Desire and Fate

The 'autocratization' of the world

V-Dem, is a Swedish think tank based in the political science department of the University of Gothenburg. Founded in 2014, it has for the past six years issued what it calls its annual ‘Democracy Report.’ [] In some ways these reports resemble those issued by Freedom House but the differences in how the two institutions describe and situate their findings are considerable. Freedom House is straightforwardly a policy shop, principally seeking to influence the US government. As the institution’s website puts it, “Freedom House advocates for U.S. leadership and collaboration with like-minded governments to vigorously oppose dictators and oppression, and strengthen democracy around the world.” In other words it espouses the views of the liberal policy establishment in Washington, which can be summarized as being that, for all its faults, a US-led international order is preferable to all other alternatives on offer, (1) and must be maintained starting with undoing the damage Donald Trump is assumed to have done to it. []

In contrast, V-Dems house style cooly analytic. On its website, it portrays itself as being “one of the largest-ever social science data collection efforts with a database containing over 16 million data points.” But it is also frank about it own ideological bent, pointing in particular to its Case for Democracy initiative, which was started with a grant from the European Commission, as “[collating] state-of-the-art research on the benefits of democracy for economic and human development, health and socio-economic protections, environmental protection and climate action, as well as international and domestic security.”

I should say here that I am skeptical of institutions that seek to foster and proselytize for an ideology, and the fact that liberalism in the US sense of the word is, I think, the first secular ideology in the history of the world not to fully acknowledge that it is an ideology (the human rightist subset of this is particularly florid), makes me even more skeptical of them. Nonetheless, strip the polemical character out of what both V-Dem and Freedom House are reporting, and seems clear that for the past few years, there are more and more regimes across the world that one hardly needs sophisticated measuring tools to call autocratic rather than democratic.

Like many other assumptions of the immediate post-Cold War period, the view that the world was going to become more and more democratic in the serious and enduring rather than the purely electoral sense of that concept was always a heady mix of NATO, and above all of American, triumphalism, wishful thinking, and liberal (in the US/social democratic in the European one) provincialism. Above all it was a progress narrative that conflated the end of the Soviet empire with the end of history. Both Freedom House and the V-Dem emphasize how much global resistance there is to the autocratic tsunami sweeping the world, and are certainly empirically justified, at least to some extent in doing so - think Tunisia, and of course the incredibly courageous young of Myanmar - the data they adduce does not offer much reason for optimism. In global terms, contra the expectations of the 1990s, it is autocracy not democracy that is becoming the rising norm rather than the fated to be eclipsed exception.

According to the V-Dem report, “Electoral autocracies continue to be the most common regime type.” It cites India as having been transformed from having been the world’s largest democracy, but under the Modi government having turned into an electoral autocracy. These electoral autocracies join the long list of what the report calls closed autocracies. Taken together, these two versions of autocracy are home to 68% of the world’s population, while full liberal democracies diminished from 41 countries in 2010 to 32 in 2020, with a population share of only 14%. Electoral, but not fully liberal democracies account for 60 nations and the remaining 19% of the population. []

Reading the V-Dem study, one wonders why the optimism about the democratization of the world was ever so powerful in the first place. For as the report points out, while the number of liberal democracies increased from 20 in 1972 and peaking at 41 in 2010, “The uptake in the number of countries over [these] years was not matched by increasing shares of the population of the world.” The news during this period, the report insists, was actually much better than that. “At its peak in 1999,” the report goes on, “72 countries with about 30% of the global population  were in a process of democratization.”

That trend has now been reversed in what V-Dem calls “the third wave of autocratization.’ By 2020, the report says, “more than one-third (34%) of the world’s population were living in countries undergoing autocratization while a miniscule 4% were living in democratizing nations.” And in all, V-Dem calculates that by 2020, 87 states, comprising 68% of the world’s population, live in some form of autocracy, up from 48% in 2010.

To be sure, as the writer Samuel Moyn said of the arguments of Steven Pinker, “a data dump is not a philosophy of history.” [] Obviously, the pattern of the previous decade could be reversed in this one. And since hope is a (non-falsifiable) metaphysical category, one can do just that: hope, if one is inclined, that things begin again to start going liberal democracy’s way. But optimism is an empirical category, and there is no particular empirical basis for thinking this. The vastly increased power for the state acquired during the pandemic is not likely to be discarded afterwards - at least in most countries, though doubtless there will be exceptions. Meanwhile, the process of the continued relative decline of the Euro-American world compared with Northeast Asia, economic for now, but, if this follows the historical pattern, soon to be cultural and intellectual as well, is likely to continue and perhaps (though this is far less sure) accelerate.

My own view that in the future the term democracy itself will become unstable. After all, the BJP Hindu nationalist government in India considers itself to be democratic because it is majoritarian. And the People’s Republic of China has never conceded that it is undemocratic. And now, the Chinese State uses the language of anti-imperialism to deny its own autocratic character. For example, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently said tartly that, “Democracy is not Coca-Cola, which, with syrup produced in the United States, tastes the same across the world.” He might as well have been channeling his inner Ariel Dorfman or Eduardo Galeano! And he met the ‘autocratic accusation’ head on. It was wrong to describe China as “authoritarian,” he said. China was a democracy, he insisted, it was just that China’s democracy “takes a different form from that of the United States.” []

This is a line that is hardly exclusive to Chinese officialdom. In an online zine called ‘Rest of the World,’ and that bills itself as “reporting global tech stories,” a recent piece profiles Andy Tian, who is a veteran of both the US and Chinese tech world. Having worked for Google and then struck out on his own in a series of ventures, culminating in his current one - a Beijing-based company called Asia Innovations Group (AIG). The company is mainly an app developer focused on its live-streaming platform called Up-Live. The app makes money not from its broadcasters, that is, those who live-stream on it, but rather than their fans and followers, who are encouraged to give them virtual gifts, a percent of the cost of each one of them is taken by Up-Live. []

In a recent interview, Tian offered his own version of Wang Yi’s argument about democracy taking a different form in China than it had in the United States. The ‘first stage’ of tech innovation had been in the US, Tian insisted. But Chinese entrepreneurs such as himself were going to change all that. “What’s the next stage of [tech] evolution?” he asked rhetorically. And answered his own question. “{Those of us] based in emerging markets,” Tian boasted, “we are taking over.” And then he concluded with a flourish. “We are decolonizing,” he said. []

Autocracy and Woke. A marriage made in heaven as far as I’m concerned. And more likely to end in lifelong harmony than in eventual divorce. Wisecracks aside, the liberal democratic order was always going to end, as all political systems end, just as surely as individual human lives do. The only important question was when it would end. Everything I see around me, read, watch, suggests to me that the answer is that it will be sooner rather than later, that is, if it is not ending already.


(1) Anyone who has read my work will know that this is not - to put it mildly - my viewpoint. But that is an argument for another day.