Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fukuyama discovers Deleuze

Francis Fukuyama can be a thoughtful guy (The End of History screwed the pooch in spectacular fashion, but Trust was really interesting).  Here he reflects on the differences between governance in China and the US.

Nonetheless, the quality of Chinese government is higher than in Russia, Iran, or the other authoritarian regimes with which it is often lumped – precisely because Chinese rulers feel some degree of accountability towards their population. That accountability is not, of course, procedural; the authority of the Chinese Communist party is limited neither by a rule of law nor by democratic elections. But while its leaders limit public criticism, they do try to stay on top of popular discontents, and shift policy in response. They are most attentive to the urban middle class and powerful business interests that generate employment, but they respond to outrage over egregious cases of corruption or incompetence among lower-level party cadres too.

However, if the democratic, market-oriented model is to prevail, Americans need to own up to their own mistakes and misconceptions. Washington's foreign policy during the past decade was too militarised and unilateral, succeeding only in generating a self-defeating anti-Americanism. In economic policy, Reaganism long outlived its initial successes, producing only budget deficits, thoughtless tax-cutting and inadequate financial regulation.

These problems are to some extent being acknowledged and addressed. But there is a deeper problem with the American model that is nowhere close to being solved. China adapts quickly, making difficult decisions and implementing them effectively. Americans pride themselves of constitutional checks and balances, based on a political culture that distrusts centralised government. This system has ensured individual liberty and a vibrant private sector, but it has now become polarised and ideologically rigid. At present it shows little appetite for dealing with the long-term fiscal challenges the US faces. Democracy in America may have an inherent legitimacy that the Chinese system lacks, but it will not be much of a model to anyone if the government is divided against itself and cannot govern. During the 1989 Tiananmen protests, student demonstrators erected a model of the Statue of Liberty to symbolise their aspirations. Whether anyone in China would do the same at some future date will depend on how Americans address their problems in the present.

The praise of China's ability to turn on a dime is nothing new, even though this does not make it any less praiseworthy -- their ability to make things happen simply because they make good economic sense is sometimes awe inspiring to me; it represents a level of cohesion that seems laughably distant in the US.  

What's more interesting here is how the arch-theorist (/apologist) of liberal democracy has started to add in a practical element to his analysis.  Maybe the details matter and history isn't over. However the think tanks label it, the reality on the ground marches on.  Maybe, just maybe, Hegel is bunk.  Maybe it's the mechanism that moves the spirit, and not just spirit sovereign and absolute playing charades with the world.

Should we call this (implicit) new idea the Forest Gump theory of legitimacy: Democracy is as democracy does?  Should we finally admit the what we're really interested in is not some grand theory but in analyzing the precise mechanism by which power is constructed and continually reconstructed every time it is obeyed?  If there is more effective feedback to this mechanism in "authoritarian" China than in the "democratic" United States, should we ship the statue of liberty to Shenzen instead?  

The question is facetious of course, but the idea of evaluating the government on the basis of its ability to process and respond to information -- or better yet, ultimately on its ability to facilitate information processing systematically and generate a coherent, consistent, outcome -- is a good direction to move this debate in.  Thankfully, wikileaks has already opened up new terrain in the theory of computational governance.

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