While traveling in countries with different political systems and reflecting on their impact on ‘their’ people, a thought occurred to me: every type of system we encountered so far can be characterized by a particular kind of ‘unfreedom’. [Disclaimer: this post ventures several generalizations, and I am open to different points of view and discussion. Please use the comments section at the bottom of the page].
Assumptions that many people living in Western democracies seem to make are that their approach to governance is the best available (although they admit it is not perfect), and similarly that capitalism is ultimately the best way of organizing an economy. So-called developing countries should be on their way to implementing these as well, for their own good. These assumptions can be challenged, for example by asking how the development in the Western countries came about – and is maintained today.
That’s right, through exploitation. From slavery to unbridled resource extraction, colonialism was a major force in the creation of the current world order, and strengthened the asymmetric power relations that have been actively maintained since decolonization. Although today it is less common for governments to directly exploit other countries, they condone and actively support their multinational companies in doing so. Institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund are in place to see to the permanence of this situation. Sometimes, countries fail to get in line quickly, as was the case recently with Greece vis-a-vis the European Union. And when ‘civilized’ measures run out, military interventions and other heavy handed involvement of the West in the rest of the world are used to maintain the status quo: concentration of power, capital and other resources in the West.
So there is a tension here: the freedom we enjoy in the West, was not earned or given, it was taken. To me, this makes it unfreedom: we are bound to other people’s suffering – both historic and current. We may succeed at keeping the developing countries’ residents at bay and close our door to those that wash up on our shores, but these are merely cosmetic measures. Do these measures change the structural inequalities that are at the root of this situation? No. We, the priviliged, may need to investigate the nature of the ‘freedom’ we have gained.
A second type of unfreedom is found within the developing countries themselves. Not only the unfreedom caused by the capitalist countries that hold them in a bind through unequal trade relations. Also, the unfreedom caused by the ambition of their ruling elites, who strive to obtain certain privileges and international recognition at the expense of their own peoples’ quality of life. The ruling elite in Mali (or many other African countries for that matter), their children educated at prestigious international schools and universities, is an example of this principle. Much of this can be traced back to the decolonization process, which sought to install the only ‘qualified’ (i.e. favourable to the West) people to rule the newly independent countries. Unaligned governing structures were quickly undermined (see for example Sankara’s revolution in Burkina Faso).
Lastly, there is unfreedom in the non-Western countries that have achieved a reasonable degree of (economic) development: so-called emerging countries. Often this takes the form of censorship, brainwashing of citizens, state control of the media and / or human rights abuses. This fact is used as an argument in favour of the Western system (where these things are not supposed to exist). While passing through China and spending time in its sphere of influence, it dawned on me how schizophrenically this country operates. It is isolated from much of the ‘free’ world by a dense net of censors (part of the ‘Great Firewall’), employed to keep the Internet in China – which is in fact more akin to a huge intranet – clean. From within all seems fine, with no effort spared to create a better economic situation for its citizens. China has lifted more people out of absolute poverty in the last decades than any place else, ever. But at what cost? Minorities are routinely trampled on, previous independent nations are assimilated and the environment is devastated. China’s voracity leads it to exploitation of other, weaker countries elsewhere. The ruling party jealously guards its own worldview and imposes it on its own people, while continuing to chart its course to worldwide domination. A true challenge to Western economic and political hegemony, and probably not at all what the colonizing powers of China had in mind when they coerced it to trade with them in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although you could say the Chinese learned from the best.
The good news? I encountered some countries (and other entities that do not fit the concept of the nation state) that are engaged in forms of government and economic activity that challenge the existing power relations, and that could avoid the pitfalls and injustice mentioned above. Some examples: In Canada, First Nation citizens continue to keep their case to (re-)claim their own land in the headlines, as we saw in Vancouver. Bolivia has broken a significant number of ties with the USA and its multinationals, and its current government (although not free from corruption and other woes) has managed to put socio-economic development for its (indigenous) people center stage. In Turkey, voters have rebuffed the ruling party AKP’s attempts to claim more power for its autocratic leader, and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party now has 80 seats in the parliament. (Turkey’s current leader, however, seems to have sabotaged the government formation process and now calls for early new elections to reverse the situation). So it seems there are alternatives to the status quo….that do not come easily, but that we can learn from.