Democracy Is a Bad Winner
Peter Thiel is teaching a new course this winter quarter at Stanford on “Sovereignty and the Limits of Globalisation and Technology” a theme—as you can tell from my reading list and latest posts—which is also a lot on my mind lately. The syllabus, and in particular the suggested readings, look great, and so I decided to read along and write down my reflections. This is the first post.
The first topic addressed in the course is the contrast between the promise—or rather “prophecy”—of globalisation and its actual history. We start in 1989 with the reading of Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay on the end of history, and we are then presented with a list of setbacks and crises culminating in today’s retreat of globalisation (a retreat that, to be fair, is still more rhetorical than factual). We are not asked to discuss the crisis itself—we assume we are deep into one—but rather to reflect on a meta-question: “Were prophecies of success related to this history of failure?”
This question allows us to take a step back from the commentary of current events and focus instead on the narrative we create around them. Just as the observer influences the experiment, so our understanding of history influences how history unfolds. As I will shortly explain, I suspect yesterday’s optimism has a lot to do with today’s troubles.
The existence of a thread tying together the “victory” of western liberalism in 1989, the resulting optimism for the future, and the current crisis becomes evident in the second suggested reading, the provocatively titled “Has the West Lost it?” by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani. In the book, Mahbubani paints a near-utopian picture of a world which has largely accepted liberalism and capitalism as its universal doctrines, a world where—in his own words—“the human condition has never been better”. What is putting this utopia at risk, however, is the way the West has reacted to it.
Mahbubani considers the rise of the East as a direct and positive consequence of the newly established global order. As more countries in the developing world, including giants like India and China, joined the ideological consensus, their participation as equal actors in the global marketplace soon followed. This, in turn, has led to their incredible economic journey and the liberation of hundreds of millions of people from poverty. Under these circumstances, however, it would have been silly to think that the overall balance of power could remain the same. And in fact, it didn’t.
According to Mahbubani: “a cycle of Western domination of the world is coming to a natural end” but this in itself is only something we should celebrate. The issue, rather, is that “no major Western figure has had the courage” to acknowledge it. Western elites, he continues, are guilty of negligence for assuming that things would remain the same as before and for not being transparent with their own people, especially with regards to the “inevitable ‘creative destruction’ that flowed from China’s admission into the WTO in 2001.”1
If globalisation is now under attack—especially in the West—it is not because it didn’t deliver on its promise, but because it did.
The idea of a crisis born out of victory, and the metaphor of an overconfident boxer lowering his guard, can also help us understand the current mood within most Western democracies. To do that, however, I have to take a step aside from Thiel’s course and talk about another book, The Democracy of Narcissism by the Italian historian Giovanni Orsina (unfortunately not yet translated into English).
Orsina takes the reader through a rather pessimistic journey into the nature of democracy. I can summarise it like this: together with its great promises—and probably because of it—democracy carries within itself the seeds of its undoing. Unless it is anchored into an external limiting factor, creating a ceiling to the demands of the democratic individual, democracy is destined to generate dissatisfaction and ultimately to cause its rejection.
As cited by Orsina, both Tocqueville, in the early days of the modern democratic experience, and, later on, the Dutch historian Huizinga, had already reached a similar conclusion. Tocqueville saw the necessary limiting factor in religion. He doubted whether man could “ever support at the same time complete religious independence and entire political freedom” and concluded that “if faith be wanting in him, he must be subject; and if he be free, he must believe.” Without mentioning religion, Huizinga talked more generally about a “guiding principle”, an idea or a goal, as the necessary element for the establishment of a “civilisation” as opposed to an agglomeration of individuals.
We can find a something similar in Thiel’s well-known 2x2 matrix of determinate/indeterminate and optimistic/pessimistic futures. In his exposition of the matrix, Thiel makes no secret of his preference for a society that is both determinate and optimistic. Indeterminacy, in particular, is to be avoided. The possibility itself of maintaining for a prolonged period a condition of indeterminate optimism is challenged: without a strong vision, and without the will to achieve it, a society is unable to create its own luck, and it is destined to fall into indeterminate pessimism, “the worst of all worlds.”
This fundamental instability of democratic societies, regardless of what causes it, means that democracy can never be a point of arrival but has to remain an aspiration, a perpetual work-in-progress, preferably anchored in and limited by some external principle. If we accept such a premise, nothing can be more dangerous for a democratic society than believing that the job is done. Nothing can be more deceiving than thinking that the future is now realised and that there isn’t anything left to fight for.
It is here that Fukuyama misses the point. The fall of an external enemy is not sufficient to proclaim victory. The real enemy, as Christopher Lasch wrote just two years after “The End of History” was published, is internal: “the danger for democracy comes less from totalitarian or collectivist movements abroad than from the erosion of its psychological, cultural, and spiritual foundations from within.” Acting reflexively on itself, Fukuyama’s prophecy determines its own failure.
The main question now becomes what’s next. If the prophecy has failed, do we have any chance of reviving its dream? Are we facing an unstoppable decline or is this merely a stage, a setback on a journey that can soon continue?
Orsina sees four main possibilities, to which he assigns different probabilities of success. We can try to overlay them on Thiel’s 2x2 and see where this takes us. The first way out of the current crisis relies on a strong “anthropological optimism”. Essentially, it puts its faith in humanity’s ability to escape the intrinsic flaw of democracy we have just described. Men and women of the future will not require an external anchor or any limiting factor to live within a democratic society. It is the vision of a collection of “sovereign individuals” living peacefully side by side, their interaction coordinated not by an overall principle but, perhaps, by some impersonal incentive mechanism. In Thiel’s terms, this means thriving in a future of indeterminate optimism.
The second option is a rather gloomy one. It sees a future catastrophe as the only possible source of moral renewal, facilitating the creation of a strong new collective vision. This is basically what happened in Europe and the U.S. after WWII and what gave us the post-war world we now seem to be missing so much. The equivalent of this option in the 2x2 is different for Europe and the U.S. Initially, at least, Europe determinate view on the future was driven more by pessimism2—the fear of falling back into the tragedy of the war—than by optimism, as it was instead the case for the United States.
There is then the hope of many conservatives who wish we could just go back to the ’60s. I find it difficult to imagine how this could happen.
Finally, there is option four, which I will call the “survival” option. It consists of humanity procrastinating in a semi-permanent state of crisis without ever tipping into catastrophe. In a very pragmatic way, it consists of learning how to deal with conflicts and crises. It’s neither optimistic nor pessimistic, and it is determinate in its being indeterminate.
As I was thinking about this, I remembered this quote from Bernard Crick3: “The moral consensus of a free state is not something mysteriously prior or above politics: it is the activity (the civilising activity) of politics itself.”
Politics is the art of dealing with conflicts. Practising this art, for how painful it may be, is our only way to get closer to—but never touch—our shiny prophecies of a peaceful future. With this in mind, we should be happy if history is indeed coming back.
Of course we don’t know what would have happened had the leaders of the West adopted a more realist stance to globalisation. Mahbubani calls for a Macchiavellian approach, but that might as well have resulted in China not joining the WTO and a lot of the successes cited by Mahbubani not happened. The question of whether world commerce is, at least in the short term, a zero-sum or positive-sum game is still unanswered. ↩
The line between optimism and pessimism if often thinner than it may seem. Tocqueville’s “faith” works as a limit because it reminds free citizens that the end goal is not meant to be part of this world. In a similar way, Sorel praised “heroic pessimism” which he saw as a the natural understanding of our “weaknesses” and thus an antidote against the growing impatience for progress. ↩
As quoted by Albert Hirschmann in his essay on “Social Conflicts as Pillars of Democratic Market Society”. ↩