modern thinking

Charlie Stross wants to know what the future holds in terms of ideology – what the killer memes of tomorrow are likely to be. He’s working from the position that the huge ideological systems of the 20th century were all ways of coping with, or seeking, modernity; thus you have the big two, communism and fascism, plus (in Charlie’s view) a third ideology that never took off, technocracy.

There was, actually, a formal Technocratic Movement in the interwar US and elsewhere, which foresaw a future dominated by a benign hegemony of engineers organised in an economically integrated world state. Like the others, it was fascinated by the potential of technology, and well aware that classical liberalism and conservatism were no longer sufficient; just like them, it imagined that the replacement would need to be hyper-centralised and opposed to the formalities of parliaments, judiciaries etc.

To some extent, of course, the other tyrannies were also technocracies. This brings up the notion of the developmental dictatorship – the 20th century was full of people who thought that they could Drag This Country Into the Future, if only the Serious Technocrats were in charge, and that the Incorruptible, Decisive Military – or the Party – could achieve this. It’s possible, in fact, to consider all the regimes in this way.

It was an era in which tyranny was usually future-oriented; a major difference between the Left and the Right was whether the deep past was an era of grim oppression from which it was necessary to escape, or whether it was the source of the ideals that showed the way to the future, but there were no takers for pure conservatism. If the past was important, it was important as a motivation or as a guide to the future.

Charlie is especially interested to know what strange new political ideas might be brewing in the new fast-industrialising states; but giving it some thought, I’m fairly optimistic. This is because the core package of future-oriented tyranny has been tried out in most of them, with bad results. The repertoire is limited, and everyone’s seen it before. You could object that this doesn’t help; what matters is power. But power craves legitimacy, and there has never been a tyranny that had zero public support. And there are reasons why individuals, groups, and classes compete for power in one way and not in another; coups are frequent in some similar countries but not in others.

Brazil, for example, experienced two waves of authoritarian technocracy – in the late 30s, and more recently, in the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Unfortunately for the claims of future-oriented tyranny, the dictatorship roughly parallels years of stagnation and frustration in which not much at all was achieved; the optimism of the postwar era, and the industrial breakout since the 1990s, book-end the dictatorship neatly.

India had its own flirtation with dictatorship in Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule, although there was always a strong degree of authoritarianism and of technocracy before that – inherited from the Fabian influence on the Congress and from the colonial civil service. Again, the achievements of the last 15 years had to wait for much of this tradition to be abandoned after 1991.

Turkey seems to have discovered a replacement for dictators, in that it now has a strongly bourgeois, liberal-conservative party which is often described as being like German Christian Democracy, but with Muslims. There was a very significant strand of Dragging This Country, etc, in the history of apartheid South Africa – all those huge military-industrial projects, carried out with the benefit of cheap labour and the secret police (two critical elements of a good future-oriented tyranny). Poland was a development dictatorship before the Second World War, went through occupation and Stalinism, and spent the 1980s as a dictatorship that outsiders often thought was more like a Southern Cone junta than communism. Spain and Portugal successfully exited perhaps the classic technocratic juntas and joined the EU.

So it seems unlikely that anyone will think that the future wears jackboots. Of course, there will be future tyrannies – but what sort?

The ideas that seem to be winning in the fast growth countries are:

Disappointing but acceptable social democracy.

Both Brazil and India seem to be sticking fast to this. The alternatives in these cases are clientelist nationalism and Muslim or Hindu Democracy. Historically, it’s an idea with legs and remarkably few corpses in its pile. Not that anyone will be happy about voting Lula, again. But they never are – as Clement Attlee said, “they think I’m not socialist enough…I know them of old”.

Muslim Christian Democracy

Basically we’re thinking of the AK party in Turkey here, but its name and ideas are spreading, and if Moussavi had won the Iranian elections, he’d probably have offered something similar. In India, this is the upside potential of the BJP – that it becomes a roughly conservative party with religious stylings. It appeals heavily to the middle class and the business community, but especially to the Mittelstand element of industry rather than the FTSE-100.

Modern Thinking: the Post-Liberal Consensus

This is the turd in the punchbowl; Thaksin Shinawatra and the Three Bs, Berlusconi, Blair, and Bush. A form of soft authoritarianism, keen on micro-intervention in social life and public-private blurring in economic life, with a bizarre delight in big events like the Olympics and the Champions’ League. Whereas the others talk left, or right, of where they govern, the Modern Thinkers govern to the right economically and to the left socially of where they campaign, which is straight down the middle.

They are the classic users of the postmodern politics package; which may explain why despite their constant promises of modernity and demands that we all keep up, they tend to struggle with big technical projects. Like old-fashioned junta technocrats, they often deny any political views or ideological claims, which should tell you plenty about their real mental history.

Oil rents

Thomas Friedman is an idiot, but he is right that there is almost an ideological class of states that are defined by oil. His pet example is Venezuela, which shows that he’s a fool; mine is the UAE, with its tiny population of official Emiratis who get the oil rents and its huge army of semi-slaves from the Indian subcontinent. The key markers here are authoritarian government, generous but usually highly circumscribed welfare benefits, and concealed inequality. Of course, the very definition of this group makes it self-limiting.

Of course, the swing factor here is China. Jamie Kenny has long argued that the Chinese Communist Party should be considered as part of group three, as another group of modern thinkers obsessed with the Olympics, closed-circuit TV, and big business. I’m not sure; their leadership is much more genuinely technocratic than most of the Modern Thinkers’. Further, it seems clear that the Party sees the future as something other than communism, but with its own leading role preserved.

It’s now been quite a while since entrepreneurs were recognised by the Party, and far more importantly, the Party has shaped its entire economic, social, and foreign policy in their interest – the whole idea of holding down the RMB and thus parking huge quantities of China’s economic surplus in dollar assets, perhaps the dominant fact of the last 10 years, doesn’t make sense except as a way of maximising industrial investment growth, and absorbing internal migration. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics isn’t *that* far from Muslim Christian Democracy, conceptually.

So, I’m quite optimistic about ideas; even if a lot of this is based on the principle of having tried all the other systems and found them worse. What really worries me is what more damage the Modern Thinkers can do.

6 Comments on "modern thinking"

  1. Doug Muir pointed me over here.

    I agree with pretty much all of this, which worries me, because it is all rather End of History-ish. All of your “modern thinkers” can get voted out of office; none of them seem desirous of, let alone able to, dismantle civil liberties or the rule of law in any serious way. (I am not, of course, negating corrosion around the margins, but that’s not what Charlie is thinking about.)

    One danger that doesn’t come up is that one can imagine a non-ideological dictatorship emerging from a self-proclaimed democratic meritocracy. Yes, it’s an old book, but when I worry about the future, that’s what I worry about.



  2. one can imagine a non-ideological dictatorship emerging from a self-proclaimed democratic meritocracy

    I’d argue that the difference between that and the Modern Thinkers is one of degree. It’s quite possible to imagine a state where it’s theoretically possible to vote them out of office but practically impossible – in fact, Shinawatra’s Thailand worked like that and some pretty appalling things happened. Looking back, that also fits for South Africa, and it seems to be true of Iran as well.


  3. It’s quite possible to imagine a state where it’s theoretically possible to vote them out of office but practically impossible

    Mexico and Japan were – until recently – examples of one-party democracies. There were regular elections, but the system was such that the party in power enjoyed many decades of uninterrupted rule.


  4. Non-Christian “Christian Democracies” could become a fairly common model for political parties. Muslim in Indonesia or Malaysia; Confucian in Singapore, Taiwan, Korea; Buddhist in Sri Lanka or Thailand; Post-Communist in Vietnam, or, as mentioned, China.

    They would hold high their respective values in Sunday speeches or Friday sermons, but quickly and unobtrusively abandon them as policy whenever the professed values cost them seriously in votes or money


  5. Well, Mexico was not an example of a one-party democracy. It was a dictatorship. The government liked to pile up Stalinist vote margins in the 1940s. They loosened up, but no election until 1994 could be called “free.” 1988, of course, was blatantly stolen. There were “elections,” but no elections.

    Japan is a better case.


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