Political strains in the West

The belief that the world had finally found the ideal model of governance gained wide acceptance after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For almost half a century, Moscow had offered to the world an alternative way of governing. It was based on the domination of a single party operating through an all-powerful state that controlled all aspects of life. The West’s “democratic liberalism” offered a counterview, placing the individual at the centre of human affairs, limiting the role of the state to regulate. Governments were not to own the means of production.

While the Soviet Union’s ideological challenge mattered little for the West, some in the developing world were attracted to it. Some such as Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister who governed the country for 17 uninterrupted years, believed that by adopting some features of the Soviet model he could reduce the distance that his country had to travel between under-development and development. He and some of his admirers in the newly independent countries came up with a hybrid system in which a strong state could coexist with some form of a representative political system.

The move away from the Soviet model gained momentum with the popularizing of what came to be called “the Washington Consensus”. There are now several serious economists — among them Harvard University’s Dan Rodrik — who believe that Washington Consensus policies once aggressively promoted by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank produced dismal results in much of the developing world; economic output in many countries collapsed. Rodrik has argued in his works against what he calls “hyperglobaliztion” — eliminating essentially all barriers to the movement of goods and money around the world. This has undermined the ability of countries to govern themselves. This group of thinkers argue against a diminished role for the state. “If you want markets to expand, you need governments to do the same,” Rodrik wrote in his book The Globalization Paradox. “The fundamental issue is how to change the rules of the market economy so that everybody is included in the system of production and innovation and everybody has access to meaningful, productive and high wage jobs. Simply redistributing the proceeds of the market economy after the fact is both ineffective and ultimately counterproductive, because it won’t yield change of the desired magnitude.”

However, there are stresses acting on Western societies that are ending the sway they had over thinking politics in the world. Immigration-related problems stresses on one example of what the West is engaged in. “What’s called the American century was just a little more than half a century,” writes George Packer in reviewing the role the United States played in dealing with many crises in the developing world most notably the contribution made by its emissary Richard Holbrooke in bringing peace to the countries that were once parts of Yugoslavia. The American half-century “began with the Second World War and the creative burst that followed — the United Nations, the Atlantic alliance, containment, the free world — and it went through dizzying lows and highs. The things that bring on doom to great powers — is it simple hubris, or decadence and squander, a kind of inattention, loss of faith, or just the passage of years? At some point that thing set in and so we are talking about an age gone by. It wasn’t a golden age — there were plenty of folly and wrong — but [we] already miss it. Our feeling that we could do anything gave us the Marshall Plan and Vietnam, the peace at Dayton and the endless Afghan war.”

What we are seeing now is a pullback from a strong belief in liberal democracy towards a growing interest and support for rule by strong men. Strong leadership is required to meet some global challenges. The threat posed by the immigration of coloured people into the mostly white West and the seeming advance of Islam in both the United States and Western Europe are among the most feared developments. This move away from liberal democracy has been encouraged by the political rise of Donald Trump in the United States. He has several admirers in Europe, both the western and eastern parts of the continent that have seen the advance of populist parties. Hungary and Poland fall into this category. So does Italy that for a time had a reasonably well-developed political system. It was upended by the growing popularity of two populist parties, the League and the Five Star. The first was led by Matteo Salivini who was troubled by the arrival into the country of tens of thousands of Africans, many of them of Muslim, from North Africa across the Mediterranean. The Five Star was the other party with a populist appeal. Salvini was given the powerful position of Interior Minister in the coalition of the two parties that governed for several years. He used it to block immigration from North Africa.

But the coalition collapsed in late August and to the surprise of practically everybody the League and the Democratic Party reached an agreement to form a new government. According to Maurizio Molinari, the author of the book, Why It Happened Here, about the rise of Italian populism, “Italy is again the Continent’s laboratory, and if this experiment succeeds, it sets a precedent for all of Europe.” A part of this experiment is to use Rousseau, an internet platform owned by Davide Casaleggio, an unelected web entrepreneur who has argued that representative democracy is passé and will soon be replaced by the internet. The Five Star has said that any proposal by the government will not be required to meet the endorsement of parliament but would be subject to the approval by people on the internet.

The world is in a state of flux; it is hard to predict where it would settle, if it settles at all. One conclusion that could be drawn is that every country on the planet would need to find its own, but in doing so there are lessons to be learnt from the past successes and failures. After trying out several methods of political and economic governance, Pakistan seems to be moving towards the adoption of structures that meet its needs. We should continue to tinker and improve these and not move towards something entirely new.


Published in The Express Tribune, September 9th, 2019.

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