Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Mandate of Heaven

Just as the Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven was used to justify both the authority of the emperor and the right of the people to overthrow him, so the concept of totalitarianism has been employed both to advocate democracy and to excuse authoritarian restraints upon it. In a review of Kai Strittmatter's We Have Been Harmonised, which looks at the way technology is being used for social control in China, John Naughton draws a distinction between networked authoritarianism and networked totalitarianism: "An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense. Totalitarianism, in contrast, prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life." If Putin's Russia is the pre-eminent authoritarian regime in this definition, then Xi Jinping's China is the pre-eminent totalitarian one (North Korea is eliminated on the technicality of not being "networked").

But it's not at all clear that there is a meaningful distinction to be made between authoritarianism and totalitarianism beyond the specific - and for most people largely irrelevant - point about legal political parties. Viewed from the perspective of a worker or peasant, there was little to no practical difference between the two during the twentieth century, the chances of being shot or starved to death notwithstanding. A dividing line can be drawn around Nazi Germany, the Stalin-era Soviet Union and Mao-era China on the basis of body-counts, but the theory of totalitarianism developed by Hannah Arendt and others was essentially about social control rather than murderous practice, and there are plenty of authoritarians with bloody hands. A cynic might suggest that an authoritarian regime in the twentieth century was simply one that the middle-classes were prepared to tolerate in the interests of restricting democracy and preserving private property. Despite its investment in the technology of social control and the privileged position of the CCP, China may just be another authoritarian regime.

That's certainly one way of reading Tyler Cowen's claim that democracy is not coming to China anytime soon: "If you belong to the Chinese upper class or even middle class along the eastern coast, you may end up asking yourself the following question: Who is more likely to protect my basic economic interests, the current Chinese Communist Party, or a democratic representative of Chinese rural interests? … One recent study has shown that Communist Party members are more likely to have progressive views on issues of gender equality, political pluralism and openness to international exchange than do the Chinese public at large. Again, if you are an elite among the Chinese citizenry, it is not a sure thing that you will do better with democracy than under the Communist Party." That democracy jeopardises vested interests is hardly an insight, but it's still a surprise to see an advocate of free markets admit that it isn't the inevitable product of economic reform.

Unlike Cowen, Naughton isn't prepared to concede that authoritarianism might in fact be the natural outcome of capitalism when unconstrained by organised labour -  in other words, that the emergence of democracy in Western Europe and North America was highly contingent - but this means identifying an additional factor that can explain China's peculiar path. That factor is digital technology: "We thought that if the Chinese wanted to modernise, they would have to have capitalism. And if they had capitalism, they would have to have democracy. And if they wanted to have the internet (and they did), they would have to have openness, which would eventually lead to democracy. All of which turned out to be baloney. Essentially, the CCP decided that they could have their cake and eat it – and they have succeeded. They have embraced digital technology and used its intrinsic affordance of comprehensive surveillance to construct a successful, powerful, growing, networked totalitarian state with global ambitions."

The implication is that the mass surveillance enabled by the Internet has allowed the CCP to prevent capitalism's magic from fostering democracy and a free press. This dovetails with the now dominant belief in the media that the Internet may be a threat to established democracies as well, although paradoxically as much through its lack of restraint (incivility) as through the abuse of bad actors (fake news). Behind this spectre of a disruptive and antisocial technology lies the Cold War-era image of a totalitarian society in which everyone is closely monitored and fearful. One of the revelations of the 1990s was that the USSR had not been anywhere near as totalitarian as the propaganda maintained (revisionist historians had been making this point since the 1970s, but it only came to public consciousness after 1989). The Brezhnev years, now nostalgically recalled by many ex-Soviet citizens because of their stability and modest sufficiency, were marked less by Orwellian fear than Hancockian boredom. What most people were hankering for were better commodities, not a free press. The irony is that the arrival of those commodities has led to more pervasive surveillance in the form of the commercial Internet.

The West has long created imaginary "others" at the level of society as a way of speculating on changes that might be adopted domestically, both benign and malign, from political systems to sexual habits. Though we nowadays think of the Orientalist tradition as a justification for imperialism, it was marked in its earliest phases by an admiring assessment of the strengths of the Ottoman state, an approach that has its modern echoes in newspaper articles praising the achievements of Singapore or indeed China. Much of the positive style of this speculation shifted towards the realm of science fiction in the twentieth century, though its "real world" application lived on in the romantic appreciation of national liberation movements. The negative style was dominated by its political utility, notably in the 1940s literature of totalitarianism and the 1950s to 1980s literature of the Cold War.

Much of the Western speculation about China's "Great Firewall" and the emerging technology of "hyper-surveillance" seeks to recreate that imagined environment of paranoia and intrusiveness, but it is questionable whether there is any more substance to it today than there ever was. The world depicted in 1984 was no more credible, either technologically or socially, than the one depicted by The Martian Chronicles, though its likely that Ray Bradbury was more conscious of the fact that he was really writing about the Mid-West than George Orwell was conscious that he was writing about Eton. Likewise, the tales of China's social-credit system, CCTV networks and facial-recognition software sound scary until you remember that the same technology is already being used extensively or trialled in the West. In terms of remote and automated surveillance at street level, Beijing and London are pretty similar.

Naughton recognises one oddity of our current geopolitical focus: "China’s modernisation means that bipolarity has returned and a formidable alternative to our system has materialised. Yet we remain obsessed with Russia – which is a nuisance rather than an existential threat – and not with China." Perhaps the truth is that we don't want to let go of the dystopia of the USSR. In an age of limited communication and restricted travel, it had the advantage of being obscure and impenetrable, like the mysterious Orient of old. In contrast, modern China is relatively open, highly-visible and for all practical purposes little different to other East Asian states. It's clearly not as "free" as Japan (though that is a de facto one-party state, incidentally), but it's also not as satisfyingly totalitarian as the imaginary Soviet Union of the 1970s.

To make up for this, we have to imagine that the Chinese use of surveillance technology is both more technically advanced and socially pervasive than it is in the West. The Cold War paradigm is no longer appropriate, but the trope of the cunning oriental never goes out of fashion, so there is a ready market for tales of nefarious practice and totalising ambition, as Huawei has found to its cost. Rebecca MacKinnon, who coined the term "networked authoritarianism", has made the point that it is a model of social control that is dependent more on legal coercion, commercial cooperation and warrantless surveillance than on traditional censorship or blunt service denial. In other words, it is about the intersection of the state and the market - they are complementary rather than antagonistic. One reason for the emergence of the term "networked totalitarianism" is that MacKinnon's characterisation applies equally well to Western countries, particularly after the various surveillance scandals of the last decade. We need something stronger to put the Chinese into a class of their own.

A decade ago Yevgeny Morozov noted how US technology could be employed by authoritarian regimes: "Can the Internet empower dissidents and pro-democracy activists? Yes. But it can also strengthen existing dictatorships and facilitate the control of their populations. Washington's utopian plan to liberate the world one tweet at a time could also turn American innovation into a tool for the world's subjugation." Today, the belief is that China may be closer to realising the potential of AI for social control than the West, but this is as much an expression of envy as of fear and at times seems more informed by the speculative fiction of Isaac Asimov's "psychohistory" than by any technical reality. Once more, China is being held up as an example for the West, or more accurately for authoritarian tendencies within Western political establishments: "Even some foreign observers, watching from afar, may be tempted to wonder if such data-driven governance offers a viable alternative to the increasingly dysfunctional-looking electoral model." When people start talking about a totalitarian "threat", the restraint of democracy never seems to be far away.

1 comment:

  1. Ben Philliskirk25 July 2019 at 21:17

    To put the reasons for China's divergence from democratisation theory most succinctly, it's fair to say that, unlike Gorbachev, the Chinese Communist Party realised that Glasnost in many ways inhibited Perestroika, and that it was much easier to give sections of the people more consumer choice while neglecting or clamping down on their freedoms of citizenship. Again, not much different to recent trends in 'traditionally' capitalist countries.