Martin Jacques, a former leader of the British Communist Party, poses an important challenge in Friday’s Financial Times. He questions the widespread “Western” (i.e. European and American) assumption that our democratic system is superior to China’s authoritarian state, and the usual correlate, that the Chinese system is unstable. As Jacques points out, the Chinese Communist Party has presided over the most massive and successful process of economic growth and redistribution in world history, restoring the strong state that China historically (if episodically) maintained, after the dismal record of the traditional elites between 1840 and 1949.
To be sure, the Chinese ruling elites are nepotistic, corrupt and authoritarian — characteristics Jacques does not adequately treat. But are they more corrupt and nepotistic than let us say the American state? For nepotism, can they outdo the American practice of passing the Presidency around, from father to son, and from husband to wife? For corruption, can they outdo the blatant control of the American state by the one percent, especially, but not only, during the recent “financial crisis”? As to authoritarianism, it is true that a variety of sometimes clumsy, sometime brutal, practices are in place in China, and not here. But it is also the case that American freedoms are purchased at the cost not only of a surveillance regime, but also by exporting violence, right now to the Middle East.
Jacques’ skepticism about liberal democracy is reminiscent of the skepticism that followed World War One. During the interwar period many Europeans and some Americans turned to authoritarianism, fascism and communism because they found liberal parliamentarianism and market dominance fragmenting, particularistic and destructive. Hence, World War Two is often described as the triumph of democracy. However, the choice to turn to fascism and the choice to turn to communism cannot be equated. Fascism left no real legacy; at its best it stood for authority, but more often, as in Germany and Japan, it stood for racial hatred. The Communists in failing to appreciate the indispensable role played by such liberal institutions as civil liberties and markets created a horrible tragedy, but the ideal of social justice for which they stood outlived communism. And this brings me to the central point.
The form of democracy that survived the great crisis of the two world wars was not liberal democracy of the nineteenth century sort, or the neo-liberalism that took root in the 1970s. Rather it was social democracy. The reason the New Deal saved democracy, as it is often put, is not simply that it remained true to individual freedom, but that it also stood for social justice, the balance that the state must play in relation to the market, economic redistribution, and the role that the poor and working people must play in politics. In fact, the only period of American history in which redistribution actually occurred was the 1940s. Furthermore, the New Deal has to be situated in the context of a global series of strong developmental and redistributive states, associated with such figures as Peron, Cardenas, Vargas, Nasser and Sukarno. Since the 1970s we have been living through an enormous period of reaction to what was then known as the Popular Front. Recognizing this is the contribution of Jacques’ piece. We will not save liberal democracy without returning to social democracy. Today’s “progressivism” will not do the trick.