In 2006, I spent six months in China for The Irish Times. The experience gave me a completely false idea of the world’s future.
If, then as now, you talked on the record to Communist Party officials, you were wasting your time. You just got a tedious repetition of the orthodox line.
But you could talk off the record to younger officials – bureaucrats, judges, even army officers. And what almost of all of them would tell you was that, over their lifetimes, China would slowly become more and more like Sweden.
“We are Marxists after all,” one slick young official told me. “We know that if you change the technological and economic system, the political system has to change too.”
What they imagined was pretty much what centuries of western theorists had posited too: capitalism requires two things – the free flow of information and the rule of law. The first is necessary for innovation; the second for the security of investment.
These imperatives have political consequences. You need a relatively free press and a vibrant civil society. You need an independent judiciary. And if laws are to be obeyed, there must be some kind of democratic system in which people consent to them.
So if you were young and privileged and well-educated in Beijing in 2006, you could see that China’s long-term integration into a capitalist world order would inevitably force it to become a more open and a freer society. And that this would be equally true for the other big developing economies: Brazil, India and Russia.
To understand the collapse of the post-cold war order that has culminated in Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine, we must acknowledge the unravelling of these fundamental assumptions about capitalism. And confront, too, the deeply uncomfortable truth that those beliefs – so fundamental to western modernity – are corroding in Europe and the United States just as much as in China or Russia.
Putin’s psychotic war has prompted, for good reasons, a desire to draw a clean line between the democratic world on the one side and the vicious autocracies on the other. This is an escapist fantasy.
The line is at best fuzzy. The autocrat Viktor Orbán has just been re-elected in Hungary, right at the heart of the European Union. The crypto-fascists Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour have just taken a third of the vote in France. In the US, the Republican Party is now definitely post-democratic, committed to delegitimising elections and suppressing the vote.
The threat to democracy, then, comes at least as much from the inside as the outside. The war in Ukraine creates an illusion of a united, confident “free world” fighting against quasi-fascist dictatorship. But the fascists are Us as well as Them.
The molten core of this crisis of democracy is that capitalism itself has gone feral. It no longer looks, to its biggest beneficiaries, like a complex system that depends on niceties like the free flow of trustworthy information, the rule of law and democratic consent.
Surveillance capitalism, as pioneered by the likes of Facebook, has privatised and monetised the free flow of information. Its technologies are equally useful for making money and for spying on a population.
The challenge of climate change, meanwhile, has given large parts of the capitalist system – most obviously the producers of carbon fuels – an interest in the undermining of science and truth.
As for the rule of law, globalisation has given transnational corporations and the super-rich the means and the opportunity to undermine the law-making systems that developed with modernity: nation states. They do this by depriving those states of their lifeblood – taxes.
The gross inequality generated by this feral capitalism is, moreover, fundamentally incompatible with the promise of democracy, which is that each citizen has an equal say. Oligarchs can and do buy political parties. They can (like, for example, Rupert Murdoch) exercise vast power across many jurisdictions without being effectively accountable in any of them.
What’s happened, then, is that capitalism has evolved to be at least as compatible with oligarchy and autocracy as it is with democracy. This compatibility may be short-term (it depends on discounting environmental catastrophe and the risks of war inherent in autocracy), but that is of little concern to a form of capitalism that is essentially about looting the world before it burns.
This evolution may have taken the Chinese Communist Party and Putin’s mafia state by surprise, but it is for them a pleasant surprise. It means they do not have to adapt themselves to democracy in order to practise the dominant form of capitalism. That form has morphed into a shape that fits their existing models quite neatly.
It also means that large parts of the wealthy elites of the West no longer feel either bound by or in need of the rules of democracy. This has already become clear in the US. The frightful complacency about the rise of the far-right suggests that Europe has gone very far down the same road.
The governing assumption of many centuries is finished – capitalism and technology are not going to sustain or spread democracy. That can only be done by the people who are willing to fight for it.