The first decade of the 21st century is over, one year behind schedule. Gone is the belief which dominated and defined the 2000s — that jihadist Islam posed the preeminent threat to the West.
Westerners have always tacitly understood that Muslim extremism is not, as communism once was, a rival form of governance that fundamentally challenges our own. But the sweeping economic failure of liberal internationalism is exacerbating a crisis of confidence in the Western political model — one which a new model of governance that rivals our own is poised to exploit.
The West is less at risk of imploding than it is of mimicking this rival political system. Fortunately, we have a chance — however fleeting — to save ourselves from its global allure. In breaking terror’s monopoly over our imagination, the threat of economic disaster will prove a blessing in disguise.
Distracted by Afghanistan, Iraq and al Qaeda, Westerners supposed that the spread of capitalism across Asia had to be relatively good news. Money and markets modernized, and modernity democratized. Alas, in China, Russia, Singapore, the Gulf states and elsewhere, a thoroughly modern but deeply anti-Western political order arose. Autocratic regimes supplied managed access to the material goods and services that democratic individuals sought.
Thinking of democratization politically, as the spread of our form of governance, blinds us to the seriousness and true character of the Asian challenge. Instead, consider the sociological view: Democratization is a global process of equalizing conditions that we can’t do much to accelerate or forestall. This spread of equality tends to destroy the intermediary institutions between the individual and the state, leaving people both more prone to a self-indulgent attitude and more prone to favor a regime powerful and authoritative enough to settle all disputes and arbitrate all questions of possession and meaning.
In such a society, there’s more choice and less freedom. All preferences are tolerated — even encouraged — so long as none disturb the total supremacy of the state and its ruling class. China is paradigmatic. The Party stands for little more than its own rule in perpetuity. The Internet is tightly censored, but not to restrict commercialism or enforce prudery. Gambling and prostitution are widespread. Millionaires and billionaires know they are absolutely equal to the lowliest peasant in their lack of liberty.
Variations on the model proliferate across Asia, but the themes are self-evident: much more sex, licit and illicit; newly minted oligarchs with great political power but no political freedom; systemic corruption and institutionalized crime; an official realm of regulation beyond which constant violations flourish. More decadence and more statism — fully contrary to the West’s great expectations.
Alarmingly, Westerners themselves are now liable to think of the Asian model as the wave of the future — just as many intellectuals and analysts began in the ’30s to believe that communism had “solved” the social and economic problems that hamstrung the West. The old habit of proclaiming republican democracy obsolete dies hard, and the mixture of individualism and statism that typifies the Asian model holds an allure for Westerners because it reinforces our prejudices at a time when we are afraid of the pain of returning to real political liberty.
After all, it was Thomas Hobbes who first proposed to the West that “commodious living” could be guaranteed only by an all-powerful Leviathan. Hobbes’ fear that faction and superstition would be ungovernable in democratic times finds hysterical contemporary voice in Thomas Friedman, for whom China is the “adult” in the room and America’s Tea Parties are like “Hezbollah” on a “suicide mission.”
Partisans of the republican model of democratic governance, Friedman claims, are “so lacking in any aspiration for American greatness” that they cannot understand how “our unique public-private partnerships across the generations” made America great.
Friedman is wrong about the wisdom but not the fact of corporatist dominance in both America and China. Here and there, public and private power is massively concentrated and intimately coupled.
But with the West suffering the consequences of a half-republican, half-corporatist form of governance, the temptation is to renounce the easiest half to abandon. Corporatism is far harder to root out than republicanism. As the economic crisis intensifies, Westerners are primed to imitate the Asian model in a desperate, disoriented effort to recover their diminishing sense of greatness.
But there were no corporations in Hobbes’ political model, and Hobbes was a master of the logic of equality. American liberals smartly attuned to that logic recognize that advanced democratization is deeply opposed to corporatist rule. In an influential Nation article on American political authority, Christopher Hayes argues that conservative anti-corporatism fails because it cannot account for the allure of big government — while liberal corporatism fails because instead of a direct “relationship between citizen and state” it creates “a mediated one.”
Corporatism permits corruption in unfree regimes, and it is corruption that allows them to supply and manage access to the pleasurable experiences and possessions that Western economies seem geared toward providing. But a liberal Hobbesian state where corrupt corporate interests have been wiped away with all other intermediary institutions is still in truth an unfree regime.
The corporatist half of the West’s hybrid form of governance is the one that must be abandoned. This will hurt. But Americans retain a habitual love of the intermediary institutions that can ease their pain as they restore the true source of their greatness.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.