By definition, authoritarianism is “the enforcement or advocacy of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom.” I consider this definition particularly incomplete. The definition misses the most important part at the end: “for a certain reason“.
Mao Zedong explicitly stated “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party”. But even if he formed and ruled the People’s Republic of China with this mentality, people embraced him. In the end, he was the biggest national hero, the savior of the Chinese Nation. When Louis XIV shouted out: “ I am the state”, he certainly didn’t face any uprising or such. After all, he led France to its Golden Age, he was their “Golden King”. He is still regarded as the most successful leader France has ever seen. Yes, the world has changed since then, the French Revolution came to pass, democracy has become the status quo and as time passed, we forgot something: authoritarianism has not always been regarded as the worst regime for a country, depending on the consequence or the need.
What this definition overlooks is the fact that people exchange their personal freedom for several reasons. Citizens of the USA exchanged their personal freedom for security when they accepted the Patriot Act, signed right after 9/11. On March 2018, the People’s Republic of China exchanged their personal freedom by passing a bill that gives autocratic leader Xi Jinping a “life-long term limit”. In exchange, he vowed to make China the biggest economy in the world. Yugoslavians exchanged their freedom to keep Yugoslavia United by supporting Tito. Even Fidel Castro was authoritarian but most Cubans would give their lives for him.
Coming back today, we all know the turmoil Trump caused after the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, when the citizens of the USA learned that their Facebook data was exploited in favor of Trump’s presidential campaign. Many describe Trump as a “lunatic” who turns the world upside-down for no reason. However, that is not the case. It is clear from the elections that US citizens indeed demanded such a ruler. Think about it, what if the chaos Trump causes actually revolves around the fact that he did not give Americans something valuable enough to exchange their freedom with?
What Trump proposed to US citizens was that “as a result of the new economic order that was formed in the wake of 2008 Financial Crisis, the US private sector moved their production facilities to countries with cheap labor such as China, Mexico and recently, India. So the US working-class was left unemployed and their share in the economic pie has diminished. Moreover, these companies have been exploiting tremendous amounts of USA capital, technology and resources inside the borders of those countries”. As every authoritarian regime needs an enemy, Trump needed it too. Remember the country along which he wants to build a wall? Or the country that Trump keeps putting tariffs on? It is not a coincidence that those two countries are the same ones where the US private sector has moved their production for cheap labor to the most. Since the crisis, US exports 55% more in total and China became the country that the US has the biggest trade deficit with. Currently, The USA owes $1.17 trillion in total to China, the greatest amount of USA debt held by a foreign country. Mexico now contains the production facilities of the largest US companies like Ford, Caterpillar, Nucos and General Motors within its border. This is also the main reason he draws an anti-globalist perspective by taking protectionist trade measures like tariffs to make imports from China unprofitable and thus incentivize domestic production instead. By basing his presidential campaign on populist promises that would supposedly benefit blue-collar and middle-class Americans, he got the majority.
While Trump draws huge public criticism, GDP of the US grew by 4.1% in his first year (1% caused by the private sector only), the fastest growth since 2014. Also the USA is witnessing its second longest period of economic growth since World War II and Wall Street has already set a record for its “longest bull run in history”. Even if this doesn’t translate into high approval ratings, critics believe that, if sustainable, his economic success will eventually play a huge factor in his re-election in 2020.
According to the Human Rights Foundation’s research, the citizens of 94 countries are ruled under non-democratic regimes, making 53% of the world currently controlled under autocrats. Autocratic governments keep getting bailed out by the World Bank and there is no distinctive initiative taken by the UN towards monitoring those governments, so they are not regarded as a threat to democracy or the increasing inequality.
Turning back to some authoritarian regimes around the world, China has 20% of the world’s population but only 3.3% lies within the poverty line. They are the “world’s factory” and even cheap labor is no longer the case for China as income per capita is increasing considerably year by year. This economic miracle will make China the biggest economy in the world by 2030 and potentially, the most influential one. Saudi Arabia’s forecasted GDP growth is 1.8% for 2018 and for non-oil sectors, 2.3% which is a promising sign of how the Saudi Arabian absolute monarch is on the right path to make the country less oil-dependent. The government ruled by the Saudi Prince foresees that the diversification and growth of the economy will reach its peak by the end of “Vision2030”. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been ruling Turkey since 2002 and reached outstanding GDP growth and GDP per capita records compared to previously unstable governments. On top of those, parallel to the rise of inequality around the world, populist parties (mostly with authoritarian views) are on the rise in even full-democracy European countries.
Yes, there is a lot of unsatisfactory examples like Maduro in Venezuela, Kim Jong Un in North Korea, poor African countries ruled by dictators or the current economic situation of Turkey under Erdogan. Since authoritarianism often turns a blind eye on an independent judiciary system and democracy, trust in the economy diminishes inevitably year by year and at the end, especially developing countries cannot refinance the foreign debt used by foreign investors leaving the country year by year. But looking at the big picture, years after the status quo of democracy, the world finally seems to reconsider that authoritarianism is not a bad idea again as people are becoming more and more willing to exchange their personal freedom for its “economic perks”. Security can also be the reason as global arms threat reaches the highest point since Cold War Era looking at the rise of global armament triggered by North Korea.
Some questions still demand an answer at this point, such as “Isn’t the non-democratic authoritarianism trend in contrast with rising individuality and increasing awareness of privacy?”. After the 2008 Financial Crisis hit all over the world as much as the USA, globalization has begun to be questioned. But what about the inevitable rise of technology and inter-connectedness between nations and people, legalization of drugs around the world and the upcoming Generation Z which values personal freedom and “being global” more than ever? This certainly doesn’t match the idea of rising absolutism.
While talking about the perks of authoritarianism throughout the article, let’s not forget the quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “A totalitarian regime may indeed fulfill our tangible needs. But we are not some kind of herb animals being fed by its owner. Respect for humanity! Respect for humanity! If such respect is rooted in the human heart, humanity will eventually establish a social, political, or economic system that reflects itself.”