A Democratic Meritocracy?
With the rise of Chinese power through economic wealth, technological advancements, and increases in its military budget, most recent works on China as the rising power of the East contain arguments about the nature of Chinese society as influenced by its Confucian background. While not truly a religion, its philosophical underpinnings and the manner in which it is used parallel in certain respects the philosophical structures of the other main religions. Part of the Confucian belief system is that of an ordered society, with a hierarchal structure, but it is not a completely rigid structure and is supported by the belief and application of the concept of merit as a means of advancement.
Historically the rulers and elites of Chinese society were supported by a bureaucracy that was determined theoretically by the merits of those doing the work. The merit was established by a series of examinations to determine the best candidates for the bureaucracy. The rulers themselves were perceived to be there on merit, and if they no longer deserved or earned the merit of the populace, they would be overthrown. These greatly simplified explanations give support to the concept of the intellectual rigor that the Chinese apply to their education. It can also in part help explain the demographic statistic indicating that the distribution of wealth within a meritocracy, in this case China, is not nearly as widespread as in the “democracies” – of which the U.S. has one of the largest spreads in the world. China’s current economic growth is increasing the spread, but the idea of a meritocracy remains strongly within its societal structures.
It is hard to imagine a meritocracy in place in North America. Very few of our politicians would merit any of their positions or wealth if they had to pass tests in order to be in power. Many of our politicians are surprisingly ignorant of much of the world, its cultures and beliefs, its geography and life. Democracy in North America comes from the power of wealth and not from the power of common sense and merit. While a meritocracy is not necessarily democratic, it certainly has a level of appeal and would be a highly valid instrument to incorporate within a democracy. Perhaps China will become democratic after all, in a manner that most pundits observing China are not even capable of considering, a social democratic meritocracy.
Another look at today’s democracies and their achievement of wealth demonstrates that free enterprise had very little to do with that wealth creation. Rather, all countries that have harvested the world’s wealth have done so by protecting their own industries and products at the expense of those from other countries. This applies to the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish empires, as well as to the American empire. It also applies to the current rise in the wealth of the Chinese. Protection can be afforded in many ways, from tariffs, to quotas, to tax laws, to rules and regulations imposed on imported goods. However it is achieved, most countries that have become wealthy have done so through some form of protectionism.
The authors of the books on China mentioned above relate how this is true of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, all but the latter being considered democratic and held up as exemplars of free trade capitalism. Neither concept holds. They all operate as quasi democracies, having succeeded economically with strong government support and interventions, while the democratic aspect is arguably much more in line with the Confucian meritocracy of China. Certainly the people vote, but it is the underlying bureaucracy and rules and regulations of business and the economy that truly determine the power of the government, not the people, the ‘demos’.
Examined in that light, many other countries become nominal democracies as well, with that paragon of self -defined enlightenment and freedom, the United States, presenting many aspects of its political culture that deny democracy to its people. The U.S. along with many other western countries are more correctly a plutocracy or an oligarchy, where the wealthy control the power structures of the country.
An aspect of democracy that is singularly lacking in the western powers is that of the openness and transparency that they all call upon others to demonstrate. Corporations, as seen above are decidedly non-transparent, as are their military liaisons and their governmental cohorts. Corporate secrets, government secrets, are subject to tests under the Freedom of Information Laws extent in most democracies, yet it is increasingly more and more difficult to access full information without denial through classification or redaction.
It can be argued that the reasons for this secrecy have very little to do with intellectual property rights, or that the information is “too sensitive” to be dealt with by the public, or that the security of the country will be compromised. Governments and businesses keep secrets not for the protection of the business, the government and the state in face of dangers from abroad – except that, ironically that is exactly what it is for, because in a true democracy, if the people had all the information that they wanted through truly free requests, the revelations of government incompetence, culpability in various crimes (national and international), obeisance to various lobbying groups (think AIPAC), and disregard for people, their cultures, and the environments they live in would be glaringly obvious. Secrecy is not to protect the country, but to protect the people in power from the wrath of the citizens that they are manipulating.
So What Becomes Democracy?
The democratic ideal is difficult to achieve. Anything that is remotely related to a social democracy comes under the gun – literally – of the U.S. military. Most of South and Central America have experienced the interventions of the U.S. military in one form or another, either direct invasion, or covert operations, or not so covert support of the right wing business elites of the countries. From the “banana republics” of Central America – so called because of the dominance of United Fruit and its offspring, Chiquita, and Standard Fruit and its offspring Dole in co-opting much of the agricultural landscape – through to the southern state of Chile and the overthrow of the Allende government to be replaced by the militaristic Pinochet dictatorship, the Americas have suffered under the non-democratic and internationally criminal actions of the United States.
Further away, in Iran – with the overthrow of the Mossadegh social democracy, through to the invasion and massacre of millions of south-east Asians in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, to similar massacres of so-called communists in the Philippines and Indonesia – the U.S. record is consistently the denial of democracy when it comes in the form of a social democracy, wherein the people actually have or want to have some say in the government and its application of rules and regulations.
A associated directly with all this are the multinational corporations that harvest the wealth of the countries on the receiving end of these military adjustments. Combined, the two are, in spite of all their wonderful rhetoric of democracy and freedom, only interested in wealth accumulation with no interest in the people or the environment.
A social democracy attempts to protect its resources and use them for the well being of its own people, through carefully managing sales and extraction, by protecting the environment, protecting the health and well being of the people, by supporting health, welfare, and educational systems for the betterment of all, and finally to protect the environment and culture of the cultural and geographical systems of the country.