We live in remarkable times. It has become almost obligatory to recite the seemingly unprecedented range of problems that confront us. It has become equally commonplace to bemoan the inability of policymakers around the world to do anything about them.
An entire generation of young people despairs of the prevailing international and domestic order, and not just in the Middle East where simply surviving is something of an achievement. Even in the heartlands of Western democracy youth unemployment hovers around 50% in places such as Spain. Is it any wonder that disillusion is endemic?
And yet when the so-called Indignados are asked about their solution for the current malaise they are invariably at a loss for words. The Occupy movement in the US, which had its roots in that country’s increasing levels of economic inequality and political partisanship, has also failed to transform the system it despises.
Such political responses are not confined to the left or “progressive” causes either. On the contrary, developments as diverse as the rise of Donald Trump, Britain’s exit from Europe, and the emergence of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are all emblematic of widespread disenchantment with the established order and a hunger for cathartic, radical alternatives.
All of these examples have two things in common.
First, the thirst for change and resolution is unlikely to be sated by any of these leaders or policies. The limits of populist policies are likely to be rapidly exposed, leading to yet more disenchantment.
Second, they are all democracies. One of democracy’s most-striking features is its resilience and ability to absorb shocks. The longer democratic rule is in place, the stronger this capacity seems to be.
Recurring economic crises – even when they have dramatic impacts on living standards and life chances – have not threatened democratic rule in Southern Europe, or North America for that matter.
Serious social upheaval of the revolutionary sort that overturned the prevailing social order in France in 1789 or Russia in 1917 does not seem likely, for reasons the Indignados might recognise: it is simply not obvious what might replace the current system, no matter how unsatisfactory it may seem.
Two factors help to account for this.
First, we have been there before and seemingly learned some chastening lessons from history. The Russian revolution and its aftermath in particular understandably gave “socialism” and the sort of massive, abrupt social transformation it engendered, a very bad name.
Second, it seems – as Margaret Thatcher might have said – there really is no alternative to capitalism, for all its flaws and imperfections. While there may be some important disagreements about the best way to run a capitalist economy, nobody is offering an alternative these days.
Paradoxically, therefore, while many are deeply unhappy about the existing economic and political order, no-one seems to know quite what to do about it. And nobody is contemplating overthrowing it, largely because no-one has any credible alternative to put in its place.
Does this mean that the sort of transformative social and political revolutions of former times are simply no longer possible? Possibly so. However, there is one very important exception to this general thesis that might have world-shaking ramifications.
In yet another paradox of the contemporary era, China looks like one place where old-fashioned social convulsions are not only possible but, according to a growing number of informed observers, increasingly likely.
China’s history has been punctuated by epochal upheavals as dynasties rose and fell, civil wars broke out, or revolutions were deliberately engineered. By China’s historical standards, we’re overdue.
The preconditions for major change are already in place, many believe. Growing debt levels, and volatile, politically sensitive stock and property markets are fuelling doubts about the stability of the Chinese economy.
Even more consequentially, perhaps, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, which is currently running China’s hitherto successful capitalist economy, is almost entirely dependent on its ability to oversee continuing economic development. If the economy does experience major problems, they could trigger a political crisis, too.
Optimists – and many analysts outside China – believe this will lead to the same sort of political transformation that occurred in the West during its capitalist revolution. But a transition to democracy in China is far from guaranteed. The rise of authoritarian leaders around the world and the discredited nature of so many democratic regimes make this anything but a certainty.
Whether young people in China will prove any more capable of, or even interested in, transforming their society than their counterparts in the West is one of the most important questions in contemporary international politics.
Hong Kong’s youthful protesters and Taiwan’s robust political pluralism demonstrates there’s no fundamental cultural antipathy to democracy among ethnically Chinese people.
China’s current political elites will ultimately determine whether economic and political change – if and when it comes – is quietly reformist or revolutionary. The stakes for them and the rest of the world could hardly be higher. To judge by Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate his own power and the primacy of the CCP, it may yet take a revolution to change things.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia