David Runciman believes that democracy's great strength is its adaptability, but autocracies can prove equally flexibleby Ferdinand Mount / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
An American political cartoon (1899) showing the Earth brushing away Monarchy to make way for democratically elected government
The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman (Princeton, £19.95)
“If we go on at this rate, the nation must be ruined,” said Sir John Sinclair in 1777. He had brought the news of General Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga to his hero Adam Smith. Sinclair was a humourless beanpole of a man, an obsessive statistician who wrote wagonloads of pamphlets on every subject imaginable, the very archetype of an intellectual of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was 23 years old and distraught. Smith was 54 and magnificently unmoved by the news, replying with the immortal putdown, “Be assured, my young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.”
Smith was right, as he was right about most things. The war in America staggered on for another four years until the surrender at Yorktown. Lord North staggered on as Prime Minister too, until he was eventually chucked out on a vote of no confidence, the first Prime Minister to suffer this fate. Even then, he bobbed up again as Home Secretary the following year in a new coalition government. In a democracy, even an imperfect one like late-18th century Britain, failure is seldom fatal for long.
David Runciman takes a rather later starting point for his beguiling new book, which manages to be both skittish and profound. He begins with Alexis de Tocqueville, whom he presents, I think convincingly, as the first man to understand what democracy was really like. The French aristocrat certainly was the first observer to explain the hidden strengths of the United States, which others had denounced as a vulgar and mediocre society. But what he had to say applies just as well to any modern democracy.
What Tocqueville understood was that “the great privilege of the Americans is the ability to make repairable mistakes.” Disastrous policies in a democracy are not a lasting calamity because they do not become entrenched. Democracies live from moment to moment. They are open ended, and not to be pinned down. Walter Lippmann argued that the proposed Article X of the League of Nations Charter, which bound the League’s members to defend any other member against external aggression, was rightly resisted by Congress because it was an “effort to be wiser than the next generation.” In the same way, in Britain it is not just a piece of flummery that no parliament can bind another. Parliament’s freedom to change its mind is the precondition of democratic life.
Runciman focuses on seven crises, from the breakdown of the Versailles settlement after the Great War to the credit crunch of 2008. His purpose is not like that of a Presidential memoir (Richard Nixon, for example, wrote a book called Six Crises), to demonstrate how our hero always comes out on top. On the contrary, what he wants to show is how the principals usually get entangled in a series of misconceptions, botches and unforeseen consequences. The leitmotif is more like that enunciated by Boris Johnson: “My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”
Not the least delight of The Confidence Trap is the succession of gloomy gurus who pop up whenever things look grim to tell us that democracy is finished, or should never have got started: Nietzsche denounced it as a big lie; George Kennan thought it “congenitally shallow”; HG Wells “a shabby, threadbare religion”; Lippmann himself in old age, “a doubtful experiment, increasingly unworkable.” A disillusioned Willy Brandt declared that European democracy had only 20 or 30 years left before it disappeared under a surrounding sea of dictatorship. My favourite is the Shah of Iran’s response to Oriana Fallaci: “You’ll see in a few years what your wonderful democracy leads to.” This was six years before the Islamic Revolution.
Runciman could have added half a dozen other observers who predicted disaster for mass democracy: in the 19th century, Walter Bagehot and the young Lord Salisbury, in the 20th, Lord Radcliffe and Lord Mountbatten. Keynes also disliked the vulgar clamour of elections and the idiotic promises made at them. He was momentarily attracted by what he called “the magnificent experiments” of Russian Bolshevism and Italian Fascism. Intellectuals have never ceased to shudder at the unlovely spectacle of the democratic process, rather on the lines of Ernest Thesiger in the trenches: “My dear, the noise, and the people!”
But democracy possesses an unexpected long-term strength which derives from its short-term restlessness. The soil is kept in good heart because the worms never stop wriggling. In the event, it is autocracies which tend to crack under pressure. Democracies somehow slither through the morass, that is, if they have passed what Runciman calls “the confidence threshold.” New or newish, shallow-rooted democracies may break up under the strains of unemployment, inflation and civil unrest and take refuge in an authoritarian ruler, as Germany, Italy, Japan and Portugal did after the First World War. But an established, self-assured democracy will simply “throw the rascals out” and put in a fresh government.
The last thing Runciman wishes to encourage is any illusion about democracy. His aim is to keep our gaze leery, not starry. For if democracy succeeds because it fails, it also fails because it succeeds. Since we know that we can in the last resort adapt to whatever fate chucks at us, we don’t bother to take precautions. This is what Runciman calls “the confidence trap.” Democratic politics is so noisy that we cannot hear the roar of the weir round the next bend in the river. We know this too, and we panic so often that we cannot tell the difference between the false alarms and the real ones.
But far from being inconstant and short-winded, as its elite critics complain, democracies are also capable of great steadiness and tenacity—in the pursuit of wars once engaged, and in the maintenance of military deterrence once undertaken. Which was quicker to abandon its costly war in Afghanistan, the Soviets or the Americans? Even Vietnam seems to me to demonstrate the stamina of the American public, rather than its tendency to shy at the first bloodshed; over a decade is a long time to stick at a faraway war which isn’t going well.
Runciman argues that while autocracies dare not make experiments in democracy that might bring about their downfall, democracies can experiment with autocracy if they need to. Historians often assert that in the Second World War, Britain was more thoroughly mobilised than Nazi Germany.
In severe economic crises, democracies can be persuaded to hand over the reins to unelected technocrats for a time until the worst is past—as the Greeks and Italians have done recently. Democracies may show themselves capable too of enduring unpleasant austerities with barely a whimper. Ireland offers an impressive recent example. Such stoicism seldom receives the credit it deserves from the gurus, who are still busy scolding the people for getting into the mess in the first place.
So far I am very much in sympathy with Runciman. What he says is fresh and clear and will be new to many readers. But then he approaches the subject of China, as indeed he ought to, and I begin to wonder about the precise terms of his argument.
We are told that “autocratic regimes are far less likely to own up to their mistakes and change course when required.” But only a few pages later we are brought face to face with the growing economic dominance of China. That dominance is unmistakably based on the daring overturning of Maoist orthodoxy by Deng Xiaoping. On the surface, the Chinese political system remains unchanged, but underneath there has been a bouleversement in economic policy, perhaps the greatest in recorded history. This economic liberation has not only created an elite of billionaires, it has dragged along in its wake other non-economic freedoms—increased freedom to travel, free speech and so on—all grudgingly granted and limited in their extent, it is true, but an improvement on the situation under Mao. Yet until recently it was western orthodoxy that no such freedoms could be conceded without pulling the bricks out of the Great Wall.
Runciman defines autocracy, a little cursorily, as “the self-sustaining rule of a single individual.” Yet he does include under this rubric regimes run by a small coterie, such as the Greek colonels. But what if the ruling coterie is rather larger, like, say, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party? May not a system like that offer a choice of factions and policies which will enable it to lurch away from a disaster with new men and a new party line? We really don’t know—and Runciman does not claim that we do—whether “state capitalism” as practised in east Asia may not be a permanent feature of the political landscape.
Perhaps we should look closer at the dictionary. Auto + cracy = self-power. We ought perhaps to think of its opposite term not as one which describes which classes or classes do the ruling—democracy, oligarchy, aristocracy—but as one which identifies power as deriving from some force outside the leadership: “allocracy” perhaps or “ectocracy.” Many of the qualities that David Runciman ascribes to democracy—adaptability, robustness—are surely visible in regimes of the past which we wouldn’t necessarily think of as fully democratic; the Venetian oligarchy, for example, or indeed, Britain in the 1770s. The adaptability of a political system may derive not so much from the proportion of the population who have the vote, as from the availability of an alternative set of rulers and an alternative set of policies. Democracies may do it better, but it would be hard to claim that undemocratic regimes can’t do it at all.
The Confidence Trap is an exhilaratingly different type of political essay from the usual diet of modern political science. It has a whiff of the ancients about it. And it is disturbing in the same way that the political writings of Plato and Aristotle are disturbing. For they too challenge our conventional expectations of how a certain type of regime may turn out in practice. It is, after all, not a wholly comfortable thought that autocracies can surprise us.