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Approving of autocracy

If you write favourably about Qatar or Russia, are you speaking up for dictatorships – or acknowledg

Yesterday Mehdi Hasan wrote an excellent post about the extraordinary reaction to Qatar being chosen to host the 2022 World Cup.

Quite apart from the fact that the emirate will undoubtedly make a great success of the event – I went to the opening of the 2006 Asian Games in Doha and even though they had the misfortune to suffer a downpour, an exceedingly rare event in those climes, the ceremony, choreography, fireworks and lighting of the torch were the most spectacular display I've ever witnessed – Mehdi's was a very mild defence. He did not deny that the "country, like every other Gulf nation, has an autocratic and reactionary regime and is far from liberal or democratic". But speaking up for Qatar was still a step too far for the many who then attacked him in the comments section.

It appears that automatic disapproval is what is expected – demanded, even – whenever one writes about a country that fails to meet our standards when it comes to human rights, democracy and liberal values; no matter how recently we as a society may have come not only to protect in law but also embrace those values in practice. (Think of our attitude towards gay men and women in public life being a good instance of a halo we have bestowed on ourselves though we haven't quite earned it yet – or are we ready for a gay prime minister?)

Certainly, there are states that you would have to be particularly perverse to want to defend – Burma, for example, or North Korea. Yet what about countries that strike us as illiberal and whose practice of democracy is erratic or barely existent – but whose peoples seem content with or approving of such deviations from our ideal?

Take Russia, whose prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has been accused by the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev of acting as though "democracy stands in his way". But has the electorate there chosen a semi-autocracy instead? The Stanford academic Michael McFaul put the reasons for Putin's success well in Foreign Affairs magazine two years ago.

In the 1990s, under post-Soviet Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, the state did not govern, the economy shrank and the population suffered. Since 2000, under Putin, order has returned, the economy has flourished and the average Russian is living better than ever before. As political freedom has decreased, economic growth has increased. Putin may have rolled back democratic gains, the story goes, but these were necessary sacrifices on the altar of stability and growth.

McFaul, a specialist in Russia and the former Eastern Bloc, thought this was wrong: the country, he said, would have done better "if democracy had survived". However, he also conceded that: "This narrative has a powerful simplicity, and most Russians seem to buy it. Putin's approval rating hovers near 80 per cent, and nearly a third of Russians would like to see him become president for life."

To take another example: semi- or fully autocratic regimes were the norm throughout south-east Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. In Singapore, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has argued this is because what he calls "Asian values" prevail in the region. That this is a distinctly unfashionable analysis is not likely to trouble MM Lee in the least. However, there are some western observers who agree that there may be something in it.

In Joe Studwell's 2007 book Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and South-East Asia, he wrote that the countries he covered (he did not include Indochina or Burma) were experiencing a "developmental honeymoon", and so were not so bothered about their lack of western-style liberal democracy. In this state, he wrote:

Populations are unusually willing to trust authority and their leaders' promises to deliver continuous improvements in standards of living. When south-east Asians were told that free association of labour was antithetical to growth . . . and that constraints on individual freedom and the media are part of Asian culture, they acquiesced.

Like McFaul, Studwell believed they were wrong to do so. But he still thought the relevant populations gave their de facto assent to this bargain – and not without reason. "With the average GDP growth rates from 1986 to 1995 picking up to 8-10 per cent a year in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, versus 6-8 per cent in the period after 1960, they trusted the politicians and waited for the bourgeois nirvana that would release them from the shackles of economic need."

If this is the kind of deal that operated there, would it not be even more attractive to the permanent populations of Gulf states such as Qatar, whose citizens can expect plentiful financial benisons – way beyond the pleasures suggested by a mere "bourgeois nirvana" – to be provided for them throughout their lives by their governments?

The points I am making are simple, but there is a particular reason for making them here, in the New Statesman. Many commenters regard it as axiomatic that left or left-leaning writers should not only speak up for the kinds of liberty and democracy we enjoy here, but also regard them as universal values that are therefore applicable – if necessary, by force – around the world.

But it seems to me just as left or left-leaning to ask what it is that people want and then to respect that choice, at least to the extent of admitting that it is their decision to make and not ours. If it turns out that they don't actually want our brands of liberty and democracy; if they are quite content without them, or even vote to give up some of the freedoms we would cherish, some seem to think it is the role of the left not just to tell them they are wrong, but to try to force them to change their minds by economic sanctions, trade wars and bellicose rhetoric.

This attitude, to me, smacks rather of what France in the 19th century referred to as its "mission civilisatrice". We in Britain were a little more honest about it. We called it "imperialism". It is a mystery to me why anyone should think there is anything left-wing about that.