People pose for photos in front of a billboard to Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen, China July 4, 2010. The former Chinese leader's economic reforms turned Shenzhen into the country's first Special Economic Zone. Photo by Doug Kanter

To whom will monuments be built a century from now? Among them, perhaps, will be Lee Kuan Yew. He will be remembered not only as the first prime minister of Singapore, but also as the creator of authoritarian capitalism, an ideology set to shape the next century much as democracy shaped the last.

It was, after all, to Singapore that Deng Xiaoping came before enacting his far-reaching economic reforms in China. Until then, capitalism and democracy had seemed inextricably linked. Now the link is broken.

It is often said that the west has failed in its attempt to export its civilisation to the rest of the world. That is only part right. No one dreams any longer of a global liberal democracy that marks the end of history. But economic models have proved more portable than political ideas, and capitalism has triumphed. Poor countries that endorsed it are growing at spectacular rates.

Market-based economics has no problem accommodating local religions, cultures or traditions. It is easily reconciled with the primacy of an authoritarian state. No longer wedded to western cultural values, it is arguably divorced from them; critically reinterpreted, many of the ideas that westerners hold dear — egalitarianism, fundamental rights, a generous and universal welfare-state — can be deployed as weapons against capitalism.

It is not that free enterprise automatically pushes its people towards the single-minded pursuit of hedonic pleasure. Consider India, a country that has single-mindedly followed the capitalist path. Yet there has been no universal rejection there of traditional social structures. People give preference to community ties over individual achievement. Respect for one’s elders remains a powerful check on the autonomy of the young.

Some see in the persistence of these traditions a form of resistance against global capitalism. They are wrong. Fidelity to such values is, paradoxically, the reason why the harsh logic of capitalism has been embraced even more radically in countries such as China, Singapore and India than it has in the west.

The market is a ruthless place where people sustain grievous injuries. It is hard to reconcile yourself to this, if all you are offered in return is the opportunity to satisfy your whims. It is far easier if you can fall back on traditional values to justify your indifference to other people’s fate in ethical terms. “I did it for my parents.” “I did it so my cousins will be able to study.” Such rationales are far more palatable than “I did it for myself”.

It is no accident that freedom is a weak foundation for capitalism in the west, for it is also a hollow one. Liberty survives there, but in a strangely twisted form. Since free choice has been elevated into a supreme value, social control can no longer appear as infringing on it. Often, however, the accommodation is merely rhetorical.

When the hope of long-term employment is taken away, it is sold as a “flexible” labour market, one that offers the perpetual opportunity to reinvent ourselves. When state provision for retirement is taken away, it is to give us the freedom to plan our old age. We are constantly forced to make “free” choices — decisions we must make alone, though we do not know enough to make them wisely. If this is freedom, it is a burden.

Many westerners sense there is something defective about this freedom. We sense it most when we witness the choices of people who are not free, yet who take control of their futures in ways that we cannot. What was fascinating about the protesters in Maidan Square who demanded a new political order for Ukraine was not that they stood up for the mirage of the European way of life. It was simply that they stood up.

They acted. They made things change. They were not free, and yet they had powers of agency that westerners, for all their freedom, lack.

The writer is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities


Letter in response to this article:

China and Singapore are examples of statism/ From Joseph Rizzi

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