The new authoritarianism
'The democratic process' has been redefined in the 1990s. It now means
that Western governments can do whatever they want around the world. The
impact of this new authoritarianism has been felt first in Eastern
Europe and the third world. But it has serious implications for our lives,
Defending democracy has long been the avowed aim of British and American
foreign policy. The West presented the Cold War as a confrontation between
the Free World and Totalitarianism (despite the fact that the Free World
included every pro-Western dictator in Africa, Asia and Latin America).
Then Western commentators celebrated the collapse of the Soviet bloc as
the start of a new age of 'people power' and global democracy. All of that
is now finished.
Today the Western powers have a far freer hand to intervene in the affairs
of other nations. Their right to do so is more widely recognised than it
has been for a century. They no longer feel the same need to champion democratic
structures in order to justify their interference abroad. Which is just
as well for them, since it has become clear that international capitalism
cannot sustain democracy in much of Eastern Europe and the third world.
When Western governments do pay lip-service to 'fighting for democracy'
around the globe today, they mean something very different than is usually
assumed. Democracy now means that the rulers of the democratic West will
dictate what is best for the rest of the world. It means that the future
of people everywhere from Bosnia to Somalia will be democratically decided
according to how Bill Clinton, John Major and Francois Mitterrand cast their
votes on the Security Council of the United Nations. People power, 1993-style,
rests with the people with the power in Western capitals.
Elsewhere in this issue of Living Marxism, we detail some of the
methods which the West is using to re-establish colonial-style control over
Africa. They range from fixed elections to wars of subversion. There
may now be a few more electoral contests than in the past. But in terms
of who holds real power afterwards, the West always wins the election - even
when it backs a loser.
Any Western intervention in the East or the third world can only be undemocratic,
since it denies people control of their destiny, and invests authority over
their affairs in Washington, Whitehall, Paris, Bonn and Tokyo. Yet in the
uncritical political climate of our time, Western governments seem able
to attach the label 'democratic mission' to any bit of bullying they do
abroad, without fear of being seriously challenged at home.
The notion that the West knows what's best for the rest of the world has
now become so deeply embedded that the authorities often feel no need even
to pay lip-service to the importance of defending democracy in foreign lands.
Instead there is a more explicit discussion among politicians and commentators
about the problem of democracy in unstable parts of the globe.
Today, prominent Western spokesmen imply that Russian president Boris Yeltsin
should shelve democracy, abolish his difficult parliament, and force
market reforms through by diktat like the Chinese regime. Indeed it often
seems that the butchers of Tiananmen Square have become role models for
good government. The West has already approved the assumption of dictatorial
powers by president Lech Walesa of Poland, who suspended parliament after
it dared to pass a motion of no-confidence in the government.
The underlying message is that democracy remains a good political system,
but that many people in Eastern Europe or the third world are not yet good
enough for it. These immature nations with their undeveloped political cultures
cannot be left alone to exercise their democratic rights any more than a
child can be left to play with matches. Instead they need proper supervision
and a firm hand from their elders and betters in the West.
As crises and conflicts erupt around the world, the Western authorities
are seeking to shift the blame away from the failures of global capitalism,
and on to the shortcomings of the local peoples involved. That in turn becomes
an argument for the West to intervene further and assume more authority,
in order to sort out the mess made by Somali warlords or Cambodian butchers
or the ethnic tribes of the Balkans. Wringing their hands about the inability
of others to live with popular democracy, Western governments take a tighter
grip on the lives of millions.
The new authoritarianism has been consolidated first and foremost in
international affairs. A consensus has been created behind the right to
intervene abroad. But these political trends will not halt at the gates
of Western society. The new authoritarianism has serious implications here,
All of the debates about intervention, UN solutions and peace plans authored
by retired British and US politicians are backed by the assumption that
the Western authorities understand what is best for the peoples of, say,
Bosnia or Cambodia, regardless of how those people vote or what aspirations
But if we accept that our rulers know what's best over there, why shouldn't
they assume that they know what's best here, too? If the British government
is granted the right to ride roughshod over those people, what's to stop
them trying the same approach to asserting their authority at home? The
ease with which democratic rights can now be trampled around the world should
send a warning signal about what is coming next within the West itself.
Behind the Conservative government's guff about classless societies and
egalitarianism, there is already a dangerous undercurrent of social elitism
in British political debate. And it is breaking through to the surface more
and more often.
Note, for instance, the recent debate about whether a marginal group such
as unmarried, unemployed mothers really deserves the full rights of citizenship
(such as social security or NHS infertility treatment). Or the proposal
that young people should be banned from holding raves without the express
permission of the police. The increasing confidence with which many
similarly contemptuous notions about ordinary people can be expressed these
days is early evidence of how, having been steeled in international affairs,
the new authoritarianism is creeping into British society.
Of course, there is a small problem here for the British authorities. They
cannot abuse their own people in quite the same way as they treat foreigners.
It is vital that they maintain a firm distinction in the public mind
between the backward, inferior East and third world, and the civilised heartlands
of Western capitalism - a preoccupation which is well illustrated by the
current discussion about war crimes (see page
14). However, within those limitations, there remains plenty of scope
for the government to bring the spirit of the new authoritarianism home.
For a striking illustration of what this means, take a look behind what,
on the surface, appears to be one of the most boring issues in politics
today; the Conservative government's opposition to the social chapter of
the Maastricht Treaty and other related legislation coming out of the EC.
What are the Tories really saying in opting out of the social chapter, with
its provisions on working hours, conditions and welfare?
Stripped of all the nationalist rhetoric about British sovereignty and not
being bullied by Brussels, they are saying that they object to any attempt
to give workers any rights whatsoever. They are saying that they want us
to have no room to manoeuvre in dealing with the employers today. They are
saying that working people ought to be available to be hired or fired
at will, without the right to say no. It appears that the one freedom which
the Tories do insist that employees must have is the freedom to work more
than 48 hours a week. In other words, the new authoritarianism already extends
into the workplace.
This fact was recently confirmed in a little-noticed case. At the end of
April, the Court of Appeal ruled that
it was illegal for two companies to penalise their workers financially
for being members of a trade union. The government's immediate response
was to tack an overnight amendment on to its latest anti-trade union bill
in the House of Lords, to ensure that no court could ever again interfere
with an employer's ability to blackmail his employees into submission. Tory
spokesman Viscount Ullswater tore up and rewrote our rights in a display
of aristocratic arrogance unseen since...well, since Lord Owen redrew the
map of Bosnia.
The trend towards greater Western intervention is not just a problem for
people in the third world, or for those concerned with international relations.
It is a problem for us all. The anti-democratic assumptions underlying it
are beginning to make their mark within our supposedly democratic British
society. Ask the women pickets outside Timex, summarily sacked and surrounded
by police, what they think of the citizen's charter.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993