So much for the end of history. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall gave rise to the idea that liberal capitalist democracy would carry the human race inexorably toward broad sunlit uplands, we are confronted with the ugly fact that culture outlasts politics.
The ideology of communism may have ended up on the ash heap of history like Nazism before it, but now Market Leninism is taking its place as a challenge to liberty in the 21st Century.
The fault lines reflect Cold War regions. Russia and China, along with some of their old satellite states, have traded Marx and Lenin for Market Leninism. The militaristic one-party state endures with varying degrees of electoral kabuki, but the nomenklatura now attracts global capital, swilling champagne in jet set nightclubs instead of behind dacha walls.
To some extent, this is a mark of the West’s Cold War victory. Even ex-communists recognize that capitalism – albeit a corrupt, crony, command-and-control version – is more effective at lifting people out of poverty than endless programs and slogans about the proletariat. This is helpful for holding on to power.
What’s insidious about this alternative to western governance is that it promises prosperity at the expense of individual freedom, dismissing democracy as ineffective.
For some citizens, the presence of spending money plus the narcotic of nationalism is enough to make this seem a fair trade. Outsiders are just asked to ignore the expansionist ambitions and gunboat diplomacy – accept the annexation of Crimea, never mention the occupation of Tibet – and they can enjoy their share of the spoils while staying at the local Four Seasons. It’s almost civilized.
Western democracies haven’t done ourselves great favors when it comes to advertising the comparative strength of our system lately. As the Economist detailed in its typically eloquent analysis of “What’s Gone Wrong With Democracy,” “Faith in democracy flares up in moments of triumph, such as the overthrow of unpopular regimes in Cairo or Kiev, only to sputter out once again ... And within the West, democracy has too often become associated with debt and dysfunction at home and overreach abroad.”
It does not help that a poisonous strain of hyper-partisanship has exaggerated domestic disagreements in the United States and undercut the idea of the loyal opposition, making “America's governance and policymaking…less stable, less effective, and less predictable” - in the infamous words of the S&P downgrade of the U.S. credit rating in 2011.
Self-governance now too often veers toward self-sabotage. Compromise is a dirty word in Congress. And when legislation does pass it its larded up by lobbyists. Some young people look at the constant attacks and lack of progress and decide they would rather try to effect change through culture than politics, at least possibly getting rich in the process. A degree of civic laziness starts to set in.
Consequently, our geopolitical competitors see us as weak when it comes to exercising collective will. What’s worse, some CEOs privately grouse that they would rather invest their capitol in one-party states, not only because of the potential rate of return, but also because they feel America’s political system is increasingly inefficient and chaotic when it comes to making long-term decisions.
We’ve heard these claims before. In the 1930s, the buzz was that liberal capitalist democracy was decadent and declining – that the pluralism and diversity of the USA was our greatest weakness because we could not reason together.
Demagogues always do well in economic downturns and ideologues argued that it took a Great Leader – a near-beer euphemism for dictator – to get things done. The mirror-image systems of communism and fascism promised to solve problems quickly through command and control. This was not simply the siren-song of extremism - it represented a failure of democratic governments at the time.
Of course, America and our allies ultimately proved those ideologues and opportunists wrong. When our back was at the wall, we proved that free and diverse people working together in a liberal capitalist democracy have strength that one party states cannot compete with.
And so it will be again. Our time is not as dire as the 1930s. A growing Chinese middle class will not ultimately abide by fundamental restrictions on individual freedom and ubiquitous technology makes it impossible for states to ultimately block out the rest of the world. Freedom will seep into the bedrock as we rediscover our backbone.
But in the intervening years, Market Leninist states offer a slick sales pitch that will seduce some short-sighted dupes into buying the moral equivalence argument. Dictators will line up to trade with Market Leninists rather than democracies, wielding slogans about cultural autonomy and non-judgment. Some corporatists will care more about profits than political freedom. The world will re-polarize while money flows into Swiss bank accounts. This is better than the Cold War when nuclear war loomed, but it is still sinister. It is still a challenge to liberty.
That’s why this is a testing time. If the West’s resolve wanes in the wake of Crimea, seduced by Russian economic influence, it will send a signal that might makes right. Simultaneously, western democracies must take the challenge of internal reform seriously. Yes, democracy can be messy and it requires constant recalibration, but it is always worth fighting for in the recognition that – as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said – “politics can help change a culture and save it from itself.”