At last week’s UN General Assembly, Joe Biden, the US president, repeated the narrative that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is part of a wider war of Eastern autocracy against Western democracy, opposing liberal freedom to despotic tyranny. Yet over the past 30 years, the boundaries have become blurred: the West has taken an authoritarian turn towards state capitalism, bio-medical control and tech totalitarian tendencies in ways which increasingly resemble the autocratic axis of Moscow and Beijing.
For two decades, Francis Fukuyama’s Hegelian notion that history was ending in a universal convergence on US-style liberal market democracy was greeted like prophetic wisdom. But defeat in Iraq and the humiliating retreats from Afghanistan and Libya suggest that the arc of global history does not bend in the direction of universal liberalism. What Western powers left behind was a toxic mix of corruption, authoritarian army rule and anarchy.
Take, for example, the near-apocalyptic conditions in the Libyan city of Derna – where two badly maintained dams burst two weeks ago, flooding the city and killing thousands of people – after years of neglect and civil war, which pitted the Western-sponsored government of national unity against the Eastern-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar. It is not simply the case that the promotion of democracy failed. Rather, we now know there was no proper plan to replace dictators with democrats and no sincere commitment to engage in the complex endeavour of nation and institution building. There was not a conspiracy, but rather hubris combined with complacency.
The rot started at home, where Western countries have undermined fundamental freedoms of speech, association and religion. First the 20-year long war on terror curtailed civil liberties and betrayed universal principles of justice, such as fair detention, fair trial, the right to defence, habeas corpus, and a decent treatment of the convicted. Waterboarded inmates at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib will forever haunt Western leaders and their apologists. Then came the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought us indiscriminate lockdowns of draconian severity with little parliamentary scrutiny. And both state and corporate intrusions of privacy and the erosion of free expression and free assembly.
[See also: The West can no longer make war]
It’s now becoming all too apparent that authoritarian measures linked to state surveillance and bio-medical control can be implemented within political structures that remain formally democratic as well as in one-party states or dictatorships. As national security threats and medical crises are normalised, emergency rule and the state of exception are not unusual.
So thirty years of integrating China into the world economy and global free trade have not liberalised the Middle Kingdom but instead made the West more like the authoritarian People’s Republic. Far from the Chinese system becoming more enlightened, more liberal and more democratic, the adoption of Western-style capitalism and technology has strengthened state socialism “with Chinese characteristics”, concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the ruling Communist Party and the army.
It produced a centralised, unitary state in pursuit of a surveillance society in which each citizen is subject to total technological control using cameras and digital tools to track everyone’s every step. Beijing already deploys facial recognition technology that can detect elevated temperatures in a crowd or flag citizens who are not wearing a face mask. Another element of China’s surveillance state is the social credit system it is building: a government ranking of citizens’ behaviour using both public and private monitoring, which can strip people of rights and freedoms in case of non-compliance.
While there is no moral or political equivalence with the West, we are nonetheless moving in this direction. Western countries are replacing the failed market fundamentalism with variants of state capitalism, in which the central state intervenes in business and civic life to the benefit of small elites with powerful political leverage – big finance in the City of London and on Wall Street and big tech in Silicon Valley. In the power nexus, it is government that has been captured by corporations and tech billionaires – the twin-headed hydra of Milton Friedman and Elon Musk.
The danger is that the West will continue to build a system of bio-surveillance in which the whole population is tracked and people’s individual health conditions are centrally monitored all the time. It is not just intrusive online ads or gig workers under permanent pressure to get top ratings from their customers. Worse, tech platforms deploy new means of behaviour modification by mining data from the most intimate recesses of our selves that were once private. As personal experience is monetised in the interest of global capital, liberty turns into unfreedom.
Technologies of monitoring and social control are able to manipulate us to the point where we unconsciously surrender our humanity to surveillance capitalism. We’re prisoners online; Facebook algorithms and Google’s artificial intelligence know more about us than we do about ourselves. It reflects the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s ugly utopia of Panopticon: an ideal prison designed to keep inmates under permanent observation.
Bio-surveillance is the contemporary expression of a sacrificial utilitarian calculus that dispenses with the dignity of the person for the “greater good” of the masses, but in reality the power of their masters. Our authoritarian age is already upon us, and the renewal of democracy starts at home.