A life less ordinary

Category: Asia, Global

Lately, there has been a growing tendency toward dissing democracy and lauding autocracy. These people do so while their friends, associates, acquaintances and contemporaries have been robbed, swindled, falsely prosecuted and wrongfully imprisoned under autocracies – which makes it all the harder to sit quiet around authoritarianism’s armchair apologists, and associated toadies and useful idiots. If you buy into authoritarianism, you will lose your stake, your shirt, your freedom, your family, and very possibly, your life. It’s happened before, time and again. And if you think voters are fools, just try an autocracy of fools.

For the much-maligned financial industry, though, here’s one crumb of comfort: you guys called it. Yes, even though banks are still being fined, right now, for cartels and conspiracies. Through years of opinions from financial and investment professionals, there has been warning after warning about the risks to our economic and political system of growing inequality and the proliferation of the “one percent”. True, lobbyists can buy good earplugs for their pet politicians… yet those same politicians are now wearing the poop of the chickens first set loose in 2008 – and finally coming home to roost.

Democratic leaders may rush to abdicate their founding principles, just as bankers apparently rushed to abandon the principles that entrusted them with other people’s money, but that doesn’t invalidate those principles. Institutions may age and weaken, memories fade, but principles, ever fresh, have a way of jumping right back up to bite us if trodden on. Because there is no alternative. Freedom can’t stop at the free market. Enforced “efficiency” and “stability” aren’t enough.

Autocracies have always excelled at Potemkin efficiency and Potemkin consensus; but look at what lies beneath. China is following Southeast Asia’s legacy autocracies into the world’s biggest middle-income trap, while Russia defaults to state kleptocracy at home, and exports state terror and state destabilisation abroad. Both of those mirror the hollowing-out of the one modern ideology to provide an alternative legitimating sovereign principle to democracy – Communism – leaving nothing but the rule of pure force behind. Nationalism is no principle, only “I am”, shouted. To paraphrase Umberto Eco’s personal experience of Mussolini, authoritarians have no philosophy, only rhetoric. Power, but no principle. Democratic sovereignty is the only modern principle of legitimate government.

Critics, remember the distinction between opinion and sovereignty. One man’s opinion may be worthless, but his sovereignty is precious and inalienable. And sovereign power, however delegated, requires sovereign rights, and all the other restraining balances and institutions that parse that sovereignty out – and that are anathema to autocrats anxious to deny citizens that legitimising sovereignty. Absent democratic sovereignty, the only alternative is Mao’s principle that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. And anyone who sells out democracy to autocracy will sooner or later find the autocrat’s gun held to their head.