hooking a whirl for a while to stay kitted-out with nice handbags and iCrap, and rural girls who choose (“choose”) the sex-trade over low-wage/high-risk employment in their local non-OSHA factories; and then there’s exploitative traffic in human chattel.

    As always, the devil is in the details. (The devil *is* the details.) But – and I suspect this might be Li’s point – China just might be the world’s first authoritarian-libertarian state, whereas the US is increasingly looking like a democratic-authoritarian one. Here’s the rub. The more Western China-watchers continue to judge China governance-norms according to Western (American) democracy and democratic values, the more the (increasingly self-confident) peoples of China are inclined to look warily at the short-comings and failures of “our” system, and reassess the relative virtues of their own.(Key phrase: “their own”.) If we’ve learned something from the Google debacle, it is this: Just because it is “Made in the USA” doesn’t mean the Chinese like it, need it, or want it. (“Our” Buick Lacrosse looks like it does because SAIC remade it for the Mainland consumer; GM sent back to us what the Chinese liked and wanted.)

    Again: The Chinese masses are more concerned with access to opportunities for their children, for personal wealth-acquisition, product-consumption, travel, and personal-expression than they are in democracy and voting. The hive is less oppressed than NPR would have you believe, and they’d rather have guarantees that their foodstuffs and cooking-materials will be poison-free than have the ballot. They are also smart enough to know that having the ballot will not guarantee melamine stays out of the baby formula. And while China might be a bit too enthusiastic in their use of the death penalty, they nonetheless do not allow criminal trials to become forms of entertainment, or permit their legal process to suffer the indignities of HLN.

    There’s a lot *right* about the Chinese state, but it takes some courage to dare to see it. The Chinese are gaining in just that courage.

    And *that* is both the paradox (and the peril) for those who doubt whether it is impossible for a post-democratic nation to exist, let alone flourish. Not all forms of civic (or civil) liberty, it seems, require democracy or democratic processes, and questions about the legitimacy of (or: the legitimation processes behind) liberties actually-enjoyed might miss the point: If one is rabidly anti-gun, then China’s means justify the ends; if one is rabidly pro-choice, then better a non-legitimated policy of abortion-on-demand in an authoritarian state than a legitimated Roe v Wade forever hostage to southern theocrats and fundamentalist Christians forcing bad laws but using legitimate democratic processes.

    Should Americans a priori dismiss the virtues of being a little post-democratic? President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Eric Holder, and Bill Gates seem ready to make that jump. Is this the danger you mention?

    In recent years, so much has been published by behavioral and social scientists regarding (e.g.) Chinese conceptions of the self, family, relationships, health, medical ethics, happiness, etc., that it should be quite clear that Chinese nationals are not remedial Westerners — truncated semi-persons with psyches and habits twisted and gnarled through years of Communist rule, and requiring the sort of therapy that only democracy can provide. Is it really inconceivable that the individuals who make-up the many peoples of China could not possibly thrive – and that’s “thrive” in the Sen and Nussbaum sense, not the Marxist-Leninist sense – in a one-party, non-democratic state?

    And one thing further. Party cadres (and Party faithful) are Chinese — real Chinese men and women, descended from other real Chinese, who will most likely die and be interred in China, their native country, land of their ancestors, and land of their children. The CCP did not come to China from some distant planet, and Party members are not alien beings. Not discounting either the fact of endemic corruption or the terrible effects endemic corruption can have on the citizenry, is it really inconceivable that the Party wants only to crush, terrorize, oppress, and exploit its own people? Is it not possible that – with the increasing distribution of affluence and opportunity – the organs of governance and the people are developing a new understanding of each other, one that works for them? Is it really irrelevant that millions of real Chinese actually do think their system of governance. law, and order is working — at least, working well-enough for them?

    Li’s thesis is very likely worth taking seriously — and I thank you for your analytical synopsis. Respectfully, though, I am uncomfortable with that thesis being treated as a whimsy by a scholar who – however accomplished he is in his own domain of excellence – seems not really to be in command of the facts, and who appears lacking a little in the imagination to consider alternatives to his own presuppositions.

    I hope we have benefited each other a little, and I will look forward to your criticism of my observations.


    * Some content here borrowed from another thread (“Leaking”), on a different blog on this website. (RH)

  2. Dear Professor Pigliucci —

    “Li’s article is worth reading in its entirety, and so are many of the thoughtful responses it generated. The question he raises is important…”

    I humbly retract what I said about your treating Li’s article (“thesis”) as a “whimsy”. I am terribly embarrassed that my tired-eyes jumped over this, marching forward as they were in search of the heart and “guts” of your commentary. This oversight (literally!) reveals my own preoccupations and presuppositions — and therefore also my weaknesses as an observer, analyst, and commentator. For that (and for my terrible proofreading), I sincerely apologize. It seems, also, that my tone could have been much friendlier and less combative — forgive me.

    I must remind myself that chiming-in at 3 a.m. in the morning on learned commentary written by esteemed gentlemen is rarely going to be the best way to deal with insomnia. I do beg your pardon.

    I remain in your debt for bringing to my attention Li’s article.


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