Democracy or Dictatorship: Which Works Better?

By Branko Milanovic - 06 May 2019
Democracy or Dictatorship: Which Works Better?
Branko Milanovic on why the Chinese or Singaporean models of political organisation may prove to appealing to others.
Last night, in a response to something I had written on Twitter, a friend tweeted Oscar Wilde’s quip that “the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings”. And although Wilde wrote long before socialism got established anywhere, and although it looks like just a clever comment, I think there is more in it: like many artists, Wilde captured the essence of the advantages and the problems of a political and economic system even before it became a reality.
How come?
When I arrived in the United States, coming from the worker-management world of Titoist Yugoslavia, I was somewhat surprised how Americans took the strongly hierarchical, quasi dictatorial relations in the business world as fully “normal”. I was half expecting that workers would have a say in the choice of their “managers” (actually, for a long time, I could not even figure out who exactly is a “manager”) but of course they did not. The promotions were made by cooption or even direct appointment of lower echelons by the higher echelons. And of course, the management was selected by the owners themselves. So the system was entirely top-down: the top selected the down it liked to have.
It was remarkably similar to the political system from which I came. There too the Central Committee coopted its new members; these selected their replacements and so forth down to the lowest level of Communist Party cell. Formally speaking, American companies were organized like the Communist Party. In both cases, to paraphrase Bertold Brecht, the leadership selected their employees, or their citizens. In one case the dictatorship was in the social sphere, in another in the work sphere.
Democracy that in the US existed in the social sphere (with lower levels electing their own political “managers”) was replicated in the Titoist Yugoslavia in the workplace with workers electing their own workers councils and those electing directors (except in enterprises that were seen of special importance where the top-down system of Communist Party appointment held).
So there were two societies with key spheres of human activity (work and social) organized according to the exactly opposite principles. One of them won, another lost. The one that lost, lost because organizing the work sphere according to democratic principles is not efficient. When you do so, an enormous amount of time is spent on negotiating minutest details of work, pay, holidays, sick leave, right to take leave when a family member is not well, payment of overtime, cleaning of bathrooms, supplies of papers etc. etc. Academic departments in the US are what comes closest to labor management as existed in the socialist Yugoslavia. And hardly anyone would argue the academic department are organized in an efficient way. People who in such an organizational context win and become successful are those who are not really interested in working at all, but debating every issue until everybody gets exhausted and gives up. They have the patience to outsit and outlast everybody else in interminable discussions and negotiations. No issue is small enough that they would not discuss it ad nauseum. Obviously, hardly anything ever gets done under such circumstances.
But does not the same danger lurk in the political space? Do not citizen  initiatives, referendums and counter-referendums, law suits and counter-suits, carry the same danger that Oscar Wilde identified: that normal citizens do not have the time or do not care sufficiently about certain things so that the decision ultimately get taken by those with the greatest patience, by those who have nothing else to do but to get engaged into these “consultations”? In a heavily commercialized world of today where every minute counts literally and in terms of income foregone (you can write blogs for money, or study for your exam, or drive Uber, or charge your neighbor for taking his dog for a walk), social involvement is almost necessary captured by professional NGOs. (I have noticed that many NGOs have presidents who, by the number of their mandates, approach Mugabe and Mubarak, but, unlike those illustrious leaders, can never be overthrown by their hapless constituents.)
This is where more technocratic political capitalism of the Chinese or Singaporean variety comes to mind. What it tells you is that essentially the same efficient and dictatorial way in which the production of cell phones is organized ought to be extended to the political sphere. It argues that the two spheres are essentially the same. In both efficiency is reached by clear goal-directed activities which are technical in nature and which should not be subject to the constant approval by workers or citizens.
If these societies continue to consistently outperform societies where the social sphere is organized in a democratic fashion, there is, I think, little doubt that their appeal will be such that, in a hundred years, it may seem to those who are around so very quaint that people thought that in a complex society decisions should taken by democratic vote. The same as it seems to us today so very quaint to believe that people once thought that a decision about what a company should produce was supposed to be made by the majority vote of shop-floor workers.
This first appeared on Branko's blog and was reposted with permission.
Image credit: Brian Evans via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
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