Much has been written as of late about the yet-to-be-tested merits of the “Chinese model”, best characterised as a form of authoritarian or state capitalism. This attractiveness, however, may be less a sign of the model’s inherent strength than it is an indication of the growing weakness of its most important competitor – liberal democracy and open society. One only has to look at the on-going and deepening crises of inequality, poverty, the environment and finance (to name the most obvious ones) to realise that liberal democracy is in a profound crisis – a crisis of governance and increasingly a crisis of identity. One irony of this development, of course, is the fact that as crisis management becomes the standard operating procedure of public policy, liberal democracies and open societies themselves are forced to rely on important elements of the Chinese model. This was evidenced in the financial rescue of 2008, which not only saw the biggest state intervention in the economy since the Great Depression but also the socialisation of losses on an unprecedented scale. Another example is that Brussels appointed unelected officials to lead the Greek and Italian democracies.
At the root of this crisis lies a shift in the configuration of economic, political and social power. Liberal democracies rely on the close alignment, reinforcing and balancing nature of these three forms of power. Economic power brings about economic prosperity, while social power provides the oxygen for democratic legitimacy and provides a countervailing force to economic power through the institutions of democratic governance. Elites with a regard for the public good need to constantly reaffirm this delicate balance, but have failed us over the past decades as globalisation and the revolution in information technology have radically altered and continue to alter this once close-knit and complementary configuration. Economic power has long outstripped the boundaries of the nation-state and dislodged itself from political power, the consequences of which are becoming increasingly apparent. Facilitated by the widespread use of new media, social power too has taken on its own dynamism.
Disillusioned by the growing failure to provide economic security and other public goods, civil society is turning away from the traditional transmission belts of politics, as political parties and unions rapidly lose stature. Even relevance of and trust in government are at an all-time low. Instead, identities are beginning to form around new networks of social interaction that often defy the territorial integrity of the nation-states and have little or no connection to liberal democracy’s traditional institutions of governance. What is more, this whole development has been sped up by many elites’ waning regard for the public good in the exercise of power.
This configuration shift has dramatic consequences for liberal democracy. De jure, political power continues to be alive and well as nation-states cling to the concept of sovereignty. De facto, however, political power is becoming increasingly detached from its economic and social base, and liberal democracies are losing their most important source of prosperity and legitimacy. This is the hour of the preachers of populism and nationalism, who sense an opening by exploiting the current weakness of liberal democracy and open society. In many European countries, we already see this dangerous trend, not least in Hungary. We stand at a critical juncture: Either we leave the field to the seemingly easy answers provided by the enemies of open society, or we work hard to recreate democracy in a global age. If we decide to go for the latter, we are well advised to invest in new ideas put forward by social and political entrepreneurs. They are those who are willing to break out of the business-as-usual and think creatively about rebalancing political, economic and social power at both the national and the global level.
At the national level, we need to experiment with new mechanisms for policymaking and its implementation. We must bring democratic institutions closer to citizens and to new networks of civil society. Only then can social power reconnect to its political counterpart and governments justly can claim a right of representation in international venues. At the global level, we need to lay the foundation for global public policy by allowing political power to establish its rightful place next to economic and social power, which have long gone global. Mere tinkering with existing, purely intergovernmental formats – such as the morphing of the G8 into the G20 – is not enough. We need a transformation of the global institutional architecture that allows global civil society to have a meaningful say in rule-making and implementation. Unless we can successfully establish a global political space, we cannot legitimately deliberate over the provision of global public goods, let alone deliver them. The push toward a truly global political space needs to be spearheaded by social and political entrepreneurs who are unafraid to work across the lines that traditionally divide sectors and nations. These risk-takers will help to recreate a community of purpose beyond power in a global age.
The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once described the Berlin Wall as a mirror. In view of the Soviet system, it was indeed easy to overlook one’s own weaknesses and fallibilities. Nowhere did this become more evident than when the West’s reflections on the collapse of communism led to the arrogance of “unipolarity” and the hubris of “the end of history”. We have lost valuable time to adequately respond to globalisation and the crisis of liberal democracy and open society. Let us not make the same mistake by pointing to China, but let us begin an honest reflection on power and its purpose in our own system.