Thursday, April 01, 2004

Regarding Authoritarianism

Matt Ygelsias has been reflecting on authoritarianism, here, here, and here. The main focus of his reflections is Singapore, an avowedly authoritarian society that, for a variety of reasons (such as the fact that malpractice lawsuits are practically unheard of) is able to provide excellent services to its residents, as Belle Waring attests. In his last post, riffing off some points that the Blogtheist makes, Matt goes on to consider Pinochet and his ability to impose, by fiat, old age pensions. Matt's many commenters, when not expressing incredulity, have additionally pointed out the excellence of the Nazi-build autobahn as an additional example.

The difficulty of dealing with long-term or complicated problems in need of fundamental reform, especially in democratic contexts where there are numerous veto points, many turf-protecting stakeholders, etc., has long been a problematic one for political thinkers. Many try to avoid it by simply avoiding pluralism altogether: the sovereign, in these conceptions, ultimately has no obligation to recognizing a diversity of interests. Yet even then the realities of government, and the specificity of political action, is going to create factions, which will entrench themselves and need to be dealt with, particularly in times of crisis. (Even Rousseau, who argued that the only legitimate and free society would be one small enough so that all the members could unite around a single "general will" and therefore be sovereigns in their own collective right, still allowed that sometimes, when real emergencies arose, a "dictator" would be necessary to do what the general assembly couldn't.) The lure of violence, of simply getting rid of the obstacles which real diverse persons present, is a difficult one. (You can see it creeping into the rhetoric of liberty on many levels, whether that rhetoric be about the "liberation" of individuals from oppressive relationships or about the "emancipation" which the free market presumably supplies.)

My own observation about the Singaporean context, which needs to be clearly understood, is that an authoritarianism that "works"--that doesn't, for example, have the hideous costs which a dictator like Pinochet or Hitler had for the people of Chile or Germany--isn't going to merely be a matter of crushing factions; it is going to be something which involves the recognition and maintenance of a cultural context wherein "factions" understand their role differently. In other words, where a certain social uniformity or collectivity holds for all or practically all members (or at least franchised and economically empowered members) of the society, and hence they express their particularity with an eye towards a common good. Michael Robinson, in Matt's comments section, argues that the strong technocratic bureaucracy in Singapore is explicable by recognizing that it is "extracted from a 2000-year tradition of Confucian governance," one built around the moral authority of sages who promulgated a "mandate of heaven". I wouldn't necessarily argue that every Singaporean doctor or patient feels themselves bound to a Confucian moral order--one wherein which malpractice lawsuits would imply an antagonistic rather than a shared relationship to the goods at hand--but it pointless to speculate about how Singapore manages to keep health care costs down and the quality so high without at least contemplating the role of cultural homogeneity and communal identity in smoothing out the many ways in which individuals might otherwise drive up costs by seeing themselves as disconnected to some larger moral imperative.

Obviously, in many ways the Singapore which Lee Kwan Yew created is a less than admirable society; I've written plenty on the "Asian values" debate before, and I'm hardly a defender of Confucian authoritarianism, which can be just as persuasively attacked from a culturally communitarian perspective as from any other. But basically, given my particular kind of left-communitarian politics, I'm not unsympathetic to the project of reconnecting people to such identities and such imperatives (hence my interest in language, religion, nationality, etc.)--especially, as is at least arguably the case in Singapore, when the collective goods and cultural imperatives which the government works to embody (admittedly sometimes harshly in the Singaporean case) in fact have popular grounding support. (Imposing "shared values" where none exist and none are wanted would of course be the worst kind of tyranny.) If Matt, for whatever reason, is willing to speculate in a contrary way on the whys and wherefores of authoritarianism, more power to him. I don't care to turn liberalism into a be-all and end-all fetish, like "dellis" and some other of Matt's commenters do ("for you and your ugly kin, it's all about democracy, and basic liberalism is hardly ever mentioned")--as far as I'm concerned, liberalism shouldn't necessarily be accepted as a basic first-order rule of society; better to view it as an adjective, a way of acting within the given context of society. And if that society is authoritarian, even "illiberal" in some of its shared values, that doesn't mean that the support for the goods which those values at least partially make possible (like an efficient, affordable, and excellent health care system) is inauthentic; the popular acclaim for such achievements (such as that clearly manifest by a grateful Belle and her husband John) deserves cautious democratic credit as well.