In 2022 the long running war of ideology between Liberal and Authoritarian systems of politics became a very real war, following Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine. Some saw it as a sign of something new, others as a resumption of the cold war between the West and the former USSR. This blog post is an attempt to set the Russian war in Ukraine in a wider historical setting, and to provide a suggestion as to how that wider ideological war can be won.
From Absolutism to Humanism
One of the great questions in political philosophy is what makes political power legitimate. Prior to the modern era (typically said to be some time in the 15th century) the most common response was that legitimate power comes only from God. This resulted in Absolutist Monarchies, who had a literal divine right to rule. This meant that acting against the monarch was not just treason against the state, but an act against God. Those who revolted against their King or Queen risked not only a grisly death as a traitor, but also eternal damnation in hell as a heretic. At a time when religious beliefs were widely and sincerely held, this was an extremely effective way to keep the people in line.
The modern era can be seen as a process of switching to a different answer to the question. Rather than God, it was increasingly believed that human beings were the legitimate source of power. In other words, a ruler was only legitimate if a majority of people said they were. Yuval Noah Harari defines this new belief as Humanism, and the transition is compellingly described in his book ‘Sapiens’. The transition was a long process. Arguably, it can be book-ended by the death of the English King Charles I in 1649 and the death of the Russian Tsar Nickolas II in 1918.
Sadly this was not the end of the story. As is always the case when more and more people subscribe to a belief, disagreements and factions emerge. Humanism was no different. If human beings are the legitimate source of power, this begged the question of how many people should directly elect their leaders. This remains a live question today; even in the most progressive circles there are very few who believe that young children should be allowed to vote. Until the 19th century a compromise was reached whereby only the male landed elite were considered as the right sort of people suitable to vote.
Arguable the consensus began to break down in the 19th century partly due to the emergence of mass representative democracy. The size of electorates across the western world rose dramatically in the 19th and early 20th century. In the United Kingdom for example, the electorate prior to the 1832 Reform Act is estimated to be around 200,000. Following the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928 this had increased to around 25 million.
Not everyone agreed that mass representative democracy was a good thing. Many believed that some people are simply more effective at leading than others, and likewise some people are better at selecting good leaders than others. Therefore a more effective model of government is one where a leader is selected by a small group of the elite. That individual should then be left to rule as they see fit, based on their superior capability to do so. This model can be described as Authoritarianism. The 20th century can be seen in the context of a battle between the competing ideologies of Liberalism on one side and Authoritarianism on the other (which include Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China).
Authoritarianism has been arrived at from both the left and right of politics. With the exception of the extreme racist elements of Nazism, the results are generally similar. From the right comes the elitist view that only the select few are up to the task of determining the most capable leader. Nationalism tends to link the desire for a strong leader with a strong and superior state. From the left comes the desire for a level of equality that is more radical than the majority of voters can be persuaded to vote for, generally communist in nature and often involving the dissolution of capitalism and private property.
However, a truly communist society has never been successfully created at a nationwide level. As I said in my post ‘Big Picture Politics’, I subscribe to the view that a true communist society consists of small semi-autonomous communes with no over-arching state or authority of any kind. This means there is no authority to enforce communism, so a communist society can only exist through choice. Efforts to enforce equality have always led to authoritarian style states. The other problem is the human factor. Leaders who make it to the top in authoritarian states, be they from the left or right of politics, tend to be those individuals who have the greatest desire for power and the most ruthless ability to use it. This means that rather than having power as a means to an end (such as increasing equality), power too easily becomes the end in itself.
Conflict is Inevitable
A premise for this blog post is that the ideologies of liberalism and authoritarianism are in conflict with each other. The majority of wars from the 20th century can arguably be viewed in that context, most obviously the instances where the Cold War went hot. The conflict also manifests in economic terms, including sanctions and trade wars. The question then is, why are the two ideologies in conflict, and is that conflict inevitable? Why can’t both ideologies peacefully coexist – live and let live? Recognising that I am biased in favour of the liberal ideology, my view is that authoritarian regimes are perpetually under threat from the mere existence of liberalism. This is because liberal regimes are fundamentally more legitimate than authoritarian ones.
When things are going badly it is human nature to blame leaders. In liberal regimes the people know they have a chance to change leadership at the next election. In authoritarian regimes the pressure for change builds until it is released in the form of mass protest, which if not suppressed can lead to violent revolution or civil war. Authoritarian regimes ultimately rely on being seen as successful by the populace in order to gain legitimacy, but success is very difficult to sustain indefinitely. This is partly because people will always become used to their gains and will expect more. Wealthy middle class young people in China don’t generally compare themselves to their parents and grand-parents, but to other wealthy people across the world. The Chinese economy must keep on growing to maintain the legitimacy of the government. The tools of fear and the suppression of information critical of the regime can carry it a long way, but it is a fundamentally unstable form of government. A good way for an authoritarian regime to shore up its legitimacy is to show that it is more successful than its liberal rivals.
The strong correlation between authoritarianism and nationalism is another source of conflict. Nationalism can exist within liberal states, but authoritarian states are more likely to portray themselves as ‘better’ than others, and to believe this comes with certain rights. This includes the right to subvert the sovereignty of neighbouring states, creating ‘client states’ and ‘spheres of influence’. The greater sense of national rivalry within authoritarian regimes also explains why they struggle to maintain alliances that are as strong as those between liberal regimes. Some may argue that liberal states are also aggressive, and it is true that the West has surrendered the moral high ground too often in recent years. However, it is interesting to wonder when the last time a liberal democratic country declared war on another liberal democratic country.
A Strategy for Victory
If conflict between liberal and authoritarian regimes is inevitable, how best can liberal regimes win the conflict? Firstly, states cannot be made to become liberal through military force. This has been starkly demonstrated by the failed attempts at regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq. Deposing an authoritarian regime does not mean that a new liberal regime will spring up in its place, and that everyone will live happily ever after. This is because liberal democracies require a radical idea to become established – that everyone has an equal right to determine who is in charge. As discussed earlier, this is a relatively new idea in human history, and it takes time for it to sink in to a society. It is also difficult for the various groups of elites within a society to give up the power and privilege they would have enjoyed during the previous regime.
The next thing to say is that this is not a binary question of black and white between liberalism and authoritarianism. The two exist on a continuous scale, with plenty of grey in between. Ranking countries on this scale is not easy but there are several existing examples. One is the Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist intelligence Unit. They rank nation states into the following categories: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. Hybrid regimes are those that employ elections as a façade to give a veneer of legitimacy. Factors such as widespread election fraud, suppression of opposition parties and the use of state controlled media mean that the results of elections do not represent the free choice of voters. It is not a case of authoritarian states making a giant leap to becoming high functioning liberal democracies overnight. The journey can happen gradually.
If states cannot be forced to become more liberal and democratic, how can they be persuaded? The simple answer is that liberalism will become a more attractive proposition if more liberal countries function effectively, i.e. with a high ranking on the Democracy Index. Recent episodes such as the Trump Presidency and Brexit are a recruiting sergeant for authoritarianism. When liberal countries are so hopelessly divided, unhappy and dysfunctional, it is far easier for leaders such as Putin to justify their own systems. Putin’s disinformation campaign is intended to increase the divided state of liberal countries, and is a key part of the wider ideological struggle. A key measure of a functioning democracy is the extent to which it represents the will of the majority, rather than minority vested interests. This is achieved by taking power away from elites and redistributing it more evenly (e.g. devolving power away from the executive, and restricting the influence of money in politics). If people living under hybrid or authoritarian regimes see more high functioning democracies which effectively act in the interests of the majority, they are more likely to agitate for change.
Foreign policy also has a role to play in winning the struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism. Trade and foreign investment from western countries has too often been driven by the desire for wealth, almost to the exclusion of all other factors. The most obvious example is the western reliance for energy on Russia and the Gulf States – their energy was cheap. Far greater importance needs to be placed on encouraging countries to improve their score on the Democracy Index, as a condition of trade and investment. Regimes must realise that there is an economic incentive to improve their democratic credentials, and a price for not doing so. In the short to medium term, this will require liberal democracies to be less reliant on authoritarian regimes (especially China), which will mean an increase in the price of goods. This will have to be offset by domestic changes in terms of taxation and state support, but will also require a cultural shift away from things like fast-fashion. However, the need for more economic autonomy among liberal democratic states is a key lesson from the Russian war in Ukraine.
Ultimately, what is required is a change in values. The old idea of a Globalist world where western countries do business with the highest bidder must be replaced. Only the delusional still think that countries such as Russia and China will be become liberal democracies purely because we buy their goods and their gas. Democracies must focus on getting their own house in order and setting the best possible example to people living under hybrid and authoritarian rulers. They must also recognise that the cost of using foreign trade and investment to encourage global democracy is a price worth paying. If we don’t do this, we will have failed to learn the lesson of what is happening in Ukraine. Strengthening democracy is now a matter of national security.
If you found this blog post interesting, please share on social media and tell you friends. You may also be interested in one of the other posts in this blog. The full list is available via the menu in the top right of your screen.