The triumph of the market, precipitating and reinforced by the industrial-technological revolution, led to the rise of the middle class, intensive urbanization, the spread of education, the emergence of mass society, and ever greater affluence. In the post-Cold War era (just as in the nineteenth century and the 1950s and 1960s), it is widely believed that liberal democracy naturally emerged from these developments (Azar Gat, "The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers", Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007).
But the reasons for the triumph of democracy, especially over its nondemocratic capitalist rivals of the two world wars, Germany and Japan, were more contingent than is usually assumed. Authoritarian capitalist states, today exemplified by China and Russia, may represent a viable alternative path to modernity, which in turn suggests that there is nothing inevitable about liberal democracy’s ultimate victory – or future dominance.
This may have implications for the globalisation debate. In addition to protectionist tendencies resulting from fears of jobs disappearing to low-wage countries, we might experience increasing fears of a great political dislocation.
Present-day China is the largest player in the international system in terms of population and is experiencing spectacular economic growth. By shifting from communism to capitalism, China has switched to a far more efficient brand of authoritarianism. As China rapidly narrows the economic gap with the developed world, the possibility looms that it will become a true authoritarian superpower.
Does capitalist development necessarily breed liberal democracy, or are we witnessing the return of capitalist authoritarianism/totalitarianism? Will authoritarian great powers take any responsibility for long-term global challenges such as climate change or will they rather disclaim such liabilities and use the competitive advantages that might result from such short-termism? What impact will takeovers by large authoritarian state owned companies have on business culture in Western societies? What are the consequences for the global economy and world security?
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