March 7th, 2012
03:06 PM ET

The age of authoritarian democracy

Editor's Note: Sergei A. Karaganov is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Affairs at Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics. For more, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter

By Sergei A. Karaganov, Project Syndicate

The world is currently being shaken by tectonic changes almost too numerous to count: the ongoing economic crisis is accelerating the degradation of international governance and supranational institutions, and both are occurring alongside a massive shift of economic and political power to Asia. Less than a quarter-century after Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history,” we seem to have arrived at the dawn of a new age of social and geopolitical upheaval.

Dramatically, the Arab world has been swept by a revolutionary spring, though one that is rapidly becoming a chilly winter. Indeed, for the most part, the new regimes are combining the old authoritarianism with Islamism, resulting in further social stagnation, resentment, and instability.

Even more remarkable, however, are the social (and antisocial) grassroots demonstrations that are mushrooming in affluent Western societies. These protests have two major causes.

First, social inequality has grown unabated in the West over the last quarter-century, owing in part to the disappearance of the Soviet Union and, with it, the threat of expansionist communism. The specter of revolution had forced Western elites to use the power of the state to redistribute wealth and nurture the growth of loyal middle classes. But, when communism collapsed in its Eurasian heartland, the West’s rich, believing that they had nothing more to fear, pressed to roll back the welfare state, causing inequality to rise rapidly. This was tolerable as long as the overall pie was expanding, but the global financial crisis in 2008 ended that.

Second, over the past 15 years, hundreds of millions of jobs shifted to Asia, which offered inexpensive and often highly skilled labor. The West, euphoric from its victory over communism and its seemingly unstoppable economic growth, failed to implement necessary structural reforms (Germany and Sweden were rare exceptions). Instead, Western prosperity relied increasingly on debt.

But the economic crisis has made it impossible to maintain a good life on borrowed money. Americans and Europeans are beginning to understand that neither they, nor their children, can assume that they will become wealthier over time.

Governments now face the difficult task of implementing reforms that will hit the majority of voters hardest. In the meantime, the minority that has benefited financially over the past two decades is unlikely to give up its advantages without a fight.

All of this cannot fail but to weaken Western democracy’s allure in countries like Russia, where, unlike in the West or to a large extent the Arab world, those who are organizing the massive demonstrations against the government belong to the economic elite. Theirs is a movement of political reform – demanding more freedom and government accountability – not of social protest, at least not yet.

A few years ago, it was fashionable to worry about the challenge that authoritarian-style capitalism (for example, in China, Singapore, Malaysia, or Russia) presented to Western democratic capitalism. Today, the problem is not only economic.

Western capitalism’s model of a society based on near-universal affluence and liberal democracy looks increasingly ineffective compared to the competition. Authoritarian countries’ middle classes may push their leaders toward greater democracy, as in Russia, but Western democracies will also likely become more authoritarian.

Indeed, measured against today’s standards, Charles De Gaulle, Winston Churchill, and Dwight Eisenhower were comparatively authoritarian leaders. The West will have to re-adopt such an approach, or risk losing out globally as its ultra-right and ultra-left political forces consolidate their positions and its middle classes begin to dissolve.

We must find ways to prevent the political polarization that gave rise to totalitarian systems – communist and fascist – in the twentieth century. Fortunately, this is possible. Communism and fascism were born and took root in societies demoralized by war, which is why all steps should be taken now to prevent the outbreak of war.

This is becoming particularly relevant today, as the smell of war hangs over Iran. Israel, which is facing a surge of hostile sentiment among its neighbors in the wake of their “democratic” upheavals, is not the only interested party. Many people in the advanced countries, and even some in Russia, look increasingly supportive of a war with Iran, despite – or perhaps owing to – the need to address the ongoing global economic crisis and failure of international governance.

At the same time, huge opportunities beckon in times of far-reaching change. Billions of people in Asia have extricated themselves from poverty. New markets and spheres for applying one’s intellect, education, and talents are appearing constantly. The world’s power centers are beginning to counterbalance each other, undermining hegemonic ambitions and heralding a creative instability based on genuine multipolarity, with people gaining greater freedom to define their fate in the global arena.

Paradoxically, today’s global changes and challenges offer the potential for both peaceful coexistence and violent conflict. Whether fortunately or not, it is up to us – alone – to determine which future it will be.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Sergei A. Karaganov.

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Topics: Global • Ideas

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. George Patton

    That's what we have here in the U.S. as the MIC(military-industrial-complex) runs things in Washington these days!

    March 7, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  2. Babeouf

    Capitalism offers humans the sort of peaceful coexistence enjoyed by Dinosaurs everywhere, Your just being silly if you think peaceful coexistence can stop the externalities of the Capitalist process exterminating any species that sticks with class hierarchies after the invention of the steam engine. Grow up for gods sake.

    March 7, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  3. Lee

    New Threat of Democracy . But it is Domestic threat within Democracy that change the shape of traditional Liberal Democracy . Well written . Thanks you so much !

    March 7, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Reply
  4. Sir William

    A supurb article. Embarassed I never thought of things in the same way until now.

    March 7, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Reply
  5. John

    Interesting historical analysis, but the author doesn't really explain what he means by "authoritarian democracy" or the ways in which it would truly save the west. He pretty much says we have to adopt this as a method of government or, look out! Nazi's and Commies!

    March 8, 2012 at 12:44 am | Reply
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      April 2, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  6. Mr Jentz

    The author completely left out a major source of rising (internal) tension in the West: multiculturalism.

    March 8, 2012 at 4:29 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Multiculturism is not a threat per se! It's about the efforts of the actors from different cultural backgrounds to integrate, tolerate and communicate with one other.

      March 9, 2012 at 3:16 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    The author has made a huge mistake by generalising the situation in Europe – out of an Russian point of view and exaggerating the role the former Soviet Union had played in Western Europe. Despite the existence of the E.U., its member states each has its particularities, faces different challenges and still conducts – to large extent – its economic and political policies. The social inequality is not everywhere the same. The rich in the West had never feared for a revolution and they don't usually behave like the noveau riche of the emerging economies.
    Yes, in some countries in Europe the welfare state had been fiananced by borrowed money. Now the welfare system collapses, not that the rich "pressed to (it) roll back", because of a long period of complacency of an ageing population, stagnation of growth, dwindling revenues etc.

    March 8, 2012 at 5:27 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      please read: "pressed to roll (it) back", but because of the globalisation of our economy, a long period of complacency of an ageing population...................

      March 8, 2012 at 5:31 am | Reply
    • JH

      j. von hettling good response. The article generalizes too much providing little analysis of the past events to which it refers to and little insgiht into what the author means by totalitarian democracy. The indebtedness of several (if not most) western european countries is a result of about 60 years of socialist welfare state – a skip, hop and jump to central planning communism leading to totalitarianism. And the European Union and the European Commission are working very hard to achieve the centralization they desire. I watch in amazement the rhetoric in the american politics comming from both the left and the right (more from the left) rooted deeply in populistic fervor pointing to class unfairness and turning the discussion into class warfare. Class warfare is exactly the principle on which the communists took ground a century ago and mushroomed. I lived through the consequences of such class warfare rhetoric and fervor for many years, and it is not something desirable.

      March 9, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  8. rightospeak

    A very good global analysis- a very honest appraisal. The U.S. is moving towards the totalitarian model and the near future does not look good for the average American. I would like to add that the Globalist Agenda of creating E.U. with central planning and social engineering, similar to the Soviet model , is about to fail. Greece will default soon , sending shock waves through the financial system. The indebteness of E.U. contries may bring about political changes.

    March 8, 2012 at 11:17 am | Reply
    • AlexShch

      US is not moving toward totalitarian model. US is moving toward political impotence, deadlock, mediocracy, and basic inability to identify and solve its own problems. Totalitarian model implies existence of a personality who is supported (at least initially) by the overwhelming majority of people, who is talented enough, who is capable, and who does not afraid to take actions which is some instances may be considered by some as unpopular. The kind of natural leader.

      There is no such personality in US right now. Nor on the horizon.

      At best (I hope) US will be better off through dialog worked out by few open-minded people in the Congress (from both parties) who can leave behind their rhetoric and forget about future elections for the time being.

      March 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
      • rightospeak

        The loss of recent freedoms in our country indicate to me, Alex, a move in the totalitarian direction. The propaganda of our media and censorship exists similar to what I experienced under Communism – and we had 'chosen" leaders then. A leader may be behind the scenes at this moment or currently 'chosen' one, Obama, which follows the Globalist and the 1% Agenda , countrary to what he promised. The circus that we see in Washington ,D.C. is a show, both parties serve the same master, to make us think that we live in a Democracy. The Greeks did find out it is not the case. The International bankers rule and the fact that our Wall Street crooks are not behind bars is the proof.

        March 8, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
      • AlexShch

        Actually I have some sympathy to the current house speaker John Boehner and still somewhat to Pres. Obama, so it is not entirely helpless.

        March 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
      • Clay

        Really, how about giving the government the power to detain US citizens without a trial? How about 50,000 SWAT raids a year? How about 2.3 million Americans in prison? How about crushing the unions? On and on...

        March 9, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  9. Travis

    The problem is that the all powerful MIC(military-industrial-complex) in Washington runs almost everything in Washington D.C. these days, Alex and rightospeak. The international bankers and the Wall Street C.E.O.s work for the MIC as well as the White House and most members of Congress!

    March 8, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  10. AlexShch

    The article is plain garbage pretending to be intellectual and should be dismissed entirely.

    The middle sentence from the third paragraph from the end reads: "...Many people in the advanced countries, and even some in Russia, look increasingly supportive of a war with Iran, despite..." - I wonder what kind of controlled substance Sergey Karaganov smoked recently.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Indeed, I wouldn't agree more! It was a load of rubbish!

      March 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
    • Clay

      Have you heard the Republicans rattling their sabers?

      March 9, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
  11. 4commonsensenow

    put it on narrator, top speed,top pitch, record it, play it backwards at minimum speed,minimum pitch and please tell me what it says.

    March 8, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Reply
  12. 4commonsensenow

    i thought it sounded like a stock tip

    March 8, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Reply

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