Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The adaptive autocrats

AUTHORITARIANISM / 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.

After the Fall. The Rise of Authoritarianism in the World We’ve Made
Author: Ben Rhodes
Publisher: Random House Books, USA

What do nationalist-authoritarian regimes like Orbán’s Hungary and Xi’s China have in common with North America#? Understanding the answer is like taking a plunge into icy water. Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s speechwriter for eight years and someone who must reckon with the sad consequences of America’s grand humanistic-political project takes that leap. It began long before Donald Trump. In just 30 years, North America’s exceptionalism plummeted to the ground. Ironically, the forces that propelled the country to the top also contributed to its downfall. How?

In the book After the Fall. The Rise of Authoritarianism in the World We’ve Made, Rhodes takes us on a journey we might have preferred to decline if given the choice. He asserts, «The global spread of rapacious capitalism increased inequality, attacked people’s sense of traditional identity, and laid the groundwork for corruption that allowed those in power to solidify control. After September 11, 2001, [America’s] objectives were channelled into an eternal war that drained resources and entrenched an ‘us versus them’ politics…» This provided autocratic leaders with effective recipes to justify their policies.

Being American today means living in a country whose position has diminished—a country unwilling to admit its own racism but willing to reject democracy, which was meant to be the core of its identity. Instead, the United States became a proponent of unbridled turbo-capitalism that led to an irreparable global financial crisis in 2008.

the United States became a proponent of unbridled turbo-capitalism that led to an irreparable global financial crisis in 2008.

Viktor Orbán and new media

An instructive example of the journey from idealism and youthful action to authoritarian manipulation of power is embodied by Viktor Orbán. Initially, he was a popular liberal politician who honoured his people’s struggle to overcome communist taboos and resist blind obedience to the Russian empire and one-party dictatorship—the peak of freedom ideals—the fall of the Iron Curtain. Bill Clinton’s fusion of liberal politics with market forces was supposed to create prosperity for all. Orbán was in the midst of this as an American creation. Today, he stands as his own distorted image—a comrade of Putin, recipient of dark financial flows through global markets, the leader of something increasingly resembling a one-party dictatorship.

According to Ben Rhodes’ unsparing analysis, the explanation lies in the period after the «heyday of freedom,” during American political hegemony, where the wounds of the past were overlooked, and people lacked a viable future perspective. Yet, individuals in the same situation reacted in vastly different ways—constructively or destructively. Free will and sound judgment were not yet suppressed.

«Predicting disagreement before it arises”

But precisely, this became the target of the next frontal attack. A technology conceived in innovative America grew like a cancer. The internet and social media were expected to democratise knowledge and open channels between people in all corners of the world. However, the system itself seized power. According to Rhodes, it went off the rails. Profit-driven media algorithms treated uncontrolled political influence as free speech beyond the reach of governance. Phenomena like Facebook, TikTok, and the Fox News bubble made it increasingly difficult for people to orient themselves in the real world to the extent that they no longer desired to do so. We underwent massive brainwashing, with millions of Americans convinced that Joe Biden was unjustly elected President of the United States. We witnessed Putin’s media-manipulated Russia, where soldiers’ mothers do not believe their sons when they report the bombs falling on them in Ukraine.

Ben Rhodes
Ben Rhodes

Rhodes in China

And then the most talented student in the technology class emerged – 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 American government but was now travelling on private missions with Obama. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door, and in walked China’s Deputy Foreign Minister with his entourage. After various pleasantries, the purpose of the visit became clear. «We understand that President Obama plans to meet with the leader of the Tibetan separatist movement.» He is also known as the Dalai Lama. So, they stated, «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 was alone, Rhodes thought, «I hadn’t told anyone about a potential meeting with the Dalai Lama.» Yet, their nocturnal guests had no problem making it clear that they were monitoring internal communications.

Rhodes points out that China is different from nations like Hungary or Russia, as China never pretended to open up to liberal democracy at the end of the Cold War. By merging American capitalism with Chinese leadership, they managed to lift millions of people out of poverty. How? «By plugging into the global economy we had built, the trade agreements we welcomed China to, a coercive regime that brought about massive changes with the purpose of satisfying Western consumption.» Surrounded by Chinese nationalism that sharply contrasted with the Western countries to which they sold all their «made in China» products.

The Chinese mastery of (originally) Western technology seems boundless. When necessary, they can move clouds to make the sky blue. And with the help of the Police Cloud program, they collect enormous 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 assign «scores.» The goal can be defined as «predicting disagreement before it arises, suppressing it, and thus reshaping people’s identity and thoughts.» In this way, the party can be perceived as serving the people so well that they no longer feel the need for democracy or debate. And the inevitable question arises: Why would China’s Communist Party refrain from exporting these technologies, this dystopia beyond its borders? Along 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 their own devices can land in the realm of good or evil. We established institutions such as the EU, NATO, and the UN to curb destructive excesses. But no, they do not provide absolute guarantees either, but in the words of Ben Rhodes, «We can all do better if we honour the best in ourselves.»

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Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.

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