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Paul Buchanan: The Return To Dictatorship

The Return To Dictatorship

By Paul G. Buchanan

Around a decade ago two proclamations were made by prominent US scholars: the demise of the Soviet bloc had brought about ''the end of history'' in which a ''third wave'' of democratization would result in the extension of liberal democracy, or at least democratic capitalism, throughout the world. Although it could be modified along the margins, it was held that the combination of electoral mechanisms for political selection and market steerage of national, regional and global economies would prove an irresistible combination for populations hungry for freedom of voice and material opportunity.

Today it is clear that the wave has crested, and history has begun to repeat as dictatorial farce, if not tragedy. The irony is that it is the countries in which liberal democracy was, and continues to be the most evangelically championed that have pushed the return to authoritarianism. The reason for this can be distilled in three phrases: 9/11, neo-liberalism, and the quest for stability.

By the end of the 1990s it was clear that the adoption of electoral mechanisms of political contestation and market-driven economics was not all that it was made out to be. In many countries elections were manipulated, demagogic appeals flourished, campaign promises were continually broken, and popular hopes for effective representation betrayed in the elite stampede to secure the spoils of governmental authority. Those spoils were derived from the opening of national markets to foreign competition and sale of state enterprises under so-called “neoliberal” macroeconomic doctrines. These extolled the virtues of free trade amid increasingly market-oriented national markets that were to move, with encouragement from the international financial community, from comparative to competitive advantage by emphasizing selected value-added production to balance traditional dependence on primary goods or labour intensive enterprises. This would occur regardless of market size or national insertion in the global commodity chain. But there was a catch.

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Be it in the form of government regulating authority, or in the guise of state managers turned auctioneers of public enterprises, those who held public office in the 1990s served as the hinge on the door of national market opening. This was true for Argentina as it was for Russia, as evident in Poland as it was in Peru, as prevalent in Chile as it was in the Czech Republic, and as nearly nefarious in New Zealand as it was in Nicaragua. As both brokers and conduits for international investment, those charged with the sell-off could personally enrich themselves as the public sector was dismantled. In many countries, as popular desperation and protest increased against the elimination or privatization of social services, elected governments used public disorder to re-assert security legislation carried over from previous dictatorships. The result has been called “electoral authoritarianism,” in which market forces and voting procedures substitute for the whole-scale repression of yore, and in which survivalist alienation becomes the cultural characteristic of the disenchanted masses.

The exponential rise in public and private corruption that resulted, coupled with governmental adherence to foreign policy prescriptions indifferent to the immediate needs of the global majority, led to widening income disparities, worsening socio-economic and health indicators, mass discontent, rising crime rates, and increased poverty throughout the developing world. Meanwhile, in the advanced capitalist world, the politics of avarice and hypocrisy turned into an elite art form, culminating in the 2000 US presidential election fiasco and the various corporate scandals that continue to reverberate to this day. At the center of the democratic capitalist world the very notions of voice and franchise have been bankrupted by special interests and corporate influence. In the developing world the rise of electoral democracy did not bring anything close to freedom and material opportunity for the masses. To the contrary, things got worse for the many while obscene wealth was accumulated by the few. In the end the turn to market democracy only proved true Lenin’s adage that it was “capitalism’s best possible political shell.” Now that shell has begun to crack. What dealt the final blow was 9/11.

From that date on, for all the talk by the Bush and Blair administrations, the emphasis turned away from democratization and free markets, and towards political stability. To be sure, rhetorical championing of the virtues of open, representative elections and free enterprise continues as the mantra of the day. But no one should be deluded to think that if Islamic fundamentalists were to win power in free elections in places like Algeria (once again) Pakistan or Indonesia, the results would be allowed to stand (assuming open elections would be allowed to be held, which they are not in all three countries). No one should be deluded to think that in an age of transantionalised conglomerated production, hostile take-overs, mega-mergers, and oligopolistic control of mass media, that the “invisible hand” of the market clears free of insider trading and political backroom deals.

What matters most, regardless of the ethics involved, is stability and predictability. Uncertainty is the enemy, both political and economic. What makes that ironic is that democracy, as a system of competitive elections based upon the individual secret vote, is supposed to be institutionalized uncertainty in its highest form (since outcomes are not known when the vote is held), as the linchpin of free societies. For their part, stock markets are supposed to be about calculated risk-taking in a context of incomplete information. Yet in the current geopolitical climate, neither is allowed to fully obtain.

To a great extent this represents a return to the realist tenets that traditionally underpinned the foreign policy of the West. What matters most is not human rights, international justice, transparency or the preferred way in which sovereign states internally order their domestic affairs. What matters is international stability. What is important is that which brings peace, at least for the short term. And what brings peace and stability most quickly, at least if it is construed as the absence of dissidence and political violence, are authoritarian regimes. That is because authoritarians are dedicated to bringing certainty to the political landscape: the certainty of rank and privilege, of control, of hierarchy and adherence to prescribed social and economic norms.

In that measure the US and its allies in the war on terror have risen to the bait thrown by the architects of al-Qaeda’s global strategy. Whether it be the suppression of US constitutional guarantees under the Patriot Act, whole-scale round-ups of Muslim without charge in the UK and Spain, human rights abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, or in the indefinite detention of political asylum-seekers in several Western nations such as Australia, the bastions of liberal democracy no longer are so. In parallel, as terrorist provocations extend throughout the globe, the West countenances, among many other variations on the dictatorial theme, the increasing authoritarianism of Valdimir Putnin in Russia, the military authoritarianism of Parvaz Musharraf in Pakistan, the Byzantine authoritarianism of the House of Saud, and the bizarre personality cult of Turkmenbashi that passes for a government in resource-rich Turkmenestan. The Bush administration looks the other way as the Sharon government wages war, with US military equipment and financial support, on the Palestinian population in response to the terrorist attacks of a violent minority. European governments play loose with the truth when orchestrating political trials against dissidents and exiles from pro-Western Arab dictatorships like Algeria and Morocco. The West in general remains silent about the practices of “friendly” authoritarians in Egypt, Malaysia and Singapore who use “controlled” elections as political facades. Neo-populist demagogues surface as an alternative to US or UK puppets in places like Venezuela and Zimbabwe, and though more popular than the likes of Musharraf, they offer little more than vitriol, bombast and selective repression as the panaceas for their countries.

Of course, the US lambastes the Iranians and North Koreans as the remaining dyad of the “axis of evil,” and trumpets its forced removal of Saddam Hussein as a triumph of freedom over “evil-doers.” Needless to say, that has increased the urgency with which both of these countries seek to develop nuclear weapons in order to deter what they see as an inevitable pre-emptive attack on the part of the US (which may also help explain why Iran is actively supporting the Shiia insurgency in Iraq). For domestic political reasons, the US continues to bully Cuba in spite of majority support for the paleo-Stanlinist regime on the island, the inevitability of its change, and broad international opposition to the US campaign against it. If anything, Fidel Castro continues his reign mostly because the US wants him gone, something that curries popular support for him both at home as well as throughout Latin America.

None of this portends well for the future of democracy as a political form. It has been corrupted in much of the advanced capitalist world, it has taken no more than shallow root in much of the developing world, it has been promoted hypocritically in order to advance less chivalrous strategic interests and to cover less than transparent government practices, and it has been pushed aside on the frontlines of the War on Terror. Thus if today is considered to be an era in which terrorism prevails, then it surely will have a sequel called the age of dictatorship. For legitimate proponents of democracy—and there still are many—that is a sobering prospect. Because in the end, the problem is mostly Western in the making.


Paul G. Buchanan is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Lisbon. He is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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