How the Western establishment could save liberal democracy (and itself)
After visiting China, the impression arises that they are awaiting something. After speaking up about the advantages of liberal democracy, they politely listen to you and smile. From the conversations, you realise that they do not take our liberal democracy all that seriously. We, the Chinese, have had our own state for five thousand years and you are trying to teach us, they say. They also emphasise that liberal democracy is only a brief moment in history, which will quickly fade away, while China will remain as it was.
Up to now, the Western world has proven that it is capable of overcoming crises and adapting to the changing world, even prospering. But is this crisis the last for us?
A liberal reading of recent history
“Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Winston Churchill repeated an unknown author’s thought in November 1947, becoming one of his most famous quips. And before this, in 1946, the politician made another famous speech, where he coined the term Iron Curtain. The world was emerging from the ruins of the Second World War and the newly begun Cold War was defined by the struggle between two ideologies.
These were difficult times, but this opposition was fairly elementary – it was a struggle against the ideology of evil, depending on which side of the barricades you were. Black and white or white and black, the struggle akin to a chess board, with an agreed set of rules and a very familiar rival. Sometimes it seemed that the West was losing and that liberal democracy was doomed. But despite all the difficulties, this round was won by the West, carrying with it the flag of liberal democracy.
Having won the Cold War, liberal democracy became a victim of its own success – the liberal economic model was efficiently implemented in developing countries and this has made the rest of the world wealthier. At no point in the world’s history had so many people been brought out of poverty, and the speed at which this was accomplished was rather astonishing.
Globalisation, which was influenced by liberal economics and technological innovations, has been beneficial to the world. In this system, the wealthy Western capitalists can quite easily move their production lines and service sector to developing countries, thus providing jobs for the world’s poorest. The rise of “the rest” is a positive phenomenon. The wealthy Western capitalists deal out incredible profits, while the world’s poor in the rest of the world are grateful for being granted jobs.
This wild capitalist system works well in authoritarian states with unseen levels of exploitation which wouldn’t have been allowed in the West. Furthermore, voters’ voices mean little in those countries. It was thought that such wild capitalism will eventually birth liberal democratic traditions, akin to the West and thus the Western world would “expand” across the globe. It no longer seems that this will happen.
How will the rest of the world react if the foundations of liberal democracy, unexpectedly, begins to fracture in the centre? While liberal democracies have successful experiences in handling crises, we must recognise there have been failed attempts as well. It is surprising, however, that we haven’t always learned from those mistakes; who would have thought ten years ago that there would be disputes over which previous crises the current one is most similar to – the 1930 or the 1970s?
Two previous industrial revolutions worked in the West
Liberal democracy is doomed if it fails to adapt to the rapidly changing world because it is completely unprepared for the fourth industrial revolution. This revolution has not yet fully gathered pace and truly taken off, but the cradles of liberal democracies are already being shaken by its political earthquakes.
Every revolution (political, economic or social) births winners and losers. The first two industrial revolutions managed to integrate the losers. It took two world wars and reform movements, but the twentieth century eventually managed to integrate the victims of the industrial revolutions. Will the Western world manage to do so during the fourth industrial revolution? If it does, liberal democracy will enter a new phase and will continue to be the object of envy. To achieve this, however, will require a considerable effort from society.
The essence of all industrial revolutions is that people are gradually becoming extensions of machines. The difference is in that having lost jobs in the previous phases, most of the workers managed to adapt and work alongside the machines, but this process was painful, demanding considerable energy and time.
Nevertheless, employers could not do without the help of human beings. Machines, regardless of how well they worked, had to have a supervisor, that is to say a human being. Employees, who lost manual labour, earned social guarantees and the state ensured that workers would receive a sufficient education in order to control these machines. The employers had no other choices than to raise wages, reduce working hours and pay greater taxes so that social guarantees, healthcare and the education system would be maintained.
You could see how this social contract will work very well in the future as well. Even with their teeth grit, employers raised wages and paid higher taxes. The workers were also content, even if their numbers in industrial societies declined. Many children of these workers entered university, became part of the middle class and thus contributed to the post-industrial society phenomenon.
Of most importance is that this peaceful social transformation proceeded akin to evolution; the system is suited to us, and we will vote for the parties which more or less support the maintenance of the system. Even further, the business and political establishment made use of news media to control public opinion. All the main news media and public opinion channels were controlled by centre left and centre right powers, which supported the liberal democratic form of governance back then.
Liberal democracy endured even the most terrible shocks because the establishment was unable to create its own welfare without a sufficiently educated and supplied working class in their countries. But the most important aspect is in that these workers at the same time have equal voting rights. They elect the politicians, who decide the country’s political and economic life. With globalisation accelerating, the business establishment no longer needed its “own” workers – nothing personal, business goes where it is cheaper.
In this way, a significant part of the working classes in the Western world became remnants of an outdated structure and were forced to trade places with the rest of the world.
It is important to share, we all win from the rest of the world becoming wealthier. But everyone must share.
The establishment loses control
The main problem of liberal democracy in the West is that in essence this system embodies a formula, which could implode our societies. Rising inequality and vanishing jobs is already the reality in the twentieth century. Adding to this cocktail of discord, liberal voices have completely lost the capability of influencing public opinion. The third industrial revolution opened a Pandora’s Box – information and opinions can be spread by whoever has access to the internet. The means and tools of spreading information have been perfected to the point of reaching vast masses without even having deep pockets.
No longer are experienced journalists and analysts the gatekeepers of information; now, everyone can be a journalist. Also, every populist who “knows” a fast means of solving problems can spread his opinions and easily bend the populace to his side. Yes, the “others”, who were forced to share their earnings with the rest of the world, also have voting rights here in the West.
Arguments that the iron made in China is cheaper than the iron made in Pennsylvania crashes into populist claims that by draining the Washington swamp (Rome swamp, London swamp, etc.), this will all change.
Those struggling with the transformation required by these successive industrial revolutions in the West do not want to hear any other arguments because, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, they do not believe that their children will live better than they do. Only an even more socially secured and more qualified labour force (and voters) will be capable of integrating into the fourth industrial revolution.
Should we let the populists “screw up”?
This revolution is already preying on higher qualified jobs – lower chain accountants, lawyers, human resource staff have to already worry about the future of their jobs. Even worse, we do not yet know the consequences artificial intelligence will have on other sectors of the economy.
We must admit to ourselves that there will be more and more citizens who will find it increasingly difficult to integrate into the job market but who can still vote. There are already free jobs and many unemployed because they cannot obtain sufficient qualifications to work in those vacant jobs. The ranks of the structurally unemployed will only grow because there will always be people who cannot catch up to the fourth-industrial-revolution train.
Western societies do not have the luxury for lengthy debate, they must create and implement mechanisms for correctly sharing the wealth, which has accumulated among just a handful of people thanks to globalisation. These are the best professionals of their areas, among the most capable members of our societies, who made their wealth through their competences and incredibly hard work.
It is only unfortunate that most of these people do not grasp that they must give back more to societies than they have. The reality is that more must be returned so that societies, whose children are going to kindergartens and schools, in which you can enjoy a safe life and a harmonious environment, could continue to develop.
This “sharing” process has been ongoing in the West for about a hundred years. It has proceeded slowly, but surely because the establishment controlled public opinion, thus securing itself from having hard-line populists in power. Those means of control are gone, populist ideas are relentlessly delving into the hearts of the rest. And this rest has the right to vote. If this rest is also be left feeling abandoned, populist powers will not only be elected to parliaments, they will even have enough votes to form governments.
It is said that populism can only be defeated by populists – let them enter power, they will either become responsible politicians or will quickly “screw up.” If the current situation is in any way similar to that of the thirties of the last century, this “screwing up” could cost us dearly. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that one populist or hard-line party will not be replaced by another.
Liberal democracies have two or three elections to save themselves. This is so that the rest does not feel abandoned and that social guarantees would ensure a dignified life for them.
If basic income will help save liberal democracy, the establishment must make every effort for it to be implemented. If it is mass citizen requalification, the establishment must prepare for it. The establishment must strive to convince business leaders that there is no other means of safeguarding liberal democracy. They must switch to a higher sharing gear.
If we fail to do this, those who advocate dividing everything up will enter power, with all the consequences that will follow. We have already been there, it will likely be the end of liberal democracy.
Sadly, when offered such a proposal, our business leaders would not likely support it. Yes, trading with China is great, but it would be even better if our Chinese friends were not correct about the looming end of liberal democracy.
Ruslanas Iržikevičius – Founder, Editor-in-Chief of the Lithuania Tribune (en.delfi.lt) news portal. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2001 with an MA with Honours in History, and worked at the Bank of Scotland before returning to Lithuania. Continuing on at a range of embassies in Vilnius as a press and political officer before founding the Lithuania Tribune news portal in 2009. Since then, he has been publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Lithuania Tribune which became the largest English language publication in Lithuania. He is keenly interested in the Baltic region, Nordic/Baltic cooperation as well as Russia and Central and Eastern Europe with a focus on politics and security, information warfare and transatlantic cooperation.