The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (Allen Lane, £20)
With the west seemingly bogged down in intractable problems, there are many who fear that some version of the authoritarianism that has proved so successful in delivering prosperity in Asia may take over from democracy as the next stage of political development. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge share this anxiety, and The Fourth Revolution is their response. Western states are over-stretched and bloated, they argue; only if government is drastically reduced in size and focuses exclusively on what it does best can the west emerge from stagnation and inertia. By selling off what remains of state enterprise and reducing welfare provision, a slim-line state can free up dynamism in the economy and society.
It’s hardly a new message. The line the authors push about rolling back the state is the consensus view in policy institutes throughout the world, and has been for decades. I recall the same ideas being hailed as challengingly radical in right-wing think tanks some 30 years ago, when they were already becoming slightly stale. Micklethwait and Wooldridge point to some new developments—the shift to less state-centred policies in Sweden and Singapore’s success in using the power of government pragmatically, for example—and their analysis is often tough-minded and illuminating; but there is nothing remotely novel in their overall approach to policy.
The Fourth Revolution is more than a grab-bag of fashionable policy prescriptions, however—it is also a history of ideas about the role of government. Since “the dawn of the modern era,” there have been “three new ‘sciences of politics,’” argue Micklethwait and Wooldridge. The first, which they see as being embodied in the political thought of Thomas Hobbes, had to do with the need for order and the emergence in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries of the modern sovereign state. This was followed by a concern with individual liberty, which the authors find in the work of John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville and the limited type of government that existed in Britain and some other countries in the 19th century. The third was the politics of social welfare, as exemplified in the Fabians, particularly the work of Beatrice Webb, and 20th century social democracy. The authors tell us that the next phase of history will develop on the basis of the previous three: the fourth revolution will “complete the revolutions of the 1980s… reform government from the ground up and put liberty at the heart of the state’s relations with its citizens.”
What is most striking in this highly schematic overview is what it leaves out. The authors devote the first chapter of the book to the rise of the nation state and much is said about its role in securing the public goods of order and security; but there is next to nothing in the book about nationalism, or the waves of ethnic cleansing that accompanied the formation of nation-states in interwar Europe and more recently the Balkans. The role of empire in the rise of Europe is passed over in near-silence; the East India Company comes in for occasional mention, but only for the authors to comment that “European mercantilism was normally anchored in property rights.”
Nothing is said of the geopolitical manoeuvrings that led to the First World War or the era of mass disorientation and dictatorship that ensued. Twentieth-century totalitarianism is mentioned hardly at all, and then as a minor digression from the main path of western development: “even in its more grotesque deviations of fascism and communism, the west was still striving, at least in theory, to forge the future.”
No attempt is made to account for the fact that rather than being followed by some version of liberal democracy as practically everyone expected, the collapse of communism has produced in Russia a hyper-modern type of despotism. The financial crisis of 2007/8 is noted as having “changed the tone of western politics”; but the unprecedented global experiment with expansionary monetary policy (quantitative easing) that followed is barely touched upon; the prospect that exiting from this monetary regime could trigger another crisis is not discussed at all.
Why the authors should have presented an account of modern history that says practically nothing of the greatest crises and upheavals of the past century is an interesting question. One reason may be the genre in which they are writing. The authors describe themselves as classical liberals, a tradition which encourages the belief that there is no human dilemma that cannot be resolved with the diligent application of reason. Reading The Fourth Revolution, one would almost think that political crisis was not a perennial fact of life but a type of market failure that could be eliminated by intelligent reform. When the authors talk of “fixing Leviathan”—the bloated and ineffective state they believe exists in many western countries—they evince no doubt that Leviathan can be tamed; all that is needed is that governments take the advice of the best and most well-informed minds.
This doesn’t mean the authors are dewy-eyed. They confront some uncomfortable truths: “So far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the western model,” they write. “First America’s war on terror, especially its invasion of Iraq, did immense damage to democracy’s image, then the credit crunch savaged the idea that liberal capitalism is the only answer and finally the crisis in Washington in 2013 confirmed Asian suspicions that western government is dysfunctional.” While arguing for a leaner state, they show that privatisation of public services has costs and risks. Preferring democracy to the alternatives, they are aware of democracy’s distinctive inefficiencies. They take the Chinese achievement seriously, but they also show that China’s rulers face formidable difficulties. Mickelthwait and Wooldridge are immensely knowledgeable writers, whose positions—the first is Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, while the second was the magazine’s Washington bureau chief and now serves as Management Editor and “Schumpeter” columnist—give them unrivalled access to current thinking in the world’s governments and businesses. Policy analysis doesn’t get any better than this.
Unfortunately policy analysis of the sort the authors practice has a habit of being soon overtaken by events. As they note, “There have been dozens of attempts to fix government in recent decades. George W Bush claimed to have a ‘management agenda’ based on his reading of Peter Drucker. Al Gore had a plan to ‘reinvent government’… These plans have invariably come to nothing or run out of steam.”
Things could be different now, the authors believe—most obviously because the fiscal crisis makes reform of some sort unavoidable. However, the chief reason for their confidence—“the heart of the matter,” as they put it—seems to be that governments are now in a position to learn from one another. This is where the four-stage scheme comes in. Inasmuch as contemporary governments have shared problems, the authors believe, they will seek common solutions.
This confidence rests on a very popular idea: as political systems become more modern, they become more similar. The trouble is that this is an idea that has been repeatedly falsified as the contingencies of history have again and again defeated large theories of government. Here the authors could have learnt a cautionary lesson from two of their book’s pivotal figures: Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and Beatrice Webb (1858-1943).
The authors devote a substantial chapter to Beatrice’s life and work, focusing mainly on her contribution to the development of the welfare state. In an instructive discussion, they show how much she imbibed from Herbert Spencer, an early intellectual mentor and an ardent exponent of laissez-faire government. Flatteringly described by the authors as one of the few “pure liberals” left in late Victorian times, Spencer was an eccentric figure who opposed even the public health initiatives of the day, which he believed came from the machinations of a sinister group he described as “the sanitary class.”
Spencer’s extreme devotion to laissez-faire wasn’t just crankiness, though. It articulated a theory of social evolution, which he developed independently of Charles Darwin. It was Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” using it first in his Principles of Biology (1864), and more than any other single thinker it is Spencer who is responsible for the practice of discussing politics and society in evolutionary terms.
Like all who talk of social evolution, Spencer was convinced it was a process with a clear direction and an end-point. In his case the terminus was free-market capitalism. Spencer’s misfortune was that he lived long enough to discover that society was not evolving towards that laissez-faire: in both England and the world at large, the dominant trend was towards imperialism, mercantilism and the welfare state.
Baffled at this turn of events, the Victorian prophet spent his last years in depression. Six months before he died, he told Beatrice, sadly, that he would rather not have lived. Partly as a result of working in London’s slums, Beatrice had by then abandoned laissez-faire in favour of a socialist belief in government. Crucially, however, she didn’t renounce the faith in social evolution she had imbibed from her mentor. Instead she changed evolution’s direction: the next stage wasn’t laissez-faire but statist collectivism of the sort that existed in the Soviet Union.
As the authors remind us, Beatrice (along with her husband Sydney) “hailed Stalin as the architect of a new civilisation, dismissing evidence that millions of people had died in famines in Ukraine.” In 1935 the Webbs published Soviet Communism: a New Civilisation? By 1941, in a comic episode Micklethwait and Wooldridge don’t discuss, they were confident enough to remove the question mark from further editions of the book.
The Stalinist system that the Webbs lauded began to crumble a decade or so later, but the belief that a single type of government is evolving throughout the world has continued to shape political thinking. In 1941, the former Trotskyist James Burnham declared in The Managerial Revolution that rather than socialism it was a type of managerial rule taking over: Stalinism, Nazism and Roosevelt’s New Deal were all versions of this rising new system. Four years later the Nazi regime had been destroyed, while Stalinism ended with Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956.
But it was not long before a new version of the idea that governments are evolving in the same direction appeared in the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell’s book, The End of Ideology (1960), in which he argued that western and Soviet systems were converging. Thirty years later, Fukuyama’s end-of-history thesis was, in effect, a more apocalyptic version of Bell’s analysis. The fourth revolution is yet another iteration of the same idea.
The trouble with all these theories is that divergent political systems don’t tend to converge in response to common problems. Instead, depending on their particular histories and circumstances, governments more often stagnate, collapse or go to war with one another. When they do reform, it is not in order to realise any fashionable model of development. If China poses a major challenge to western statecraft, it is not because China’s rulers are promoting a universal model to replace that promoted by the US. The authors refer more than once to a “Beijing consensus,” which is supposedly supplanting the now clearly defunct “Washington consensus.” Yet as far as I am aware the term has rarely (if ever) been used by senior Chinese officials, and may well be simply a western journalistic invention. China’s elites seem bent on restoring the country to its rightful place in the world; but whatever political system emerges inside the country will be above all Chinese, not necessarily for export and certainly not a move in a global quest for the best type of government.
Already, Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s model shows signs of being derailed by history. The chief points of stress on the global scene at the present time are precisely those they leave out of account: nationalism in the relations of China and Japan; the geopolitics of empire and the psychology of national humiliation in President Vladimir Putin’s challenge to the west; the return of the politics of mass disorientation in the rise of the far right in Europe and Islamist revolutionary movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is these forces, far more than any evolutionary process of development, which are shaping the world in which governments will have to live. Not for the first time, a vision of the future has been left stranded in the past.