Technology and the Competition between Democracy and Autocracy

Peter Parycek and Ralph Schoellhammer contributed an article about the future of democracy in the digital age to the newest edition of eutopia:

What does the data revolution of the last two decades mean for the competition between different political systems? Contrary to the often proclaimed hope that new means of communication and data collection as well as analysis would improve and enhance democracy worldwide, the situation seems to be much more complex. Most importantly, it seems as if technological progress has reignited a competition between different political systems.

When Alexis de Tocqueville enthusiastically wrote his Democracy in America during the late eighteenth century, he was wondering “with what new traits despotism could be produced in the world”. His optimism for a democratic form of government was not lessened by a constant mistrust in the human ability to actually maintain a political system that was not only democratic in name, but also in essence.

Nowadays, liberal democracy worldwide has come under pressure from alternative political systems in Asia and Eastern Europe, but also in the very heart of Europe itself: at a time when the Prime Minister of one of the oldest nation states in Europe, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, can openly declare that his goal is to build an “illiberal state” on democratic premises, de Tocqueville’s concerns are of an almost uncomfortable timeliness.

Being a profound observer of his own time, de Tocqueville is a great starting point to the understanding of what Larry Diamond calls the global “democratic recession”.

The history of political development in the West has taken two decisive turns in the years since the French Revolution of 1789. One was the emergence of a mass political consciousness driven by increased literacy and economic wealth. Very soon, this consciousness started to express itself in the form of nationalism.

The other one was the massive expansion of the power of the state and state institutions. Contrary to what one might think, those two developments were not conflicting, but one served as the precondition for the other.

The force of nationalism as a collective identity was a crucial element in the construction of stable and loyal bureaucracies, and it was no coincidence that the nineteenth century was one of growing state capacity all over the Western world.

Whether it was basic education, the implementation of official national languages, art, literature, or architecture – every state was attempting to mould a loyal and public-spirited citizenry, something that was wonderfully captured in Eugene Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen.

Yet at the same time this growing power of the state was accompanied by a balancing power in the form of private associations. Wherever possible, people were forming clubs, communities, societies, and charities – a trend that could be seen in the aristocracy as much as in the working class with its Working Men’s Clubs that aimed at providing education and entertainment for their members.
In other words, what we could see emerge during that time were networks independent from state authorities. Although most of these institutions were highly patriotic, they nonetheless remained essentially private and represented a counter-weight to the increasing power of the public administration.

The tension between private networks and state hierarchies – an expression coined by the British historian Niall Ferguson – in nineteenth century Europe and the United States was a safeguard for democracy and civil society, for it kept the individual somewhat isolated from an overarching central power and maintained “intermediary institutions” (de Tocqueville) or the “little platoons” (Edmund Burke) of civic associations in society that prevented the descent from democracy into a “despotic state”.

What happens if such a balance is lost was to be seen in the first half of the twentieth century. The totalitarian movements of fascism, communism, and national socialism marked the triumph of the absolute and hierarchical state.

Not surprisingly, all these systems immediately abolished the intermediary institutions that were seen as obstacles that could prevent the complete subjugation of people’s daily lives to the caprices of a totalitarian political authority. Civil society was either abolished or coopted by the state.
Having experienced life in France after the revolution, de Tocqueville was convinced that such systems can only survive by intimidation and suppression. Yet he continued to wonder whether it was possible to have a state with potentially totalitarian powers that could govern a people without being perceived as despotic.

One of the reasons why totalitarian systems since the French Revolution have terrorised their populations was that of the impossibility of effectively distinguishing loyal subjects from potentially dissident elements.

This is the one thing in common between Robespierre’s France, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Russia: the continuous intimidation and mass murder was a way to extinguish resistance before it could form and organise itself.

In the past, we have often seen that it was exactly at the moment of even a slight political opening that the first crack appeared and then developed into a complete breakdown of the political system.

The Soviet Union or Franco’s Spain were the most stable when they were the most terrifying – once these systems allowed the emergence of additional political movements it became impossible to contain them to only pro-regime political parties.

Some countries, like China in the late 1980s, swung back in the realm of politics and re-established party control, while others, such as the states of Eastern Europe, proved unable to hold back the tide.

Before the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, de Tocqueville wrote that a core problem suffered by dictatorships was that “the entire government of the empire was concentrated in the hands of the emperor alone, and although he remained, in time of need, the arbiter of all things, the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control”.

This problem was overcome by totalitarianism through the sheer use of force and the creation of a system in which every individual was under permanent suspicion by the government. Yet what would happen if governments had the opportunity and administrative capability “to subject all subjects to the details of a uniform set of regulations” without being openly totalitarian?

What was unthinkable only a couple of decades ago has now become increasingly possible: the advancements in computer technology, data collection, and data analysis have created precisely the kind of administrative power that de Tocqueville feared.

And it would be a misunderstanding to believe that only despotic systems like China attempt to use these new technological opportunities. The fact that the average citizen of Great Britain is, according to some studies, second only to the people of North Korea when it comes to being filmed by public cameras should give us reason to pause.

Recent technological developments challenge democracies as well as autocracies, and there is indeed a competition when it comes to the question of who will be able to use it more efficiently. If we continue our analogy of networks and hierarchies, arguably autocracies are more interested in preserving a hierarchical system with the state on top, while democracies are more open to network-approaches that include civil society.

What has changed, however, is the distinction between “modern” and “traditional” autocracies: traditional autocracies still depend more strongly on means of violence and suppression, something that can be seen in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East.

Modern autocracies on the other hand have a stronger awareness of the necessity to be not only powerful, but legitimate in the eyes of their people. As the events of the “Arab Spring” have revealed, social networking technologies can create existential crisis for the hierarchical approach of traditional autocracies.

It did, however, also reveal the limits of networks. It becomes increasingly clear that running a state still needs traditional elements like a trained bureaucracy, a legal system and, maybe most important of all, access to the means of physical violence.
The core interest of autocratic rulers is to stay in power, which often means to eliminate potential threats before they can fully emerge.

In the past, this often meant preemptive violence and excessive surveillance with a network of agents and spies which created a general mood of fear-inducing suspicion. Such a system can hold for a while, but it will always be challenged by a lack of legitimacy that is reinforced by the nature of the system itself – thereby creating either the need for reform, the potential for a popular uprising, or a downward spiral of ever more violence on behalf of the state. Creating at least tacit legitimacy can have a strong preserving effect for an autocratic system.

Modern autocracies like China and Singapore try to preserve their political system with a strong grip on the elements mentioned above, but at the same time they are modifying traditional autocracy with technology. Instead of an openly intrusive government, surveillance has become “softer” in nature.

It is not so much agents of the state who look over your shoulder while you are eating at a restaurant, but the observation of your activities on social networks like twitter and Facebook or, in the case of China, the provision of a state-authorised unique Chinese version of these platforms.

Additionally, this is accompanied by an almost explanatory approach by the authorities themselves. They openly admit that surveillance takes place, but argue that it is meant only for those elements that pose a threat to the political system of the state. It is, in their eyes, not a dictatorship but the provision of stability.

The extraordinary precision of online surveillance even allows governments in Beijing or Singapore to distinguish between dangerous, systemic criticism and criticisms of specific policies, with the former being banned while the latter is often tolerated. China, for example, only interferes if it senses the danger of people organising themselves, while Singapore allows almost any kind of criticism as long as it is not instigating tensions between the city state’s religious and ethnic factions.

Such systems are testing the limits of the liberty a government can give its citizens but yet remain the final arbiter of things. While there can be no doubt that liberty is more widespread in China today than it was a few decades ago, one thing must not be forgotten: liberty, where it exists, is granted by the state and is not a natural right of the individual.

And this is a central contradiction for liberal democracies: modern democracies are political systems agreed upon by free citizens while autocracies allow or ban liberty as they see fit.

Modern technology has therefore created a paradox for autocracies: on the one hand they have more information at their disposal than ever before, but at the same time they are able to create an aura of liberalisation and thereby gain legitimacy – something that would have been impossible for the dictators of old like Spain’s Franco or China’s Mao. Supported by economic growth, pressures towards democratisation are much weaker than they should historically be in fast-developing countries.

While it remains to be seen for how long it will be possible to micro-manage public attitudes, for the moment there is no indication that a public uprising is at hand in China. On the contrary, given the new wave of nationalism and approval rates of 80% for the central government, it seems unlikely that without a massive economic crisis there will a substantial threat to the rule of the Communist Party any time in the near future.

Similar developments are also underway in Singapore, where elections take place on a regular basis and show time and again the approval of the ruling People’s Action Party. Its leaders see themselves in a Hobbesian social contract with their population: as long as the government delivers, it expects the people to support its rule – which also explains why even elections that result in less than 70% of the vote are seen as a near defeat.

But even now there are seedlings of real liberty that indicate that it is not that easy to placate ones population with limited liberty. Using the networking opportunities they have, people in modern autocracies use their voices to criticise government mismanagement often so effectively that they force the ruling parties to address these criticisms. The phenomenon of Chinese micro-blogging is a good example how there are uniquely local ways to push for building networks to confront the power of the state.

In Western democracies the effect of technology has turned out somewhat differently. Originally greeted as the harbinger of a “global village” and the beginning of an era of democratic cosmopolitanism, many in the West underestimated the potential downside of what some still optimistically call e-democracy. Contrary to the way it works in autocracies, democratic systems cannot officially use surveillance techniques to bolster their legitimacy.

It has, in fact, an almost opposite effect: A democratic system is believed to have legitimacy and stability hardwired into its political DNA, thereby making mass-surveillance theoretically unnecessary and publicly unacceptable. In other words, what autocracies use to gain legitimacy undermines it in democracies. At the same time, democracy itself is in a serious crisis.

It has been often remarked that the internet opens up numerous possibilities for citizen participation in political decision making. While participation and democratisation of political processes is generally a good thing, one needs to ask whether there can be too much democratisation and participation.

An increasing number of social scientists such as Francis Fukuyama and Niall Ferguson point out that effective government institutions have a high degree of discretion and autonomous decision-making that keeps them free from being captured by highly specialised interest groups. Successful democratic governance is characterised by a network-like approach in itself, creating autonomous government agencies that were highly innovative and showed great flexibility in order to fulfill their tasks.

In contemporary democracies, however, government agencies are often influenced by contradicting political interests, something that strongly limits their autonomy and efficiency. Ironically, this decrease of efficiency causes calls for more transparency and democratisation, which in turn means an ever greater number of interests are involved, thereby decreasing autonomy and causing the effectiveness of government agencies to decrease further.

Such developments prevent Western democracies from using their traditionally biggest strength, the balance between networks and hierarchies. Modern technology would allow different branches of the government to create network structures and thereby harness the innovative power that springs from such connections.

Despite the creative use of technology to calm their populations and create strictly hierarchical states, autocracies can only grant limited autonomy to government agencies, for the very nature of the autocratic system depends on a top-down system. Only in a democratic system can government policies be built on transparency, thereby communication with the people showing that their representatives see themselves more as partner than rulers.

Transparency can be the key to sustained trust between the people and their government, something that could help to overcome the problems outlined in this article.

Probably the strongest advantage democracies can have in the modern world is the power of civil society. In modern autocratic systems there might be some tolerance for criticism, but the daily business of governance remains isolated from the general population.

A democratic system, on the other hand, can include its citizens not only in decision making but also in policy formation. Scandinavian countries, for example, publish huge amounts of social and economic data, hoping to actively involve citizens in developing policy proposals via universities or think tanks.

Such systems can tap into the large innovative potential of its entire citizenry, something that could be a decisive edge in the competition with autocratic systems. The sobering news, however, seem to be that many Western democracies are currently more interested in emulating parts of the Asian model than reorienting themselves towards their potential advantages.

With few exceptions, civil society is declining in most Western societies and the e-revolution has not been able to compensate for the decrease in traditional forms of associations like clubs or charities. While there is strong evidence that a combination of online social networks and “physical” networks leads to durable associations and is thereby strengthening civil society, there is also evidence that the use of online media is weakening ties between individuals and can even lead to increased narcissism within a society.

It is again de Tocqueville who foresaw the risk of such a development: “It hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back for ever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart”.

The fact that the risks for civil society were described more than two hundred years ago should give us hope for the future of democracy. Modern technology will not spell the end for democracy, if it can learn to use it to its advantage. Rediscovering the importance of networks that spring from civil society as an innovative counterforce to a hierarchical state would be a good starting point.

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