Matthew Yglesias had an uncharacteristically weird post yesterday on the #iranelections uprising as part of the old “end of history” thesis:
The geographical scope in which Shi’a Islamism and velayat-e faqih could possibly become the dominant form of government is obviously pretty limited because there aren’t that many Shia Muslims in the world. But despite that limit the Islamic Revolution represented the only real example I think you could come up with of a true ideological alternative to liberal democracy in the world. And part of what we’ve seen over the past several weeks is the collapse of that alternative.
I don’t understand where China is supposed to sit in this narrative. Clearly, the Chinese model of a dominant ruling party which essentially professionalizes the business of government and hands it over to a self-selecting and to some extent meritocratic elite, while dramatically restricting the ability of the populace to participate in politics and limiting freedom of expression and assembly in order to ensure stability, is an “alternative” to the liberal democratic model. And it is, so far, a quite successful alternative.
What Yglesias might be saying is that the Chinese model is not an “ideological alternative” because the actual structure of the regime is not determined by a clearly articulated ideology. The supposed ideology the regime embraces, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist stuff, is (on this view) not actually believed by anyone, while the real rationale that structures the political system is only explicitly stated in analyses by foreign observers, not by the regime itself. But I think this view, if it is the view Yglesias takes, is wrong. The philosophy that undergirds the structure of the Chinese regime is part of a millennia-old Confucian tradition in much the same way that liberal democracy partakes of the millennia-old Greek tradition. This philosophy has absorbed Marxism in much the mushy and indeterminate way that Buddhism was folded into a Confucian tradition, after temporarily becoming the official state ideology in the Tang dynasty.
The Chinese philosophy of governance is hard to understand and encapsulate for Westerners in large measure because the Confucian tradition of writing and argument is quite dissimilar from the Western tradition, and doesn’t involve as much rigid logical elaboration, so we often can’t figure out what they’re saying. But the underlying precepts are quite consistent and come up over and over when one gets into political arguments. One might argue that because it’s so deeply embedded in Chinese or East Asian culture, this model of governance is not exportable (beyond East Asia, anyway) and thus doesn’t represent an “ideological alternative”. But I think this isn’t quite true, either. There are elements of the Chinese approach to governance that can be embraced by many countries. I’ve heard Ethiopians say that their government seems to be trying to reshape its structure into a Chinese-style single-party mandarinate, under the influence of Chinese success. And, of course, liberal democracy is deeply imbricated in a Western European cultural inheritance and has for this reason been very difficult for many non-European countries to embrace.
In fact, the Iranian political model might be described as a variant of the Chinese one, with the mullahs and the Guardian Council as the moral/ideological “parallel structure”, instead of the Communist Party. (Remember that the Iranian revolution was a late-70s anti-colonialist revolution with plenty of Marxist participation.) The weakness of the Iranian system is probably that because of its fundamentalist religious character, it is proving less adaptable to consumerist capitalism, feminism, and other forms of social change than the Communist Chinese system. Then again, the Iranian problem might simply be that Iran suffers from a resource curse, while China doesn’t.
But the main point is that I think the Chinese ideological challenge to liberal democracy is pretty strong. Let’s take an example. Broadly speaking, Western liberal democracy takes the view that individuals are the best judges of their own interests, and that a society that leaves them to pursue those interests will mostly arrive at greater wealth and happiness for everyone. Confucian political systems take the view that individuals, left to themselves, will engage in destructive feuds and be seduced by charlatans into ruinous schemes, and that every society needs a well-educated class of wise men who have a solemn responsibility to protect harmony and the general welfare. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which of these views seems more plausible relevant?
That’s a pretty strong ideological challenge, no?
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