The Political and Economic Predicament of the West

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2012-10-08 15:19
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Many Western countries are currently experiencing political turbulence, economic decline, and a wave of social unrest. As the West faces its most profound crisis since the Second World War, even the Western public has begun to voice doubts over the rationality of institutional designs in their countries.

When Western politicians talk about their political system, they often make the following claims: that their system is better than others at representing public opinion, because their governments are formed through one-person-one-vote general elections; that their system is better than others at preventing bad decisions, because their legislatures are able to carry out intense debates over the major policies and principles of the country; that their system is better than others at preventing corruption, because their opposition parties are able to closely monitor the governing party; and that their system is better than others at nipping dangerous social tendencies in the bud, because the media enjoys full freedom to monitor society. Despite these claims, however, we have to wonder how an institutional design which Western countries have taken pride in for so many years has resulted in the current economic predicament, the global economic crisis, and the waging of blatantly unjust wars that go against world opinion. In order to find the answers to these questions, we must look to the fact that institutions in the West have been unable to operate as they were originally intended to, and that they have also failed to keep up with the pace of contemporary change.

On May 20, 2012, about 5,000 anti-war protesters from all over the US assembled near McCormick Place, Chicago, where the 25th NATO Summit opened on that day. Protesters called for an end to NATO’s war agenda and an increase in US government spending on public healthcare, employment, education, and environmental protection. More than 30 US veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars delivered speeches, and some publicly threw away their anti-terrorism service medals awarded by the US government. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Zhang Baoping

I. Contention between the governing party and opposition parties undermines public efficiency

Under the Western-style democratic system, a zero-sum relationship exists between the governing party and opposition parties, with the political prospects of the latter lying in the failure of the former. The reason for this is simple: the more effective the government, the higher the public satisfaction, which means that opposition parties will have less chance of beating the governing party in an election. On the contrary, the less effective the government, the lower the public satisfaction, which means that the opposition parties will have better chances of winning an election. This zero-sum mechanism determines that opposition parties are not only unwilling to assist the governing party, but actually place obstacles in its way in order to ensure their own survival and development. The governing party is therefore unable to govern without hindrance, and both the country and the public suffer as a result.

No governing political party is able to satisfy everyone. Being aware of this, opposition parties have a tendency to jump on any and all signs of social dissatisfaction for their own political ends. Senior politicians in opposition parties make frequent appearances in street protests, calling for strikes and inciting people to take to the streets, their aim being to create obstructions for the governing party. These political games intensify public divisions, decrease government efficiency, and undermine the competitiveness of the national economy.

In the political system of the West, democratic politics have devolved into electoral politics. Elections of all descriptions are held in close succession almost every year, not only occupying the time and energies of politicians, but also expending large amounts of social resources. The necessity of winning votes tempts politicians to make wild promises to voters, promises which they are almost always unable to keep upon election. With average voters being most concerned with their own immediate interests, it is very difficult for far-sighted politicians to be voted in, such as those that propose sacrificing immediate interests for long-term national interests, and partial interests for overall interests. This institutional logic dictates that elected politicians care only about the short-term interests, and far-sighted politicians who speak the truth are powerless to win elections.

II. Development models that rely on unrestrained markets and consumer credit are unsustainable

The development models of Western countries formed gradually during the period of social and economic development that followed the Second World War. The most typical of these models is the neoliberal model. Neoliberalism advocates thorough privatization, liberalization, and marketization. It believes that markets are “all-powerful,” denies the existence of market defects, plays down the possibility of market failures, exaggerates the capacity of markets to correct themselves, and uses this as grounds to oppose government intervention in economic activities. The economic theories and policies of neoliberalism were once responsible for economic prosperity in the US, but they also sowed the seeds of crisis. Many causes of the international financial crisis, such as lax financial regulation, the over-abundance of financial derivatives, and the dislodging of the virtual economy from the real economy, stem from a blind faith in neoliberalism.

The European model, on the other hand, is founded on the basis of liberal competition, whilst at the same time addressing the relationship between competition and monopoly. This model seeks to maintain a balance between efficiency and fairness through moderate government regulation. In the interests of social stability, it also seeks to balance economic development and social welfare. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Western European countries adhered to the theory of government intervention, giving play to the guiding role of macroeconomic regulation in promoting economic development. However, this model gradually gave rise to rigid systems and a lack of institutional innovation. Since the 1990s, many European countries have been increasingly influenced by neoliberalism, accelerating the processes of privatization and liberalization in their markets. With the arrival of the US subprime mortgage crisis in 2008, the increasingly internationalized European financial industry, with its ever expanding virtual capital, was thrown into chaos. The onset of the financial crisis had a more devastating impact on Europe than it had on the US.

Cradle-to-grave social security systems were once a major feature of the European model. European countries have often taken pride in what they dub “most developed social welfare and security systems” in the world. However, such high levels of welfare have proven difficult to sustain as the growth of public spending has outpaced the growth of the economy. In an attempt to highlight their achievements and satisfy voters, many European governments have not hesitated to run up huge debts in an effort to maintain high levels of welfare, debts which they do not have the capacity to repay. With the outbreak of the financial crisis, however, European countries have been forced to implement austerity policies. These welfare cuts have been met with opposition from the public, who have become accustomed to high welfare, leading to a surge in public protests. The debt ratio of the Greek government, for example, has reached a staggeringly high 142.8%, which leaves no choice but to cut spending. Despite this, opinion polls have shown that although 58.7% of the Greek population is in favor of the government’s spending cuts, over 86% is against the reduction of pensions and the cancellation of the 14th monthly salary payment. In other words, they are willing to accept spending cuts only if those cuts do not affect them personally. This phenomenon is indicative of a structural imbalance.

III. Corporate monopolies have distorted the role of the media

Having a media that can supervise the government, convey public sentiment, and provide society with an early warning within the boundaries prescribed by law is essential for the sound development of society. However, in reality, the Western media has gradually come under the control of corporations, its original functions being gradually distorted for the purpose of its own survival and the maximization of its interests.  

The Western media may claim to be independent, but in reality the corporations that lie behind it share intricate links with governments in these countries. Politicians make frequent use of media exposure to win votes or consolidate their positions. After taking office, these politicians repay media corporations for their assistance, often drawing on their political resources to provide favorable policies for the expansion of these corporations. At the same time, corporate tycoons who provide financial support for election campaigns are able to put themselves in a more favorable position by winning a political appointment, which is another example of “legitimate corruption” in the West. On the other hand, corporations also exert a subtle political influence on the media organizations that they control. The result is that all media organizations are fully aware of the political limits of the interest group that they serve. 

Different media organizations are sponsored by different corporations, which have a stake in different political parties. Attacks on the government and individual politicians are commonplace in the Western media, and are often regarded as being the most distinctive feature of press freedom in the West. In fact, these are nothing but campaigns launched by different corporations to attack the political rivals of the representatives that they support. These attacks are seldom driven by any sense of fairness or justice, let alone impartiality. The world was shocked by the phone hacking scandal involving British tabloid the News of the World in July 2011. This incident exposed the irregular relationship between Prime Minister David Cameron’s Government and the senior management of the News Corporation and its British subsidiary News International, as well as the behind-the-scenes practices of media tycoons who use their media resources to gain political capital and eventually satisfy their commercial goals. This is a particularly vivid example of how the function of the media in the West has been distorted. 

IV. Radical ideologies and international power imbalances have fueled the abuse of military force abroad

Intense debates over domestic policies do indeed take place in Western legislatures. Governing parties and opposition parties often have differing opinions as to whether such debates are able to prevent governments from making erroneous decisions. Moreover, as outsiders, we are in no position to pass judgment on this. However, as far as international affairs are concerned, we often see unjustifiable motions, such as those that violate the norms of international relations, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, and pave the way for war against weaker countries, being passed in Western legislatures with little by the way of intense debate. While this may appear to be odd, it is not actually difficult to understand the reasons why.

A unique phenomenon in the Western political system is the relationship that exists between public opinion and the governing party. Governing parties in Western countries are highly susceptible to the influence of public opinion, and in some cases have no choice but to play to it blindly. Of course, it is only right for a governing party to stay in tune with public opinion; this is essential. However, when public opinion on a certain issue is manufactured by a certain interest group, the policies of the government in regard to that issue are likely to incline towards the demands of that interest group. This explains why various political forces engage in fierce competition to mold, influence, and control public opinion. A small number of “political dissidents” who have fled from developing countries to the West are fully aware of this fact. By catering to the tastes of Western ideology, they exaggerate, distort, and even fabricate the situation in their own country to mold public opinion through the Western media, so as to shock the Western public and capture the attention of Western political circles.

Debates in Western legislatures over domestic political issues tend to be more balanced out, as each of the interested parties has its own representatives in the legislature. However, things are different when it comes to foreign affairs. “Political dissidents” make no attempt to safeguard the interests of their own country. Rather, in an effort to fulfill the political demands that they are unable to fulfill within the political framework of their own country, they push for the forceful intervention of Western countries through sanctions or condemnations. Considering the frequency that these “political dissidents” appear before Western legislatures and in the Western media, it is not hard to imagine how one-sided and shallow the debates in Western legislatures over external affairs tend to be, and how biased their decisions on sanctions and military intervention, which are based on these debates, tend to be.

The imbalance in the international distribution of power since the end of the Cold War has removed many of the constraints that previously dissuaded Western countries from waging war. Another important factor to note is that Western countries have the ability to perform precision strikes on their enemies. These strikes make wars against weaker countries seem like video games in which the enemy is devastated but few casualties are sustained on the attacking side. The ability to launch precision strikes also reduces civilian casualties and damage to civilian property, which reduces domestic political pressure and international moral condemnation to a certain extent. The result has been a string of wars against numerous countries. These wars have not only left the countries in question with wounds that will take decades to heal, but have also created problems that will continue to have an impact on regional security and stability over the long term.

V. The original intentions of political systems and trends of change

The various problems seen in contemporary Western society are not only attributable to inherent problems in the institutional designs of these countries, but also to the fact that these institutions have failed to keep up with the pace of contemporary change. We should admit that Western values and governance approaches are suited to the features of Western societies in certain aspects. The social pressure released by competitive elections at fixed intervals urges newly elected governments to rectify some of the erroneous decisions made by past governments. Although this approach is not conducive to the maximization of social efficiency, it is effective in guaranteeing the comparative stability of Western societies.

However, there are two sides to every coin. When the separation of powers descends into a zero-sum game between the governing party and opposition parties, the efficiency of public services will be undermined; when the lofty goal of democracy becomes a tool for grabbing power and wealth, society and the general public will be split; when the news media devolves into an all-pervasive tool of interest groups, the public conscience will be deceived; when “the obligation to protect” is used as a pretext to wage war, the onset of humanitarian disasters will be unavoidable; and when the enjoyment of life comes at the price of debts that cannot be repaid, the collapse of the economy will simply be a matter of time. These are the reasons why the difficulties that Western societies are confronted with are inevitable. Moreover, given the dominant role that the West plays in current international systems, the international community as a whole is unable to achieve sound and appropriate global governance. Some people in the West are seeking to govern the whole world in line with their own values, and even attempt to impose Western models of governance on other countries through military force. This will only lead to more war, more poverty, and increasingly less space for the development of human society.

In addition to inherent institutional factors, the predicament that the West is currently facing is also heavily attributable to changes that have taken place in the contemporary world. Against the backdrop of economic globalization, the information revolution, and the rise of emerging countries, the world that Western countries are now facing is very different from the one that they faced prior to the Second World War and even during the Cold War. In response to new trends and changes in the international community, emerging markets have promptly carried out political and economic reforms, seized on opportunities for development presented by dramatic global changes, and achieved their own rapid development. While this has occurred, however, Western countries have indulged themselves in their victory in the Cold War and what they call “the end of history.” Their conservative ways of thinking, rigid systems, and refusal to make progress have deprived them of their vitality. This is the root cause behind the frequent occurrence of problems in contemporary Western society.


(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.9, 2012)

Author: Director of the China Institute of International Studies

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