The Real Modern Struggle: Democracy and Authoritarianism

by Mindy Clegg at 3 Quarks Daily: The Cold War ended somewhere between 1989 and 1991 or if you take the disintegration of Yugoslavia into account, maybe into the 2000s. It is now seen as the end of an era, a closed loop in history. It started with the Communist revolution in 1917 and ended with the end of one-party communist rule in Eastern Europe. The dissolution of the Soviet Union especially signaled the end of the debate about the two supposedly opposing economic systems. The argument goes that communism as practiced in the second world proved unable to keep up with the productive capacity and flexibility of the western capitalist systems, which (many believed) were underpinned by truly democratic norms.

But what if it’s not the struggle between capitalism and communism that was really at the heart of the twentieth century, but was really a more expansive struggle within the world system that developed since the sixteenth century? What if we’re still in the midst of it? I argue that there was a deeper conflict rooted in the debate over who gets to decide how our societies function. This struggle reaches back to the past and shapes our present. We can see this deeper struggle within the communist-capitalist conflict, as that narrative allowed the US and the Soviet Union to double-down on various bad-faith actions with regards to either their own populations or their actions abroad. The fight is between democracy and authoritarianism, the people and the powerful. Democracy clashed with the authoritarian reactionary forces since before the age of revolutions, making the Cold War merely a part of a larger dialectical discourse of the modern world.

Beginning with the age of revolutions a phrase popularized by Eric Hobsbawm, kicked off by the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, we can see a shift in the history of political structures around the world. This was in part a byproduct of the developing capitalist economy unleashed by the brutal colonization of the Americas (and later the rest of the world) by Western Europeans. But we can see the struggle for greater freedom and democracy in the development of the Atlantic world during the eighteenth century. Historian Angela Sutton argued in her book that enslavement in North American came to look the way it did because of the British empire’s successful attempts to end pirate attacks on officially sanctioned slave ships. The British navy’s defeat of Black Bart off the west African coast in 1722 allowed the the British to dominate the slave trade in the Atlantic. That meant their race-based interpretation of unfree labor became the norm for slavery in North America and later the United States. We still live with those consequences today, she correctly concluded.1 But this was also about labor on British ships, similar to how the development of the sugar trade in the Caribbean shaped labor in England, as Sidney Mintz argued.2 Pirate ships were often more diverse and even freer places compared to ships operating under official imperial flags. Joining one could be seen as “voting with one’s feet.” We should not gloss over the violent and bloody actions of pirates, but a level of democratic practice existed in comparison to imperial ships. Many men and some women found themselves willing to give up their sanctioned labor for the pirate life, despite the obvious risks. It is important to note that these pirates also often participated in the slave trade. Yet, plenty saw their defection to piracy in terms of labor, leaving a low-paid job full of abuse, to a place that offered some opportunity for building some personal wealth.

Another example of a grassroots attempt to assert the people’s rights happened during the Luddite uprisings in the early nineteenth century. That event calls the typical teleological interpretation of the development of the modern world into question, casting the emergence of the modern, technologically driven economy as one of a fight for greater rights for working people. New technologies are not always about freeing up workers, but often about freeing up profits by devaluing labor. In Brian Merchant’s book about the Luddite uprising, he drew parallels between then and the computing sector today. He noted how leaders in the tech industry seek to devalue labor via automation. In doing so, Merchant explicitly argued that both are not examples of technology improving our lives, but represent an ongoing struggle for greater democracy and labor rights.3 Although in modern parlance, being a Luddite means to irrational oppose technology, the actual Luddites had a very good reason to oppose the new technologies being adopted by the wealthy factor owners. The new means of mass-producing textiles were meant to replace their deeply skilled labor with unskilled workers (women and orphans, often) who could be underpaid and abused. The uprisings were a democratic movement aimed at preserving specific rights for workers. Much of the current labor struggles continue to mirror these uprisings of the early industrial economy, including in the tech sector. Many CEOs laud the rise of AI because they feel it can replace skilled, highly paid tech workers, a point often ignored in our discussions around these LLMs. Labor struggles around technology is an important historical thread to follow.

What about the communist world?

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