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Editorial
Mick Hume

The new authoritarianism

'The democratic process' has been redefined in the 1990s. It now means that Western governments can do whatever they want around the world. The impact of this new authoritarianism has been felt first in Eastern Europe and the third world. But it has serious implications for our lives, too.

Defending democracy has long been the avowed aim of British and American foreign policy. The West presented the Cold War as a confrontation between the Free World and Totalitarianism (despite the fact that the Free World included every pro-Western dictator in Africa, Asia and Latin America). Then Western commentators celebrated the collapse of the Soviet bloc as the start of a new age of 'people power' and global democracy. All of that is now finished.

Today the Western powers have a far freer hand to intervene in the affairs of other nations. Their right to do so is more widely recognised than it has been for a century. They no longer feel the same need to champion democratic structures in order to justify their interference abroad. Which is just as well for them, since it has become clear that international capitalism cannot sustain democracy in much of Eastern Europe and the third world.

When Western governments do pay lip-service to 'fighting for democracy' around the globe today, they mean something very different than is usually assumed. Democracy now means that the rulers of the democratic West will dictate what is best for the rest of the world. It means that the future of people everywhere from Bosnia to Somalia will be democratically decided according to how Bill Clinton, John Major and Francois Mitterrand cast their votes on the Security Council of the United Nations. People power, 1993-style, rests with the people with the power in Western capitals.

Elsewhere in this issue of Living Marxism, we detail some of the methods which the West is using to re-establish colonial-style control over Africa. They range from fixed elections to wars of subversion. There may now be a few more electoral contests than in the past. But in terms of who holds real power afterwards, the West always wins the election - even when it backs a loser.

Any Western intervention in the East or the third world can only be undemocratic, since it denies people control of their destiny, and invests authority over their affairs in Washington, Whitehall, Paris, Bonn and Tokyo. Yet in the uncritical political climate of our time, Western governments seem able to attach the label 'democratic mission' to any bit of bullying they do abroad, without fear of being seriously challenged at home.

The notion that the West knows what's best for the rest of the world has now become so deeply embedded that the authorities often feel no need even to pay lip-service to the importance of defending democracy in foreign lands. Instead there is a more explicit discussion among politicians and commentators about the problem of democracy in unstable parts of the globe.

Today, prominent Western spokesmen imply that Russian president Boris Yeltsin should shelve democracy, abolish his difficult parliament, and force market reforms through by diktat like the Chinese regime. Indeed it often seems that the butchers of Tiananmen Square have become role models for good government. The West has already approved the assumption of dictatorial powers by president Lech Walesa of Poland, who suspended parliament after it dared to pass a motion of no-confidence in the government.

The underlying message is that democracy remains a good political system, but that many people in Eastern Europe or the third world are not yet good enough for it. These immature nations with their undeveloped political cultures cannot be left alone to exercise their democratic rights any more than a child can be left to play with matches. Instead they need proper supervision and a firm hand from their elders and betters in the West.

As crises and conflicts erupt around the world, the Western authorities are seeking to shift the blame away from the failures of global capitalism, and on to the shortcomings of the local peoples involved. That in turn becomes an argument for the West to intervene further and assume more authority, in order to sort out the mess made by Somali warlords or Cambodian butchers or the ethnic tribes of the Balkans. Wringing their hands about the inability of others to live with popular democracy, Western governments take a tighter grip on the lives of millions.

The new authoritarianism has been consolidated first and foremost in international affairs. A consensus has been created behind the right to intervene abroad. But these political trends will not halt at the gates of Western society. The new authoritarianism has serious implications here, too.

All of the debates about intervention, UN solutions and peace plans authored by retired British and US politicians are backed by the assumption that the Western authorities understand what is best for the peoples of, say, Bosnia or Cambodia, regardless of how those people vote or what aspirations they express.

But if we accept that our rulers know what's best over there, why shouldn't they assume that they know what's best here, too? If the British government is granted the right to ride roughshod over those people, what's to stop them trying the same approach to asserting their authority at home? The ease with which democratic rights can now be trampled around the world should send a warning signal about what is coming next within the West itself.

Behind the Conservative government's guff about classless societies and egalitarianism, there is already a dangerous undercurrent of social elitism in British political debate. And it is breaking through to the surface more and more often.

Note, for instance, the recent debate about whether a marginal group such as unmarried, unemployed mothers really deserves the full rights of citizenship (such as social security or NHS infertility treatment). Or the proposal that young people should be banned from holding raves without the express permission of the police. The increasing confidence with which many similarly contemptuous notions about ordinary people can be expressed these days is early evidence of how, having been steeled in international affairs, the new authoritarianism is creeping into British society.

Of course, there is a small problem here for the British authorities. They cannot abuse their own people in quite the same way as they treat foreigners. It is vital that they maintain a firm distinction in the public mind between the backward, inferior East and third world, and the civilised heartlands of Western capitalism - a preoccupation which is well illustrated by the current discussion about war crimes (see page 14). However, within those limitations, there remains plenty of scope for the government to bring the spirit of the new authoritarianism home.

For a striking illustration of what this means, take a look behind what, on the surface, appears to be one of the most boring issues in politics today; the Conservative government's opposition to the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty and other related legislation coming out of the EC.

What are the Tories really saying in opting out of the social chapter, with its provisions on working hours, conditions and welfare?

Stripped of all the nationalist rhetoric about British sovereignty and not being bullied by Brussels, they are saying that they object to any attempt to give workers any rights whatsoever. They are saying that they want us to have no room to manoeuvre in dealing with the employers today. They are saying that working people ought to be available to be hired or fired at will, without the right to say no. It appears that the one freedom which the Tories do insist that employees must have is the freedom to work more than 48 hours a week. In other words, the new authoritarianism already extends into the workplace.

This fact was recently confirmed in a little-noticed case. At the end of April, the Court of Appeal ruled that it was illegal for two companies to penalise their workers financially for being members of a trade union. The government's immediate response was to tack an overnight amendment on to its latest anti-trade union bill in the House of Lords, to ensure that no court could ever again interfere with an employer's ability to blackmail his employees into submission. Tory spokesman Viscount Ullswater tore up and rewrote our rights in a display of aristocratic arrogance unseen since...well, since Lord Owen redrew the map of Bosnia.

The trend towards greater Western intervention is not just a problem for people in the third world, or for those concerned with international relations. It is a problem for us all. The anti-democratic assumptions underlying it are beginning to make their mark within our supposedly democratic British society. Ask the women pickets outside Timex, summarily sacked and surrounded by police, what they think of the citizen's charter.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993
 
 

 

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