Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.
What separates human beings from other animals? What makes us different?
Some say it’s art, others religion, but what really sets us apart is the fact that we can ask that question and think about it. It’s the same feature which, in degrees, separates the undeveloped from the developed brain: self-reflection, self-awareness, or self-consciousness.
The capacity for the contemplation of self is also what drives us to create art, to search for answers to the questions of religion: namely, the origin, meaning, and conclusion of life. We wonder about ourselves. We look in the mirror and lament our Covid weight gains. We stand in the shower and imagine what we could have said or done the other day, what we might say or do if it happens again. We worry.
This fundamentally human ability to self-reflect and self-criticize the same feature which sets liberal democracy apart from other regimes, and it’s why the West will win.
That term, “the West” can get a little confusing, but by it I don’t mean “Europe and America.” “The West” is a reference to a set of ideas about how to organize society most elegantly summarized by liberal democracy and its attendant features: individual rights, democratic politics, capitalist economies. Any country can be “Western” in this way, simply by subscribing to these ideas, though societies can embody these ideals more or less in action. Japan and Korea are excellent examples of “Western” countries outside Europe and America, but plenty more exist, like Mongolia!
Now, about this claim that democracies think like people, it’s easier first to look at how autocracies think by comparison, so I’ll start there. Niccolo Machiavelli explains this in Chapter XXII of The Prince (very worth reading), in which he tells his princely reader that there are three kinds of brains: one which understands things by itself, another which understands through others, and another which understands neither way.
This is reassuring, because Machiavelli seems to say, “You’ve got two in three odds that you’ll make out okay.” If you have the first brain, then you’ve got nothing to worry about; you’re fine on your own. If you’ve got the second, sure, you need a hand, but that’s no problem; just get some good advisors. The last brain is helpless (but, of course that wouldn’t be you).
Machiavelli is tricky, though, because he’s actually very discreetly laid out the core failure of autocracy: its reliance on a single brain. The real conclusion from Chapter XXII is not that, if you get good advisers, you’ll be fine. Instead, the lesson is that the only way you can determine who is a good adviser is if you’re smarter than they are. Then, what good are they?
If you’re not particularly bright, the only way to get good advisers would be by luck. That luck will run out sooner or later, and they’ll probably out-maneuver you. If you don’t luck into good advisers, the same fate awaits you. Either way, the second and third brains lead either you or your kingdom to ruin.
Autocracy only works with a first-rate brain at the helm: an extremely intelligent, competent, and ambitious psychopath who has no bones about doing what’s needed to maintain power and overcome challenges. Those are also the only people who tend to make it to the top, if it’s at all competitive, which is how you get someone like Joseph Stalin heading the Soviet Union.
It’s fair to object, however, that many authoritarian states aren’t ruled so simply by one autocrat, one brain. China, though Xi has lately been consolidating power, is one example. And these regimes can fare better, with more corrective mechanisms to hold leadership accountable and competent.
The trouble is this; even in these kinds of regimes, the people at the top (in China’s case, high-ranking party members) are not usually perfectly equal. If they are, rule by committee tends to lack direction, a clear pitfall. That’s why China has had a system of one man above the rest of the leadership class, a “paramount leader.” Then, there’s a trap. This person will either have a first-rate brain or won’t.
If he’s truly exceptional, accountability mechanisms are likely to be eroded over time, as he outmaneuvers those who usually maintain some leverage. Then, the highly-skilled autocrat dooms himself to succumb to his inevitable weaknesses and blind spots. Possessing a first-rate brain doesn’t make you superhuman, after all. This is what has happened in Russia under Putin. And if the leader isn’t like Putin, if he has a second or third-rate brain (what’s the difference?), a different, much simpler trap emerges. Without luck, his leadership is unlikely to be competent.
Thus, well-consolidated oligarchies are bound to suffer leadership of listlessness, incompetence, or accountability-eroding hyper-competence. Either the regime suffers the traps of oligarchy or the traps of autocracy, sooner or later.
Democracies, on the other hand, never have just one brain in charge. They have thousands, millions of brains which contribute to decision-making. Democracies are constantly self-evaluating, because like our brains, they have freedom of speech. Within our minds, we can think of anything, ask any question, and nothing can stop us. The journalists, citizens, bloggers, and voters in a democracy are like little segments of the democratic hive mind.
The area we humans have the most trouble getting to within our own thoughts, though, is self-criticism. But democracies do this too exceptionally well, by segmenting the brain of society across thousands of key people who pay close attention to decisions and have loud voices to call out other parts of the brain when it screws up. Why do you think America has such a flourishing scene of journalists who mostly exist to criticize America? Democracies contemplate and criticize themselves by design. Autocracies do so only by luck.
But, as just about anyone knows, self-awareness, or self-consciousness, can lead to anxiety and self-doubt. We can become hyper-aware of our own faults, led down a rabbit hole of self-criticism which leaves us blind to our own strengths, obsessed only with what we do wrong and others do better.
The past six years or so have been particularly riddled with such self-doubt, at least in America. We’ve seen all kinds of panic that China is taking the lead, whether it’s economically, militarily, or in popular image with young people. The panic has been that we are slipping behind, that we don’t have what it takes to compete with the likes of the Communist Party of China.
Ordinarily, autocratic states are very bad at economic growth, because of the brain problem; the bigger an economy gets, the more advantageous it is to have a more decentralized brain. The biggest exceptions to that rule, theoretically, are especially resource-rich autocracies, like Saudi Arabia, or the rather special case of China.
Petro-states, for example, are comparatively simple economies. Build wells here and there, sell to these people at this price. This is how global trade can alleviate some of the economic handicaps of autocracy: by using the global wealth generated by more efficient economies to fund a less efficient one and keep a dictatorship afloat.
And while that can work fine for a little while, it’s still very easy to screw up, if the autocracy doesn’t 1) diversify over time (oil runs out one day), or 2) reinvest gains beyond the enrichment of a small clique. The big problem is that both these strategies lessen either the functionality or power of an autocrat. Diversification is harder to centrally manage, and reinvestment creates more wealthy (powerful) people outside the inner circle. This is the autocratic economy trap, and Russia is a particularly good example of it, which you can read about here.
China is a special case, because the Party seems to have, so far, successfully navigated this trap by liberalizing its economy while maintaining a strict hold on power. China’s astronomic economic growth led a lot of people to believe that the Party had some far-sightedness and hyper-competence—inaccessible to bumbling, stumbling democracies like our own—that was going to lead them to triumph.
This plays to pathologies common to everyone, especially our preference for simplicity. Democracies have long been hard to sell by their functionality (as opposed to their moral value), because human beings aren’t wired to understand the advantages of complexities that go far beyond the capabilities of a single brain. It is, by nature, confusing to us, which is why so many can so easily believe that an authoritarian state like China has unique advantages.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has given us all a very clear reminder of how the West can still triumph over closed and oppressive regimes like Russia’s.
Just as global trade can empower autocrats (as it did Putin, as we warned in multiple pieces long before the invasion), reliance on it can also be a great weakness. Much of Putin’s calculus was almost certainly a belief that the West wouldn’t line up against him as strongly as it did. After all, France was negotiating separately, Germany seemed noncommittal (as usual), and it’s understandable for Putin to think that Japan and others wouldn’t want to get involved.
However, the self-consciousness of the West proved its worth. It’s through self-consciousness that we as people come to understand ourselves as having an identity tied to ideas and beliefs, rather than simply self-interest, and democracies too experience this strongly. What makes for the most reliable friend? Is it the one with which you only ever interact when it’s of some mutual benefit, or is it the one with which you share a common philosophy and set of values? In my life at least, it’s been the latter. That defines the alliance of the West.
Would Russia invade a NATO member? Of course not; what would there be to gain? There could be only losses for Moscow. Therefore, the invasion of Ukraine in no way amounts to a genuine security threat for NATO. Mutual security cannot account for the West’s collaboration on sanctions as far-reaching and mutually harmful as we have seen. There is a perception of shared identity and values at stake: the symbolic encroachment of a despot into the land of a free people.
Despots even of a similar stripe who perceive their interests as related will never have such an easy time cooperating so extensively; thus, China’s recent trepidation about events in Ukraine is unsurprising. Interests change more easily than shared values. Thus, a globalized economy remains a greater power of the West than of any autocrats.
The extent of the response, too, has been fueled by the same self-consciousness which brought so many to believe we were doomed to fail compared to China. A self-doubting belief that the end was nigh fueled a panic that resulted in the most extensive sanctions in the world, not to mention the vast funds and supplies being provided to the Ukrainian military.
That’s all without mentioning that a profound lack of self-awareness likely fueled the thus-far apparently bungled invasion of Ukraine. Putin, an autocrat’s autocrat, has spent the last two years in remarkable isolation, refusing to meet with people in person without them quarantining for ten days first. His isolation and the manner in which the invasion has played out strategically suggest that the whole affair is an exercise in the blind spots of autocracy: bad advisers and overconfidence.
This is the core advantage the West retains moving into the future, confronting an ever-less certain world order: self-awareness.
Russia’s recent shortcomings are the historical par-for-course for dictatorships; it’s simply how these things go eventually. China’s success thus far has been an impressive show of staving off the disadvantages of a centralized regime, but if Xi continues to consolidate power, the traps of autocracy are more likely to cause him trouble.
When was the last time Xi had to face a vote (a real one) and own up to the consequences of his (inevitable) mistakes, or the last time he had to get press briefings for weeks on end of him being ridiculed on nightly TV? When Hong Kong protesters compared his likeness to Winnie the Pooh’s, for example, they were thrown in jail. It’s hard to imagine Xi doesn’t operate in something of an echo chamber.
The West’s self-awareness, the inability of political leadership to insulate itself entirely from criticism, analysis, and, most importantly, punishment in elections will continue to give liberal democracy a natural edge. The West has accountability mechanisms which punish mistakes and reward successes far more frequently, if imperfectly.
Autocrats, dictators, leaders of tight authoritarian regimes, they all have incentives to do their jobs well, of course. Placating the people makes life much easier. However, it takes a very particular brain to manage that course well, and all manner of traps abound.Subscribe to Spectacles