Democracy is on the rise. Arabs are finally, painfully getting rid of their Western-supported or Western-opposed -and really, what’s the difference at the end of the day- dictators that have secured a steady and cheap flow of oil over the past decades. The democratic West looks on, emitting a feeble “Hurrah!”
“Come on. Can’t you guys at least pretend to be happy for us?” an Arab observer might say. “Sure, we’re a bit late to the party, but can we at least get a drink up in this bitch?”
Here’s the thing though, and for this we need to rewind the tape a good 25 years, the end of communism didn’t spell the end of history. The interesting times were only beginning, to paraphrase a famous Chinese proverb. Liberal markets and their inseparable political analogue democracy had won. Yeay! China, fast opening its economy to the forces of supply and demand, would soon learn that for that system to work, politicians too needed to receive feedback on their performance. A healthy market can’t survive without a steadily improving regulatory framework, i.e. a democratic-ish state.
Then came Tienanmen, followed by two decades of casual +10% growth lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. The U.S. and your average old European social-market economies managed 3% to 4%, in a handful of good years. In relative terms, and due to the end of cheap oil also in absolute terms, the latter have been getting poorer. As Marsellus Wallace tells Butch in Pulp Fiction: “That’s a hard motherfucking fact of life.” Now you can hide said fact by means of budgetary wizardry, selling state property, cutting welfare expenditure, education budgets, or simply allowing banks to blow bubbles until everbody’s high with dollar signs in their eyes, but sooner or later your boxer is going to refuse to go down in the 5th.
With China on a high streak, happily yodeling down the mountain with no seat belts and more importantly, no political feedback system to efficiently steer a fair and sustainable distribution of wealth, the question is this: Were generations of political thinkers, starting with the Greeks over Montesquieu to err, Ronald Reagan, and basically everyone involved in inventing post world-war II Western-style democracy, high on crack? American and European leaders are surely, quietly asking themselves this question: Has democracy as we know it become a liability to the quest for economic growth? Can we possibly beat China, or simply not be eaten by it, without emulating its totalitarian political system? Even tree-huggers are jealous by now at China’s relentless push toward renewable energy.
Like so many enchanted cat owners, one hesitates to imagine what politicians get up to at night. I’m sure some actually do go home to their wives or quietly read Proust. Until, that is, they are rudely interrupted by panicky business leaders who can’t compete against these Chinese juggernauts. Not with these workers’ wages. “Is there anything you can do?” Well, one way to ease a voter’s mind into voting against his or her interest is to scare them half to death. “Islam!” I mean, “Booh!” You can have the Rupert Murdochs of the free world constrict the free flow of information to fickle electorates or just go old-school, like South-Africa yesterday, by shooting dead 30 striking miners. Lots of subtle signs indicate that something is going on, something is changing, and it doesn’t sound/taste/smell like bold new steps to deepen citizens’ participation in society.
While your cat -I mean, representative is having a great night out in the aviary, on the premise that China is doing fine without that rare bird called democracy, said up and coming superpower is secretly discovering the contrary. Local mayors, governors and assorted appointed apparatchicks cannot be trusted to operate complex economies without up to the minute feedback on just how bad they are doing. Capital punishment does not scare the corrupt into becoming holy men. Formerly jailed from the get go, bloggers are now issued punch-card licenses: yes, you’re allowed to finger-point failing hospitals or a crumbling bridge, but only about five times. It’s not democracy, but a far cry from the Cultural Revolution, and a giant leap for an institution attempting to feed and house a billion and a half people, otherwise known as the entire world population at the beginning of the 20th century. As the Chinese economy becomes more complex and grows, so will the need to quickly rotate the folks in charge. Crowd-sourcing the decisions underpinning these rotations is simply more efficient. Cheaper, if you will. Economically sound. Get it? I.e. free markets need political oversight, but political oversight needs oversight by free people. In other words, China did not magically break the bond between economic growth and popular emancipation. It’s simply not happening at a fast-food pace.
Are our politicians catching up to the fact that the Middle Kingdom is catching up, or are they still talking bull about the china shop?