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But this is an anachronistic view of the world. Modern authoritarian states have eagerly (but selectively) embraced globalisation to provide their citizens with at least a modicum of self-actualisation without ever abandoning their authoritarianism. Their young people travel the world, learn English, use Skype and poke each other on Facebook – all while competing for comfortable jobs with state-owned companies. We are entering the age of “accommodating authoritarianism” – and the internet has played a crucial (though hardly the only) role in providing many of the accommodations.
The reason why the Chinese can download Weeds or Mad Men from peer-to-peer networks is not because the Chinese government can no longer police the web. It’s because watching Weeds and Mad Men is what young people living under contemporary authoritarians are supposed to do. These societies no longer operate in the world of cultural scarcity; it’s hard to nudge them towards dissent with the promise of blue jeans or prohibited vinyl records. For every Chinese blogger that the techno-utopians expect to fight their government via Twitter, there are a hundred others who feel content with the status quo.
In one respect, then, authoritarian states and modern democracies are very much alike: both have embraced hedonism as their main and only political ideology. The recent outburst of techno-utopianism in the West may thus be just another futile attempt to imagine a world where the purest ideal of Athenian democracy, uncorrupted by special interests and popular culture, is not only possible but could actually be facilitated by its more corrupt, frivolous, and somewhat culpable western sibling. This, of course, is an illusion. Citizens of modern authoritarian states face a choice between hedonism with stable prosperity (their status quo) and hedonism with unstable prosperity – the hedonism that may follow a tumultuous transition to democracy. Stability wins, with or without Twitter.
Isn’t this the techie libertarian version of the neocon idea that all people around the world are liberal democrats at heart, just waiting to be liberated from authoritarianism by force? Both are predicated on a view of human nature that is rather romantic. Huxley had it right, alas. I’m not making a pitch for or against any particular political system, understand (I am quite fond of liberal democracy myself, but agree with John Adams that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”), but only arguing for skepticism of the Western view that everyone wants to be like us. In the end, I’m not even sure that <i>we</i> want to be like us anymore — a point Patrick Deneen limns here.