The “post-Communist oligarchies” are presenting an “unprecedented” threat to liberal democracy, says a prominent Western intellectual.
Russia and China provide a critical challenge to the democratic West because both countries “are attempting to demonstrate a novel proposition: that economic freedoms can be severed from political and civil freedom, and that freedom is divisible,” said Michael Ignatieff (left), a former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party.
“It is a cliché of optimistic Western discourse on Russia and China that they must evolve towards democratic liberty,” Ignatieff said in the Isaiah Berlin Lecture delivered in Riga, Latvia, on 6 June.
“History has no libretto,” he said, noting that prior to the rise of twentieth century communism and fascism, “liberals still thought of their creed as being the wave of the future and thought of history as the story of liberty.”
The contest between liberal democracy and neo-authoritarianism is likely to shape the global politics in the 21st century “much as the struggle with Communism and fascism shaped the 20th,” writes Chrystia Freeland.
And that struggle provides vital lessons for “liberal solidarity in a global age,” said Ignatieff.
“Cold War liberalism remains a useable past, even though the Cold War is over and no one would ever want to resurrect it or return global society to the hair-trigger tensions of the era or its bloody proxy wars.”
THE BARBARIANS are gone. The Soviet occupation of the captive nations is a distant memory and for twenty years now, the Baltic peoples have been resuming their Hanseatic history as free cities and their interwar history as free states.
Now you face a new challenge, not just your own but the challenge of every liberal society: how to conserve liberal freedoms once your citizens feel safe enough to take them for granted. The barbarians are no longer there to remind you how precious freedom is. People’s memories of the barbarians will grow dim and your people, like people everywhere, may find the liberal state tedious.
This is a challenge not just for newly free states, but for old established ones. The liberal task – deliberation, compromise, respecting rights and due process – often seems uninspiring. Marx was not wrong when he scorned the ‘parliamentary cretinism’ of liberal democracies. For five years, in my political career, I was one of the cretins, after all. There is no glorious finality, no communal effervescence, to ennoble life in a liberal state. Bismarck said that politics was like sausage making: everyone needs sausage but no one wants to see sausage being made. The work feeds our bodies but does not nourish our souls and liberal citizens tire of it. They no longer show up to the meetings or to the voting booths. What people find boring, they are not likely to defend with any passion and they might throw away from carelessness.
When you look beyond your borders, you can rejoice that you are in a good neighborhood for the first time in your lives. The Poles and the Czechs are free and you live across the Baltic from some of the most successful liberal societies the world has ever seen.
But there is a new arrival in the neighborhood, and no one can be sure that this neighbor will respect your fences and your freedoms.
The Putin regime is something new in the annals of political science: a tyranny that ratifies itself with rigged elections; a market society in which everything is for sale, but no one’s property is safe; a petro-state that leaves millions so poor they remember Soviet times with nostalgia; a state ruled by a former secret police agent whose only contact with a liberal Western state was as a spy and whose understanding of power was learned in an interrogation rooms of a police state.
This makes for a less than promising neighbor. Putin is not a barbarian of old, since he does not express explicit designs on your territory or your freedom; he offers no ideology for export, no radiant tomorrow, no goal other than power for himself; but all the same, he is not happy and because he is not happy, you are not secure. He knows that millions of his citizens no longer thank him for the security his regime has provided. They have tasted some freedom and they both resent his authoritarianism and worry that their own economic freedoms are insecure under his rule.
As a liberal state on the frontier of this new form in political science, you are in the front line of liberal democracy’s decisive new encounter – no longer with totalitarianism of the left or the right, which defined liberalism throughout the 20th century, but now with new regimes that have no historical precedent: post-Communist oligarchies – Russia and China – that have no ideology other than enrichment; regimes that are recalcitrant to the global order; predatory on their own society and dependent for their stability, not on institutions, since there are none that are independent of the ruling elite, but on growth itself, on the capacity of the economic machine to distribute enough riches to enough people; regimes whose legitimacy is akin to that of a bicyclist on a bicycle. As long as they keep pedaling, they keep moving; if they stop, they fall off.
In the case of Russia, the wealth is precarious: natural resource income that leaves the regime dependent upon the ups and downs of the commodity price cycle; a petro-state vulnerable to Dutch disease, corruption and increasing inequality; a political order without checks and balances, without the rule of law, and without even an orderly democratic mechanism for leadership transition.
In the case of China, the wealth is based on control of cheap labour supply chains in global manufacturing and the steady growth of a domestic consumer market measured in the hundreds of millions. In both Russia and China, rising real incomes have replaced ideology as the key to post-Communist legitimacy. Yet wealth is an unstable source of legitimacy. Since both regimes are predatory, wealth is highly concentrated in those with access to power. The strategic question is whether Russia and China are stable. Ostentatious wealth, built on corruption, power concentrated in few hands and unconstrained by institutions, is not a recipe for stability at home or peaceful relations abroad.
Both China and Russia are societies in which power is stacked: political power confers economic, social and cultural power. They remain single party states, emptied of the ideology of communism, yet imbued with the same Leninist attitude to power. Leninism dies hard, but sheer ruthlessness is a brittle basis for legitimacy.
Both Russia and China are attempting to demonstrate a novel proposition: that economic freedoms can be severed from political and civil freedom, and that freedom is divisible.
The liberal democratic creed is that freedom is indivisible. What this means is the interdependence of political and economic liberty, the interdependence of majority rule and minority rights, the interconnection between rule of law and democratic sovereignty.
China and Russia both pose a strategic challenge to this belief, and the shape of the twenty first century will be determined by which side is right.
If liberal democracy is premissed on the idea that freedom to own and acquire pre-supposes and requires the freedom to act, to believe and to know, the liberal ideal also pre-supposes a further proposition: that the truth is one, can be known and can be shared. People will disagree about what facts mean, and this is the life-blood of democratic argument, but equally democracy presumes that they can agree on what the facts are. Indeed democratic politics is impossible without shared agreement on the facts.
The political legitimacy of liberal societies, therefore, is not just procedural: the observance of electoral rules and legal due process. Legitimacy is substantive: it flows from collective democratic acknowledgment of facts and a refusal to disavow difficult truths. Legitimate regimes are regimes that face facts. Regimes become illegitimate when they deny important facts staring them in the face.
Regime legitimacy – and the social solidarity that flows from it – depends on a certain shared public truthfulness about the past. Neither China nor Russia has made peace with their Communist past. Societies that suppress secrets are not stable. In both Russia and China, the regimes have quietly put Communism aside as a public belief system, but they have never faced up to Communist legacies of terror, starvation and persecution. Regimes that have not allowed truth about their past to surface will continue to be dependent for their stability on repression. In both societies, there remains a lurking nostalgia for terror. Mao continues to glower down over Tiananmen Square. Uncle Joe’s picture is still carried in parades in Moscow.
So a critical question for liberal society becomes how do we define ourselves in relation to these new forms of domination – Russian and Chinese – how do we understand them and live in peace beside them?
We should be asking this question, but instead we leave the answer instead to commerce and capitalism, trusting that as we create contracts and economic relationships, the fundamental question of how liberal societies should relate to non-liberal ones will resolve itself.
It is a cliché of optimistic Western discourse on Russia and China that they must evolve towards democratic liberty. Once market freedoms are introduced, once a middle class is created, an unstoppable demand arises for press freedom, for political pluralism, for rule of law and for an independent judiciary, that is, for all the institutional accouterments of liberal society. It is not unreasonable to think this, and there are millions of Russians and Chinese who passionately believe it and seek it, and if they have need of our help, we should give it. But we should not assume there is any historical inevitability to liberal society, any more than it made sense to predict in 1950, say, that both Chinese and Russian totalitarianism were doomed to crumble.
To say that history has no libretto is not a counsel of pessimism. [Isaiah] Berlin’s historical humility was always paired with a strong belief in the efficacy of freedom. He objected to the Marxist theory of history precisely because of its disdain for the power of human agency. Leadership, he knew, could bend the arc of history, if not always towards justice, at least away from tyranny. While he admired leadership in the exercise of power – Churchill and Roosevelt – his deepest sympathies were reserved for those who used leadership to undermine power. He revered Anna Akhmatova because she refused to bow to Stalin. The poet’s heroic silence was not in vain: she and Pasternak, Brodsky and Sinyavsky, created an unbroken chain of refusal that, in its capacity to inspire, leached moral legitimacy away from a regime that held all the power, but possessed nothing of truth or justice.
If this is true, then in our dealings with the Chinese and Russians, it matters to give help, both private and public, to those who campaign in both countries for the rule of law, not the rule of men, who want poor villagers to be fairly compensated for expropriations of their land, who want ordinary people to have the right to read anything they want on the Internet, who want free and fair elections and an end to the rule of billionaire oligarchs. History is not necessarily on the side of these liberal values, but fighting for them remains a moral duty. If a blind lawyer in China is fighting against forced sterilisation of women, if others are fighting against evictions of peasants, then we can give them the encouragement of knowing that they are not alone and that we will not remain silent if they are persecuted. If Berlin did whatever he could to secure honor for Pasternak, Akhmatova and Brodsky, then in our generation, we should do the same to their successors. We do this because history is on nobody’s side, and freedom needs all the help it can.
To do this is liberal solidarity in a global age, and when the Chinese and Russians tell us it is an internal matter, we should tell them that this too was Stalin and Mao’s excuse.
Nothing is gained by pretending that Russia and China are not the chief strategic threat to the moral and political commitments of liberal democracies. We should understand this threat for what it is. Equally nothing is gained by treating this as an encounter between religions, resolvable only by conversion or war. We are faced with political opponents, and if our belief in freedom is grounded in the facts, we will win.
Cold War liberalism remains a useable past, even though the Cold War is over and no one would ever want to resurrect it or return global society to the hair-trigger tensions of the era or its bloody proxy wars. It remains a useable past because there is a temperament we have need of: humility about history, firmness to stand against wrong and the openness to engage and learn from those we oppose. Berlin incarnated this temperament, and living within its disciplines, would stand us in good stead as we face challenges from new forms of oppression that he never lived to see.
This is an extract from the Isaiah Berlin Lecture delivered in Riga, Latvia, on 6 June.