Liberal Democracy, The Third Way, & Social Futurism (pt. 1 of 3)
by Dr M. Amon Twyman
The following post is part of a series, and also related to two earlier posts about the political philosophy of Social Futurism:
Social Futurist revolution & the Zero State
The Social Futurist policy toolkit
Liberal Democracy and Authoritarianism
The developed nations of the Western world are currently characterised by a political-economic system typically referred to as “Liberal Democracy“*. Up until very recently, there has been a tendency for all major political parties to converge on an ostensibly moderate, centrist, Liberal Democratic position. This position is characterised by Representative Democracy on the one hand, and commitment to Liberalism (both social and economic, but with emphasis on Market Liberalism) on the other. This worldview is frequently depicted by its proponents as the polar opposite of and only ethical or viable alternative to Authoritarian forms of social organization.
Of course, for decades there have been those who questioned that narrative. While things were apparently going well for Liberal Democracy these critics were never going to be paid much attention by the general public, and it was trivially easy for the establishment to marginalise them on the basis of their frequent association with discredited ideologies such as Marxism. Things have shifted since the Great Recession, however. To put it simply, things are no longer going so well for Liberal Democracy, and it is not quite so easy to dismiss alternatives out of hand. We will discuss the matter of alternatives in parts 2 & 3 of this series, but first we should take this opportunity to examine the claim that Liberal Democracy and Authoritarianism are diametrically opposed.
I would argue that Liberal Democracy is in fact not only inherently Authoritarian (or at least not nearly as liberal or democratic as it claims to be), but that it fosters more direct forms of Authoritarianism – even Totalitarianism – in developing nations and relies upon them to justify its own agenda. Here I will briefly consider three aspects of this complex relationship; The track record of Liberal Democratic governments (both domestically and abroad), the symbiotic relationship between Liberal Democracies and directly Authoritarian governments, and clear tendencies amid the most ideologically extreme proponents of Liberal Democracy.
1. The moral failure of Liberal Democracy
Liberal Democracy is regularly argued to be the most ethical of political-economic systems, thanks to its apparent emphasis on giving the people a voice, and ensuring their freedom to act as they see fit within society. I believe that not only are these false claims in a number of important ways on a domestic level, but that the implicit and explicit foreign policy of Liberal Democracies denies the people of other nations those same freedoms.
On the domestic level, I believe that Representative Democracy is not true democracy at all. It is a system which allows governments to give the impression of democracy, while they and their favoured private-sector partners more or less do as they please. Centrist Liberal Democratic parties control parliaments in a kind of “revolving door” arrangement, which coupled with their increasingly similar policies means that there is no true choice to be found in elections at all. It is true that there is a strong argument to be made for decision making by meritocracy where expert knowledge is critical, but many currently centralised societal decisions could be made by referendum and decentralised direct democracy (i.e. according to the principle of Subsidiarity).
Additionally, the Liberal Democratic claim to “freedom” tends not to mean any such thing for the average citizen who is not economically self-sufficient, but is instead a friendly sounding name for the policy of giving corporations Carte Blanche in matters of broad societal interest. On that point, I would assert that Liberal Democracy is an ideology organised around defense of the most dysfunctional aspects of Capitalism, and it is nigh impossible to assess one facet of this belief system without considering the other. In other words, “Liberal Democracy” is not really the ideology of true liberty or democracy, but of Capitalism.
It can be hard to convince people living in developed nations that Liberal Democracy isn’t actually very liberal or democratic, especially in the midst of good times. When Capitalism is bringing home the bacon, people are usually not inclined to be bothered that they don’t have half the freedoms or democracy that they imagine. Internationally, however, it is easier to see that Liberal Democratic deeds speak much louder than words. Aside from Western support for Authoritarian regimes (more on that below), we can note an almost non-stop string of military interventions dating back to World War II. These wars began by benefitting certain Capitalists indirectly (i.e. mostly Military-Industrial Complex contractors), but in recent decades it has become clear that war itself is an exercise in profit-making, and that most of that profit comes from oil. Despite plenty of moderate and humanitarian rhetoric, the West never engages in serious work to rebuild devastated nations, unless it is to install an Authoritarian “client” regime.
2. Symbiosis between Liberal Democracy and Authoritarianism
The West – exemplified primarily by the United States – has an appalling track record when it comes to installing and supporting Authoritarian regimes in nations which have some value as a client state, but which are not contenders to be developed into full-blown Liberal Democracies in the near term. I only hesitate in laying the blame for this trend solely at the American door because other major powers have indulged in this game in the past, and would do again in the future given the chance. For now, all of the other major nations seem to fall into the categories of “US client state” or “emerging competitor”.
I am sure that many defenders of Liberal Democracy would cite Realpolitik, and claim that even the most benevolent superpower would have to operate strategically in a wider context of less-than-ideal partners. Perhaps so. But there is another, equally valid way to characterise this relationship between the Liberal Democratic West and its Authoritarian partners in the East and South. This is to say that they are two sides of a single coin, or two partners in a single symbiotic relationship. Authoritarian client states clearly benefit from Western support, usually in the form of military and/or covert logistical aid (e.g. in the case of Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile). The same is true for non-state clients such as the Afghan Mujahideen.
Liberal Democratic states primarily benefit from these relationships by opening up new markets, although there are sometimes additional strategic benefits to maintaining such clients. Advocates for Liberal Democracy invariably spin the creation of new markets in terms of spreading “Freedom” and “Democracy”, when in reality what is being exported is Capitalism. The lack of true freedom and democracy we see in Liberal Democratic states is even more acute in these client states, where the Authoritarian regimes typically allow foreign corporations to act as they see fit, exempt from any reasonable level of regulation. This of course represents a bonanza for the companies, the most powerful of whom effectively control the deep policies of Western governments through lobbying and control of core institutions.
In short, we are told that Liberal Democracy stands in lone opposition to Authoritarianism, but in fact it is not truly liberal (in the sense of offering deep freedom) or democratic (in the sense of the people having any real voice), and it deliberately fuels Authoritarianism in order to expand the Capitalist sphere of influence. Not all Authoritarianism is the product of Capitalism run amok – far from it – but I do feel that we must address this false claim of opposition between two phenomena that are in fact very closely related.
As much as we do not want to gloss over complex truths, it is often helpful to draw attention to important ideas through the use of a simple image, or shorthand. We can encapsulate this idea of a complex symbiotic relationship between the Liberal Democratic West and various forms of Authoritarianism in the East and South by thinking in terms of a puppet show. We may watch such a show and see apparent conflict between two characters, but behind the scenes there is only one motivator, one puppeteer. We should not take this image literally, and indulge in unhelpful conspiracy theories of people orchestrating worldly events from “behind the scenes”. All I am saying is that where we are told that there are two different entities with different values and motivations – First World Liberal Democracies and Second/Third World Authoritarian regimes – there is in fact only one.
The picture I have painted above hinges on close cooperation between Western governments and corporations. I and others have characterised that as a “Corporatist” relationship in the past, and the various possible meanings of that term lead to complications that we don’t have time for here. Most broadly, we can characterise a Corporatist system of governance as one in which government and business are deeply and deliberately integrated. Corporatism is at essence about gathering influence, and using every tool available to achieve that end. Government is used to further the Corporatists’ business concerns, and private businesses are conversely used as tools of government. Furthermore, just as the division between public and private is dismantled, the Corporatist quite happily uses the Authoritarian apparatus of other states to achieve their goals where necessary. There are no boundaries to the Corporatist, no sense of loyalty or identity which stops them playing the game from all sides.
3. Ideological paradoxes inherent to Liberal Democracy
Given that Liberal Democracy is the ideological mask of choice for our current Corporatist system, it is an interesting irony that the Right or Economic wing of the Libertarian movement opposes Corporatism as a corruption of “true” Capitalism, while at the same time we might reasonably argue Libertarianism to be the ideological vanguard of Liberal Democracy. On the outermost edge of Economic Libertarianism we find the Anarcho-Capitalists, who take the basic tenets of Economic Libertarianism to their logical conclusion, and so are instructive in making the core beliefs and trends in that movement clear. Where the Libertarians tend to argue for a bare-minimum (“Night Watchman”) state apparatus, the Anarcho-Capitalists would have no state whatsoever. Where the Libertarians claim to prioritise personal and social freedoms but tend to emphasise economic freedoms, Anarcho-Capitalists invariably claim that economic freedom is the root of all other freedoms.
The problems with Liberal Democracy I have outlined are particularly vivid in their Libertarian incarnation. In defense of Libertarianism I would say that the core impulse of what we might call “Good Faith” Libertarians is to defend personal freedoms of all sorts, which is perfectly laudable. The problem is that of Liberal Democracy writ large; that all too often when Economic Libertarians talk of “freedom”, they at least implicitly mean the freedom of large organizations to do what they want while ordinary human citizens might be free in principle but are in fact enslaved by circumstance. The ‘circumstance’ I refer to is commonly known as Structural Violence. In other words, the freedom of companies comes at the expense of the true freedom of regular people when it is taken too far.
Libertarianism makes the inherent paradox of Liberal Democracy clear. Liberal Democracy is in truth the ideology of late Capitalism, in which progressive ideals like freedom and democracy are perverted in service of the needs of a Corporatist Establishment. (Right-wing, Economic) Libertarian heroes such as Ayn Rand tell fables in which Übermensch-like innovators are oppressed by evil collectives, and these childish stories reflect an innate Libertarian fear and hatred of true democracy.
Reality is never as simple as an Ayn Rand story. As I have discussed at length elsewhere, Capitalism has been a powerful force for good on a number of levels, and there are Authoritarian forces opposed to Capitalism which are even greater threats to civilization. Similarly, while it is good to recognise the problem of Corporatism and strive for true liberty, it is a particularly tragic irony when someone imagines that problem can be solved by becoming a cheerleader for the Liberal Democratic system.
The next two installments in this series will consider alternatives to Liberal Democracy. Just as a desirable alternative would in fact be more truly democratic, it would also be more truly liberal, and worthy of those activists who seek a better paradigm rather than to be just another puppet on the strings of the current one.
*It is important to note that where I refer to “Liberal Democracy” and particularly “Liberal Democrats” above, I am referring to the wider political system and not political parties who share that name (e.g. the UK Liberal Democrats). Such parties are, however, very much an enthusiastic part of the system I am criticising here.