No life is more. No life is less.
ALL LIVES MATTER
by Steven Pinker
As “9” on the calendar rolls over to a fresh “0”, many people are desperate for a ray of optimism to pierce the gloom of the daily headlines. Having published a hundred graphs documenting human progress, I’m often asked for reassurance that we will overcome our problems and that the coming decade will not just bring intensifying crises and declines.
Progress is a historical fact. The numbers show that over the past seven decades humans have become (on average) longer-lived, healthier, safer, richer, freer, fairer, happier and smarter, not just in the west but worldwide.
Progress is not, however, a natural force. The laws of the universe are indifferent to our wellbeing, with vastly more things that can go wrong than go right. And our species evolved for advantages in the struggle to reproduce, not for happiness or wisdom. The first step in thinking about the future is to reconcile human progress with human nature.
The progress we have enjoyed has come from empowering the better angels of our nature. We are a cognitive species, with the wherewithal to solve problems and the linguistic means to pool solutions. We are a co-operative species, joining forces to achieve outcomes we cannot achieve individually. And we are an intermittently empathetic species, capable of concern with the wellbeing of others.
These gifts were amplified by ideas and institutions advocated during the Enlightenment and entrenched after the second world war: reason, science, liberal democracy, declarations of rights, a free press, regulated markets, institutions of international co-operation.
But this progress is invisible to most people because they don’t get their understanding of the world from numbers; they get it from headlines. Journalism by its very nature conceals progress, because it presents sudden events rather than gradual trends. Most things that happen suddenly are bad: a war, a shooting, an epidemic, a scandal, a financial collapse. Most things that are good consist either of nothing happening — like a nation that is free of war or famine — or things that happen gradually but compound over the years, such as declines in poverty, illiteracy and disease.
On top of this built-in pessimism, market forces add layers of glumness. People dread losses more than they appreciate gains, so prophets can stoke their vigilance by warning them about looming disasters they may have overlooked. Popular forecasters are not actuaries who extrapolate and adjust medium-term trends but playwrights who titillate our imaginations with high-concept tragedies and horror stories.
So for every Age of Aquarius with electricity too cheap to meter, there are a dozen dystopias. In my lifetime I have survived a thermonuclear third world war, a population bomb, depletion of oil and minerals, a civilisation-ending Y2K bug, weekly 9/11-scale terrorist attacks, and a mushroom cloud from Saddam Hussein. Those who recall the fall of the Berlin Wall as opening a window of optimism have bad memories. Experts at the time warned of revanchism in a unified Germany, a rising sun in Japan and a longing for the stability of a bipolar world. A 1994 Atlantic cover story foretold a “coming anarchy” of world wars, spiralling crime, exploding Aids and the break-up of Nigeria, China, India and the US.
So how can we think about the 2020s without melodrama? Progress does not literally have momentum, but many of its drivers are not going away. Science and medicine continue to explore their endless frontiers and should keep delivering increments of understanding that lengthen and enrich our lives. It’s true that the parent ideal of reason is under assault by fundamentalism, fake news and conspiracy theories, as it always has been. But the reach of reason is also expanding through online resources for education and fact-checking, and in movements for evidence-based medicine, policy and philanthropy.
In the moral sphere, the concept of human rights is self-expanding, since mistreatment of arbitrary categories of people withers under scrutiny. Successive generations have applied the ideal to ending religious persecution, despotism, sadistic punishments, legal slavery, callousness towards workers and discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and gay people. Recently it has been extended to sexual harassment, mistreatment of transgender people and oppressive laws in illiberal regions. (In the past decade 13 countries decriminalised homosexuality.) Even the most backward will face pressure to abandon archaic practices that keep girls out of school and women from driving.
By adopting the Sustainable Development Goals, the 193 countries of the UN committed themselves to audacious targets for slashing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, gender inequality, war and other scourges. Progress toward these goals (other than climate) is continuing and can be tracked on sites like Our World in Data, Gapminder, Human Progress, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Future Crunch. It is unlikely to do a sudden U-turn.
But — as the sustainable goalkeepers emphasise — “progress is possible, but it is not inevitable”. Poverty, disease and conflict are natural, not unnatural, parts of the human condition, and only the concerted application of reason, science and humanism can push back against their creep.
Progress can be threatened not just by complacency but by tribalism, authoritarianism and science denial. Populists such as Donald Trump embody these threats; he treats public discourse not as a means of collectively pursuing an objective reality but as a weapon with which to project dominance. He has blown off the scientific consensus on climate change and suppressed dissemination of data on public health and the environment. He has sown ethnic hostility at home while rejecting international co-operation in favour of zero-sum economic or political combat. These insults to Enlightenment ideals are not just philosophical; they undermine concrete measures that have driven progress in the past, including democratic checks, free trade, environmental regulation and international agreements.
Though we cannot know how much damage authoritarian populism will do, there are reasons to think it is not the face of the future. Its support is greatest among rural, less-educated, ethnic-majority and older cohorts, all in demographic decline. And even countries that try to hide in a nationalist fortress will increasingly be besieged by crises that are inherently global and cannot be solved without international co-operation, including climate change, ocean degradation, pandemics, migrants, cyber crime, terrorism, piracy, dark money and nuclear proliferation.
Democracy, repeatedly declared moribund by schadenfreudian pundits, may be more resilient than they acknowledge. Everyone has read about backsliding in countries such as Turkey, Russia and Venezuela — but fewer have read about the gains in countries such as Georgia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Armenia, Malaysia and Ethiopia. According to the Varieties of Democracy scorecard, during the past decade the number of democracies in the world has hovered in a record-high range, with 99 (55 per cent) in 2018, compared to 87 in 1998, 51 in 1988, 40 in 1978, 36 in 1968 and 10 in 1918. And in the past year, pressure for democratisation has heated up in protests in Venezuela, Bolivia, Russia, Algeria, Sudan and Hong Kong.
Peace, too, may have staying power. Despite recent scares from Putinism and the Arab Spring, the long peace since the second world war keeps lengthening. Wars between great powers, once chronic, have vanished: the last one pitted the US against China more than 65 years ago. Wars between states continue their slide toward obsolescence, with no more than three in any year since 1945 and none since 2003. Though civil wars persist, the overall rate of deaths in wars of all kinds plunged a hundredfold between 1950 and 2005, from 22 per 100,000 people per year to 0.2. After rising to 1.5 in 2014 during the horrific Syrian civil war, it halved to 0.7 in 2018. And for all the warnings of a rising China that will inevitably fight its rival hegemon, that country has rested its fortunes on trade, contributed to UN peacekeeping, joined global and regional organisations, kept North Korea on a leash, assisted poor countries with infrastructure rather than weaponry, and not fought a war in 32 years.
Past performance is, of course, no guarantee of future results. Though history is not cyclical, it can be knocked backwards by nasty surprises. It’s happened before: the two world wars, the Spanish flu, the outbreak of Aids in Africa, surges in crime and civil war from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, 9/11. The coming decade will surely bring more, though by definition we cannot know what they are. Of course, we know what some of the catastrophic threats to gradual progress are. As the bumper sticker notes, one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. Contrary to almost 75 years in which doomsday has supposedly been minutes away, no nuclear weapon has been detonated in war since Nagasaki. This suggests that the norms and safeguards against accidental and impulsive launches have done their job.
Still, the possible destruction is so horrific that we would be foolish to push our luck indefinitely. The low but disconcerting odds can be pushed still lower by putting the weapons on a longer fuse, and by reducing their number below the threshold of a nuclear winter and eventually to zero. Today’s leaders of nuclear states are not exactly moving in this direction, and it’s inexcusable that the future of civilisation is a non-issue in an electoral arena obsessed with minor gaffes and scandals.
Also possibly calamitous are pandemics that could hop continents and cybersabotage that could bring down the internet. Here too the safeguards have worked so far, but experts say they must be strengthened.
In a category of its own is climate change, which is more of an approaching asteroid than a spinning roulette wheel. It would be irresponsible to predict either that everything will turn out OK or that we’re cooked. Climate salvation, if it comes at all, will not primarily come from shaming oil companies or making personal sacrifices. It will require breakthroughs in policy and technology.
The atmosphere is a global commons, where no individual or country has an incentive to stint on emissions because it would suffer all the cost but no benefit unless everyone else makes the same sacrifice. Policies that put a price on carbon are necessary to avert this tragedy, but we have learnt that people react to them not by weatherstripping their windows but by donning yellow vests and setting cars on fire. Such policies must be sweetened with rebates or hidden in dark layers of the economy.
But I suspect that it will be more effective to make clean energy cheap than dirty energy expensive. In the short term this could involve a rapid buildout of nuclear power, as France and Sweden did in the past. In the longer term it will require breakthroughs in storing the intermittent energy from wind and sun, in bioenergy, and in a new generation of small modular fission or fusion reactors. Technological advances will also be needed to electrify industry, reduce greenhouse gases from agriculture, and capture the CO2 already in the atmosphere.
You can’t worry about everything, and my appreciation of the complexity of human nature leaves me sceptical about another common fear: that the 2020s will see a brave new world of high-tech mind-hacking.
Predictions from the 1990s that yuppie parents would soon implant genes for intelligence or musical talent in their unborn children seemed plausible in a decade filled with discoveries of the gene for X. But these findings were destined for the Journal of Irreproducible Results, and today we know that heritable skills are the products of hundreds of genes, each with a minuscule effect, and many with deleterious side-effects. Micromanaging an embryo’s genome will always be complex and risky. Given that most parents are squeamish about genetically modified applesauce, it’s unlikely they would roll the dice for genetically modified children.
Brain-computer interfaces, except as treatments for paralysis or other disabilities, also strike me as dubious, like trying to adjust your iPhone settings with a soldering gun. Our thoughts are embodied in intricate patterns of connectivity in networks of millions of neurons, using a code that neuroscientists have not cracked. Since we already come equipped with pinpoint interfaces to our neural networks — eyes, ears, fingers, tongues — I doubt that healthy people will see the need for another hole in their head or for a foreign object lodged in their brain.
Some tech prophets sow fear about an advanced artificial intelligence subduing its creators. Others warn of an AI laying waste to the world while single-mindedly pursuing a goal, like inducing tumours in human guinea pigs to find a cure for cancer or asphyxiating us all to de-acidify the oceans. But the first fear projects human sins like greed and dominance on to the concept of intelligence. A human-made intelligent system is a problem-solving tool, not a rival primate. And the second refutes itself. It assumes that engineers are so smart that they could invent a system that can cure cancer and undo pollution but so stupid they would forget to give it any other conditions or test how it works before granting it omnipotence over the planet. Moreover, a system that monomaniacally pursued a single goal may be A, but it’s hardly I.
And then there’s the prospect that fake news and targeted political ads will hijack people’s minds and obliterate democracy. Though the spread of disinformation must be combated, research on political messaging shows that it’s not so easy to change people’s minds. Even traditional TV and direct-mail ads are surprisingly ineffective, and in the 2016 American election fake news and bot-generated tweets made up a tiny fraction of online political traffic and were mostly consumed by zealots. (Few swing voters made up their minds upon reading that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of a pizzeria.) For that matter online advertising, for all its claims to data-driven microtargeting, is dubiously effective, serving readers with ads for products they have already bought and ads for products they would never buy (like the trunnion tables and high-tech dreidels regularly interpolated into my daily news).
Prudence and experience compel me to hedge these reflections on the next decade. Like soothsayers before me, I will surely be wrong in some of my expectations about continuing progress and the threats it does and does not face. But I am confident in one thing: the 2020s will be filled with problems, crises and discord, just like the decades before and after. Some people are surprised to hear this champion of progress abjure any hope for a future free of trouble and strife. Why can’t we build on our accomplishments and aspire to utopia?
The reason is that we are not blank slates. The hard-won knowledge that has allowed us to marginalise our superstitions and biases must be relearned every generation in a Sisyphean struggle, never perfectly.
Also, human nature imposes permanent trade-offs among the things we value. People differ in talent and temperament, so even in a fair system they will end up unequal, and what pleases some will inevitably anger others. People are not infinitely wise, so when they are given their freedom, some will use it to screw up their lives, and when they are empowered in a democracy, they may choose leaders and policies that are bad for them. And people are not infinitely selfless. Any policy that makes most people better off will make some people worse off (say, coal executives), and they will not sacrifice their interests for the good of the group.
Yet the fact of progress shows that these trade-offs do not pin us to a constant level of suffering. Knowledge and technology can bend the trade-offs to give us more of each good. Education, a free press and civil society can remind us that the compromises of democracy are better than the alternatives. And (as physicist David Deutsch has noted) problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and solutions create new problems that can be solved in their turn.
The Real Fight for the Global Economy’s Future
by Branko Milanovic – Foreign Affairs (January/February 2020)
Capitalism rules the world. With only the most minor exceptions, the entire globe now organizes economic production the same way: labor is voluntary, capital is mostly in private hands, and production is coordinated in a decentralized way and motivated by profit.
There is no historical precedent for this triumph. In the past, capitalism—whether in Mesopotamia in the sixth century BC, the Roman Empire, Italian city-states in the Middle Ages, or the Low Countries in the early modern era—had to coexist with other ways of organizing production. These alternatives included hunting and gathering, small-scale farming by free peasants, serfdom, and slavery. Even as recently as 100 years ago, when the first form of globalized capitalism appeared with the advent of large-scale industrial production and global trade, many of these other modes of production still existed. Then, following the Russian Revolution in 1917, capitalism shared the world with communism, which reigned in countries that together contained about one-third of the human population. Now, however, capitalism is the sole remaining mode of production.
It’s increasingly common to hear commentators in the West describe the current order as “late capitalism,” as if the economic system were on the verge of disappearing. Others suggest that capitalism is facing a revived threat from socialism. But the ineluctable truth is that capitalism is here to stay and has no competitor. Societies around the world have embraced the competitive and acquisitive spirit hardwired into capitalism, without which incomes decline, poverty increases, and technological progress slows. Instead, the real battle is within capitalism, between two models that jostle against each other.
Often in human history, the triumph of one system or religion is soon followed by a schism between different variants of the same credo. After Christianity spread across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, it was riven by ferocious ideological disputes, which eventually produced the first big fissure in the religion, between the Eastern and Western churches. So, too, with Islam, which after its dizzying expansion swiftly divided into Shiite and Sunni branches. And communism, capitalism’s twentieth-century rival, did not long remain a monolith, splitting into Soviet and Maoist versions. In this respect, capitalism is no different: two models now hold sway, differing in their political, economic, and social aspects.
In the states of western Europe and North America and a number of other countries, such as India, Indonesia, and Japan, a liberal meritocratic form of capitalism dominates: a system that concentrates the vast majority of production in the private sector, ostensibly allows talent to rise, and tries to guarantee opportunity for all through measures such as free schooling and inheritance taxes. Alongside that system stands the state-led, political model of capitalism, which is exemplified by China but also surfaces in other parts of Asia (Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam), in Europe (Azerbaijan, Russia), and in Africa (Algeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda). This system privileges high economic growth and limits individual political and civic rights.
These two types of capitalism—with the United States and China, respectively, as their leading examples—invariably compete with each other because they are so intertwined. Asia, western Europe, and North America, which together are home to 70 percent of the world’s population and 80 percent of its economic output, are in constant contact through trade, investment, the movement of people, the transfer of technology, and the exchange of ideas. Those connections and collisions have bred a competition between the West and parts of Asia that is made more intense by the differences in their respective models of capitalism. And it is this competition—not a contest between capitalism and some alternative economic system—that will shape the future of the global economy.
In 1978, almost 100 percent of China’s economic output came from the public sector; that figure has now dropped to less than 20 percent. In modern China, as in the more traditionally capitalist countries of the West, the means of production are mostly in private hands, the state doesn’t impose decisions about production and pricing on companies, and most workers are wage laborers. China scores as positively capitalistic on all three counts.
Capitalism now has no rival, but these two models offer significantly different ways of structuring political and economic power in a society. Political capitalism gives greater autonomy to political elites while promising high growth rates to ordinary people. China’s economic success undermines the West’s claim that there is a necessary link between capitalism and liberal democracy.
Liberal capitalism has many well-known advantages, the most important being democracy and the rule of law. These two features are virtues in themselves, and both can be credited with encouraging faster economic development by promoting innovation and social mobility. Yet this system faces an enormous challenge: the emergence of a self-perpetuating upper class coupled with growing inequality. This now represents the gravest threat to liberal capitalism’s long-term viability.
At the same time, China’s government and those of other political capitalist states need to constantly generate economic growth to legitimize their rule, a compulsion that might become harder and harder to fulfill. Political capitalist states must also try to limit corruption, which is inherent to the system, and its complement, galloping inequality. The test of their model will be its ability to restrain a growing capitalist class that often chafes against the overweening power of the state bureaucracy.
As other parts of the world (notably African countries) attempt to transform their economies and jump-start growth, the tensions between the two models will come into sharper focus. The rivalry between China and the United States is often presented in simply geopolitical terms, but at its core, it is like the grinding of two tectonic plates whose friction will define how capitalism evolves in this century.
The global dominance of capitalism is one of two epochal changes that the world is living through. The other is the rebalancing of economic power between the West and Asia. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, incomes in Asia are edging closer to those in western Europe and North America. In 1970, the West produced 56 percent of world economic output and Asia (including Japan) produced only 19 percent. Today, only three generations later, those proportions have shifted to 37 percent and 43 percent—thanks in large part to the staggering economic growth of countries such as China and India.
Capitalism in the West generated the information and communications technologies that enabled a new wave of globalization in the late twentieth century, the period when Asia began to narrow the gap with the “global North.” Anchored initially in the wealth of Western economies, globalization led to an overhaul of moribund structures and huge growth in many Asian countries. Global income inequality has dropped significantly from what it was in the 1990s, when the global Gini coefficient (a measure of income distribution, with zero representing perfect equality and one representing perfect inequality) was 0.70; today, it is roughly 0.60. It will drop further as incomes continue to rise in Asia.
Although inequality between countries has lessened, inequality within countries—especially those in the West—has grown. The United States’ Gini coefficient has risen from 0.35 in 1979 to about 0.45 today. This increase in inequality within countries is in large part a product of globalization and its effects on the more developed economies in the West: the weakening of trade unions, the flight of manufacturing jobs, and wage stagnation.
Liberal meritocratic capitalism came into being in the last 40 years. It can be best understood in comparison to two other variants: classical capitalism, which was predominant in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and social democratic capitalism, which defined the welfare states in western Europe and North America from World War II to the early 1980s.
Unlike in the classical capitalism of the nineteenth century, when fortunes were to be made from owning, not working, rich individuals in the present system tend to be both capital rich and labor rich—that is, they generate their income both from investments and from work. They also tend to marry and make families with partners of similar educational and financial backgrounds, a phenomenon sociologists call “assortative mating.” Whereas the people at the top of the income distribution under classical capitalism were often financiers, today many of those at the top are highly paid managers, Web designers, physicians, investment bankers, and other elite professionals. These people work in order to earn their large salaries, but whether through an inheritance or their own savings, they also draw a great deal of income from their financial assets.
In liberal meritocratic capitalism, societies are more equal than they were during the phase of classical capitalism, women and ethnic minorities are more empowered to enter the workforce, and welfare provisions and social transfers (paid out of taxes) are employed in an attempt to mitigate the worst ravages of acute concentrations of wealth and privilege. Liberal meritocratic capitalism inherited those last measures from its direct predecessor, social democratic capitalism.
That model was structured around industrial labor and featured the strong presence of unions, which played a huge role in shrinking inequality. Social democratic capitalism presided over an era that saw measures such as the GI Bill and the 1950 Treaty of Detroit (a sweeping, union-negotiated contract for autoworkers) in the United States and economic booms in France and Germany, where incomes rose. Growth was distributed fairly evenly; populations benefited from better access to health care, housing, and inexpensive education; and more families could climb up the economic ladder.
But the nature of work has changed significantly under globalization and liberal meritocratic capitalism, especially with the winnowing away of the industrial working class and the weakening of labor unions. Since the late twentieth century, the share of capital income in total income has been rising—that is, an increasing portion of GDP belongs to the profits made by big corporations and the already wealthy. This tendency has been quite strong in the United States, but it has also been documented in most other countries, whether developing or developed. A rising share of capital income in total income implies that capital and capitalists are becoming more important than labor and workers, and so they acquire more economic and political power. It also means an increase in inequality, because those who draw a large share of their income from capital tend to be rich.
MALAISE IN THE WEST
While the current system has produced a more diverse elite (in terms of both gender and race), the setup of liberal capitalism has the consequence of at once deepening inequality and screening that inequality behind the veil of merit. More plausibly than their predecessors in the Gilded Age, the wealthiest today can claim that their standing derives from the virtue of their work, obscuring the advantages they have gained from a system and from social trends that make economic mobility harder and harder. The last 40 years have seen the growth of a semipermanent upper class that is increasingly isolated from the rest of society. In the United States, the top ten percent of wealth holders own more than 90 percent of the financial assets. The ruling class is highly educated, many of its members work, and their income from that labor tends to be high. They tend to believe that they deserve their high standing.
These elites invest heavily both in their progeny and in establishing political control. By investing in their children’s education, those at the top enable future generations of their kind to maintain high labor income and the elite status that is traditionally associated with knowledge and education. By investing in political influence—in elections, think tanks, universities, and so on—they ensure that they are the ones who determine the rules of inheritance, so that financial capital is easily transferred to the next generation. The two together (acquired education and transmitted capital) lead to the reproduction of the ruling class.
The formation of a durable upper class is impossible unless that class exerts political control. In the past, this happened naturally; the political class came mostly from the rich, and so there was a certain commonality of views and shared interests between politicians and the rest of the rich. That is no longer the case: politicians come from various social classes and backgrounds, and many of them share sociologically very little, if anything, with the rich. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in the United States and Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the United Kingdom all came from modest backgrounds but quite effectively supported the interests of the one percent.
In a modern democracy, the rich use their political contributions and the funding or direct ownership of think tanks and media outlets to purchase economic policies that benefit them: lower taxes on high incomes, bigger tax deductions, higher capital gains through tax cuts to the corporate sector, fewer regulations, and so on. These policies, in turn, increase the likelihood that the rich will stay on top, and they form the ultimate link in the chain that runs from the higher share of capital in a country’s net income to the creation of a self-serving upper class. If the upper class did not try to co-opt politics, it would still enjoy a very strong position; when it spends on electoral processes and builds its own civil society institutions, the position of the upper class becomes all but unassailable.
As the elites in liberal meritocratic capitalist systems become more cordoned off, the rest of society grows resentful. Malaise in the West about globalization is largely caused by the gap between the small number of elites and the masses, who have seen little benefit from globalization and, accurately or not, regard global trade and immigration as the cause of their ills. This situation eerily resembles what used to be called the “disarticulation” of Third World societies in the 1970s, such as was seen in Brazil, Nigeria, and Turkey. As their bourgeoisies were plugged into the global economic system, most of the hinterland was left behind. The disease that was supposed to affect only developing countries seems to have hit the global North.
CHINA’S POLITICAL CAPITALISM
In Asia, globalization doesn’t have that same reputation: according to polls, 91 percent of people in Vietnam, for instance, think globalization is a force for good. Ironically, it was communism in countries such as China and Vietnam that laid the groundwork for their eventual capitalist transformation. The Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 by prosecuting both a national revolution (against foreign domination) and a social revolution (against feudalism), which allowed it to sweep away all ideologies and customs that were seen as slowing economic development and creating artificial class divisions. (The much less radical Indian independence struggle, in contrast, never succeeded in erasing the caste system.) These two simultaneous revolutions were a precondition, over the long term, for the creation of an indigenous capitalist class that would pull the economy forward. The communist revolutions in China and Vietnam played functionally the same role as the rise of the bourgeoisie in nineteenth-century Europe.
In China, the transformation from quasi feudalism to capitalism took place swiftly, under the control of an extremely powerful state. In Europe, where feudal structures were eradicated slowly over centuries, the state played a far less important role in the shift to capitalism. Given this history, then, it is no surprise that capitalism in China, Vietnam, and elsewhere in the region has so often had an authoritarian edge.
The system of political capitalism has three defining features. First, the state is run by a technocratic bureaucracy, which owes its legitimacy to economic growth. Second, although the state has laws, these are applied arbitrarily, much to the benefit of elites, who can decline to apply the law when it is inconvenient or apply it with full force to punish opponents. The arbitrariness of the rule of law in these societies feeds into political capitalism’s third defining feature: the necessary autonomy of the state. In order for the state to act decisively, it needs to be free from legal constraints. The tension between the first and second principles—between technocratic bureaucracy and the loose application of the law—produces corruption, which is an integral part of the way the political capitalist system is set up, not an anomaly.
Since the end of the Cold War, these characteristics have helped supercharge the growth of ostensibly communist countries in Asia. Over a 27-year period ending in 2017, China’s growth rate averaged about eight percent and Vietnam’s averaged around six percent, compared with just two percent in the United States.
The flip side of China’s astronomic growth has been its massive increase in inequality. From 1985 to 2010, the country’s Gini coefficient leapt from 0.30 to around 0.50—higher than that of the United States and closer to the levels found in Latin America. Inequality in China has risen starkly within both rural and urban areas, and it has risen even more so in the country as a whole because of the increasing gap between those areas. That growing inequality is evident in every divide—between rich and poor provinces, high-skilled workers and low-skilled workers, men and women, and the private sector and the state sector.
Notably, there has also been an increase in China in the share of income from privately owned capital, which seems to be as concentrated there as in the advanced market economies of the West. A new capitalist elite has formed in China. In 1988, skilled and unskilled industrial workers, clerical staff, and government officials accounted for 80 percent of those in the top five percent of income earners. By 2013, their share had fallen by almost half, and business owners (20 percent) and professionals (33 percent) had become dominant.
A remarkable feature of the new capitalist class in China is that it has emerged from the soil, so to speak, as almost four-fifths of its members report having had fathers who were either farmers or manual laborers. This intergenerational mobility is not surprising in view of the nearly complete obliteration of the capitalist class after the Communists’ victory in 1949 and then again during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. But that mobility may not continue in the future, when—given the concentration of ownership of capital, the rising costs of education, and the importance of family connections—the intergenerational transmission of wealth and power should begin to mirror what is observed in the West.
Compared with its Western counterparts, however, this new capitalist class in China may be more of a class by itself than a class for itself. China’s many byzantine forms of ownership—which at the local and national levels blur the lines between public and private—allow the political elite to restrain the power of the new capitalist, economic elite.
For millennia, China has been home to strong, fairly centralized states that have always prevented the merchant class from becoming an independent center of power. According to the French scholar Jacques Gernet, wealthy merchants under the Song dynasty in the thirteenth century never succeeded in creating a self-conscious class with shared interests because the state was always there ready to check their power. Although merchants continued to prosper as individuals (as the new capitalists largely do nowadays in China), they never formed a coherent class with its own political and economic agenda or with interests that were forcefully defended and propagated. This scenario, according to Gernet, differed markedly from the situation around the same time in Italian merchant republics and the Low Countries. This pattern of capitalists enriching themselves without exercising political power will likely continue in China and in other political capitalist countries, as well.
A CLASH OF SYSTEMS
As China expands its role on the international stage, its form of capitalism is invariably coming into conflict with the liberal meritocratic capitalism of the West. Political capitalism might supplant the Western model in many countries around the world.
The advantage of liberal capitalism resides in its political system of democracy. Democracy is desirable in itself, of course, but it also has an instrumental advantage. By requiring constant consultation of the population, democracy provides a powerful corrective to economic and social trends that may be detrimental to the common good. Even if people’s decisions sometimes result in policies that reduce the rate of economic growth, increase pollution, or lower life expectancy, democratic decision-making should, within a relatively limited time period, correct such developments.
Political capitalism, for its part, promises much more efficient management of the economy and higher growth rates. The fact that China has been by far the most economically successful country in the past half century places it in a position to legitimately try to export its economic and political institutions. It is doing that most prominently through the Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious project to link several continents through improved, Chinese-financed infrastructure. The initiative represents an ideological challenge to the way the West has been handling economic development around the world. Whereas the West focuses on building institutions, China is pouring money into building physical things. The BRI will link partnered countries into a Chinese sphere of influence. Beijing even has plans to handle future investment disputes under the jurisdiction of a Chinese-created court—quite a reversal for a country whose “century of humiliation” in the nineteenth century was capped by Americans and Europeans in China refusing to be subject to Chinese laws.
Many countries may welcome being part of the BRI. Chinese investment will bring roads, harbors, railways, and other badly needed infrastructure, and without the type of conditions that often accompany Western investment. China has no interest in the domestic policies of recipient nations; instead, it emphasizes equality in the treatment of all countries. This is an approach that many officials in smaller countries find particularly attractive. China is also seeking to build international institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, following the playbook of the United States after World War II, when Washington spearheaded the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Beijing has another reason to be more active on the international stage. If China refused to advertise its own institutions while the West continued to advance the values of liberal capitalism in China, large swaths of the Chinese population could become more attracted to Western institutions. The current disturbances in Hong Kong have failed to spread anywhere else in China, but they do illustrate real discontent with the arbitrary application of the law, discontent that may not be confined to the former British colony. The blatant censorship of the Internet is also deeply unpopular among the young and educated.
By projecting the advantages of its political capitalism abroad, China will reduce the appeal of the Western liberal model to its own citizens. Its international activities are essentially matters of domestic survival. Whatever formal or informal arrangement Beijing reaches with states that embrace political capitalism, China is bound to exercise increasing influence on international institutions, which in the past two centuries have been built exclusively by Western states, to serve Western interests.
THE FUTURE OF CAPITALISM
John Rawls, the consummate philosopher of modern liberalism, argued that a good society ought to give absolute priority to basic liberties over wealth and income. Experience shows, however, that many people are willing to trade democratic rights for greater income. One need simply observe that within companies, production is generally organized in the most hierarchical fashion, not the most democratic. Workers do not vote on the products they would like to produce or on how they would like to produce them. Hierarchy produces greater efficiency and higher wages. “Technique is the boundary of democracy,” the French philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote more than half a century ago. “What technique wins, democracy loses. If we had engineers who were popular with the workers, they would be ignorant of machinery.” The same analogy can be extended to society as a whole: democratic rights can be, and have been, given up willingly for higher incomes.
In today’s commercialized and hectic world, citizens rarely have the time, the knowledge, or the desire to get involved in civic matters unless the issues directly concern them. It is telling that in the United States, one of the oldest democracies in the world, the election of a president, who, in many respects in the American system, has the prerogatives of an elected king, is not judged of sufficient importance to bestir more than half the electorate to go to the polls. In this respect, political capitalism asserts its superiority.
The problem, however, is that in order to prove its superiority and ward off a liberal challenge, political capitalism needs to constantly deliver high rates of growth. So while liberal capitalism’s advantages are natural, in that they are built into the setup of the system, the advantages of political capitalism are instrumental: they must be constantly demonstrated. Political capitalism starts with the handicap of needing to prove its superiority empirically. It faces two further problems, as well. Relative to liberal capitalism, political capitalism has a greater tendency to generate bad policies and bad social outcomes that are difficult to reverse because those in power do not have an incentive to change course. It can also easily engender popular dissatisfaction because of its systemic corruption in the absence of a clear rule of law.
Political capitalism needs to sell itself on the grounds of providing better societal management, higher rates of growth, and more efficient administration (including the administration of justice). Unlike liberal capitalism, which can take a more relaxed attitude toward temporary problems, political capitalism must be permanently on its toes. This may, however, be seen as an advantage from a social Darwinist point of view: because of the constant pressure to deliver more to its constituents, political capitalism might hone its ability to manage the economic sphere and to keep on delivering, year in, year out, more goods and services than its liberal counterpart. What appears at first as a defect may prove to be an advantage.
But will China’s new capitalists forever acquiesce to a status quo in which their formal rights can be limited or revoked at any moment and in which they are under the constant tutelage of the state? Or, as they become stronger and more numerous, will they organize, influence the state, and, finally, take it over, as happened in the United States and Europe? The Western path as sketched by Karl Marx seems to have an ironclad logic: economic power tends to emancipate itself and to look after, or impose, its own interests. But the track record of nearly 2,000 years of an unequal partnership between the Chinese state and Chinese business presents a major obstacle to China’s following the same path as the West.
The key question is whether China’s capitalists will come to control the state and if, in order to do so, they will use representative democracy. In the United States and Europe, capitalists used that cure very carefully, administering it in homeopathic doses as the franchise slowly expanded and withholding it whenever there was a potential threat to the property-owning classes (as in Great Britain after the French Revolution, when the right to vote became even more tightly restricted). Chinese democracy, if it comes, will likely resemble democracy in the rest of the world today, in the legal sense of mandating one vote per person. Yet given the weight of history and the precarious nature and still limited size of China’s propertied classes, it is not certain that rule by the middle class could be maintained in China. It failed in the first part of the twentieth century under the Republic of China (which held sway over much of the mainland from 1912 to 1949); only with great difficulty will it be reestablished with greater success 100 years later.
What does the future hold for Western capitalist societies? The answer hinges on whether liberal meritocratic capitalism will be able to move toward a more advanced stage, what might be called “people’s capitalism,” in which income from both factors of production, capital and labor, would be more equally distributed. This would require broadening meaningful capital ownership way beyond the current top ten percent of the population and making access to the top schools and the best-paying jobs independent of one’s family background.
To achieve greater equality, countries should develop tax incentives to encourage the middle class to hold more financial assets, implement higher inheritance taxes for the very rich, improve free public education, and establish publicly funded electoral campaigns. The cumulative effect of these measures would be to make more diffuse the ownership of capital and skills in society. People’s capitalism would be similar to social democratic capitalism in its concern with inequality, but it would aspire to a different kind of equality; instead of focusing on redistributing income, this model would seek greater equality in assets, both financial and in terms of skills. Unlike social democratic capitalism, it would require only modest redistributive policies (such as food stamps and housing benefits) because it would have already achieved a greater baseline of equality.
If they fail to address the problem of growing inequality, liberal meritocratic capitalist systems risk journeying down another path—not toward socialism but toward a convergence with political capitalism. The economic elite in the West will become more insulated, wielding more untrammeled power over ostensibly democratic societies, much in the same way that the political elite in China lords over that country. The more that economic and political power in liberal capitalist systems become fused together, the more liberal capitalism will become plutocratic, taking on some features of political capitalism. In the latter model, politics is the way to win economic benefits; in plutocratic—formerly liberal meritocratic—capitalism, economic power will conquer politics. The endpoint of the two systems will be the same: the closing ranks of a privileged few and the reproduction of that elite indefinitely into the future.
Sean Spicer just said President Trump wasn’t referring to wiretapping when he tweeted about “wires tapped”. According to the White House Press Secretary, “wire tapped” doesn’t have anything to do with wiretapping.
It’s just a mere “alternative fact”, one with the potential to become a fake news.
Furthermore, despite having used the following expression “Bad (or sick) Guy!”, he (Trump) also wasn’t referring Obama personally. No, Trump meant to say the Obama administration. In both cases!
Two observations must be made:
First, if Trump doesn’t know how to correctly write what he wants or desires, I wonder why he still uses twitter? If he isn’t capable of doing it in 140 characters …
Secondly, what is the extent of Sean Spicer’s linguistic knowledge? And why does he persists in pushing “alternative facts”?
To President Trump, as it was to his predecessors, all that is, or should be, obligatory are decisions in accordance with his own conscience and within the limits of the law. Nothing more is required. He is entitled to decide as he sees fit and not as we would prefer.
I do accept his democratic victory. However, such acceptance does not mean that I must endorse his decisions. In fact, regardless of my political affiliations, I consider my foremost duty not to blindly accept every political decision.
Question our elected leaders, either the President, Senators, or Congressmen, is a fundamental prerequisite of democracy. And especially the leaders of our own political party and/or affiliation should and have to be questioned.
So, when facing a decision with which I disagree, I will always express my viewpoint without ever trying to impose it.
Ao Presidente Trump, tal como com os seus predecessores, tudo o que é, ou deve ser, exigido são decisões de acordo com a sua consciência em conformidade com os limites da lei. Nada mais é exigível, pois ele pode decidir como entender e não como nós preferiríamos.
Eu aceito a sua vitória eleitoral. Contudo, a minha aceitação não implica um apoio às suas decisões. Na verdade, independentemente das minhas posições políticas, considero ser o meu maior dever não aceitar cegamente toda e qualquer decisão política.
Questionar os nossos representantes eleitos, seja o Presidente, o Primeiro-Ministro ou os Deputados, é um pré-requisito essencial da democracia. E devem particularmente ser questionados os líderes do nosso próprio partido ou afiliação política.
Assim, perante uma decisão com a qual discordo, expressarei sempre a minha opinião sem nunca a impor.
Trump inauguration address was no surprise to me. Unlike many of my friends, I always paid close attention to non-verbal language and to psychologic profiles. As such, and as expected, President Trump will be just plain old Trump. Nothing more, nothing less.
In its core, Trump’s speech is not new. Every President’s primary concerns are internal and not external. Should we strange a patriotic speech? Of course not. Similarly, an isolationist speech is not a novelty. Although being rarer among republicans discourses today, there are many historical moments where patriotism and isolationism were the main republican topics. However, what is really innovative is Trump’s willingness to a closer relation with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, none of the past republican Presidents expressed such will or desire.
Donald Trump is not a Republican. He never was. And he is not a Rino either. Like most things throughout his life, the Republican party is simply an instrument, a tool to achieve a goal or to close a deal. Trump is a “Trumplican”. In fact, as he himself would say: “I’m the real trumplican, the only real trumplican. Which is yuge and bigly!”
Does Trump embody what we understand as a bully, a nationalist, a populist, a xenophobe? Yes, he does. However, the question must be: Is he aware of that? You see, sometimes is not just about perception. And if by any small probability Donald Trump is mindful of his own behavior, he simply does not consider such characteristics as negative and/or reprehensible.
As a political science and international relations researcher, in a certain way and to some extent, I’m looking forward to see what Trump’s presidency will bring. Both internally as externally.
Despite we can safely affirm that Trump will not fulfil most of his campaign promises, avoiding, to a certain degree, clashes with the Senate and the House of Representatives, we also can assert that unpredictability will be the rule. As such, the relation between the executive and legislative branches will be very interesting to follow. Furthermore, the same can be expected about Trump’s international stances.
Lastly, but certainly not least, in a significant reversal, Wall Street took over the White House. What’s next? What will happen to the balance between the political and economic spheres? What will happen to democracy?
For better or for worse, a new spectrum of possibilities emerges.
[If, in a sense, Trump is the same as he ever was, should we let the days go by?]
Trump’s election, which must be respected as it is a democratic manifestation, does not offer a sense of security.
However, my main worries are related with the day after the day after.
This may just be the beginning of a even more profound change. Much worse will be Trump’s impeachment. And the hypothesis is not implausible.
Mike Pence is a committed creationist and an tea party element. Can you imagine his type of presidency?
I was not a Trump supporter. Actually, I also wasn’t a Hillary supporter. But I will always be a supporter of democracy.
The US will change. Particularly, internally. That seems clear. I only hope that US foreign policy will not change much.
With this election, the Republicans control the Presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Trump has the possibility of making Tea Party affiliates and the like irrelevant. Let’s see if this possibility materializes.
Michael Moore predicts Trump’s presidential victory and advances five reasons for that outcome.
Coup d’état? I’m not buying it.
The lack of coordination evidenced yesterday by the military forces who carried out the alleged coup in Turkey is not consistent with the international reputation of the Turkish army. The televisions showed a helicopter firing, trying to hit targets on the ground. But where were the impact of the bullets? Neither human bodies nor the road, signs or anything else were hit.
I cannot shake the feeling that yesterday events in Turkey were orchestrated by Erdogan, aiming increase its power. We are witnessing a purge, designed to eliminate all those who oppose Erdogan. Both within the Turkish army as within his own party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This purge aims especially the military and the AKP members that still are Gulenists.
Historically, as it sees itself as the protector of Turkey’s secularism and democracy, the Turkish army has intervened in the political sphere, whenever deemed necessary to preserve democracy. The military has had several tensions with Erdogan’s AKP over its brand of political Islamism. Moreover, Mr. Erdogan’s relationship with justice also is not peaceful, but so far the decisions of the Turkish Constitutional Supreme Court have been in accordance with the rule of law.
Since the 2007 General Staff’s E-memorandum, targeting Erdogan’s non-secular politics, the relation between Erdogan and the military worsened. The 2010 constitutional referendum, which gave Erdogan’s government more control over judicial system, allowed the creation of prosecutors with extraordinary powers to accuse secular high-rank officers in the military, for planning a coup against Erdogan’s government. These prosecutions originated a power shift within the Turkish army and the result was the end of the secular military position.
With this move, Erdogan will be able to full control the military and to remove any opposition. Including the press.
Make no mistake. What is at stake is power. Absolut power. And how that goal will materialize is irrelevant. As such, it does not matter if it will be a Caliphate, an Islamic republic or something else. Whatever it is, it will seriously affect Turkish democracy and the rule of law. Most likely, permanently.
A curfew, martial law and the preparation of a new constitution was announced. What will emerge from a new constitution is not important. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long sought such circumstances. He wants to be Turkey’s ruler until his death. At least! Erdogan wants to be greater than Ataturk and in order to achieve that aura he will erase democracy in Turkey.
P.S. – NATO is the big question. I believe that is prudent to begin considering the possibility of Turkey leave NATO.