Democracy or dictatorship: A meaningless distinction
If there was ever a meaningful distinction between authoritarian and democratic regimes, it no longer exists in the 21st century; or, at least, it has been lost in the shadow of modern technology.
The concern over dictatorship
There has been, over the past few years, much discussion in the Western media of the threat of dictatorship, and its potential to turn humanity’s single most glorious invention—liberal democracy—into ash. Though politicians have, for as long as most of us can remember, frequently faced accusations of “fascism” or “Bolshevism” (or, since 2001, “Islamism”) from their most fervent opponents, the election of Donald Trump and the rising popularity of right-wing populist and nationalist groups in Europe led a significant number of critics to opine, in mainstream publications like the New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, and The Economist, that democracy was in trouble. The Washington Post changed its slogan to “Democracy dies in darkness” in 2017, and earlier this year national security expert Joshua A. Geltzer came forward warning of the possibility that the president may not peacefully cede power if he loses in 2020. Their fears do not seem entirely ungrounded, given how the work of right-wing groups has shifted Hungary and Poland toward an authoritarian—or at the very least illiberal—mode of governance. Moreover, the global backdrop to this regional tumult does not look flattering. The (U.S.-backed) fight for democracy in Syria is failing, the same way it has in Iraq . Turkey, a NATO member and important Middle Eastern power, has turned authoritarian, and the power and influence of dictatorships like Russia, China, and Iran continues to grow .
Democracy may live indefinitely, or it may slowly morph into dictatorship. But when talking about the issue of human freedom, the preservation of democracy is irrelevant. Understandably, this assertion will alarm almost anyone who has grown up in a democracy and had the chance to attend a rally, or to vote for the candidate they feel best embodies their values, or to openly insult their country’s leader—all without violent retribution. If citizens may not be directly involved in every decision their governments, they at least have recourse in the form of elections, where they may oust leaders who they feel have become complacent and replace them with leaders who promise some form of change. It seems undeniable, from this perspective, that an American bank teller is freer than a North Korean tour guide, that a Belgian journalist or politician has greater space to dream than her Russian counterpart, that what a Cuban bureaucrat and a Saudi mother and a student at the University of Hong Kong each need is democracy and all the rights that we understand as inherent to it. After all, the ability to affect the way society is “run” seems to lend some significant power to individuals, preventing their lives from reeling and convulsing at the will of an absolute state.
But this view is too narrow in its considerations; it looks so closely at government and its institutions that it misses the force that all post-modern civilization obeys: technology. The demands of technological networks like agribusiness, transportation, manufacturing, medicine, and information processing—all of which are necessary for human survival in the 21st century—have placed such great control on human life that the “freedoms” exclusive to those living in democracies are of minimal ultimate importance. When we say “freedoms” we refer to the common criteria that organizations like Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit use to identify democracies, including: “free-and-fair” elections (for times’ sake, we will accept the use of these two adjectives in this context); freedoms of expression, assembly, association, education, and religion; access to political institutions free or mostly free of corruption; and a pluralistic political culture . The problem with this conception of freedom is that the decision-power of elections is very limited in scope, and that, to even be granted the other soft “freedoms” listed, one must relinquish a significant degree of autonomy (in ways that will be described later). When regarded in the larger context of our current global society, democratic rights appear to be nothing more than decoration.
To illustrate this point, we will address a two-part question: what on a large societal scale changes after democratic processes are fulfilled, and what remains the same?
What power does democracy gives its citizens?
We will begin with the first part. When casting their votes at the local, regional, national, or supranational level, citizens of a democracy are selecting among policies that deal with three things: how the government regulates and subsidizes different activities (from ones as straightforward as garbage collection to more complex ones like healthcare) , how it distributes its revenue among the citizenry (such as by allocating more money to social programs or increasing taxes), and how it will interact with other sovereign entities (e.g. increasing tariffs on goods from a certain country, or signing defense treaties).
By casting their vote, citizens may declare that they prefer their tax money to go to improving schools rather than to military defense. They may introduce new laws that force private businesses to pay their workers more, or get rid of such regulations. They may decide that a person must be of a certain age to buy a certain product, or that no one should be permitted to buy that product at all. Certain organizations may shut down or be reorganized, people may move or change their priorities, a certain pattern of violence or inequality may be reduced in a particular area—or increased—and fewer immigrants may enter the country. Young men and women may be sent to foreign lands to fight, or some may come back home from the same occupation. Some might have to get an extra job, while others can breathe a sigh of relief after putting in their two weeks’ notice. Gas prices may go up, and people might die who would have lived otherwise. If any significant number of people feel disenfranchised or mistreated, they can voice their concerns through peaceful protest or by “spreading the word.” Once again, from a perspective that values democracy, these freedoms seem to seriously distinguish the lives of those living in democracies from those living in dictatorships; all of the above-mentioned changes have visible impacts at the individual and community level, and the latter citizens lack much or most of the power to participate in these kinds of decisions. For example, the main factor sparking the civil war in Syria was the destabilizing effect of Assad’s economic liberalization—realized by autocratic prerogative. Assad’s policies led to a drought that slowly eroded the nation’s agricultural sector, and also eliminated many of the food and fuel subsidies that poor families depended upon for survival, forcing millions to move into the city. This led to widespread social tension and unrest, which left certain factions feeling that violent uprising was the only tenable course of action . Could one not argue that, had Syria’s leadership been democratically elected, and thus at the mercy of the ballot box, it might have been able to craft solutions to handle the resentment and prevent the nation from being plunged in a bloody war, or never had implemented the destabilizing policies to begin with? One certainly could. The initiatives implemented by FDR in response to the Great Depression, and the three re-elections they earned him, are certainly an example where this argument rings true. However, that the autonomy and well-being of people should be at the mercy of government or market forces is less a credit to democracy than it is an indictment of post-modern civilization. Which brings us to the second part of the question.
Regardless of what leader takes office, or what cuts she makes to social spending, or how many opportunities she extends, we can be 99% certain that the lives of people in the United Kingdom, or Norway, or Australia, or South Korea will remain fundamentally the same. As would the lives of those in Russia, or Singapore, or Iran, if they suddenly became democracies through revolution or reform or a miracle. Students of political science know that the most common definition of politics, as laid out by scholar Harold Laswell, is “who gets what, when, and how”. The implication of this is that the allocation of resources to citizens is in the hands of larger institutions, and that politics is the arena for deciding this allocation. As such, political decisions do change some of the details of distribution, but the questions decided are how the government and market will allocate resources. Whether people’s survival should depend upon these forces or not is not even part of the question.
Democracy or not, the citizens of the aforementioned countries will still have little to no control over these most basics needs; this lack of control shapes their lives in profound ways. To eat, they will still have to have money, or seek help from their government or charity. To get money, they will still have to work for other people. Because low-skilled jobs cannot provide a living wage, people will still have to dedicate their lives to some specialization or set of skills that will be beneficial to the high-tech economy, and of only indirect relevance to their survival. They will also need shelter in the form of a house or apartment, which will be financed by a significant portion of their income. Just like food and water, access to fuel is controlled by other sources, and in order to feed themselves and abide by the hygienic and behavioral norms that make them employable they will need quick, guaranteed access to all of these. One such behavioral norm they will have to conform to is the ownership and use of technology—particularly cell phones to communicate with their employers and private motor vehicles to arrive at work on time. If they do not have a motor vehicle, they will likely have to arrive by bicycle or public transport, giving them something else to plan their existence around. Not to mention that governments and private entities will still spend immense amounts of time and money making these citizens as docile and dependent as is necessary for post-modern society to function.
These citizens will still spend their childhood and adolescence in institutions that teach them to move from place to place and hour-to-hour at the direction of authority figures, to relieve themselves only with permission, to respect authority because it is authority—facing the prospect of banishment from the premises for disruption, disrespect, tardiness, and dress-code violations . The longest periods of banishment will be reserved for those who engage in acts of violence, even in self-defense. They will be taught to resolve these conflicts not between themselves but through administrators and other figures of authority. In the background, media and pop culture will, reinforce the veracity of several principal ideas: that economic and technological “development” are good; that the existing dominant institutions of society, state and/or private, are inherently neutral and that it is individuals and groups that make them good or bad; that violence is always to be abhorred except in certain specific instances (once again, with the focus placed on individuals and groups rather than institutions); that achievement and success are about how much one contributes to the functioning of post-modern society. Having been socialized by the same institutions as the rest of the population, the producers of mass media—journalists, screenwriters, pop stars, marketing agents, etc.—will consciously and unconsciously propagate these values, helping to instill respect for these institutions, or, at the very least, docility towards them. For children, the most powerful agent of socialization will remain the family . But even if a family is well-off enough to provide its children a private education, what power will it have if the parents continue to raise their children according to the values that post-modern society has seared into their brains? Furthermore, how does any student succeed in technological society without acting in accordance with the kind of values that are compatible with it?
With the exception of some nuances and differences and too minor to be discussed here (such as the notable degree of leisure and unemployment benefits afforded by the Nordic Model), these generalizations paint a mostly accurate picture of the institutional and psychological manipulation that the developed nations depend upon for survival—whether their political leaders are elected, or merely “elected.” Given the scope and inertia of these social controls, it is difficult to argue that democracy gives human beings any meaningful degree of freedom; perhaps it gave the Athenians a level of autonomy that the Spartans lacked, but their societies had fewer variables to deal with than ours do now. The needs of a society built upon modern technology necessitate the degree of control we have outlined previously, and as this technology advances, so will the need for control.
Technological progress is the greatest threat to human freedom
Historian and sociologist James R. Beniger argues that life necessitates control . Without control, living systems (like organisms and the societies they form) cannot process matter and energy, and thus cannot resist the natural movement of the universe toward breakdown and randomization (entropy). Control itself is made possible only by the processing and storage of information, because moving with purpose toward any goal requires that a living system be able to compare its current state with that future goal . This need for control first manifested itself in DNA, which Beniger calls “the most basic of all control technologies, in the figurative sense” . The next big advancement in information technology came about 100 million years ago, when certain organisms began to learn through imitation, giving birth to cultural programming . The third took place 3,000 years ago as civilizations like Egypt and Mesopotamia began to build bureaucratic organizations, allowing information processing to enter social structures . The next big innovation would not come until after the onset of, the Industrial Revolution, when something happened that must have been unfathomable to many people.
Before the Industrial Revolution, matter and energy were—at the fastest—processed at the speed of draft animals and wind or water mills . But the manufacturing processes that developed during the mid-18th century drastically accelerated the rate at which matter and energy could be processed, throwing society into a “crisis of control” . necessitating further advancements in information technology to manage this now incredibly swift rate of processing . Up until World War II, the dominant form of information technology remained bureaucracy, albeit in a much larger and powerful form assisted by a series of developments in the 19th and 20th centuries that included the telegraph, modern accounting methods, statistical decision theory, and systems analysis—all developing alongside transportation and manufacturing technologies like the railroad, the automobile, Ford’s assembly line, and interchangeable machine parts .
While these innovations did resolve the crisis, technological progress has obviously continued well into our century—particularly in the field of information processing, which came to be dominated by the computer as advances in microprocessing and mathematics snowballed in the 20th century ; because technology is used to sustain living systems, it ends up creating more niches for itself to fill by extending the processes that sustain life . This is why technology, as Beniger puts it, “appears autonomously to beget technology and […] innovations in matter and energy processing create the need for further innovation in information processing and communication” . Energy utilization, processing speeds, and control technology are so tightly linked, having evolved alongside one another, that an advance in one area will cause advances in the other ones, or at the very least make such advances possible .
Though the forward march of globalization and development has brought fewer and fewer tangible economic benefits as time goes on, it was at least true that, during the previous three centuries, the use and innovation of information-processing technologies led to increased economic returns . They increased the predictability of processes and flows, making the control of economic activities more reliable by through much more precise planning, scheduling, and coordination . This also strengthened the power of the state vis-à-vis other states, in addition to its own citizens . From a survival standpoint, political realists will no doubt see the irresistible incentive for governments—regardless of how democratic or autocratic they may be–to implement the latest control technologies.
The irony, of course, is that, as control technologies advanced after resolving the Industrial Revolution’s initial crisis and increasing how much information processing and communication society took part in, there became an increasing need for the technologies themselves to be controlled . Such need led to a hierarchy of specialization in factories, and later computerized control . It also made the areas of finance, insurance, and real-estate more important for the functioning of the economy, and made law and government even more important .
It seems only natural, then, that governments began to develop and/or implement methods to actively control individuals, such as income-tax collection, the fingerprinting of offenders (and computerized methods of identification), genetic testing, photo IDs, passports, vehicle registration, digital surveillance, and agencies to organize the information they (legally or illegally) collect through these methods . Without a way of controlling those information-based sectors of the economy—which themselves control the extraction, processing, and distribution of matter and energy, our extremely complex world order would not be an order at all; it would be a chaos . Thus, our era’s governments do not get to choose between “serving the will of the people” or following the prerogatives of dictators. Instead, they ultimately must act according to the needs of a high-tech economy (For a more detailed history of the evolution of control technology, see Beniger’s book The Control Revolution).
All of this is to say that the biggest threat to human autonomy is the advancement of technology, and not the evaporation of democracy. Critics who focus on dictatorship distract from this much realer threat to human freedom, helping to fill mainstream political discourse with an outdated issue that has even less relevance in the 21st century than it did at any other point in history. For now, with the exception of issues that pose a direct threat to democratic legitimacy or the world economy (e.g. Facebook and Google’s uses of data, and climate change), the question regarding technology and freedom lays outside the boundaries that global technological society has drawn for political discussion. But this is to be expected; its entry into mainstream parlance would threaten the order established by technology, by exposing the ways in which it holds human beings hostage. Besides, its institutions thrive on the vain belief that human laws can triumph over physical ones.
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