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The adaptive autocrats

After the fall. The Rise of Authoritarianism in the World We’ve Made
Forfatter: Ben Rhodes Random
Forlag: House Books (USA)
AUTHORITARIAN / What happened after the height of freedom ideals, the fall of the Iron Curtain and Bill Clinton's fusion of liberal politics with market forces? Today, the Chinese's mastery of original Western technology and surveillance seems limitless.

What do nationalist-authoritarian regimes like Orbán's Hungary and Xi's China have in common with North America? The realization of the answer is like a leap into icy water. That leap is taken by Ben Rhodes, for eight years Barack Obama's speechwriter and someone who must take note of the sad consequences of America's great humanistic-political project. It started long before Donald Trump. In a period of just 30 years, North America's exceptionalism crashed . Ironically, the forces that led the country to the top also accelerated its fall. How?

In the book After the fall. The Rise of Authoritarianism in the World We’ve MadeRhodes takes us on a journey we would probably be happy to reject. If we could. He states: “The globalized spread of greedy capitalism increased inequality, attacked people's sense of traditional identity and laid the groundwork for a corruption that allowed those in power to cement control. After September 11, 2001, [the US's] objective was channeled into a perpetual war that poured resources, and stuck to an 'us against them' policy…” This gave autocratic leaders good recipes to justify their policies.

To be American today is thus to live in a country whose position has shrunk – and which, among other things, is unwilling to admit its own racism, but willing to reject the democracy that was supposed to form the very core of its identity. Instead, the US became the driving force behind an uncontrolled turbo-capitalism that in 2008 led to an irreversible global financial crisis.

Viktor Orbán and new media

An instructive example of the path from idealism and youthful courage to authoritarian power manipulation is represented by Viktor Orbán. At first he was a popular liberal politician who honored his people's struggle to end communist taboos and opposed blind obedience to the Russian Empire and one-party dictatorship. The pinnacle of the ideals of freedom. The fall of the Iron Curtain. Bill Clinton's fusion of liberal politics with market forces was supposed to create prosperity for all. Orbán stood in the middle of this, as an American creation. Today we see him as the absolute opposite – Putin's mate, recipient of dark money flows through global markets, leader of something that increasingly looks like a dictatorship through a one-party state.

In Ben Rhodes' ruthless analysis, the explanation is to be found in the period after the "heyday of freedom", by American political hegemony, where the wounds of the past were overlooked and where people lacked a viable future perspective. And at the same time, people in the same situation reacted in very different ways after all. In a constructive or destructive direction. Free will and sound judgment were not yet stifled.

"Predicting disagreement before it happens."

But precisely this was targeted in the next frontal attack. A technology conceived in innovative America multiplied like a cancer. The Internet and social media were said to democratize knowledge, open the channels between people in all corners of the world. But then the system itself took over. According to Rhodes, it ran wild, through profit-driven media algorithms, treated as freedom of expression. Phenomena such asThe Facebook-TikTok and Fox News bubble made it increasingly difficult for people to orient themselves in the real world, to the point where this was no longer even desired. There was massive brainwashing; millions of Americans are convinced that Joe Biden was unfairly elected President of the United States -  we witnessedPutin's media manipulated Russia, where soldier mothers do not believe what their sons say about the bombs falling on them in Ukraine. 

Rhodes and China

And then the very best student in the technology class appeared – Xi Jinping.

One night in 2017, Ben Rhodes found himself in Shanghai, asleep in his hotel room. He was no longer a representative of the US government, but now traveled on private missions with Obama. Suddenly there is a knock on the door, and in strolls China's deputy foreign minister with an entourage. Soon the errand is clear. "We understand that President Obama is planning a meeting with the leader of the Tibetan separatist movement." He is otherwise known as the Dalai Lama. Then: "It would be a personal insult to the Chinese people and Xi Jinping if the meeting were to take place so soon after Obama had been well received in China." As soon as he is left alone, the first thing entering Rhodes' mind is: I hadn't told anyone about a possible meeting with the Dalai Lama. And yet the nocturnal guests had no problem making it clear that they were monitoring the Obama team and their internal communications.

Ben Rhodes

China, Rhodes points out, is different from nations like Hungary or Russia, as China never tried to pretend opening up to liberal democracy at the end of the Cold War. By fusing American capitalism with Chinese leadership, they were able to lift millions of people out of poverty. How? "By plugging into the global economy we had built, the trade agreements we welcomed China into, a coercive regime that created massive changes for the purpose of satisfying Western consumerist need." Surrounded by a Chinese nationalism that stood in sharp contrast to precisely the western countries to which they sold all their "made in China" goods.

The Chinese's mastery of (originally) Western technology seems limitless. When needed they can make clouds move, turning the sky blue. And with the help of the program Police Cloud they collect gigantic amounts of information. It monitors who you are in contact with, what you buy, where you travel, whether you pay your traffic fines etc. A system of "social credit" allows the government to evaluate everyone and give "grades". The aim can be defined as "predicting disagreement before it occurs, cracking down on it and thus reshaping people's identity and thoughts". In that way, the party can be perceived as serving the people so well that it no longer feels the need for democracy or debate. And the question inevitably arises: Why should the Chinese Communist Party refrain from exporting these technologies, this dystopia, to the rest of the world? Together with an authoritarianism "made in China".

No, there is no reason to expect that Xi or other autocrats will voluntarily change course. People left to themselves can all fall into the power of good or evil. To curb destructive excesses, we created institutions such as the EU, NATO and the UN. But no, they don't give absolute guarantees either. Still, in the words of Ben Rhodes: "We can all do better if we honor our better angels."

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Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

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