The Illusion of Democracy


Since 2013, when he reportedly told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the two of them had similar personalities, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been centralizing power at a ferocious rate. His anti-corruption campaign has brought down a string of powerbrokers who once seemed untouchable, including members of the Politburo and elder generals. Simultaneously, he has extended state power deeper into civil society. In 2014, the think tank Freedom House ranked China 58th out of the 60 countries in its annual “Freedom on the Net” survey — only Syria and Iran scored worse. Plenty of China watchers conclude that Xi is the country’s most powerful leader since Mao.

All this is alarming news for champions of what the journalist James Mann refers to as “the Soothing Scenario.” In his book The China Fantasy (2007), Mann offers three possible perspectives on China, and mocks the prevailing and somewhat shortsighted assertion that as China gets richer it will also get more democratic. Just look, say advocates of this theory, at Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore: As their economies grew over the past 50 years, all moved (albeit to varying degrees) from authoritarianism toward democracy. As Tony Blair saw things in 2005, Chinese democracy had “an unstoppable momentum”; and in one of his first foreign policy speeches, presidential candidate George W. Bush spelled out the logic of the argument. “Economic freedom creates habits of liberty. And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy … Trade freely with China, and time is on our side.”

The problem, though, is that the obvious historical analogies all seem to point the other way. In the past, countries that grew rich and powerful rarely started imitating the political systems of the nations they were overtaking. Rather, those that were falling behind started aping the new winners. A century ago, for instance, few Americans worried that the United States was becoming Europeanized, but plenty of Europeans worried that their continent was becoming Americanized. Two thousand years before that, cultural influences flowed from the mighty Roman and Han Chinese empires toward the people living around them — until the empires’ economic, military and political power went into decline, whereupon the flow of influence was reversed and Rome and China were “barbarized.” Soft power always seems to follow hard power.

Analogies with Japan and the Asian Tigers suggest that China will move toward Western-style democracy as it grows richer and stronger; analogies with the history of empires suggest that the West will move toward Chinese-style authoritarianism as China grows richer and stronger. But which analogies are more useful?

The long-term perspective
Twenty thousand years ago, at the coldest point of the Ice Age, everyone on earth was a hunter-gatherer, spending nearly all their time in tiny bands of a dozen or fewer people. Comparisons between archaeological evidence and hunter-gatherer bands that survived into the 20th century suggest that while men tended to have more power than women, in most ways societies were highly egalitarian, with no permanent positions of political authority. Important decisions were normally made through round upon round of open discussion, and men who tried to lord it over others would be laid low with mockery, ostracism or even murder. These were highly democratic communities.

All that changed after farming was invented, beginning about 11,500 years ago in what we now call the Middle East. Life steadily became less democratic. For reasons I described in an earlier column, political, economic and gender inequalities soared. By 3,500 B.C. the first true states were taking shape and poor peasants had little voice in their governments.

Across the next 5,000-plus years, at least 99 percent of all the people who lived did so in hugely undemocratic farming societies. Even the famous democracies found in Greece between about 500 and 100 B.C. provide only partial exceptions. The Greeks invented the word democracy (demokratia), and several million of them lived in city-states that put political decisions in the hands of large assemblies of male citizens. However, women had no political rights at all, and in Athens roughly one person in three was enslaved (in Sparta, six out of every seven people were serfs). These were not democracies as anyone today would understand the word.

Only recently has democracy staged a comeback after a 10,000-year absence. In the 17th century, a handful of rebels in Western Europe started making outrageous demands: Instead of replacing one divinely sanctioned ruler with another, they said, distinctions should be leveled. “None comes into the world with a saddle upon his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him,” the English protester Richard Rumbold observed in 1685. A century later, revolutionaries in France and North America were going further still, establishing governments that claimed that the basis of their power was the general will of the people. In the 19th century, democracy took over Western and Central Europe and its settler colonies; in the early 20th century, voting was extended to women.

According to Freedom House, as late as 1972 just 29 percent of the world’s societies were truly free, as compared to 46 percent unfree. By 1998, the proportions had been reversed, with 46 percent free and just 26 percent unfree. Opinion polls conducted in 2007 found that people in every continent said democracy was the best form of government, with support high (in the 66-86 percent range) regardless of geography, gender, religion or age. “Democracy,” the philosopher and economist Amartya Sen has concluded, is now “a universal value.”

The long-term pattern, then, is clear and strong. Modern humans had evolved by 50,000 B.C., and for the next 40,000 years, everyone on earth lived in a democracy. Then came more than 10,000 years when almost no one did so, but we now live in an age when roughly half the world’s population does so.

Emerging patterns
In my recent book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels (2015), I suggested that there is a simple explanation for this simple pattern. Ultimately, I argued, the ways people extract energy from the environment largely determine what kinds of political organizations flourish. Foragers who lived by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants captured little energy (typically, 5,000-10,000 kilocalories per person per day). They had no choice but to live in small, highly mobile bands. Only a simple division of labor was possible, which meant that their technology remained crude.

In a world of this kind, hierarchy simply didn’t work well. Fluid, open societies could cooperate, cohere and find food better than rigid, closed ones. Egalitarianism outcompeted hierarchy, and that is why nearly all hunter-gatherer societies were democratic.

Farmers who lived by exploiting domesticated plants and animals captured much more energy than foragers (typically, 10,000-30,000 kilocalories per person per day), albeit at the cost of working much harder. They had no choice but to live in much bigger, generally sedentary groups — agrarian cities such as 1st-century Rome or 7th-century Chang’an in China had about a million residents. More complex divisions of labor and more advanced technology become not only possible but also necessary if farming societies were to survive.

In a world of this kind, equality simply didn’t work well. Rigid, closed societies cooperated, cohered and grew food better than fluid, open ones. Hierarchy outcompeted egalitarianism, and that is why virtually all farming societies were undemocratic.

The reason this began changing in the 17th and 18th centuries around the shores of the North Atlantic was that the ability to move goods, people and ideas between continents drove energy capture above 30,000 kilocalories per person per day. Energy capture accelerated even more in the 19th century, and industrialization drove the figure up toward 100,000 kilocalories per person per day. (By the 1970s, the average American was consuming 230,000 kilocalories per person per day.) Fueled by this energy bonanza, people clustered into huge cities (in 2015, Tokyo has nearly 36 million residents, and half the world’s population is now urban), divided their labor in bewilderingly complex ways, and set off a spiral of technological advances.

Not surprisingly, the political systems that had worked so well in farming societies could not cope in the fossil-fuel world. What was surprising, though, was what replaced them. Across the thousands of years when energy capture had been rising from 5,000 kilocalories per person per day toward 30,000, political hierarchies had grown steeper, but as energy capture surged up from 30,000 toward 230,000 kilocalories per person per day, this trend was reversed.

Industrial civilization and democracy
Fossil-fuel economies generate vast quantities of goods and services, and across the 19th and 20th centuries people came up with two big ideas about how to organize the production, distribution and consumption of this bounty. One theory, illiberal and undemocratic, assumed that governments should control everything, telling people what to make and use. The other, liberal and democratic, assumed that people should decide for themselves what to make and use, implementing their choices through free markets.

The two systems’ head-on collision in the World Wars and Cold War between 1914-1989 produced an unambiguous outcome. In a fossil-fuel world, hierarchy simply didn’t work well. Fluid, open societies cooperated, cohered and provided goods and services better than rigid, closed ones. Egalitarianism outcompeted hierarchy, and that is why the industrialized world became increasingly democratic.

Non-democratic countries such as the post-war Asian Tigers and the post-Mao People’s Republic of China could enjoy rapid economic growth, but they did so by piggybacking on the markets and open institutions created by the free world. Even then, they were largely playing catch-up with the democracies and could break out of the middle-income trap only by democratizing in turn.

The good news seems to be that a long-term historical perspective provides strong support for Mann’s Soothing Scenario. The logic of the fossil-fuel world will push China toward democracy. However, there is also some bad news. Besides revealing the trends that shape the world, long-term history also reveals the forces that might disrupt those trends.

Two such forces seem relevant here.

One is the hard fact that logic is not everything. There have been plenty of occasions in the past when rivals that seemed hopelessly behind the times nevertheless crushed societies that were well adapted to the trends shaping their world. The classic case is 5th-century B.C. Athens, which had by far the most sophisticated political, financial and naval institutions of its day but still collapsed before the combined weight of Spartan militarism and Persian wealth. Today’s democracies seem to be at least as well adapted to the trends of history as ancient Athens was, but that does not guarantee that they will get the better of every big, backward challenger.

Here the actions of individuals have a big impact. There were plenty of points during the Peloponnesian War, as Thucydides’ agonized narrative makes clear, when different decisions or just a bit more luck could have given Athens victory. Similarly, there were plenty of points in the 20th century when democracy looked as if it was losing. In the 1930s and again in the 1970s, authoritarian governments appeared to be getting the upper hand — but US-led alliances bounced back to defeat fascism in the 1940s and Soviet communism in the 1980s. The prospects sometimes look bleak in the 2010s, but who is to say that democracy will not triumph again in the 2020s? Nothing is written in stone.

The second force of disruption revealed by long-term history is that no trend lasts forever. Though democracy is the most effective political system for a fossil-fuel world, the fossil-fuel world is no more permanent than were the foraging and farming worlds. There are many reasons to think that modes of energy capture will change more in the 21st century than ever before, in which case democracy may be as anachronistic in 2115 as dynastic empires are in 2015.

We have already seen the rise of entirely new kinds of virtual communities that were unimaginable a few generations ago. Sometimes these networks empower the weak, bringing down autocratic rulers; other times they give formidable new weapons to the already mighty. We are standing at the threshold of a brave new world, although we cannot yet see what it will look like. Perhaps it will be a place where mankind merges through its machines into a kind of single superorganism, which takes democracy far beyond anything we have seen so far. Or then again, perhaps all gains will flow to a tiny elite that sets itself so far above the rest of humanity that democracy will once again become irrelevant. The democratic boom of the 18th through 20th centuries, like the democratic boom in ancient Greece, might be revealed as one of the exceptions that proves the rule of humanity’s inexorable, long-term march toward hierarchy.

And in that case, Xi Jinping will surely be remembered as the first great man of the 21st century.


Publishing by The Manila Times of this Global Affairs essay is with the express permission of Stratfor.


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