‘The abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all,’ Paul Valéry wrote in 1919, as Europe lay in ruins. The words resonate today as the coronavirus blows the roof off the world, most brutally exposing Britain and the United States, these prime movers of modern civilisation, which proudly claimed victory in two world wars, and in the Cold War, and which until recently held themselves up as exemplars of enlightened progress, economic and cultural models to be imitated across the globe. ‘The true test of a good government,’ Alexander Hamilton wrote, ‘is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.’ It is a test the United States and Britain have failed ruinously during the current crisis. Both countries had weeks of warnings about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan; strategies deployed by nations that responded early, such as South Korea and Taiwan, could have been adapted and implemented. But Donald Trump and Boris Johnson chose instead to claim immunity. ‘I think it’s going to work out fine,’ Trump announced on 19 February. On 3 March, the day the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned against shaking hands, Johnson boasted after a visit to a hospital treating coronavirus patients: ‘I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.’
Epidemiologists have become the idols of a frightened public and scientific rigour has gained a new status in large parts of the world. But the current regimes in the US and Britain gained power by fomenting hatred of experts and expertise. British ministers, chosen for their devotion to Brexit and loyalty to Johnson, have revealed themselves as dangerous blunderers. Trump, still promoting family, flunkeys and conspiracy theories, has obliged his administration’s scientific authorities, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, to tiptoe around his volcanic ego. The blithe inaction and bumbling born of ideological vanity have resulted in tens of thousands of avoidable deaths in both countries, with ethnic minorities heavily overrepresented. Meanwhile, rage against white supremacism is exploding on American streets. Whatever the fate of these uprisings, the largest since the 1960s, a period of devastation lies ahead. Tens of millions of people are likely to lose their livelihoods and their dignity.
As a general insurrection erupts against America’s foundational inequities, and a British national identity propped up by fantasies of empire finally splinters, it isn’t enough to lament the ‘authoritarian populism’ of Trump and Johnson, to blame ‘identity politics’ and the ‘intolerant left’, or to claim moral superiority over China, Russia and Iran. The early winners of modern history now seem to be its biggest losers, with their delegitimised political systems, grotesquely distorted economies and shattered social contracts.
Narcissistic intellectual habits, which credit moral virtue and political wisdom to countries such as India because they appear to conform to Anglo-American notions of democracy and capitalism, will have to be abandoned. More attention must be paid to the specific historical experiences and political traditions of Germany, Japan and South Korea – countries once described (and dismissed) as authoritarian and protectionist – and the methods they have used to mitigate the suffering caused both by manmade change and sudden calamity. The idea of strategic state-building, historically alien to Britain and the US, will have to be grappled with. Covid-19 has exposed the world’s greatest democracies as victims of prolonged self-harm; it has also demonstrated that countries with strong state capacity have been far more successful at stemming the virus’s spread and look better equipped to cope with the social and economic fallout.
Germany, which successfully used a low-tech test and trace programme, is reinstating its Kurzarbeit (‘short-work’) scheme, which was first used in the early 20th century but proved particularly valuable after the 2008 financial crisis. South Korea rolled out testing at ‘walk-in’ booths all over the country, then used credit card records and location data from mobile phones to trace the movements of infected people – a tactic Britain has failed to master after months of effort. Other East Asian countries such as Taiwan and Singapore are also faring much better. Vietnam swiftly routed the virus. China managed to curb its spread and has since dispatched medics and medical supplies around the world.
Anglo-America’s dingy realities – deindustrialisation, low-wage work, underemployment, hyper-incarceration and enfeebled or exclusionary health systems – have long been evident. Nevertheless, the moral, political and material squalor of two of the wealthiest and most powerful societies in history still comes as a shock to some. In a widely circulated essay in the Atlantic, George Packer claimed that ‘every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state.’ In fact, the state has been AWOL for decades, and the market has been entrusted with the tasks most societies reserve almost exclusively for government: healthcare, pensions, low-income housing, education, social services and incarceration. As Ronald Reagan put it in 1986, ‘the most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”’
The assumptions of the Anglo-American mainstream have remained unchanged for decades, despite the dramatic rise of nation-states whose political, social and economic structures are marked by what Hamilton called ‘the incitement and patronage of government’. Milton Friedman’s argument that ‘the world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests’ became the common sense of our age. Anglo-America amassed unprecedented cultural and ideological power, even as self-inflicted calamities such as Iraq and the financial crisis diminished its geopolitical influence, and inequality together with an eviscerated social infrastructure blighted the lives of its working people. English has been the language of globalisation, helping broadcasters such as CNN and the BBC, as well as periodicals such as the New York Times, the Economist and the Financial Times, to increase their international reach and prestige. A network of institutions, foundations and think tanks, including the Ivy League universities and Oxbridge, have trained the world’s politicians, businessmen, academics and journalists in the Anglo-American ideologies of unfettered markets and minimal government.
Hailing globalisation as a revolutionary force in the late 1990s, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman became a guru to corporate chieftains from Bangalore to Atlanta with his argument that neutering government, American-style, and deregulating economies were necessary and inevitable steps on the path to a ‘flat world’. After 9/11, George W. Bush managed to create a political and journalistic consensus around the notion that ‘the global expansion of democracy is the ultimate force in rolling back terrorism and tyranny.’ In the New York Times magazine, Niall Ferguson urged Americans to re-establish with ‘military force’ the British empire of ‘free trade’ and ‘balanced budgets’. In a cover story, the Atlantic described torture as a ‘necessary evil’. Andrew Sullivan called for the ‘extermination of the enemy in all its forms – relentlessly, constantly, insistently’. Time, Newsweek and the Spectator, as well as the Murdoch-owned media, fervently promoted fantasies of Anglo-American supremacism. In retrospect, this ideological synergy of bumptious men was a case of catastrophic success, which guaranteed maximal shock and bewilderment in its aftermath. In recent years, civil wars in Iraq and Libya, the financial crisis, Brexit and Trump’s election have made it clear that democracy cannot be implanted by military force; that humanitarian war creates forces such as IS in the ruins of destroyed states; and that while state economic controls can make a ‘communist’ country central to global capitalism, Anglo-American free marketeering results in intolerable inequity.
The escalating warning signs – that absolute cultural power provincialises, if not corrupts, by deepening ignorance about both foreign countries and political and economic realities at home – can no longer be avoided as the US and Britain cope with mass death and the destruction of livelihoods. Covid-19 shattered what John Stuart Mill called ‘the deep slumber of a decided opinion’, forcing many to realise that they live in a broken society, with a carefully dismantled state. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung put it in May, unequal and unhealthy societies are ‘a good breeding ground for the pandemic’. Profit-maximising individuals and businesses, it turns out, can’t be trusted to create a just and efficient healthcare system, or to extend social security to those who need it most. East Asian states have displayed far superior decision-making and policy implementation. Some (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea) have elected leaders; two (China, Vietnam) are single-party dictatorships that call themselves communist. They share the assumption that genuine public interest is different from the mere aggregation of private interests, and is best realised through long-term government planning and policy. They also believe that only an educated and socially responsible elite can maintain social, economic and political order. The legitimacy of this ruling class derives not so much from routine elections as from its ability to ensure social cohesion and collective well-being. Its success in alleviating suffering during the pandemic suggests that the idealised view of democracy and free markets prized since the Cold War will not survive much longer.
Few narratives are more edifying, as economies tank and mass unemployment looms, than the account of the ‘social state’ that emerged in Germany in the second half of the 19th century. ‘The state must take the matter into its own hands,’ Bismarck announced in the 1880s as he introduced insurance programmes for accident, sickness, disability and old age. German liberals, a tiny but influential minority, made the usual objections: Bismarck was opening the door to communism, imposing a ‘centralised state bureaucracy’, a ‘state insurance juggernaut’ and a ‘system of state pension’ for idlers and parasites. German socialists saw that their Machiavellian persecutor was determined to drive a wedge between them and the working class. Nevertheless, Bismarck’s social insurance system wasn’t only retained and expanded in Germany as it moved through two world wars, several economic catastrophes and Nazi rule; it also became a model for much of the world. Japan was Germany’s most assiduous pupil, and the Japanese, in turn, inspired China’s first generation of modern leaders, many of whom spent years in Tokyo and Osaka. Despite the defeat and devastation of the Second World War and the US occupation, Japan has continued to influence East Asia’s other late-developing nation-states: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam.
What made Germany such a compelling prototype for Japan? It is that Germany was a classic ‘late developer’ – the archetype of all nation-states in Asia and Africa. It unified only in 1871 and began to industrialise nearly a hundred years after Britain. Its leaders had to cope with the simultaneous challenges of rapid mechanisation and urbanisation, the disappearance of traditional livelihoods, the growth of trusts and cartels as well as trade unions, and an intensifying demand, articulated by a vibrant socialist movement, for political participation.
Buffeted by socio-economic changes and rising inequality, Germany faced early on what Japan and every other late-developing nation was forced to confront – the ‘social question’. Max Weber put it bluntly: how to ‘unite socially a nation split apart by modern economic development, for the hard struggles of the future’? Weber was among the conservative German nationalists who saw the social question as a matter of life or death. Military and economic rivalry with Britain was a daunting enough prospect for their fledgling state. But, as disaffection increased among the classes uprooted and exploited by industrial capitalism – a political party representing the interests of the working classes emerged in Germany decades before it did in Britain – the fear of socialist revolution also preyed on the minds of German leaders.
They could not set about removing impediments to individual freedom in the way their counterparts in laissez-faire Britain were then doing, nor could they entrust economic affairs to the invisible hand of the market. As the deliberations of the influential Verein für Socialpolitik (Association for Social Policy) between 1872 and 1882 reveal, unfettered economic liberalism was seen as a threat to institutions and to a still fragile national unity. The safest way to defuse the volatile social question, the association decided, was to ensure state-guaranteed protection for citizens exposed to extreme socio-economic tumult and radical insecurity – what Bismarck, seeking to outmanoeuvre his socialist opponents, described as ‘moderate, reasonable state socialism’.
In Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (1998), Daniel Rodgers showed that many Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries returned from stays in Germany with ideas that would inform the New Deal. Little, however, is still known about the global history of this German-devised state – what W.E.B. Du Bois, who was in turn-of-the-century Germany as a student, described as ‘the guardian and leader of the social and industrial interests of the people’. It’s not surprising that the social state receives scant attention in boosterish Anglo-American accounts of the making of the modern world. Milton Friedman claimed that postwar Japan and South Korea were exemplars of open, competitive markets; Francis Fukuyama credited the prewar successes of Germany and Japan to ‘economic liberalism’. It’s also true that the social question did not until recently seem as critical in Anglo-America as in late-developing nations. Britain, the first major imperialist power of the modern era, successfully combined its early industrial and scientific revolution with slave labour and land grabs from Fiji to the Caribbean. Socialism stood little chance in a country where habits of deference to the ruling classes were (and remain) deeply entrenched.
Alexander Hamilton is a rare example of an early American internationalist who saw strong states as playing an essential role in the hard struggles of the future. But Americans, busy forging a nation from the white masters of a slave society, could afford to ignore him. They had the advantage of a constantly expanding frontier at home during the 19th century, by the end of which they had become commercially and militarily powerful, ready and keen to savour territories, resources and markets abroad. Hegel predicted that since the American political community was defined by ‘the preponderance of private interest’, it would only achieve a ‘real state and a real government’ after ‘wealth and poverty become extreme’, compelling an economically exhausted people to seek new forms of governance. Such a modernisation has never been accomplished; as Samuel Huntington once argued, the American republic continues to resemble a Tudor monarchy more closely even than Britain’s constitutional monarchy.
Outdated institutions and ideologies endured partly because collective action by workers never matched the potent appeal of private interests. When inequality grew intolerable and meritocracy began to appear a fraud, the American ruling class answered its social question more ferociously than many tyrants, with mass incarceration – removing many of the long-term victims of slave society from public life. The American state had little authority to intervene in social and economic realms on behalf of ordinary citizens, but at the same time its mandate – to protect the liberty of its citizens from foreign states and non-state actors – turned the US into a military behemoth abroad and expanded the infrastructure of white domination at home. The New Deal was an exceptional instance of a US government recognising that the state can and should be a guardian of the people’s interests; but it arose out of the twin calamities of the First World War and the Great Depression. Struggling to survive them, even extreme individualists were forced to recognise that, as Walter Lippmann wrote, ‘to create a minimum standard of life below which no human being can fall is the most elementary duty of the democratic state.’
After the Second World War, nearly all Western governments accepted, to varying degrees, that the state was a necessary actor, even if they didn’t all agree that it was the ‘greatest moral institution for the education of mankind’ (in the words of Gustav Schmoller). The leaders of the free world were keen to appear to be working hard to secure social justice as well as prosperity for their citizens; even the most conservative among them seemed to agree with Bismarck that ‘the state cannot exist without a certain socialism.’ Responding to East Germany’s claim that it possessed a superior social security system, Christian Democrats extended the West German system to benefit increasing numbers of people. These were also the decades when the National Health Service was created; when welfare projects like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which promised cash benefits for all families in need, were launched; and when civil rights legislation was introduced with one nervous eye on Soviet propagandists, who tirelessly and irrefutably pointed to the organised degradation of African Americans in the US.
Such small moves towards a social state provoked dismay among ordoliberal dogmatists in Europe, such as Wilhelm Röpke, who accused the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations of endangering the racial unity of the West by pursuing socialistic ideas of equality. In Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Quinn Slobodian tracks the circulation of Röpke’s ideas among right-wing Americans aghast at their leaders’ egalitarian rhetoric and welfare programmes.But libertarian ideologies didn’t return to the mainstream until the 1970s, when ageing Western societies experienced successive crises. In 1970, Milton Friedman could count on an increasingly congenial ideological climate when he argued in the New York Times magazine that businesses had no social responsibility beyond making a profit. He was the public face of an ideological shift which saw libertarian economists such as James Buchanan, acting in concert with the right-wing zealot Charles Koch and lobbyists for corporations like Shell Oil, Exxon, Ford, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank and General Motors, disseminating radical ideas through a pliable media and a new curriculum for economics education in universities. Partly as a result of their influence, and emboldened by the rhetoric of Reagan and Thatcher, during the 1980s politicians across the ideological spectrum began to dismantle social protections, undermine labour rights and slash taxes on the rich. The process accelerated after the West’s ‘victory’ in the Cold War, when fantasies of Americanising the globe bloomed. ‘I want everyone to become an American,’ Thomas Friedman, consigliere to globalising CEOs and modernising despots, insisted as late as 2008.
Inspired by Thatcher and right-wing US think tanks, Tony Blair pushed state policy and public attitudes in Britain closer to the notion that welfare is a problem rather than the solution. Over the last decade, successive Conservative governments have ruthlessly shredded what was left of the social safety net in the name of budgetary ‘austerity’, hastening Britain’s decline into a flailing – if not failed – state that can’t even secure supplies of gowns and masks for its hospital workers. In the US, welfare was turned into a dirty word by Reagan’s dog-whistles about ‘welfare queens’, and then came under intensive attack by Bill Clinton, America’s ‘first black president’. An approving chorus was provided by the New Republic, once the main organ of American progressivism, as well as the National Review and the New York Times. After the collapse of communism, and the moral challenge it presented, the corralling of African Americans was resumed without fear of international scrutiny; the new weapons for this purpose, honed to deadly effect under Clinton, and fully endorsed by Joe Biden in the Senate, were mass incarceration and a militarised police. As Hillary Clinton, who is currently vending an anti-racist reading list (‘Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk about Race is a great and thoughtful starting point’), saw it in 1996, the ‘superpredators’ had ‘no conscience, no empathy’ and ‘we can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.’ If the shambolic response to Hurricane Katrina established that George W. Bush ‘doesn’t care about black people’, as Kanye West put it, the aftermath of the financial crisis showed that Barack Obama was keen not to be seen as caring too much about black people. The second black president lectured African Americans about individual responsibility while bailing out his future paymasters on Wall Street.
The pandemic, which has killed 130,000 people in the US, including a disproportionate number of African Americans, has now shown, far more explicitly than Katrina did in 2005 or the financial crisis in 2008, that the Reagan-Thatcher model, which privatised risk and shifted the state’s responsibility onto the individual, condemns an unconscionable number of people to premature death or to a desperate struggle for existence. An even deeper and more devastating realisation is that democracy, Anglo-America’s main ideological export and the mainstay of its moral prestige, has never been what it was cracked up to be. Democracy does not guarantee good government, even in its original heartlands. Neither does the individual choice that citizens of democracies periodically exercise – whether in referendums or elections – confer political wisdom on the chosen. It might even delude them, as Johnson and Trump confirm, into deranged notions of omnipotence. The ideal of democracy, according to which all adults are equal and possess equal power to choose and control political and economic outcomes, is realised nowhere. The fact of economic inequality, not to mention the compromised character of political representatives, makes it unrealisable. More disturbing still, voters have been steadily deprived, not least by a mendacious or click-baiting fourth estate, of the capacity either to identify or to seek the public interest. Modern democracy, in other words, bears little resemblance to the form of government that went under its name in ancient Greece. And in no place does democracy look more like a zombie than in India, Anglo-America’s most diligent apprentice, where a tremendously popular Hindu supremacist movement diverts attention from grotesque levels of inequality and its own criminal maladroitness by stoking murderous hatred against Muslims.
To grow up in India in the 1970s and 1980s, as I did, was to live through the fiascos of both democracy and state-building. Unlike Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, India’s founding figures were outspoken partisans of social, political and economic equality. And during its early decades, when Martin Luther King, among others, travelled to India to seek inspiration for the civil rights movement, the country seemed a beacon to striving people of colour everywhere. Here was a non-communist nation-state of overwhelmingly poor people, trying to create an egalitarian society and an internationally competitive economy within a political framework – parliamentary elections and separation of powers – explicitly modelled on Anglo-America.
But India never built a well-organised state of the sort that would allow such a country, despoiled by colonialism, to overcome its extreme disadvantages: an underproductive agricultural economy, a weak industrial base, and a poorly fed and mostly illiterate citizenry. In the early decades of independence, government interventions did result in some progress in heavy industry and agriculture. Investment in higher (though not primary) education created generations of superbly skilled upper-caste Indians; many of them can be found today in senior positions at US corporations such as Microsoft and Google, as well as in academia and journalism. But economic growth was slower than in many East Asian countries, despite the fact that India had started off with a broad industrial base and possessed a relatively strong bureaucratic and administrative apparatus.
By the late 1970s, disillusionment with India’s lack of progress was deep and pervasive. A spell of authoritarian rule under Indira Gandhi had resolved nothing, while revealing the spinelessness of the media and judiciary and the repressively law-and-order orientation of the state inherited from British colonialists. The poor were very far from enjoying civil liberties or a chance at prosperity; and many among the upper castes, impatient with the inept rulers thrown up by elections, longed for the country to be run by an efficient autocrat like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. A few envious glances were also directed at South Korea’s president, Park Chung Hee, who had seized power after a military coup in 1961 and during his 18-year rule supervised the transformation of a dirt-poor rural country into a world-beating manufacturing giant with excellent educational standards and massively improved public health.
China’s transformation under Deng Xiaoping from Maoist basket case to global economic powerhouse was particularly galling to many Indians, especially those who had believed in Anglo-American predictions of their country’s inevitable and unstoppable ‘rise’. When Narendra Modi won power in 2014 with the help of India’s richest businessmen, promising to liberate Indian markets from state regulation and boost them into the company of Western superpowers, the ambitious elites seemed to have found their own enlightened despot (albeit that he was suspected of involvement in a pogrom that killed hundreds of Muslims). Modi seemed to promise an India that would fulfil Anglo-American fantasies: an Asian country that combined democracy with free markets and would be a counterweight to authoritarian China. The American Enterprise Institute welcomed him as India’s version of Reagan and Thatcher; Obama claimed that he reflected ‘the dynamism and potential of India’s rise’.
The quick fix of authoritarianism has exacerbated rather than resolved India’s fundamental problems. Effortlessly subverting the media, judiciary and the military, India’s Hindu supremacist rulers have shown themselves to be cold-blooded fanatics, willing to stoke anti-Muslim pogroms, assassinate critics and collectively punish minorities (as in Kashmir, where a lockdown lasting months preceded the pandemic). After six years of Modi’s rule, India is further away than ever from matching the material achievements of China, let alone those of Western countries; and it is being humiliated militarily by China (the Galwan Valley incident last month in which at least twenty Indian troops were killed is just the most recent example). Manufacturing has long been stagnant; and banks are deeply in debt because of the bad loans they have handed out to crony-capitalists. More than 140 million migrant workers have lost jobs during a botched lockdown; and now starvation looms over hundreds of millions of Indians already tormented by malnutrition, poor education and a lack of sanitation.
Not all of India’s unfolding disasters can be blamed on Modi. For a long time, as Amartya Sen has argued, India’s rulers failed to make crucial investments in primary education and public health, and thus didn’t create the ‘human capital’ and infrastructure necessary for the labour-intensive manufacturing revolution which, decades before China’s rise, created the ‘East Asian Tigers’, South Korea and Taiwan. One reason the Covid-19 pandemic threatens carnage in India is that it spends proportionately less than even Nepal and Timor-Leste – 1.3 per cent of its GDP – on healthcare (South Korea, by way of comparison, spends 8.1 per cent) and has a highly privatised health system. The only Indian state with adequate protection from the pandemic is communist-controlled Kerala, whose public health and education systems have long ensured that the state has the highest life expectancy and literacy rate in India.
South Korea started from an equally low base in the 1940s and succeeded in creating both a modern industrialised economy and a society remarkable for its low levels of income, if not gender, inequality. India’s rulers derived legitimacy from elections (and garnered much Western acclaim for these ‘festivals’ of democracy), but its modern state, while becoming more ingeniously coercive than the colonial state it was grafted onto, has never developed the capacity to rescue its hundreds of millions of citizens from poverty and social inequality. Vivek Chibber argues in his comparative study of India and South Korea, Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialisation in India (2003), that India’s rulers were unable or unwilling to act against the wishes of the businessmen who campaigned against state-led development. South Korea, on the other hand, demonstrated yet again that for late-developers, state-building is a pre-requisite for nation-building, and that social and economic well-being depends less on how political representatives are chosen and more on how adroitly the state formulates and implements policy. Park, for instance, extended the patronage of government to what are now South Korea’s most prominent chaebol (family-owned) business groups: Hyundai, Daewoo and Samsung. These lessons in social and industrial policy, which Germany began administering in the late 19th century, and which have been most effectively taken to heart by China, were comprehensively lost on the upper-caste rulers of India, whose major preoccupation was the perpetuation of their own power through the ballot box. India today represents the worst of all possible worlds: far-right Hindus deftly manipulate electoral democracy and the public sphere, the state seems better equipped for repression than for welfare, and its economic experiments with deregulation and privatisation have produced numerous oligarchs but no internationally recognised product or enterprise.
South Korea, like India, took political inspiration from its former coloniser. Born and educated under Japanese colonial rule, Park admired and attempted to imitate Japan’s swift emergence as a major industrial power. Like the Japanese, he looked for guidance to Friedrich List, the German economic protectionist, rather than Adam Smith. According to Park, ‘the life of the nation can be developed and grown only through the state.’ As he saw it, the laissez-faire individualism backed by Anglo-American elites encouraged social fragmentation and political strife, making state and nation-building nearly impossible. ‘We are different,’ he argued, ‘from the West that pits the individual against the state.’
Park spoke as the latest of late developers, keen to learn from the experiences of the advanced powers, and to avoid their mistakes. His teachers in Japan, who had copied Germany’s model as diligently as he imitated Japan’s, down to its constitution, also found top-down mobilisation a more effective framework than liberalism for nation and state-building. Unlike Weber’s Germany, Japan was not exactly split apart by economic development. All the same, its leaders were cautious from the start. As Kanai Noburu, an economist who trained in Germany in the 1880s and became a mentor to many Japanese thinkers and leaders, put it: ‘If workers are treated like animals, then after several decades unions and socialism will appear.’
By the early 20th century, Japan’s industrial revolution had rendered especially urgent the social question, or shakai mondai. Discussions of what economic development entailed invariably featured the term bunmei byo (civilisation sickness), a reference to the problems afflicting British and American societies: class divisions, labour strife, destruction of communities, excessive materialism, radical individualism and the decline of the values of social co-operation. In 1908, Japan’s prime minister, Katsura Taro, summed up the speedy self-education of conservative but pragmatic ruling classes in catch-up societies:
The development of machine industry and the intensification of competition widens the gap between rich and poor and creates antagonisms that endanger social order. Judging by Western history, this is an inevitable pattern … Therefore, it goes without saying that we must rely on education to nurture the people’s values; and we must devise a social policy that will assist their industry, provide them work, help the aged and infirm and, thereby, prevent catastrophe.
Catastrophe came nonetheless, as a result of the pressure to compete with established imperialist powers. Weber had a tough-minded understanding of the unforgiving world that forced a latecomer like Germany to catch up expeditiously with Britain and the US. ‘We cannot pass peace and human happiness on to our descendants,’ he wrote, ‘but the maintenance and up-breeding of our national kind.’
Hitler, who took racist legislation in the US as a model and envied Britain for its ‘capitalist exploitation of 350 million slaves’ in India, frankly underscored the genealogy of German nationalism in British imperialism and US settler colonialism. ‘What India was for England,’ he declared, ‘the Eastern territories will be for us’; their ‘natives’ would be regarded as ‘redskins’. The scramble for territory and resources, started by British slave-owners and colonialists, and the subsequent international race to create the fittest political and economic organism for survival, are what made the first half of the 20th century so uniquely violent (not some fundamental incompatibility between ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘totalitarianism’, as the Cold War narrative had it). Desperately seeking Lebensraum, Germany and Japan clashed with their competitors and eventually capitulated to the greater military might of the Allied powers.
In the postwar era, even when reconstructing their strength as economic powers with the help of American aid, Germany and Japan didn’t abandon their commitment to the social state. The constitution that came into effect in Japan in 1947 emphasised the state’s obligation to provide social security and public healthcare. In 1949, a new constitution enshrined the ‘social state’ in the Federal Republic of Germany, and the adjective ‘social’ retained its import and weight in the ‘social market economy’ introduced by Ludwig Erhard, the minister for economic affairs and Röpke’s disciple. Since the rise of privatisation and deregulation in the 1970s, social protections have been undermined in Germany, Japan and much of East Asia, including China. But even in their enfeebled form, they remain superior to the skeletal welfare states of Britain and the US.
While the peddlers of free markets, democracy, the end of history, neo-imperialism and the flat earth were getting high on their own supply, China emerged as the most formidable exponent of concerted state power so far seen. Just as American wages began to stagnate in the 1970s, the living conditions of a large percentage of the Chinese population began to improve dramatically: the biggest transformation of this kind in history. This extraordinary economic expansion has been accompanied by unparalleled damage to the environment and cruel limitations on individual liberty, especially in Hong Kong and the minority regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. China also needs to confront mounting national debt and the problems associated with an ageing population. Still, scepticism about its material progress, insistence that regime change and American-style democracy are inevitable, or that the coronavirus emerged from a Chinese lab, do nothing to improve the prospects of citizens in the countries that are so proud of being democracies.
Their sanctimony can’t disguise the fact that China, single-mindedly pursuing modernisation under a technocratic elite, has verified Hamilton’s belief that only a strong, proactive state can protect its citizens from the maelstrom of violent and unavoidable change: ‘Nothing but a well-proportioned exertion of the resources of the whole, under the direction of a Common Council, with power sufficient to give efficacy to their resolutions, can preserve us from being a CONQUERED PEOPLE now, or can make us a HAPPY PEOPLE hereafter.’ China has been more coldly pragmatic, too, than its Western critics. After all, a ruling party that calls itself ‘communist’ chose to abandon its foundational ideology and adapt itself to a market economy, just as the US, seeking to build a new world order, was failing to implant democracy by persuasion or military force in Russia, Eastern Europe and the Arab world, succeeding only in facilitating brutal anarchy or despotism in almost every country it sought to remake in its image. More recently, and damagingly, a feckless global experiment in economic hyper-liberalism led by Anglo-America’s political class and mainstream intelligentsia has helped empower neo-fascist movements and personalities in both countries.
China may or may not address its democratic deficit, as South Korea and Taiwan have both done. Its chillingly resourceful suppression of dissent in Hong Kong and Xinjiang renews the warning from the histories of Germany and Japan: that the modern state’s biopower can enable monstrous crimes. But there’s no getting around the desolate position that the great paragons of democracy find themselves in today. Neither Britain nor America seems capable of dealing with the critical challenges to collective security and welfare thrown up by the coronavirus. No less crushing is the exposure, as Rhodes finally falls, of the fact that the power and prestige of Anglo-America originated in grotesque atrocities and, as William James wrote in 1897, that ‘a land of freedom, boastfully so called, with human slavery enthroned at the heart of it’ was always ‘a thing of falsehood and horrible self-contradiction’.
The moralising history of the modern world written by its early winners – the many Plato-to-Nato accounts of the global flowering of democracy, liberal capitalism and human rights – has long been in need of drastic revision. At the very least, it must incorporate the experiences of late-developing nations: their fraught and often tragic quests for meaningful sovereignty, their contemptuously thwarted ideas for an egalitarian world order, and the redemptive visions of social movements, from the Greens in Germany to Dalits in India. The recent explosion of political demagoguery, after years of endless and futile wars, should have been an occasion to interrogate the narratives of British and American narcissism. Trump and Brexit offered an opportunity to ‘break democracy’s spell’ on the Anglo-American mind – something the political theorist John Dunn has been arguing for since the late 1970s, long before Anglo-American triumphalism assumed inflexible forms. Those hypnotised by the word, Dunn argued, had become oblivious to the fact that the political and economic arrangements they preferred, and which they described as ‘democracy’, could neither continue indefinitely nor handle ‘the immediate challenges of collective life within and between individual countries effectively even in the present’.
Instead, the elevation of tub-thumpers to high office in London and Washington led to a proliferation of self-pitying and self-flattering accounts, describing the way the long march of ‘liberal democracy’ had been disrupted by uncouth ‘populists’, ‘identity liberals’, ‘social-justice warriors’ and even, as Anne Applebaum claimed in a cover article in the Atlantic, by senior Republicans, who had abandoned their ‘ideals’ and ‘principles’. Mark Lilla’s preposterous argument, first aired in the New York Times, that the ‘Mau-Mau tactics’ of Black Lives Matter and Hillary Clinton’s radical ‘rhetoric of diversity’ helped elect Trump, was reverently amplified in the Financial Times and the Guardian. Mainstream periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic quickly mobilised against a resurgent left by promoting intellectual grifters and stentorian culture warriors while doubling down on their default pro-establishment positions. ‘The New York Times is in favour of capitalism,’ James Bennet, the newspaper’s editorial page director, told his colleagues, because it is the ‘greatest anti-poverty programme and engine of progress that we’ve seen’. Bennet, who had given space to articles that denied climate change, promoted eugenics and recommended apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Palestine, was forced to resign last month over an op-ed calling for military force to be used against anti-racist protesters. Nevertheless, Samantha Power’s recent claims in the NYT that ‘the United States leads no matter what it does’ and ‘nations still look to us in times of crisis’ confirm that the factotums and publicists of the ancien régime remain persistent, yearning for a Restoration under a Biden administration.
However, after the most radical upheaval of our times, even the bleakest account of the German-invented social state seems a more useful guide to the world to come than moist-eyed histories of Anglo-America’s engines of universal progress. Screeching ideological U-turns have recently taken place in both countries. Adopting a German-style wage-subsidy scheme, and channelling FDR rather than Churchill, Boris Johnson now claims that ‘there is such a thing as society’ and promises a ‘New Deal’ for Britain. Biden, abandoning his Obama-lite centrism, has rushed to plagiarise Bernie Sanders’s manifesto. In anticipation of his victory in November, the Democratic Party belatedly plans to forge a minimal social state in the US through robust worker-protection laws, expanded government-backed health insurance, if not single-payer healthcare, and colossal investment in public-health jobs and childcare programmes. Businesses pledge greater representation for minorities; and book and magazine publishers seek out testimonies of minorities’ suffering while purging unreconstructed colleagues.
Such tardy wokeness, unaccompanied by major economic and cultural shifts, invites scepticism – black lives, after all, have increasingly mattered to corporate balance sheets. The removal of memorials to slave-traders is likely only to deepen the culture wars if it is not accompanied by an extensive rewriting of the Anglo-American history and economics curriculum. Certainly, the new-fangled welfarism of Britain and the US will remain precarious without a full reckoning with the slavery, imperialism and racial capitalism that made some people in Britain and America uniquely wealthy and powerful, and plunged the great majority of the world’s population into a brutal struggle against scarcity and indignity.
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin outlined the necessity of such a moral and intellectual revolution in the starkest terms, arguing that ‘in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to re-examine themselves,’ to ‘discard nearly all the assumptions’ used to ‘justify’ their ‘crimes’. The fire Baldwin imagined in 1962 is now raging across the US, and is being met with frantic appeals to white survivalism. ‘You must dominate,’ Trump told state governors on 1 June, threatening to unleash ‘vicious dogs’ and ‘ominous weapons’ on his political enemies. Understandably, people exalted for so long by the luck of birth, class and nation will find it difficult, even impossible, to discard their assumptions about themselves and the world. But success in this harsh self-education is imperative if the prime movers of modern civilisation are to prevent themselves from sliding helplessly into the abyss of history.