False dichotomy for Asia

April 28, 1995

Perhaps the emergence of democracy in East Asia is not so different from the western experience during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

In both cases, "social changes induced by rapid economic development" stimulated the democratic struggle for rights between civil society, an allegedly "free-market" and an authoritarian state. Civil society and the state developed countervailing ideologies to contest which best served the public interest.

In defending social inequality, 18th-century western states - e.g. Britain - were no less authoritarian, criminalising civil protest and labour organisation - plus ca change! Authoritarianism also defined the "free-market" promotion of "economic development" in the interests of ruling and economically dominant classes - witness parliamentary enclosures.

Eighteenth-century western ideologists of state power and order also packaged oppression in crafty euphemisms. For example, Edmund Burke's eulogised subjection of the "lower orders" and the poor could transfer easily to the overworked low wage economies of East Asian "developmental authoritarianism".

"Good order is the foundation of all things. To be enabled to acquire, the people, without being servile must be tractable and obedient. The magistrate must have his reverence, the laws their authority. The body of the people must not find the principles of natural subordination by art rooted out of their minds. They must respect that property of which they cannot partake. They must labour to obtain what by labour can be obtained; and when they find. . . the success disproportioned to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice." (Reflections on the Revolution in France).

If there is one most salutary lesson offered by the experience of western nations, it is that the persistent curtailment and suppression of democracy corresponds most closely with terminal economic recession and decline.

CHRIS LAMB Charlton Road Midsomer Norton, Bath

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