Writing in 1934, Paul Valéry observed “a remarkable fact: dictatorship is at present contagious, just as, in the past, freedom was.” The modern world, the French poet and essayist went on, was seeking “a system of economics, politics, morals, aesthetics – and, perhaps, even logic”. Europe was looking for “the intelligent tyrant” who could bring order into the commotion of the age.
The decades that followed showed the dangers of this quest. European dictators brought war and crime on an unparalleled scale. Communist Russia and China – seen by advanced minds as new civilisations in the making – left little apart from heaps of uncounted corpses. The success story of the postwar world was social democracy. The builders of the age were Franklin D Roosevelt and Clement Attlee.
Nothing is learned for long in politics. Nearly a century later, tyranny once again exerts a seductive charm, and not only on intellectual elites. Millions of young people identify with movements that repress the freedoms they take for granted. Ardent believers in sexual liberation can be found demonstrating in support of Islamist regimes that ban gay sex. Sympathy with its enemies has become an integral part of the mass psychology of progressive liberalism. In the 1930s, fellow travellers could argue that the Soviet Union was attempting, however brutally, to realise modern Western ideals. Today, far larger numbers of progressives are allies of movements that despise everything the modern West stands for.
If there are such things as memes, ideas that compete with one another in Darwinian fashion, the fittest among them appear to be the most toxic. Yet it is not the barbarous successors of Isis, proficient in nothing apart from the practice of terror, who will inherit the future. The true exemplar of the appeal of tyranny is China.
During the pandemic, Xi Jinping’s “zero Covid” policy found enthusiastic promoters among scientists and health experts. The ruinous costs of lockdown and resulting economic malaise have tarnished Xi’s brand of authoritarian rule. China has many of our problems on a bigger scale – mountainous debt, a crumbling property market and enormous economic inequalities. Yet writing off the Chinese model is an exercise in wishful thinking. This is not a mere reversion to autocracy but a colossal experiment in post-democratic government, whose claim to superior rationality the West may well come to accept.
An insight into the ideas inspiring the experiment can be gleaned from the writings of Wang Huning, one of Xi’s closest advisers and the most influential living political thinker. Unlike many Chinese Communist Party members he retained his position after the October 2018 party conference in which Xi was anointed president for life. Wang’s goal is that China surpasses the technological and economic achievements of the West without succumbing to its disorders – epidemic drug use, ethnic conflicts, family breakdown and a cult of narcissistic individualism. In America against America (1991), he recorded his impressions when he travelled across the US as a visiting academic in 1988, concluding: “Nihilism has become the American way.”
Close proximity to dictatorial power is dangerous, and often fatal. Wang could be dropped by Xi and disappear at any time, or vanish along with his master if Xi is removed in the course of infighting among China’s ruling elites.
More realistic than right-wing critics of liberalism, Wang is clear that preserving social cohesion requires political restraint of market forces. Left to itself, capitalism will dissolve society into an anomic wasteland of the kind pictured in the Marxian theorist Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity (2000). The combination of unfettered markets with “traditional values” imagined by latter-day disciples of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan is utopian fantasy. Any effective remedy for late modern anomie would necessarily involve a revolutionary transformation of the economy. The alternative, Wang believes, is continuing social and cultural decline. (China has a strategic advantage insofar as its companies serve long-term geopolitical goals rather than short-term profit.)
The social movements sweeping across the Western world dream of a new ethics, economic and politics, even a new aesthetic and logic. But their visions of a new order are inchoate, and in practice their protests simply render society less governable. Blocking roads and railway stations worsens the breakdown of the public realm; defacing works of art trashes the remnants of a culture that is being discarded through self-cancellation and neglect. In contrast, as well as producing legions of engineers and scientists, Chinese universities teach canonical Western texts in their original languages. European classical music is played by orchestras throughout the country. Only decades after the final triumph of liberal values was confidently announced, relics of a fading Western civilisation are finding a home in the iron cage of Xi’s authoritarianism.
As democracies become more anarchical and chaotic, the dream of intelligent tyranny has returned to haunt them. Unlike in Valéry’s day, they do not yearn to become dictatorships themselves. Instead, increasingly unhinged and too lacking in vitality to collapse, their secret longing is for reason and order under the aegis of an enlightened despotism.
[See also: The slipperiness of ceasefire]
This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury