The age of accommodating authoritarianism

I just read an article by Evgeny Morozov from The National via The Browser entitled Techno-Utopian fail.  Since the recent turmoil in Iran has started to promote social networking as foreign policy, — thereby letting democratic social networks, through the use of technology, help topple authoritarian regimes — Evgeny makes a chilling argument: that social networks will have the opposite effect by keeping the masses content. To categorize this experience under authoritarian regimes, Evgeny coins this as “accommodating authoritarianism.”

The reason why the Chinese can download Weeds or Mad Men from peer-to-peer networks is not because the Chinese government can no longer police the web. It’s because watching Weeds and Mad Men is what young people living under contemporary authoritarians are supposed to do. These societies no longer operate in the world of cultural scarcity; it’s hard to nudge them towards dissent with the promise of blue jeans or prohibited vinyl records. For every Chinese blogger that the techno-utopians expect to fight their government via Twitter, there are a hundred others who feel content with the status quo.

In one respect, then, authoritarian states and modern democracies are very much alike: both have embraced hedonism as their main and only political ideology. The recent outburst of techno-utopianism in the West may thus be just another futile attempt to imagine a world where the purest ideal of Athenian democracy, uncorrupted by special interests and popular culture, is not only possible but could actually be facilitated by its more corrupt, frivolous, and somewhat culpable western sibling. This, of course, is an illusion. Citizens of modern authoritarian states face a choice between hedonism with stable prosperity (their status quo) and hedonism with unstable prosperity – the hedonism that may follow a tumultuous transition to democracy. Stability wins, with or without Twitter.

Something important to note, however, is that Milton Friedman believed (as I paraphrase from “Capitalism and Freedom”) that capitalism most always is a precondition for political freedom. Yet, China obviously challenges that assumption in that “accommodating authoritarianism” undermines the link between capitalism and freedom. So it is interesting that although democracy seems to be most effective of political ideologies insofar as its alternatives, China as a prime example has been just as effective in bettering its people through the power of capitalism, but showing no need for political freedom. (although arguable) My point is that,  “both have embraced hedonism as their main and only political ideology” and that may be more indicative of human behavior rather than a system of institutions.  Therefore, capitalism continues to stand as the only proven system to generate wealth, innovation and human betterment, while politics remain as the ongoing experiment.

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