03 December 2011

Jonathan Freedland: ‘It is democracy itself that the markets seem to despise’

Well, two final projects down for the term, and two more to go. Guess I have a little bit of time to work on a blog post now.

There was a very interesting piece in The Guardian by Jonathan Freedland a couple of weeks back. Though he does (along with the rest of the Guardian’s commentariat, not to mention that of the New York Times, the Washington Post and other American print) tend to draw distinctions in ways which are (I believe) a little bit too hard-and-fast between authoritarian and democratic (is Singapore as ‘authoritarian’ as the mainland? is Russia – where women very much have the rights to drive, vote and show their faces in public – anywhere near as ‘authoritarian’ as Saudi Arabia?), I believe the point he makes is a very sound one. Though the neoconservatives and the libertarians have long pretended otherwise, for the sensible and the attentive it has long since been the case that globalist, neoliberal capitalism and democracy make for very fidgety bedfellows indeed.

But in the light of the economic crisis, the strain in that relationship is starting to show more than ever. A referendum in Greece over the austerity measures being imposed on it from without was cancelled; pan-European technocrats have taken the reins of the Greek macroeconomy and are hell-bent on riding it roughshod over the working class, pensioners, civil servants and any other plebes who have the temerity (nay, the effrontery!) to take a train or a public bus to work, or to fall ill and take up precious hospital space.

In the meanwhile, in China, Bo Xilai and Wang Yang have been using local models in China in an attempt to shore up support for the more interventionist, public-good provisionist, actively anti-corruption Chongqing model and the more developmentalist, neoliberal, laissez-faire Guangdong model, respectively. Although both appear to be equally divergent from China’s current authoritarian-capitalist status quo (Mr Bo in the direction of greater economic democracy and a social safety net, Mr Wang in the direction of more authoritarian-capitalist ‘reforms’), in actuality Mr Bo is the more open to the guidance of democratic principles (willingly taking the advice of social democrats such as Dr Cui Zhiyuan, for example) and true exposure of the inner workings of the Chinese government to the public eye, whilst Mr Wang appears to be merely another rehash of Jiang Zemin: gleefully adopting the advice of market ‘reformers’ and technocrats and gutting public goods provision, and shielding those very same technocrats from any real sort of public scrutiny.

And, naturally, the same principle applies to public protests. The Chinese government under Jiang Zemin sounded a hasty retreat from Tian’anmen only for the 1989 protests to disappear quickly and quietly down the Memory Hole; the same sort of dynamic appears to be holding true for the Wukan protests under Wang Yang. (How long before that Google search is blocked?) By all means one may examine his motives, but even though Mr Bo Xilai appears prima facie to be more heavy-handed, we should keep in mind that thus far he has consistently moved in favour of truth-to-power, rather than in favour of erasing truth by momentarily constraining power.

And then we have, as Mr Freedland deftly points out, the peculiar breed of neoliberal / liberal-interventionist commentator in the United States which yearns for this country to ‘be China for a day’; and by China Mr Friedman evidently means Guangdong rather than Chongqing. Even though he is very quick to hedge his wish about with all the right liberal-democratic verbiage, this should tell one all one needs to know about where the sympathies of the neoliberals lie where issues of democracy, economic self-determination and the rule of law are concerned.

Be ye not fooled: the champions of the invisible hand are themselves apparently quite eager to equip it with a very visible steel gauntlet. Let us hope that our nations have the resilience to – to paraphrase Mr Freedland – assert that people, rather than markets, are sovereign.

EDIT: Here is an article describing Mr Bo’s drive to open official CCP archives to the public and focus more attention on the actions of government and Party members. One may argue that it is little more than Mr Bo blowing his own horn, but it does highlight one of the ways in which he represents a massive change for the People’s Republic, in a far less authoritarian direction.


  1. Great post. I often get the feeling that many powerful people in the West would prefer a political arrangement like the one that prevails in China.

    Although, on the other hand, I have also read some commentators argue that the Chinese government is in some respects more responsive to its people than many Western governments, primarily because the Chinese government is very afraid of its people!

    I have a lot of respect for the Chinese people. Contrary to modern stereotypes, history would seem to show that the people of China don't suffer tyrants lightly.

    More broadly, in the good old days of the original laissez-faire, the classical liberals were at least more or less open about being anti-democratic, for example, restricting the franchise to people with a certain amount of wealth.

    The scary thing is, if people don't feel like they have a viable political alternative via elections, where will they turn, and how will the powers that be react? I was thinking of a situation like the London riots in the U.S. today, and it is a very, very scary thought, given that our Right is arguably more reactionary than the British Right.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Thanks, John! Much appreciated.

    I certainly share the idea that the Chinese government is deathly afraid of its people - as it probably should be. At the same time, though, the Chinese are (again, very justly) wary of outside threats and interference. The Opium Wars have not been forgotten (one need only reference that frightfully tone-deaf incident with David Cameron wearing a poppy to China last year), and neither has the national humiliation of China by every major Western empire plus Japan. Even if their leaders are corrupt and weak, the Chinese people have historically rallied 'round when they felt their country to be under threat from the outside.

    And very good point about classical liberalism never having been friendly to the interests of the working class. That said, classical conservatism did itself a great disservice by allowing the Whigs to dictate the terms of debate.

    Even though, if you asked the average blue-collar worker in the United States what sorts of policies they wanted, you would likely get a mix of economic interventionism and social conservatism similar to what our segment of the left-conservative blogosphere advocates (and that has been borne out by empirical study, as here, on page 24 - confusingly, they use 'economic liberal' to mean interventionist: http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/presentations/redbluetalkubc.pdf), the apostles of capitalism have been experts in claiming to speak FOR the American worker (while at the same time making it so they are unable to speak with their own voices).

    Anyway, as always, thanks for commenting; and you also keep up the good writing!